African Slave Trade

6 June 2016

Slavery existed in ancient Rome.  It continued in Europe and was common throughout the medieval period. Classical style slavery existed in the form of serfdom in Europe.  Enslaved people were allowed freedom after a designated time and their descendents were not automatically enslaved. There was no lifetime slavery in ancient Roman or Greek times or any other time in history.  The Europeans devised a form of “chattel slavery” in America, in which slaves were treated as property with no rights and as a commodity to be bought and sold.  Their enslaved condition was passed on to their descendents indefinitely.  The Atlantic slave trade lasted from the 14th to the 19th century.  It is estimated that 18 million Africans were removed from their homelands.  One third or more died on the journey in the slave ship.

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Slave trading in African was started by the Portuguese in 1441.  They captured slaves to work their sugar plantations.  The Portuguese began trading large numbers of African slaves which they worked in Seville, Spain.  In 1470, the Spaniards began to trade large numbers of slaves as well. Portugal was eventually taken over by Spain.

In 1483, the Europeans discovered the Congo River in Africa and the region became a major source of slaves.  The largest number of slaves was taken to Brazil.  Estimates are that 12 million slaves made it to the new world.  Slaves were used like animals and treated worse than animals by their enslavers.

1. Perpetrators

Portugal, Spain, Great Britain, France, The Netherlands, Brazil, Scotland, Brandenburg-Prussia, Denmark, and Holland all took part in slave trading.  Many African kings were complicit as well.  Brazil was the largest importer of slaves and the last country to end slave trading.  Slave trading was very lucrative.  It funded the industrial revolution.

2.       The significance of the year 1492

Columbus landed at San Salvador now called the Bahamas in 1492.  In 1493, he organized his first transatlantic slave voyage.  He captured several hundred Taino Indians in what is now known as Hispaniola, and took them to Spain as slaves.  There was a lot of doubt about the legality of the practice of enslaving Native Americans but there was little hesitation when Africans were the prey.  Columbus continued bringing Native Americans to Europe as slaves. During the 17th century, the enslavement of Native Americans by European colonists, was common. Many of these Native slaves were exported to off-shore colonies, especially the “sugar islands” of the Caribbean. Historian Alan Gallay estimates that from 1670-1715, British slave traders sold between 24,000 and 51,000 Native Americans from what is now the southern part of the U.S.(2)

  The Natives died from European diseases. European settlers brought infectious diseases against which the Native Americans had no natural immunity. Chicken pox and measles, though common and rarely fatal among Europeans, often proved deadly to Native Americans. Smallpox proved particularly deadly to Native American populations. Epidemics often immediately followed European exploration, sometimes destroying entire villages. While precise figures are difficult to arrive at, some historians estimate that up to 80% of some Native populations died due to European diseases.(2)

 The Europeans needed to forge alliances with the Native Americans in order to survive in the new world.

3.      Why the choice of Africans?

Africans were strong and hardy.  They managed to survive two months in the hold of a slave ship.  They resisted European disease.  Europeans also felt justified because of the skin color difference.  They invented the concept of race. The religious differences also played a major role in their justification.  Pope Nicholas V authorized the Portuguese to enslave all “non Christians”.  Many Africans at this time were Muslims.  They were also numerous and their dark skin made them easily identifiable.

4.      How was the slave trade justified?

The original justification for separating blacks, whether slave or free, and whites was not based on race, but religion. Black Africans were believed to be heathens and, like Native Americans, could undermine the religion of supposedly pious Europeans. This religious argument formed the backbone for the justification of the lifetime slavery of Africans. (1)

In 1667, however, Virginia was the first colony to pass a law that stated that Christian Africans could be slaves, as well–thus one more step towards slavery as a full-scale racial phenomenon. In Virginia, more than any other place, we see the beginnings of the history that would dominate the combined experience of African and European Americans for the next three hundred years, a great chasm of color that we still haven’t crossed to this day.(1)

5.      Slave trading practices (how Africans were housed and transported)

The Africans were transported in the hull of slave ships.  They were loaded either loosely packed or in an even more cruel fashion called tight pack.  The loose pack resulted in less disease and loss of slaves.  The tight pack resulted in rampant disease and increased suicide attempts.  They were strapped ankle to wrist and lay on the floor of the slave ship.  There was no hygiene.  The crew would bring them on deck and throw buckets of water on them.  Or they might just throw water in the hull.  The women were routinely brought out of the hull to be sexually molested by the European sailors.

Africans were subjected to subhuman treatment in every manner. Occasionally a slave     would be sold to a kind master and live fairly well.  But the usual life of a slave was very bad.  They were given rags to wear, fed leftover slop the whites did not want.  They were beat unmercifully for the smallest infraction.

6.      The role of African collaborators

African Kings were complicit in the slave trade.  Many of them made large sums of money on the practice.  They had a different concept of slavery and thought the slaves would be freed at some point.  They did not realize they were condemning generations to slavery.  They did not realize the Europeans would invent a slavery from which there was no escape even for their descendants.  They often received guns, ammunition and other factory goods in exchange for slaves.  It was common for them to sell their enemies into slavery after defeat.

Africa had no prison system so criminals were also sold into slavery.

7.      The Middle Passage (Conditions, length of time what did they eat)

  The trip across the Atlantic is estimated to have taken 2-3 months.  The time shortened as the Europeans honed their craft of enslaving Africans.  The Africans were usually fed fried corn meal.  Many slaves had to be force fed because they refused to eat, wanting to die in such an inhuman condition.  The Dutch fed them three times a day.  The French fed them stewed oats with turtle meat once per day.  Mostly they were fed slop of either corn or oats.  They were fed as little as possible and if the captain ran short of food, he would throw a few slaves overboard in order to make the food last.

8.      African resistance    cite specific examples of slave revolts on ship

There were many slave uprisings on the slave ships.  Historians estimate about 400 slave rebellions.  They usually occurred near the coast of Africa.  Only a few were successful.  30,000 slave ship voyages took place by 1860.  One in ten ships is estimated to have experienced slave revolts.

Here are a few examples:

1858: 270 slaves rebelled on the French slaver Regina Coeli in 1858.  The slaves killed most of the French crew and escaped to Liberia with the help of the British.

1721: 8 Africans on a ship called Henry of London freed themselves from their irons and jumped overboard escaping from 50 slave catchers.

1730:  The sloop Little George sailing from the Guinea coast to Rhode Island was overtaken by 97 captured Africans.  They sailed back to Africa and freed themselves.

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