The Transatlantic Slave

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The Transatlantic Slave

Transatlantic Slave Trade
From the 1520s to the 1860s an estimated 11 to 12 million African men, women, and children were forcibly embarked on European vessels for a life of slavery in the Western Hemisphere. Many more Africans were captured or purchased in the interior of the continent but a large number died before reaching the coast. About 9 to 10 million Africans survived the Atlantic crossing to be purchased by planters and traders in the New World, where they worked principally as slave laborers in plantation economies requiring a large workforce. African peoples were transported from numerous coastal outlets from the Senegal River in West Africa and hundreds of trading sites along the coast as far south as Benguela (Angola), and from ports in Mozambique in southeast Africa. In the New World slaves were sold in markets as far north as New England and as far south as present-day Argentina.
The Early History of European Trade with Africa
The marketing of people in the interior of Africa predates European contact with West Africa. A Trans-Saharan slave trade developed from the tenth to fourteenth century which featured the buying and selling of African captives in Islamic markets such as the area around present-day Sudan. A majority of those enslaved were females, who were purchased to work as servants, agricultural laborers, or concubines. Some captives were also shipped north across the deserts of northwest Africa to the Mediterranean coast. There, in slave markets such as Ceuta (Morocco), Africans were purchased to work as servants or laborers in Spain, Portugal, and other countries.
By the mid-1400s, Portuguese ship captains had learned how to navigate the waters along the west coast of Africa and began to trade directly with slave suppliers who built small trading posts, or "factories," on the coast. European shippers were thus able to circumvent the trans-Saharan caravan slave trade. The slave trade to Europe began to decrease in the late 1400s with the development of sugar plantations in the Atlantic islands of Madeira and São Tomé. These two islands, located off West Africa and in the Gulf of Guinea, became leading centers of world sugar production and plantation slavery from the mid-1400s to the mid-1500s. Portuguese merchants dominated this early trade.
Much of the earliest European trade with West Africa, however, was in gold, not people. Europeans did not have the power to overcome African states before the late nineteenth century, and gold production, centered in Akan gold fields in the backcountry of present-day Ghana, remained in African hands. Europeans called this region the Gold Coast. Agreements between African and European elites and rivalries for the African gold trade resulted in the construction of dozens of trading forts, or stone castles, along a 161 km (100 mi) coastal stretch of Ghana. Several of these forts survive, have been repaired by the government of Ghana, and are tourist attractions today. It was not until the late seventeenth century that the value of European goods traded for African people surpassed the value of goods exchanged for gold. Over time, these gold forts became slave forts, where hundreds of Africans were confined in prisons awaiting sale and shipment.
The Slave Trade and Development of Plantations in the Americas
Christopher Columbus's "discovery" of the New World in 1492 marked the beginning of a transatlantic trading system. Via the slave trade, Africans played a leading role in the creation and evolution of this large and long-lasting "Atlantic system." Spanish adventurers arrived in the Americas hoping to trade for riches but soon enslaved the Native American peoples in their search for gold and silver. Disease, malnutrition, and Spanish atrocities led to the deaths of millions of the Indians of the Americas. By the 1520s the depopulation of the region prompted the Spanish government to look for alternative sources of labor. Officials contracted with Portuguese merchants to deliver Africans to Spanish territories in the New World. The first transatlantic slave voyages from Africa to the Americas occurred in the early 1520s on Portuguese vessels sailing from West Africa to the large Caribbean island of Hispaniola, the earliest European name for present-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
The transatlantic slave trade increased in the mid-1500s, when the Spanish began to use African slave labor alongside Native Americans to mine silver in Peru. Slave ships sailed from Africa to Colombia and Panama, and African captives then were transported overland to the Pacific coast of South America. Until the early 1600s, most Africans enslaved in the Americas worked in Peruvian or Mexican mines. The 1570s marked the development of sugar plantations in Brazil, a Portuguese colony, where merchants adopted production techniques pioneered in Madeira and São Tomé. By the 1620s African labor had replaced Indian labor on Brazilian sugar plantations.
The development of an export-based plantation complex in North America and the Caribbean, areas neglected by the Spanish and Portuguese, awaited the arrival of the British, French, and Dutch in the early 1600s. In the initial development of the British colonies Virginia and Barbados (1630s-1640s), Jamaica (1660s), and South Carolina (1690s) and the French colonies Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti), Martinique, and Guadeloupe (1660s-1680s), most laborers on the plantations were young European males who agreed to work for three to five years in return for free oceanic passage and food and housing in the Americas. These workers were called indentured laborers. By the later seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, tobacco, sugar, indigo (used to make blue dye), and rice plantations switched from European indentured labor to African slave labor. By the mid-1700s, Brazil, Saint-Domingue, and Jamaica were the three largest slave colonies in the Americas. By the 1830s, Cuba emerged as the principal Caribbean plantation colony. Throughout the history of the transatlantic slave trade, however, more Africans arrived as slaves in Brazil than in any other colony.
Dutch merchants did not develop extensive plantation colonies in the New World but they became large slave traders in the mid-seventeenth century. The small Dutch Republic was among the first European nations to develop modern commerce, and merchants there had access to shipping, port facilities, and banking credit. Dutch traders occupied several trading castles on the African coast, the most important of which was Elmina (in Ghana), a fort they captured from the Portuguese and rebuilt. The Dutch wrested control of the transatlantic slave trade from the Portuguese in the 1630s, but by the 1640s they faced increasing competition from French and British traders. By the 1680s, a variety of nations, private trading companies, and merchant-adventurers sent slave ships to Africa: merchants from Denmark, Sweden, and the German states also organized slave voyages. Throughout the eighteenth century - the height of the transatlantic slave trade - the largest traders were the British, Portuguese, and French.
The Organization of Slave Voyages
Transatlantic slave voyages were complex commercial endeavors. Voyages based in Europe sailed a route linking Europe, Africa, and the Americas. Contemporaries saw this as a profitable "triangular trade." European goods were exchanged for slaves in Africa; slaves were sold in the Americas for plantation produce, such as sugar, which was transported back to Europe in the holds of slave vessels. Trade cargoes organized in Europe cost several millions of dollars in today's money, and the average value of outward cargoes was greater than most overseas trades. Cargoes typically included India cotton textiles, cowrie shells from the Indian Ocean, Brazilian tobacco, glassware from Italy, brandies and spirits from France, Spain, and Portugal, Irish linen and beef, and a range of British and European manufactures. At one time, historians argued that cheap trinkets were sold for African slaves, but recent research shows that African traders demanded a large variety of goods - in particular, textiles - and that over time more and more European goods were exchanged for African captives as slave prices increased.
Slave vessels sailed from Europe with large crews, including surgeons, carpenters, coopers (barrel-workers), cooks (some of whom were of African descent), sailors (who apprenticed to sea at a young age), and others hired to guard slaves on the African coast and on the Middle Passage, where threats of rebellion and insurrection were constant. Slave vessels ranged in size from small sloops and schooners to larger ships measuring hundreds of tons. Some of these larger three-masted ships had three decks and were more than 30 m (100 ft) in length and 12 m (40 ft) in breadth. Few slave vessels were constructed specifically for the trade. By the mid-1800s, some slave vessels were built of wood and iron and powered by steam; these vessels sailed up rivers such as the Congo and sometimes purchased over 1000 African slaves. Smaller, shallower-built slave vessels traded in the the Gambia, Senegal, and Sierra Leone Rivers in West Africa and along the Windward Coast (present-day Liberia). Because the Gold Coast lacks large river outlets or safe anchorages, slave vessels anchored several miles offshore, where they were met by large trading canoes. In the major slaving-trading sites of Whydah (in modern-day Republic of Benin), Bonny, and Old Calabar (in present-day Nigeria), slave vessels anchored in lagoons or bays close to African villages and small towns. Large slave ships also traded in rivers and bays on the Angolan coast and in Mozambique in southeast Africa. In comparison with other Atlantic traders, however, most slave vessels were small, relatively inexpensive vessels, and were rigged for speed. Most slave vessels made only a few voyages to Africa and transported between 250 and 300 slaves.
When a slave vessel arrived on the African coast, trade was "broken" by a variety of customs payments to local African rulers or merchants. Captains also paid fees to African sailors who piloted slave vessels across sandbars to anchorages. The captains' first tasks included purchasing (or gathering) wood, water, and other provisions from shore. The wood was brought on board for fuel and for the carpenter to build a large box-shaped barricade placed above the upper deck. Slaves were led through a small door on the barricade to the hatches and decks below. The barricade was a security precaution and it kept Africans from seeing their homeland, according to the testimony of some slave traders. In many parts of Africa a "trust trade" developed as European captains advanced trading goods to African slave dealers with the promise of future slave deliveries. These dealers often were small-scale traders who built factories with connecting warehouses to store goods and outdoor, fenced "pens" or enclosed "barracoons" to confine slaves. Sometimes sons or daughters of the local chiefs were given temporarily to the slave-ship captains as a form of credit known as pawnship. When a captain kidnapped "pawns" (which occurred infrequently), the local African ruler would cut off all slave trading from the region. Often the captain and crew of the next vessel from that port would be killed or taken hostage as retribution.
There was a complex system of exchange between European, Afro-European, and African agents. Bundles, or "assortments," of European trading goods were traded for a specified number of African units of exchange which then were exchanged for a specified number of slaves. The units of exchange varied regionally in Africa and included European iron bars, cowrie shells from the Indian Ocean, Italian beads, blue-dyed Indian textiles, or Brazilian gold. In the late eighteenth century, an assortment of European textiles, firearms, and alcohol would, for example, be equivalent to 12 ounces of gold along the Gold Coast; 12 ounces of gold would be the "price" of an adult male African slave. The profitability of a slave voyage often depended upon the ability of a merchant or captain to "assort" his trading goods to meet short-term African demand. There were many coastal agents who traded with slave-ship captains who did not have a properly "assorted" cargo. Many of these agents, particularly those who lived on the coast from present-day Guinea-Bissau southeast to Liberia, were of Afro-European descent.
Slave vessels remained on the coast of Africa usually from four to six months, depending on the trading location, availability of slaves and provisions, and the health of slaves and crew. Some provisions for the coastal stay and Middle Passage were loaded in Europe, but often captains purchased rice, beans, fish,and yams on the coast of Africa. Some small vessels loaded slave cargoes in a few weeks from small wooden factories or the larger stone trading forts. At some trading sites, such as late-eighteenth-century Bonny (in Nigeria), African merchants created sophisticated slave-trading road and river networks from the interior to the coast. Slave supplies were regular, and sometimes 10 to 20 slaves would be purchased and loaded on board ship per day. The supply of slaves from the interior depended largely on political warfare (since many male slaves were war prisoners) and ecological conditions. During times of drought or famine, slave supplies increased as people who could not be supported by villages were sold for money or provisions. Slave raiding also occurred, though it is likely that a smaller percentage of Africans entered slavery through village raids. Often, however, the distinction between wars and slave raids was blurred. Within a few weeks of departure from the coast, captains purchased final supplies of food, water, and wood for the Middle Passage.
The Middle Passage
From a European geographic perspective, the Middle Passage was the second, or middle, leg of the triangular voyage between Europe, Africa, and the Americas. This was the notorious cross-Atlantic journey where hundreds of slaves were confined in irons below deck in crowded, hot, unsanitary, and inhumane conditions. The chance of insurrection was greatest during the first few weeks of the Middle Passage. During this time, most slaves were kept below deck, naked or only partially clothed with a loincloth, shackled in pairs, right leg to left leg. Nonetheless, slaves sometimes broke free of their chains and attacked the crew with a variety of tools and small weapons. Slave vessels were equipped with guns and cannons which were placed on the raised quarterdeck to fire down upon slaves escaping through the hatches. Occasionally, Africans in war canoes attacked slave vessels from shore. Researchers have documented more than 450 slave insurrections or shore-based attacks, and there were undoubtedly many more that went unrecorded. Occasionally, some captives would regain the shores of Africa. More often the crew regained control of the ship or Africans were reenslaved upon reaching shore. Uprisings were extremely violent, and sometimes many slaves and most crew were killed. When African captives gained control of the ship, they kept a few crew alive to navigate the vessel.
Ships' officers confined the men, women, boys, and girls in separate compartments. Slave vessels were fitted with numerous wooden platforms between decks to allow captains to pack in greater numbers of captives. As the between-deck space was generally from 1.2 m (4 ft) to 1.8 m (6 ft), platforms reduced the head room for captives to only a few feet. All slaves suffered from numerous scrapes and bruises from lying on these bare planks. Captains claimed that when safely away from shore, slaves were given greater freedom of movement. Women and children, some claimed, were never shackled and were allowed to roam above deck with minimal supervision. Recently, however, archaeologists discovered many small-sized leg irons from the wreck of the slave ship Henrietta Marie (c. 1700) off Florida. Women may have been separated from male slaves and given greater freedom of movement to increase the crews' sexual exploitation of them.
Cooks prepared meals of fish, beans, or yams in large copper vats below deck. Surgeons sometimes assisted in the preparation and distribution of food. Slaves were given food at mid-morning and late afternoon in small bowls (or "pannikins"). Weather permitting, groups of African captives were exercised above deck (in their leg irons) in an attempt to offset the debilitating effects of the Middle Passage. Officers, usually boatswains, mates, and surgeons, were armed with whips such as the cat-o'-nine-tails and forced the African captives to dance. The crew's power was enforced through such torture devices as thumbscrews and iron collars. There were several tubs in each compartment below deck in which slaves could relieve themselves, though hindered by being shackled in pairs. Mates generally had the job of cleaning the slave compartments below deck, which each day would be covered with excrement, blood, and filth. Some captains frequently ordered the rooms washed and dried with fire pans, though sometimes the filth was simply scraped off the decks. To counteract the stench, which was thought to promote sickness, slave vessels were fumigated with vinegars, berries, limes, tars, and turpentines.
By any measurement, mortality rates of both slaves and crew were extraordinarily high on the Atlantic crossing. The crowded, unsanitary conditions below deck were an ideal disease environment for outbreaks of dysentery, the disease from which many slaves died. In addition to gastrointestinal diseases, Africans also died from dehydration, smallpox, or measles. Slaves who resisted captivity sometimes died from flogging or other forms of punishment. Some slaves committed suicide by jumping overboard or by starving or hanging themselves. The resistance to eating was so common that vessels carried metal devices to force-feed slaves. Sailors died mostly from malarial and yellow fevers, to which African-born peoples had some acquired immunities. Early in transatlantic slave trade about 15 to 20 percent of African captives died on the Passage. By the later eighteenth century, about 5 to 10 percent died, a reduction perhaps caused by improvements in hygiene and sanitation. Slave mortality rose in the nineteenth century during years when the British navy tried to enforce an international ban on the slave trade. About 15 to 20 percent of the crew died on

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