The Slave Trade

The Slave Trade

Ironically, the first ship carrying slaves across the Atlantic went from west to east. During his second voyage to America, Columbus captured 500 Caribbean Indians to take back to Spain. About 200 Indians died during the Atlantic crossing and were thrown into the sea.

The Spanish failed in their experiment to make American Indians into slaves. When forced to work on sugar plantations in Cuba and the West Indies islands, they died by the hundreds.

Small numbers of black African slaves were introduced into Spanish America as early as 1501. Since the Africans seemed to survive longer than the native Indians, the Spanish began to look eastward for a new source of slave labor. In 1518, King Charles V of Spain granted the first license to sell African slaves in the Spanish colonies of America. The West African slave trade had begun.

bhmafticacoast

This building on the coast of Africa once was a headquarters for the British slave trade. (Wikimedia Commons)

Buying Slaves in Africa

How did an African become a slave? At first, white slave traders simply went on kidnapping raids, but this proved too dangerous for the Europeans. Instead, they established hundreds of forts and trading stations along Africa’s West Coast. Local African rulers and black merchants delivered captured people to these trading posts to sell as slaves to European ship captains.

About 50 percent of the slaves were taken as prisoners during the frequent tribal wars occurring among the West African kingdoms. Another 30 percent became slaves as punishment for crimes or indebtedness. The remainder were kidnapped by black slave traders.

An African trader usually transported his slaves to a coastal trading station by binding them around the neck with leather thongs, each slave about a yard distance from each other. There were often 30 or 40 in a string. The factor living at the trading station negotiated a price between the African slave trader and the slave ship captain.

After making a deal with the factor, the traders transported the slaves in large canoes to the ship, riding at anchor just beyond the thundering surf. The factor supervised the branding and loading of the slaves onto the ship. For land-bound Africans who had never seen it before, the ocean was a terrifying sight. Some slaves tried to escape by jumping into the sea, only to be devoured by sharks.

Gustavus Vassa, an African slave who later gained his freedom and wrote an account of his life, described his experience boarding a slave ship:

I was immediately handled and tossed up to see if I were sound by some of the crew and I was now persuaded that I had gotten into a world of bad spirits and that they were going to kill me.... When I recovered, I found some black people about me. I asked if we were to be eaten by these men with horrible looks, red faces and long hair.

bhmslaveshipdiagram

This diagram shows how slave ships were packed. It was presented to a committee of the British House of Commons in 1790. (Wikimedia Commons)

The ‘Middle Passage’ to America

Once on board, men and boys were stripped naked and shackled two-by-two at the wrist and ankle. They were then prodded into the dark, unsanitary hold of the ship. Alexander Falconbridge, an English slave ship doctor, wrote this description of typical slave quarters:

They are frequently stowed so close, as to admit of no other posture than lying on their sides. Neither will the height between decks ... permit them the indulgence of an erect posture; especially where there are platforms, which is generally the case. These platforms are a kind of shelf, about eight feet in breadth, extending from the side of the ship towards the center. They are placed nearly midway between the decks, at the distance of two or three feet from each deck. Upon these the negroes are stowed in the same manner as they are on the deck [floor] underneath.

Women and children remained unchained and spent the voyage in separate quarters. All slaves slept on bare, rough wood. This, combined with the turbulent motions of the ship, often caused the skin on their elbows to wear down to the bone.

Two different loading philosophies were popular among slave ship captains. The “loose packers” believed that by carrying fewer slaves, more would survive to be sold in America. The “tight packers” argued that more money would be made by overcrowding the slaves on board the ship, even if this meant some would die due to poor health conditions.

In good weather, and only during the day, the crew allowed the slaves on deck. A slave’s diet consisted of two meals, usually boiled rice, yams, or beans and a daily ration of one pint of water. Should the slaves refuse to eat or drink, the crew sometimes used hot coals to force a slave’s mouth open. Sometimes a slave could be subjected to force feedings by having his jaws separated for him by a device. Members of the crew entertained themselves by whipping the slaves to make them sing and dance. Slave captains encouraged this activity under the premise that it prevented suicidal thoughts and even scurvy among the slaves. After all, in order to maximize his profit, the captain needed live and healthy Africans at the end of the middle passage.

Many Africans died during the middle passage due to smallpox, measles, malaria, and dysentery. During shipboard revolts, some slaves were killed. Those who went insane were thrown overboard. Others took their own lives or surrendered their will to live. On a typical voyage to America, about 10-15 percent of the Africans died; the longer the voyage lasted, the higher the death rate. Estimates vary, but up to 2 million died.

Selling Slaves in America

Before selling his slaves, a captain did everything he could to improve the price he would get for them. The Africans received increased food and water rations, and their skins were rubbed with palm oil to give them a healthy appearance. The ship’s doctor tried to hide scars or evidence of disease, sometimes using cruel or painful cosmetic techniques.

 
There were two main methods of selling slaves in the West Indies. The sick and weak were sold at auction “by inch of candle.” Bids on these slaves were accepted until an inch of a candle had burned down; the usual price was about $5. The strongest and healthiest slaves were sold by the “scramble” method. Before a sale, the ship’s captain and buyers agreed on an equal price for all slaves, often several hundred dollars a piece. These slaves were then assembled in a large yard. On a signal, the buyers burst into this yard to grab the best slaves. Fighting often ensued between excited buyers over a particularly good “specimen.”

End of the Slave Trade

The United States almost ended its role in the slave trade during the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Most of the convention delegates, including slave owners like George Washington, wanted a provision in the Constitution prohibiting the importation of slaves. Representatives from slave-importing Georgia and South Carolina, however, threatened to leave the union if prohibition was included. To solve this dilemma, delegates put a compromise in the Constitution that prevented Congress from passing any law against slave trading for 20 years.

After 1800, the slave trade came under increasing attack in Europe and the United States. In 1807, President Thomas Jefferson signed a law outlawing the importation of slaves for the purpose of selling them in the United States. A few weeks later, the English Parliament followed our example and passed a similar law. By 1820, most other European nations had banned slave trading.

Illegal slaving went on for about 50 years. In 1860, Nathaniel Gordon, one of the last American slave ship captains, made a voyage to West Africa and loaded his ship, the Erie, with 900 Africans, 600 of whom were children. As the Erie left Africa to begin its long homeward trek, an American warship intercepted it about 50 miles from the African coast. Captain Gordon was arrested and taken to New York for trial. The court found Gordon guilty of breaking the U.S. anti-slave trading law and sentenced him to hang. The infamous Captain Gordon remains the only American slave trader ever to be executed by the United States.

The West African slave trade, with its tortuous middle passage, lasted nearly 400 years. During this time, more than 11 million Africans found themselves sold into slavery. Of this number, about 5 percent or 500,000 ended up in the United States. Most of the rest ended up in the West Indies or the Caribbean Islands.

Looking back on this period, it is difficult to believe, and even harder to admit, that people could be so cruel as to trade human lives for profit. This despicable business meant a loss of some humanity to everyone involved. John Newton, a former slave ship captain, wrote in 1786 that the slave trade “gradually brings a numbness upon the heart, and renders most of those who are engaged in it too indifferent to the sufferings of their fellow creatures.”

For Discussion and Writing

  1. Assume you are an African on a slave ship in the middle passage. Write a diary describing one day of your experience.
  2. Luke Collingwood and Nathaniel Gordon were both slave ship captains. How were their experiences similar to one another? How were they different? In your opinion, was either man really a criminal? Why or why not?
  3. Assume you are a member of the English Parliament in 1807. Write a speech giving your reasons why slave trading should be outlawed.
  4. What do you think John Newton meant when he said slave trading “gradually brings a numbness upon the heart?”

For Further Reading

Conneau, Theophilus. A Slaver’s Logbook or 20 Years’ Residence in Africa. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc. 1982.

Berendt, Stephen D. & James A. Rawley. The Transatlantic Slave Trade: A History, Revised Edition. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2009.

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