African Civilization

Clotilde, shown in this mural, was a schooner which brought the last cargo of African slaves into the United States through Mobile in 1859
In the sixteenth century, Central Africa was a territory of peace and happy civilization. Traders traveled thousands of miles from one side of the continent to another without molestation. The tribal wars from which the European pirates claimed to deliver the people were mere sham fights; it was a great battle when half a dozen men were killed. It was on a peasantry in many respects superior to the serfs in large areas of Europe that the slave trade fell.
Tribal life was broken up and millions of detribalized Africans were let loose upon each other….Violence and ferocity became the necessities for survival. The stockades of grinning skulls, the human sacrifices, the selling of their own children as slaves, these horrors were the product of an intolerable pressure on the African people, which became fiercer through the centuries as the demands of industry increased and the methods of coercion were perfected….
C.L.R. James, Amistad I, 120-121

Song of the Bornu Slaves

Bornu king and warriors
Where are we going?
Where are we going?
Where are we going, Rubee?*
Hear us, save us,
make us free.
Send our Arka**
Down from thee!
Here the Ghiblee Wind is blowing,
strange and large the world is growing!
Tell us, Rubee,
where are we going?
Where are we going, Rubee?
Bornu! Bornu!
Where is Bornu!
Where are we going, Rubee?
Bornu-land was rich and good,
wells of water, fields of food;
Bornu-land we see no longer.
Here we thirst, and here we hunger,
here the Moor man smites in anger;
where are we going, Rubee?
*    gold
** freedom papers

African Slaves
A revival of the ancient institution of slavery occurred in the twelfth century to facilitate the production of sugar. Europeans needed to find a Christian source of sugar so they wouldn’t have to depend on Moslem North Africa or the Middle East. Venetians, Catalonians, Genoese, and others established sugar plantations in Cyprus, and a brisk slave trade developed to provide workers.
At first, the slaves were Moslems and Christians taken as prisoners in raids from the Black Sea area. By the early fourteenth century the Mediterranean trade expanded to include captives from sub-Saharan Africa brought to the plantations by professional slave traders.
As plantations spread to Crete, Sicily, and Spanish cities, the international slave trade grew. A gift of ten Africans from the coast of Guinea to Henry the Navigator of Portugal led to more importation of blacks. At first they were used as house servants, but along with the creation of more plantations in Portuguese territories came a greater reliance on African slaves as field workers.

The Middle Passage

Artist rendition of a slave ship
Crew and captives alike were reduced to a brutish state during the crossing, all exposed to disease and death. The total disregard for human life is described in a report to the British House of Commons:
The Negroes were chained to each other hand and foot, and stowed so close that they were not allowed above a foot and a half for each in breadth. Thus rammed…like herring in a barrel, they contracted…fatal disorders; so that they who came to inspect them in the morning had…to pick up dead slaves out of their rows, and to unchain…[them] from the bodies of their wretched fellow-suffers….
Quoted in Louise Daniel Hutchinson, Out of Africa, 43

New Possibilities

Sugar Plantation
Voyages to the West opened up many possibilities, among them the transportation of slaves as a source of labor. A small number of black slaves was brought to the newly discovered continent for the first time in 1502. Slavery continued to be interconnected with sugar production. Hispaniola first exported sugar in 1522; by the mid-1550s sugar plantations were thriving in Puerto Rico, Jamaica, and Mexico. Brazil became a major producer of sugar in the late 1500s.
England entered the slave trade in the 1560s. The first black slaves in Virginia in 1619 came by accident, brought by a Dutch captain who had captured them from a Spanish ship.
Three different models were evident early on in the “new world”: in the highlands of Mexico and Peru, a few Spanish controlled the predominantly Indian population; in North America, a large number of whites held all the power, and the relatively few Indians and blacks had none; in the South Atlantic (Caribbean) area, the white planter elite dominated a primarily black population which included a small number of Indians.

Life on the Republic
A character in Charles Johnson’s novel, Middle Passage, recounts a scene on the Republic, a ship out of New Orleans that regularly transported slaves from the West Coast of Africa. Although fictionalized, the story of the slaves’ degradation is based on similar tales told by survivors.
The captain of the Republic, Ebenezer Falcon, fancied seeing the slaves dance to music played by the ship’s mate, Tommy. Meadows, a crewman, and Ngonyama, one of the slaves, were in charge of bringing the slaves up from the hold of the ship to see the light of day and fill their lungs with sea air.
Twenty blacks were brought from below to dance them a bit to music from Tommy’s flute and let them breathe. They climbed topside and stood crushed together; blinded by the sun, for that morning the weather was fair, yet hushed. Meadows and Ngonyama searched the fusty spaces between decks for Africans unable to come up on their own.
There were always a few of these since Ebenezer Falcon rearranged their position after the storm. He was, as they say, a “tight-packer,” having learned ten years ago from a one-handed French slaver named Captain Ledoux that if you arranged the Africans in two parallel rows, their backs against the lining of the ship’s belly, this left a free space at their rusty feet, and that, given the flexibility of bone and skin, could be squeezed with even more slaves if you made them squat at ninety-degree angles to one another. Flesh could conform to anything.
So when they came half-dead from the depths, these eyeless contortionists emerging from a shadowy Platonic cave, they were still and sore and stank of their own vomit and feces….Meadows snapped his head away, his nose wrinkled, and he splashed buckets of salt water on them, then told Tommy to play….
Snapping together his three-piece flute and touching it to lips shaped in that strangely mad, distant smile unreadable as a mask, he let his chest fall, forcing wind into wood that transformed his exhalations into a rill of sound-colors all on board found chilling—less music….than the boy’s air alchemized into emotion, or the song of hundred-year-old trees from which the narrow flute was torn.
One side of Falcon’s face tightened. “Me thinks that’s too damned melancholy. Even niggers can’t dance to that. A lighter tune, if you will, Tommy.” The cabin boy obeyed, striking up a tune of lighter tempo. Falcon, pleased, tapped his foot, stopping only to stare as Ngonyama and Meadows carried an African’s corpse from below.
As with previous cases like these, Falcon ordered his ears sliced off and preserved below in oil to prove to the ship’s investors that he had in fact purchased in Bangalang as many slaves as promised. This amputation proved tough going for Meadows, for the last stages of rigor mortis froze the boy hunched forward in a grotesque hunker, like Lot’s wife. Hence, after shearing off his ears, they toted him to the rail as you might a chair on the ship’s figurehead, then found him too heavy to heave over.
Charles Johnson, Middle Passage, 120-121

Abolitionist Song

Abolitionist song sheet
Where are we going?
Where are we going?
Hear us, save us, Rubee!
Moons of marches from our eyes,
Bornu-land behind us lies;
Hot the desert wind is blowing,
Wild the waves of sand are flowing!
Hear us, tell us,
Where are we going?
Where are we going, Rubee?
Song recorded by abolitionists and published by John Greenleaf Whittier in Louise Daniel Hutchinson, Out of Africa, 42

Black Labor

Women working in the cotton fields
By 1650, there were more blacks than Europeans in the Americas. Africans were superior to any other national group in their ability to resist disease because they’d been exposed to the greatest variety of human illnesses. All of Europe agreed that without black slave labor America would face absolute ruin. A decree of King Louis XIV of France from 1670 reads, “There is nothing which contributes more to the development of the colonies and the cultivation of their soil than the laborious toil of the Negroes” (Williams, 136).

Catastrophe for Africa
The consequences of the slave trade were catastrophic for Africa. The developing social, economic, and political systems, as well as such by-products as craftsmanship, weaving, metalwork, and agriculture, took second place to a trade which led to the domination of a slave system in most of the states. For nearly two centuries European interests in West Africa were limited to building forts where traders could pick up slaves, captured in the interior through raids or tribal wars by local potentates looking for wealth and power.
Scholars estimate that over four centuries between eleven and fifteen million men, women, and children were deported and survived the horrors of the “middle passage” to reach America. Many more than that figure died during the wars of captivity and the crossing, when three out of every ten perished.
The figures for the West Indies alone are striking: of every one hundred captives who left the African coast, eight-four reached the West Indies; one-third of these died in three years. Therefore, for every fifty-six slaves on the plantations at the end of three years, forty-four had perished (Williams, 147).
Daily Lives of Slaves

Slaves waiting to be sold
The slave was a slave for life, and any children were destined to slavery. It was the very empire of death, a slow death, even if the life-span of the slave, virtually throughout the Americas, was estimated at seven years. Work under the supervision of a taskmaster was from sunrise to sunset and was enforced by the discipline of the whip….
Tortures reserved for rebellious or lazy slaves were not evidence of the particular cruelty of some masters, but simply part of the structure of the daily practice of slavery. To apply a red-hot iron to the tender parts of the slave, to tie him to a stake so that insects gnawed him to death, to burn him alive, to chain him, to set dogs or snakes at his heels, to rape negresss, served above all to express absolute domination.
Laennec Hurbon, “The Slave Trade and Black Slavery in America,” Concilium, 111

A Boon for Capitalism

Confederate bill
In spite of the depreciation from death among the cargo, the slave trade realized enormous profits and was central to the growth of capitalism. It “kept the wheels of metropolitan industry turning; it stimulated navigation and shipbuilding and employed seamen; it raised fishing villages into flourishing cities; it gave sustenance to new industries based on the processing of colonial raw materials; it yielded large profits which were plowed back into metropolitan industry; and finally, it gave rise to an unprecedented commerce…” (Williams, 148).