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 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
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
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).