The testimonies of formerly enslaved Africans serve as powerful lenses into the past.
This section will analyze various slave narratives in order to discover different aspects of their lives. We will begin by describing the hardships of the traverse itself, known as the Middle Passage and then explore the slave trade in more detail where they were traded. We will examine places such as North America, the Caribbean, and South America, zooming in on the perspectives and experiences of the poor slaves which were cruelly traded across the Atlantic. We hope this will give you a fuller picture of the Atlantic Slave Trade, which was such an important event in history, affecting our lives even today.
Enslavement in Africa
Africans who lived through the slave trade all had individual perspectives and opinions on the events that occurred. It is important to understand how they felt, to better understand all that happened. During that time, a total of 12.5 million enslaved Africans were put on ships to be sent to the Americas. These people all felt the loss of hope as they approached their ship, knowing that they would never be free people again. The people who saw a possibility of escape as they were marched to the coast of Africa bound in cordage, felt sorrow when they saw the iron shackles that awaited them. Looking at their loss of liberty, the enslaved felt despair, and some had tears in their eyes.
Everyone of them has a unique story of how they got to that point. One man, Venture Smith, was enslaved at age seven. When his father's kingdom was threatened by another African nation, they were forced to pay a large sum of money, to ensure their people’s safety. When the enemy promised not to harm them, they let their guard down, and ultimately ended up being attacked by them. Venture's family attempted to retreat one night, but a lit fire gave away their location to the enemy. When his family was brought back to their camp, the women and children were treated decently, but his father was tortured for information on his money’s location. In the end, he died without giving away any information. Venture and the rest of his family were separated and marched to the coast of Africa to be sold as slaves. Some of the enslaved would describe the people who would sell them to the foreigners as African traitors.
As a child, Olaudah Equiano was also captured by other Africans. He and his sister were stolen from their home, and carried of to the coast to be sold. He was first in awe at the big ship that waited at sea. He then became terrified as he was forced to board it. The frightening experience of seeing foreigners for the first time combined with the horrific sight of other Africans being chained up led him to faint. Equiano first assumed that these people were going to eat him. Filled with sorrow, he was offered liqueur to get him back to health. But as the ship took off, he felt lonely and abandoned.
Some Africans were tricked on board slave tricks. Martha King recounted her grandmother story of enslavement in an interview. She said, “A big boat was down at the edge of the bay and the people were all excited about it and some of bravest went up pretty close to look at it. The men on the boat told them to come on board and they could have pretty red handkerchiefs, red and blue beads, and big rings. A lot of them went on board, and the ship sailed away with them. My grandmother never saw her folks again.” There is also a story of sibling who went aboard a slave ship while being invited to a dance. They fell asleep on board, and when morning came, they were already far away from the shore. There is another instance when a couple was asked if they needed a job. They boarded a ship not knowing and were later enslaved. In all of these circumstances, they were not expecting to end up the way they did. These people were forcefully separated from everything they had ever known, and had no preparation for what was to come next. The common theme in all of these stories is the sorrow and despair described when they realize that they will most likely never return to their community, family, and homeland. After slaves were captured from Africa, they still had a long and hard path ahead of them. In fact, their troubles had hardly begun.
The Middle Passage
Once the Africans were aboard the slave ships, they became a part of a large and extensive trade route called the Middle Passage. The Middle Passage was a triangular transatlantic trade route of slave traders connecting Africa to the Americas and to Europe. Millions of Africans underwent the journey to the New World as slaves to work on plantations and in households. Ships from Europe and the Americas departed for African markets with manufactured goods to trade for slaves to sell in the Americas. Such goods were often textiles, brass pans, and even firearms. The Middle Passage spanned around four hundred years, from the 1500’s to around 1900, with the height of the trade during the 18th century.
The conditions onboard were terrible. Many Africans remarked that the stench below deck was nauseating. Slaves were presented with little food or water and spent most of their days crammed together below deck. Sickness spread like wildfire across ships despite the traders’ attempts to keep the slaves healthy. The crew would often make slaves dance to keep in good shape, and they took the healthy slaves above deck sometimes for fresh air.
Vastly outnumbered and in fear of rebellions, slave traders were very harsh and strict with the slaves. If a slave didn’t live up to the trader’s standards, the slave trader would resort to a punishment of flogging, or whipping. Slaves were frequently flogged if they were slow or refused to obey.
As the slave trade progressed, more and more slaves were being shipped across the Atlantic ocean. To maximize their ship’s carrying capacity, slaveholders would often store slaves lying down on shelves stacked around two feet apart on top of each other, giving the slaves less space. They were now able to fit hundreds of slaves on a decently sized vessel. Laws were eventually passed giving the slaves more space onboard and slave numbers were regulated based on the size of each ship.
Death & Disease
Diseases left many of the slaves lying in corners, on the bridge of death. Many slaves remembered that it “smelled of death” as nearly everyone fell ill due to new diseases on the ships, their close quarters, or to the poor food and sea sickness. Nearly two million slaves died on the journey. This number was largely due to sickness and also to suicide. Some slaves rebelled and tried to jump overboard rather than submit to the slave traders.
Death rates on the trips reached around 15-20 percent due to a combination of disease, starvation, mistreatment, and suicide. Around 10.7 million slaves survived the journey and arrived in the New World. A few of the ones that lived learned to read and write and then later wrote accounts of their journey in the Middle Passage.
Many slaves did not know what lay in store for them when they boarded the slave ships. Some were filled with astonishment and some with terror. The Africans had never seen such behavior or been treated such. They had no knowledge of where they were going or what awaited them there. They especially didn’t realize that their horrors had only just begun. There are very few accounts of the Middle Passage written by slaves who had actually experienced conditions on a slave ship at first hand. For Africans who did survive and later recorded their story, the Middle Passage was often the central event, so they described it as best as they could.
North American Slave Experiences
Slavery in North America, as always with chattel slavery, was a heinous system. However, in America more than other places, it left a lasting scar upon the social and economic structures of the country. It also cost over a million lives to eradicate, at the cost of civil war. The slaves were kept from reading and writing, and were brutally treated, with incredibly high mortality rates. In fact, the average slave’s life expectancy at birth could’ve been as low as 20 years in some places! There are, therefore, very few written records from slaves. Most are from slaves that were released, or were able to buy their own freedom.
Control Over Their Lives
A common theme in these writings is control. When a human is captured and put into slavery, they lose a large amount of control over their lives, being “owned” thereafter by another person. They might have their spouses and children sold to different slaveowners and be forced to work 18 hours a day, even while pregnant. By buying back their freedoms, they could regain control over their lives, but this was a momentous task for the vast majority of slaves. In fact, it was hard for slaves to earn money at all, save the lucky few who reached an agreement with their masters for manumission. Venture Smith, a former slave, said on how he acquired his freedom, “I hired myself out at Fisher's Island, and earned twenty pounds; thirteen pounds six shillings of which my master drew for the privilege, and the remainder I paid him for my freedom.” In this way he regained control over his life, and spent most of the rest of it making money to free his fellow slaves.
Others who weren’t able to get deals with their masters or were mistreated sometimes tried to free themselves by other means. A slave named William Grimes said, “This hard treatment continuing for some time. I at length resolved to run away.“ This approach was punished brutally, however, as he recounts “So they brought me out and...whipped me until I could hardly stand, and then told me if I did not run away, he would whip me three times a day, and make me carry three rails to one, all day.”2 Many slaves tried to run away, and noble souls on the underground railroad tried to help others run away too, with varying degrees of success.
Some rejected the control of their owners not with escape, but rebellions, large and small. Some slaves made the sacrifice of jumping overboard the slave ships to die rather than to be enslaved. Others created rebellions on the slave ships. On land, too, one source (The Abolition Project) says, “On the plantations, many enslaved Africans tried to slow down the pace of work by pretending to be ill, causing fires or ‘accidentally' breaking tools. Whenever possible, enslaved Africans ran away. Some escaped to South America [or England]. All of these acts made slavery less profitable.”
In the end, it seems clear that slavery was not a good thing, and took all control of a slave’s life away from them. They may have tried to fight back, but until emancipation was achieved, many more simply had most of their lives stolen from them to satisfy the greed of their owners.
South American Slave Experiences
The slave trade in South America is often overlooked from a North American perspective, despite the fact that approximately 5.4 million enslaved Africans (or about half of all those who survived the Middle Passage) landed South America. 4.9 million slaves disembarked in Brazil alone. The importation of African slaves to South America began around 1526 and came to an end in the 1860s. Slavery lasted longer in Brazil than in any other country, ending only with abolition in 1888.
From around 1600 to 1650, sugar was Brazil’s leading export at over 95 percent, but when gold and diamonds were discovered in the 1690s, many mines bought slaves instead to extract the diamonds and gold. However, by 1760, most of the gold had been mined out, and sugar was exported more. By 1825, over half of the population was enslaved. Even more slaves were imported once coffee production exploded after it was introduced in the 1830s. It is impossible to get a full picture of the transatlantic slave trade without looking at the lives of the black slaves who were shipped to South America to work on large plantations and in mines all over Brazil, Peru, Venezuela, and other South American countries.
Slave Conditions in the Mines and Plantations
Conditions for the slaves were very bad. Nearly all of the slaves were woken up at five o’clock, either on their own or by an overseer. Throughout the day, they were exposed to the elements, enduring everything from unbearably hot sun to the pouring rain. Midday was worst out in the fields, and the sun’s heat meant many suffered from sun-based fevers and heatstroke every day. The slaves were sometimes forced to work at night too, at the command of the master. Many were victims of malaria, plague, smallpox, and other diseases due to the cramped, dirty, unsanitary conditions. Especially on the plantation, slaves were considered expendable, and many were worked to death, only living on average for about a year or two. The owners dismissed the deaths of slaves because it was economically better for the slaves to work really hard until they dropped dead instead of letting them take it easy sometimes, because production increased a lot and the owners made more money.
Work on the plantations
Every year after the harvest, the first thing the slaves would be assigned to to prepare for the new plants was the cutting down of small trees and saplings. Slaves were given scythes, which they used to cut down the trees. They hacked at the trees for twelve hours a day, from dawn until dusk, until the entire field was cleared of small trees. This process usually took about two months to entirely strip the forest of the small trees, after which they proceeded to the second step.
Next, the slaves would burn away sections of the forest to destroy bigger trees in controlled fires, which did not take very much time. The ashes were then cleared away so they could start weeding. The slaves weeded small plants, shoots, and other plants that would interfere with the crops. They were given weeding hooks to do the job, their backs bent over the ground all day, while they weeded.
The process of clearing the fields for the next harvest usually ended in January, and the slaves were then assigned to plant rice, cotton, and millet. Slaves bent over the ground for hours at a time, planting the crops. Slaves planting cotton were given a hoe to sow seeds with, but the slaves planting the rice and millet were given only a stick with an iron point on the end. After planting, slaves were delegated to the task of picking cotton, and harvesting rice. They would sit in the sun, picking bales of cotton or cutting the rice plants at the stalk and beating it so that the rice fell into a basket. This whole process repeated every year.
Work in the Mines
Every day, the slaves went down at five o’clock in the morning to the mines. Some went to the rivers where they panned for diamonds and gold. They were forced to stand in the water all day, sifting through, sludge, pebbles, and precious metals and stones. Others were sent to caves and underground passages to mine. There were dangers underground, and many slaves died from landslides and falling rocks, accidentally dislodged. Others still died from carbon monoxide poisoning and other harmful gases inside the mines. The slaves were often malnourished, and many had to eat spoiled and rotting food, as it was the only food available.
Caribbean Slave Experiences
The slave trade in the Caribbean was different from anything found in North or South America. The Caribbean is a small collection of islands in between North and South America, and hence is often overlooked, but in fact there is much to be learned from the perspectives of slaves in the Caribbean. In this chapter we will study various aspects of a slave’s experience in the Caribbean.
Aspects Unique to the Caribbean
Despite its relatively small size, the Caribbean was an ideal destination for slaves from the slave traders' perspective. The optimal climate for sugar cultivation contributed to a high demand for slave labor. The Caribbean accumulated almost 4.8 million slaves between the years 1526 and 1867, making it a top destination for African slaves, second only to Brazil. This caused the ratio of slaves to masters to skyrocket. In the early eighteenth century, at the peak of sugar production, about eighty percent of the Caribbean population consisted of enslaved Africans. No other locations had such a high percentage. Being outnumbered inspired fear in many slaveholders, and as a result they treated their enslaved workforce more harshly. This dynamic of white fear of black bodies continued after abolition with devastating consequences.
From the eighteenth to nineteenth centuries, most of the slaves arriving in the southernmost islands of the Caribbean, known as the French Caribbean due to the colonial presence there, came primarily from areas known as West Central Africa and St. Helena. Many others were sourced from places such as the Bight of Benin, some after being marched through Africa to reach the coast. However, slaves destined for the Northernmost islands, known as British Caribbean for similar reasons, came largely from the Bight of Biafra and the Gold Coast, as well as many other regions, once again often after being marched through Africa.
Arrival In the Caribbean
The slaves arriving in the Caribbean were thrown into a large new world which they did not understand, as many of the inventions and conventions that could be found in major ports in the Caribbean were not seen in most parts of Africa. This only added to their fear, as many held onto the belief they would be eaten by the strange and violent creatures that were white men. While still in a daze from their arrival, they were shipped off to large markets where they are sold to the highest bidder, but could be bought for as low as 7 pounds. Here too, they were treated as animals, with only a practical value and given no regard as human beings. Some children were bought even in the womb of the mother, but there was no action they could take to prevent these actions. Though the arrival was brutal, the troubles of these poor souls were only beginning.
Once purchased by their masters, slaves were typically sent to work on large plantations similar to those in North and South America where they were worked brutally hard, and were often flogged. Many slaves recall the corporal punishments which were so terrible that the recipients fainted from the pain alone. In addition to this, slaves received very little in the ways of food and clothing or other daily necessities, which only worsened their condition. Slaves were forced to work in the fields to grow a variety of different crops such as sugar, and hence spent most of their day hunched over in a far from ergonomic position, adding onto their already lengthy list of ailments. As the Caribbean was located on the Equator, the weather could vary from being freezing to burning, yet slaves almost never had a break due to weather. Slaves were traded from one plantation to another, going from one owner to another, their conditions fluctuating as they went. Life expectancy for slaves in the Caribbean was as low as 7-9 years.
Even when Britain and France abolished slavery in all their colonies, slaves did not live an easy life. In some places, slaves were temporarily put in a position of “apprenticeship” which was described by slaves such as Ashton Warner as being worse than slavery; instead of simply wanting a large profit, now the masters also wanted revenge on their slaves for being freed. It was not until the late 1800s that slavery was truly finished in the Caribbean and no more slaves were brought in.