Triangular Slave Trade: The Middle Passage - Printable Version
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Triangular Slave Trade: The Middle Passage - Enzo - 05-04-2009 07:56 PM
Triangular Slave Trade: The Middle Passage
Introduction to the middle passage
This section is about the shipping of enslaved Africans from their native countries to the Americas across the Atlantic Ocean against their will. This journey is called the Middle Passage because it was the middle part of the triangular slave trade system between Europe, Africa and the Americas. This is a journey which millions of Africans were forced to make between the late 17th century and 1807, when the British Parliament made the slave trade illegal. Conditions on board slave ships were very bad so many Africans did not make it as far as the Americas. Ships from the port of Liverpool were responsible for shipping around 1,500,000 enslaved Africans. Widespread illegal slave trading took place after abolition. This means that many more enslaved Africans continued to suffer this terrible transatlantic crossing into the mid-19th century.
In following sections you can find out about the awful conditions in which Africans were transported and the brutal way in which they were treated by the crews of slave ships. You can also learn about brave acts of rebellion and resistance by enslaved Africans against their captors. Finally, you can read about the men who worked on slave ships as captains, doctors and crew.
Images on this website which are particularly useful for telling the history of the Middle Passage are:
* extracts from the log book kept by the doctor on board the Alice of Liverpool.
* the famous plan of the Liverpool slave ship the Brooks.
Physical conditions on board ship during the Middle Passage
Cramped conditions on a slave ship
Africans spent the transatlantic crossing to the Americas in very cramped conditions because slave traders wanted to squeeze in as many as possible so they could make more money. In order to do this special platforms were built between decks. This cut the Africans’ headroom from around 5ft (1.5m) to 2 ½ft (76cm), making it impossible for them to stand up. Often the Africans were packed so tightly that they did not even have enough space to lie on their backs. Instead they had to lie on their sides. No bedding was provided so the Africans had to lie on hard wooden boards for the whole of the journey.
Generally African men were kept below deck in chains whilst the women were allowed more freedom of movement. However, this left them at risk from the unwanted sexual advances of crew members. Even pregnant women were not safe. Captain John Newton of Liverpool put a member of his crew into irons for raping a pregnant African woman on a voyage in January 1753.
Toilet and washing facilities for the Africans on board slave ships were very poor. They had to share a very basic toilet and those who were too ill to move were forced to lie in their own urine and excrement. In bad weather the ship’s crew did not have time to clean the slave decks. The ship's port holes were covered during storms to stop water getting in and this made the smell on the slave decks even more unbearable and even the doctors refused to enter them.
Poor health and diseases
Even worse than the problems of smell was the chance of becoming ill. The cramped and insanitary conditions on board slave ships allowed diseases to spread very easily. Many Africans fell ill even before the transatlantic voyage began. Often they had walked long distances from the African interior to the coast and so were not healthy enough to resist disease. Dysentery, which was then called the flux, was very common. Of the twenty-four Africans who died on Captain Newton’s ship in 1751 and 1752 seventeen died of dysentery. This and other diseases led to a very high death rate amongst enslaved Africans. It is estimated that one in five of the Africans loaded on to slave ships died during the crossing.
So brutal was the treatment of Africans that some of those who fell ill were thrown overboard into the sea before they had actually died. This was done to try to prevent the spread of disease and so reduce the financial loss. The health of enslaved Africans was so damaged by the trauma of the Middle Passage that many died within two years of their arrival in the Americas. This high death rate amongst slaves meant that there was a constant demand for imports of more Africans. This meant that even more enslaved Africans were forced to go through this terrible transatlantic journey.
The treatment of Africans during the Middle Passage and their response
Treatment of Africans on slave ships
In order to reduce the risk of rebellions breaking out on slave ships discipline on board was very strict. Slave ships had large crews because their human cargo needed close supervision. Weather conditions permitting, slaves were generally allowed out of the slave decks once a day to exercise and get some fresh air. This was necessary because the holds on board slave ships were not very well ventilated as they were not designed for human cargoes. It was common for slave ship crews to humiliate Africans by forcing them to dance for their entertainment. Poor ventilation caused an unbearable smell on the slave decks and put Africans at risk of suffocation from the lack of air. In bad weather this situation was even worse because the port holes on the slave decks were covered to prevent water getting in. Bad weather also meant that Africans could not have their daily exercise.
Eating was another activity which was very closely supervised. This was to stop Africans refusing to eat and so dying from hunger. In the early days of the transatlantic slave trade Africans were fed on European foods. However, by the early 18th century slave ship captains bought local African foods. This was not out of respect for the way of life of the enslaved Africans but because they seemed healthier when fed on familiar foods. Such changes were only introduced when they were likely to increase profits. However, the fact that Africans usually had to eat from a shared feeding bowl, using their bare hands, did little to prevent the spread of disease.
One of the most well-known events of the transatlantic slave trade took place on board a Liverpool slave ship, the Zong, owned by the Gregson family. During a voyage in November 1781 its captain, Luke Collingwood, threw 133 Africans overboard to their death. He did this to claim insurance money which he thought would be more than he could sell the Africans for. This event shows that enslaved Africans were not seen as human beings but as a thing to be bought and sold for profit. Another terrible act on board a Liverpool slave ship took place on the Black Joke. Its captain flogged a baby to death and then forced its mother to throw the infant’s body overboard.
African rebellions and resistance on slave ships
Very few enslaved Africans wrote about their experiences of the transatlantic crossing so it is hard to say exactly how often they rebelled against their captors. Fortunately details of some events do appear in records kept by people who worked in the slave trade. These show that any African rebels were severely punished by the ship’s crew. One such record is the logbook of the Liverpool slave ship the Unity which is on display at the Merseyside Maritime Museum in Liverpool. The Unity was owned by the Earle family and captained by Richard Norris. During a voyage in 1769-1770 the Africans she was carrying rebelled at least five times. Captain Norris dealt with these attempted rebellions very harshly. On 4 June 1770 he put forty men into leg irons for attempting to rebel. Then on 27 June 1770 he shot the leader of an attempted rebellion.
It was not just African men who attempted to rebel, nor was it just the men who were punished for doing so. On 6 June 1770 Norris recorded that two women had died as a result of an attempted rebellion. Later the same month Norris ordered that the women who took part in an attempted rebellion be given twenty-four lashes each. Other Liverpool slave ships on which rebellions took place were the Rainbow, the Perfect, the Bolton and the Thomas. The Unity’s logbook also records that two Africans (a man and a woman) attempted to drown themselves several times. Some Africans became so desperate to escape the life they experienced on board slave ships that they were prepared to jump to their deaths overboard.
The time the Middle Passage took
The time it took for slave ships to cross the Atlantic from Africa to the Americas during what was called the Middle Passage, depended on a number of different things. Weather conditions affected crossing times as did the design and condition of the ship itself. Slave ships generally took six to eight weeks to make the crossing. However, in 1796 a violent storm meant that it took one Liverpool slave ship over six months to travel from Africa and 128 of the Africans on board died of starvation as food supplies ran low. Only forty Africans survived the voyage. By contrast, in 1751 it took Captain John Newton forty-two days to cross the Atlantic. Considering the poor condition of his ship, the Duke of Argyle, this was a fast crossing.
A long crossing time made the journey even worse for the enslaved Africans. Food and water supplies on board the slave ships could run low and so they faced starvation. The time taken to cross the Atlantic added to the time many of the Africans had been on board the slave ships. In the early days of the transatlantic slave trade Africans were locked up in forts on land and only boarded the slave ships once they were ready to set sail. However, it became more common for slave traders to load Africans straight onto the ships. There they waited many weeks before sailing from the African coast. This is because it took quite some time for captains to buy enough Africans to fill their ships. In 1750 Captain John Newton arrived at Sierra Leone in October, buying his first three enslaved Africans on the 25th of that month. However, he did not set sail for the Americas until May 1751. Another example was the Alice of Liverpool which took many months to buy enough enslaved Africans. To read more about trading between European traders and African rulers go to The slave trade from Europe to Africa.
The Middle Passage and slave ship crews
Liverpool slave ship captains, doctors and crew
As might be expected of men who made a living from buying and selling other human beings, records suggest that the captains of slave ships were very brutal. This is clear from the way in which Captain Norris of the Unity recorded Africans who died during the transatlantic voyage from Africa to the Americas by a number rather than by their name.
The crews of slave ships were often treated harshly by slave ship captains. This meant that slave ships were not popular amongst seamen and desertion rates were high. Slave ships were also unpopular amongst seamen because of the high death rate amongst their crews. In the last years of the 18th century around one in five crew members died. This was in spite of the fact that the death rate amongst Africans on board slave ships had fallen from the same rate to around one in eighteen. So the men who were attracted to this work tended to be rather nasty. Two well known Liverpool slave ship captains made public statements on the character of crewmen. Captain John Newton reported that many of the men who worked on slave ships had been in prison whilst Captain Hugh Crow said that many had escaped from prison or were on the run from the police.
Some slave ships carried doctors before they were required to do so by Dolben's Law of 1788. During the Atlantic crossing it was the doctor’s job to examine the Africans daily and to keep the sick and healthy apart to prevent the spread of disease. Doctors were also responsible for supervising the cleaning of the slave decks to try and stop disease spreading. Looking after Africans on the slave decks was not a pleasant job so this work did not usually attract the best doctors. Some doctors even refused to enter the slave decks when the smell became unbearable. One man who worked as a doctor on a slave ship was Alexander Falconbridge. Like Captain John Newton Falconbridge eventually joined the abolition movement. In September 1787 he was with the famous abolitionist Thomas Clarkson on a visit to Liverpool. To read more about the role of doctors in selecting which enslaved Africans to buy go to Europe to Africa - enslaved Africans.
Some improvements to the Middle Passage
Dolben's Law and other improvements
In the late 18th century the British government introduced regulations to improve conditions on board slave ships during what was known as the Middle Passage, the transatlantic crossing from Africa to the Americas. In 1788 a law was passed controlling the number of slaves which ships could carry according to their weight. This law is known as Dolben’s Law because it was introduced to Parliament by Sir William Dolben. This law also ordered all slave ships to carry a doctor who had to keep records about the enslaved Africans on board. These doctors received bonuses according to the number of Africans who survived the journey. If less than 2% of the Africans on board died during the crossing then doctors were paid £350 (worth around £24,600 in 2001). If between 2% and 3% of the Africans on board died then they were paid £175 (worth around £12,300 in 2001). In 1799 a second British law was passed regulating the number of slaves allowed according to a ship’s size.
These measures successfully reduced the death rate amongst enslaved Africans from around one in five to around one in eighteen of those carried on slave ships. However, these measures were not meant to reduce the terrible suffering of fellow human beings. Instead they were intended to reduce the number of Africans dying during the middle passage and so increase the money made from the slave trade. Reducing outbreaks of disease on board slave ships was also seen as a way to stop the high death rate amongst their crews.
The Middle Passage - conclusion
Although the slave trade was banned by the British in 1807 illegal slave trading went on for another sixty years. It is estimated that around one quarter of all the Africans enslaved between 1500 and 1870 were shipped across the Atlantic after 1807. It is difficult to gather information about these illegal voyages. Since they were breaking the law all those involved with slave ships did their best to hide where they were going and the true reasons for the voyage.
In the 19th century there was an increase in direct slave trading from the Americas, especially Brazil and Cuba. As direct transatlantic slave trading voyages increased in number the proportion of slave ships following the triangular trade pattern fell. Despite this the fact remains that enslaved Africans continued to be forced across the Atlantic Ocean and were kept in very cramped conditions and treated with great brutality by the crew during the voayge.
Although some improvements were made to the conditions on board slave ships in the late 18th century these were meant to increase profits. They were not made because of concerns about the health of the slaves. On arrival in the Americas Africans were sold as slaves. The ships in which they had been shipped across the Atlantic were prepared for their return voyage to Europe. To find out about the third and final leg of the triangular voyage of slave ships go to triangular trade - the Americas to Europe.
RE: Triangular Slave Trade: The Middle Passage - shakur420 - 01-10-2011 04:04 AM
2. Drawing the Color Line
A black American writer, J. Saunders Redding, describes the arrival of a ship in North America in the year 1619:
Sails furled, flag drooping at her rounded stern, she rode the tide in from the sea. She was a strange ship, indeed, by all accounts, a frightening ship, a ship of mystery. Whether she was trader, privateer, or man-of-war no one knows. Through her bulwarks black-mouthed cannon yawned. The flag she flew was Dutch; her crew a motley. Her port of call, an English settlement, Jamestown, in the colony of Virginia. She came, she traded, and shortly afterwards was gone. Probably no ship in modern history has carried a more portentous freight. Her cargo? Twenty slaves.
There is not a country in world history in which racism has been more important, for so long a time, as the United States. And the problem of "the color line," as W. E. B. Du Bois put it, is still with us. So it is more than a purely historical question to ask: How does it start?—and an even more urgent question: How might it end? Or, to put it differently: Is it possible for whites and blacks to live together without hatred?
If history can help answer these questions, then the beginnings of slavery in North America—a continent where we can trace the coming of the first whites and the first blacks—might supply at least a few clues.
Some historians think those first blacks in Virginia were considered as servants, like the white indentured servants brought from Europe. But the strong probability is that, even if they were listed as "servants" (a more familiar category to the English), they were viewed as being different from white servants, were treated differently, and in fact were slaves. In any case, slavery developed quickly into a regular institution, into the normal labor relation of blacks to whites in the New World. With it developed that special racial feeling—whether hatred, or contempt, or pity, or patronization—that accompanied the inferior position of blacks in America for the next 350 years —that combination of inferior status and derogatory thought we call racism.
Everything in the experience of the first white settlers acted as a pressure for the enslavement of blacks.
The Virginians of 1619 were desperate for labor, to grow enough food to stay alive. Among them were survivors from the winter of 1609-1610, the "starving time," when, crazed for want of food, they roamed the woods for nuts and berries, dug up graves to eat the corpses, and died in batches until five hundred colonists were reduced to sixty.
In the Journals of the House of Burgesses of Virginia is a document of 1619 which tells of the first twelve years of the Jamestown colony. The first settlement had a hundred persons, who had one small ladle of barley per meal. When more people arrived, there was even less food. Many of the people lived in cavelike holes dug into the ground, and in the winter of 1609-1610, they were
...driven through insufferable hunger to eat those things which nature most abhorred, the flesh and excrements of man as well of our own nation as of an Indian, digged by some out of his grave after he had laid buried there days and wholly devoured him; others, envying the better state of body of any whom hunger has not yet so much wasted as their own, lay wait and threatened to kill and eat them; one among them slew his wife as she slept in his bosom, cut her in pieces, salted her and fed upon her till he had clean devoured all parts saving her head...
A petition by thirty colonists to the House of Burgesses, complaining against the twelve-year governorship of Sir Thomas Smith, said:
In those 12 years of Sir Thomas Smith, his government, we aver that the colony for the most part remained in great want and misery under most severe and cruel laws... The allowance in those times for a man was only eight ounces of meale and half a pint of peas for a day... mouldy, rotten, full of cobwebs and maggots, loathsome to man and not fit for beasts, which forced many to flee for relief to the savage enemy, who being taken again were put to sundry deaths as by hanging, shooting and breaking upon the wheel... of whom one for stealing two or three pints of oatmeal had a bodkin thrust through his tongue and was tied with a chain to a tree until he starved...
The Virginians needed labor, to grow corn for subsistence, to grow tobacco for export. They had just figured out how to grow tobacco, and in 1617 they sent off the first cargo to England. Finding that, like all pleasureable drugs tainted with moral disapproval, it brought a high price, the planters, despite their high religious talk, were not going to ask questions about something so profitable.
They couldn't force the Indians to work for them, as Columbus had done. They were outnumbered, and while, with superior firearms, they could massacre Indians, they would face massacre in return. They could not capture them and keep them enslaved; the Indians were tough, resourceful, defiant, and at home in these woods, as the transplanted Englishmen were not.
White servants had not yet been brought over in sufficient quantity. Besides, they did not come out of slavery, and did not have to do more than contract their labor for a few years to get their passage and a start in the New World. As for the free white settlers, many of them were skilled craftsmen, or even men of leisure back in England, who were so little inclined to work the land that John Smith, in those early years, had to declare a kind of martial law, organize them into work gangs, and force them into the fields for survival.
There may have been a kind of frustrated rage at their own ineptitude, at the Indian superiority at taking care of themselves, that made the Virginians especially ready to become the masters of slaves. Edmund Morgan imagines their mood as he writes in his book American Slavery, American Freedom:
If you were a colonist, you knew that your technology was superior to the Indians'. You knew that you were civilized, and they were savages... But your superior technology had proved insufficient to extract anything. The Indians, keeping to themselves, laughed at your superior methods and lived from the land more abundantly and with less labor than you did... And when your own people started deserting in order to live with them, it was too much... So you killed the Indians, tortured them, burned their villages, burned their cornfields. It proved your superiority, in spite of your failures. And you gave similar treatment to any of your own people who succumbed to their savage ways of life. But you still did not grow much corn...
Black slaves were the answer. And it was natural to consider imported blacks as slaves, even if the institution of slavery would not be regularized and legalized for several decades. Because, by 1619, a million blacks had already been brought from Africa to South America and the Caribbean, to the Portuguese and Spanish colonies, to work as slaves. Fifty years before Columbus, the Portuguese took ten African blacks to Lisbon—this was the start of a regular trade in slaves. African blacks had been stamped as slave labor for a hundred years. So it would have been strange if those twenty blacks, forcibly transported to Jamestown, and sold as objects to settlers anxious for a steadfast source of labor, were considered as anything but slaves.
Their helplessness made enslavement easier. The Indians were on their own land. The whites were in their own European culture. The blacks had been torn from their land and culture, forced into a situation where the heritage of language, dress, custom, family relations, was bit by bit obliterated except for remnants that blacks could hold on to by sheer, extraordinary persistence.
Was their culture inferior—and so subject to easy destruction? Inferior in military capability, yes —vulnerable to whites with guns and ships. But in no other way—except that cultures that are different are often taken as inferior, especially when such a judgment is practical and profitable. Even militarily, while the Westerners could secure forts on the African coast, they were unable to subdue the interior and had to come to terms with its chiefs.
The African civilization was as advanced in its own way as that of Europe. In certain ways, it was more admirable; but it also included cruelties, hierarchical privilege, and the readiness to sacrifice human lives for religion or profit. It was a civilization of 100 million people, using iron implements and skilled in farming. It had large urban centers and remarkable achievements in weaving, ceramics, sculpture.
European travelers in the sixteenth century were impressed with the African kingdoms of Timbuktu and Mali, already stable and organized at a time when European states were just beginning to develop into the modern nation. In 1563, Ramusio, secretary to the rulers in Venice, wrote to the Italian merchants: "Let them go and do business with the King of Timbuktu and Mali and there is no doubt that they will be well-received there with their ships and their goods and treated well, and granted the favours that they ask..."
A Dutch report, around 1602, on the West African kingdom of Benin, said: "The Towne seemeth to be very great, when you enter it. You go into a great broad street, not paved, which seemeth to be seven or eight times broader than the Warmoes Street in Amsterdam. ...The Houses in this Towne stand in good order, one close and even with the other, as the Houses in Holland stand."
The inhabitants of the Guinea Coast were described by one traveler around 1680 as "very civil and good-natured people, easy to be dealt with, condescending to what Europeans require of them in a civil way, and very ready to return double the presents we make them."
Africa had a kind of feudalism, like Europe based on agriculture, and with hierarchies of lords and vassals. But African feudalism did not come, as did Europe's, out of the slave societies of Greece and Rome, which had destroyed ancient tribal life. In Africa, tribal life was still powerful, and some of its better features—a communal spirit, more kindness in law and punishment—still existed. And because the lords did not have the weapons that European lords had, they could not command obedience as easily.
In his book The African Slave Trade, Basil Davidson contrasts law in the Congo in the early sixteenth century with law in Portugal and England. In those European countries, where the idea of private property was becoming powerful, theft was punished brutally. In England, even as late as 1740, a child could be hanged for stealing a rag of cotton. But in the Congo, communal life persisted, the idea of private property was a strange one, and thefts were punished with fines or various degrees of servitude. A Congolese leader, told of the Portuguese legal codes, asked a Portuguese once, teasingly: "What is the penalty in Portugal for anyone who puts his feet on the ground?"
Slavery existed in the African states, and it was sometimes used by Europeans to justify their own slave trade. But, as Davidson points out, the "slaves" of Africa were more like the serfs of Europe —in other words, like most of the population of Europe. It was a harsh servitude, but but they had rights which slaves brought to America did not have, and they were "altogether different from the human cattle of the slave ships and the American plantations." In the Ashanti Kingdom of West Africa, one observer noted that "a slave might marry; own property; himself own a slave; swear an oath; be a competent witness and ultimately become heir to his master... An Ashanti slave, nine cases out of ten, possibly became an adopted member of the family, and in time his descendants so merged and intermarried with the owner's kinsmen that only a few would know their origin."
One slave trader, John Newton (who later became an antislavery leader), wrote about the people of what is now Sierra Leone:
The state of slavery, among these wild barbarous people, as we esteem them, is much milder than in our colonies. For as, on the one hand, they have no land in high cultivation, like our West India plantations, and therefore no call for that excessive, unintermitted labour, which exhausts our slaves: so, on the other hand, no man is permitted to draw blood even from a slave.
African slavery is hardly to be praised. But it was far different from plantation or mining slavery in the Americas, which was lifelong, morally crippling, destructive of family ties, without hope of any future. African slavery lacked two elements that made American slavery the most cruel form of slavery in history: the frenzy for limitless profit that comes from capitalistic agriculture; the reduction of the slave to less than human status by the use of racial hatred, with that relentless clarity based on color, where white was master, black was slave.
In fact, it was because they came from a settled culture, of tribal customs and family ties, of communal life and traditional ritual, that African blacks found themselves especially helpless when removed from this. They were captured in the interior (frequently by blacks caught up in the slave trade themselves), sold on the coast, then shoved into pens with blacks of other tribes, often speaking different languages.
The conditions of capture and sale were crushing affirmations to the black African of his helplessness in the face of superior force. The marches to the coast, sometimes for 1,000 miles, with people shackled around the neck, under whip and gun, were death marches, in which two of every five blacks died. On the coast, they were kept in cages until they were picked and sold. One John Barbot, at the end of the seventeenth century, described these cages on the Gold Coast:
As the slaves come down to Fida from the inland country, they are put into a booth or prison... near the beach, and when the Europeans are to receive them, they are brought out onto a large plain, where the ship's surgeons examine every part of everyone of them, to the smallest member, men and women being stark naked... Such as are allowed good and sound are set on one side... marked on the breast with a red- hot iron, imprinting the mark of the French, English or Dutch companies... The branded slaves after this are returned to their former booths where they await shipment, sometimes 10-15 days...
Then they were packed aboard the slave ships, in spaces not much bigger than coffins, chained together in the dark, wet slime of the ship's bottom, choking in the stench of their own excrement. Documents of the time describe the conditions:
The height, sometimes, between decks, was only eighteen inches; so that the unfortunate human beings could not turn around, or even on their sides, the elevation being less than the breadth of their shoulders; and here they are usually chained to the decks by the neck and legs. In such a place the sense of misery and suffocation is so great, that the Negroes... are driven to frenzy.
On one occasion, hearing a great noise from belowdecks where the blacks were chained together, the sailors opened the hatches and found the slaves in different stages of suffocation, many dead, some having killed others in desperate attempts to breathe. Slaves often jumped overboard to drown rather than continue their suffering. To one observer a slave-deck was "so covered with blood and mucus that it resembled a slaughter house."
Under these conditions, perhaps one of every three blacks transported overseas died, but the huge profits (often double the investment on one trip) made it worthwhile for the slave trader, and so the blacks were packed into the holds like fish.
First the Dutch, then the English, dominated the slave trade. (By 1795 Liverpool had more than a hundred ships carrying slaves and accounted for half of all the European slave trade.) Some Americans in New England entered the business, and in 1637 the first American slave ship, the Desire, sailed from Marblehead. Its holds were partitioned into racks, 2 feet by 6 feet, with leg irons and bars.
By 1800, 10 to 15 million blacks had been transported as slaves to the Americas, representing perhaps one-third of those originally seized in Africa. It is roughly estimated that Africa lost 50 million human beings to death and slavery in those centuries we call the beginnings of modern Western civilization, at the hands of slave traders and plantation owners in Western Europe and America, the countries deemed the most advanced in the world.
In the year 1610, a Catholic priest in the Americas named Father Sandoval wrote back to a church functionary in Europe to ask if the capture, transport, and enslavement of African blacks was legal by church doctrine. A letter dated March 12, 1610, from Brother Luis Brandaon to Father Sandoval gives the answer:
Your Reverence writes me that you would like to know whether the Negroes who are sent to your parts have been legally captured. To this I reply that I think your Reverence should have no scruples on this point, because this is a matter which has been questioned by the Board of Conscience in Lisbon, and all its members are learned and conscientious men. Nor did the bishops who were in SaoThome, Cape Verde, and here in Loando—all learned and virtuous men—find fault with it. We have been here ourselves for forty years and there have been among us very learned Fathers... never did they consider the trade as illicit. Therefore we and the Fathers of Brazil buy these slaves for our service without any scruple...
With all of this—the desperation of the Jamestown settlers for labor, the impossibility of using Indians and the difficulty of using whites, the availability of blacks offered in greater and greater numbers by profit-seeking dealers in human flesh, and with such blacks possible to control because they had just gone through an ordeal which if it did not kill them must have left them in a state of psychic and physical helplessness—is it any wonder that such blacks were ripe for enslavement?
And under these conditions, even if some blacks might have been considered servants, would blacks be treated the same as white servants?
The evidence, from the court records of colonial Virginia, shows that in 1630 a white man named Hugh Davis was ordered "to be soundly whipt... for abusing himself... by defiling his body in lying with a Negro." Ten years later, six servants and "a negro of Mr. Reynolds" started to run away. While the whites received lighter sentences, "Emanuel the Negro to receive thirty stripes and to be burnt in the cheek with the letter R, and to work in shackle one year or more as his master shall see cause."
Although slavery was not yet regularized or legalized in those first years, the lists of servants show blacks listed separately. A law passed in 1639 decreed that "all persons except Negroes" were to get arms and ammunition—probably to fight off Indians. When in 1640 three servants tried to run away, the two whites were punished with a lengthening of their service.
But, as the court put it, "the third being a negro named John Punch shall serve his master or his assigns for the time of his natural life." Also in 1640, we have the case of a Negro woman servant who begot a child by Robert Sweat, a white man. The court ruled "that the said negro woman shall be whipt at the whipping post and the said Sweat shall tomorrow in the forenoon do public penance for his offense at James citychurch..."
This unequal treatment, this developing combination of contempt and oppression, feeling and action, which we call "racism"—was this the result of a "natural" antipathy of white against black? The question is important, not just as a matter of historical accuracy, but because any emphasis on "natural" racism lightens the responsibility of the social system. If racism can't be shown to be natural, then it is the result of certain conditions, and we are impelled to eliminate those conditions.
We have no way of testing the behavior of whites and blacks toward one another under favorable conditions—with no history of subordination, no money incentive for exploitation and enslavement, no desperation for survival requiring forced labor. All the conditions for black and white in seventeenth-century America were the opposite of that, all powerfully directed toward antagonism and mistreatment. Under such conditions even the slightest display of humanity between the races might be considered evidence of a basic human drive toward community.
Sometimes it is noted that, even before 1600, when the slave trade had just begun, before Africans were stamped by it—literally and symbolically—the color black was distasteful. In England, before 1600, it meant, according to the Oxford English Dictionary: "Deeply stained with dirt; soiled, dirty, foul. Having dark or deadly purposes, malignant; pertaining to or involving death, deadly; baneful, disastrous, sinister. Foul, iniquitous, atrocious, horribly wicked. Indicating disgrace, censure, liability to punishment, etc." And Elizabethan poetry often used the color white in connection with beauty.
It may be that, in the absence of any other overriding factor, darkness and blackness, associated with night and unknown, would take on those meanings. But the presence of another human being is a powerful fact, and the conditions of that presence are crucial in determining whether an initial prejudice, against a mere color, divorced from humankind, is turned into brutality and hatred.
In spite of such preconceptions about blackness, in spite of special subordination of blacks in the Americas in the seventeenth century, there is evidence that where whites and blacks found themselves with common problems, common work, common enemy in their master, they behaved toward one another as equals. As one scholar of slavery, Kenneth Stampp, has put it, Negro and white servants of the seventeenth century were "remarkably unconcerned about the visible physical differences."
Black and white worked together, fraternized together. The very fact that laws had to be passed after a while to forbid such relations indicates the strength of that tendency. In 1661 a law was passed in Virginia that "in case any English servant shall run away in company of any Negroes" he would have to give special service for extra years to the master of the runaway Negro. In 1691, Virginia provided for the banishment of any "white man or woman being free who shall intermarry with a negro, mulatoo, or Indian man or woman bond or free."
There is an enormous difference between a feeling of racial strangeness, perhaps fear, and the mass enslavement of millions of black people that took place in the Americas. The transition from one to the other cannot be explained easily by "natural" tendencies. It is not hard to understand as the outcome of historical conditions.
Slavery grew as the plantation system grew. The reason is easily traceable to something other than natural racial repugnance: the number of arriving whites, whether free or indentured servants (under four to seven years contract), was not enough to meet the need of the plantations. By 1700, in Virginia, there were 6,000 slaves, one-twelfth of the population. By 1763, there were 170,000 slaves, about half the population.
Blacks were easier to enslave than whites or Indians. But they were still not easy to enslave. From the beginning, the imported black men and women resisted their enslavement. Ultimately their resistance was controlled, and slavery was established for 3 million blacks in the South. Still, under the most difficult conditions, under pain of mutilation and death, throughout their two hundred years of enslavement in North America, these Afro-Americans continued to rebel. Only occasionally was there an organized insurrection. More often they showed their refusal to submit by running away. Even more often, they engaged in sabotage, slowdowns, and subtle forms of resistance which asserted, if only to themselves and their brothers and sisters, their dignity as human beings.
The refusal began in Africa. One slave trader reported that Negroes were "so wilful and loth to leave their own country, that they have often leap'd out of the canoes, boat and ship into the sea, and kept under water til they were drowned."
When the very first black slaves were brought into Hispaniola in 1503, the Spanish governor of Hispaniola complained to the Spanish court that fugitive Negro slaves were teaching disobedience to the Indians. In the 1520s and 1530s, there were slave revolts in Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, Santa Marta, and what is now Panama. Shortly after those rebellions, the Spanish established a special police for chasing fugitive slaves.
A Virginia statute of 1669 referred to "the obstinacy of many of them," and in 1680 the Assembly took note of slave meetings "under the pretense of feasts and brawls" which they considered of "dangerous consequence." In 1687, in the colony's Northern Neck, a plot was discovered in which slaves planned to kill all the whites in the area and escape during a mass funeral.
Gerald Mullin, who studied slave resistance in eighteenth-century Virginia in his work Flight and Rebellion, reports:
The available sources on slavery in 18th-century Virginia—plantation and county records, the newspaper advertisements for runaways—describe rebellious slaves and few others. The slaves described were lazy and thieving; they feigned illnesses, destroyed crops, stores, tools, and sometimes attacked or killed overseers. They operated blackmarkets in stolen goods. Runaways were defined as various types, they were truants (who usually returned voluntarily), "outlaws"... and slaves who were actually fugitives: men who visited relatives, went to town to pass as free, or tried to escape slavery completely, either by boarding ships and leaving the colony, or banding together in cooperative efforts to establish villages or hide-outs in the frontier. The commitment of another type of rebellious slave was total; these men became killers, arsonists, and insurrectionists.
Slaves recently from Africa, still holding on to the heritage of their communal society, would run away in groups and try to establish villages of runaways out in the wilderness, on the frontier. Slaves born in America, on the other hand, were more likely to run off alone, and, with the skills they had learned on the plantation, try to pass as free men.
In the colonial papers of England, a 1729 report from the lieutenant governor of Virginia to the British Board of Trade tells how "a number of Negroes, about fifteen... formed a design to withdraw from their Master and to fix themselves in the fastnesses of the neighboring Mountains. They had found means to get into their possession some Arms and Ammunition, and they took along with them some Provisions, their Cloths, bedding and working Tools... Tho' this attempt has happily been defeated, it ought nevertheless to awaken us into some effectual measures..."
Slavery was immensely profitable to some masters. James Madison told a British visitor shortly after the American Revolution that he could make $257 on every Negro in a year, and spend only $12 or $13 on his keep. Another viewpoint was of slaveowner Landon Carter, writing about fifty years earlier, complaining that his slaves so neglected their work and were so uncooperative ("either cannot or will not work") that he began to wonder if keeping them was worthwhile.
Some historians have painted a picture—based on the infrequency of organized rebellions and the ability of the South to maintain slavery for two hundred years—of a slave population made submissive by their condition; with their African heritage destroyed, they were, as Stanley Elkins said, made into "Sambos," "a society of helpless dependents." Or as another historian, Ulrich Phillips, said, "by racial quality submissive." But looking at the totality of slave behavior, at the resistance of everyday life, from quiet noncooperation in work to running away, the picture becomes different.
In 1710, warning the Virginia Assembly, Governor Alexander Spotswood said:
...freedom wears a cap which can without a tongue, call together all those who long to shake off the fetters of slavery and as such an Insurrection would surely be attended with most dreadful consequences so I we cannot be too early in providing against it, both by putting our selves in a better posture of defence and by making a law to prevent the consultations of those Negroes.
Indeed, considering the harshness of punishment for running away, that so many blacks did run away must be a sign of a powerful rebelliousness. All through the 1700s, the Virginia slave code read:
Whereas many times slaves run away and lie hid and lurking in swamps, woods, and other obscure places, killing hogs, and commiting other injuries to the inhabitants... if the slave does not immediately return, anyone whatsoever may kill or destroy such slaves by such ways and means as he... shall think fit... If the slave is apprehended... it shall... be lawful for the county court, to order such punishment for the said slave, either by dismembering, or in any other way... as they in their discretion shall think fit, for the reclaiming any such incorrigible slave, and terrifying others from the like practices...
Mullin found newspaper advertisements between 1736 and 1801 for 1,138 men runaways, and 141 women. One consistent reason for running away was to find members of one's family—showing that despite the attempts of the slave system to destroy family ties by not allowing marriages and by separating families, slaves would face death and mutilation to get together.
In Maryland, where slaves were about one-third of the population in 1750, slavery had been written into law since the 1660s, and statutes for controlling rebellious slaves were passed. There were cases where slave women killed their masters, sometimes by poisoning them, sometimes by burning tobacco houses and homes. Punishment ranged from whipping and branding to execution, but the trouble continued. In 1742, seven slaves were put to death for murdering their master.
Fear of slave revolt seems to have been a permanent fact of plantation life. William Byrd, a wealthy Virginia slaveowner, wrote in 1736:
We have already at least 10,000 men of these descendants of Ham, fit to bear arms, and these numbers increase every day, as well by birth as by importation. And in case there should arise a man of desperate fortune, he might with more advantage than Cataline kindle a servile war... and tinge our rivers wide as they are with blood.
It was an intricate and powerful system of control that the slaveowners developed to maintain their labor supply and their way of life, a system both subtle and crude, involving every device that social orders employ for keeping power and wealth where it is. As Kenneth Stampp puts it:
A wise master did not take seriously the belief that Negroes were natural-born slaves. He knew better. He knew that Negroes freshly imported from Africa had to be broken into bondage; that each succeeding generation had to be carefully trained. This was no easy task, for the bondsman rarely submitted willingly. Moreover, he rarely submitted completely. In most cases there was no end to the need for control—at least not until old age reduced the slave to a condition of helplessness.
The system was psychological and physical at the same time. The slaves were taught discipline, were impressed again and again with the idea of their own inferiority to "know their place," to see blackness as a sign of subordination, to be awed by the power of the master, to merge their interest with the master's, destroying their own individual needs. To accomplish this there was the discipline of hard labor, the breakup of the slave family, the lulling effects of religion (which sometimes led to "great mischief," as one slaveholder reported), the creation of disunity among slaves by separating them into field slaves and more privileged house slaves, and finally the power of law and the immediate power of the overseer to invoke whipping, burning, mutilation, and death. Dismemberment was provided for in the Virginia Code of 1705. Maryland passed a law in 1723 providing for cutting off the ears of blacks who struck whites, and that for certain serious crimes, slaves should be hanged and the body quartered and exposed.
Still, rebellions took place—not many, but enough to create constant fear among white planters. The first large-scale revolt in the North American colonies took place in New York in 1712. In New York, slaves were 10 percent of the population, the highest proportion in the northern states, where economic conditions usually did not require large numbers of field slaves. About twenty- five blacks and two Indians set fire to a building, then killed nine whites who came on the scene. They were captured by soldiers, put on trial, and twenty-one were executed. The governor's report to England said: "Some were burnt, others were hanged, one broke on the wheel, and one hung alive in chains in the town..." One had been burned over a slow fire for eight to ten hours—all this to serve notice to other slaves.
A letter to London from South Carolina in 1720 reports:
I am now to acquaint you that very lately we have had a very wicked and barbarous plot of the designe of the negroes rising with a designe to destroy all the white people in the country and then to take Charles Town in full body but it pleased God it was discovered and many of them taken prisoners and some burnt and some hang'd and some banish'd.
Around this time there were a number of fires in Boston and New Haven, suspected to be the work of Negro slaves. As a result, one Negro was executed in Boston, and the Boston Council ruled that any slaves who on their own gathered in groups of two or more were to be punished by whipping.
At Stono, South Carolina, in 1739, about twenty slaves rebelled, killed two warehouse guards, stole guns and gunpowder, and headed south, killing people in their way, and burning buildings. They were joined by others, until there were perhaps eighty slaves in all and, according to one account of the time, "they called out Liberty, marched on with Colours displayed, and two Drums beating." The militia found and attacked them. In the ensuing battle perhaps fifty slaves and twenty-five whites were killed before the uprising was crushed.
Herbert Aptheker, who did detailed research on slave resistance in North America for his book American Negro Slave Revolts, found about 250 instances where a minimum of ten slaves joined in a revolt or conspiracy.
From time to time, whites were involved in the slave resistance. As early as 1663, indentured white servants and black slaves in Gloucester County, Virginia, formed a conspiracy to rebel and gain their freedom. The plot was betrayed, and ended with executions. Mullin reports that the newspaper notices of runaways in Virginia often warned "ill-disposed" whites about harboring fugitives. Sometimes slaves and free men ran off together, or cooperated in crimes together. Sometimes, black male slaves ran off and joined white women. From time to time, white ship captains and watermen dealt with runaways, perhaps making the slave a part of the crew.
In New York in 1741, there were ten thousand whites in the city and two thousand black slaves. It had been a hard winter and the poor—slave and free—had suffered greatly. When mysterious fires broke out, blacks and whites were accused of conspiring together. Mass hysteria developed against the accused. After a trial full of lurid accusations by informers, and forced confessions, two white men and two white women were executed, eighteen slaves were hanged, and thirteen slaves were burned alive.
Only one fear was greater than the fear of black rebellion in the new American colonies. That was the fear that discontented whites would join black slaves to overthrow the existing order. In the early years of slavery, especially, before racism as a way of thinking was firmly ingrained, while white indentured servants were often treated as badly as black slaves, there was a possibility of cooperation. As Edmund Morgan sees it:
There are hints that the two despised groups initially saw each other as sharing the same predicament. It was common, for example, for servants and slaves to run away together, steal hogs together, get drunk together. It was not uncommon for them to make love together. In Bacon's Rebellion, one of the last groups to surrender was a mixed band of eighty negroes and twenty English servants.
As Morgan says, masters, "initially at least, perceived slaves in much the same way they had always perceived servants... shiftless, irresponsible, unfaithful, ungrateful, dishonest..." And "if freemen with disappointed hopes should make common cause with slaves of desperate hope, the results might be worse than anything Bacon had done."
And so, measures were taken. About the same time that slave codes, involving discipline and punishment, were passed by the Virginia Assembly,
Virginia's ruling class, having proclaimed that all white men were superior to black, went on to offer their social (but white) inferiors a number of benefits previously denied them. In 1705 a law was passed requiring masters to provide white servants whose indenture time was up with ten bushels of corn, thirty shillings, and a gun, while women servants were to get 15 bushels of corn and forty shillings. Also, the newly freed servants were to get 50 acres of land.
Morgan concludes: "Once the small planter felt less exploited by taxation and began to prosper a little, he became less turbulent, less dangerous, more respectable. He could begin to see his big neighbor not as an extortionist but as a powerful protector of their common interests."
We see now a complex web of historical threads to ensnare blacks for slavery in America: the desperation of starving settlers, the special helplessness of the displaced African, the powerful incentive of profit for slave trader and planter, the temptation of superior status for poor whites, the elaborate controls against escape and rebellion, the legal and social punishment of black and white collaboration.
The point is that the elements of this web are historical, not "natural." This does not mean that they are easily disentangled, dismantled. It means only that there is a possibility for something else, under historical conditions not yet realized. And one of these conditions would be the elimination of that class exploitation which has made poor whites desperate for small gifts of status, and has prevented that unity of black and white necessary for joint rebellion and reconstruction.
Around 1700, the Virginia House of Burgesses declared:
The Christian Servants in this country for the most part consists of the Worser Sort of the people of Europe. And since... such numbers of Irish and other Nations have been brought in of which a great many have been soldiers in the late warrs that according to our present Circumstances we can hardly governe them and if they were fitted with Armes and had the Opertunity of meeting together by Musters we have just reason to fears they may rise upon us.
It was a kind of class consciousness, a class fear. There were things happening in early Virginia, and in the other colonies, to warrant it.
A People's History of the United States (Howard Zinn), p.18-27