African slaves were abused and exploited long before they reached the shores of the New World. ?For thousands of years, slavery and the slave trade had been not only universally accepted, but regarded as compatible with economic progress. Almost all nations have had some experience with one or another form of slavery in their past. Slavery in general, before 1517, was to use the people for slaves that were the most cost effective. For the most part, this meant local natives from the new colonized lands that could be easily and cheaply enslaved. The need for African slaves was not initially any more important than the need for any other race of slaves.
After the colonization of Haiti, the Spanish easily enslaved the local native Indians. These Haitian Indians were for the most part docile, food-gathering people who were not familiar with hard physical work. The Spanish made the slaves work in the mines to find gold and to raise the crops on the plantations. The Indians died off quickly under the stress of intense physical work and abuse. Many of them refused to work and revolted against their Spanish oppressors. In 1495, during a major Indian revolt, the Spanish massacred great numbers of native Indians. For the next 22 years, the Spanish killed hundreds of thousands of Indians through hard physical work, severe battles, and torturing, to try and induce other Indians to work harder. Finally, outraged by the atrocities he had seen against the Indians, Bishop Bartolome de las Casas asked King Charles V to help stop the killing. The Bishop suggested that the King supplant the Haitian Indian slaves with African slaves. By this point, there were a number of African slaves already in Haiti and they seemed to adapt well to both slavery and hard physical work. They considered Africans to be good for slavery becuase they seldom died from sickness and were as productive as 3-4 Indian slaves were. King Charles granted a patent to a courtier. The patent, later to be called the ?Asiento? was essentially an import license to control the slave traffic to the New World and would become a very valuable piece of paper. With that single humane act towards the Indian race, it set in motion over 300 years of injustice to the African slave.
The Courtier sold the patent to a syndicate of Genoese merchants, who then purchased slaves from the Portuguese in Lisbon and then sent them to the New world. This began the Atlantic slave trade. The Portuguese were the first to lay claim to the exclusive right of using the African continent. They had obtained most of their initial African slaves from the Gold Coast. They even negotiated with the African King, Kwame Ansa to start building a fort at Elmina. The fort was the first European built fort in Africa and was to be used as a center for national influence and also as a depot for the slaves being held for shipment. King Kwame received rent for the use of the land the fort was on. This helped to promote good feelings between the two countries and to help persuade him to do other things that would be helpful for the Portuguese later on.
Another African King to help enslave many of his countrymen was King Oba, who lived in a smaller, but highly civilized capital city of Benin. It was six miles in circumference and was surrounded by a 10? high wall. There were shade trees lining the broad streets and the houses were made of red clay that were polished to look like red marble. King Oba gave permission to the Portuguese to trade with his people for ivory, gold dust and slaves. Incidently, Benin being the holy city of the Bini nation, sacrificed hundreds of slaves and captives yearly.
By the middle of the 15th century, many other nations started in on the profitable slave trade. These included the English, Dutch, Swedes, Danes and the Prussians. Britain was the most successful nation in establishing slave-labor colonies in the New World. The slave trade quickly became one of the most highly profitable cargoes for the nations that participated in it. The Italians, Austrians, Poles and Russians did not participate mainly because they did not have colonies.
Africa, south of the sahara could be divided into four main land divisions: the Senegambia, Upper Gambia and the Lower Guinea. Each consisted of different types of people, of which there were five main groups of people: the Pygmoids, Caucasoids, Negroids, Bushmanoids and Mongoloids3, only two of which played an important part in the slave trade to the New World. There was the Senegambia, consisting mainly of the Pygmoids, Upper Gambia having the Caucasoid and Negroids, Lower Guinea with the Bushmanoids and the island of Madagascar that was inhabited with the Mongoloids. The Pygmoids were an average of 4?9? tall and less than 80lbs. Most of these were rejected as slaves. The Caucasoids were of average height and weight and contributed their share of people to the slave trade. The Negroids were also of average height and weight and contributed the vast majority of slaves that were shipped to the New World. The Bushmanoids were true bushmen, usually less than 5? tall. Only a few were enslaved and then, they were only shipped to Brazil. The Mongoloids, resembling Southeast Asians in stature and pigment were exported in small numbers, but not enough to leave anything but a small impact in the black population.
Most nations used different parts of Africa to export slaves from. The Portuguese derived their slaves from Lower Guinea and part of Upper Gambia. The English, French and Dutch obtained their slaves from Upper Guinea.
Food-gathering and hunting or fishing tribes of Africa perished in slavery almost as fast as the Haitian and West Indians did. These consisted mainly of the tribes in Senegambia. Their constitutions did not allow them to maintain heavy physical work like the type that would be required from them. The agrarian tribes of Upper Gambia were the best slaves. They were already use to the hard physical work that would be required from them in the New World. Most of them had performed this kind of work most of their lives in their own tribes. They turned out to be more productive than the native Indian and quite profitable for their owners.
Most all of the slaves being brought into North America were going to the southern states to help on the plantations. The sugar, cotton and tobacco crops were labor intensive. The northern states did not need African slaves because they had mostly white indentured servants, which in some cases was actually cheaper for the land owners.
The need for slaves in the New World did not start slavery in Africa, but only helped to increase it. Slavery in Africa was an ancient and widespread institution long before the Europeans came. Without the wholehearted cooperation and motivation of the African kings, it is unlikely that Africans would or could have been exploited as severely as they were. In the beginning, most of the slaves being exported from Africa were already slaves from the time of their birth. Only after many years of exporting slaves did the number of slaves from birth decrease in comparison to the total percentage. Still, the number of slaves that were actually free Africans (those captured directly by the Europeans) were only 1-2 per 100. Except for a few natives that were actually directly caught by the slavers, most slaves were sold to the Europeans by African merchants under the supervision of the coastal Kings. It was estimated that 3/4 of the inhabitants seen in many of the kingdoms were slaves.
The Europeans quickly and easily made business associates with the coastal nations in order to buy slaves from them. The captains of the slave ships, later to be known as ?slavers? were usually the ones responsible for not only obtaining the slaves, but also transporting them back to the New World. Slavers quickly learned that it was safer and more profitable to purchase their cargoes from the native African merchants than trying to capture slaves themselves. Any slaver that was caught ?man-stealing?, or capturing his own slaves would be thereafter at least be restricted from future trade, and most likely killed, along with their crew.
One of the most distinguishing features of the slave trade was that there seemed to be no standards except those of profit and loss. So long as their resolve did not weaken, using enterprise, daring and a little luck, large profits could be made by the captains. It was necessary to treat the slaves like cattle in order to reap the huge profits, but one pitfal was that it gradually brought about a numbness upon the heart towards the human sympathies.
Most agrarian tribes were highly civilized communities which were experienced in architecture and agriculture. They sometimes possessed herds of cattle or sheep and were skilled in smelting iron, even before the Europeans arrived. Their communities had highly involved religions, economic practices and codes of laws that were followed by members of the community. Each member in the tribe was defined by their age, skills and family or clan. The family units centered around the father. The father usually had many wives and children. The family unit could also consist of slaves that were given to the father by the king or elders in leiu of debt. The slaves would consist of men, women and children, who were usually captured during warfare. The slaves would live and work towards the interest of the clan and exist on almost an equal level as the free members. The father would also have children by these slaves, and these children would additionally be born as slaves. All of the members of the clan would learn to understand and appreciate the patterns of the communities that had existed for centuries. When a member of the clan would be thrust into slavery, it was such an alien way of life, that for some, they would rather commit suicide than adapt to a new and uncomfortable strange way.
There were 5 main ways for an African to end up as a slave.
1. They could be sold into slavery as punishment for crimes.
4. They were already slaves, usually from birth, and were sold by their masters.
5. They could be captured as prisoners of war.
There were many ways to become enslaved, but the greatest source of slaves came from famine and warfare.
Punishing dangerous criminals by selling them as slaves had been an established practice in many African communities, but after the Europeans started coming, many of the Kings and tribes formed the habit of punishing any and every offense by enslavement. To go even one step further, they would also sell the criminals families into slavery also. This would include the wives, children, brothers and sisters.
Frequently, as the slave trade became more profitable or during hard times, the father would sell off many of his slaves and sometimes, even members of his own family. The natives had such large families that it was an act of kindness to take some some of them off their hands and sell them into slavery. The families and tribes had no means of storing food for any period of time so famine was frequent. Free Africans would sometimes sell themselves into slavery to help out the family. Fathers would even sell their children into slavery to keep the rest of the family from starving.
Warfare among the tribes and nation states would provide the majority of the slaves after the middle of the 16th century. One of the greatest advantages of the slavers was the fact that one tribe usually could not understand another tribe. There were hundreds of different languages among the coastal tribes. The tribes were hostile towards one another and the slave trade made them even more hostile and paranoid of one another. The warring tribes and nations would rarely join together, even to defend against a common enemy. This distrust made it easy for the slavers to pit one tribe against another and thus benefit from the outcome. The slavers would encourage the tribal warfare and enhance it by providing both sides with muskets and gunpowder. Many times the slavers would give away the weapons on condition that the tribes return with prisoners from the war and let the slavers purchase them at low prices. Any tribe or nation without muskets and gunpowder were at risk of being enslaved by those in possession of these instruments of war. However, guns gave power to persons such as a chief or merchant, who would not normally possess it. They would no longer be dependent upon tribal authority and could thus make his own rules of proper behavior and enslavement.
Some of the African kings were by no means passive victims or mere observers of these conflicts. Supplying slaves for the European markets was both a profession and recreation for many of the native Kings. The Kings saw to it that slaves were provided to European ships on a timely and as needed basis. Some of the Kings even siezed their own subjects and sold them into slavery.
During the 17th century, the social, political and economic life of West Africa reorganized itself to produce one result, a steady flow of slaves for the European ships. As the market for slaves increased, each tribe along the coast of western and southeastern Africa vied for trade with the Europeans. Each coastal tribe distrusted the other tribes and the slavers used this to help promote warfare among them which would increase the number of slaves and bring down the prices. Even the witch doctors would get involved. After accepting gifts from the Europeans, they would conjure up some illegal activity that was happening and offer some unsuspecting tribesmen into slavery.
The selling of slaves by the African merchants to the Europeans had an air of legality. This view helped to soothe the public and clergy by justifying the African slave trade. They were content in saying that since most of the Africans were already slaves from birth or from war, what was the difference if they existed in Africa or in the New Worlds. During the majority of the slave trading years, both the merchants and clergy officially denied that slaves were being caught illegally.
In the West Indies, the slaves were not allowed to reproduce because the owners of the slaves thought it was easier and cheaper to buy new slaves than it was to raise a child from birth to working age. This caused the entire slave population to have to be renewed every 20-30 years. During the 16th century alone, approximately, 900,000 slaves were shipped to the New World. In the 17th century, approximately, 2,750,000 slaves were shipped. Overall, conservative estimates put the total number of slaves shipped to the New World at 15 million. Most of the slaves came from inland tribes withing 200 miles of the coast. The coastal tribes pursued these closer inland tribes in order to attain slaves without having to make them endure a long and often fatal trip through the jungles.
The purchase of slaves was a long, drawn-out process. The King and his associates or Caboceers as they were called had to be ?dashed? (offered gifts), before they would even start negotiating. The negotiations would start out with the Kings? slaves first. These were usually the worst of the lot, but had to fetch the highest prices or else the King would be insulted and the process would stop. Before the price could be arrived at for any slave, the slavers would have a European doctor check them out. The doctor would inspect them by peering into all of their body cavities and making them do short physical exercises to ensure mobility. They would be checked for sickness and diseases including genital diseases. This was difficult because the natives were experienced in making even sick slaves look good. They would shave off all the hair to alleviate any possible grey hair that would indicate old age. Their skin would also be oiled to make each one look younger and healthier than they actually were. After this, the process started over with each one of the Caboceers? slaves. When all was done and the trade was made, the slaves were immediately branded to ensure that none of the purchased slaves were switched for others by the natives. Payment was usually made in trade goods such as cloth made from wool, silk and cotton or for knives, muskets and liquor. When all was accomplished, it was necessary to get the King and everyone connected with the royal court sufficiently drunk.
The slaving captains, in their pursuit to load their ships quickly and get their cargoes to the New World before they perished, did not want to stay on the coast any longer than what was absolutely necessary. The big trading companies set up middlemen, called Factors to handle the receipt and holding of the slaves on shore until the ships arrived for loading. The Factors also frequently made friends with the local Kings and sometimes even lived within the same palace. These holding areas were frequently called factories. While being held for shipment, they were kept locked up in rooms usually without windows and were fed a subsistent diet. A slave was worth exactly what his flesh would bring in the New World markets. If his flesh was not worth anything, he was disposed of.
After the slaves were branded, they were marched to the beach to be held for shipment. Since most of the slaves came from the inland tribes, they had neither seen nor ever heard of the ocean. The sound of the waves crashing upon the shore along with the belief that the Europeans wanted to eat them made many of them insane or want to commit suicide. When the ships arrived for transportation, as many as 80 slaves at a time would be loaded onto canoes to transport them from the beach to the slave ships. In their despair, many slaves jumped overboard to their deliberate death in the shark-infested waters, most still wearing leg irons and chains.
After the middle of the 17th century, almost everyone not already corrupted by the slave trade felt that it was wrong in principle. Even Bishop las Casas who originally had urged Charles V to use African slaves was convinced by 1566 that it was as unjust to enslave Africans as it was to enslave Indians. Even the bible came to be incompatible with slavery, despite the long association that all of the Christian churches had made with the institution of slavery.
Britain, after having exploited the African slaves for over a century, was the first major power to renounce slavery as an unacceptable practice. Because of their heavy involvement in the slave trade, the British were keenly aware of the injustices being exacted upon the African slaves. They made it illegal in 1807 and released 750,000 of their own slaves. Instead of taking a Laissez-faire policy about abolition, they started trying to enforce it in an expensive, one-nation campaign against slavery.
Sugar and cotton crops have been responsible for the death and suffering of millions of human beings. The New World only created a demand for labor, Africa actually supplied that demand with its own people. The slave trade has left behind a bitter racial conflict between white and black and a sense of guilt that refuses to disappear. ?It is as if we were all responsible now, for the sin of our forefathers, and as if the sin was so great that not even the Civil War could atone for it.? The slaves neither escaped from slavery nor rose up above it upon their own. They were released by those who believed in the right for freedom of each human being and fought and died for that principle.
The Europeans never introduced anything of lasting value to Africa in return for the trade of slaves. They never started manufacturing, business, political or religious systems as they were doing in the New World. Nothing could compete with the profitable business of slave trading.
Mannix, Daniel. Black Cargoes. New York: Penguin Press, 1962.
Weinstein, Allen., and Frank Gatell. American Negro Slavery. New York: Oxford University Press, 196