Africa And The Africans In The Age Of The Atlantic Slave Trade
Author: Stearns, Peter N.;Adas, Michael;Schwartz, Stuart B.
Date: 1992

The African Diaspora

The slave trade was the means by which the history of the Americas and
Africa became linked and a principal way in which African societies were drawn
into the world economy. The import into Africa of European firearms, Indian
textiles, Indonesian cowrie shells, and American tobacco in return for African
ivory, gold, and especially slaves demonstrated Africa's integration into the
mercantile structure of the world. Africans involved in the trade learned to
deal effectively with this situation. The price of slaves rose steadily in the
18th century and the terms of trade increasingly favored African dealers. In
many African ports, such as Whydah, Porto Novo, and Luanda, an African or
Afro-European community developed that specialized in the slave trade and used
their position as middlemen to advantage.

Slave Lives

For those carried in the trade, such considerations had little meaning.
For them slavery meant destruction of their villages or capture in war,
separation from friends and family, and then the forced march to an interior
trading town or to the slave pens at the towns or forts of the coast.
Conditions during the process were deadly and perhaps as many as one-third of
the captives died along the way or in the slave pens. Eventually the slaves
were loaded onto the ships. Cargo size varied and could go as high as 700
slaves packed and crowded into the dank, unhealthy conditions of the slave
ships, but most cargoes were smaller and overcrowding was less of a factor in
mortality than the length of the voyage or the point of origin in Africa - the
Bights of Benin and Biafra being particularly unhealthy. The average rate of
mortality for slaves varied over time but ran at about 18 to 20 percent until
the 18th century when it declined somewhat. Still, on individual ships losses
could be catastrophic, as on a Dutch ship of 1737 where 700 of the 716 slaves
perished on the voyage.

The so-called Middle Passage, or slave voyage to the Americas, was a
traumatic experience for the slaves. Taken from their homes, branded,
confined, and shackled, they faced not only the dangers of poor hygiene,
dysentery, disease, and bad treatment, but also the fear of being eaten or
worse by the Europeans. Their situation led sometimes to suicide or to
resistance and mutiny on the ships. However traumatic, the Middle Passage
certainly did not strip Africans of their culture, and they arrived in the
Americas with their languages, beliefs, artistic traditions, and strong
memories of their past.

Africans In America

The destination of the slaves carried across the Atlantic was principally
the plantations and mines of America. Landed estates using large amounts of
often coerced labor became characteristic of American agriculture, at first in
the production of sugar, and later for rice, cotton, and tobacco. The
plantation system already used for producing sugar on the Atlantic islands of
Spain and Portugal was transferred to the New World. After attempts to use
Indian laborers in places like Brazil and Hispaniola, Africans were brought
in. West Africans, in fact, coming from societies in which herding,
metallurgy, and intensive agriculture were widely practiced were sought by
Europeans for the specialized tasks of making sugar. In the English colonies
of Barbados and Virginia, indentured servants from England were eventually
replaced by enslaved ofricans when either new crops, such as sugar, were
introduced or when indentured servants became less available. In any case, the
plantation system of farming with a dependent or enslaved work force
characterized the production of many tropical and semitropical crops in demand
in Europe, and thus the plantation became the locus of African and
Afro-American life.

Slaves did many other things as well. As we saw in Chapter 24, gold
mining in Brazil made extensive use of black slaves and the Spanish used
slaves in the silver mines of Mexico. Urban slavery was characteristic of
Latin American cities, where slaves were often artisans, street vendors, and
household servants. In early 17th century Lima, Peru, capital of Spain's
colony in South America, blacks outnumbered Europeans. Later cities, such as
Charleston and New Orleans, would also develop a large slave and free
Afro-American population. In short, there was virtually no occupation that
slaves did not perform, although the vast majority lived their lives as
agricultural laborers.

American Slave Societies

Each American slave-based society reflected the variations of its
European origin and its component African cultures, but there were certain
similarities and common features. Each recognized distinctions between
African-born "salt water" slaves who were almost invariably black (by European
standards) and their American-born descendants, the Creole slaves, some of
whom were mulattoes as a result of sexual exploitation of slave women or the
process of miscegenation. In all the American slave societies, a hierarchy of
status evolved in which free whites were at the top, slaves were at the
bottom, and free people of color had an intermediate position. In this sense
color and "race" played a role in American slavery it had not played in
Africa. Among the slaves, slaveholders also created a hierarchy based on
origin and color. Creole and especially mulatto slaves were given more
opportunities to acquire skilled jobs or to work in the house as servants
rather than in the fields or mines. They were also more likely to win their
freedom by manumission.

This system of hierarchy was a creation of the slaveholders and did not
necessarily reflect perceptions among the slaves. There is evidence that
important African nobles or religious leaders, who for one reason or another
were sold into slavery, continued to exercise authority within the slave
community. Still, the distinctions between Creole and African slaves tended to
divide that community, as did the distinctions between different African
groups who maintained their ties and affiliations in America. Many of the
slave rebellions in the Caribbean and Brazil were organized along African
rebellions in the 18th century and the largest escaped-slave community in 17th
century Brazil was apparently organized and led by Angolans.

While economic organization and European concepts of hierarchy imposed a
certain similarity in the various colonies in which Africans formed a part,
the slave-based societies also varied in their composition. In the 18th
century, for example, on the Caribbean islands where the Indian population had
died out or had been exterminated and where few Europeans settled, Africans
and their descendants formed the vast majority. In Jamaica and St. Domingue,
slaves made up over 80 percent of the population, and because mortality levels
were so high, a large proportion were African-born. Brazil also had large
numbers of imported Africans, but its more diverse population and economy, as
well as a tradition of manumitting slaves and high levels of miscegenation,
meant that slaves made up only about 35 percent of the population. Free people
of color, the descendants of former slaves, however, made up about another
one-third, so that together slaves and free colored constituted two-thirds of
the total population.

The Caribbean and Brazil differed significantly from the southern
colonies of British North America, which depended less on imported Africans
because of a positive rate of growth among the slave population. There,
Creoles predominated but manumission was less common and free people of color
were less than ten percent of the total Afro- American origin. The result was
that slavery in North America was less influenced directly by Africa: By the
mid-18th century, the slave population in most places in North America was
reproducing itself. By 1850 less than one percent of the slaves there were
African-born. The combination of natural growth and the relatively small
direct trade from Africa reduced the degree of African cultural reinforcement
in comparison with Cuba or Brazil.

The People And Gods In exile

Africans brought as slaves to America faced a peculiar series of
problems. Working conditions were exhausting and life for most slaves was
often "nasty, brutish, and short." Family formation was made difficult because
of the general shortage of women carried in the slave trade, a situation made
even worse where the ratio of men to women was sometimes as much as three to
one. To this was added the insecurity of slave status in which family members
might be separated by sale or by the masters' whim. Still, most slaves lived
in family units even if their marriages were not always sanctioned by the
religion of their masters.

Throughout the Americas, wherever Africans were brought, aspects of their
language, religion, artistic sensibilities, and other elements of culture
survived. To some extent the amount of continuity depended on the intensity
and volume of the slave trade from a particular area. Yoruba culture, for
example, was particularly strong in northeastern Brazil because the trade
between it and the Bight of Benin was heavy and continuous in the early 19th
century. During certain periods, Akan peoples predominated in Jamaica, while
Ewe or Dahomeans predominated in Haiti. Some slaveholders tried to mix up the
slaves on their plantations so that strong African identities would be lost,
but colonial dependence on slavers who dealt continually with the same region
tended to undercut such policies. In the reality of slavery in the Americas,
Africans had to adapt and change and to incorporate other African peoples and
their ideas and customs. Moreover, there were also the ways and customs of the
masters that were both imposed and adopted. Thus, what emerged as
Afro-American culture reflected specific African roots adapted to a new
reality. Afro-American culture was dynamic and creative in this sense.

Religion was an obvious example of continuity and adaptation. Slaves were
converted to Catholicism by Spaniards and Portuguese, and slaves were capable
of fervent devotion as members of Black Catholic brotherhoods some of which
were organized by African origins. Still, African religious ideas and
practices did not die out, and many African slaves were accused of
"witchcraft" by the Inquisition in those colonies. In the English islands,
obeah was the name given to the African religious practices, and the men and
women knowledgeable in them were held in high regard within the community. In
Brazilian candomble (Yoruba) and Haitian Vodun (Aja), rather fully developed
versions of African religion flourished and continue until the present,
despite attempts to suppress them.

The reality of the Middle Passage meant that religious ideas and concepts
were easier to transfer than the institutional aspects of religion. Without
religious specialists or a priestly class, aspects of African religions were
changed or transformed by contact with other African peoples as well as with
colonial society. In many cases slaves held their new faith in Christianity
and their African beliefs at the same time, and sought to fuse the two. For
Muslim Africans this was less possible. In 1835 in Bahia, the largest slave
rebellion in Brazil was organized by Muslim Yoruba and Hausa slaves and
directed against the whites and against nonbelievers.

Resistance and rebellion were other aspects of African- American history.
Recalcitrance, running away, and direct confrontation were present wherever
slaves were held. As early as 1508 African runaways disrupted communications
on Hispaniola, and in 1527 a plot to rebel was uncovered in Mexico City.
Throughout the Americas communities of runaway slaves formed. In Jamaica,
Colombia, Venezuela, Haiti, and Brazil runaway communities were continuous and
persistent. In Brazil, during the 17th century, Palmares, an enormous runaway
slave kingdom with numerous villages and a population of perhaps 8,000 to
10,000 people, resisted Portuguese and Dutch attempts to destroy it for a
century. Although its inhabitants were both Creoles and Africans of various
backgrounds, its origins, organization, and leadership were Angolan. In
Jamaica, the runaway "Maroons" were able to gain some independence and a
recognition of their freedom. So-called ethnic slave rebellions organized by a
particular African group were relatively common in the Caribbean and Brazil in
the 18th century. In North America where reinforcement from the slave trade
was less important, resistance was also important, but it was based less on
African origins or ethnicities.

Perhaps, the most remarkable story of African American resistance is
found in the forests of Suriname, a former Dutch plantation colony. There
large numbers of slaves ran off in the 18th century and mounted an almost
perpetual war in the rain forest against the various expeditions sent to hunt
them down. Those captured were brutally executed, but eventually a truce
developed. Today about 50,000 Maroon descendants still live in Suriname and
French Guiana. The Suriname Maroons maintained many aspects of their West
African background in terms of language, kinship relations, and religious
beliefs, but these were fused with new forms and ways drawn from European and
American Indian contacts resulting from their New World experience. From this
fusion based on their own creativity, a truly Afro-American culture was
created.

Africa And The End Of The Slave Trade

The end of the Atlantic slave trade and the abolition of slavery in the
Atlantic world resulted from economic, political, and religious changes in
Europe and in its overseas American colonies and former colonies. These
changes, which were manifestations of the Enlightenment, the Age of
Revolution, Christian revivalism, and perhaps the Industrial Revolution, were
basically external to Africa but once again they determined the pace and
nature of transformations within the African continent.

Like much else about the history of slavery, there is considerable
disagreement about the end of the slave trade. It is true that some African
societies began to export new "legitimate" commodities, such as peanuts,
cotton, and palm oil, which made their dependence on the slave trade less
important, but the supply of slaves to European merchants was not greatly
affected by this development. In general, the British plantation economies
were booming in the period from 1790 to 1830, and plantations in Cuba, Brazil,
and the South of the United States flourished in the following decades. Thus,
it is difficult to find a direct and simple link between economic
self-interest and the movement to suppress the slave trade.

Opponents of slavery and the brutality of the trade had appeared in the
mid-18th century, in relation to new intellectual movements in the West. The
philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau in France and the political economist Adam
Smith in England had both written against it. Whereas in ancient Rome during
the spread of Christianity and Islam or in 16th century Europe, enslavement of
"barbarians" or nonbelievers was viewed as a positive benefit, a means to
civilize others. Slavery during the European Enlightenment and bourgeois
revolution came to be viewed as unprogressive, retrograde, and immoral. The
slave trade was particularly criticized. It was the symbol of slavery's
inhumanity and cruelty.

England, as the major maritime power of the period, was the key to the
end of the slave trade. Under the leadership of religious humanitarians, such
as John Wesley and William Wilberforce, an abolitionist movement gained
strength against its opponents made up of merchants and the "West Indies
interests." After considerable parliamentary debate, the British slave trade
was abolished in 1807. Having set out on this course, Britain sought to impose
abolition of the slave trade on other countries throughout the Atlantic. Spain
and Portugal were pressured to gradual suppression, and the British navy was
used as a means to enforce these agreements by capturing illegal slave ships,
though the full end of slavery in the Americas occurred only in 1888.

 

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