Debunking myths about the genesis of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade

One constant of the human existence from its earliest recorded history is the practice of slavery, or forcing one to labor against his or her will for the pleasure of the owner. While the “what is” of slavery is simple, the “how” as far as the fundamental nature of its practice has varied across the ages and due to various cultural mores.

From as early as the Hammurabi Code, slavery was often used to either absolve a debt or in some instances, used as a punishment for crime. This last point is even critical even unto this day in that while most Americans learned in their US History or Civics courses that the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution strictly outlawed “slavery or involuntary servitude,” the notable exception to this abolition of slavery was for, you guessed it, the punishment of crimes. As such, nearly 100 years after the end of the American form of slavery, many convicted felons in the US south–mostly black–were often loaned out to plantation owners, turpentine extractors, lumber yards and factories across the south. In these instances, the industry owners derived profit from the free labor that the convicts provided and in some jurisdictions, local sheriffs and constables earned considerable wealth by providing fresh supply of laborers.

Accordingly, it can be argued that today, the rise in prison privatization efforts is merely a throwback to ages past as far as slavery is concerned. Still, “how” slavery was practiced depended in part on the culture, but more often than not, it also depended upon the individual predilection of the slave owners.

For example, slavery as practiced in Ancient Rome was more often than not akin to indentured servitude, with the enslaved typically being bought by patrician Romans from auctioneers who had acquired slaves through conquests in foreign lands or direct barter with foreign chieftains.

Similarly, during the early Middle Ages, as Islam spread out of the Middle East westward into Africa, many of the Arab leaders soon began bartering with chieftains in central and western Africa for the purpose of trading slaves. Even prior to the Islamic conquest of North Africa, a number of African tribes had practiced some form of slavery even among themselves. Some historians have noted that by the Eighth Century AD, as what would become known as the Trans-Saharan Slave Trade began to take off in earnest, that the fundamental difference between slavery as practiced among African tribes and the bondage that was soon to come was in the location, meaning, a captured slave in the interior of Africa could hope to escape his bondage and return to his home or even secure his freedom and intermingle or marry with his captive tribe, while the Arab slave trade was conducted purely for extraction to send said slaves as far east as India and even north into Turkey and other parts of southern Europe.

The issue of African complicity in slave trading is one that from a sentimental purpose, is difficult for many descendants of enslaved Africans to reconcile but one in which the evidence is clear that trade during the Middle Ages, even within powerful African empires in Ghana, Mali and Songhai, held as one component the bartering of African slave labor.

Where historians often debate, however, is that with the Arabs, and particularly in the later Middle Ages when European powers began participating in what would become known as the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, is whether African leaders were either duped into this practice or subject to what could be termed as a trade imbalance. I mean, when Trolls troll during Black History Month, I remind them that it is not like African leaders sent emissaries to Europe saying “Hey, we have people for sale!” Indeed, 20th Century historian Walter Rodney argues that the European slave trade was based on a form of colonialism and that the exchange of guns, alcohol and cloth as provided by the Europeans paled in comparison to the value of human lives that were to be sent to the Americas.

Rodney does note, however, that the King of Dahome, for instance, by the late 1700’s was earning approximately 250,000 British Pounds per year for selling off Africans into slavery. Other historians have rejected Rodney’s premise, arguing instead that during the pre-Industrial Revolution, that African economies were not at any distinct disadvantage to their European neighbors. It must be noted that the purpose of both European incursions into Africa, the subsequent colonization of Africa and yes, the extracting of slaves was derived from one base desire–profits. Karl Marx once wrote that “the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signaled the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production.”

While a number of European powers participated in the slave trade to the Americas, Portugal and Great Britain, in particular, made the shipping of black cargo into an art form. European advances in shipping technology made it so that huge ships could sail that would hold within their bellies thousands of black men, women and children–all shackled together and forced to lie on their backs and stomachs with little food or water for weeks on end–in their journey west to the Americas.

In Great Britain, not only was the shipping industry bolstered by the need for bigger and better sea-faring ships, but by the late 1600’s, Lloyds of London, the still existing insurance concern, was founded for the express purpose of and deriving exorbitant profits from insuring not only the ships–but the value of the human cargo as well. Similarly, Great Britain derived considerable wealth in time from the trade of cotton, molasses, sugar and rum–fresh from slave plantations in the new world. Initially, many African slaves were held in the Americas as indentured servants and their status, particularly in British and French North America, was not much different from white indentured servants, Native Americans and white convicts who were seeking to pay their “debts to society.”

But the concept of indentured servitude among whites soon died out due to the ease with which the same could escape and blend in among other European colonists. And as Native Americans soon proved incapable workers in the rigid agricultural fields, the need for fresh African laborers, those who could neither blend in with the populace nor had any physical limitations to harsh working conditions, soon led to an explosion in the numbers being transported across the Atlantic Ocean. By 1778, Thomas Kitcher, a British writer, estimated that nearly 52,000 Africans were being imported to the Americas each year. While the total numbers of Africans exported to the Americas will never be fully known, the estimates range from 11 million to 25 million who completed their journeys into bondage. This does not count for the untold numbers of other blacks who died along the journey, known as the Middle Passage.

Once in the Americas, new Africans were often washed after having spent weeks lying in their own urine, vomit and feces and placed on the auction block–typically completely naked, where would-be owners would inspect their bodies or ask them to perform physical tasks to determine their fitness for labor. In some instances, new slave women arrived in the New World carrying newborns of a lighter hue–born from rapes that may have occurred while in one of any number of slave holding pens. Others arrived pregnant from being raped during the Middle Passage. Once sold, the newly arrived Africans were typically placed immediately into labor and under the yoke of brutish overseers, conditioned through beatings and torture to yield to their new fate.

This last point, conditioning, made for one of the more interesting developments in the slave trade and its eventual decline. In North America, where the slave trade died out first, there were almost equal numbers of men and women and by the 18th Century, the average enslaved woman was bearing 9.2 children during their life spans. In the Caribbean and down through South America, the rigors of the sugar cane plantations often led to a disproportionate imbalance among plantation owners seeking men–not women–thus, the birth numbers were not only lower in some areas, but due to the harsh working conditions and low life expectancies, there was a considerable need for new enslaved Africans that lasted well into the 19th Century. How the Trans-Atlantic trade waned will be explored in future lessons.