Slavery – A Brief Overview

hat is unique about slavery in the Atlantic world is both its magnitude
(a very large number of slaves) and its modernity (slavery occurred in the very recent past).? When studying slavery in the Atlantic, then, we must account for why slavery should be so intimately connected with modernity and with the rise of the modern economies and societies of Europe, the Africa’s and the Americas. This is an important point. Many people tend to think of slavery as some archaic feature of a long dead past, a bygone practice with little relevance to our lives today.

Of course we are one century and several generations away from the age of slavery and Africans are even closer to it (slavery was ended in Africa only during the early twentieth century). The truth is that in terms of social time, slavery is right in our back yard and often pushed into insignificance. The modern Atlantic world–including the countries, cultures and practices we know today in Africa, Europe and America–was significantly shaped by the institution of slavery.

Female SlavesWe continue to live the legacy of slavery (for example, we can hardly imagine what an Atlantic world without slavery would look like today).

We should not, indeed we cannot, ever forget slavery. If we do, we lose our humanity by refusing to reflect on one of the fundamental institutions of the past which “got us where we are.”

Understanding slavery in modern life means looking at four continents: Africa, Europe, South America, North America, and of course? the Caribbean.

Slaves were an important minority of the population in both the Africa’s and the Americas (and in certain places on both continents slaves constituted the majority of the population). At least as many slaves were made and kept in the Africa’s as were forcibly transported as human cargo westward across the Atlantic. People on the western side of the Atlantic are usually ignorant of this fact because they know so little about Africans and their history.

There were far fewer slaves in Europe than in the Africa’s or the Americas, but Europeans and their economies were central to creating the demand which sparked enslavement’s within Africa, financing the Atlantic slave trade, transporting slaves, and benefiting economically from slave labour both in the Americas and in the Africa’s. Africans, of course, were the people enslaved in this modern system of Atlantic slavery. It is especially important to study Africa and Africans in the Atlantic, then, because unlike Europeans or Americans of any origin, Africans were both slaves and slave owners in the Atlantic.Enslavement refers to the process of making slaves.

This may sound funny, but most slaves who were captured and transported across the Atlantic had to be enslaved (they had to be created as slaves); few were born in bondage. What this means is that the vast majority of those slaves transported? were not simply enslaved persons living in African societies whose masters decided to get rid of them, they were free people who were captured by a variety of means and sold away to a different land.

The existence of a transatlantic trade in slaves then, meant that many new persons would be enslaved within Africa to supply the demand for slaves in the Americas.? In Africa, slaves were created through a variety of means with differing implications. The first point to consider is that most African slaves were captured by other Africans and not Europeans. People generally have in their minds the image of Europeans landing on the African coast and conducting raids on African villages, kidnapping persons and taking them back on board their ships. This image was powerfully reinforced by the popular television series entitled Roots by Alex Hailey.

There were indeed some European raids on African villages to create slaves, especially during the first several decades of the transatlantic slave trade, but very few slaves indeed were captured this way. This is not to suggest that Europeans were not responsible for slavery. The Planters demand for slaves is what drove the Atlantic slave trade. The stories slaves and later free African Americans told about the enslavement of their ancestors expressed a harsh judgement of both Europeans and those Africans who enslaved other Africans.

Slave WomanEuropeans probably would have enslaved Africans themselves in large numbers had they been able to. The fact is that Europeans were unable to colonise Africa until the late nineteenth century because, unlike in the Americas and in parts of Asia, they could not win military victories in Africa. Although they generally navigated their coasts in canoes of varying sizes, Africans were skilful in protecting their coastlines. Europeans could not simply march in and do what they wanted. African chiefs and wealthy persons, who were the most implicated in making slaves of other Africans, prevented Europeans (with armies) from simply marching into the African interior and doing what they wanted. African rulers effectively ruled their own territories and allowed Europeans in only as traders, diplomats, and guests, like they do today.

Because Africans maintained political control over themselves throughout the entire period of the slave trade (ca. 1450 to 1850) they themselves conducted the business of enslavement, selling the slaves to Europeans at the coastline where they were loaded on to European ships.

This has led to a wide misinterpretation of African slavery, which is by no means comparable to the Atlantic Slave Trade.

Slave ChildAfricans were captured as slaves by other Africans in the following ways: prisoners of war, slave raids, condemned criminals, condemned debtors, persons accused of witchcraft, kidnapped. In any one region and time slaves were created by a mixture of these methods, but one or two tended to predominate at any time and place. In the Senegambia, Guinea Coast, and Slave Coasts of West Africa, war tended to predominate as the most important source of slaves. In places like Angola? enslavement by kidnapping and condemnation for debts was quite important. Slaves were almost always captured in situations of conflict. Sometimes, if a family? learned of the capture of one of its members, it could bargain with the person who had enslaved him or her to redeem (purchase) the slave back Sometimes families traded a slave they themselves owned for a member of their family. This practice, which occurred in many places in Africa, was symbolic of the great tragedy of the slave trade. In order to save members of their own families, many persons engaged in capturing others.

In the first years of the slave trade slaves tended to come from the coastal areas of Africa. Over time, however, the source of slaves moved further into the African interior. Historians have often referred to this moving source of slaves as the “slaving frontier.” Slaves captured hundreds of miles in the interior of Africa were forced to walk all the way to the coast and many died and suffered severe deprivations on these “marches of death.” Americans tend to think of the mortality on board ship in the “middle passage,” but the mortality of slaves walking to the coast was probably as high as mortality in the oceanic passage.

In the middle of a blank page at the beginning of her celebrated work Beloved, A Novel, Toni Morrison writes:

Sixty Million and more.”

A dedication to numbers in the preface of a superb novel exploring the inner anguish of slavery raises important and appropriate issues about the study of the slave trade: how shall we remember and learn about it? Can numbers appropriately express the magnitude of the collective and individual experiences in slavery? How correct is Morrison’s number of 60 million? To whom exactly does it refer?

In short, Morrison’s 60 million is a reasonable figure for the number of people whose lives were directly transformed by the slave trade (as people enslaved, killed, displaced, or allowed to die) It is far greater than the number of Africans who were actually landed alive in the West Indies,America?and Europe or removed from the African continent as slaves during the nearly 400 years of the Atlantic slave trade.

Today, nearly everyone agrees that slavery is immoral and contrary to human rights. This was not generally true in the Atlantic world until the late nineteenth century. First of all, we must distinguish between the opinions of enslaved persons and the opinions of those who remained free. Evidence from both the Africa’s and the Americas demonstrates that slaves seldom if ever considered their enslavement to be legitimate and moral.

Everywhere slaves sought to increase their autonomy and to be treated with respect and dignity, like free persons. No one wanted to be treated like a slave. In the Americas this is particularly clear, for when slaves did not resist their condition directly and openly (because of repression), they sought autonomy and freedom in less dramatic ways. They told stories that encoded a distinct moral condemnation of slavery. Africans did the same. In Africa, slaves and persons who were at risk of enslavement often talked about slavery as eating, likening the wealth derived by African and European slavers to ill gotten gain. Persons who became rich in the business of enslavement, it was thought, derived their wealth from practising witchcraft.

Africans commonly claimed that Europeans transported Africans across the ocean in order to eat them on the other side or to use their blood to paint their ships red. In large areas of West Africa, cowry shells were the forms of money that slaves were bought and sold with. According to widely spread stories in that part of the African continent, the wealthy obtained their cowries by throwing slaves into the water where cowry shells grew on them. Once the shells covered the bodies of the dead, it was said, they were removed and the body discarded. Stories like these suggest that persons enslaved saw their bondage as immoral and illegitimate.

When we talk about slavery and morality, we must distinguish between how free persons and enslaved persons considered slavery. While slaves tended to reject the legitimacy of their bondage, free persons were generally less categorical in their condemnation of servitude. In fact, virtually all societies in the Americas and the Africa’s during the period of the slave trade held slaves. This does not mean, however, that free persons considered it legitimate for anyone to be captured as a slave. In the Americas and in Europe, for example, custom and the law prevented whites from being enslaved. In the Africa’s, there were usually certain rules that governed who could be captured as a slave and in what circumstances. Of course, these rules were often broken when free persons enslaved others.

Part of the reason slavery came to an end was the mounting sense that enslavement was immoral. But the more likely explanation for the death of slavery was an economic one.

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