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October 22, 2014 / bswitaba

From Africa to America; Retracing Slavery


Throughout history, the human kind has practiced slavery – owning fellow human beings as purchased property or for sale.
According to documented records, African slaves first arrived in the New World in 1501 as the result of Spanish settlement in Santo Domingo (current capital of Dominican Republic).

Twenty one years later, the first large-scale revolt of African slaves would occur on the plantation of Christopher Columbus’ son, Diego, on the island of Hispaniola.
In 1619, a Dutch ship arrived at Jamestown, Virginia, carrying enslaved people from Africa. The slaves, twenty in number were traded for rations and food.
This would be a precursor of the infamous “middle passage” where millions of Africans were kidnapped and sold in the so called “New World”. Typically, a voyage begun in Europe, landing on Africa’s “Slave Coast” to obtain captives, set out to the Americas, and then returned to Europe port of origin.

The Slave Coast

Slave Coast, a name used in the 18th and 19th centuries for the section of the Gulf of Guinea coast of West Africa between the mouth of the Niger River to the east and the mouth of the Volta River to the west. This stretch of coast extends along present day Nigeria, Benin, Togo, and eastern Ghana. The Slave Coast was the centre of Dutch and British trade in slaves, captured in the interior by African chieftains and driven by their people to the slave markets on the coast, until the abolition of slavery in Europe in the early 19th century. The “gates of no return” for the slaves would begin at this very coast.

The Middle Passage

The middle passage voyage on a ship board from Africa to America took about 25 to 30 days depending on speed and direction of wind.
Male slaves were shackled while children and women were free.
Hygiene on the shipboard where slaves were kept was as primitive. With sanitary facilities inadequate, slave ships harboured a wealth of diseases with dysentery topping the killer list.
On average, 16% of slaves perished on transit and their bodies tossed into the ocean to be devoured by sharks.
With arrival in the Americas, the dangers were not over yet. These slaves were entering new disease zones. They had to adapt to eating new foods, drinking different water and above all having to learn a new language.

Slave conditions in the Southern States

Booker T. Washington notes “unlike all the other inhabitants of America, he (the Negro) came here (America) without his own consent; in fact, was compelled to leave his own country and become a part of another through physical force”.
After being brought to America, the Negroes were forced to labour for about 250 years under circumstances which were calculated not to inspire them with love and respect for labour.
The negroes were owned by white people in all sections of America, as is well known,—in the New England, the Middle, and in the Southern States.

It was soon found, however, that slave labour was not remunerative in the Northern States, and for that reason by far the greater proportion of the slaves were held in the Southern States, where their labour in raising cotton, rice, and sugar-cane was more productive. The growth of the slave population in America was constant and rapid. From just twenty slaves in 1619, the number increased at such a rate that the total number of Negroes in America in 1800 was 1,001,463. This figure increased by 1860 to 3,950,000!
To start with, tyranny and abuse by the white masters and their overseers was a rule rather than an exception. They seemed to take pleasure in torturing the slaves at every given opportunity through cruel scourging, mutilations and brandings. The slaves were reduced to the condition of a thing, receiving severe flagellation, or even deprived off necessary food and clothing! In some instances, slaves were mercilessly shot by their masters and or overseers on flimsy grounds of disobedience. In such cases, no slaveholder or overseer could be convicted of any outrage perpetrated on the person of a slave, however diabolical it may have been, on the testimony of colored witnesses, whether bond or free. By the “slave code”, they were adjudged to be as incompetent to testify against a white man, as though they were indeed a part of the brute creation. Hence, there was no legal protection for the slave. These unfortunate of races had to deal with any amount of cruelty inflicted on them with impunity by the white master.

In reference to the Dred Scott Case, slaves were “considered as a subordinate and inferior class of beings who had been subjugated by the dominant race, and thus had no rights or privileges but such as those who held the power and Government might choose to grant them”.
On the slave plantations, slaves adopted the name of their master for their surname.
Slaves were housed in a small log cabin (usually holding 7-10 slaves) both male, female and the children. The slaves slept on a bare earthen floor with nothing to cover themselves with. The lucky ones were privileged to own a makeshift mattress stuffed with feathers and dry grass.
The cooking fireplace was the source of light and heat and the embers would be left burning throughout the night to provide heat especially during freezing winters.

At 5 in the morning, blaring bells and horns were used to wake up slaves to their respective duties and anyone who was slow in adhering to time would sure face dire consequences.
Typically, slaves worked six days a week from sun up (sun rise) to sun down (sunset).
They would have breakfast at 7 a.m, lunch at noon then toil the rest of the day in the field, save for those that had domestic related chores. Slaves were not permitted to use molasses (sugar), or have ginger biscuits as these were a preserve of the whites.
For the field workers, during cotton harvesting, one was required to harvest about 300 pounds a day and then tot it about a mile to the masters store room.

Slaves were allowed to marry and a ceremony of “jumping the broom” would be conducted under the stewardship of the white master. The master however had exclusive rights to annul the marriage when it suited him.
The slavery system was so cruel that it never valued the slave family. For instance, families were often split apart as their members were sold away to separate plantations.
On the other hand, expectant mothers would toil a whole nine month and be treated like everyone else with no rest, lashing with equal measure.
After delivery, a slave mother was only allowed 3 days of rest after which the infant would be taken away from her and given to a wet nurse (usually an old grandmother) who had “outlived” her “usefulness” to the master. This wet nurse would be responsible for breastfeeding and baby care of the infant. Parents were thus not able to give any attention to their children during the day.
On many occasions, women slaves could be subjected to persistent rape by their owners, a factor that resulted to the rise of many “fatherless” mulatto children.

Negro kids were often fed in boxes and troughs; they were fed cornmeal mush and beans. When this was poured into their box, they would gather around it the same as we see pigs, horses and cattle gather around troughs today!
Many enslaved kids began their labors in the master’s house at an early age where they served as playmates for white children. Despite this closeness, black and white children could not attend school together. In fact, it was an unpardonable offence to teach slaves how to read. The closest some slaves came to a spelling book was when they were dusting it in the master’s main house. More so, by far the larger part of the slaves knew as little of their ages as horses knew of theirs, and it was the wish of most masters to keep their slaves thus ignorant.

As the slaves were notoriously superstitious, a slave child was not shaved until they attained the age of twelve. It was assumed the hair helped to wade off evil spirits. A slave’s kid always inherited the condition of the mother as by law. This is to say if the mother was a slave; the child would automatically be a slave even if the father was a free man.

Slaves day off begun on Saturday night. Those who wanted to visit their relatives and or friends on other plantations would have to get a written pass from the master or his overseer. Lack of it (pass) would raise alarm from the night patrollers (groups of youthful white gangs) who had as equal right to punish slaves when it deemed.

As Sunday was a rest day, slaves would join their master in his place of worship as slaves weren’t granted the right of assembly on their own unless under supervision of a white person. The religion of the master was the religion of the slave. In the church, slaves could only stand at the back rows of the church as the pews were reserved for whites only. After church service, slaves were free to spend their day as they wished. Most would engage in wrestling matches, others would go hunting for coons, opossum, hares and fishing. For those, whose master was kind enough, this would be an ideal opportunity to relax while sipping some rum and whiskey as they sung to entertain themselves.

Sunday was also the day when the week’s food rations were distributed to each slave; depending on the number of family s/he had. The rations usually consisted of but not limited to corn flour (maize flour), salted and smoked pork, corn (maize), beans, and dried fish.
On some occasions, slaves from different plantation would compose songs in praise of their master to tease other slaves of how good their own master was over theirs. These songs would mention the wealth, the good food and the kindness the master had on his slaves. In most instances, it led to physical confrontations amongst the slaves from the different plantations.

When slaves fell ill, they would hardly get any medication from their master. Yet still, there would be required to keep working. Most slaves had conventional knowledge of African herbal medicine. They would usually pluck some wild leaves, roots and fruits, chew them and get better! Some had charms that they carried around and believed would get them healed or prevent them from falling ill and or evil spirits.

Christmas was the important season to the slaves as this meant a 7 day holiday lasting until new year – the longest time they would get to rest ever. It was during this season that the masters would buy their slaves new clothes to replace the one torn pair they had worn the whole year. Male slaves would get a shirt and pair of trousers, shoes (for winter) and a hat as was the custom. Female slaves acquired gowns, a hat and shoes and other garments.

Slave children were never really given much consideration and would be lucky to have a shirt on their back. They would most of the time walk around half naked.

Christmas season was also the time when the master decided to sell and or loan some of his slaves in the new year. Slaves that had proved to be hardworking, loyal or of good character would generally be retained, while those who had proved otherwise were either loaned or sold off to a further plantation to avoid influencing others with their “unpleasant” character.
It was not uncommon to see slaves kneeling and begging the master not to sell them and or their kids.

Slave Revolts and Lynching

In 1739, slave a revolt took place in Stono, South Carolina, on September 9. The revolt was led by an Angolan slave named Cato who used his knowledge of drums to speak to other Africans and assembled an army of 100. When he thought he had achieved victory and stopped to celebrate, he was caught by surprise, captured and killed, along with 14 other slaves and seven whites who were abetting their cause.

In the 1800s, slave states would experience a series of notorious slave revolts, perhaps inspired by the Haiti slave revolt of 1791 that resulted in emancipation of slaves on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola.
Some notable slave revolt leaders included Gabriel Prosser in Virginia (1800) and Denmark Vesey in South Carolina (1822). The bloody Nat Turner Rebellion (1831) prompted increased repression of slave activities, although small-scale resistance, such as running away, tool breaking, and sporadic violence, continued to interfere with plantation operations.
These revolutionary slave leaders and their accomplices were publicly lynched to instill fear among other slaves. Usually, a lynching especially that of a slave was a popular public spectacle, almost as exciting as a horse race (to the white race).

Although not a revolt leader, Kunta Kinte, a Gambian born African had had three failed attempts trying to escape. After being recaptured during his fourth escape attempt, the slave catchers gave him a choice: he would be castrated or have his right foot chopped off. Being a true son of Africa, a brave Kinte chose to have his foot chopped instead (Kinte’s family can be found in the present day Gambia).

Later in 1839, African captives led by Joseph Cinquez took over a ship named Amistad and killed several members of its crew. The revolt occurred off the coast of Cuba while the Africans were being taken to a plantation to serve as slaves. The ship was captured by the US Warship. After a trial in Connecticut, the US Supreme Court determined that the Africans had been illegally kidnapped and enslaved, and were allowed to return to West Africa (Liberia).



Joseph Cinque the leader of the revolt aboard La Amistad

In 1840, there was a slave revolt on the slave trader Creole, which was en route from Hampton,Virginia, to New Orleans, Louisiana, on November 7. Slaves overpowered the crew and sailed the vessel to the Bahamas, where they were granted asylum and freedom.

The Fugitive Laws

In 1793 and 1850, Fugitive Slave Laws, acts were passed by the United States Congress. The laws were intended to facilitate the recapture and extradition of runaway slaves and to commit the federal government to the legitimacy of holding property in slaves.
Professional slave catchers and vigilant officials often seized refugees to gain rewards.

If a slave was caught trying to escape, the punishment could be very severe. Often runaways would be sold “south.” That means that they were sold to someone who lived much further south than Maryland, where it would be harder to run away because the distance to the North was so much greater.
Other times, runaways would be beaten and forced to do exceptionally hard work. Sometimes they were sold to a different owner who lived nearby. Or they were simply taken back to their master and returned to work. Often, slaves who failed to escape the first time tried again and succeeded.

Owing to northern resentments, the acts of 1793 and 1850 faced legal challenges, primarily in the form of jurisdictional disputes over state personal liberty laws.

Abolitionists and the underground rail road

The underground rail road played a vital history in the lives of escaping slaves. This was not an actual railroad as such, but in fact an informal system of routes that stretched from Southern into Northern states and Canada that provided a means for slaves to escape bondage. Scores of individuals, both white and black, well known and anonymous, made this a success, and the area of southeastern Pennsylvania formed a major leg of the system.

Begun in the 1780s under Quaker auspices, the activity acquired legendary fame after the 1830s. Because of their proximity to the North, the border states of the South supplied a high proportion of the fugitives. Travelling by night to avoid detection, slave escapees used the North Star for guidance. Usually they sought isolated “stations” (farms) or “vigilance committee” agents in towns, where sympathetic free blacks could effectively conceal them. When possible, “conductors” met them at such border points as Cincinnati in Ohio, and Wilmington in Delaware. The lake ports of Detroit in Michigan, Sandusky in Ohio, Erie in Pennsylvania, and Buffalo in New York, were terminals for quick escape to Canada. Harriet Tubman, called the Moses of the blacks, and Levi Coffin, a Cincinnati Quaker, were among the famous rescuers.

Repatriation to Africa

In December 1816, a group of distinguished Americans met in Washington, DC, to establish an organization to promote the cause of black resettlement.

The American Colonization Society (ACS) would win backing to undertake the task of resettling freed slaves in Africa. However, there were fears that if blacks were simply returned to the coast of Africa and released, they would probably be re-enslaved, and possibly some returned to the United States. Accordingly, and in cooperation with the Society, President James Monroe sent agents to acquire territory on Africa’s West coast – a step that led to the founding of a colony of Americo-Liberians. The colony would later become the republic of Liberia in 1847, with its capital city named Monrovia in honor of president Monroe. Americo-Liberians, would dominate the political arena through the True Whig Party, the oldest political party in Liberia.
The party dominated Liberian politics from 1878 until 1980. The irony is Americo-Liberians weren’t willing to integrate with the indigenous Liberians. The Whig party also endorsed systems of slavery. In 1930, Americo-Liberians sold the indigenous as human labour to the Spanish colonialists in Equatorial Guinea, a fact that led to a five-year U.S and British boycott of Liberia.

The civil war and Freedom

In the presidential election of 1860, a split in Democratic party ranks resulted in the nomination by the Southern wing of John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky and the nomination by the Northern wing of Stephen Douglas. The newly formed Constitutional Union party, reflecting the compromise sentiment still strong in the border states, nominated John Bell of Tennessee. The Republicans nominated Abraham Lincoln on a platform that opposed the further expansion of slavery and endorsed a protective tariff, federal subsidies for internal improvements, and a homestead act. The Democratic split virtually assured Lincoln’s election, and this in turn convinced the South to make a bid for independence rather than face political encirclement.
By March 1861, when Lincoln was inaugurated, seven states—South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas—had adopted ordinances of secession, and the Confederate States of America, with Jefferson Davis as president, had been formed.

When civil war broke out in the same year, Americans were sharply divided over whether slavery should be abolished or preserved.
President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863—but the freedom that Lincoln promised did not become a reality until the Union’s 1865 victory in the Civil War.


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