Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Middle Passage

Imagine if you can, being captured, put on a force march, beaten, put into pins while shackled, and then placed in a tomb like environment with people you cannot, in many cases, communicate with for months. These were the conditions leading to that horrible journey into the unknown for millions of African’s forcibly interned into the belly of the beast with a destination unknown. His-story speaks to this wretched practice as part of the Atlantic slave trade. However, this was more commonly known as the "Middle Passage", which refers to that middle leg of the transatlantic trade triangle in which millions of Africans were imprisoned, enslaved, and removed forcibly from their homelands never to return.

The transatlantic trade triangle worked this way. Ships departed Europe for African markets with commercial goods, which were in turn traded for kidnapped Africans who were transported across the Atlantic as slaves. The enslaved Africans were then sold or traded as commodities for raw materials, which would be transported back to Europe to complete the "triangular trade". A single voyage on the Middle Passage was a large financial undertaking that was generally organized by companies or groups of investors rather than individuals.

African kings, warlords and private kidnappers sold captives to Europeans who operated from several coastal forts. The captives were usually force-marched to these ports along the western coast of Africa, where they were held for sale to the European or American slave traders. Typical slave ships contained several hundred slaves with about thirty crew members. The male captives were chained together in pairs to save space with their right leg chained to the next man's left leg, while the women and children may have had somewhat more room. The captives were fed beans, corn, yams, rice, and palm oil. Slaves were fed one meal a day with water, but if food was scarce, slaveholders would get priority over the slaves.

The duration of the transatlantic voyage varied widely, from one to six months depending on weather conditions. Although, the journey became more efficient over time as the average transatlantic journey of the early 16th century lasted several months, by the 19th century the crossing often required fewer than six weeks. West Central Africa and Southeastern Africa was the most common region for traders to secure the human cargo that was destined for the Caribbean and the Americas.

An estimated 15% of the Africans died at sea, with mortality rates considerably higher in Africa itself in the process of capturing and transporting indigenous peoples to the ships. The total number of African deaths directly attributable to the Middle Passage is estimated well into the millions. A broader look at African deaths directly attributable to the institution of slavery from 1500 to 1900 suggests up to four million perished but some say the number was close to one third of the Africans captured, and it is believed that nearly 60 million were captured.

For two hundred years Portugal had a quasi-monopoly on the export of slaves from Africa. During the eighteenth century however, when the slave trade accounted for the transport of about 6 million Africans; Britain was responsible for almost 2.5 million of them. In addition to markedly influencing the cultural and demographic landscapes of both Africa and the Americas, the Middle Passage has also been said to mark the origin of a distinct African social identity. These people, in American anyway, came to be known as “Negro”, which is a Spanish word that means “Black” but no Spanish country refers to its people of color that way.

Most contemporary historians estimate that between 9 and 12 million Africans arrived in the New World while others remain firm that it was more like one third of the continents population. Disease and starvation due to the length of the passage were the main contributors to the death toll with dysentery and scurvy causing most of the deaths. Then there were the outbreaks of smallpox, syphilis, measles, and other diseases spread rapidly in the close-quarter compartments. The number of dead increased with the length of the voyage, since the incidence of dysentery and scurvy increased with longer stints at sea as the quality and amount of food and water diminished with every passing day. In addition to physical sickness, many slaves became too depressed to eat or function efficiently because of the loss of freedom, family, security, and their own humanity.

There was a particular incident known as the Zong Massacre that shows us the lengths captains on the passage would go to. The Zong was a British slaver that had taken too many slaves on its voyage. The overcrowding combined with malnutrition and disease from poor sanitation on the slave decks and living in such close quarters killed several crew members and around 60 slaves. Bad weather made the Zong's voyage slow, so the captain decided to drown his slaves at sea, so the owners could collect insurance on the “cargo”. More than 100 slaves were killed and a large number chose to kill themselves. A percentage of all loss of African life en-route to America included suicide as well as murder and disease. The Zong incident became fuel for the abolitionist movement and a major court case, as the insurance company refused to compensate for the loss of the “cargo".

While treatment of slaves on the passage varied, the treatment of the human cargo was never good since the captured African men and women were considered less than human. Yes, they were "cargo" or "goods" and treated as such as they were transported for marketing.

Slaves were ill treated in almost every imaginable manner. While they were generally fed enough to stay alive and supplied with water simply because healthy slaves were more valuable but if resources ran low on the long unpredictable voyages the crew received preferential treatment. Slave punishment was very common and harsh because the crew had to turn independent people into obedient slaves. Whipping and use of the cat o’ nine tails were common occurrences or just simply beaten for “melancholy.”

The worst punishments were for rebelling to which the captains were often horrifically creative. In one instance, a captain punished a failed rebellion by killing one of slaves involved, immediately, and forced two other slaves to eat his heart and liver. Slaves resisted their oppressors in a variety of ways. The two most common types of resistance were refusing to eat and suicide. Suicide was a frequent occurrence, often by refusal of food or medicine, or throwing oneself overboard, as well as a variety of other means. Over time certain African people, such as the Kru came to be understood as holding substandard value as slaves because they developed a reputation for being too proud for slavery and for attempting suicide immediately upon losing their freedom.

Both suicide and self-starvation were prevented as much as possible by slaver crews and in some cases slaves were often force-fed or tortured until they ate, yet some still managed to starve themselves to death. It was also a standard practice that slaves were kept away from anything that could help them commit suicide and the sides of the deck were most often netted to prevent the slaves from jumping overboard. It was also common when an uprising failed, the mutineers would jump en masse into the sea. It is important to note that slaves generally believed if they jumped overboard, they would be returned to their family and friends in their village or join their ancestors in the afterlife.

One account of a slave recorded in a ships log said, “When we found ourselves at last taken away, death was more preferable than life, and a plan was concerted amongst us, that we might burn and blow up the ship, and to perish all together in the flames.” Their size ran anywhere from a handful of slaves to a large portion of the "cargo." Often the uprisings would end with the death of a few slaves and crew, and the remainder were punished or executed at the whim of the captain, to be made examples to the rest of the slaves on board.

Suicide by jumping overboard was such a problem that captains had to address it directly in many cases. They used the sharks that followed the ships as a terror weapon. One captain, who had a rash of suicides on his ship took a woman and lowered her into the water on a rope, and tried to pull her out as fast as possible. But when she came in view, the sharks had already killed her by eating the lower half of her body. Slaves also resisted through certain manifestations of their religions and mythology. They would appeal to their gods for protection asking for vengeance upon their captors and they would also try to curse or otherwise harm the crew using idols and fetishes. One crew found fetishes in their water supply placed by slaves who thought it would kill all who drank from it.

It was not just the slaves who suffered. The sailors themselves experienced terrible conditions and often were employed only through coercion. For example, at port towns recruiters and tavern owners would get sailors very drunk and indebted. They were oftentimes given an offer to relieve their debt if they signed contracts with slave ships. If they did not, they would be imprisoned. Sailors in prison had a hard time getting jobs outside of the slave ship industry, since most other maritime industries would not hire “jail-birds,” so they were forced to go to the slave ships anyway. As a result, there was usually a portion of the crew who hated the slave trade.

While at sea, the sailors faced conditions nearly as harsh as the slaves and their mortality rates were roughly the same. Sailors were also whipped and beaten as punishment, and in an extreme case, a sailor was slowly starved to death chained to a ship's mast because the captain thought he had aided a slave rebellion. The sharks that followed the ships were used, if only passively, to discourage sailors from abandoning the ship. Rarely were crew members relieved of their duty, they usually died in service. Then these beasts of repulsion rode the tides onto the shores of a place like “Merica” where the brutality and horror would continue to worsen for successive lifetimes.

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