African Slave Ships Research Article from The Way People Live

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Growth of the New World depended on African slave labor. Slaves tilled the land in North America and the West Indies and mined precious ores in South America, bringing wealth to the European settlers. Transporting these slaves across the Atlantic became a key concern. Between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, the most efficient way to carry people and goods from Africa to the Americas was by boat. During this threehundred- year period, millions of Africans crossed the Atlantic in ships originally intended to carry cargo.

Most historians agree that, for the Africans, life aboard these ships was brutal and inhumane. "In the dank, crowded hold, which was about five feet high, the captives were confined in a prone position, occupying no more space than a coffin," recounts historian John Henrik Clarke.

Many people died during the voyage, the victims of terrible mistreatment. They were whipped, force fed, stowed in crowded slave decks, and frightened into submission. Thomas Trotter, the surgeon aboard the Brookes, reported that the slaves were so crammed that they had no room to turn their bodies from one side to the other. One sailor aboard a slaver attested, "I have heard [the slaves] frequently complaining of heat [in the hold], and have seen them fainting, almost dying from want of water." James Morley told the House of Commons that he witnessed sailors forcing bread down the throats of sick and vomiting slaves. "[Then the sailors would] throw medicine over them so that not half went into their mouths—the poor fellows wallowing in their [own] blood... and this with blows [from] the cat [a whip called the cat-o'-nine tails]."

Slavers often mistreated and brutalized slaves to intimidate them and thereby suppress rebellion. Captain Thomas Phillips of the Hannibal, which sailed in 1694, remarked, "I have been informed that some commanders have cut off the legs or arms of the most wilful [slaves], to terrify the rest [and] I was advised by some of my officers to do the same."

Everyday life aboard a slave ship became an unending series of terrible hardships. "To endure the [crossing] required great physical strength, mental toughness, and spiritual resolve," 5 writes historian Clarke. Torn from their native Africa, slaves were forced to live for weeks or months jammed into an airless, disease-ridden, stinking space below deck. Yet Africans braved this ordeal, often spending endless days at sea "shackled," as Clarke describes, "two by two, the right wrist and ankle of one to the left wrist and ankle of another." 6 Once ashore, the captives faced new horrors as they were thrust into the slave markets of the New World.

In addition to the plight of the slave, life aboard an African slave ship revolved around the complex working of a two hundred-ton, three-masted brig, the vessel slavers often used. Operating a trading vessel required skills that at the time were considered extremely technologically advanced. During a transatlantic voyage, knowing how to navigate and sail became a matter of survival, around which life aboard all trading ships revolved.

The relationship between slaves and crew was another central part of life at sea. Abused by senior officers and abusive to captives, says Clarke, crew members were "lucky to survive one voyage, and rarely made a second." Seamen aboard slavers also died from the tropical diseases that bred along the African coast and suffered from epidemics that afflicted everyone crowded on the filthy slave ship.

Slave ship captains were often known to mercilessly starve and flog their crew members. The memoirs of the surgeon Alexander Falconbridge record the misdeeds of Captain M'Taggart, but they typify the daily cruelties inflicted by countless other nameless captains. One man, reports Falconbridge, was flogged every day—for no apparent reason— until he jumped overboard into sharkinfested waters. The cook aboard the same ship received so severe a beating that he had wounds from his neck to the small of his back. The sadistic captain then dabbed the cook's open cuts with saltwater and cayenne pepper to make the unfortunate seaman writhe in pain. Historians Daniel P. Mannix and Malcom Crowley paint a vivid picture of these men: "They could be seen in Liverpool taverns or haunting the wharves of Charleston ... men with yellow eyeballs, cheeks sunken with fever, and backs, scarred by the cat; men left behind by their ships and begging for food; men crippled by scurvy."

Brutally mistreated, the crew mistreated the captives as well. The nature of their work, enslaving human beings, required that they harden themselves against any feelings of decency they might have toward their fellow man. As Clarke remarks, "The conditions of [the crew members'] employment forced them to deny the humanity of the Africans; and all too often they began to question the value of their own humanity."

Against these unimaginable odds, treated as less than human, Africans managed to endure the journey. As Clarke observes, "Despite the miserable conditions, inadequate space and food, deadly diseases, and the violence from crew members, millions of African captives survived." 10 Their ability to withstand the harshness of their captors is a testament to their spirit, dignity, and stamina. Clarke describes this quality as an "implacable will" 11 to overcome the hardships aboard the slave ship and to adapt to their life in the New World.

This section contains 886 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
African Slave Ships from Lucent. ©2002-2006 by Lucent Books, an imprint of The Gale Group. All rights reserved.
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