African Slave Ships Research Article from The Way People Live

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In 1746 Olaudah Equiano was eleven years old and lived in the Nigerian village of Isseke as part of the Ibo tribe. He was the youngest son in a well-to-do family and was his mother's favorite. "I was trained up from my earliest years in the art of war," Equiano later wrote in his memoir. "My daily exercise was shooting and throwing javelins, and my mother adorned me with emblems, after the manner of our greatest warriors."

As in most villages in the area, fear of slavers threatened everyone's sense of security. While parents were out working in the fields, slavers used the unguarded moments to seize children and carry them off. Olaudah Equiano was one of those children. As he recalls,

One day when all our people were gone out to their works as usual, and only I and my dear sister were left to mind the house, two men and a woman got over our walls, and in a moment seized us both, and, without giving us time to cry out, or make resistance, they stopped our mouths, and ran off with us into the nearest woods.

Equianos' was sold more than once, and he traveled from master to master until he found himself on the coast, probably in a port city on the Gulf of Benin. It was the first time he had seen the ocean:

The first object which saluted my eyes when I arrived on the coast, was the sea, and a slave ship, which was then riding at anchor, and waiting for its cargo. These filled me with astonishment, which was soon converted into terror, when I was carried on board. I was immediately handled, and tossed up to see if I were sound, by some of the crew; and I was now persuaded that I had gotten into a world of bad spirits, and that they were going to kill me. Their complexions, too, differing so much from ours, their long hair, and the language they spoke (which was very different from any I had ever heard), united to confirm me in this belief.

Equiano was not alone. According to historian Robert J. Allison, Equiano was one of fifty thousand Africans taken to the New World that year. By the 1750s slave trading was a highly organized system. African kings, queens, warriors, and farmers from Gambia to Cabinda joined Equiano in his captivity. Over the next hundred years more than 6 million captives suffered the miserable march to the seacoast, where slavers boarded them onto slave ships bound for the New World.

How It Began

The transatlantic slave trade began with a few Portuguese ships in the 1400s, but the practice of slavery had existed for thousands of years. In ancient Egypt, for example, slaves built pyramids for the pharaohs, and in ancient Rome, slaves paved roads. Slavery had long existed in Africa as well, although most slaves there were either prisoners of war or criminals whose punishment included the loss of their freedom. By the time the first Portuguese ships arrived on the African coast in the mid-fifteenth century, the slave market within Africa was well developed. Remarked slave trader Theodore Canot years later, "The financial genius of Africa, instead of devising ban-notes or precious metals as a circulating medium, has from time immemorial declared that a human creature... is the most valuable article on earth."

Those Portuguese sailors did not actually travel to Africa in search of slaves. Rather, they hoped to find ivory, spices, and gold. However, in 1441, on his return from a trading expedition in Africa, the Portuguese sailor Atam Goncalvez brought back eight African captives. The captives were presented as a gift to Prince Henry the Navigator, the royal sponsor of Goncalvez's trip.

Unlike their successors, these captives were not mistreated or used for backbreaking physical labor. Rather, they were viewed as oddities and were absorbed into court society. A few years later, in 1481, the slave trade had grown to such a degree that the Portuguese built Elmina, their first slave fort, or barracoon. At Elmina, the Portuguese imprisioned captive Africans before traders loaded them on slave ships.

By the mid-1500s, two hundred years before Olaudah Equiano was kidnapped and forced into slavery, the Portuguese and Spanish began shipping Africans to Europe and to colonies in the Americas. This time, their purpose was to use the captive Africans as slaves.

The colonies were the heart of the slave trade because, as historian John Hope Franklin observes, "there was never any profitable future for African slavery in Europe." The way Europe was developing at that time did not require a vast influx of human labor, and poor Europeans vied for any employment opportunities available. As Europeans searched for new trade routes, new lands, and new commodities to trade, the slave trade grew. "It was the New World," explains Franklin, "with its vast natural resources and its undeveloped regions that could make slavery and the slave trade profitable" 16 for the Europeans.

Expanding to the New World

The drive among Europeans to explore other parts of the world, and their eventual discovery of the New World, began with a reorganization of power. During the Middle Ages, the church held a great deal of power. By the end of the fifteenth century, however, power shifted to the hands of monarchs, and European governments began to form strong nation-states.

These kings and queens were interested in expanding their territories, and they used war and trade to do so. The cost of administering monarchies, establishing governmentsponsored commercial trade, and waging war on rival nations often increased government debt. "Diminishing surpluses drove the Europeans to seek resources abroad," says anthropologist Eric R. Wolf, "especially as increased wealth was required to finance the emergent states."

This desire to increase wealth spurred Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain, for example, to sponsor Christopher Columbus's journey across the Atlantic Ocean in 1492. Instead of finding a direct route to India as he had hoped, Columbus sailed to the Caribbean Island known today as Hispaniola and set in motion the direction of Spanish, as well as European, expansion over the next two hundred years.

As historian James Pope-Hennessey contends,

While the year 1441 may be taken as marking the beginning of the slave trade, the most significant year in its history was 1492, when Christopher Columbus discovered the new World. For the next three and a half centuries and at ever-increasing momentum, the development of the new territories across the Atlantic demanded millions upon millions of African slaves.

When Europeans first settled in the New World, they did not intend to create a slavebased economy. Neither did they imagine building a social structure that included slaves as part of its foundation. According to historian Donald R. Wright, "When the first English colonists settled in Jamestown in 1607, they did not have in mind establishing an economy and society based on slavery." It developed slowly, he says, in part because "colonists with bountiful land were having difficulty finding an adequate, stable labor force to make their [farming] efforts... pay."

European colonists quickly discovered that certain areas of the New World were suitable for growing crops that they could sell easily in the European marketplace. For example, sugar and cocoa were products colonists could produce easily in tropical parts of the New World, such as the West Indies and Brazil. Europeans had always relished these two items, but until their cultivation in the New World, sugar and cocoa had been considered rare luxuries, available at a considerable cost to only a privileged few.

According to historian Hugh Thomas, "In 1750, already, 'the poorest English farm labourer's wife took sugar in her tea.'" Furthermore, in 1747 England's best-selling first cookbook included a cake recipe calling for "three quarters of a pound of the best moist sugar."

But, growing sugarcane and mining other resources required a substantial number of workers. In addition, these workers needed to be able to withstand hard labor and extreme heat over a long period. Equally important to European colonists was that the labor cost very little.

African slave labor quickly became the solution. By the beginning of the 1600s, Europeans were focusing on developing a structured slave trading system in Africa. Many Africans willingly took part in this system; African kings routinely met with traders and exchanged slaves for European goods. There were others, however, who protested vehemently against the practice.

In 1526, for instance, the African king Afonso I tried unsuccessfully to ban the slave trade from the Congo. Portuguese traders were destroying his kingdom, and he agonized that "every day people are enslaved and kidnapped, even nobles, even members of the king's own family."

A hundred years later, Queen Nzinga Nbande of Angola attempted to unite several African states against European slave trading. Her efforts failed, but she also organized raiding parties to free captives aboard African slave ships and was known to harbor runaway slaves. Despite these efforts, however, the slave trade continued.

The Triangle of Trade

The Atlantic slave trade was part of the larger transatlantic trading system. This exchange of goods and slaves across the Atlantic Ocean among three or four continents was known as the Triangle of Trade. The name originated from the triangular sea route that ships used to transport cargo from one side of the Atlantic to the other.

"Year after year in quiet calm officerooms," describes James Pope-Hennessey, "in a myriad European seaports, the thoughtful plans were laid out. The aim of these plans was to make money." Their success relied on slavers, who wedged hundreds of enslaved Africans into the holds of slave ships, sailed to the Americas, and sold the captives in New World slave markets.

A typical route began in a European or an American port, such as Liverpool in England, Lisbon in Portugal, or Bristol in Rhode Island. There, crew members loaded the ships with goods to trade in exchange for slaves. The vessels, often called slavers or Guineamen, then sailed to Africa. Pope-Hennessey describes two-masted brigs, sails blown full by the wind, heading "southward, down the steamy western coast of Africa, rounding Cape Verde, turning due east at Cape Palmas into the Gulf of Guinea. Here at selected points with names far more romantic than the sordid realities of the mud towns that bear them, a slave ship cast anchor."

Once in Africa, slavers bought Africans with the goods they brought. When Olaudah Equiano was sold to a European slaver, he might have been part of a group of a hundred captives, purchased for such items as cowrie shells, guns, cloth, hats, rum, glass beads, or gold.

Although those items were valuable in Africa, their abundance did not necessarily ensure speedy trade. On one voyage a captain might quickly find traders willing to swap goods for slaves. On another, however, he might have to wait weeks or months before filling his ship. According to Pope-Hennessey,

Sometimes the ships filled quickly, and the wooden shelves, which the carpenters erected in the holds now empty of European merchandise, would be crammed with [chained African captives] lying... "like books upon a shelf."... At other times the slave ship would lie off the glittering coast of Benin or Biafra for months ... "waiting to be slaved."

Records show that slave ships the size of large modern-day sailboats might have carried as many as six hundred captives in one voyage. Finally, jam-packed with valuable people, as one callous slaver trader called them, slave ships set sail across the Atlantic Ocean bound for the West Indies, Brazil, or the southern ports of North America.

During the crossing diseases such as smallpox and a violent form of dysentery, called the bloody flux, often decimated the captives. "In the worst ships," says Pope- Hennessey, "in which the slave-holds were not properly aired, nor the floors and shelves washed down with pailfuls of vinegar; in which the slaves were not properly fed and exercised; in which the crew were bestial and drunken," Africans died at an alarming rate.

After as little as three weeks or as long as three months, the ships reached their ports. Plantation owners in the Caribbean and throughout the southern United States then bought the Africans. In Brazil, wealthy Europeans who owned gold and silver mines purchased slaves to mine these precious ores. In other parts of South America, slaves worked on coffee and cacao plantations.

Once slave ships were emptied of their human cargo, they were reloaded with commodities such as sugar, cocoa, rice, gold, silver, copper, and rum and returned to their ports of origin. Crew members and dockworkers unloaded the items into warehouses, where they would be stored and sold at a healthy profit. And, remarks Pope- Hennessey, "the third side of the triangle was complete."


Clearly, the European demand for goods produced in the New World helped fuel the slave trade. However, it was the financial backing of financiers and investors that made the Atlantic slave trade possible.

An eighteenth-century slaving expedition required a substantial sum of money, roughly the equivalent of three hundred thousand dollars in today's market. To raise that money, businessmen pooled their funds and formed partnerships. Generally six or seven partners made up an investment group. Some business partners were extremely wealthy landowning members of society; others were part of government-sponsored slave trading companies such as the Dutch West Indies Company or England's Royal African Company.

Once investors agreed to finance a trip, the group needed to obtain a ship. If an investor were a shipbuilder or owned a ship, the matter was settled. Otherwise, a merchant ship was procured. In general, though, shipwrights merely converted cargo ships into slavers.

Taking advantage of the wealth that the New World offered motivated Europeans to uproot themselves and move to the Americas. Settlers soon realized that they needed cheap labor to grow the crops and mine the precious ores that sold for great sums of money in Europe. African slaves provided that labor force. Colonizing the Americas to increase Europe's riches fueled the growth of the African slave trade.

Why Africans

Choosing Africans as the source of slave labor in the New World was a decision Europeans came to over time. At first they tried to enslave the people native to the New World. The Indians of North and South America proved unable to withstand the brutality of slave life or the deadly diseases that Europeans brought with them. "They are not people suited to hard work," wrote Michele Cuneo in the fifteenth century, as quoted by historian Hugh Thomas in The Slave Trade. "They suffer from the cold, and they do not have a long life."

Next, the Europeans tried to use indentured servants from Europe. They, too, proved vulnerable to tropical diseases such as malaria. Also, whenever the poor found work in Europe, they were unwilling to leave their homes. In addition, they could run away and hide easily; their skin color allowed them to blend in with free white society.

Europeans turned to Africans as their next alternative. The slave trading system that had existed in Africa for centuries made it easy for Europeans to buy Africans. Once in America, the darker skin color of African slaves made it difficult for these captives to blend in with European society and escape. Finally, some historians assert that prejudiced, greedy Europeans thought that Africans were savage and less than human and viewed these enslaved Africans as domesticated animals.

The Royal African Company and Slaves in the New World

For more than one hundred years, the Royal African Company financed slave ships that brought Africans to the New World. Founded by a royal charter in 1672, the Royal African Company was governed by its largest shareholder, James, duke of York, brother to the king of England. According to Hugh Thomas in The Slave Trade, on the list of people who gave money to start the company, "there were four members of the royal family, two dukes, a marquis, five earls, four barons, and seven knights."

The participation of those investors directly connected the English government to the slave trade and this tie had a major impact on the development of the British colonies in the New World. Because the profits of the Royal African Company directly affected the ruling class, promoting the use of slaves in North America and the New World greatly benefited the English govenment.

In Black Cargoes, Daniel P. Mannix and Malcolm Cowley explain, "Since the Royal African Company was launched under protection of the Crown and contributed to the fortunes of the royal family, the government itself encouraged the colonies to buy slaves.... It was not until after the Royal African Company was chartered in 1672 that the North American slave trade began to flourish." Mannix and Cowley estimate that, in 1650, there were only three hundred slaves in Virginia. By 1700, however, England's southern colonies were importing slaves at at rate of a thousand a year, many directly from Africa.

This section contains 2,828 words
(approx. 10 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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