African Slave Ships Research Article from The Way People Live

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When signs of land appeared, crew and captives began to realize that the agony of the Middle Passage was at an end. Seeing the land rise over the horizon meant, in the words of Thomas Howard, that "the traumatic middle passage, of months aboard ship, crowded, jostled, thirsting and weakened by disease [were ending]. The slave's chains hung heavier with each passing day, and the thought of relief from the dreadful rolling sea was revived by the sight of the green... [islands. Passengers were] anxious to swap the ship for anything on land, no matter if [they] knew nothing of where [they were] or what [their] future held."

As the ship neared port, the crew excitedly furled the sails and lowered the anchor. For many slaves, like Olaudah Equiano, the relief and happiness of the whites on board bewildered them. "At last we came in sight of the island of Barbados, at which the whites on board gave a great shout, and made many signs of joy to us," remembered Equiano. "We did not know what to think of this; but as the vessel drew nearer, we plainly saw the harbour, and other ships of different kinds and sizes."

The arrival of a slaver generally caused a great stir and bustle. The captain or commanding officer ordered the gunner to fire a round on the ship's arrival. The gun fire attracted the attention of a harbor pilot, who helped the ship navigate its way into the port. The pilot also ferried a doctor out to the ship, who made sure the crew and captives were free of contagious diseases such as smallpox. Some accounts describe the vile smell of vomit, sweat, stale urine, and feces that came from the slave ship and wafted over the port when it arrived.

Registering the Goods and Inspecting the Cargo

Upon arrival, captains first had to register their merchandise. Government administrators, including the treasurer of the port, a court-appointed magistrate, a tax collector, and their guards and clerks, might assemble to evaluate the monetary value of the slaves. Either before the slaves disembarked or after they were brought to holding pens on land, the director and treasurer assembled the naked slaves and registered them on a sort of inventory list. Inspectors then carefully examined each slave by squeezing his or her limbs and body. Slaves showed their teeth, extended their arms, and flexed their muscles. Strong young male and female slaves commanded a high price, which officials marked on a piece of parchment and hung, like a price tag, around the slaves' necks. Then government officials divided the priced slaves into lots to decide how much import tax the captain and traders had to pay on the cargo.

Once the slaves had been registered and inspected, traders and seamen then herded them into holding pens, or slave houses, which were long wooden or brick one-story houses, where they were, as Olaudah Equiano described, "all pent up together, like so many sheep in a fold, without regard to sex or age."

Depending on the customs of the slave port, slaves who were sick or unhealthy were treated in various ways. In Charleston, South Carolina, a major slave port in the United States, officials insisted on examining all cargoes they suspected of carrying disease. According to Hugh Thomas, "Rather than land their cargoes directly in the city, slave traders unloaded their slaves on Sullivan's Island, off the coast of Charleston." In this case, both crew and slaves lived in pest houses—rough wooden shacks—for ten days waiting for clearance. If anyone turned out to be suffering from smallpox, he or she had to stay there, quarantined for at least a month. In Cartagena de Indias, a slave port in Brazil, sick slaves were quarantined in barracoons, similar to the prisons the captives lived in on the African coast before they were shipped to the Americas.

Refuse Slaves

Generally, the captain first tried to sell his refuse slaves, those who were weak or had been maimed or seriously harmed during the Middle Passage. To make the slaves more appealing, he attempted to hide the presence of physical weakness or diseases such as skin ailments or the bloody flux. For example, ship surgeons applied a mixture of iron rust and gun powder to hide the red sores of the slaves suffering from the skin disease, yaws.

Refuse slaves were taken ashore to a tavern and auctioned off "by inch of candle," meaning the auctioneer lit a candle and bidding for the refuse began. When one inch of the candle had burned, the bidding was closed and these slaves went to the highest bidders.

The price for a refuse slave was usually about half of what a healthy man or woman would bring. Sometimes it was as little as five or six dollars a head. "I was informed by a mulatto woman," Alexander Falconbridge said, "that she purchased a sick slave at Granada, upon speculation, for the small sum of one dollar, as the poor wretch was apparently dying of the flux."

In 1756 Henry Laurens wrote to Samuel and William Vernon, his partners in Newport, Rhode Island, about a sale that did not go well:

We had as many purchasers as we could have wished for... but... many of them became extremely angry that we should invite them down from eighty or ninety miles distance to look at a parcel of "refuse slaves".... We were willing to believe that Captain [Caleb] Godfrey obtained the best [slaves] he could but, really, they were a wretched cargo.... God knows what we shall do with those that remain, they are a most scabby flock. ... Several extreme[ly] sore eyes, three very puny children and, add to this, the worst infirmity of all others with which six or eight are attended... old age.

If they found no buyers at their first stop, ship captains traveled from port to port with their shipload of slaves. As one slave merchant wrote in a letter to his partner in 1750, "I am now to inform you (and with inexpressible grief) that I have a letter dated at Barbados advising that (the captain of our ship) was under sail for St. Kitts (there being no market for slaves at Barbados)."

Sometimes slaves were in such bad shape that no one would buy them. In that case, traders simply turned the unwanted slaves loose on the wharves. Having neither food or water and no means of supporting themselves, the slaves usually died of starvation or thirst. James Morley, a gunner in the 1760s, recalled seeing such captives "lying about the beach at St. Kitts, in the market place, and in the different parts of the town, in a very bad condition, and apparently nobody to take care of them."

Healthy Slaves

Upon arrival at port, traders immediately began preparing healthy slaves for sale. They fed them, washed them, oiled their skin, and cut their hair. They gave them clothes to wear and exercised them everyday until the day of sale. According to Hugh Thomas, the slaves "would be assembled in a camp, where they would be fed, cleaned, and otherwise looked after, in such a way that they would lose all trace of the 'fatigues' of the journey."

Different ports offered different accomodations. In Rio de Janeiro, for example, slaves might live on the ground floors of a slave merchant's shop, where they were shaved and fattened, their skin oiled and sometimes painted to give the illusion of good health. Sometimes these merchants prepared African foods made with manioc and cornmeal to "make the slaves feel at home," says Thomas. "Some religious instruction might casually be available. Tobacco and snuff were sometimes given to slaves who behaved well.... Slaves would also be made to dance and sing, as they were required to do on board the slave ship."

Some English trading companies performed elaborate preparations, especially if the slaves were to be resold in Spanish markets, such as those in South America. They bathed their slaves in water treated with herbs, gave them two meals a day, along with what slavers considered luxuries: a pipe full of tobacco to smoke and a swig or two of rum every day.

Preparing the slaves for market was less elaborate in other areas, however. In the West Indies, for instance, fattening a slave for sale occurred less frequently than it did in Brazil. French slavers in Santo Domingo were primarily interested in selling their human cargo as quickly as possible, partly because they believed that it was less costly to replace slaves with new shipments than to spend time or money on their upkeep.

Advertising the Sale

The arrival of a cargo of slaves also meant alerting buyers. Sometimes slave traders made arrangements beforehand to supply slaves to a particular merchant or plantation owner. Other times, a slave trading firm sent broadsides or flyers to the country planters and ran advertisements of its newly arrived crop of slaves in the newspaper.

Slave merchants were rarely able to predict exactly how far in advance they would be able to announce a slave sale because it was hard to tell whether a new shipment of slaves would be healthy or require several days in quarantine. Even if the slaves did arrive in good health, organizers still needed time to get everything ready. For example, according to Hugh Thomas, "ten to twenty days were needed in Saint-Domingue to dispose of five to six hundred slaves."

Newspapers regularly announced the arrival of slave cargoes in the "Shipping News" section, along with other imported items, including cloth, sugar, ivory, and rum. Merchants often supplemented these announcements with weekly ads listing the availability of all of their merchandise. Usually, though, slave trading firms like Austin and Laurens of Charleston, South Carolina, advertised a slave sale separately and included a specific date and location for the sale.

Typical advertisements that appeared in the South Carolina Gazette read, "To be Sold on Thursday next, being the 5th of October, by George Austen for ready Money, a Choice Parcel of Negroes, lately imported in the ship Edward to be seen on Board the said Ship at Eliots Wharff." Another boasted, "Just Imported in the Snow Fortune, Edward Boucier Master about 180 Slaves, from the Windward and Gold-Coast directly, all in good Health. To be sold on Wednesday the 3d of July next to Austen and Laurens."

Market Day

Early on, the primary slave buyer was the European planter, who bought slaves for his plantation in the West Indies, South America, or the southern United States. In Brazil and other parts of South America, mine owners also purchased slaves. However, by the end of the eighteenth century, the slave market had begun to attract people of more modest means, who wanted to buy a slave or two to increase their status as well as help with chores.

Often the buyer's home was many miles away from the port city, and wealthy planters might send their overseers to select the slaves. In the 1700s, it might take all day to travel the forty, sixty, or even eighty miles to auctions. And when slave buyers finally arrived at the port city, they wanted to bid on and purchase slaves as quickly as possible. Their plantations needed the labor immediately, and to return empty-handed might mean losing out on a profitable harvest.

George Pinckard, a British surgeon, visited the West Indies at the end of the eighteenth century and described a slave sale he witnessed there. Pinckard compared the atmosphere of the sale to a public fair. He thought people treated it as a "festive day.... The belles and beaux appeared in their Sunday suits. Even the children were in fulldress, and their slaves decked out in holiday clothes.... To the inhabitants it seemed a day of feasting and hilarity."

Yet Pinckard also recognized the disturbing contrast between the festive atmosphere and the horror and tragedy of the afternoon. He later wrote, "But to the poor Africans it was a period of heavy grief and affliction; for they were to be sold as beasts of burden— torn from each other."

The Method of Sale: Slave Auction

Merchants sold slaves either by public auctions, scrambles, or private treaties. The most common method was the auction. Frequently, they were held in the streets of a slave port, although they might be held in a large room or a tavern. In Charleston, Vendue Range, a short walk from the wharf where the slaves arrived, was a popular open-air meeting place for slave sales.

Before the auction, slave traders dressed the slaves. Usually the women wore blue flannel dresses, and the men wore blue cotton trousers. In the winter, sometimes slave traders gave the slaves warmer clothes and shoes to wear. At the auction, buyers inspected the slaves much in the same way that the ship's surgeons had done on the coast of Africa. According to George Pinckard,

The slaves were brought in, one at a time, and placed... before the bidders, who handled and inspected them, with as little concern as if they had been examining cattle.... They turned them about, felt them, viewed their shapes and limbs, and looked into their mouths, made them jump and throw out their arms, and subjected them to all the means of trial as if dealing for a horse or other brute animal.

Often buyers required the slaves to remove their clothing to examine them, making sure they were healthy and fit.

The Methods of Sale: Scrambles

Healthy slaves were ordinarily sold at scrambles. A scramble sale was held either on board a ship or in a merchant's yard. Before the scramble began, the merchant or slave ship captain assigned a price to each slave, and buyers agreed to pay the price. The merchant or captain then gave a signal, perhaps a drum beat, and the scramble began. At that moment, according to ship surgeon Alexander Falconbridge,

the doors of the yard were suddenly thrown open and in rushed a considerable number of purchasers, with all the ferocity of brutes. Some instantly seized such of the Negroes as they could conveniently lay hold of with their hands. Others being prepared with several handkerchiefs tied together, encircled as many as they were able. While others, by means of a rope, effected the same purpose.

During a scramble, the competition for particular slaves could also become violent. Sometimes fistfights broke out among buyers over especially desirable slaves. According to merchant Henry Laurens, "Some of the buyers went to collaring each other and would have come to blows had it not been prevented in contending [struggling] for their choice."

In the meantime, the slaves were terrified. As Olaudah Equiano recalls,

We were not many days in the merchant's custody, before we were sold after their usual manner, which is this: On a signal given... the buyers rush at once into a yard where the slaves are confined, and make choice of that parcel they like best. The noise and clamor with which this is attended, and the eagerness visible in the countenances of the buyers, serve not a little to increase the apprehension of terrified Africans.... In this manner, without [hesitation], are relations and friends separated, most of them never to see each other again.

Alexander Falconbridge, who witnessed a number of scrambles in the West Indies, also wrote about the slaves' fear during such sales:

It is scarcely possible to describe the confusion of which this mode of selling is productive. It likewise causes much animosity among the purchasers who not infrequently fall out and quarrel with each other. The poor astonished Negroes were so terrified by these proceedings, that several of them, through fear climbed over the walls of the courtyard and ran wild about the town, but were soon hunted down and retaken.

The Methods of Sale: Private Treaties

Private treaties were the least common method of sale. However, they did happen from time to time. In the case of a treaty, a slave trader made an agreement ahead of time with a planter, group of planters, trading firm, or factor to buy the slaves he brought from Africa. In a sense, the promise to buy the slaves helped fund the voyage because investors knew they would have a ready market in the West Indies waiting for their shipment. As part of the treaty and to assure investors that they could count on making a certain amount of money, slave buyers agreed on a set price even before the voyage began. In the case of the private treaty, it was as if the ship and all its of crew members were sent to Africa to fill an order.

Completing the Triangle

After all of the slaves had been landed and sold, the captain and remaining crew loaded hogsheads of goods into the ship's empty hold. Stocked with these goods, the ship returned to its home port. Ships heading up the coast of North America to Rhode Island brought molasses that distilleries made into rum. Ships heading across the Atlantic Ocean carried cotton from South Carolina and rum and sugar from the West Indies. This final leg of the journey completed the transatlantic Triangle of Trade.

Life aboard the ships that brought Africans to the Americas and European goods to Africa was a grueling and murderous experience. For the Africans, forced to wear shackles and imprisoned in stifling slave holds, daily life aboard a slave ship was horrendous. For crew members, it was also miserable, filled with abuse, incurable disease, and continual fear and violence. Only for investors, who generally never made the trip, was there any benefit at all.

As devastating as life on an African slave ship was, it is still a significant part of human history. Surviving everyday life aboard a slaver was a remarkable feat. Endurance is a victory and should be celebrated. So should those who resisted, rebelling against the tyranny of brutal treatment and loss of freedom, fighting to reclaim liberty. Life on an African slave ship is a piece of our past we will never repeat, but it is also a piece we must never forget.

The Crew at Port

Even as the surviving crew was about to sail home, officers often tried to abuse seamen and cheat them out of their yearlong wages. Captains sometimes purposely mistreated the sailors, hoping they would desert the ship so investors would not have to pay them the money they were owed. Other times, captains sailed without notice, leaving half of their men behind. In Black Cargoes, Daniel P. Mannix and Malcolm Cowley quote the testimony one witness gave to Parliament: "It was no uncommon thing for the captains to send on shore, a few hours before they sail, their lame, emaciated, and sick seamen, leaving them to perish."

Nearing Land

Sometimes, as historians Daniel P. Mannix and Malcolm Cowley attest in Black Cargoes, during the last few days of the voyage there was a sort of celebration, a costume party aboard ship. In his memoirs, Captain Theodore Canot describes the scene he witnessed several times aboard the slavers he commanded.

"The sight of land is commonly the signal for merriment, for a well-behaved cargo is invariably released from shackles, and allowed ... on deck. The Tanks are thrown open for unrestricted use. 'The cat' is cast into the sea. Strict discipline is relaxed.... Sailors... share their biscuits and clothing with the blacks. The women, who are generally without garments, appear in costume from the wardrobes of tars [sailors], petty officers, mates, and even captains. Sheets, table-cloths, and spare sails, are torn to pieces for raiment [clothing], while shoes, boots, caps, oilcloths, and monkey jackets, contribute to the... masquerade."

A Typical Slave Buyer

The indifference and coldness of the slave buyer toward the enslaved African is reflected in the words of Bryan Edwards, a member of the Jamaica assembly and a planter and slave owner. In his history of the West Indies, published in 1794, Edwards talks about the misconceptions people have about slave auctions. His attitude was probably typical of most slave owners at the time, and it reveals how little they knew about the African captive about to be sold.

"Although there is something extremely shocking to the humane and cultivated mind in the idea of beholding a numerous body of our unfortunate fellow creatures in captivity and exile, exposed naked to public view, and sold like a herd of cattle, yet I could never perceive that the Negroes themselves were oppressed with many of those painful sensations which a person unaccustomed to the scene would naturally attribute to such apparently wretchedness.... They commonly express great eagerness to be sold, presenting themselves with cheerfulness and alacrity for selection and appearing mortified and disappointed when refused."

Families for Sale

During a slave sale, families were often separated. Most buyers bid for what they needed, not caring if they tore families apart. The anguish that loved ones expressed when they realized they would never see each other again was heartbreaking.

On one occasion, however, bidders did fight to keep families together. In his Notes on the West Indies, published in 1806, George Pinckard describes the near desperation of a husband who was about to be sold away from his wife. The slave, newly arrived from Africa, spoke only his native language and had to communicate his terror through hand signals.

"A tall and robust Negro, on being brought into the auction room, approached the table with a fine Negress hanging upon his arm. The man was ordered to mount [the auction block]. He obeyed, though manifestly with reluctance... grief was in his eye.... Then looking at the woman, he made signs expressive of great distress. Next, he pointed to her, and then to the chair.... He looked again at the woman, again pointed to the chair, held up two fingers to the auctioneer, and implored the multitude in anxious suppliant gestures.... [Finally] a second chair was brought and the woman was placed at the side of her husband... (who) hung upon the neck of his wife, and embraced her with rapture. ... The bidding was renewed."

The buyers eventually agreed to bid on both husband and wife.

This section contains 3,703 words
(approx. 13 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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