African Slave Ships Research Article from The Way People Live

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Even after the auctions and sales were complete, the journey for the slaves was not over. Led away from their families, they traveled again, this time to the homes of their masters, perhaps located in the heart of a city like Charleston or in the country on a plantation. For some, this journey would be the last. For others, it was simply a prelude of more to come.

The slaves traveled by cart, foot, and horse en route to their new homes. Writer Julius Lester explains that,

Once sold to a trader, the slaves were chained together and marched away, sleeping in the woods and fields at night, until they reached their destination some weeks later. Once there, the slave trader rested them for a few days, gave them new clothing, and sold them to new masters who would march them to the plantations. These would be their "homes" until they were sold again, escaped, or died.

Between 1440 and 1870, more than 4 million Africans were delivered this way to Brazil, where they worked in mines and on coffee plantations. Another 4 million arrived in the West Indies to farm sugar plantations. Many of those men, women, and children spent a few years in the Caribbean, becoming what slave traders called "seasoned." After learning the ways of slave life in the New World, seasoned slaves, nearly 500,000, were sold to plantation owners in the United States.

Factors Contributing Toward Abolition

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, however, just as slave trading reached its height, things began to change. People in Europe and the United States started challenging both the business and the philosophy of enslaving human beings. In England, social reformer Thomas Clarkson made abolishing the slave trade his lifelong work. He teamed up with William Wilberforce, a brilliant orator and member of the British parliament, and for more than twenty years, they battled in Parliament to gain support for their movement.

Meanwhile, across the ocean in America, colonists in Rhode Island passed a law in 1652 that freed adult slaves after ten years. All enslaved children were freed when they turned twenty-four years old. In Pennsylvania, Quakers led the antislavery, or abolitionist, movement, joining forces with such colonial leaders as Benjamin Franklin and Benjamin Rush, both staunch opponents of slavery.

Thomas Paine was another very vocal American reformer who spoke out against the horrors of the slave trade. Paine argued that the United States of America had been established to represent the ideals of a republic, which championed liberty and human dignity; such a country could not also tolerate the dehumanizing tyranny of slavery.

Those most closely involved in the slave trade knew its horrors all too well. Among the many abolitionists who gave vivid descriptions of slavery and the slave trade, none were more powerful than those of the slave ship captains and seamen who served in the trade for years. "[This profession] brings a numbness upon the heart and renders those who are engaged in it too indifferent to the sufferings of their fellow creatures," declared John Newton before a Parliamentary hearing. During similar proceedings, yet another captain proclaimed, "The African trade is a national sin."

Ultimately, European and American abolitionists convinced government officials that the buying and selling of people had to end. After much debate, on March 12, 1807, England's Parliament passed a bill outlawing the slave trade. A few months later, the U.S. Congress also passed legislation that made the trade illegal. It was no longer legal to transport slaves from Africa to America, but slavery itself lasted for another half century in the United States.

At the same time, an illegal slave trade developed. Smugglers carried on a brisk and profitable business. During this time, England, the nation that spearheaded the trade in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, took responsibility for policing the Atlantic, capturing illegal slaving ships, and freeing the Africans on board.

The Economic Effects

Some historians believe that changing philosophical and religious convictions led to the success of the abolitionist movement. Others point to the political unrest that occurred at the end of the eighteenth century. The French and American revolutions may have inspired an increased number of slave revolts, especially in the Caribbean, and some historians maintain that these violent uprisings contributed to the growing resistance to and eventual defeat of the slave trade.

A third school of thought contends, though, that the trade simply no longer met the needs of a changing economic system. During the eighteenth century, the slave trade supported the early forms of a capitalist structure. At that time, the New World's need for cheap labor made the African slave trade a profitable venture.

However, by the beginning of the nineteenth century, as the most powerful nations began to rely heavily on industry, slave labor started to lose its value. In its place, the workingclass wage earner became the more profitable investment for capitalists who had, at first, poured all of their resources into supplying planters with slaves. These capitalists turned their attention to factories and mills, investing heavily in the skilled and unskilled workers who worked for a fraction of what it cost to import slave labor from Africa.

Finally, an End

Whether for philosophical or economic reasons, by the early nineteenth century, abolitionists in the United States were gaining ground. Although it took nearly sixty years, slavery was finally abolished with Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. During those years, the drive to reform society, together with shifting economic needs, pointed the United States toward a new vision that viewed slavery as unnecessary and unacceptable. But, as historian Edward Reynolds asserts, "the interest in reform... was not a concern for slaves as such. Nor was the fight for abolition and emancipation an admission that black people were equal to whites."

In fact, historians maintain that as notions of emancipation took hold, white supremacy and racism increased. Those attitudes grew in intensity, becoming a fixed part of American Society. Yet, despite those attitudes, former slaves and the generations that followed prevailed and carved out lives for themselves.

On Sullivan's Island, a small island off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina, that once served as the port of entry for at least a third of the slaves who arrived in the United States, there stands a plaque, commemorating the strength and determination of the captured Africans. The plaque reads,



For Further Reading

Clifford Lindsay Alderman, Rum, Slaves, and

Molasses: The Story of New England 's

Triangular Trade. New York : Crowell-

Collier, 1972. Middle-grade level. A vivid

account of the Triangle of Trade, tracing

the route of an American slaver, the

Sukey, as it sailed from New England to

Africa to the Caribbean .

James Haskins and Kathleen Benson, Bound for America : The Forced Migration of Africans to the New World . New York : Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books, 1999. Pictorially, this is an extraordinary book with highly evocative paintings. Concise, age-appropriate text gives movement and authenticity to the story of Africans who were captured, sold, and sent to the Americas as slaves.

Jim Haskins, "Amazing Grace": The Story Behind the Song . Brookfield , CT : Millbrook, 1992. "Amazing Grace" is among the most popular spirituals ever written. Through narration and clear full-color illustrations, this fluidly written book tells the story of the song's composer, John Newton , a reformed slave trader, and how he came to write the song and become a fervent abolitionist.

Suzanne Jurmain, Freedom's Sons: The True Story of the Amistad Mutiny . New York : Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books, 1998. A well-written account of the slave mutiny aboard the Amistad slaver. Particularly vivid and appropriate for middle grades.

Colin A. Palmer, The First Passage: Blacks in the Americas , 1502-1617. New York : Oxford University Press, 1995. Well-organized, clearly written, with well-chosen photographs and illustrations included throughout, this young adult history gives an excellent description of the African cultures from which slaves came and, once here, the impact Africans Americans have had in shaping the country.

Velma Maia Thomas, Lest We Forget: The Passage from African to Slavery and Emancipation. New York : Crown, 1997. Created by using photographs and documents from the Black Holocaust Exhibit, this three-dimensional interactive book is a highly original, engaging approach that brings the whole history to life. Thomas's succinct, vivid text combines scholarship with easy to follow narrative.

Karen Zeinert, The Amistad Slave Revolt and American Abolition. North Haven , CT : Linnet Books, 1997. A good choice for middle school because of its close attention to historical detail and its organization, especially subheadings, which makes complex legal proceedings and the trials' impact on the abolitionist movement easier for younger readers to grasp.

Works Consulted


W. Jeffrey Bolster, Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail. Cambridge , MA, Harvard University Press, 1997. A thorough, riveting account of the history of black sailors. An excellent analysis of life at sea as a central component of African American identity. Bolster's own experience as a seamen gives a vivid realism to life aboard eighteenthcentury sailing ships.

Michael H. Cottman, The Wreck of the "Henrietta Marie." New York : Harmony Books, 1999. Traces the slaving journey of the Henrietta Marie as well as Cottman's spiritual journey while traveling from England to Africa to the Caribbean . Moving prose integrates history with narrative as Cottman reveals his participation working as an underwater archaeologist to uncover the remains of the sunken slave ship.

Jay Coughtry, The Notorious Triangle: Rhode Island and the African Slave Trade, 1700-1807. Philadelphia : Temple University Press, 1981. A well-documented scholarly work, with emphasis on the slave trade originating in the northeast. Interesting information on slave ship rebellion and resistance.

Harold Courlander, The African. New York : Henry Holt, 1967. A classic and the inspiration for Alex Haley's Roots. Passages on the capture of slaves and the Middle Passage are particularly affecting.

Richard H. Dana Jr., Two Years Before the Mast. New York : Dodd, Mead, 1946. This book really gives the reader a sense of life on board a sailing ship. Written originally as a protest against the treatment of seamen, this highly detailed firsthand account chronicles the journey from Boston to San Francisco in the mid-nineteenth century.

David Brion Davis, Slavery and Human Progress. New York : Oxford University Press, 1984. A brilliant scholarly work, which discusses many aspects of slavery and emancipation. Of particular interest was Davis 's discussion of the antithetical relationship between slavery and human progress, especially the periods throughout history when many thought slavery facilitated progress.

Elizabeth Donnan, Documents Illustrative of the History of the Slave Trade to America. 4 vols. Washington , DC : Carnegie Institute of Washington , 1935. An exhaustive collection of documents about slave trading, including letters, personal narratives, testimonies before Parliament during the abolition movement and accounting records from captains and slave traders in America and England during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Superb source for primary sources.

David Eltis, Economic Growth and the End of the Transatlantic Trade. New York : Oxford University Press, 1987. A technical, detailed economic analysis of the transatlantic trade during the late 1700s and early 1800s. Statistics include the number of voyages, volume of sales, and economic trends. Includes useful conversion tables that help calculate equivalency rates of the English pound from the eighteenth century to the present.

Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano. Boston : Bedford Books, 1995. One of the most significant original documents from the era. This remarkable autobiography, written by a freed slave, chronicles how Equiano was captured, sold into slavery, freed, and extremely involved in the abolitionist movement. No other work surpasses this in documenting the experience from the slave's perspective.

Tom Feelings, The Middle Passage . New York : Dial, 1995. This is primarily a largeformat visual book, with beautifully reproduced drawings by Tom Feelings. An especially powerful pictorial recounting of the Middle Passage, including an emotionally evocative text by historian John Henrik Clark.

John Hope Franklin and Alfred A. Moss Jr., From Slavery to Freedom . New York : McGraw-Hill, 1994. 7th ed. This authoritative history is an excellent resource for overview as well as specific information. Particularly useful were the history of slavery and the discussion of African slavery and colonization. Contains good full-color photographs and reproductions.

Thomas R. Frazier, ed., Afro-American History: Primary Sources. New York : Harcourt, Brace & World, 1970. The first chapter of this well-presented compendium of primary sources contains valuable material on various aspects of the slave trade, as related by African captives. Selections of the text might be used for student use as well.

Henry Louis Gates Jr., ed., The Classic Slave Narratives. New York : Mentor/Penguin Books USA , 1987. This record of original slave narratives is a rich resource material. Highly readable for middle-school students interested in using primary source material to gain further knowledge of slavery and the slave trade.

Graham Russell Hodges, ed., Black Itinerants of the Gospel: The Narratives of John Jea and George White . Madison , WI : Madison House, 1993. John Jea was an African captive who was freed but worked as a seamen aboard slave ships during the eighteenth century. He was also a minister, and his autobiography is a fascinating historical document, fusing political ideology with gospel. Includes a very informative introduction by Hodges.

Thomas Howard, ed., Black Voyage. Boston : Little, Brown, 1971. Among the most useful sources for this project. Incisive selections of primary sources that tell the story of the African slave trade from many different viewpoints, from slave to ship surgeon to captain to factor. Gives a whole picture by providing eyewitness detail of every aspect of the trade.

Charles Johnson, Middle Passage. New York : Plume/Penguin Books, 1990. A National Book Award winner, this spellbinding novel gives a feel for the slaving voyage in all its depravity. Although not appropriate for the student audience because of explicit sexual references and violence, it is wonderful background reading for adults interested in the subject.

Howard Jones, Mutiny on the "Amistad." Rev. Ed. New York : Oxford University Press, 1987. This thorough, highly readable narrative incorporates original material to give authenticity to this interesting portrait of Cinque as rebel leader.

Julius Lester, To Be a Slave . New York : Dell, 1968. Gripping, well-chosen firsthand accounts of enslaved Africans and African Americans. A history of slavery in America , from the Middle Passage to life on the plantation, told by the men, women, and children who lived through it.

Daniel P. Mannix, in Collaboration with Malcolm Cowley, Black Cargoes. New York : Viking, 1962. A good source for primary sources relating particularly to crew treatment, the role of the captain on board and in Africa , and the leaders behind the abolitionist movement. Includes an informative chapter on early American trade as well.

Brantz Mayer, Captain Canot, an African Slaver. New York : Arno , 1968. A vivid firsthand account of a slave trader during the mid-nineteenth century, when the African slave trade was illegal. Fascinating material, including detailed reporting on how the Africans were directly involved in the trade.

David Northrup, ed., The Atlantic Slave Trade. Lexington , MA : D. C. Heath, 1994. A collection of essays by noted historians as well as excerpts of original firsthand documents that give a good understanding of the slave trade. Particularly useful were discussions on the number of slaves who were transported, the effects of the slave trade on Africa , and the reasons behind the abolitionist movement.

James Pope-Hennessey, Sins of the Fathers: A Study of the Atlantic Slave Traders, 1441-1807. New York : Capricorn Books, 1967. An excellent integration of original material with narrative, giving a full account of the Atlantic slave trade. An interesting recreation of life aboard ship, at a trading post in Africa , on plantations, and at the slave market. A good, concise social, political, and economic picture of the trade.

Marcus Rediker, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea : Merchant, Seamen, Pirates, and the Anglo-American Maritime World, 1700-1750. Cambridge , England : Cambridge University Press, 1987. A fascinating analysis of seafaring life during the age of sail. Particularly useful is Rediker's discussion of the seaman—his identity and his relationship with his peers and superiors—and the culture he created on land and on board ship.

Edward Reynolds, Stand the Storm . London : Allison & Busby, 1985. Reynolds, a historian born in Ghana , provides a concisely written but thorough overview of the slave trade. A good use of primary source material and a well-developed global view of the trade as forged connections with Africa , Europe , and the Americas .

Dava Sobel, Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time. New York : Penguin Books, 1995. Transatlantic trade gained greater momentum with the discovery of how to calculate longitude. Sobel reveals the remarkable story in a highly readable narrative. Tangential to the life on the slaver, itself, but central to growth of the trade.

Michele Stepto, ed., American Journey: The African-American Experience. Woodbridge , CT: Primary Source Media, 1996. CD ROM. An excellent source for primary material, including pictures and documents, including a cutaway diagram of a slave ship, excerpts from Equiano's autobiography and other slave narratives, and a 1642 "Contract for Negroes."

Hugh Thomas, The Slave Trade. New York : Simon & Schuster, 1997. A good resource for primary material that presents the breadth of this international trade. An exhaustive study, especially in depicting the Portuguese, Spanish, and English drive to establish and develop the profitable use of slaves in the New World .

Selena Axelrod Wisnes, Letters on West Africa and the Slave Trade. New York : 1992. An interesting collection of material. The narrative style makes information accessible and especially useful for obtaining original documents to share with middle-school students.

Eric R. Wolf, Europe and the People Without History. Berkeley and Los Angeles : University of California Press, 1982. Clearly organized and extremely comprehensible, this book provides an excellent resource for teachers who want to understand the slave trade within a broader European context.

Donald R. Wright, African Americans in the Colonial Era: From African Origins Through the American Revolution . Arlington Heights, IL: Harlan Davidson, 1990. A cogent analysis of how Africans became integrated within the fabric of colonial America . The first chapter provides a clear explanation of the relationship between the demand for labor in North America and Africa 's response in supplying slaves to meet that need.


A. M. Rosenthal, "On My Mind: When Is It News?" New York Times, September 3, 1999.

South Carolina Gazette, advertisement, September 30, 1732.

———, advertisement, June 20, 1754 .

———, "Item," October 24, 1743 .

Harvey Wish, "American Slave Insurrections Before 1861." The Journal of the American Negro, July 1937.

Internet Sources

Ottobah Cugoano, Narrative of the Enslavement of Ottobah Cugoano, a Native of Africa ; published by himself in the year 1787 .

Other Sources

Michele Stepto, ed., American Journey: The African-American Experience. Woodbridge , CT: Primary Source Media, 1996, CD ROM.

Federal Admiralty Court Records, Province and State of South Carolina , 1716-1789. James Littman v. Peter Bostock , 1753. National Archives Microfilm Publications, roll 3, vol. 4.

Elizabeth Donnan, "Slave Trade into South Carolina before the Revolution," American Historical Review, July 1928, vol.33, pp. 804-28.

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African Slave Ships from Lucent. ©2002-2006 by Lucent Books, an imprint of The Gale Group. All rights reserved.
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