The jour­ney to the coast

Jamaica Gleaner - - YL - DEBBION HYMAN Con­trib­u­tor Debbion Hyman is an in­de­pen­dent con­trib­u­tor. Send ques­tions and com­ments to kerry-ann.hep­burn@glean­


At the end of the les­son, you should be able to:

1. De­scribe the ex­pe­ri­ence of the African cap­tives from the point of cap­ture to the trek to the coast.

2. De­scribe the ex­pe­ri­ences of the African cap­tives aboard the slavers.

In this week’s les­son, our fo­cus will be on the trans-at­lantic trade in African cap­tives. First, how­ever, we will ex­am­ine the sys­tem of do­mes­tic slav­ery and how it greatly dif­fered from the sys­tem as prac­tised in the Caribbean (chat­tel slav­ery).


There were sev­eral ways in which an in­di­vid­ual be­came in­volved in do­mes­tic slav­ery in West Africa. One could be­come en­slaved if he were: a) A pris­oner of war b) Owed a debt c) Con­victed of a se­ri­ous of­fences, such as mur­der, rape, adul­tery, witchcraft, etc. d) Fac­ing star­va­tion. In cases of famine, some par­ents al­lowed their chil­dren to act as do­mes­tic slaves.

The sys­tem of slav­ery, as prac­tised in West Africa, dif­fered dra­mat­i­cally from chat­tel slav­ery. One key dif­fer­ence was that slaves in West Africa could re­gain their free­dom. For in­stance, if some­one be­came a slave due to a debt, once this debt was re­paid the in­di­vid­ual would be freed. As well, the off­spring of these in­di­vid­u­als would never be­come slaves, as was the case in chat­tel slav­ery.


The thrust into the life of a chat­tel slave would nor­mally be­gin with the slave raid. Of­ten­times, fires were lit on the out­skirts of vil­lages, re­sult­ing in pan­de­mo­nium in many vil­lages. In the en­su­ing chaos, per­sons would be quickly cap­tured by in­di­vid­u­als who were heav­ily armed. The cap­tives were placed in cof­fles and forced to walk for sev­eral hun­dred kilo­me­tres (depend­ing on the prox­im­ity of the vil­lage(s) to the shore­line) to the coast. Dur­ing the jour­ney they were poorly fed and hy­drated and, as a re­sult, many died. In ad­di­tion, those thought to be too sick or weak to con­tinue the jour­ney would be cut from the cof­fles and were sim­ply left to suc­cumb to their ill­ness or the el­e­ments. The jour­ney would con­tinue to the coast, where they would wait to be placed on slave ships (slavers). Fig­ure 1 pro­vides a pic­to­rial rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the Africans in cof­fles mak­ing the jour­ney to the coast.


At the coast, the cap­tives were poorly fed and hy­drated and this led to many dy­ing be­fore they even boarded the slavers. At the coast, African traders would bar­gain with Euro­pean agents, called ‘fac­tors’, for the sale of their cap­tives. The cap­tives were then placed in bara­coons, where they had to con­tend with the el­e­ments. Lastly, they were checked by doc­tors and those re­ferred to as mack­rons (re­jected slaves) were not se­lected for the jour­ney. Such per­sons in­cluded those with grey hair, those hav­ing a miss­ing tooth, vene­real dis­eases, open wounds and so on. Healthy in­di­vid­u­als would be branded and placed on the slaver. This hor­ri­fy­ing jour­ney would be part of a larger sys­tem known as the ‘tri­an­gu­lar trade’.


The tri­an­gu­lar trade is a his­tor­i­cal term in­di­cat­ing trade be­tween three ports or re­gions. For the pur­poses of our syl­labus, the tri­an­gu­lar trade is de­fined as a trade dur­ing the 17th and 19th cen­turies that in­volved ship­ping goods and African cap­tives (sec­ond leg) be­tween Europe, West Africa and the Amer­i­cas.


The no­to­ri­ous leg of the tri­an­gu­lar trade was re­ferred to as the Mid­dle Pas­sage. This was the sec­ond stage in the trans-at­lantic trade. The Mid­dle Pas­sage would be the jour­ney of African cap­tives from West Africa to the Amer­i­cas. The jour­ney proved hor­rific and lasted any­where be­tween six to eight weeks, depend­ing on the weather and des­ti­na­tion. The con­di­tions aboard the ships were hor­ri­ble and this re­sulted in high mor­tal­ity rates. It is es­ti­mated that any­where be­tween 10 mil­lion to 20 mil­lion African cap­tives were taken to the Amer­i­cas dur­ing the trade. These num­bers ex­clude the cap­tives that would have died dur­ing the voy­age. Ad­di­tion­ally, ship cap­tains would of­ten­times over­load their ships with hu­man cargo due to the fact of the high mor­tal­ity rate. This pre­vents us from know­ing the ac­tual num­bers but also sug­gests that the num­ber of African cap­tives could have been much higher.


1. The women and girls faced sex­ual abuse aboard the slavers. This was done by the ship’s crew.

2. The ships lacked san­i­tary fa­cil­i­ties and, as such, the ar­eas oc­cu­pied by the Africans were very un­hy­gienic. Nor­mally, the ar­eas were washed daily only with wa­ter. This led to the out­break of dis­eases such as dysen­tery, cholera and so on.

3. The Africans were placed be­low deck where they would re­main chained. Women and chil­dren were kept to­gether and men by them­selves. Be­low deck, the tem­per­a­ture was hot and per­sons would die from heat stroke.

4. If food sup­ply ran low, only the health­i­est in­di­vid­u­als were fed, and some­times the sick and very weak were thrown over­board.

5. Cap­tives were al­lowed to go above deck once per day, if weather per­mit­ted, to ex­er­cise. The ex­er­cise was aimed at re­duc­ing the risk of blood clots that would have been po­ten­tially fa­tal.


The psy­cho­log­i­cal and phys­i­cal im­pact of the Mid­dle Pas­sage was re­flected on the African cap­tives. As such, the ship’s crew would em­bark on the process to rem­edy the cap­tives phys­i­cally. This process was known as ‘re­fresh­ing’. Re­fresh­ing is best de­scribed as the process of pre­par­ing the African cap­tives for sale in the Caribbean. The process was done by giv­ing cap­tives a bath and re­mov­ing vis­i­ble grey hair. Their mus­cles would also be rubbed with palm oil to en­hance their ap­pear­ance, and to hide scars and bruises, a mix­ture of gun pow­der, lime juice and iron rust was used. As well, they were fed fruits and veg­eta­bles to en­hance their com­plex­ion. Once in the Amer­i­cas, they would be sold ei­ther by a process of auc­tion or scram­ble.

Fig­ure 1

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