The journey to the coast
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).
CHATTEL SLAVERY VERSUS DOMESTIC 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 TREK TO THE COAST
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.
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
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 MIDDLE PASSAGE
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.
CONDITIONS ABOARD THE SLAVERS
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.
ARRIVAL IN THE CARIBBEAN
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.