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Why Africans

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Arrival in the Americas

© Associations des Anneaux de la Memoire, Nantes

For four hundred years, Africans were snatched from their homes and deported into the Americas where they were put to work in mines and plantations. Their sweat and blood served as a bedstone to the tremendous wealth still enjoyed in Europe and the Americas. The discovery of the New World boosted the European economy and marked the starting point of what one can call the "African nightmare.” The exploitation of the new land required millions of skilled laborers capable of standing the tropical climate which encompasses the vast region from the US South down to Brazil. The enslavement of Indians rapidly proved to be inefficient because the native population was hard to control and it was profoundly affected by the diseases brought from the Old world. The solution to the need of labor was the forced transportation to the colonies of poverty-stricken people, euphemistically called "indentured servants" or "engagés" in French. Europeans could not obviously count on their own "proletarians" who did not have the suited skills especially when tropical agriculture was concerned. The final solution came from Africa where Europeans discovered a potential slave market at the time of their arrival in the middle of the fifteenth century.

As a result of the slave trade, five times as many Africans arrived in the Americas than Europeans. Slaves were needed on plantations and in mining. The majority was shipped to Brazil, the Caribbean, and the Spanish Empire. According to the figures published by Hugh Thomas, around 13 million Africans were deported among whom 11 million arrived alive in the Americas. Less than 5% traveled to the Northern American States formally held by the British. Senegambia, the Slave Coast (Bight of Benin), and the Bight of Biafra exported each approximately 15.4% of the total of the slaves. Central Africa, where the slave trade lasted longer, contributed approximately for 29%. One million people (7.7%) were taken from South East (Mozambique & Madagascar). The principal carriers were the Portuguese and their Brazilian colony (42.3%), followed by the British (23.6%), the Spanish and their Cuban colony (14.5), the French and their West Indian colony (11.4%), and the Dutch (4.5). Other smaller carriers including the Danes and the Americans share the rest of the trade.

Trans-Atlantic Slave Exports by region

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Source: calculated from Thomas 1997, table III, p. 805.

 

The Arab boutre used for the transportation of slaves across the Indian Ocean

Trans-Atlantic Slave Carriers.

Source: calculated from Thomas 1997, table I, p. 804.

 

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Trans-Atlantic Slave Imports by Region.

 

Source: calculated from Thomas 1997, table I, p. 804.

 

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First Employment of Slaves in the Americas

 

Source: Thomas 1997, table IV.

The Slave Trade Ramps Up

Slaves were only a byproduct of the African market before the European colonization of the Americas.  The Portuguese, who came first, were primarily interested in the gold which was hitherto brought to Europe by the trans-Saharan trade handled by the Arabo-Berbers. Their goal was also to connect directly with the Asian market of silk and spices from which Europe was barred with the rise of the Ottoman Empire which controlled the Eastern Mediterranean sea.

The Portuguese were soon followed by the Dutch, the Danes, the French, the English, the Brandburgers (Germans), the Spaniards and other nations who completed the "encirclement" of Africa which led later to its effective colonization. The Portuguese first saw the coast of Senegambia in 1444. By the end of the century they had already set the curve to Asia when they discovered the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa. This was also the time when Christopher Columbus made the "discovery" which changed the course of history. So far slaves were being transported in small numbers to Portugal, Spain, as well as the Atlantic islands. Most of them were kidnapped on the coast of Northern Senegambia, notably in Wolof and Berber villages, and put to work on the Iberian islands where the Moors had previously developed rice and sugar cane plantations, using African and European slaves. When the Reconquista expelled the Moors from the Iberian Peninsula in the second half of the 15th century, the demand for skilled laborers rose sharply. This demand then peaked with the colonization of the Americas. Africa could not satisfy it since the slave market was too narrow. People were being enslaved in this continent through warfare and put to work for reparations if their kins failed to liberate them through exchange of prisoners or buying them out. Others were enslaved to pay their debts or for committing crimes such as adultery or murder. In the Sahel and Savannah lands north of the equator, the captives (called jaam sayor by the Wolof) supplemented the trans-Saharan trade which lasted many centuries before and after the arrival of the Europeans. But the crossing of the Saharan desert, exclusively handled with camel caravans, prevented the transportation of large numbers of slaves.

 

The exploitation of a pre-existing slave market in Africa was far from being able to implement the huge market of the Americas which required millions of laborers. Since slaves were obtained mainly through wars, the only reliable solution to this problem was to generate permanent warfare between and within nations. From Senegal to Angola and Mozambique, African rulers were methodically played against each other by the European companies: the French Company of the West Indies, the British Royal African Company, and the Dutch India Company among others.  The European businessmen also soon understood that war was not enough by itself. Putting the African elites in the middle of an enslaving business would prove to be more efficient. Addiction to European commodities was the bait used in their strategy in which alcohol and firearms played a key role. Wine and hard liquor were used in negotiations in order to obtain the best terms of trade and ultimately became basic items of the same trade. Firearms were highly demanded in the process of empire building. They turned the traditionally peaceful successions into civil wars in which the European companies supported the candidates whom they later used as indispensable allies for the slave trade. In time of peace, farmers were kidnapped in their fields by mercenaries, usually royal slaves (jaami Buur in Wolof), linked to local elites and armed by European companies. Villages were raided at night, just before daybreak, when bodies were totally numbed by the last hours of sleep. Dwellings were set on fire to increase confusion. Elderly people, and sometime children, were exterminated and their bodies left to rot under the sun, becoming prey to vultures and hyenas. The strong ones were caught, shackled, and walked to the coast, carrying trade goods such as elephant tusks on their heads. Many died of exhaustion on their way to the coast or from starvation while awaiting slave ships. Many others died during the middle passage or shortly after their arrival. To this very day, Wolof griots still sing this song of sorrow which clearly depicts the reign of tyranny during slavery times:

Portuguese Caravel

Nga bay sab gerté

Dugub ji ne gaňň

Buur teg ci loxo

Ne la jël naa ko !

 

You grow your peanuts

And plenty millet

The king sets a hand on everything

And says it is not yours anymore!

 

Ngèèn tëdd ba guddi

Buur tëgg ndëndam

Ni jog lèèn !

Fii ku fi fanaan di jaam

 

In the deepest of your sleep

The king beats his drum

And says wake up!

You are not free anymore

 

Slave coffle in Africa

Resistance

The brutal trading in human souls gave rise to resistant communities in Africa. Much like the maroons, or runaway slaves, of the Americas, people sought refuge in forests, mountains, and on islands. Some kept the slave raiders away by living on water in houses built on stilts. They organized sophisticated means of defense. In some instances, Africans trained bees to keep the slave hunters away from their territories. Queen Njinga Mbande, also known as Anna Nzingha (1583-1663), was a 17th-century queen of the Ndongo and Matamba Kingdoms of the Mbundu people in what is today Angola in Central Africa. She led a resistance campaign against the Portuguese and against slave trading for many years but ended selling prisoners for firearms.

 

Queen Anna Nzinga

Impact

As a result of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, there were serious long-lasting effects on the political, social and economic systems among the people of Africa. The combined effects of permanent warfare, plundering, and natural disasters generated frequent shortages of food which resulted in severe famine and epidemics. In 18th century Fuuta Tooro, a kingdom centered on the Senegal River, people often resorted to eating grain from wild herbs; some fetched grain by breaking into ants’ mounds. Those who killed a cow preciously kept the hide which they ate later during lean periods. Some even volunteered to be sold into slavery for food which saved the rest of the family from starving to death. These "maccube heege" (hunger slaves), as they were called by the local Fulbe population, were among the slaves who crowded the slave harbors where they performed different duties before being shipped away. Besides the population drain and the economic regression, the transformation of political and social relationships, namely the reign of brutal force and tyranny and the subsequent distrust and hatred among the people, still erupt in current days Africa under the shape of deadly civil wars and permanent political unrest.

 

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The Middle Passage

The voyage across the Atlantic ocean was called the Middle Passage. It could last four to twelve weeks depending on the origin and the destination of the slave ship. The deck was the domain of the crew members. The captives were packed in the hold where men and women were separated. Food supplies and water were stored in the hull, the lower part of the ship. In some instances, chained slaves were fed and forced to dance themselves into shape on the deck under strict surveillance. Boiled rice or corn was the usual food given to the captives. Sometimes this diet was improved with black-eye peas. Besides being underfed, illnesses were not properly treated and the dead were thrown overboard. Suicides and revolts were frequent. Gastro-intestinal and skin infections were the most common diseases with scurvy. The death rate on the slave ships was very high, reaching 25 percent in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Mortality was also high among crew members. The Middle Passage was a particular ordeal for women. They were exposed to sexual abuse and had to deal with menstruations or pregnancy in a filthy environment. Those with nursing infants permanently feared losing their babies. The cries and feces of the little ones added to the discomfort and were a source of conflict among the captives. Newly arriving Africans underwent a painful period of adjustment known as “seasoning” lasting up to three years. As a result of brutal treatment. The shock of the New World, disease, and the longing for home, between 25 and 33 percent of the newly arrived did not survive seasoning.

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Description of French ship ‘La Marie-Seraphique

© Château des ducs de Bretagne – Musée d’histoire de Nantes, Alain Guillard.

Painting by Leonardo Amora Leite

 

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