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To YouTo sit and dream, to sit and read,
To sit and learn about the world
Outside our world of here and now
Our problem world
To dream of vast horizons of the soul
Through dreams made whole,
Unfettered freehelp me!
All you who are dreamers, too,
Help me make our world anew
I reach out my hands to you.Langston Hughes
The First Passage 1502-1619
Colin A. Palmer
Without exception, the contemporary societies of North and South America and the Caribbean include peoples of African descent. They form the numerical majority in the Caribbean, are about one half of Brazil's population, and make up a significant minority in the United States. In other countries, such as Canada, Mexico, Venezuela, and Colombia, blacks are present in smaller numbers. Regardless of the societies in which they live, these peoples share a common historical origin and ancestral homeland. Their experiences in the Americas have also been remarkably similar since the sixteenth century, when they began to arrive from Africa in ever-increasing numbers.
Black Africans were brought as slaves into the Caribbean islands and the mainland colonies of Central and South America, first by the Spaniards and later by the Portuguese. Beginning in 1502, the slave trade gathered momentum as white colonists came to rely on this forced black labor. During the early years of the trade, Africans passed through Spain (wheremany remained) to the Americas. By 1518, however, a direct trade route from Africa to the Americas was introduced.
Not all Africans in the Americas, even in the sixteenth century, served as slaves for the duration of their lives. Some managed to achieve their freedom; others were born free. In 1617 the first town or settlement controlled by free blacks in the Americas was established in Mexico. This was a major development in black life in the Western Hemisphere; it was the first time that a group of Africans gained the right to live as free people. These pioneers had successfully thrown off the yoke of slavery through their own efforts, setting the stage for the eventual liberation of other enslaved Africans. But almost three centuries passed before this goal would be accomplished everywhere in the Americas.
Two years after this free Mexican townSan Lorenzo de los Negrosreceived its charter, about twenty Africans disembarked from a Dutch ship at Jamestown, Virginia. These people were the first Africans shipped to the new and permanent settlement that the English colonists had established in North America. They came 117 years after Africans were first enslaved in the Americas, in Hispaniola.
From Africa to the Americas
Modern archaelogical research has established that Africa was the birthplace of human life. No precise date can be given for the emergence of early humans, or the hominid species, but it may have taken place about two million years ago. The earliest of these hominid fossils were discovered at Lake Turkana in Kenya, at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, and the river Omo in Ethiopia. Consequently, it is possible to claim that east and northeast Africa formed the cradle of human society. In time, over hundreds of thousands of years, early humans moved to other parts of Africa and to other continents.
The first Africans were nomadic peoples who made simple stone tools to aid them in their struggles for survival. With the passage of time, these tools became more sophisticated. The hand ax, for example, appeared around a million years ago. Its sharp cutting edges were more effective in the killing of prey than the earlier tools. Probably about sixty thousand years ago, Africans started using fire. This development meant that meat could be cooked, and fire may even have been used to clear land for settlement or other purposes.
Human life in Africa, or elsewhere for that matter, was always changing. The people developed new tools, moved around, and organized their lives and societies in a variety of ways. There was much diversity among the African peoples in terms of their culture and skin color. In northeastern Africa, for example, the people tended to be lighter in complexion than those who lived in the tropical areas. Much of this difference in skin color was a result of living in different climates. Individuals who lived in areas of intense heat and sunlight developed the kind of dark skin pigmentation that provided more effective protection against the ravages of heat and allowed them to survive.
The black peoples of Africa, however, should not be characterized as belonging to a single race. In fact, many scholars have abandoned the use of the concept of "race" as a way of categorizing peoples. Skin color and other physical features do not reveal much about the genetic makeup of an individual or group. Two individuals with the same skin color and hair texture may be more genetically different from one another than they are from two persons with another pigmentation. For this reason, scholars have concluded that Africans, and other peoples as well, are so internally different that the old way of classifying people according to physical appearance or "race" is no longer useful.
It is more useful to look at the African peoples according to language groupings. Different languages make up a family if their structures are basically similar. In most cases, the similarities in these languages result from the interaction among the speakers and the mutual borrowing of words. Using this method of studying languages, scholars have fitted the African peoples into five language families. These are the Afro-Asiatic family in North Africa, the Nilo-Saharan languages spoken in areas south and east of the Sahara and around the Nile River valley, the Congo-Kordofanian family spoken in West and West Central Africa, and the Khoisan group of languages spoken in southern Africa and parts of East Africa. A sixth family, the Austronesian, is found in Madagascar but is not native of Africa (having originated in Southeast Asia).
African societies varied in the pace of their development and the nature of the changes that they experienced over time. Egypt, for example, was the first society to begin cultivating food crops, probably about 5500 B.C. Other societies followed. By 3000 B.C., the people living in the savanna were producing a variety of grains and yams. The development of agriculture made it possible to support larger populations and contributed to the rise of settlements.
Throughout the continent, the people organized themselves in political units of various sizes and degrees of complexity. Egypt was the first great African civilization. Located in an area fertilized by the Nile River, Egypt made rapid strides in agriculture and commerce by 3000 B.C. Before 3100 B.C., however, several small states existed in the area. These political divisions came to an end when the states formed one kingdom ruled by the pharaohs. This national unity paved the way for an impressive civilization that would last for several centuries.
Egyptian civilization was characterized by a hieroglyphic writing system, complex religious ideas, and monumental stone pyramids. Although historians disagree on this matter, it appears that the Egyptian peoples consisted of black Afri cans as well as lighter-skinned peoples from the Mediterranean area. Their civilization had a major impact on Greek culture and ultimately on Western civilization.
Ancient Egypt is the best known of the early African societies, but it did not stand alone. Elsewhere, Africans developed a variety of states ranging from a few hundred people to large kingdoms and empires. These states were not all alike; there were variations in their political and social structures, the nature of the power exercised by the rulers, their religions, and so on. Many Africans believed that the authority and power of their ruler derived from the gods. Most of these societies had their own bureaucracies, taxation systems, and armed forces.
Some of the best-known states and empires were located in the western and central Sudan. Ghana, located in West Africa north of the Niger and Senegal valleys, was probably the earliest of them all. Noted for its great wealth and the power of its ruler, Ghana was said to have had an army of more than 200,000 soldiers around A.D. 1068. Later, the empire of Mali rose to prominence in the fourteenth century, occupying areas that are now part of Nigeria and the Guinea forests.
Mali's most famous ruler was Mansa Kankan Musa, who came to the throne in 1312. Bold and aggressive, he extended the frontiers of the Mali Empire to the Atlantic Ocean, incorporating several smaller states along the way. A Muslim, Mansa Musa undertook a pilgrimage to Mecca, which was then a part of Egypt, in 1324. On this journey, Mansa Musa made a lavish display of his wealth. He was accompanied by five hundred slaves, each one bearing a staff of gold that weighed six pounds. In addition, one hundred camels carried thirty thousand pounds of gold. Mansa Musa's extravagance in Egypt created an accurate perception that his empire was one of the wealthiest then in existence.
The African peoples also developed cultural traditions that met their needs. The family was the basis of their social organization. Kinship ties, which united members of an ethnic group, were particularly strong. African societies were also deeply religious; most had a supreme god and other lesser deities. There was hardly any distinction between the religious and the secular, or civil, aspects of life. Religious beliefs determined when almost all activities, such as the planting seasons, harvest time, or the naming of children, would take place. Not surprisingly, the African peoples who came to the Americas brought very strong family and religious traditions with them.
African societies were never free from influences that originated outside of the continent. The Egyptian civilization enjoyed much interaction with the societies of the Mediterranean. There was a great deal of contact between the East African societies and those of Asia. Ethiopians had lived in Greece from about the fifth century B.C. Other Africans, usually traders, had visited various European countries for centuries.
In the eighth century, the new and aggressive Islamic religion began to gain converts in North and sub-Saharan Africa. With the embrace of Islam came important changes in the beliefs of the Africans and the nature of their legal systems. The Islamization of West Africa was aided by traders who converted to Islam in the north and brought their new religious ideas across the Sahara to the south. The pace of religious conversion and the number of converts varied, but few states remained untouched by Islam at the start of the Atlantic slave trade in the early sixteenth century. This did not mean, however, that most West Africans became Muslims and abandoned their traditional religious ideas. For many of the converts to Islam, ancient beliefs existed alongside the new ones, although these beliefs were undoubtedly modified in some way over time. Some of the Africans who were enslaved in the Americas were Muslims, but most were not.
Some scholars think that some West African peoples had established trading relationships with the native peoples of the Americas before the arrival of Columbus in 1492. Such contacts may have begun as early as the seventh century B.C. This conclusion is based on skeletal remains found in Central America that appear to be African, representations of African features in the art of some of the first Americans, as well as similarities in some African languages and those spoken in the Americas before Columbus. Because these kinds of evidence are subject to different interpretations, it cannot yet be established conclusively that Africans arrived in the Americas before the Europeans did.
Historians can never be certain of the number of Africans who were brought to the Americas as slaves. Reliable records were often not kept, some have disappeared, and there is no firm data on those persons who were imported illegally. Those Europeans and Americans who engaged in illegal slave trading did so in order to avoid paying taxes on the slaves that they carried. Others traded without receiving permission to do so from the authorities or began smuggling slaves after laws were passed abolishing the human traffic. In spite of these difficulties, most historians now estimate that the number of Africans who arrived as slaves from 1502 to the mid-nineteenth century amounted to between ten and twelve million. Most of these people were shipped to Latin America and the Caribbean.
The foundations of the Atlantic slave trade were established in the sixteenth century by Spanish colonists, who were no strangers to the institution of slavery. Prior to Columbus's voyages to the Americas, the Spaniards held Muslims, black Africans, Slavs, and even other Spaniards as slaves. In fact, the number of African slaves in Spain and Portugal was increasing during the years preceding Columbus's voyages, reflecting a decline in the use of other groups as slaves.
Under the circumstances, it is not surprising that the Spaniards in Hispaniola, the first colony in the Caribbean, asked the Crown to send them African slaves once the need for labor arose. This request was made in 1501, a mere seven years after the island had been colonized. Unwilling to perform menial and backbreaking tasks, the Spaniards had expected to depend on the forced labor of the native peoples. The Indians, at least those who fell under the control of the colonists, were enslaved and required to work in the fields, households, and mines. But many Indians soon died from mistreatment and disease, which created a shortage of labor.
Faced with a declining supply of Indian laborers, the Spanish colonists pondered their options and decided to introduce African slavery. Not only were Africans performing unpaid labor in Spain and elsewhere in Europe at the time, but as a group they were placed at the bottom of the social order as well. The terms black and slave had become increasingly interchangeable in Spain in the fifteenth century. The country's moral climate justified African slavery. In other words, black Africans had occupied a decidedly inferior place in Spanish society prior to Columbus's expeditions. In addition, the notion that Africans could be enslaved and were suited for that condition had become widely accepted and deeply rooted in Spanish society.
It is not entirely clear why this was the case. Spaniards, and by extension the Portuguese and other Europeans, may have attributed negative qualities to the Africans because they were different culturally, had black skins, and were not Christians. Africans were people set apart as the "other," persons whose differences the Europeans neither appreciated, respected, nor understood. Not until the nineteenth century, however, did a full-blown racist ideology develop to promote the biological claims to superiority by whites and to defend the treatment of blacks by alleging that they were inferior members of the human species. No such "scientific" claims were made at the time of Columbus. Perhaps none was needed. By purchasing Africans and using them as slaves, the Europeans were already asserting power over them. In time, the Africans' inferior place in society came to be seen as normal, and few voices were raised to challenge their treatment and condition.
In response to the request from the governor of Hispaniola for African slave labor in 1501, the Spanish Crown authorized the shipment of slaves in 1502. The slaves in this first cargo had lived in Spain for some time before they were shipped to the Caribbean. Not until 1518 would slaves be transported to the Americas directly from Africa.
The Portuguese were the pioneering European slave traders. Portugal was the first country in Europe that had developed the technology to conduct a seafaring trade. Unlike some of the other European countries, Portugal was politically united by the fifteenth century and free from the sorts of serious internal conflicts that weakened its neighbors. As a result, its leaders could focus their energies on overseas expansion and trade. Situated on the Atlantic Ocean, the Portuguese had also made significant advances in shipbuilding, thereby giving them the ability to participate actively in overseas trading ventures. Portugal had also developed a class of merchants and entrepreneurs with the wealth, skill, and experience to conduct a slave trade.
Prince Henry, who would later be called "the Navigator," was one of the earliest of the Portuguese explorers. His explorations along the African coast in the 1420s opened the way for the development of a European-African trade in black slaves. The first organized Portuguese expedition to capture black Africans and enslave them appears to have occurred in 1441. Led by Antão Gonçalves and Nuno Tristão, the members of the expedition captured twelve Africans off the coast of northern Mauritania and presented them at the Portuguese court.
This initial Portuguese success at people-stealing encouraged additional attempts. A few kidnapped Africans were brought to Portugal in succeeding months, but the single largest group was unloaded in Lisbon on August 8, 1444. There were between 235 and 240 captives in this party. In time, Genoese, Florentine, and Castilian traders joined the Portuguese kidnappers on the West African coast. But the Portuguese remained the principal carriers of Africans to Europe for the next century and more. The process by which these Africans were acquired in the early years cannot be characterized as a trade. The evidence does not show that the Europeans bargained with anyone; the Africans were simply abducted. Portuguese authorities, however, imposed a tax on all Africans sold in their country.
Not surprisingly, the Europeans could not continue to kidnap Africans indefinitely, and a trade with its own rules would have to be developed. To this end, the Portuguese built a fort on the island of Arguin to serve as a base for trade with the Africans. This did not mean that raids for African slaves ceased; it indicated that the contact with Africa was being placed on a more formal footing and that the abductions decreased even if they did not disappear. By 1450 the Portuguese had begun to transport an average of one thousand to two thousand African slaves to Europe each year. Most of these people came from the Senegambia, but a few were from other nearby areas.
Portugal's domination of the Euro-African trade deepened as the fifteenth century wore on. In 1452, Pope Nicholas V granted the Portuguese king the authority to attack and enslave "the Moors, heathens and other enemies of Christ" who lived south of Cape Bojador. Although this and other papal grants did not necessarily lead to an increase in the number of slaves, they gave the approval of the church to the institution of slavery and paved the way for Portuguese conquest and occupation of societies that were not Christian. In 1479, Spain recognized Portugal's supremacy in the slave trade by signing the Treaty of Aláçovas. The treaty granted Portugal the right to supply Spain with African slaves and accepted its monopoly of the African trade. Three years later, in 1482, the Portuguese built a fort on the Gold Coast (modern Ghana) to encourage, assist, and protect the expanding African commerce. Known as Elmina Castle, the fort could hold hundreds of slaves.
Clearly, when the Spanish Crown agreed to send African slaves to Hispaniola in 1502, the bureaucratic machinery of treaties and established practices was already in place to acquire them. Under the terms of the 1479 treaty, the Portuguese had already agreed to supply African slaves to the Spaniards. So the decline of the Indian population of the Americas and the Spanish colonists' insistence on a new labor force did not create the African slave trade and slavery. Both were already in existence. The demand for slaves in the Americas did, however, lead to an expansion of the trade and a change in its direction. Instead of going up to Europe, the majority of the Africans would soon be sent across the Atlantic to the Americas.
The increase in the demand for slaves, coupled with the expectation that huge profits could be made, led several other European nations to participate in the slave trade, By 1650, the Dutch, the English, and the French, among others, had joined the Portuguese in this human commerce. Spain, whose colonies consumed most of the African slaves during the first century and a half of the slave trade, did no trading on the African coast until the late eighteenth century. This was not by design. It was a consequence of another treaty signed by Spain and Portugal in 1494. Known as the Treaty of Tordesillas, the agreement permitted the Portuguese to trade on the African coast and in Asia and Brazil. The Spaniards were confined to the rest of what became known as the Americas. The other European nations, however, were not parties to this division of the known world. They did not feel themselves bound by the treaty, and they ignored it.
Once the Spanish Crown authorized the introduction of African slaves in the Americas, it issued licenses, for a fee, to individual traders to supply the slaves. These traders were likely to be either Portuguese, Genoese, or Spaniards. The license specified the number of slaves that would be delivered and the destination. A new license was required for each slave-trading journey because the Crown wanted to exercise control over the supply of slaves and to receive the tax revenue that the trade generated. Most traders received permission to deliver fewer than twenty or thirty slaves. There were exceptions, of course, and some traders were allowed to ship hundreds of slaves at one time. Spaniards who intended to settle in the colonies were also allowed to take with them any slaves that they already owned.
The system of awarding licenses did not satisfy the growing demand for unfree African labor. Some traders did not fulfill their contractual obligations for one reason or another. Slave deliveries were often delayed, and Africans never arrived in adequate numbers to meet the demand.
In spite of the bureaucratic and other problems that the licensing system produced, it was not replaced until 1595. In that year, the Spanish Crown introduced a monopoly system known as the Asiento, or "contract." Under this system, a trader or a trading company was granted the sole right to supply a given number of slaves, usually several thousand each year, to the colonies for a specified number of years. These contracts were awarded only after the Crown received bids from prospective traders. The traders who were chosen had to pay a sizeable fee when they received the contract.
Most, if not all, of these traders failed to meet the terms of their agreements. Some ran into financial difficulties, and others were more interested in engaging in other forms of commerce, such as trading in silver and other precious metals or in textiles. The failure of the Asentistas to meet their contractual obligations paved the way for other traders to smuggle slaves into the colonies. The smugglers were likely to be Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, or English traders.
The business of the Atlantic slave trade was helped by the existence of slavery and a slave trade inside Africa. As was the case with various societies in Asia, Europe, and the Americas, forms of servitude existed among African ethnic groups. Captives taken in war, debtors, and persons convicted of certain crimes, such as homicides, could lose their liberty. These people still had some rights, however. They could marry, inherit property, and participate extensively in the life of the host society. Over time, most slaves could expect to receive their freedom. The pace at which this occurred must have varied, but the expectation that freedom was within reach probably made their condition more endurable.
Still, the Atlantic slave trade did not develop because slavery already existed in Africa. Such a claim would place the primary responsibility for the human traffic on the shoulders of the African peoples. The European and American traders joined hands with their African counterparts to conduct a mutually beneficial commerce. It was a trade like any other, bound by the rules of supply and demand, profit and loss. But the slave trade differed from other forms of business in one important respect: the trading goods were other human beings. It is this crucial difference that explains the horror of the slave trade and the moral revulsion that it would later produce.
The rules governing the slave trade took their distinctive shape during the second half of the fifteenth century. Once the external demand for African workers began to increase, the process by which they were acquired fell under the control of the local traders. Although European traders continued to abduct unsuspecting Africans, the number of such raids diminished. The African leaders and their peoples had to assert control over what was taking place in their territory and could not allow foreigners to kidnap their citizens at will. Such atrocities undermined the stability of the society and constituted an assault on the people. The African rulers also realized that if the developing trade were organized and regulated, they could make money from it. Among other things, a tax was imposed on the sale of each slave.
Portuguese traders obtained their slave cargoes for the Americas from West Africa as well as from the Congo and Angola, which are located in West Central Africa. Until about 1600, the majority of the slaves came from West Africa, from a vast area north of the equator. This region includes modern Senegal, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, and Sierra Leone. The ethnic groups that made up these slave cargoes included the Wolof and the Serer from Senegal; the Mandinka from the Gambia; the Bram, Banyun, and Biafada from Guinea-Bissau. The Baga, Temne, and Landuma peoples came from Sierra Leone. The Congo-Angola region provided the Bakongo, Teke, and Ambundu peoples. Probably about one-third of the slaves originated in the Congo-Angola region, and about twenty-five percent each came from the Senegambia and Guinea-Bissau.
The sources for the supply of slaves kept shifting throughout the entire history of the African slave trade. Much depended on political developments in the various societies. Whenever states were at war, and if these wars continued for long periods of time, the captives would be made available for sale to European traders. Such was the case of the states in the Senegambia in the sixteenth century and of the kingdom of Kongo during the same period. Angola increasingly became the chief source of slaves as the sixteenth century progressed. This was the result of the political disorder that wracked the various states in the area. By 1600, slave cargoes also included the Akan from the Gold Coast (modern Ghana), the Fon from coastal Dahomey, and the Ibo from eastern Nigeria. A few persons also came from southeastern Africa, principally from Mozambique. Overall, West Central Africa supplied about forty percent of the slaves between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries.
The political divisions among the African peoples largely account for the availability of slaves for the Atlantic market. Africa has never been a politically united continent whose peoples had a common identity and consciousnesseither during the sixteenth century, or at any time during the course of the slave trade, or later. Hardly anyone would have described himself or herself as an "African." Residents of the continent were more likely to think of themselves as belonging to specific ethnic groups, such as the Ibo, Biafada, Bram, or Mandinka. The concept of an African identity above and beyond ethnic and geographic boundaries is a relatively recent development.
West and West Central Africa, from which most of the captives were taken, consisted of a large number of states. Some of these were relatively small, while others, such as the kingdom of Kongo and the Jolof Empire in the Senegambia, were very large and included various mini-states that they had absorbed. These states frequently had disputes that led to warfare. In some cases, larger and more powerful states attempted to overrun their smaller neighbors. These instances of territorial expansion often led to prolonged conflicts and the taking of prisoners. Other conflicts between states arose from commercial rivalries, struggles to control trade routes, and even efforts to determine who would succeed to the leadership of bordering states. The political fragmentation of the different regions, coupled with the varieties of conflicts that led to war, created a constant flow of human victims for the trade.
The vast majority of the slaves were prisoners of war. The seller and the victim usually belonged to different states and were enemies. Accordingly, Africans did not "sell their own people," as some historians have maintained. Such a claim ignores the culturally and politically diverse nature of the regions from which the slaves came as well as the diversity of the African continent as a whole. The overwhelming majorityperhaps eighty percent of the victims of the human traffic were likely to be persons who had no ties to the state of their sellers, had no rights, and were vulnerable to the traditional fate of wartime prisonersimprisonment, enslavement, or death.
Little is known about the process by which the slaves were traded during the early years. (Information is much more readily available for the years after 1650.) Still, it is known that the European traders exchanged textile products, guns, gunpowder, alcohol, pots and pans, and a range of other consumer goods for the slaves. The value of each slave was arrived at after much bargaining between the black and the white traders. The process evidently became more complicated in the seventeenth century, when more Europeans entered the trade, bringing a wider variety of products with values expressed in their own currency. Thus, in addition to the Portuguese escudo, the Africans had to get accustomed to the English pound sterling, the Dutch guilder, and the French franc. The Africans, too, had different monetary systems. There was the iron bar in Sierra Leone, gold in Ghana, cowrie shells in Dahomey, and Loango cloth in Angola.
Once the African was sold, he or she was usually branded with the identification mark of the purchaser. Whether this was a regular practice in the early years is uncertain, but it would become so in the seventeenth century and later. A slave who was branded could be identified in the event of escape or if the individual were stolen by a European competitor. There was, understandably, not much honor in the slave-trading business.
The slaves' journey to the coast and to the waiting ships could be quite hazardous. Prodded by their captors, some perished along the way as a consequence of disease and wounds infected by branding. Death was an ever-present feature of the trade. Many more would die as they awaited departure on the coast for the Americas, and others would succumb during the Atlantic crossing.
The length of time that the human cargoes waited in the forts on the coast prior to their departure for the Americas varied. Much depended on the supply of slaves to be purchased. This, in turn, was related to whether the states were at war, which would generate captives who could be sold. Once the traders had acquired their full cargo, the long and terrible journey to the Americas began.
The journey from Africa to the Americas was known as the middle passage. It derived its name from the second, or middle, segment of a European-based slave ship's triangular route. The first leg was the trip from Europe to Africa, and the third was the ship's return journey from the Americas to Europe. The middle passage, however, remains the most horrible symbol of the traffic in human beings. Chained together and confined to the cramped, hot, and humid holds of the ships, these Africans were lucky if they survived the ordeal. The sanitary conditions aboard these slave ships were appalling, producing the perfect environment for the spread of disease. Some slaves were already ill before they embarked, and others were tormented by disease on board the ship. Dysentery, measles, smallpox, yellow fever, dehydration, and a variety of "fevers" proved to be the scourge of every journey.
It was, of course, impossible to predict how many slaves would die during the crossing. The Asiento contracts that the Spaniards awarded usually made allowances for a death rate of between ten percent and forty percent on each cargo. But it is not entirely clear whether this was an accurate estimate for the sixteenth century.
The death rate not only reflected the sanitary conditions aboard the ships, but it was also related to the general health of the slaves before the journey began. Chance, or luck, played a part as well. If there was no one on board who carried an infectious disease, such as smallpox, the cargo would most likely experience a lower than average death rate.
There was also a relationship between the time the ship took to cross the Atlantic and the death toll. The faster the sailing time, the lower the death rate. During the sixteenth century it took anywhere from twelve to twenty weeks to reach the American ports. Such a long confinement at sea in close quarters aided the spread of disease. With the construction of faster ships in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the sailing time ranged between five and eight weeks. The average death rate in the eighteenth century was between ten percent and fifteen percent; by the nineteenth century it had fallen to somewhere between five percent and ten percent. Sanitary conditions had improved aboard the ships, and better medical care was provided.
Thoughtful captains took care to provide their human cargoes with a diet consisting of the foods to which they were accustomed. The composition of these foods varied, depending on the part of Africa from which the slaves came. In general, however, such foods included corn, yams, palm oil, rice, and potatoes. Slave ships also stocked foodstuffs that they brought from Europe, such as bread, cheese, beef, beans, and flour. However, these supplies sometimes proved inadequate to feed a cargo of slaves, particularly if the journey to the Americas lasted longer than had been expected. Reports from the eighteenth century and later described voyages that ran out of food and slaves who arrived thin and hungry.
The slaves must have engaged in forms of resistance on board ships during this early period, but the surviving records shed no light on this issue. Ships did, however, carry a variety of gadgetssuch as mouth openers, thumb screws, chains, and whipsto punish those who resisted their condition. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries slaves participated in rebellions and hunger strikes, jumped overboard, and verbally abused the crew. Such physical challenges to slavery on the high seas were seldom successful, but they often resulted in considerable loss of life.
The arrival of the slaves in such places as Hispaniola, Lima, and Vera Cruz signaled the end of one awful experience and the beginning of another. The Africans were purchased yet again and became the property of strange people in a strange land. Their prospects of returning to their homeland were virtually nonexistent. Their ties with their kith and kin were severed forever, and their sense of alienation in their new lands must have been paralyzing.
Where did the slaves who arrived in the Americas go? The vast majority, approximately ninety-five percent, were distributed to the societies of Latin America and the Caribbean. Only about five percent ended up in the British colonies of North America, or what is now the United States. The following figures are a reasonably accurate accounting of the distribution patterns of the trade based upon present knowledge:
| British North America |
| 550,000 |
2,500,000 to 3,000,000
4,000,000 to 5,000,000
Almost all of the slaveholding societies of the Americas experienced an annual decrease in population as the Africans fell victim to hard work and disease. As a result, they had to depend on the slave trade to replenish their labor supply. The only exception to this pattern was English North America. By the first decades of the eighteenth century, the North American slave population began to reproduce itself, and it sustained this growth until emancipation came in the 1860s. For this reason, North America was much less dependent on the slave trade than the other slave societies of the Americas, which had a profound influence on the culture of the black population in this region. The North American slave population by the nineteenth century was essentially a creole, or locally born, population. Although only about 500,000 Africans had been imported into that society, the slave population numbered almost four million in 1860, just before the outbreak of the Civil War.