Testimony from the Middle Passage “At last, when the ship we were in had got in all her cargo,...we were all put under deck, so that we could not see how they managed the vessel. But this disappointment was the least of my sorrow. The stench of the hold while we were on the coast was so intolerably loathsome, that it was dangerous to remain there for any time, and some of us had been permitted to stay on the deck for the fresh air; but now that the whole ship's cargo were confined together, it became absolutely pestilential. The closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us.
This produced copious perspirations, so that the air soon became unfit for respiration, from a variety of loathsome smells, and brought on a sickness among the slaves, of which many died. This wretched situation was again aggravated by the galling of the chains, now became insupportable; and the filth of the necessary tubs, into which the children often fell, and were almost suffocated. The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable.” -from The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano
On the Slave Ships The slaves were branded with hot irons and restrained with shackles. Their "living quarters" was often a deck within the ship that had less than five feet of headroom -- and throughout a large portion of the deck, sleeping shelves cut this limited amount of headroom in half. Lack of standing headroom was the least of the slaves' problems, though. With 300 to 400 people packed in a tiny area -- an area with little ventilation and, in some cases, not even enough space to place buckets for human waste -- disease was prevalent.
Middle Passage mortality rates were high. Although it's difficult to determine how many Africans died en route to the new world, it is now believed that between ten and twenty percent of those transported lost their lives.
Slavery Across the Globe As in most of the world, slavery, or involuntary human servitude, was practiced across Africa from prehistoric times to the modern era. When people today think of slavery, many envision the form in which it existed in the United States before the American Civil War (1861-1865): one racially identifiable group owning and exploiting another. However, in other parts of the world, slavery has taken many different forms. In Africa, many societies recognized slaves merely as property, but others saw them as dependents who eventually might be integrated into the families of slave owners.
Still other societies allowed slaves to attain positions of military or administrative power. Most often, both slave owners and slaves were black Africans, although they were frequently of different ethnic groups. Traditionally, African slaves were bought to perform menial or domestic labor, to serve as wives or concubines, or to enhance the status of the slave owner. Traditional African practices of slavery were altered to some extent beginning in the 7th century by two non-African groups of slave traders: Arab Muslims and Europeans.
From the 7th to the 20th century, Arab Muslims raided and traded for black African slaves in West, Central, and East Africa, sending thousands of slaves each year to North Africa and parts of Asia. From the 15th to the 19th century, Europeans bought millions of slaves in West, Central, and East Africa and sent them to Europe; the Caribbean; and North, Central, and South America. These two overlapping waves of transcontinental slave trading made the slave trade central to the economies of many African states and threatened many more Africans with enslavement.
The South The image of the South as a place where plantation adjoined plantation and the entire white population owned slaves is a myth. Three quarters of the southern whites owned no slaves at all, and among those that did, most owned fewer than ten. Although the planter class, those individuals who owned twenty or more slaves to work plantations of about a thousand acres, was extremely small, it comprised the southern elite. (A very few plantations were several thousand acres in size and used hundreds of slaves.)
With the day-to-day routine of the plantation in the hands of an overseer, a planter had little contact with his slaves except for those working in his house. The planter was an agrarian businessman, deciding how much land to put into cash crops versus foodstuffs, debating whether to buy more slaves or invest in machinery, and always keeping an eye on the market prices of his crops. Wealth, social position, and lifestyle separated the planter from the farmer who owned just a few slaves and usually labored alongside them in the fields. However, the goal of many small slaveholding farmers was to obtain more slaves and land so they could become planters themselves.
The Middle Passage and the Trade Triangle For weeks, months, sometimes as long as a year, they waited in the dungeons of the slave factories scattered along Africa's western coast. They had already made the long, difficult journey from Africa's interior -- but just barely. Out of the roughly 20 million who were taken from their homes and sold into slavery, half didn't complete the journey to the African coast, most of those dying along the way. And the worst was yet to come. The captives were about to embark on the infamous Middle Passage, so called because it was the middle leg of a three-part voyage -- a voyage that began and ended in Europe.
The first leg of the voyage carried a cargo that often included iron, cloth, brandy, firearms, and gunpowder. Upon landing on Africa's "slave coast," the cargo was exchanged for Africans. Fully loaded with its human cargo, the ship set sail for the Americas, where the slaves were exchanged for sugar, tobacco, or some other product. The final leg brought the ship back to Europe. The African slave boarding the ship had no idea what lay ahead. Africans who had made the Middle Passage to the plantations of the New World did not return to their homeland to tell what happened to those people who suddenly disappeared.
The First Slaves in the Colonies Sails furled, flag drooping at her rounded stern, she rode the tide in from the sea. She was a strange ship, indeed, by all accounts, a frightening ship, a ship of mystery. Whether she was trader, privateer, or man- of-war, no one knows. Through her bulwarks black- mouthed cannon yawned. The flag she flew was Dutch; her crew a motley. Her port of call, an English settlement, Jamestown, in the colony of Virginia. She came, she traded, and shortly afterward was gone. Probably no ship in modern history has carried a more portentous [significant] freight. Her cargo? Twenty slaves. --Excerpt from They Came in Chains (Redding, 1973)
The Virginia Slave Code An Excerpt Whereas many times slaves run away and lie hid and lurking in swamps, woods, and other obscure places, killing hogs, and committing other injuries to the inhabitants…if the slave does not immediately return, anyone whatsoever may kill or destroy such slaves by such ways and means as he…shall think fit… If the slave is apprehended…it shall…be lawful for the county court, to order such punishment for the said slave, either by dismembering, or in any other way…as they in their discretion shall think fit, for the reclaiming any such (persistent) slave, and terrifying others from like practices… --Excerpt from The Virginia Slave Code (1700s)
Emergence of Tribes By 1600, the powerful Iroquois Confederacy began exerting its influence. The Confederacy was an alliance of five Iroquois-speaking nations -- Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca -- formed in present-day New York in the late 1500s. A confederacy of nearly 30 tribes, the Powhatan lived in areas of Virginia and Maryland. Their villages were established along rivers for easy access to food and transportation and only moved when the soil became exhausted and could no longer support crops such as corn and tobacco.
European Exploration & Native Americans In 1607, English colonists landed at Jamestown, Virginia. Based on various explorations, the British and French laid claim to the territory comprising present-day West Virginia and Native Americans were forced west. Many of the tribes were destroyed by constant warfare and catastrophic diseases. At the same time, trade with the Europeans proved a strong attraction, enabling the Indians to acquire valuable new products, such as guns, steel hatchets, cloth, and kettles. The fur trade in particular made many tribes powerful and more aggressive.
English and Native American Relations In 1635, Maryland Indians responded to the governor’s demand that if any of them killed an Englishman, the guilty one should be delivered up for punishment according to the English law. The Indians said: It is the manner amongst us Indians, that if any such accident happen, wee doe redeeme the life of a man that is so slaine, with 100 armes length of Beades and since that you are here strangers, and come into our Countrey, you should rather conform yourselves to the Customes of our Country, than impose yours upon us…
Native American Concept of Land Indians fought among themselves over hunting rights to the territory but the Native American idea of "right" to the land was very different from the legalistic and individual nature of European ownership. The Indians had no concept of "private property," as applied to the land. Certainly, the idea of an individual having exclusive use of a particular piece of land was completely strange to Native Americans. The Indians practiced communal land ownership. That is, the entire community owned the land upon which it lived....