Perched on the edge of the vast unknown, were the trading posts of West Africa. The warehouses of the slave industry were for three centuries the only outposts of European power. By the end of the 17th century, the coast of west Africa was becoming one vast wharf of the slave trade. Once Portugal, had been the dominant power here, but now the flags were chiefly British, Dutch and Danish. Life in the ports was foul and boring. The ordinary soldiers and clerks “white Negroes” a visitor called them, in 1737, were underfed overworked feverish and short lived. Although their lives were incompatibly better than those of the miserable slaves, who languished in the fetid dungeons beneath their feet, the white men were scarcely happier. Life expectancy was seldom more than 2 or 3 years. With their African mistresses, they passed the lingering hours with long meals and heavy drinking, listlessly waiting in the tropical heat for a new consignment of “black ivory” brought by African suppliers in the hinterland for despatch across the Atlantic.
The transatlantic trade in black slaves began in 1517, when the first slaves were shipped to American colonies. It endured until the threshold of the 20th century. By then an estimated 11 million had been sold by their fellow Africans and transported by ’whites’ in the stinking holds of slave ships to be marketed in scores of American and west Indian ports.
Although the Spanish and Portuguese were the first to make slaving pay, the French, the Danes, the Swedes, the Brandenburgers and the Dutch all used and traded slaves, but it was the English who became the most daring, most efficient and by far the most prosperous in this lucrative trade.
England’s initial adventures were tentative and brief. In 1562, the merchant captain John Hawkins, out to test the Spanish-Portuguese monopoly in central America, picked up a few slaves along with ivory, spices and gold, on the West African coast, and with typical Elizabethan audacity he actually sold his blacks on the Spanish held island of Hispaniola.
The established slaving trade nations had already developed the “triangular” trade which England now adopted. It was a three-legged traffic, each leg profitable. European ships brought manufactured goods to the Guinea coast, where, acquisitive local monarchs accepted them in exchange for slaves, who were shipped across the Atlantic and sold to Caribbean planters, the proceeds went into sugar which was carried back across the Atlantic to purchase more trade goods.
Shipping slaves was expensive, time consuming and dangerous, but Negroes were essential in the Americas. They were hardier than local Indians who died under forced labour. They were heathens, so enslaving them offended few Christians consciences. Since they were bought for life and not for a limited period they were more dependable than indentured white workers. English investors bided their time . In 1672, a second enterprise, the Royal African Company, built new forts and in time their 300 employees controlled the slave coast from Senegal in the north, down as far as Portuguese Angola. By royal charter, none but the companies own skippers had the right to carry black cargo.
London may lay down the rules, but it was the local monarchs on the Guinea coast who called the tune. Sale of their brothers was neither new nor shocking, Africans had sold slaves abroad along with ivory, ostrich feathers and ebony as early as 300bc. Their trade with the Arabs was thriving some seven centuries before the first white slavers set sail. Prisoners of war were almost always made vassals and there were slave markets in many African towns. Before European companies could set up their stockaded trading posts or ‘factories’ scores of which soon dotted the coastline, they had to secure a lease form the local native ruler. This was not a difficult task for every self-respecting riuler wanted one on his territory. Initially, slaves were prisoners of war but since peace brought scarcity, rulers began to sell their convicted felons also. Not surprising felonies multiplied both in number and kind, one tribesman was sold for stealing a tobacco pipe. Royal wives could be sold if caught in adultery, so it became profitable for monarchs to marry scores of girls, leave them unhusbanded and count on their natural urges to turn them into adulteresses.
Once the supply of slaves were gathered, as many as several hundred, they were linked together by chains or leather thongs into a string or coffle (from the Arabic for caravan).
Sometimes there were insufficient slaves to fill a vessel and slavers had to either lie offshore, partly loaded, waiting for additional stock, or go along the coast from factory to factory searching for more bodies. This was a perilous period, the longer a ship remained in sight of land the greater the chance that the slaves below might revolt.
Ships were small, from a mere 50 tons to no more than 550. The smallest crammed a couple of hundred Africans aboard, the largest as many as 700. The science of slave stowage was as exact and inhuman as that of cargo stowage. Each male was manacled hand and foot to a second and sardine packed into the main slave deck, just over the waterline. This seagoing dungeon was rarely more than 5 feet high, yet round its perimeter ran a shelf which halved the headroom but made space for a second layer of merchandise. At sea slaves were taken up on deck twice a day for meals and the preservation of their health they were exercised or ‘danced’ by sailors swinging a cat-o-nine-tails. Some committed suicide, a few were slain during sea fights between slavers and privateers intent on seizing the black cargo. The contagious disease however, was the most devastating killer of all. It was common practise to throw an infected slave overboard n order to save the rest. On one voyage the slaver ‘Hero’ lost 60 slaves to smallpox, roughly half her load.
The long journey from Africa to America - the middle passage - was a horrible experience for both slaves and crews. To describe overcrowding on slave ships, reformers in the late 18th century used charts which showed how 400 slaves could be packed into a Liverpool ship of 320 tons. On one voyage the same vessel had carried 609 slaves. By then such excessive overloading as becoming rare and captains more careful in preserving their valuable human cargoes. This was reflected in the mortality rates, which interestingly, were lower than on ships taking British immigrants - who offered no opportunity for profit-making - to America in the mid-nineteenth century.
But even after improvement the stench from the slave ships could be smelled miles downwind and sailors yarned about the “howling melancholy noise” coming from the holds at night and about slaves who went mad or attempted suicide. Because of the risk of mutiny, lighted matches were held at the ships cannons when the slaves came on deck to be fed. It was rule by firepower, often by louts and always by sheer force.
From the moment the red-hot trade mark seared their skin, slaves were the helpless victims of their master’s whims. Owners regarded slaves not as men, but as chattels like mules or packhorses, and often treated them worse than animals. If they had regarded slaves as men like themselves, they could only have felt their cruelty was wrong. But regarding them as they did, they suffered no pricks of conscience.
Unlike animal chattels, slaves could understand the meaning of crime and their behaviour could be corrected - a distinct advantage to the planters. But in the west Indies, the principle of justice - that the punishment fit the crime, often did not apply as the plantation owner was the sole judge, jury and administrator of punishment. For minor offences - owners sometimes castrated their slaves, or chopped off and ear or half a foot. Runaways had heavy iron rings placed around their ankles or neck when recaptured. For serious offences planters devised ‘several very exquisite torments’ One of the most barbaric was nailing a slave to the ground then applying the fire by degrees from the feet and hands and upwards with excessive pain. Some slave owners fiercely defended such behaviour as essential for law and order.
Jamaica's penal system had a specially designed “house of correction” which included flays to flog the slaves and a giant treadmill complete with overseer and cat-o-nine-tails. These harsh punishments are an interesting comment on the venomous attitudes of the planters towards their slaves.
The same attitude was revealed in advertisements which offered rewards for runaway Negroes alive or dead. What would make a man offer up to £50 for a useless corpse? Chiefly it was to generate fear. Fear at what a runaway, desperate with hunger and cold, might do with the clasp-knife slaves carried for their work. Fear that built up every day from the white man’s constant danger in a predominantly black world of half-starved slaves.