What is Slavery Essay Example

The first African Slaves arrived in Jamestown on August 20, 1619, marks the beginning of the American Slave Trade. Even though slavery was not a known institution at the time, these  Africans was the first to go on record to be sold as involuntary laborers. Not much is known about the Africans, it has been speculated by some that they were part of a prize for a slave trader. Like white settlers, Blacks who arrived in America that could not afford passage in the colonies would become indentured servants. One has to wonder what it must have been like to come to a new country against your will. With their humanity being stripped from their very core, never to see their loved ones and experience their God given right to freedom again. 

Throughout the course of the Atlantic Slave Trade an estimated 15 million Africans were transported to the Americas between the 16th century and 18th century. British ships made the journey to West Africa to trade enslaved African people. The enslaved Africans would be taken across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas where they would be sold to plantation owners who needed to work on the plantations there. Life on board the slave ships was harsh. The enslaved Africans and the crew suffered from poor conditions and treatment. Disease was common and many could die on the journey.

African slaves brought to the Americas were part of the “Middle Passage “, as ships began in Europe, stopped in Africa to unload supplies and pick up enslaved human cargo, and then traveled to America on the eastern coast to trade the slaves for goods that were shipped back to Europe. There are many accounts that tell us about the journey taken by slave ships across the Atlantic Ocean from Africa to the Americas. Some are the records of the voyage kept by the captain in the ship’s logbook. This records everything about life on board the slave ship. It tells us about the weather, the ship's course, the rations given out to slaves, punishments to crew or slaves, and any death or sickness.

Slaves also wrote their accounts of being aboard slave ships. Two famous accounts are those written by Olaudah Equiano who was captured and sold as a slave in Benin, and Ottobah Cugoans who was only a child when he was taken from Africa. It is rare to hear a firsthand account from an enslaved African. Few of the slaves had the opportunity to learn, read and write, and so few could tell their story to the wider world. Olaudah Equiano wrote about his experiences in The Life of Olaudah Equiano the African (1789). Often the members of the crew were also unable to read or write, which means that few individual accounts written by sailors exist. There are, however, a few firsthand accounts written by sailors, describing their experiences in the slave trade.

Usually, when we say American slavery or the American Slave Trade, we mean the American Colonies. Probably no more than a few hundred thousand Africans were taken to the Americas before 1600. The name of the first African slave ship out of the United States was Desire, in 1619, which sailed out of Massachusetts eighteen years later. The African ship Diaspora scattered Africans throughout the Caribbean and Americas. Africans were captured in their homeland and forcibly shipped across the Atlantic, on more than 35,000 voyages. This forced migration caused the displacement, torture, enslavement and murder of many Africans.

Growth of Sugar Plantations and Demand in Slavery

In the 17th century, however, demand for slaves rose greatly with the growth of sugar plantations in the Caribbean and Tobacco plantations in the Chesapeake region in North America. The slave trade had a devastating effect in Africa. Economic incentives for warlords and tribes to start in the slave trade started an atmosphere of lawlessness and violence. Most of the people taken captive were women in their childbearing years and young men. In West Central Africa, at a moment of drought set off a series of wars that created thousands of refugees and captives who, in turn, were sold by African traders or tribe leaders to the Europeans. The humiliation of the slave train, men, women and children strapped in a neck yolk as they stumbled towards the coast, was usually followed by imprisonment for as much as eight months until a slave ship arrived and collected, examined, haggled over and finally given a number by which they would be known throughout the voyage. Depopulation and a continuing fear of captivity made economic and agricultural development almost impossible throughout much of Western Africa.

The journey from Africa to North America usually took about two months. Slaves were chained together in the dark bowels of dirty disease-ridden cargo ship for months with little food or water was what millions of enslaved Africans had to endure on the voyage across the Atlantic Ocean from Africa to America dubbed the Middle Passage. The enslaved people were not seen as human. They were thought of as cargo or goods, things to be sold and bought. The slaves were not always fed every day. If there was not enough food for sailors and the slaves, the sailors would eat first and the slaves might not get any food. Many slaves died from starvation and dehydration during the Middle Passage.

Conditions on board ship during the Middle Passage were appalling. The ships were dramatically full, and the slave ship captains were making less space for a slave in the ship. The men were usually shackled together in pairs using leg irons, or shackles. If a slave died, the body could remain in the hold for hours, still chained to other living slaves. Women and children were kept in separate quarters, sometimes on deck, allowing them limited freedom of movement, but this also exposed them to violence and sexual abuse from the sailors. The

Captain and sailors did not want the slaves to die or to get ill, not out of compassion but rather out of a desire to protect their cargo and to generate a profit.

The state of the hold would quickly become unbearable, air in the hold was foul and putrial. Slaves were packed so close that they could not get to the toilet buckets, and so lay in their own filth. The lack of sanitation and suffocating conditions meant there was a constant threat of disease. African slaves were often unable to digest the food carried by the European crew, making the sickness worse. Disease spread rapidly, fever and the bloody flux or gastroenteritis, a serious stomach bug. Sickness on board the ship would often spread to the crew as well. The horrific conditions on the slave ships and depression over their future drove many of these poor souls to commit suicide, often by jumping over the side of the ship. Many of the slaves believed until the end of the voyage that they were being shipped away to be eaten.

Act of Regulation

In 1788 British, William Dolben put forward a bill to regulate conditions on board slave ships. The Act regulated the number of slaves according to the size of the ship. It also ordered all slave ships to carry a doctor, though often unqualified, were paid head money to keep slaves alive. Research by Wadstrom (published in 1794) calculated that a man was given space of 6 feet by 1 foot 4 inches, a woman 5 feet by 1 foot 4 inches and girls 4 feet 6 inches by 1 foot. 

William Wibberforce quoted evidence showing that not less than 12 and half percent of enslaved people perished in the passage and another 4 and half percent died on shore, before the day of sale. Conditions however remained appalling. 

Landfall brought relief to the crew but almost certainly more fears and uncertainties among the African Slaves. In 1750 with the development of plantations in America, the price of the slaves were very high. Slaves would have to be prepared first. Their skin was rubbed with oil to make them appear healthy. They were sold either on the ship or at a local market. The slave dealers made so much money that soon Africans came to be known as “black gold”. Slaves were sold in Americans for about 150 dollars a head!

Late in the eighteenth-century groups of people on both sides of the Atlantic began expressing concern about the morality and justice of slavery and the sheer scale of the trade. In 1808 over 100 years since the British Empire became involved in slave trading, the Trans-Atlantic slave trade was abolished. However, after the revolution, at the insistence of Southern states, Congress waited more than two decades before making the importation of slaves illegal. In 1808 was also the end of slave trading in the United States. Although the trade itself was abolished in 1808, slavery itself continued for some years. After emancipation it took another fifty years to see the end of slave trade. America finally gave all slaves their freedom after the end of the American Civil War in 1865. By conclusion of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade at the end of 19th century, Europeans had enslaved and transported more than 12.5 million Africans. At least 2 million didn't survive the journey.

The conventional wisdom is that social change takes place gradually, thanks to the actions of far-sighted political leaders, acting on behalf of the masses of people. To abolish slavery, it took a immense Civil War and Reconstruction period in the South that followed the war was the setting for a dramatic struggle to assure the equality of former slaves. Slavery’s legacy and efforts to overcome it remained a central issue in U.S. politics for more than a century, particularly during the post-Civil War Reconstruction era. Slavery officially ended in the United States on December 6, 1865, after the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was passed and ratified, abolishing slavery across the nation. Almost a century later, resistance to the lingering racism and discrimination in America that began during slavery era would lead to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, which would achieve the greatest political and social gains for blacks since Reconstruction.

Primary Sources

Douglass, Frederick. My Bondage and My Freedom. 1865.

Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano. 1789

Scholarly Sources

Eltis, David, Richardson, David. Atlas of Transatlantic Slave Trade. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2010

Rawley, James A. The Transatlantic Slave Trade. New York: New York, 2005

Rediker, Marcus. The Slave Ship. New York: Penguin Books, 2007