Antebellum Slavery/Interstate Slave Trade

 



















Section
Objectives











Kelly Kaltenbacher
Pooja Mehta
Rebekah Nahas

Ship Life

I. Conditions and Treatment

Once the slaves were taken to the ship, the were shackled in pairs and packed into the small amount of room available on the ship. Although the conditions were extremely harsh, the captains of slave ships tried to deliver as many healthy slaves for as little cost as possible. Some captains used a system called loose packing to deliver slaves. Under that system, captains transported fewer slaves than their ships could carry in the hope of reducing sickness and death among them. Other captains preferred tight packing. They believed that many blacks would die on the voyages anyway and so they carried as many slaves as their ships could hold. As time passed tight packing began to dominate slave trading. As soon as slaves were taken aboard, the men were shackled two by two, the right wrist and ankle of one to left wrist and ankle of another. They were then sent to a hold that the sailors had built on deck.

Slaves forcefully pushed together, back to face, lay cramped and helpless on the boat. Their sweating bodies were so close to each other that it was not unlikely to feel the hot breath of another slave stinging the back of one’s neck. Extra shelves were attached to many vessels, limiting the minute amount of space the slaves had in the first place. Their only escape from these cramped positions were monitored feedings on the deck- even these only occurred when the weather was good. When they were allowed to go on deck, they were carefully and suspiciously monitored. The sailors who weren’t feeding the slaves lined up along the deck with loaded guns in case of slave revolts. Despite the sailors’ passionate enmity of the slaves, they were not inhibited to call women to the deck and use them to pacify their burning desires.

While some of the sailors were supervising on deck, others went below to the slave quarters to wash them and air them out. Most regretted this task because of the horrible conditions of sanitation in the quarters. Some captains placed small buckets in which slaves were expected to excrete their feces. Slaves who were close to it used it but those who were farther away often tumbled and fell on others while trying to reach it. Severely hindered by the shackles that were tightly secured around their ankles, most slaves preferred to ease themselves where they were rather than to bruise themselves in the process of trying to reach it. Many captains just avoided the situation all together by never cleaning the quarters and leaving the slaves to spend the whole voyage in the filth. When weather conditions were bad, the conditions of the quarters dramatically worsened. The slaves’ holding quarters were so hot and humid that the floor of their rooms were covered with layers of dirty blood and mucus. The stench of rotting bodies and pungent body odors contributed to the intolerable environment.

After the sailors finished cleaning the quarters and the slaves were given their first meal of the day, the slaves were not allowed to leave the quarters until their second and last meal of the day. As soon as they finished eating, they were sent them bask into their barracks. The tallest men were put amidships, the widest part of the vessel, while the shorter men were placed in the stern. After properly placing them in their quarters, the sailors closed and barred the hatchway. When sailors tried to sleep on the deck, they often heard howling and screams of distress. The noises heard more often, however, were those of quarreling slaves.

Suicide attempts occurred daily and in painfully cruel ways. Slaves tried jumping overboard and even asked others to strangle them. One of the most common ways to avoid further punishment on the journey was to avoid eating. Starvation suicide attempts became so common that a device was introduced to forcefully open the mouths of slaves who refused to eat.

Slaves believed that their death would return them to their homeland and to their friends and relatives. To prevent slaves from killing themselves, sailors began chopping the heads off of corpses, implying that when they died, they would return to their homes headless.

Even with precautions taken to avoid suicide attempts like drowning and starvation, many healthy and well-fed slaves died from what was known as "fixed melancholy." This occurred when the slaves simply lost the will to live. Disease and despondency were not uncommon during the gruesome Middle Passage voyages. To prevent both despondency and scurvy, sailors forced the slaves to be more active and participate in what they called a dance. In this ritual, sailors snapped large whips at the naked bodies of the slaves who jumped screamed from the pain. The shackles were left on during the whippings and often tore away at their bruised flesh. The poor conditions, brutal treatment of slaves, and continual suicides resulted in a high mortality during the Middle Passage.

II. Mutinies

As a way to gain their freedom and escape from the Middle Passage boats, many slaves decided to fight back against the captains and crew. Between 1699 and 1845, there are records of fifty-five mutinies and references to scores of others. The odds against successful mutinies were so low and the precautions taken to prevent them were so high. However, this did not stop the slaves from revolting. The number and viciousness of revolts on board are enough evidence to prove that Africans did not compliantly go into transatlantic slavery. The odds were obviously against the slaves. On the high seas mutiny was not only ineffective but suicidal, since the slaves knew nothing about navigation. Only near the shore, if they succeeded in killing crew members, did they have a chance to drift ashore in the ship by cutting its anchor cables. However, the odds were still against them even if they did reach shore. When and if they escaped, it would serve no use because their own countrymen would catch them and sell them to other ships.

The ways in which these slaves revolted reflected the degree of suffering the slaves endured. In 1532, on the Portuguese ship Miscericordia carrying 109 slaves, the slaves rose and murdered all the crew except for the pilot and two seamen. The three survivors escaped but the ship Miscericordia was never heard of again. One captain gave his slaves knives to eat their meat, which they used to chip pieces of iron from the forecastle door and to break free from their shackles. Then they used the knives to kill the guard at the hatchway entrance and launched a battle which killed twenty-eight slaves. In 1650, a slave rising proved successful. A ship sailing from Panama for Lima was wrecked off Ecuador. The slaves killed the surviving Spaniards, and their leader, a determined slave named Alonso de Illescas, established himself as the lord of the Indians in the region of Esmeraldas. On another occasion in 1790, an English slave ship went to capture slaves that had hidden when their French vessel was at anchor. When the English seamen reached the French vessel, they found one hundred slaves in control of the decks and even more coming up from the hatches. The slaves did not surrender and fought ferociously.

 

III. Nourishment and Disease

For the crew and captains of Middle Passage boats, food supply for the slaves was a nuisance, as well as a necessity. Because so much food was needed to feed the slaves in the over packed boats, some captains did not want to waste the boat space on food, but rather on slaves, and so they brought far too little food on the voyage. This low supply of food also created a problem- too many slaves would die of starvation if there was not enough food to feed them. The Portuguese had laid down precise regulations in the amount of food need for the journey of a slave vessel, and for a time those rules were maintained. The Law of 1684 emphasized these regulations. However captains bound for Rio from Luanda or Benguela in Angola often refused to buy what was needed. Food was certainly under supplied.

The Dutch fed their slaves three times a day and the food was somewhat decent. On French boats the slaves were fed from a stew of oats that were cooked daily and to which sometimes dried turtle meat or dried vegetables were added. The English fed the slaves twice a day and gave the slaves’ meals in small fat tube. To keep the slaves under control the meals were held in the main deck and forecastle.

Sometimes it was necessary to force slaves to eat to keep them from committing suicide by self- starvation. Cruelty was often a measure used to prevent this self-starvation. The hour of the meal was the most dangerous time for crew and captain, since this was the time most mutinies occurred.

In the 1790's, an English slave captain, Captain Sherwood, persisted that adequate amounts of water on the voyage was needed. Africans were accustomed to drink more water than Europeans. In 1519, the Portuguese laid down the rule of adequate water. In their law of 1684 they specified what this meant- that enough water be stored to give each slave daily 1.5 pints of water (which was half the ration established as necessary earlier in the century). The space needed to provide adequate water was quite large. A Portuguese ship carrying three hundred slaves would have to ship thirty barrels of water by law. A double supply of water was sometimes taken on the voyage. For instance the ship Brookes in 1780 carried 34,000 gallons of water for six hundred slaves and forty-five crew members, but only 12,000 gallons were required.

These slave trade voyages were often very hot and crowded. Many slaves got dysentery, and thus the ration of water that was enforced by Portuguese was inadequate. Dehydration because of lack of water in the extremely hot weather was not at all unusual. To lessen the space needed to ship water, the RAC tried to create a machine that would transfer salt water into fresh water. However, this attempt was unsuccessful. Water was also carried in quite unhealthy ways. For example, on the voyage between Angola and Brazil, the water was stored in the same barrels that were used to transport special cane brandy, a preparation which fouled any liquid unless the barrels were properly cleaned.

Although captains tried to prevent it, disease was a major factor in the voyages. Dominican Tomas de Mercado, a critic of the slave trade, recalled a Portuguese ship which lost a hundred slaves out of five hundred in only one night from an unrecorded disease. If the slaves were sick or had a disease they were not taken care of by the physicians, instead their food and drink was stolen and the sickness spread. Jean Barbot goes on to say, " It was no way advisable to put sick slaves in the long boat upon deck, as was imprudently done on the Albion, for they being exposed to open air, and coming out of the excessive hot hold, and lying there in the cold of the nights for some time, just under the fall of the wind from the sails, were soon taken so ill of violent cholics and bloody fluxes that, in a few days, they died."

An English surgeon believed that two-thirds of the deaths on a journey were a result of "branzo". In reality, dysentery, or "the flux", was the worst of all diseases on the boats of the slave trade journey. A third of deaths were probably due to the flux or from dehydration which was induced by it. Smallpox was probably even more destructive than the flux. "The negroes are so incident to the smallpox," wrote Captain Phillps, "that few ships that carry them escape without it..." Scurvy was also a common disease found on board. Skin disease as well as several kinds of ophthamalia effected those on board.

Deaths on board were usually recorded, although most of the early "death books" of the Spanish and Portuguese were lost. Low death rates were recorded during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries for Portuguese ships going direct to Libson; 5 percent maximum if the boat was coming from Arguin. The percentage was 30 to 40 percent in the journey from Soa Tome. Tomas Mercado believed the average mortality on the slave voyage was 20 percent. Brazilian historians recorded losses of 15 to 20 percent in the sixteenth century while 10 percent in the nineteenth century.

When the Northern Protestants entered the slave trade in the seventeenth century they kept a more accurate account of deaths on these slave voyages. The RAC recorded loosing 24 percent of slaves on the voyages in the late seventeenth century. Early in the eighteenth century, that figure was reduced to 10 percent. By the late eighteenth century the figures diminished to about 5.65 percent. The statistics of mortality show that the highest rate was 32 percent in 1732 and the smallest was 5 percent in 1746 and 1774.

While some of the sailors were supervising on deck, others went below to the slave quarters to wash them and air them out. Most regretted this task because of the horrible conditions of sanitation in the quarters. Some captains placed small buckets in which slaves were expected to excrete their feces. Slaves who were close to it used it but those who were farther away often tumbled and fell on others while trying to reach it. Severely hindered by the shackles that were tightly secured around their ankles, most slaves preferred to ease themselves where they were rather than to bruise themselves in the process of trying to reach it. Many captains just avoided the situation all together by never cleaning the quarters and leaving the slaves to spend the whole voyage in the filth. When weather conditions were bad, the conditions of the quarters dramatically worsened. The slaves’ holding quarters were so hot and humid that the floor of their rooms were covered with layers of dirty blood and mucus. The stench of rotting bodies and pungent body odors contributed to the intolerable environment.

After the sailors finished cleaning the quarters and the slaves were given their first meal of the day, the slaves were not allowed to leave the quarters until their second and last meal of the day. As soon as they finished eating, they were sent them bask into their barracks. The tallest men were put amidships, the widest part of the vessel, while the shorter men were placed in the stern. After properly placing them in their quarters, the sailors closed and barred the hatchway. When sailors tried to sleep on the deck, they often heard howling and screams of distress. The noises heard more often, however, were those of quarreling slaves.

Suicide attempts occurred daily and in painfully cruel ways. Slaves tried jumping overboard and even asked others to strangle them. One of the most common ways to avoid further punishment on the journey was to avoid eating. Starvation suicide attempts became so common that a device was introduced to forcefully open the mouths of slaves who refused to eat.

Slaves believed that their death would return them to their homeland and to their friends and relatives. To prevent slaves from killing themselves, sailors began chopping the heads off of corpses, implying that when they died, they would return to their homes headless.

Even with precautions taken to avoid suicide attempts like drowning and starvation, many healthy and well-fed slaves died from what was known as "fixed melancholy." This occurred when the slaves simply lost the will to live. Disease and despondency were not uncommon during the gruesome Middle Passage voyages. To prevent both despondency and scurvy, sailors forced the slaves to be more active and participate in what they called a dance. In this ritual, sailors snapped large whips at the naked bodies of the slaves who jumped screamed from the pain. The shackles were left on during the whippings and often tore away at their bruised flesh. The poor conditions, brutal treatment of slaves, and continual suicides resulted in a high mortality during the Middle Passage.

 

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Overhead
view of
slave
vessel













On deck
of slave
vessel
































Slave mutiny
Slave mutiny

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