The African Slave Trade/Chapter 2

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Exodus xxi. 16. And he that stealeth a man, and selleth him, or if be be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death.

See the dire victim torn from social life,
The shrieking babe, the agonizing wife!
She, wretch forlorn, is dragged by hostile hands,
To distant tyrants, sold to distant lands,
Transmitted miseries and successive chains,
The sole sad heritage her child obtains!
E'en this last wretched boon their foes deny.
To live together, or together die.
By felon hands, by one relentless stroke,
See the fond links of feeling nature broke!
The fibers twisting round a parent's heart,
Torn from their grasp, and bleeding as they part.
What wrongs, what injuries does Oppression plead,
To smooth the crime and sanctify the deed?
What strange offense, what aggravated sin?
They stand convicted — of a darker skin!

Hannah More.

The commencement of this nefarious traffic dates back to the year 1503, when a few slaves were sent from the Portuguese settlements in Africa to the Spanish colonies in America. It is said, however, that before that period, in 1434, a Portuguese captain landed in Guinea, and captured some colored lads, whom he sold at a profit to the Moors settled in the south of Spain. The trade became established in Spain in the year 1517, when Charles V. granted to Lebresa the exclusive right to import annually 4000 Africans, who were sold to the Genoese. The French under Louis XIII., and the English in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, permitted the traffic, under the plea that the captives taken in war would thus be saved from death; although Elizabeth protested against the cruelties connected with the trade.

The African chiefs, stimulated by a desire for gain, waged war against their neighbors, and thousands were soon captured, and hurried to the coast, to be exchanged for rum, brandy, iron, and toys, which constituted the currency of Europeans in this traffic. The most unjust and cruel means were resorted to in order to carry on the inhuman barter. Peaceful villages were ruthlessly invaded; the innocent were charged with crimes that they never committed; children were torn from their parents, and bound together, two and two, by the neck, with heavy pieces of wood, and marched, or rather driven to the river or coast, where a multitude of purchasers were ready to place them on board their vessels, and doom them to all the horrors of the middle passage. Thus this traffic was conceived in sin, and baptized in every form of iniquity.[1] In the year 1620, the same year in which the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock, bringing with them liberty, virtue, and a pure faith, a Dutch vessel landed twenty negroes at Queenstown, Virginia, who were sold to the colonists as slaves, thus opening the trade with our country. The traffic thus sustained by Portugal, Spain, France, and England, and having a new field on this continent, gradually advanced, producing every where its legitimate and terrible effects. So anxious were the petty African kings to keep up the trade, that when the French revolution lessened the demand for human merchandise, the king of Dahomey sent, in 1796, his brother and son to Lisbon, to secure the revival of the traffic, and entered into a treaty in favor of Portugal.

Before this traffic was opened, and the Africans were corrupted by drunkenness and avarice, wars seldom occurred; but the introduction of this wickedness opened the door to every crime, and it has frequently happened that thousands have been slain, while only hundreds have been captured. A surgeon, who sailed from New York to engage in the slave trade, made the following record in his journal:

"The commander of the vessel sent to acquaint the king that he wanted a cargo of slaves. Some time after, the king sent him word he had not yet met with the desired success. A battle was fought, which lasted three days. Four thousand five hundred men were slain upon the spot!"

Some idea of the waste of fife which this iniquity has occasioned may be gained, when we remember that during the last three centuries about forty millions of human beings have been torn from Africa, for the purpose of being reduced to servitude. Besides the loss in war, from fifteen to twenty per cent, die on the passage, and many more die after being landed.[2]

The gifted and humane Wilberforce, in a speech before Parliament,[3] remarked that:

"He would now say a few words relative to the "middle passage," principally to show that regulations could not effect a cure of the evil there. Mr. Isaac Wilson had stated in his evidence, that the ship in which he sailed, only three years ago, was of three hundred and seventy tons, and that she carried six hundred and two slaves. Of these she lost one hundred and fifty-five. There were three or four other vessels in company with her, which belonged to the same owners. One of these carried four hundred and fifty, and buried two hundred; another carried four hundred and sixty-six, and buried seventy-three; another five hundred and forty-six, and buried one hundred and fifty-eight; and from the four together, after the landing of their cargoes, two hundred and twenty died. He fell in with another vessel, which had lost three hundred and sixty-two, but the number which had been bought was not specified. Now if to these actual deaths, during and immediately after the voyage, we were to add the subsequent loss in the seasoning, and to consider that this would be greater than ordinary in cargoes which were landed in such a sickly state, we should find a mortality, which, if it were only general for a few months, would entirely depopulate the globe.

"He would advert to what Mr. Wilson said, when examined, as a surgeon, as to the causes of these losses, and particularly on board his own ship, where he had the means of ascertaining them. The substance of his reply was this: — that most of the slaves labored under a fixed melancholy, which now and then broke out into lamentations and plaintive songs, expressive of the loss of their relations, friends, and country. So powerful did this sorrow operate, that many of them attempted in various ways to destroy themselves, and three actually effected it. Others obstinately refused to take sustenance; and when the whip, and other violent means, were used to compel them to eat, they looked up into the face of the officer, who unwillingly executed this painful task, and said, with a smile, in their own language, 'Presently we shall be no more.' This, their unhappy state of mind, produced a general languor and debility, which were increased in many instances by an unconquerable aversion to food, arising partly from sickness, and partly, to use the language of slave captains, from sulkiness. These causes naturally produced the flux. The contagion spread; several were carried off daily; and the disorder, aided by so many powerful auxiliaries, resisted the power of medicine. And it was worth while to remark, that these grievous sufferings were not owing either to want of care on the part of the owners, or to any negligence or harshness of the captain; for Mr. Wilson declared, that his ship was as well fitted out, and the crew and slaves as well treated, as any body could reasonably expect."

After giving other testimony, Mr. Wilberforce added:

"Such were the evils of the passage. But evils were conspicuous every where in this trade. Never was there, indeed, a system so replete with wickedness and cruelty. To whatever part of it we turned our eyes, whether to Africa, the middle passage, or the West Indies, v/e could find no comfort, no satisfaction, no relief. It was the gracious ordinance of Providence, both in the natural and moral world, that good should often arise out of evil. Hurricanes cleared the air; and the propagation of truth was promoted by persecution. Pride, vanity, and profusion contributed often, in their remoter consequences, to the happiness of mankind. In common, what was itself evil and vicious was permitted to carry along with it some circumstances of palliation. The Arab was hospitable; the robber brave. We did not necessarily find cruelty associated with fraud, or meanness with injustice. But here the case was far otherwise. It was the prerogative of this detestable traffic to separate from evil its concomitant good, and to reconcile discordant mischiefs. It robbed war of its generosity; it deprived peace of its security; we saw in it the vices of polished society, without its knowledge or its comforts; and the evils of barbarism, without its simplicity. No age, no sex, no rank, no condition, was exempt from the fatal influence of tills wide-wasting calamity. Thus it attained to the fullest measure of pure, unmixed, unsophisticated wickedness; and, scorning all competition and comparison, it stood without a rival in the secure, undisputed possession of its detestable preëminence."

The discussion in the British Parliament, while the question of the abolition of the slave trade was pending, brought out from the noble champions of freedom an array of facts that ought to arouse all Christian nations to the barbarities of this traffic. But the Christian nations need to be Christianized, especially this American nation, that is madly plunging anew into this accursed traffic. We need in an American congress a William Wilberforce, a Charles James Fox, a William Pitt, an Edmund Burke, a Thomas Erskine, a Granville Sharp, and a Thomas Clarkson, to move the nation, as these nolble men moved the British public, and thunder into the ears of the people the crimes and cruelties of man-stealing, until they rise in their might, and decree its annihilation.

It is impossible to conceive a more foul blot upon the American name, than the revival of this traffic at a day like this. It is reversing the wheels of civilization, and voluntarily going back to barbarism. It is giving the lie to our boasts of intelligence, humanity, and freedom. It is directly bidding defiance to the Almighty, and calling down the wrath of Heaven. It is adding a chapter to the history of this trade, the darkest, the most fearful and terrible that was ever written. "Enlightened age!" "Christian nation!" "Free America!" Let us not mock the common sense of the world by the use of these phrases, while this dark cloud is casting its shadow over us. Let us, at least, pray for deliverance from the lowest form of national hypocrisy.

We would gladly omit the details of the sufferings incident to what is called the middle passage, but we can not do justice, even to a brief survey of the traffic, without adding one or two of the many testimonies on this point. And while gazing upon a single picture, if we will multiply these by thousands, we may approximate towards a realization of a passage across the Atlantic in a slaver, and be prompted to do what lies in our power to drive this master iniquity from the face of the earth.

In a debate on the slave trade. Mr. Fox justly remarked that:

"True humanity consists not in a squeamish ear; it consists not in starting, and shrinking at such tales as these, but in a disposition of heart to relieve misery. True humanity appertains rather to the mind than the nerves, and prompts men to use real and active endeavors to execute the actions which it suggests."

Would that the emotions excited by narratives like the following, might lead to the formation of principles, the expression of opinions, and the adoption of vigorous measures, that would roll back the tide of this gigantic sin. Mr. Walsh, in his "Notices of Brazil," published in London in 1830, and in Boston in 1832, thus describes a slave ship examined by the English man-of-war in which he returned from Brazil, in May, 1829:

"She had taken in, on the coast of Africa, three hundred and thirty-six males, and two hundred and twenty-six females, making in all five hundred and sixty-two, and had been out seventeen days. The slaves were all enclosed under grated hatchways, between decks. The space was so low that they sat between each other's legs, and were stowed so close together that there was no possibility of their lying down, or at all changing their position, by night or day. As they belonged to, and were shipped on account of different individuals, they were all branded, like sheep, with the owners' marks, of different forms. These were impressed under their breasts, or on their arms, and, as the mate informed me, with perfect indifference, 'Queimados pelo ferro quento, — burnt with red-hot iron.' Over the hatchway stood a ferocious looking fellow, with a scourge of many twisted thongs in his hand, who was the slave-driver of the ship; and whenever he heard the slightest noise below, he shook it over them, and seemed eager to exercise it. As soon as the poor creatures saw us looking down at them, their dark and melancholy visages brightened up.

"They perceived something of sympathy and kindness in our looks, which they had not been accustomed to, and feeling, instinctively, that we were friends, they immediately began to shout and clap their hands. One or two had picked up a few Portuguese words, and cried out, 'Viva! viva!' The women were particularly excited. They all held up their arms, and when we bent down and shook hands with them, they could not contain their delight; they endeavored to scramble upon their knees, stretching up to kiss our hands, and we understood that they knew we had come to liberate them. Some, however, hung down their heads, in apparently hopeless dejection; some were greatly emaciated, and some, particularly children, seemed dying. But the circumstance which struck us most forcibly, was how it was possible for such a number of human beings to exist, packed up and wedged together as tight as they could cram, in low cells, three feet high, the greater part of which, except that immediately under the grated hatchway, was shut out from light, or air, and this when the thermometer, exposed to the open sky, was standing, in the shade on our deck, at 89°. The space between decks was divided into two compartments, three feet three inches high; the size of one was sixteen feet by eighteen, and of the other forty by twenty-one; into the first were crammed the women and girls; into the second the men and boys. Two hundred and twenty-six fellow creatures were thus thrust into one space two hundred and eighty-eight feet square, and three hundred and thirty-six into another space eight hundred feet square, giving to the whole an average of twenty-three inches, and to each of the women not more than thirteen inches, though many of them were pregnant. We also found manacles, and fetters of different kinds; but it appears that they had all been taken off before we boarded. The heat of these horrid places was so great, and the odor so offensive, that it was quite impossible to enter there, even had there been room. They were measured, as above, when the slaves left them. The officers insisted that the poor suffering creatures should be admitted on deck, to get air and water. This was opposed by the mate of the slaver, who, from a feeling that they deserved it, declared that they would murder them all. The officers, however, persisted, and the poor beings were all turned up together. It is impossible to conceive the effect of this eruption; five hundred and seven fellow creatures, of all ages and sexes, some children, some adults, some old men and women, all in a state of total nudity, scrambling out together to taste the luxury of a little fresh air and water.

"They came swarming up, like bees from the aperture of a hive, till the whole deck was crowded to suffocation, from stem to stern; so that it was impossible to imagine where they could all have come from, or how they could all have been stowed away. On looking into the places where they had been crammed, there were found some children, next to the side of the ship, in the places most remote from light and air; they were lying nearly in a torpid state, after the rest had turned out. The little creatures seemed indifferent as to life or death, and when they were carried on deck, many of them could not stand.

"After enjoying for a short time the unusual luxury of air, some water was brought; it was then that the extent of their sufferings was exposed in a fearful manner. They all rushed like maniacs towards it. No entreaties, or threats, or blows could restrain them; they shrieked, and struggled, and fought with one another for a drop of this precious liquid, as if they grew rabid at the sight of it. There is nothing from which slaves, in the mid-passage, suffer so much, as want of water. It is sometimes usual to take out casks filled with sea-water as ballast, and when the slaves are received on board, to start the casks, and refill them with fresh. On one occasion, a ship from Bahia neglected to change the contents of the casks, and on the mid-passage found, to their horror, that they were filled with nothing but salt water. All the slaves on board perished! We could judge of the extent of their sufferings from the afflicting sight we now saw.

"When the poor creatures were ordered down again, several of them came and pressed their heads against our knees, with looks of the greatest anguish, at the prospect of returning to the horrid place of suffering below."

The devoted philanthropist, Granville Sharp, presented a case to the British public that justly aroused their indignation. It shows the power of avarice to obliterate the last vestiges of humanity, and convert men into devils.

"From the trial, it appeared that the ship Zong, Luke Collingwood master, sailed from the island of St. Thomas, on the coast of Africa, September 6, 1781, with four hundred and forty slaves, and fourteen whites on board, for Jamaica, and that in the November following she fell in with that island; but, instead of proceeding to some port, the master, mistaking, as he alleges, Jamaica for Hispaniola, ran her to leeward. Sickness and mortality had by this time taken place on board the crowded vessel; so that, between the time of leaving the coast of Africa and the 29th of November, sixty slaves and seven white people had died, and a great number of the surviving slaves were then sick, and not likely to live.

"On that day, the master of the ship called together a few of the officers, and stated to them, that if the sick slaves died a natural death, the loss would fall on the owners of the ship, — it would be the loss of the underwriters; alleging, at the same time, that it would be less cruel to throw the sick wretches into the sea, than to suffer them to linger out a few days under the disorder with which they were afflicted, "To this inhuman proposal the mate, James Kelsal, at first objected; but Collingwood at length prevailed on the crew to listen to it. He then chose out from the cargo one hundred and thirty-two slaves, and brought them on deck, all, or most of whom were sickly, and not likely to recover, and he ordered the crew by turns to throw them into the sea. 'A parcel' of them were accordingly thrown overboard, and, on counting over the remainder, next morning, it appeared that the number so drowned had been fifty-four. He then ordered another parcel to be thrown over, which, on a second counting, on the succeeding day, was proved to have amounted to forty-two. "On the third day, the remaining thirty-six were brought on deck, and, as these now resisted the cruel pur230se of their masters, the arms of twenty-six were fettered with irons, and the savage crew proceeded with the diabolical work, casting them down to join their comrades of the former days. Outraged misery could endure no longer; the ten last victims sprang disdainfully from the grasp of their tyrants, defied their power, and, leaping into the sea, felt a momentary triumph in the embrace of death."

These statements, distressing as they are, only afford us a specimen of the barbarities and horrors of this crime. The cruelties of the African slave trade have never been written, — can not be written. No pen can describe them; and yet, how many American citizens, whose feelings will revolt at these details of suffering, will hear with comparative indifference of the revival of the iniquity in our land!

  1. For more extended evidences than our limits will allow us to present, see "The Slave Trade and Remedy," by Sir T. F. Buxton; Clarkson's "History of the Abolition of the Slave Trade;" Mr R. Walsh's "Notices of Brazil;" "Articles in Edinburgh Encyclopædia," and "Encyclopædia Americana;" "Benezet's Account of Africa;" "Dupries's Residence in Ashantee," London, 1824. "Life of Ashmun."
  2. Fifty years ago the Christian (!) slave trade was 80,000 annually now 200,000! Mohammedan slave trade, 50,000 annually. The aggregate loss of life in the Christian trade, in the successive stages of seizure, march, detention, middle passage, after landing, and seasoning, is 145 per cent., or 1,450 for every 1,000 available for use in the end-, and 100 per cent. loss of life, by the same causes, in the Mohammedan trade. Consequently, the annual victims of the Christian slave trade are 375,600; of the Mohammedan, 100,000. Total loss to Africa, 475,000 annually; or, 23,750,000 in half a century, at the same rate. A slave ship named Jehovah (!) made three voyages between Brazil and Angola in thirteen months, of 1836-7, and landed 700 slaves the first voyage, 600 the second, and 520 the third, — in all, 1820. — Buxton.

    The single town of Liverpool, England, realized in this traffic, before its abolition in that empire, a net profit of more than $100,000,000 — History of Liverpool.

  3. From Clarkson's "History of the Abolition of the Slave Trade."