The Middle

The Middle Passage

The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade

During the 17th and 18th century, the demand for slaves was at its peak. European slave traders quickly provided the labor needed. The potential of earning a small fortune in the slave trading business was enough of a profit for traders to put aside the fact that Africans were human beings. In 1760, in some markets, a trader could sell a male slave for 50 pounds, which was enough to live comfortably for one year. With the promise of making a more than a decent living from the slave trade, it became a profitable career.
Traders could not have been successful without the formation of relationships with the Africans who provided them with other Africans to enslave. African captors kidnapped their countrymen and brought them to slave factories on the west coast of Africa. The journey was long and it is estimated that of 20 million slaves, half did not make it to the coast. Captured Africans could spend as little as a few weeks and to up to a year in a factory. In return for providing human cargo to the slavers, African kidnappers received guns, textiles, iron bars, and other products.
The next phase of the slave trade entailed the placement of African slaves on ships that were bound for the long journey to the Americas. It was known as the Middle Passage because it was the middle leg of a three-part voyage. The voyage began in Europe, where the ship was packed with goods to bring to Africa to exchange for African slaves. The slaves were sailed to North America, South America, and the Caribbean, and exchanged for sugar, tobacco, and other products that were shipped back to Europe.

The trip from Africa to the Americas took at least six weeks. A ship often had 30 crewmen and carried about 300 slave men, women, and children. For the slaves, it was a long and horrible trip. Not only did they worry about what the future held for them, but they also endured inhumane conditions on the ship. Each slave had both feet shackled to other slaves. The sleeping area, which was below the deck, was typically composed of un-sanded plank floors that had only 18 inches or less of headroom. The narrow space lacked light and fresh air, sitting was impossible, and it was difficult to change positions without hurting one's neighbor.

Things were worse when bad weather was encountered. During these times, slaves stayed below for extended periods. After a storm, seamen often found dead Africans intertwined with others who were still alive. Because the journey was so long and disease was easily contracted, about 10 to 20 percent died on the way to the Americas.

Not all Africans submitted to enslavement without a fight. Some wanted to die rather than face an unknown fate. It was not uncommon for a desperate man or woman to try to jump overboard. Others took a more slow approach by refusing to eat. This method often caught on and other Africans followed. Crewmen reacted quickly to prevent them from starving to death. In these cases, they forced them to eat by beating and torturing them, force feeding, or the use thumbscrews, a torture device used to crush thumbs and fingers. Because slaves were thought of as valuable property, it was important to keep them alive. Therefore, crewmen tried not to cause death or permanent harm.

In 1807, the British Parliament banned the Atlantic slave trade. Not long after, the United States banned it in 1808. In 1815, after pressure from the British, France and the Netherlands agreed to ban the slave trade and Portugal agreed to end it after a few years. In 1817, Spain signed a treaty agreeing to immediately end the slave trade north of the equator and south of the equator in 1820. Despite agreements and legislation, some slave trading still continued.

Depending on which colony slaves lived in, the way they were treated and the work they performed varied. Slaves in southern colonies typically worked under harsh conditions, while slaves in the middle and New England colonies were fewer, had more freedom, and were treated more humanely.

While slavery in Virginia eventually became quite large, in its early beginnings the colony did not depend upon slave labor. In 1619, there were 20 Africans in Jamestown, who held positions similar to indentured servants. By 1651, census records indicated that Africans who finished their indentured servitude were assigned land and were considered free.

While this system ensured the growth of the free black population, it also contributed to the need for laborers. Work in the field was labor intensive and could be expensive, especially when indentured servants were eventually freed upon the end of their servitude. To offset a portion of the expense, some Africans were made into servants for life and Indians were also used as laborers.

However, the colonists soon learned that this did not work; they began to look toward slavery. After Virginians heard about the success of slavery in the Caribbean, they became convinced that slavery was the answer to their labor problems. From thereafter, there was movement toward implementing a system of black slave labor.

In 1661, Virginia officially recognized slavery by statute. A year later, a Virginia statute declared that newly born children would have the same status as their mother. With the lawful support of slavery, slaves were brought into the colony by ship. By the end of the 17th century, more than a thousand slaves per year were transported into the colony. In 1708, there were 12,000 blacks and 18,000 whites. By 1756, the black population was 120,156 while the white population was still the majority, numbering 173,316.

Because of the harsh labor conditions, male slaves were brought more often than female slaves. However, by the 18th century, this view changed. Women were brought just as often and were required to perform the same labor as men.

As the slave population increased, so did the fear of slave insurrections. In order to prevent revolts, Virginia enacted slave codes. Slave codes restricted the movement of slaves and dictated the punishment for offenses. For example, slaves were not allowed to leave the plantation without written permission from their master; robbery and other major offenses was punishable by 60 lashes and placement in a pillory where the slave’s ears were cut off; and for the commission of petty offenses, the individual was whipped, branded, or maimed.

Unlike in Virginia, Maryland had slaves shortly after the establishment of its first settlements in 1634. Although slavery existed, it was not recognized by law until 1663. The first statute enacted attempted to enforce a law that all blacks, even those who were free, would be slaves and all newborn black children would be slaves regardless of the status of their mother. In 1681, a new law changed this; it established freedom for children born to free black women, and mixed black and white heritage children, also known as mulattoes, born to white women.

In order to ensure that blacks would remain enslaved, a law declared that slaves who converted to Christianity would not become free. With the enactment of this new law, slave owners felt secure that they would not be stripped of their investments. In 1750, 40,000 blacks and 100,000 whites populated the territory.

Slave importation in Maryland continued to increase. This, however, created fear about slave insurrections. Like in Virginia, Maryland enacted laws that restricted the movement of free blacks and slaves. One law declared that slaves would be punished by death, branding, or whipping if found guilty of murder, arson, larceny, association with whites, insolence, and traveling without permission.

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The Middle Passage

The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade

Tiffany Waddell
History 201http://www.oppapers.com/essays/Middle/187102

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