Horror Taken For Granted

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Obviously, trade of such dimensions had to be well organized. As far as the British were concerned, it was set up at first on a monopoly basis, with the Royal African Company given exclusive rights to the trade along the slave coast. The company accordingly set up a series of forts, each one containing a warehouse for trade goods and a slave pen for captives awaiting shipment. These eventually became public utilities; the British Parliament, late in the seventeenth century, cancelled the monopoly, but paid the Royal African Company 10,000 pounds a year to service all British traders. A slave-ship captain wanting to trade would touch at one of these forts and either buy his slaves from the fort’s stock or go to see some local king who had notified the fort’s overseer that he wanted to deal.

In theory, the slaves were simply prisoners of war and the wars were going on all the time, so the European traders were not really responsible. Actually, things were somewhat different. One of the Royal African Company officers wrote that after a king had served notice that he wanted a ship to come and trade with him, he “goes and ransacks some of his Enemies Towns, seizing the People and selling them for such Commodities as he is in want of. … In case he is not at War with any neighboring King, he then falls upon one of his own Towns, which are numerous, and uses them in the very same Manner.”

Documents Illustrative of the History of the Slave Trade to America , compiled and edited by Elizabeth Donnan. Octagon Books, Inc., New York; four volumes; $75 per set.

To be sure, a writer in The London Magazine in 1740 saw a bright side to this: “By purchasing, or rather ransoming the Negroes from their national Tyrants, and transplanting them under the benign Influences of the Law and Gospel, they are advanced to a much greater Degree of Felicity, tho’ not to absolute Liberty.” Yet the captives do not seem to have appreciated this improvement hi their condition, because if they had the slightest chance to do so they would commit suicide rather than undergo shipment to the New World. The commander of the British ship Hannibal complained that “the Negroes are so wilful and loth to leave their own country, that they have often leap’d out of the canoes, boat and ship, into the sea, and kept under water till they were drowned, to avoid being taken up and saved by our boats; they having a more dreadful apprehension of Barbadoes than we can have of hell, tho’ in reality they live much better there than in their own country.” If they could not jump overboard, the captives often starved themselves to death, and one ship captain wrote a melancholy note about this: “And tho’ I must say I am naturally compassionate, yet have I been necessitated sometimes to cause the teeth of those wretches to be broken, because they would not open their mouths, or be prevailed upon by any entreaties to feed themselves; and thus have forced some sustenance into their throats.”

The compassion of the slaver was something the ordinary man would like to be spared. When the Negroes were put aboard ship they were stripped and branded on the breast with hot irons so that their owners could keep track of them; but it is recorded that many captains voluntarily gave each slave a little square of canvas for clothing, and carefully anointed them with palm oil before branding them: “We take all possible care that they are not burned too hard, especially the women, who are more tender than the men.”

Even so, the business was rough. The Liverpool slaver Brookes , which was quite typical, had a height between decks of five feet eight inches. This was cut in half by shelves that were built in against the bulkheads, and on these shelves (as on the deck beneath them) each male slave was allowed a space measuring six feet by one foot, four inches. Wedged in thus, they had to spend two months or more in darkness, filth, and an almost total absence of ventilation.

Naturally, the mortality among these luckless passengers was immense. A ship carrying 500 slaves might lose 300 of them during the voyage, and the ones who survived were apt to be in such poor condition that they would fetch poor prices. New York records tell how the ship St. Jan sailed from Africa with 195 slaves. Unfortunately, it ran on a reef in the West Indies, whereupon officers and crew took to the boats, leaving ship and living cargo to the mercy of wind and waves. It is good to know that after the storm died down, small boats went to the scene and rescued some of the survivors. Still, it was a losing voyage; aside from the slaves who died in the shipwreck, no had died en route—59 men, 47 women, and 4 children.

Not all of the ship captains were humanitarians. Some of them took note of a quirk in the insurance regulations. A ship master was entitled to jettison part of his cargo, in an emergency, in order to save the rest, and the part jettisoned—that is, thrown overboard—was covered by insurance. So when the death rate became high, it was not uncommon for the captain to weed out the sickliest slaves and toss them into the sea: that way, the loss was made good by insurance.