Skip to main content

Numbness On The Heart

May 2024
3min read

Of all of the black chapters that would not appear in the history books if it were not for man’s insensitivity to the sufferings of other men, the AfroAmerican slave trade probably is the worst. Here, if anywhere, is the account of a trade that was built on unvarnished cruelty and on the almost incredible sufferings of millions of men, women, and children. We put up with it, here in America, for a great many years, because it was highly profitable—and because we did not actually see the victims and so could not feel the lash that struck their backs. It was a trade that could not have lasted one week in a truly compassionate society; it actually lasted for generations, and in the end the entire country paid a staggering price by way of atonement.

It is examined in detail in Black Cargoes , an excellent new book written by Daniel P. Mannix in collaboration with Malcolm Cowley, which makes timely reading for these years of Civil War centennial observance. (An excerpt from the book appeared in our February 1963 issue.) Here is what lay under the war; here is the terrible reality that finally led Lincoln in his second inaugural to say that it might be God’s will that the war go on until America had atoned, drop by drop, for all of the blood which the Negro slave had shed.

The people who benefited by the trade were numerous: the New England merchants who engaged in it, the southern planters who got a supply of forced labor for their plantations, the African chiefs who sold people like cattle, and the sea captains and their underlings who carried on the actual transportation. What the African chiefs may have been like is beyond the scope of this review, but of the northern traders and the southern planters it can be said that they were, at bottom, decent human beings who simply could not feel the agony that they were bringing into being. They saw the dollars that came out of it, and the dollars limited their field of vision. To all the rest they were insensitive.

The sailors who brought the slaves over saw things, but they learned to harden themselves. The authors quote a slave trader who said that the trade soon “renders most of those engaged in it too indifferent to the sufferings of their fellow creatures.” The Negroes who made up the cargoes of the slave ships had to be treated like cattle, and the need to treat them so “gradually brings a numbness on the heart.”

That numbness afflicted everybody. It had to, or the trade could not have gone on. The ordinary slave ship had to be abandoned after a voyage or so because it became so impregnated with filth that even a sailor who had hardened himself could not bear to live on it. Every slaver carried with him a little instrument known (and what nice names we can devise for things) as a “speculum oris”—a pair of dividers with notched legs and a thumbscrew. Many slaves, during the voyage from Africa to America, tried to starve themselves to death and would not eat. The speculum oris would be driven between such a slave’s teeth, and when the thumbscrew was turned his jaws would be forced apart; then he could be fed by force, and in due time he could be delivered alive in America to take his place in the gang on a cotton plantation.

It would be possible to go on at great length about the evils of the Middle Passage; possible, also, to explain in detail why the trade was so profitable, why traders and planters clubbed together to keep it going in spite of everything; but there is not much point in piling horror upon horror, and about all that need be done here is to refer the reader to Black Cargoes . What is worth noting is the peculiar numbness (to use the slave trader’s own word) which afflicted everybody connected with the trade and made possible its long continuance.

Be it noted that the trade thrived as long as slavery existed in what is now the United States. When slavery ended there, the trade itself died. As the authors remark, “the doom of the slave trade was sounded by the guns at Fort Sumter and was sealed at Antietam and Gettysburg.” Considering everything, it seems to have been a costly way to bring it to a close.

Black Cargoes: A History of the Atlantic Slave Trade , by Daniel P. Mannix in collaboration with Malcolm Cowley. Viking Press. 306 pp. $6.95.

So it may be that the quality of compassion, the ability to feel unendurable anguish because of misery inflicted on someone else, has an actual, tangible, concrete value for the society which at last develops it. If we had had that quality a couple of centuries earlier, we would not have had slavery or the slave trade, and if we had not had those things, we would not have had the Civil War. The war cost substantially more than 600,000 American lives. It can perhaps be argued that the inability to feel the lash that strikes another man’s back is about the most expensive trait human beings can possess.

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this magazine of trusted historical writing, now in its 75th year, and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.