The Atlantic Slave Trade

The Atlantic Slave Trade


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



Africans also had to endure the often-unmentioned horrors

of being chained in holds awash with dysentery, and of being subject

 to the casual reign of sexual terrorism endemic on board slave ships.



The Atlantic Slave Trade 

Initiated Globalisation and Its Legacy Lives

By Madge Dresser


President George Bush’s speech in Senegal about the evils of slavery last week has, as one critic quipped, made Africa and its history “sexy”. About time, too, as Aids, drought, genocide and poverty threaten not only the continent but the stability of the world.

But how much of the blame for Africa’s present plight can be laid at the door of slavery? After all, hasn’t slavery in the Americas been illegal since the 1880s and haven’t Africans themselves had slaves since time immemorial?

It’s true that African slavery predates the Atlantic slave trade. However, traditional systems of domestic slavery – brutal as they could be – were transformed and intensified on an unprecedented scale as the internal slave trade also generated an export trade, first across the Sahara and then across the Atlantic.

As the Portuguese caravel replaced the Arab caravan, the slave trade was continuously rationalised for profit and thus made more ruthlessly efficient than ever.

The history of the Atlantic slave trade could be characterised as the first bloody essay into globalisation. For it didn’t just involve Africa, but the Americas, Europe and Asia as well.

Goree, where Bush delivered his speech, was among the first African slave ports to be drawn into the Atlantic economy and exemplifies the inherently international nature of the trade. Variously claimed by the Portuguese, French, Dutch and British, Goree was supplied by African warlords with slaves from an increasingly wide range of peoples from the African interior. These captives began to forge a more generic “African” identity as they plotted uprisings against their new commercial masters.

The slave merchants resident in Goree included both the sons of the business elite of Bordeaux and the legendary “signoras” of African-Portuguese descent. They in turn traded slaves and provisions for East Indian cloth, Swedish iron ore, English guns and French brandy with the European and American ships that plied the west African coast.

By the late 18th century, Goree island had lent its name to the main quay in Liverpool’s new harbour and to a parish of Bristol, Rhode Island, then an important North American slaving port.

Enslaved Africans not employed to cultivate crops or service the slave caravans coming from the east into Goree were fated to be exported across the Atlantic as plantation labour. It was this hunger for labour which fed the demand for slavery in the Americas.

If Goree itself saw perhaps only some 330,000 people cross the “gate of no return” throughout the 18th century, the most recent estimates put the total number of enslaved Africans forced onto the New World between the 1440s and the 1860s at no less than 12 million. This excludes the untold millions who died en route to the west African coast nor those who died on the so-called “middle passage” to America and the Caribbean.

Malcolm X conjured up the dramatic image of a trail of blood across the Atlantic as slave ships threw the rebellious and ill to the sharks. This may not have been literally the case but it contains a metaphorical truth. For though white crews also suffered from the harsh discipline and high mortality rates of “the Africa run,” Africans also had to endure the often-unmentioned horrors of being chained in holds awash with dysentery, and of being subject to the casual reign of sexual terrorism endemic on board slave ships.

Ferociously brutal reprisals were inflicted on any perceived act of insubordination, including not eating or dancing at the captain’s command. Nor should the psychological impact suffered by those separated from their families to face a terrifyingly uncertain future be discounted.

One of the Atlantic slave trade’s most insidious legacies was the way it racialised slavery. In ancient times when “free labour” was the exception, anyone from any people could be enslaved. Indeed, the word slave is said to have come from the Greek word for Slav. But by the 18th century, slave status was increasingly associated exclusively with Africans. It was this association which served to denigrate black people whatever their status.

The racist ideologies of the early 19th century were thus rooted in the slave trade and in turn materially affected the fate of Africans everywhere. The prestige now enjoyed by Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell was unthinkable until very recently, so enduring has slavery’s impact been on the status of black Americans.

The final charge to be laid against the Atlantic slave trade is its impact on Africa itself. Transatlantic slavery encouraged the armed, the predatory, and the ruthless. It empowered regimes brutal enough to extort taxes or slaves from their neighbours and engendered the spread of domestic slavery as increasing numbers of people were needed to grow crops to feed those slaves awaiting export. Mafia-style regimes made strong through the arms trade and greedy by the prospect of easy money flourished at the expense of the peaceful peasant and communally-run village.

So though transatlantic slavery is at the root of modern racism, it transcends race. It epitomises a most exploitative form of globalisation, which has since resurfaced in new forms. Will the Bush regime help redress its legacy through fair trade practices and constructive engagement? Or will Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” still hold the whip?

Madge Dresser is a lecturer at the University of the West of England. Her recent publications include Slavery Obscured: the Social History of the Slave Trade in an English Provincial Port and Squares of Distinction, Webs of Interest. 

Source: The Guardian (Thursday July 17, 2003)   

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Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America

By Melissa V. Harris-Perry

According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel.  The selfless Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.     

Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.

As for the source of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their own bodies during slavery given that they were being auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate indiscriminately.

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Sex at the Margins

Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry

By Laura María Agustín

This book explodes several myths: that selling sex is completely different from any other kind of work, that migrants who sell sex are passive victims and that the multitude of people out to save them are without self-interest. Laura Agustín makes a passionate case against these stereotypes, arguing that the label ‘trafficked’ does not accurately describe migrants’ lives and that the ‘rescue industry’ serves to disempower them. Based on extensive research amongst both migrants who sell sex and social helpers, Sex at the Margins provides a radically different analysis. Frequently, says Agustin, migrants make rational choices to travel and work in the sex industry, and although they are treated like a marginalised group they form part of the dynamic global economy. Both powerful and controversial, this book is essential reading for all those who want to understand the increasingly important relationship between sex markets, migration and the desire for social justice. “Sex at the Margins rips apart distinctions between migrants, service work and sexual labour and reveals the utter complexity of the contemporary sex industry. This book is set to be a trailblazer in the study of sexuality.”—Lisa Adkins, University of London

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The Warmth of Other Suns

The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration

By Isabel Wilkerson

Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, a sharecropper’s wife, left Mississippi for Milwaukee in 1937, after her cousin was falsely accused of stealing a white man’s turkeys and was almost beaten to death. In 1945, George Swanson Starling, a citrus picker, fled Florida for Harlem after learning of the grove owners’ plans to give him a “necktie party” (a lynching). Robert Joseph Pershing Foster made his trek from Louisiana to California in 1953, embittered by “the absurdity that he was doing surgery for the United States Army and couldn’t operate in his own home town.” Anchored to these three stories is Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Wilkerson’s magnificent, extensively researched study of the “great migration,” the exodus of six million black Southerners out of the terror of Jim Crow to an “uncertain existence” in the North and Midwest. Wilkerson deftly incorporates sociological and historical studies into the novelistic narratives of Gladney, Starling, and Pershing settling in new lands, building anew, and often finding that they have not left racism behind. The drama, poignancy, and romance of a classic immigrant saga pervade this book, hold the reader in its grasp, and resonate long after the reading is done.

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery /

George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

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update 30 October 2011




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