The African Diaspora

Posted By on October 5, 2015

Africa And The Africans In The Age Of The Atlantic Slave Trade Author: Stearns, Peter N.;Adas, Michael;Schwartz, Stuart B. Date: 1992

The African Diaspora

The slave trade was the means by which the history of the Americas and Africa became linked and a principal way in which African societies were drawn into the world economy. The import into Africa of European firearms, Indian textiles, Indonesian cowrie shells, and American tobacco in return for African ivory, gold, and especially slaves demonstrated Africa's integration into the mercantile structure of the world. Africans involved in the trade learned to deal effectively with this situation. The price of slaves rose steadily in the 18th century and the terms of trade increasingly favored African dealers. In many African ports, such as Whydah, Porto Novo, and Luanda, an African or Afro-European community developed that specialized in the slave trade and used their position as middlemen to advantage.

Slave Lives

For those carried in the trade, such considerations had little meaning. For them slavery meant destruction of their villages or capture in war, separation from friends and family, and then the forced march to an interior trading town or to the slave pens at the towns or forts of the coast. Conditions during the process were deadly and perhaps as many as one-third of the captives died along the way or in the slave pens. Eventually the slaves were loaded onto the ships. Cargo size varied and could go as high as 700 slaves packed and crowded into the dank, unhealthy conditions of the slave ships, but most cargoes were smaller and overcrowding was less of a factor in mortality than the length of the voyage or the point of origin in Africa - the Bights of Benin and Biafra being particularly unhealthy. The average rate of mortality for slaves varied over time but ran at about 18 to 20 percent until the 18th century when it declined somewhat. Still, on individual ships losses could be catastrophic, as on a Dutch ship of 1737 where 700 of the 716 slaves perished on the voyage.

The so-called Middle Passage, or slave voyage to the Americas, was a traumatic experience for the slaves. Taken from their homes, branded, confined, and shackled, they faced not only the dangers of poor hygiene, dysentery, disease, and bad treatment, but also the fear of being eaten or worse by the Europeans. Their situation led sometimes to suicide or to resistance and mutiny on the ships. However traumatic, the Middle Passage certainly did not strip Africans of their culture, and they arrived in the Americas with their languages, beliefs, artistic traditions, and strong memories of their past.

Africans In America

The destination of the slaves carried across the Atlantic was principally the plantations and mines of America. Landed estates using large amounts of often coerced labor became characteristic of American agriculture, at first in the production of sugar, and later for rice, cotton, and tobacco. The plantation system already used for producing sugar on the Atlantic islands of Spain and Portugal was transferred to the New World. After attempts to use Indian laborers in places like Brazil and Hispaniola, Africans were brought in. West Africans, in fact, coming from societies in which herding, metallurgy, and intensive agriculture were widely practiced were sought by Europeans for the specialized tasks of making sugar. In the English colonies of Barbados and Virginia, indentured servants from England were eventually replaced by enslaved ofricans when either new crops, such as sugar, were introduced or when indentured servants became less available. In any case, the plantation system of farming with a dependent or enslaved work force characterized the production of many tropical and semitropical crops in demand in Europe, and thus the plantation became the locus of African and Afro-American life.

Slaves did many other things as well. As we saw in Chapter 24, gold mining in Brazil made extensive use of black slaves and the Spanish used slaves in the silver mines of Mexico. Urban slavery was characteristic of Latin American cities, where slaves were often artisans, street vendors, and household servants. In early 17th century Lima, Peru, capital of Spain's colony in South America, blacks outnumbered Europeans. Later cities, such as Charleston and New Orleans, would also develop a large slave and free Afro-American population. In short, there was virtually no occupation that slaves did not perform, although the vast majority lived their lives as agricultural laborers.

American Slave Societies

Each American slave-based society reflected the variations of its European origin and its component African cultures, but there were certain similarities and common features. Each recognized distinctions between African-born "salt water" slaves who were almost invariably black (by European standards) and their American-born descendants, the Creole slaves, some of whom were mulattoes as a result of sexual exploitation of slave women or the process of miscegenation. In all the American slave societies, a hierarchy of status evolved in which free whites were at the top, slaves were at the bottom, and free people of color had an intermediate position. In this sense color and "race" played a role in American slavery it had not played in Africa. Among the slaves, slaveholders also created a hierarchy based on origin and color. Creole and especially mulatto slaves were given more opportunities to acquire skilled jobs or to work in the house as servants rather than in the fields or mines. They were also more likely to win their freedom by manumission.

This system of hierarchy was a creation of the slaveholders and did not necessarily reflect perceptions among the slaves. There is evidence that important African nobles or religious leaders, who for one reason or another were sold into slavery, continued to exercise authority within the slave community. Still, the distinctions between Creole and African slaves tended to divide that community, as did the distinctions between different African groups who maintained their ties and affiliations in America. Many of the slave rebellions in the Caribbean and Brazil were organized along African rebellions in the 18th century and the largest escaped-slave community in 17th century Brazil was apparently organized and led by Angolans.

While economic organization and European concepts of hierarchy imposed a certain similarity in the various colonies in which Africans formed a part, the slave-based societies also varied in their composition. In the 18th century, for example, on the Caribbean islands where the Indian population had died out or had been exterminated and where few Europeans settled, Africans and their descendants formed the vast majority. In Jamaica and St. Domingue, slaves made up over 80 percent of the population, and because mortality levels were so high, a large proportion were African-born. Brazil also had large numbers of imported Africans, but its more diverse population and economy, as well as a tradition of manumitting slaves and high levels of miscegenation, meant that slaves made up only about 35 percent of the population. Free people of color, the descendants of former slaves, however, made up about another one-third, so that together slaves and free colored constituted two-thirds of the total population.

The Caribbean and Brazil differed significantly from the southern colonies of British North America, which depended less on imported Africans because of a positive rate of growth among the slave population. There, Creoles predominated but manumission was less common and free people of color were less than ten percent of the total Afro- American origin. The result was that slavery in North America was less influenced directly by Africa: By the mid-18th century, the slave population in most places in North America was reproducing itself. By 1850 less than one percent of the slaves there were African-born. The combination of natural growth and the relatively small direct trade from Africa reduced the degree of African cultural reinforcement in comparison with Cuba or Brazil.

The People And Gods In exile

Africans brought as slaves to America faced a peculiar series of problems. Working conditions were exhausting and life for most slaves was often "nasty, brutish, and short." Family formation was made difficult because of the general shortage of women carried in the slave trade, a situation made even worse where the ratio of men to women was sometimes as much as three to one. To this was added the insecurity of slave status in which family members might be separated by sale or by the masters' whim. Still, most slaves lived in family units even if their marriages were not always sanctioned by the religion of their masters.

Throughout the Americas, wherever Africans were brought, aspects of their language, religion, artistic sensibilities, and other elements of culture survived. To some extent the amount of continuity depended on the intensity and volume of the slave trade from a particular area. Yoruba culture, for example, was particularly strong in northeastern Brazil because the trade between it and the Bight of Benin was heavy and continuous in the early 19th century. During certain periods, Akan peoples predominated in Jamaica, while Ewe or Dahomeans predominated in Haiti. Some slaveholders tried to mix up the slaves on their plantations so that strong African identities would be lost, but colonial dependence on slavers who dealt continually with the same region tended to undercut such policies. In the reality of slavery in the Americas, Africans had to adapt and change and to incorporate other African peoples and their ideas and customs. Moreover, there were also the ways and customs of the masters that were both imposed and adopted. Thus, what emerged as Afro-American culture reflected specific African roots adapted to a new reality. Afro-American culture was dynamic and creative in this sense.

Religion was an obvious example of continuity and adaptation. Slaves were converted to Catholicism by Spaniards and Portuguese, and slaves were capable of fervent devotion as members of Black Catholic brotherhoods some of which were organized by African origins. Still, African religious ideas and practices did not die out, and many African slaves were accused of "witchcraft" by the Inquisition in those colonies. In the English islands, obeah was the name given to the African religious practices, and the men and women knowledgeable in them were held in high regard within the community. In Brazilian candomble (Yoruba) and Haitian Vodun (Aja), rather fully developed versions of African religion flourished and continue until the present, despite attempts to suppress them.

The reality of the Middle Passage meant that religious ideas and concepts were easier to transfer than the institutional aspects of religion. Without religious specialists or a priestly class, aspects of African religions were changed or transformed by contact with other African peoples as well as with colonial society. In many cases slaves held their new faith in Christianity and their African beliefs at the same time, and sought to fuse the two. For Muslim Africans this was less possible. In 1835 in Bahia, the largest slave rebellion in Brazil was organized by Muslim Yoruba and Hausa slaves and directed against the whites and against nonbelievers.

Resistance and rebellion were other aspects of African- American history. Recalcitrance, running away, and direct confrontation were present wherever slaves were held. As early as 1508 African runaways disrupted communications on Hispaniola, and in 1527 a plot to rebel was uncovered in Mexico City. Throughout the Americas communities of runaway slaves formed. In Jamaica, Colombia, Venezuela, Haiti, and Brazil runaway communities were continuous and persistent. In Brazil, during the 17th century, Palmares, an enormous runaway slave kingdom with numerous villages and a population of perhaps 8,000 to 10,000 people, resisted Portuguese and Dutch attempts to destroy it for a century. Although its inhabitants were both Creoles and Africans of various backgrounds, its origins, organization, and leadership were Angolan. In Jamaica, the runaway "Maroons" were able to gain some independence and a recognition of their freedom. So-called ethnic slave rebellions organized by a particular African group were relatively common in the Caribbean and Brazil in the 18th century. In North America where reinforcement from the slave trade was less important, resistance was also important, but it was based less on African origins or ethnicities.

Perhaps, the most remarkable story of African American resistance is found in the forests of Suriname, a former Dutch plantation colony. There large numbers of slaves ran off in the 18th century and mounted an almost perpetual war in the rain forest against the various expeditions sent to hunt them down. Those captured were brutally executed, but eventually a truce developed. Today about 50,000 Maroon descendants still live in Suriname and French Guiana. The Suriname Maroons maintained many aspects of their West African background in terms of language, kinship relations, and religious beliefs, but these were fused with new forms and ways drawn from European and American Indian contacts resulting from their New World experience. From this fusion based on their own creativity, a truly Afro-American culture was created.

Africa And The End Of The Slave Trade

The end of the Atlantic slave trade and the abolition of slavery in the Atlantic world resulted from economic, political, and religious changes in Europe and in its overseas American colonies and former colonies. These changes, which were manifestations of the Enlightenment, the Age of Revolution, Christian revivalism, and perhaps the Industrial Revolution, were basically external to Africa but once again they determined the pace and nature of transformations within the African continent.

Like much else about the history of slavery, there is considerable disagreement about the end of the slave trade. It is true that some African societies began to export new "legitimate" commodities, such as peanuts, cotton, and palm oil, which made their dependence on the slave trade less important, but the supply of slaves to European merchants was not greatly affected by this development. In general, the British plantation economies were booming in the period from 1790 to 1830, and plantations in Cuba, Brazil, and the South of the United States flourished in the following decades. Thus, it is difficult to find a direct and simple link between economic self-interest and the movement to suppress the slave trade.

Opponents of slavery and the brutality of the trade had appeared in the mid-18th century, in relation to new intellectual movements in the West. The philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau in France and the political economist Adam Smith in England had both written against it. Whereas in ancient Rome during the spread of Christianity and Islam or in 16th century Europe, enslavement of "barbarians" or nonbelievers was viewed as a positive benefit, a means to civilize others. Slavery during the European Enlightenment and bourgeois revolution came to be viewed as unprogressive, retrograde, and immoral. The slave trade was particularly criticized. It was the symbol of slavery's inhumanity and cruelty.

England, as the major maritime power of the period, was the key to the end of the slave trade. Under the leadership of religious humanitarians, such as John Wesley and William Wilberforce, an abolitionist movement gained strength against its opponents made up of merchants and the "West Indies interests." After considerable parliamentary debate, the British slave trade was abolished in 1807. Having set out on this course, Britain sought to impose abolition of the slave trade on other countries throughout the Atlantic. Spain and Portugal were pressured to gradual suppression, and the British navy was used as a means to enforce these agreements by capturing illegal slave ships, though the full end of slavery in the Americas occurred only in 1888.

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The African Diaspora

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