Noble: How the Journey began; understanding the lingering impact of slavery

EPL Infrafred Sauna

The history that is accountable to the enslaved cannot fulfil our yearning for romance, our desire to hear the subaltern speak, our search for the subaltern as a heroic actor whose agency triumphs over the forces of oppression…what comes into view instead are the inner workings of power and violence.” Stephanie Smallwood (2016)

Between 11 and 12 million Africans were estimated to be brought to the Caribbean and the Western Hemisphere during slavery. It has also been suggested that a similar number had been kidnapped but not shipped.

A sugar plantation owner oversees the work of his slaves.

Virtually all the Western European countries were involved in slave trading. The slaves in the Trans-Atlantic trade were recruited almost entirely from the western coast of Africa from the Senegambian region to Angola: the principal source was the coastal belt (not more than 200 miles inside).

It should be noted that about 70% of all slaves were kidnapped in response to the economic stimulus of the need for labour on the sugar plantations. Capitalism and sugar demanded chattel slavery rather than temporary bondage.

The sugar-growing colonies were capitalist enterprises in relentless pursuit of profit at the total expense of the labouring class. No law protected the enslaved Africans.

The mutilated back of a slave.

During the 18th century, most African wars were waged deliberately to acquire slaves. The desire for the goods and money offered by the Europeans incited these wars. (Patterson, 2018).

Most Africans boarded slave ships in six distinct regions of the African coast. Nearly half of all African captives were taken from West-Central Africa (Congo and Angola today). Without African go-betweens—the local traders with access to internal supplies of captured African peoples—the Europeans could never have hoped to acquire more than small batches of Africans.

The Europeans induced more significant trade in persons by providing commercial attractions of goods. They also exploited the political power imbalances by giving weapons to the centralised, powerful kingdoms.

Ghanaian captives set to be sold as slaves.

The journey across the Atlantic was marked by violence. Overcrowding was the norm on all the ships. To prevent flight, suicide or revolt, the Africans were chained below the deck.

One enslaved person, Olaudah Equiano, wrote:  “I was soon put down under the decks, and here I received such a salutation in my nostrils as I had never experienced in my life: so that, with the loathsomeness of the stench, and crying together, I became so sick and low that I was not able to eat, nor had I the least desire to taste anything.”

The women were routinely subject to sexual exploitation, and many arrived pregnant in the West Indies. The terror of guns and cannons mounted on the deck was used to maintain order. Throwing slaves overboard was not uncommon. Beheadings of the captives on the ships were done to discourage acts of resistance.

The Zong Massacre: in 1781, more than 100 Ghanaian slaves were thrown into the Atlantic so the slave owner could claim money through his insurers—after a navigational error made it unlikely that all the “cargo” would arrive safely in Jamaica.

Underlying this pattern of behaviour is the ideology that the African enslaved people were not human. The British legally defined them as ‘sub-human’—they were property or real estate. Consequently, the planters could do whatever they wished. The enslaved people could be murdered and driven to work until their death.

“With slavery […]  the end is the profit of the master, his security and the public safety; the subject, one doomed in his own person, and his posterity, to live without knowledge and without the capacity to make anything his own, to toil that another may reap his fruits.

“[…] The power of the master must be absolute to render the submission of the slave perfect.” Thomas Ruffin, 1829.

A fictional depiction of slave owner and house negro in the movie Django Unchained.

The 1688 revision of the Act for ‘the better ordering and governing of Negroes’ in Barbados said: “Whereas a considerable part of the wealth of this island consists of negro slaves… it is hereby ordained and enacted […] that […] all negro slaves in all courts of judicature and other places within this island shall be held, taken and adjudged to be Estate Real, and not chattel…”

This context explains the brutality present. In everything, the core idea is to dominate.

“Whipping was not only a method of punishment. It was a conscious device to impress on the slaves that they were slaves; it was a crucial form of social control…” (Rawick, 1972)

One of the first acts of the master was to brand them—the owner’s name was scorched into their bodies with hot irons. This act represents the stripping of one’s identity, with the enslaved person taking on the clan name of the master but with no legal right to that name.

A slave, Kunta Kinte, is whipped into accepting the name ‘Toby’ in the original television series, Roots, which attempted to depict the slave trade.

Believing the Africans to be “naturally rogues and bred up with such roguish principles” would lead the Privy Council to summarise the following: “The leading idea in the Negro system of jurisprudence is that… Negroes are property and a species of property that needed a rigorous vigilant regulation.”

Some questions persist. Are some of us sub-human? The use of pejoratives, like “cockroaches”, betray how we consider some of our fellowmen.

Beyond this, we should consider how we treat those in our care who depend on us for their welfare. Can they take care of their families on the pittances received?

Image: A quote on the danger of poverty…

Do matters of the economy supersede our obligations to each other? Are our laws slanted to protect some and not all of us?

How do we move to a fair society?

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About Noble Philip

Noble Philip
Noble Philip, a retired business executive, is trying to interpret Jesus’ relationships with the poor and rich among us. A Seeker, not a Saint.

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