The Long Night of Slavery

September 25, 2007

BETWEEN 1518 AND 1873, IN THE LARGEST CO-
erced migration in history, the international trade in
human beings carried nearly ten million Africans to the
Americas. Some historians estimate that at least ten million
more died along the way, in slave raids or wars in the African
interior, on the long march to the Atlantic coast, or during the
infamous transoceanic voyage euphemistically known as the
Middle Passage.' For the Europeans involved, the traffic in
and use of slave labor in the New World were the most
profitable businesses in the world. Some argue that this
enormous profit (over 300% at its height) financed the
industrial revolution in Europe.' For the enslaved, however,
this "business" meant death, disease, suffering, and lives
shortened by hard labor on the plantations and mines of the
Western world.
The men and women brought to the Americas against
their will were uprooted, not from a "primitive," "dark"
continent, but from highly complex, sophisticated societies.
Along Africa's western seaboard, great city-states ruled far-
flung empires for centuries before the arrival of the Europe-
ans. As early as the fourteenth century, for example, the
kingdom of Benin boasted a metropolis 25 miles in circum-
ference surrounded by massive 50-foot walls. The territory
of the Asante in present-day Ghana was graced by great cities
surrounded by palisades, with populations exceeding five
thousand. And as early as the thirteenth century, the Yoruba' s
now-famous copper castings, bronze portraits of kings, and
terra cotta and brass sculptures rivaled the greatest works of
the Italian Renaissance.)
African slaves began to be dragged across the Atlantic in
large numbers toward the end of the sixteenth century, when
the profitability of sugar plantations became evident and the
Europeans' early efforts to enslave Native Americans had
been frustrated-both by the difficulty of keeping them
captive in their own land, and by their near-extinction from
epidemic disease. 4 Using Africa as a source of slaves not only
placed an ocean between the slaves and the societies that
might have defended them, but it also benefited from a
centuries-old infrastructure, in which African states assisted
in the capture and delivery of slaves for local rulers. Before
the Atlantic slave trade, slavery in Africa was non-capitalist
and highly paternalistic, restricted mainly to the provision of
services for royal elites rather than the production of com-
modities for a world market.' Once the trade got underway,
African entrepreneurs could earn up to 600 high-quality iron
bars, or 16 guns, in exchange for every captive. The lure of
such wealth led to an expansive economy of warfare, in
which chiefs could become kings, and kings emperors.'
Once captured, men and women were marched to the
Atlantic coast under armed guard. The ex-slave Mahommah
Baquaqua remembered in the early nineteenth century mak-
ing the trip weighed down with "a limb of a tree that had two
prongs, and shaped so that it could cross the back of my
neck." 7 At the seaboard, slaves remained shackled in forts,
where the old and infirm were weeded out by surgeons, and
the rest branded with the mark of their European purchasers."
Then came the moment of truth. "When I looked around
the ship," ex-slave Ouladah Equiano recalled in the late
eighteenth century, "and saw a large furnace of copper
boiling, and a multitude of black people of every description
chained together, every one of their countenances expressing
dejection and sorrow, I no longer doubted my fate; and quite
overpowered with horror and anguish, I fell motionless on
the deck and fainted."' Up to a third of the men and women
crammed into such slaving ships would die during the
voyage, from disease, exposure, hunger and exhaustion. As
Baquaqua recollected, "the hold was so low that we could not
stand up, but were obliged to crouch upon the floor or sit
down; day and night were the same to us, sleep being denied
us from the confined position of our bodies, and we became
desperate through suffering and fatigue.""'.
VER THE COURSE OF FOUR CENTURIES, SOME
five million survivors of the Middle Passage ended up
on the sugar plantations of the Caribbean, about half of whom
went to the three most important islands-Hispaniola, Ja-
maica and Cuba. Another three and a half million found
themselves in the sugar plantations, silver mines, and coffee
groves of Brazil. Two hundred thousand slaves were shipped
to work in Mexico's coastal sugar industry, as well as in the
great silver mines of Zacatecas and Durango. Nearly 100,000
slaves were sent to work in Peruvian sugarcane and wheat
fields, and wine and fruit orchards. Colombia received an-
other 200,000 slaves to pan for gold in Antioquia, Choc6 and
Popayin, and to toil on sugar plantations in the Cauca Valley.
Venezuela, too, received over 100,000 slaves, to sweat onlowland cacao and sugar plantations, in the mines, on the
docks, and as pearl divers off the coast. Another 100,000
arrived on the Ecuadorian coast to work on sugar plantations
and in gold-panning. And over 100,000 slaves were sent to
the pampas of Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay to rustle
cattle, work in the wheat fields and vineyards, and serve as
porters, dock workers, domestics and artisans in the cities."
Until well into the nineteenth century, slaveholders found
it cheaper to work their property to death than to provide
living conditions that might promote a self-reproducing
labor force.12 Living conditions on the most common habitat
of Africans in the New World-sugar plantations-were,
despite some variation, terribly similar throughout the hemi-
sphere. Gangs of 10 to 20 men and women labored in the
fields, while smaller gangs sweated among the presses and
boilers in the hot sugarmill, and individual slaves worked at
carpentry, metal-working, and other crafts." Work-days
could average upwards of 16 hours, even for children no
more than eight or nine years old.
"I must have been 10 years old then," the Cuban ex-slave
Esteban Montejo recalled of his youth in the 1860s, "But 10
then was like 30 now, because boys worked like oxen."' 4 This
intensity of labor was maintained through the threat and
periodic use of the whip and other physical torture." Malnu-
trition and disease were rampant in the slave quarters; indeed,
in Brazil, the average slave could expect to live only about
seven years after arriving on the plantation. 1 6 Not surpris-
ingly, ills such as anemia, constipation, hepatitis, diarrhea
and vermin blighted New World slave populations. In the
winter, slaves often suffered from exposure and pneumonia,
while in the summer, the barracks became parasite-infested
ovens.
DESPITE SUCH CONDITIONS, SLAVES STRUG-
gled to preserve their humanity. For example, though
slavemasters split nuclear families apart, slaves forged a
wide variety of non-nuclear family ties on the plantations and
in the mines. Children were raised by extended kin, by those
who ate, slept or worked nearby, and by people tied through
the rite of baptism as ritual co-parents.' 7
Slaves created and sustained complex religions, blending
together elements of their African heritage with indigenous
and Catholic traditions. Santerfa in Cuba, Vodoun in Haiti,
Candombl6 in Brazil and Shango in Jamaica are only the
better known of the wide array of African-American reli-
gions forged in the New World. These faiths, centered on the
possession of mediums by traditional African deities such as
Ogum, Shango and Oxala, provided a sense of belonging,
self-esteem, dignity, purpose, and health.'"
Religion also gave slaves a way to subvert the master:
preventively, as when they consulted a ritual specialist for a
charm against the master's wrath; or actively, as when they
sought magical means of killing him.'" But slaves also
engaged in innumerable other acts of resistance to the ruth-
less labor regimen, from sabotaging sugar presses or stealing
from the master, to simple malingering. Slaves on some
coffee plantations in Brazil, for example, had an unstated rule
never to work faster than the oldest slave among them. 2 0
Some slaves, of course, chose to escape the plantation
altogether. Solitary runaways, however, had a difficult time
surviving in the forest. "I had to forage for food for a long
time," Esteban Montejo recalled of his escape in the 1870s.
"'The careful tortoise carries his house on his back."'"2 It was
often safer to run to a community of escaped slaves, known
to historians as maroon societies. Such communities ranged
from small armed bands to kingdoms with thousands of
members that lasted for nearly a century. 2 2 The greatest
maroon society of all was without doubt Palmares, in the
Brazilian northeast: at the end of the seventeenth century, this
maroon community boasted some 20,000 inhabitants. A
lieutenant charged with destroying Palmares observed in one
of the maroon's 20 hamlets, "220 houses, amid them a
church, four smithips, and a huge town hall...." 23
Slave resistance could, however, take forms more con-
frontational than sabotage and escape. Slaves often stood and
fought their masters, in acts that ran the gamut from indi-
vidual retribution against an overseer, to the full-scale social
revolution of Haiti. Over 400 years, no more than several
years passed at a time without a collective slave revolt; these
included the uprising of 20,000 slaves in Barbados in 1816,
of 30,000 in Dutch Demerara in 1823, of 60,000 in Jamaica
in 1831, and of close to that number in Brazil's Bahia in
1835.24 In all these revolts, religion played a significant role.
The role of the Vodoun priests in rallying the Haitian people
behind Toussaint l'Ouverture is legendary. 2 5 In Bahia in the
1830s, Islamic Hausa slaves led their brethren in revolt
against their urban masters. 2 6 And the 1831 rebellion in
Jamaica was led by Baptist minister Sam Sharpe, who
denounced slavery as against the "law of God and the
Bible."" 2 7
The reasons why slavery was abolished throughout the
Western hemisphere between the 1830s and 1880s are enor-
mously complex, involving the interplay of transnational
political, ideological, economic and social forces. One favor-
ite explanation is that the sugar economy of the New World
faced a crisis of overproduction starting in the late eighteenth
century. With all the colonies producing and competing at
full speed, the price of sugar began to fall steadily, and it
became more expensive to maintain and feed a year-round
slave labor force than to hire (and fire) free workers who had
to sustain themselves. 2 8 Others have argued that slavery
became increasingly incompatible with new technologies,
such as the steam-driven sugar-press, that required greater
skill than ever before. To be fully productive, they argue,
requires an incentive other than the whip. 2 9 Still others have
emphasized the primacy of political factors, especially the
international power of England and its abolitionist move-
ment. 3 0
But what ensured slavery's demise was the self-emanci-
pation of slaves themselves. Constant rebellions on the
plantations greatly contributed to slaveholders' perception
of the costliness of the system. Slave rebellions once had
aimed at the betterment of conditions within the institution,
or escape from it. But by the early nineteenth century,
rebellions, including Haiti's full-scale revolution, called for
total abolition. The fear of "another Haiti" led Great Britain
to abolish slavery soon after Sam Sharpe's rebellion. Only
when slave resistance grew to massive proportions did the
Brazilian military force its government's hand, and slavery's
last holdout fell in 1888.31
The Long Night of Slavery
1. For overviews and assessments of these figures, see Philip Curtin, The
Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census(Madison: University of Wisconsin Press,
1969); Sidney Mintz, Caribbean Transformations (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins
University Press, 1974); Herbert Klein, Slavery in Latin America and the
Caribbean (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).
2. See Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (Chapel Hill: University of
North Carolina Press, 1944); Philip Curtin, "The Slave Trade and the Atlantic
Basin: Intercontinental Perspectives," in Nathan I. Huggis et al (eds.), Key Issues
in the Afro-American Experience (New York: Harcourt, 1971), pp. 7 4 - 9 3 .
3. On some of the civilizations of Africa, see, for example, Graham
Connah,African Civilizations: Precolonial Cities andStates in TropicalAfrica
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987); Basil Davidson, History of
WestAfrica 1000-1800 (London: Longman, 1977); Reefe, T. Q., The Rainbow
and the Kings: A History of the Liuba Empire (Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1981); and Frank Willett, Ife in the History of West African
Sculpture (New York: McGraw Hill, 1967).
4. Stuart Schwartz, Sugar Plantations in the Formation ofBrazilian Society
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985); Eric Wolf, Europe and the
People Without History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), 203-4.
5. On the slave trade in Africa before 1492, see David Brion Davis, Slavery
and Human Progress (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984); Suzanne
Meiers and Igor Kopytoff (eds.), Slavery in Africa: Historical and Anthropo-
logical Perspectives (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1977); Frank
Cooper, "Studying Slavery in Africa: Some Criticisms and Comparisons,"
Journal of African History No. 20 (1979); Paul E. Lovejoy, Transformations
in Slavery (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983).
6. See Walter Rodney's two important books, A History of the Upper
Guinea Coast (Clarendon: Oxford University Press, 1970) and How Europe
Underdeveloped Africa (Washington: Howard University Press, 1974).
7. Quoted in Robert Conrad (ed.), Children of God's Fire (Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 1983), p. 24.
8. Katia Mattoso, To Be A Slave in Brazil (New Brunswick: Rutgers
University Press, 1986).
9. "The Life of Ouladah Equiano," in Philip Curtin (ed.), Africa Remem-
bered (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1965).
10. Conrad, Children of God's Fire, p. 27.
11. This census is based on a variety of sources; the best overview of the
distribution of Africans in Latin America is Leslie Rout, The African Experi-
ence in Spanish America (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976).
12. See Robert Conrad, World of Sorrow (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State
University Press, 1988), pp. 7-20.
13. For the organization of labor on the plantations, see Michael Craton,
Looking for the Invisible Man (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978);
Gwendolyn Hall, Social Control in Slave Plantation Societies (Baltimore:
Johns Hopkins University Press, 1971).
14. Esteban Montejo, Biografia de un cimarron (ed. by Miguel Barnet)
(Havana: Ciencias Sociales, 1986).
15. Robert Conrad, WorldofSorrow, p. 2 1; Carl Degler, NeitherBlacknor
White (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989 ed.).
16. Katia Mattoso, To Be a Slave, p. 100.
17. On slaves' social relations, see Orlando Patterson, The Sociology of
Slavery (Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1967); Stanley
Stein, Vassouras: A Brazilian Coffee County (Cambridge: Harvard University
Press, 1957), pp. 132-160.
18. The literature on these religions is vast. Among the better historical
works are Roger Bastide, African Religions of Brazil (Baltimore: Johns
Hopkins University Press, 1978); Colin Palmer, Slaves of the White God
(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976); Mary Karasch, Slave Society in
RiodeJaneiro (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987); Orlando Patterson,
ibid; George Simpson, African Religions in the New World (New York:
Columbia University Press, 1978).
19. See, for example, Sandra T. Barnes, Africa's Ogun (Bloomington:
University of Indiana Press, 1989).
20. Stanley Stein, Vassouras.
21. Esteban Montejo, Autobiography, p. 51.
22. Richard Price (ed.), Maroon Societies (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins
University Press, 1979); Okiharo, Gary Y., ed., In Resistance: Studies in
Africa. Caribbean, and Afro-American History (Amherst: University of Mas-
sachusetts Press, 1986).
23. Robert Kent, "Palmares: An African State in Brazil," in Richard Price,
ibid, p. 177.
24. Eugene Genovese, From Rebellion to Revolution (Baton Rouge:
University of Louisiana Press, 1979).
25. Maya Deren.DivineHorsemen (New York: Delta, 1970); AlfredMetraux,
Voodoo in Haiti (New York: Schocken Books, 1972); Michel Laguerre, Voodoo
and Politics in Haiti (New York: Saint Martin's Press, 1989).
26 Roger Bastide, African Religions; articles by Jack Goody and R.K. Kent.
27. Mary Reckford, "The Jamaica Slave Rebellion of 1831," Past and
Present (1968), pp. 108-125.
28. See, for example, Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (Chapel Hill:
University of North Carolina Press, 1944), and overview of critiques by Hilary
Beckles, "Capitalism and Slavery: The Debate Over Eric Williams," Social
and Economic Studies No. 33 (1984), pp. 171-89.
29. Seymour Drescher, Econocide: British Slavery in the Era ofAbolition
(Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh University Press, 1977); David Brion Davis, The
Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (Ithaca: Cornell University Press,
1966). Also see the excellent local-level analysis by Rebecca Scott, "Explain-
ing Abolition: Contradiction, Adaptation and Challenge in Cuban Slave
Society," in Manuel Fraginals et al (eds.), Between Slavery and Free Labor
(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985), pp. 25-53.
30. Michael Craton, Testing the Chains (Ithaca: Comell University Press,
1982); Stanley Engerman and Barbara Solow (eds.), British Capitalism and
Caribbean Slavery (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987).
31. On Brazil, see Warren Dean, Rio Claro (Stanford: Stanford University
Press, 1976), p. 141.

Tags: slavery, rebellions, abolition, racism, plantation economy


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