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The Slave Trade

[Picture of slaves in transit]

In the four centuries of the slave trade, slavers transported an estimated 11 million Africans to North and South America, about 600,000 of them to British North America. Most slaves were captured in the African interior by raiding parties from more powerful tribes along the coast, and were taken on forced marches to coastal trading forts run by Europeans. There they were inspected by ship captains in the holds of dungeons or in open pits. Those selected for transport were branded, chained together, and rowed out to awaiting slave ships, where they were packed below deck in spaces with no more breathing room than a coffin.

Olaudah Equiano, an Ibo tribesmen from what is now Nigeria, was kidnapped and enslaved when he was only 11 years old. And he lived to write an account of one of these slave ships. Under the deck, the groans of the dying, the screams of children who had fallen into open latrines, and the vile stench of vomit and feces combined to create what Equiano described as a scene of horror "almost inconceivable."

As Equiano's ship headed for open sea, a great moan went up from the slaves, who feared they were being taken to the homelands of the bearded monsters to be boiled in water and eaten. As they reached the port of destination, the surviving human cargo was prepared for sale. If slaves had been flogged, their open wounds were disguised by filling them with black tar.

Some ship surgeons plugged the rectums of slaves with clumps of hemp fiber to prevent buyers from noticing the bloody discharges that indicated they were dying from dysentery. Equiano was purchased in Charleston, South Carolina and taken to a tobacco farm in Virginia, there he was unable to communicate with his fellow slaves from other areas of Africa. He was part of the Africanization of the Chesapeake labor force. But had he not been resold to a visiting naval officer, and eventually freed, he might have married an African-American woman and been a member of the first generation of slaves in the North American Hemisphere to increase its size by procreation.

Rice and Rebellion

[Picture of southern plantation]

In the 18th century, a different type of slavery developed in the lowland, coastal region extending from Cape Fear, North Carolina, to Georgia, an area whose ecology was unsuited to tobacco cultivation. South Carolina was the richest colony in this region. It had been first settled in the 1660s by land hungry emigrants from the crowded sugar islands of Barbados. Thirty years later, they found a profitable cash crop--rice.

And rice shaped the lowland as strongly as tobacco shaped the Chesapeake. Rice made South Carolina the richest colony in mainland British North America--and the only one with a black majority. Rice cultivation was hard, human-killing work; but greater oppression, ironically, produced greater autonomy for the slaves.

Since tobacco required more constant care than rice, masters closely supervised slave labor. In the Carolina lowlands, masters stayed away from the rice fields, where the death rate from malaria was frightfully high. The Carolina grandees, the richest elite in the colonies, built their magnificent plantation houses on high ground, far away from the rice ditches. In the malaria season they escaped to town houses in fashionable Charleston.

Slaves died earlier in the Low Country than they did in Virginia and reproduced more slowly. So owners had to bring in fresh infusions of Africans, most of them males. These slaves were much more likely to rebel than American-born slaves were.

[Picture of slave living quarters]

In these sprawling agricultural factories, slaves didn't work in white-supervised gangs, as they did in Virginia. Instead, they were given daily tasks to perform under the supervision of black foremen, or drivers. The work was done at a killing pace, knee-deep in the thick muck, in mosquito- and snake-infested paddies. But when their tasks were completed, slaves returned to their separate living quarters, where they were free to hunt and fish, grow their own food, and live together as families in individual cabins.

Living apart from masters who hardly knew them, they developed an autonomous culture that had its own cycle of African feasts and dances. They developed their own language, Gullah. And they also developed a culture that was profoundly confrontational.

It's not coincidental that colonial America's largest slave rebellion, the Stono Uprising, occurred in South Carolina. In 1759, a group of freshly imported Angolans broke into a store on the Stono River, near Charleston, armed themselves, and headed toward Spanish Florida and freedom. Along the way they plundered plantations and killed about two dozen whites before being gunned down by a militia company.

Although slave revolts were rare in mainland North America, as compared, say, to Brazil and the Caribbean, slaves resisted in every way possible, destroying tools, performing work shoddily, running away, and striking, and sometimes killing, their oversees. Walking through a pleasant wood near Charleston, Crevecoeur, who was visiting in the area, suddenly came upon a black man who had been suspended in a cage and left to die. His arms were tied down, and birds had plucked out his eyes. Crevecoeur got him some water, but he begged for poison. At his host's home, Crevocoeur was told that the slave had killed his overseer and that the "laws of self-preservation," in the words of the master, "[made] such executions necessary."

Now, this might make for dramatic reading, but the slaves' major act of resistance was not striking back at the master. It was non-violent: the creation of a resilient, richly varied black culture, the slaves' strongest weapon against racial oppression. Southern language, cuisine, folklore, music, and religion were indelibly influenced by this slave culture.

Acculturation did not go only one way. As Africans were being Anglicized, English colonists in the South were also being Africanized. In this way, African slaves contributed to the making of a uniquely American culture.

Slaves played a pivotal role in increasing the wealth, as well as the size and ethnic diversity of early America. By 1776, the two main crops that slaves produced, tobacco and rice, were, with wheat, British America's most profitable exports. This is certainly one reason there was a general colony-wide acceptance of slavery, even though slaves comprised only about 10% of the northern population.

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