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A Five Hundred Year-Old Shared History

This is the third report in National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) global news feature series on the history, contemporary realities and implications of the transatlantic slave trade.

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, iStockphoto / NNPA

“It started with slave ships… There are more records of slave ships than one would dream. It seems inconceivable until you reflect that for 200 years ships sailed carrying cargo of slaves. How can man be nonviolent… in the face of the… violence that we’ve been experiencing for the past (500) years is actually doing our people a disservice in fact, it’s a crime, it’s a crime.” — Public Enemy- “Can’t Truss It.”

The transatlantic slave trade is often regarded as the first system of globalization and lasted from the 16th century through much of the 19th century. Slavery, and the global political, socio-economic and banking systems that supported it, constitutes one of the greatest tragedies in the history of humanity both in terms of scale and duration.

The transatlantic slave trade was the largest mass deportation of humans in history and a determining factor in the world economy of the 18th century where millions of Africans were torn from their homes, deported to the American continent and sold as slaves, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization – or UNESCO.

The transatlantic slave trade that began about 500 years ago connected the economies of three continents with Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, England and France acting as the primary trading countries.

“The transatlantic slave trade transformed the Americas,” wrote Dr. Alan Rice, a Reader in American Cultural Studies at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston in the United Kingdom.

“Three factors combined to cause this transformation. Large amounts of land had been seized from Native Americans and were not being used,” Rice said. “Europeans were looking for somewhere to invest their money and very cheap labor was available in the form of enslaved Africans [thus] the Americas became a booming new economy.”

The transatlantic slave trade also formed an essential bridge between Europe’s New World and its Asia trade and, as such, it was a crucial element in the development of the global economy in the 18th century, Professor Robert Harms wrote for Yale University’s “Global Yale.”

Harms, a professor of History at Yale and chair of the Council on African Studies continued:

“There was one basic economic fact – little noticed by historians – that provides the key to the relationship between the direct trade and the circuit trade.

“When a French ship arrived in the New World with a load of slaves to be bartered for sugar, the value of the slaves equaled about twice as much sugar as the ship could carry back to France. For that reason, the most common form of slave contract called for fifty percent of the sugar to be delivered immediately and the remainder to be delivered a year later.

“The second delivery carried no interest penalty, and so the slave sellers were in effect giving the buyers an interest-free loan.”

In total, UNESCO estimates that between 25 to 30 million people — men, women and children — were deported from their homes and sold as slaves in the different slave trading systems.

More than half – 17 million – were deported and sold during the transatlantic slave trade, a figure that UNESCO historians said doesn’t include those who died aboard the ships and during the course of wars and raids connected to the slave.

The trade proceeded in three steps. The ships left Western Europe for Africa loaded with goods which were to be exchanged for slaves.

Upon their arrival in Africa, the captains traded their merchandise for captive slaves. Weapons and gun powder were the most important commodities but textiles, pearls and other manufactured goods, as well as rum, were also in high demand.

The exchange could last from one week to several months.

The second step was the crossing of the Atlantic. Africans were transported to America to be sold throughout the continent.

The third step connected America to Europe.

The slave traders brought back mostly agricultural products, produced by the slaves. The main product was sugar, followed by cotton, coffee, tobacco and rice.

The circuit lasted approximately eighteen months and, in order to be able to transport the maximum number of slaves, the ship’s steerage was frequently removed, historians said.

Many researchers are convinced that the slave trade had more to do with economics than racism. “Slavery was not born of racism, rather racism was the consequence of slavery,” historian Eric Williams wrote in his study, “Capitalism & Slavery.”

“Unfree labor in the New World was brown, white, black, and yellow; Catholic, Protestant, and pagan. The origin of Negro slavery? The reason was economic, not racial, it had to do not with the color of the laborer, but the cheapness of the labor,” Williams said.

Also, contrary to “the popular portrayal of African slaves as primitive, ignorant and stupid, the reality is that not only were Africans skilled laborers, they were also experts in tropical agriculture,” said editor and social media and communications expert, Michael Roberts.

In a dissertation for op-ed news earlier this year, Roberts said, Africans were well-suited for plantation agriculture in the Caribbean and South America.

Also, the high immunity of Africans to malaria and yellow fever, compared to white Europeans and the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean and South America, meant Africans were more suitable for tropical labor.

“While Native Americans’ labor were initially used, Africans were the final solution to the acute labor problem in the New World,” Roberts said.

“The slave trade was one of the most important business enterprises of the 17th century. The undisputed fact is that the nation states of Europe stabilized themselves and developed their economies mainly at the expense of millions of Black African people,” he said.

During the 16th Century, when Europeans first made regular contact, West Africa had highly developed civilizations and Africans were keen to trade their gold, silver, copper, Ivory and spices for European pots, pans, cloth and guns.

However, Europeans soon became more interested in exploiting the people of Africa and forcing them into slave labor.

Most of the slaves were taken from the West coast, but some were kidnapped further inland from the interior.

“The biggest lesson to be learned from this dark and evil chapter in human history is that exploiting fellow humans for cheap labor never pays off in the long run,” said Pablo Solomon, an internationally recognized artist and designer who’s been featured in 29 books and in newspapers, magazines, television, radio and film.

“The acts of using fellow humans as beasts of burden to save a few bucks always ends up costing more in the long run both in real money and in societal decay,” Solomon said.

“Any rationalization of misusing fellow humans is both evil and ignorant,” he said.

One aspect of the transatlantic slave trade that would greatly enhance its understanding is that the English began to enslave and export Irish persons to the Caribbean in the time of Oliver Cromwell, said Heather Miller, an educator and writer with expertise in the teaching of reading and writing, who holds graduate degrees from Harvard and MIT.

Cromwell was known for his campaign in Ireland that centered on ethnic cleansing and the transportation of slave labor to the Barbados.

“Irish enslaved persons worked alongside African enslaved persons in the Caribbean,” Miller said.

However, historians generally agree that the most cruel and exploitative people have been the African.

“From the moment when Europeans took their slaves from a race different from their own, which many of them considered inferior to other human races, and assimilation with whom they all regarded with horror, they assumed that slavery would be eternal,” historian Winthrop D. Jordan wrote in his dissertation, “White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro.”

While tribal leaders assisted in the capturing of some African slaves, its without any doubt that foreigners were overwhelming the most egregious in their pursuit of men, women and children who would be placed in the horrors of forced labor and inhumane treatment.

The transatlantic slave trade would become the largest forced migration in history.

It started at the beginning of the sixteenth century and, until the mid-17th century, Spanish America and Portuguese Brazil were the major slave markets for European slave traders.

The Dutch participation in the transatlantic slave trade started in the 1630s and ended at the beginning of the nineteenth century, according to Henk den Heijer, professor emeritus in Maritime History at the Leiden University in Germany.

During that period, the Dutch shipped 600,000 Africans to the colonies in the New World.

“Initially, the Dutch were against slavery which was considered to be a catholic heresy. This antislavery point of view can be easily explained,” den Heijer said.

“Dutch seafarers first ventured across the Atlantic without the intention of enslaving anyone. They were mainly interested in the trade in Atlantic products like salt, sugar, wax and dye wood. At the beginning of the 17th century, however, the Dutch established small plantation colonies on the coast of Guyana, the area between the Orinoco and Amazon rivers,” he said.

“Most of the early settlements were populated with Dutch colonists and a few indigenous slaves. The Dutch embraced the slave trade and slavery on a large scale for the first time in Brazil.”

The slave trade also brought a great deal of wealth to the British ports that were involved.

Researchers noted the count of slaves and slave ships that came through the main British ports in 1771, when the average working person earned $35 in British currency per year and a single slave in good condition could be sold in the Caribbean for $25.

Liverpool had 107 ships and transported 29,250 slaves, historians noted.

London had 58 ships carrying 8,136 slaves while Bristol had 23 ships that transported 8,810 slaves.

Additionally, researchers said Lancaster had 4 ships that transported 950 slaves.

From 1791 to 1807, British ships carried 52 percent of all slaves taken from Africa while, from 1791 to 1800, British ships delivered 398,719 slaves to the Americas.

While it was the British who stood as the most progressive couriers of whatever was transported through the sea, many other countries chartered ships and descended upon African nations to capture slaves.

Ships sailed to Africa loaded with guns, tools, textiles and other manufactured goods and crews with guns went ashore to capture slaves and purchase slaves from tribal leaders.

Slave ships spent months travelling to different parts of the coast, according to historians who described the devastation on a webpage titled The Transatlantic Slave Trade.

Captives were often in poor health from the physical and mental abuse they suffered.

The air in the hold was foul and putrid, according to historians.

From the lack of sanitation, there was a constant threat of disease. Epidemics of fever, dysentery and smallpox were frequent. Captives endured these conditions for months. In good weather the captives were brought on deck in midmorning and forced to exercise.

They were fed twice a day and those refusing to eat were force-fed.

Those who died were thrown overboard. The combination of disease, inadequate food, rebellion and punishment took a heavy toll on captives and crew.

Surviving records suggest that until the 1750s, one in five Africans on board ship died.

At least two million Africans – 10 to 15 percent – died during the infamous “Middle Passage” across the Atlantic.

Some European governments, such as the British and French, introduced laws to control conditions on board. They reduced the numbers of people allowed on board and required a surgeon to be carried.

The principal reason for taking action was concern for the crew, not the captives, historians said.

The surgeons, often unqualified, were paid head-money to keep captives alive. By about 1800 records show that the number of Africans who died had declined to about one in 18.

When enslaved Africans arrived in the Americas, they were often alone, separated from their family and community, unable to communicate with those around them.

“When we arrived, many merchants and planters came on board and examined us. We were then taken to the merchant’s yard, where we were all pent up together like sheep in a fold,” according to a published description from “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano.”

“On a signal the buyers rushed forward and chose those slaves they liked best.”

Sold, branded and issued with a new name, the enslaved Africans were separated and stripped of their identity.

In a deliberate process, meant to break their will power and make them totally passive and subservient, the enslaved Africans were “seasoned,” which meant that, for a period of two to three years, they were trained to endure their work and conditions – obey or receive the lash.

It was mental and physical torture.

“The anniversary of the Transatlantic Slave Trade needs to be marked in some way, not celebrated, but recognized and memorialized because of the effects this decision had then that still affects the world today,” said Dr. Jannette Dates, dean emerita at the School of Communications at Howard University in Washington, D.C.

“The Black Press continues to play its historic role in keeping issues of significance to African Americans in the forefront for black people’s awareness, knowledge and better understanding of our history,” Dr. Dates said.