The practice of slavery is perhaps as old as time itself. Since the dawn of civilization, people have dealt in the trade of humans as if they are mere commodities that can be bought and sold. Slavery is universally condemned today as a crime against basic human rights, yet countless continue to suffer as slaves in various forms of bondage. It is true that the end of all forms of slavery is yet to come, and part of reaching that goal requires educating society on the horrors of slavery. Learning about the brutality of this institution can help move people into action. Perhaps no other episode in history is more emblematic of this atrocity than the Atlantic slave trade. That the slave trade with its cruel practices was recognized as legitimate may be puzzling to modern society. Revisiting this topic, therefore, requires discussing the laws and the inhumane ideologies that enabled this horrible practice. This history paper discusses the atrocities committed against slaves as well as the justifications behind the slave trade.
No aspect of the slave trade is more salient than the cruelty with which it was operated. The numbers alone reveal the extent to which the slave trade caused suffering. While historians offer different figures, there can be no doubt that the number of enslaved people runs into the millions. For instance, some estimates suggest that as many as 10 to 16 million Africans were transported to the Americas from the 16th century to the 19th century (Mintz and McNeil). Some estimates offer different but comparative numbers. Professors David Eltis and David Richardson, for instance, estimate that around 12.5 million people were transported across the Atlantic (Eltis and Richardson). Regardless of the differences in estimates, what matters more is how these numbers reflect the scale of the slave trade and inevitably the extent to which it destroyed entire populations.
Right at the beginning, slaves were made to endure physical, emotional, and psychological torment. The journey to the New World began in Africa, where slaves were either captured by slave traders or sold by rival tribes. The slaves were then crammed into ships. The voyage was known as the Middle Passage, for it was the middle of three voyages that ships embarked. Ships from Europe traveled to Africa, where goods from Europe were traded with enslaved Africans. The ships then sailed to the Americas where the slaves were sold. Goods from the New World were then taken back to Europe. Needless to say, the conditions were atrocious. The slaves were chained alongside each other to maximize the use of space and prevent them from mutinying. They were also made to starve, as they were often fed only once or twice in a day. They suffered from lack of sunlight and ventilation since most of them were kept in the cargo hold. Malnutrition and diseases such as scurvy, dysentery, and smallpox often caused death among the slaves. Estimates show that the mortality rate was at time as high as 25% (Mintz and McNeil), which means that around 2.5 to 4 million died while on board the ships. The bodies of those who died were often unceremoniously thrown overboard.
The suffering continued once the slaves were in the New World. Slaves were often auctioned or sold separately, and thus it was not unusual for families to be torn apart. Because the slaves were regarded as property, owners exercise almost absolute power over them and were allowed to do almost anything they wished. While there were owners who treated slaves kindly, many others were unkind. Slaves were often sent to plantations, where they were made to work from the early hours of the morning to late at night. They were also frequently deprived of basic necessities such as food, clothing, and decent shelter (Boston). It was not uncommon for masters to abuse their slaves in many ways. For instance, many slaves were sexually abused. Slave owners practiced a rudimentary form of selective breeding, which involved coercing male and female slaves with traits deemed desirable to have intercourse to produce more slaves even when they were already married to others. Female slaves were also raped by their masters and the children they produced were added to the owners’ possessions (Jennings). Slaves who displeased their masters were also subjected to harsh punishment. Even the slightest infractions could cost a slave his or her life, especially in the hands of a sadistic owner. Frederick Douglass’ autobiographical work Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass provides harrowing accounts of such abuses. In one instance, Douglass witnessed his aunt beaten by their master until she bled. In another incident, Douglass witnessed a slave owner killing a slave after the latter attempted to escape. These acts of cruelty were just some of the tortures and indignities suffered by millions of people who fell victim to the slave trade.
That the Atlantic slave trade was characterized by extremely inhumane acts begs the question of why it was allowed to thrive in the first place. The answer lies in the fact that the trade was justified by both law and ideology. Slavery was considered by many, at least in the 16th to 19th century, an essential part of the economy. Entire industries, particularly those related to agriculture, were built upon the backs of slaves who provided free labor. Laws were therefore passed to protect the interests of the ruling class. The Fugitive Slave Act, for instance, made it mandatory for escaped slaves to be returned to their masters. The act did not offer protection to slaves and even endangered freedmen, since it allowed a person to be captured on mere accusation of being a fugitive. Central to the slave trade, of course, was the ideology that some races were superior to others. Supporters of slavery believed that people of darker skin were intellectually inferior and therefore did not have the capacity to flourish as whites did. Slaves were seen as incapable of exercising self-governance and therefore required an authority to govern them. Indeed, many who supported slavery believed that the practice was beneficial to the slaves themselves (Boston). But as shown by the countless accounts of abuse suffered by slaves within this trade, such assumptions were mostly intended to cover up their exploitation. Slave owners kept the slaves illiterate, weak, and in constant fear and then used the power they had over the slaves to justify their control. In the end, the false ideologies that underpinned the slave trade were nothing more but racism in society.
Taking into account the atrocities endured by countless African slaves, there is no denying that the Atlantic slave trade was a sadistic, inhumane, and extremely evil institution. From the moment they were taken from their homeland, slaves were made to suffer every pain and indignity known. They were torn away from their families, deprived of their freedom, denied many of their basic needs, and put under the control of harsh owners who wielded virtually absolute power over them. Thousands upon thousands died due to injustice. It took hundreds of years and the courage and conviction of countless men and women for this practice toe end. Many writers, for instance, exposed the horrors of racism in American literature, such as in the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Former slaves such as Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass dared to defy the odds and fought slavery even in face of great personal danger. It was through them and many more that the Atlantic slave trade was finally ended. Of course, racism in society remains. Time and again people come across modern accounts on the manifestation of racism. It is on the news, in viral videos on social media, and in their interaction with others in everyday life. That the Atlantic slave trade was an institution considered as not only legal but also integral to the economy is harrowing reminder of what happens when humans treat their fellow humans as inferior and underserving of rights. And for this very reason this dark episode must be remembered.
Boston, Nicholas. “The Slave Experience: Living.” Slavery and the Making of America, https://www.thirteen.org/wnet/slavery/experience/living/history.html. Accessed 8 December 2020.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Boston, MA: Anti-Slavery Office, 1845
Eltis, David and David Richardson. “Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade – Estimates.” Slave Voyages, https://www.slavevoyages.org/assessment/estimates. Accessed 8 December 2020.
Jennings, Thelma. “The Sexual Exploitation of African-American Slave Women.” Major Problems in American Women's History, edited by Mary Beth Norton and Ruth M. Alexander, Cengage, 2006.
Mintz, S. and S. McNeil. “The Middle Passage.” Digital History, http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/disp_textbook.cfm?smtID=2&psid=3034. Accessed 8 December 2020.