Excerpt from An Account of the Slave Trade
on the Coast of Africa
Published in An Account of the Slave Trade
on the Coast of Africa, 1788
Many scholars date the true beginnings of the Renaissance, a period of renewed interest in learning that heralded the beginnings of the modern age in Europe, from about 1450. Around that time, a number of important changes occurred, among them the launching of numerous voyages of discovery by Portuguese and Spanish ships.
After Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) accidentally discovered the Americas, or the New World, in 1492, Spaniards began colonizing parts of it—that is, they made certain regions into Spanish territories. Among these regions were the islands of the Caribbean, which came to be known as the West Indies because Columbus mistakenly believed he had reached India. The Portuguese, however, had started their explorations a half-century earlier, and their voyages took them to the Atlantic coast of Africa. It was there that European trade in African slaves began during the mid 1400s.
Slavery had long existed in Africa. For instance, although the family of Olaudah Equiano (see box, "Slave Narratives") was African, they owned quite a few slaves. Yet Africans' enslavement of other Africans was not nearly asharsh as the treatment of African slaves by Europeans. It is also important to note that the Europeans could never have penetrated the interior of the African continent and kidnaped slaves on their own: they needed the help of African slave traders who lived on the Atlantic coast and were willing to sell out members of other tribes.
The Portuguese were slave traders, and both Spaniards and Portuguese in the New World—where Portugal's colony of Brazil became a vast slave empire—used slave labor. By the 1700s, however, both Spain and Portugal were eclipsed by new powers: Britain and France. In some ways, the two new powers resembled the old ones. For example, Spain, like France, was not actively involved in the actual slave trade, but it certainly made use of slaves in its New World colonies. Like Portugal before it, Britain took an active role both in the slave trade and in the slave system as it existed in the New World.
To a much greater extent than Spain, Portugal, or even France, Britain had a strong and growing tradition of respect for individual freedom and human dignity. Given such views it was difficult to justify the buying and selling of human beings. Many concerned people became abolitionists, or opponents of slavery, and one of their leading figures was Alexander Falconbridge, a surgeon who had worked aboard slave ships during the mid1700s.
Things to remember while reading
- The following passage, condensed from Falconbridge's An Account of the Slave Trade on the Coast of Africa (1788), describes aspects of slavery, beginning with the point at which slaves were sold by slavers at markets in West Africa. At these markets, the sellers were Africans, and the buyers Europeans. The slaves were forced onto prison-like ships, where they sailed to the New World amid horrible conditions.
- With his unique perspective, Falconbridge paid special attention to the health hazards posed to the slaves by the close, confined quarters in which they were kept. At one point when he was tending to patients in the slave hold, he noted, it became so unbearably hot that he could only stay down there for a few minutes at a time. As a free man, Falconbridge had the option of going above decks; the captives did not.
- Falconbridge may have been unaware of the deeper meaning of his words when, in several places, he noted that circumstances aboard the ship often caused the slaves to quarrel with one another. No doubt the slave traders wanted the slaves to fight amongst themselves, so that they would not join forces against their common enemy. Also, his description of how the slaves were forced to sing and dance is intriguing. Even in modern times, African Americans are sometimes stereotyped, or lumped together in a misleading and racist way, as accomplished singers and dancers; the passage from Falconbridge shows how many slaves developed these abilities as a survival technique.
- From what Falconbridge wrote in the third paragraph from the last, it appears that though the sailors were raping the African women, they had managed to convince themselves that the women engaged in sex willingly. Thus if a woman was raped by one man and then another, it seemed that she was being "unfaithful" to the first man. Even Falconbridge seems to have been misled to an extent, because he referred to the sailors "procuring the consent" of African women. It is hard to imagine a situation in which any of the latter would willingly have engaged in relationships with their captors.
An Account of the Slave Trade on the Coast of Africa
From forty to two hundred Negroes are generally purchased at a time by the black traders, according to the opulence of the buyer, and consist of all ages, from a month to sixty years and upwards. Scarcely any age or situation is deemed an exception, the price being proportionable. Women sometimes form a part of them, who happen to be so far advanced in their pregnancy as to be delivered during their journey from the [slave trading] fairs to the coast; and I have frequently seen instances of deliveries on board ship....
[T]he European purchasers ... first examine them [the slaves] relative to their age. They then minutely inspect their persons and inquire into the state of their health; if they are inflicted with any disease or are deformed or have bad eyes or teeth; if they are lame or weak in the joints or distorted in the back or of a slender make or narrow in the chest; in short, if they have been ill or are afflicted in any manner so as to render them incapable of much labor....
The men Negroes, on being brought aboard the ship, are immediately fastened together, two and two, by handcuffs on their wrists and by irons riveted on their legs....
[T]hey are frequently stowed so close, as to admit of no other position than lying on their sides. Nor will the height between decks, unless directly under the grating, permit the indulgence of an erect posture; especially where there are platforms, which is generally the case....
In each of the apartments are placed three or four large buckets, of a conical form, nearly two feet in diameter at the bottom and only one foot at the top and in depth of about twenty-eight inches, to which, when necessary, the Negroes have recourse. It often happens that those who are placed at a distance from the buckets, in endeavoring to get to them, tumble over their companions, in con sequence of their being shackled. These accidents, although unavoidable, are productive of continual quarrels in which some of them are always bruised. In this distressed situation, unable to proceed and prevented from getting to the tubs, they desist from the attempt; and as the necessities of nature are not to be resisted, ease themselves as they lie. This becomes a fresh source of boils and disturbances and tends to render the condition of the poor captive wretches still more uncomfortable....
Their food is served up to them in tubs about the size of a small water bucket. They are placed round these tubs, in companies of ten to each tub, out of which they feed themselves with wooden spoons. These they soon lose and when they are not allowed others they feed themselves with their hands....
Upon the Negroes refusing to take sustenance, I have seen coals of fire, glowing hot, put on a shovel and placed so near their lips as to scorch and burn them. And this has been accompanied with threats of forcing them to swallow the coals if they any longer persisted in refusing to eat These means have generally had the desired effect. I have also been credibly informed that a certain captain in the slave-trade, poured melted lead on such of his Negroes as obstinately refused their food.
Exercise being deemed necessary for the preservation of their health they are sometimes obliged to dance when the weather will permit their coming on deck. If they go about it reluctantly or do not move with agility, they are flogged
.... The poor wretches are frequently compelled to sing also; but when they do so, their songs are generally, as may naturally be expected, melancholy lamentations of their exile from their native country.
The women are furnished with beads for the purpose of affording them some diversion. But this end is generally defeated by the squabbles which are occasioned in consequence of their stealing from each other.
On board some ships the common sailors are allowed to have intercourse with such of the black women whose consent they can procure. And some of them have been known to take the inconstancy of their paramours so much to heart as to leap overboard and drown themselves. The officers are permitted to indulge their passions among them at pleasure and sometimes are guilty of such excesses as disgrace human nature....
The hardships and inconveniences suffered by the Negroes during the passage are scarcely to be enumerated or conceived....
During the voyages I made, I was frequently witness to the fatal effects of this exclusion of fresh air [from the cargo hold]. I will give one instance, as it serves to convey some idea, though a very faint one, of their terrible sufferings.... Some wet and blowing weather having occasioned the port-holes to be shut and the grating to be covered, fluxes and fevers among the Negroes ensued. While they were in this situation, I frequently went down among them till at length their room became so extremely hot as to be only bearable for a very short time. But the excessive heat was not the only thing that rendered their situation intolerable. The deck, that is the floor of their rooms, was so covered with the blood and mucus which had proceeded from them in consequence of the flux, that it resembled a slaughter-house. It is not in the power of the human imagination to picture a situation more dreadful or disgusting. Numbers of the slaves having fainted, they were carried upon deck where several of them died and the rest with great difficulty were restored....
What happened next...
Falconbridge's account was actually written a few years after James Barbot (see entry) described a shipboard revolt, but such revolts became more common. Certainly it is easy to understand how and why slaves would want to rise up against their oppressors, given the dreadful conditions to which they were subjected.
By the time of Falconbridge, slavery in the New World was in full swing. Two countries took the lead in the slave trade: Britain, with its slave trading ships and colonies; and the brand-new American republic, with its southern regions heavily dependent on agricultural slave labor. Yet these were also the lands that claimed to value liberty and individual rights the most.
Did you know...
- Slaves did not come from all over Africa; rather, they were taken almost entirely from the western part of the continent—the enormous "hump" of Africa that extends into the Atlantic Ocean.
- Ironically, West Africa had been the site of numerous great and wealthy civilizations, such as Ghana, Mali, and the Songhai Empire, just a few centuries before the slave ships arrived.
- One British philosopher whose ideas inspired the antislavery movement was John Locke (1632-1704). Locke wrote that all human beings deserved certain natural rights, which he identified as "life, liberty, and the pursuit of property." This inspired the reference to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" in the U.S. Declaration of Independence.
For more information
Falconbridge, Alexander. An Account of the Slave Trade on the Coast of Africa. London: J. Phillips, 1788.
Frank, Andrew. The Birth of Black America: The Age of Discovery and the Slave Trade. New York: Chelsea House, 1996.
OfosuAppiah, L. H. People in Bondage: African Slavery Since the 15th Century. Minneapolis, Minn.: Runestone Press, 1993.
White, Anne Terry. Human Cargo: The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade. Champaign, Ill.: Garrard Publishing Company, 1972.
"Alexander Falconbridge's Account of the Slave Trade." (accessed on January 20, 2000).
"The American Nation—Alexander Falconbridge, The African Slave Trade (1788)." http://longman.awl.com/garraty/primarysource_2_13.htm (accessed on January 20, 2000).
'The Impact of Slavery." African History Sourcebook. http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/africa/africasbook.htm#The Impact of Slavery (accessed on January 20, 2000).
"The Middle Passage." Juneteenth. http://www.juneteenth.com/middlep.htm (accessed on January 20, 2000).