"Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real."

Cormac McCarthy

Last updated 4 October  2019  © Julia Edwards

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WARNING! This page is not for those with a sensitive nature. There are no jokes, and a lot of  what you'll read and see here is nasty and upsetting. Unfortunately, it's also true.

The Slave Trade was the shipping of Africans across the Atlantic to a life of slavery in the West Indies and North America. These were innocent men, women and children who were taken by force from their homes, sometimes by other Africans who sold them to the European traders. If they survived the journey across the Atlantic, a life of appalling hardship and brutality awaited them working on the sugar and tobacco plantations, in most cases until they died.

The Slave Trade had already begun in the 1500s, with the Portuguese transporting fairly small numbers of enslaved Africans to Brazil and other Portuguese colonies in South America. By the 1700s, however, Britain was one of the biggest slave trading nations. In total, it is estimated that 12 million Africans were taken as slaves, about 1.5 million of whom did not survive the journey to the Americas. Britain was responsible for a significant proportion of these slaves, along with the Portuguese, the French and the Dutch. 

The trade route was known as the Triangular Trade because of the shape it makes on a map. Guns, cloth, brass, and other goods were shipped from Britain to west Africa. There, they were exchanged for slaves, who were then transported across the Atlantic directly to the Americas on the second part of the route, known as the Middle Passage. Finally, the produce from the plantations was shipped back to Britain to complete the triangle.

If you're wondering why the British chose to trade guns in Africa, this was a very cunning tactic. The guns would be traded with an African tribe who wanted (or were encouraged) to declare war on their neighbours. When the guns helped the tribe to win, they would take lots of prisoners from their neighbours, who they were quite happy to sell as slaves to the British in exchange for other goods, or more guns! 

Click on the map to magnify it. 

These prisoners would be marched to the coast, together with others who had been kidnapped for the slave traders. If they came from tribes who lived inland, it might take weeks to reach the coast. When they got there, they were locked up in enclosures called barracoons until the ship was ready for them. By the time they were forced onto the ship, they were already terrified. Many of them had never seen the sea before, so they were petrified of it. They were brutally treated from the time they were taken prisoner, so they were often hungry or sick before the journey began. Some spent several weeks on board the ship as it sailed along the African coast, before leaving for the Americas.

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A diagram of the Brookes Slave Ship. Click for a larger version. 

The voyage across the Atlantic was horrific. The slaves were chained up and crammed into the lower decks of the ship, some of them on shelves or underneath them. They could scarcely sit up, and they certainly couldn't stand upright. As the diagram of the Brookes Slave Ship on the left shows, each adult slave had just 45 cm width. With this layout, the Brookes could load 454 slaves. This was after the law had been changed to reduce the number of slaves a ship could transport. Prior to this, the Brookes transported up to 609 slaves.

For six to eight weeks after leaving the African coast, the slaves lay in the darkness, with no fresh air, confined between the people either side of them who they were often chained to, with the ship pitching and rolling. There were no toilets, and no way of keeping properly clean. Terror and sea-sickness made them vomit, and they would often lie in their own and other people's sick, filth and urine. There wasn't enough food or water to go round either. It was no wonder that disease quickly took hold. 

Slaves who showed symptoms of contagious diseases were swiftly thrown overboard to drown. Slaves who tried to resist might also be killed or drowned, if a thrashing or other brutal punishment wasn't enough to discourage them from rebelling again. If the weather was bad and the journey took longer than expected, supplies of fresh water and food would run low for the slaves and the crew. Then the weakest slaves would be left to starve to death or deliberately drowned. On average, one in ten slaves died during the voyage, so if a ship set out with 454 like the Brookes, 45 of those people would die or be killed before the ship reached its destination two months later.

When they finally arrived in the Americas, many of those who had survived believed, as Olaudah Equiano writes in his life story, that they were going to be eaten by the white men who waited for them at the quayside. Although they were wrong about this, their true fate wasn't much better.

A slave driver whipping a slave.

The marks on this man's back are scars from the whippings inflicted on him.

As well as hardship, there was great misery. The slaves would not only lose any family members who had been transported with them, they would also be separated from other slaves who spoke the same language. The plantation owners were afraid that if the enslaved Africans could talk to each other, they would try to organise a rebellion. The slaves were not allowed to meet in groups for the same reason. And they were forced to accept new Western names to make it harder for them to remember who they had been before they were enslaved. Escape was highly risky, as the punishment would probably be torture followed by death. And very few slaves were able to buy their freedom. The easiest and commonest way out was death.

Even when the trade in slaves was abolished in 1807, the slaves already on British plantations weren't set free. It took almost thirty years more for Britain to abolish slavery in the colonies. At this point, the owner of every slave received compensation from the government, while the slave received nothing and became an 'apprentice' - really an unpaid employee (how is that different to a slave?) - for another six years. This was finally brought to an end a year earlier than planned, on 1 August 1838. The slaves, many of whom had been enslaved for their whole lives, were left to make their way in the world, with nothing.   

First of all, a doctor would be sent on board the ship to try and make these sick and starving humans look healthy. Their sores were covered with rust and gunpowder. Rum was dropped into their eyes to make them look clear. Dysentery was common - an illness caused by a parasite which gives you such bad diarrhoea that you're likely to die from it. Slaves suffering from dysentery were given a cork to stop the diarrhoea and blood coming out, so that the person buying them didn't realise how ill they were. On land, the slaves were sold at a slave market, like animals at a livestock market. Children were taken from their parents and brothers and sisters, husbands and wives were separated. The new owners took them back to their plantations. 

Now began a life of unimaginable hardship: physically exhausting work for up to 18 hours a day, from early in the morning until late at night; brutal punishments for small mistakes, such as hands cut off, ears nailed to trees, and hot ashes rubbed into the open wounds made by the whips of the slave drivers; insufficient food, few clothes, and terrible housing in humid, damp shacks. Given how weak most of the Africans were after the horrifying sea voyage, it isn't surprising that another three of every ten died of tropical diseases over the next three years. Many of the rest died sooner or later from exhaustion or starvation. By the way, if you're wondering why the man in the picture with the whip is black, look at the white man lounging against the wall with his wife and child. The plantation owner would choose a slave to be the slave driver. If they didn't do their job, punishing their fellow slaves as expected by the plantation owner, they would be subjected to the same punishments and made to be a field slave again. Since the life of the slave driver was easier than that of the field slave, a slave driver would do as he was told.