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The Atlantic Slave Trade
Before the sixteenth century, slavery was not regarded by anyone (outside or inside Africa) as a particularly African institution. The association between Africa and slavery emerged in the fifteenth century. It was then that ship design made it possible for sailors from the Mediterranean to make long journeys down the coast of Africa and ultimately across the Atlantic to the Americas.
By the time the slaves reached the coast, they had already undertaken a long journey from inland. They were often bought and sold several times along the way. Many of these transactions were conducted in the market place.
CASE STUDY: THE SALAGA SLAVE MARKET
Salaga, in northern Ghana, was the site of a major slave market. Today, there are still descendants of people who were slaves. The history is vivid in peoples's minds.
"Ouamkam means bathing. Bayou means slave. So literally it means 'Bathing slaves.' This is the place where all the slaves were bathed. They would bathe them here, rub them with shea butter and make them shine, and they gave them food to eat, to make them look big; then they'd take them to the slave market for sale."
Listen to Shaibu Inusah on bathing and preparing slaves for sale
THE PARAMOUNT CHIEF OF SALAGA
"Salaga is in the southern part of the northern region. Salaga was an old slave market. Caravans used to come all the way from northern Nigeria and other places, Burkina Faso, Mali and so on. Salaga became important for its market in human beings.
The slaves were brought in here. There were places to store them and most of the time they were actually tied around trees…in the market. There were just one or two rooms that can even be seen up to this date. But most of the time they were tied around, big, big trees, guava trees, close to the market…
Slavery became a commercial venture. Even local chiefs benefited. When the slaves were brought, the chiefs took a certain number for themselves and sold them to the buyers. People benefited. If you were not a victim, of course, then you benefitted. Sometimes, even the people themselves became victims. Because it was so inhuman that there was no sympathy between them. If you quarrelled with your friend and you managed to capture him you could take him to the market - to sell him.
With hindsight, we feel remorse that these things happened and our great great grandfathers took part in the trade. But at that time it was a normal thing. It's just like what is happening today. It was a market; people were buying. There was no transaction in cash. It was just gunpowder or guns in exchange for human beings. Sometimes you look at it from a human and religious point of view, sometimes you feel it was a very bad thing…but it happened. "
Listen to Paramount Chief Of Salaga
"Slaves were the most important commodity as opposed to other commodities like salt and other mercantile goods that were brought from the south. But definitely slavery dominated the activities here.
Everybody here in Salaga is a descendant of a slave. Everybody in Salaga, except those of us who have moved in now. But you see people don't feel easy speaking about it. But everybody knows that he is a descendant of slaves. The Gouruma, the Hausa, the Zaboroma, the Hausa, the Dagomba. All the tribes in Salaga, there are thirteen tribes in Salaga, know."
Listen to Shaibu Inusah on the trade in Salaga
The Portuguese were particularly keen to explore Africa for wealth and material gain; at the same time they had started up colonies in the Americas, and needed labour to work on plantations there. In the 1440's Africans were captured and taken to Portugal.
Fifty two years later in 1492 the Italian adventurer Christopher Columbus made the first of his visits to the Caribbean, arriving somewhere near the Bahamas. His aim was to gain wealth for himself and his patrons, Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain. In 1518 the first slaves were dispatched across the Atlantic.
Soon Britain, the Netherlands and France were competing with Spain and Portugal for a share of the profits of slavery. This new transatlantic slave trade was very different from the kind of slavery that had existed before.
SCALE OF TRADE
The sheer number of slaves taken was unprecedented. The large scale of trading destabilised the social and economic order. By the end of the 18th century one historian estimates 70,000 people a year were captured and taken against their will to the Americas. What is now Angola was reduced in parts to a wasteland. In total, at least 12 million Africans were forcibly removed from the continent.
Hear how African Americans feel today about forced immigration and slavery, followed by an explanation on the origin of the term African American, and one man's search for his family history
DANGEROUS AND LONG JOURNEY
The Transatlantic slave trade involved an immensely long and terrible journey to the Americas, the Middle Passage.
Find out more in The Journey: The Middle Passage.
The Atlantic slave trade was shaped and driven by commercial forces of profit and new patterns of consumption. In the past, slavery had a social and cultural context, rooted in kingship, which imposed definition and restraints on the slave master relationship. In the 15th century the chief goal was profit. Conditions for slaves were very harsh.
THREE PORTRAITS OF SLAVERY
"Poor Daniel was lame in the hip, and could not keep up with the rest of the slaves; and our master would order him to be stripped and laid down on the ground, and have him beaten with a rod of rough briar till his skin was quite red and raw... This poor man's wounds were never healed and I have often seen them full of maggots…He was an object of pity and terror to the whole gang of slaves, and in his wretched case we saw, each of us, our own lot, if we should live to be as old."
A saltworks in the West Indies, described by former slave Mary Prince, The History of Mary Prince.
"When their day's work in the field is down, the most of them have their washing, mending and cooking to do, and having few or none of the ordinary facilities for doing either of these, very many of their sleeping hours are consumed in preparing for the field the coming day; and when this is done…they drop down side by side on one common bed - the cold damp floor…"
A plantation in the deep south, described by former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, The Narrative Life of Frederick Douglass.
"The men and women who created this first great sugar boom in the world lived well. Many stories are told of the opulence of the planters in old Brazil, their tables laden with silver and fine china bought from captains on their way back from the East, doors with gold locks, women wearing huge precious stones, musicians enlivening the banquets, beds covered with damask; and an army of slaves of many colours always hovering."
Excerpt taken from Hugh Thomas, The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade.
There was no hope of returning home; the vast majority of slaves were stuck in the Americas for the rest of their lives. The stigma of slavery remains in America today.
RACISM AND THE LOSS OF STATUS AND PROSPECTS
The status of slaves in America was different to that of those in Africa and Europe. In ancient times a slave in North Africa, Greece or Rome, or in Arab countries, could rise to a position of public prominence. Women might marry into the ruling class.
No slaves married their masters or mistresses in the Americas, although there were secret relationships, usually forced upon the slave. Whether badly or well treated, slaves were, in American society at large, marked out and despised for the colour of their skin, and so were their descendants.
"I…took the little sufferer in my lap. I observed a general titter among the white members of the family…The youngest of the family, a little girl about the age of the young slave, after gazing at me for a few moments in utter astonishment, exclaimed: 'My! If Mrs. Trollope has not taken her in her lap, and wiped her nasty mouth! Why I would not have touched her mouth for two hundred dollars'…The idea of really sympathising in the sufferings of a slave appeared to them as absurd as weeping over a calf that had been slaughtered by the butcher."
Excerpt from Fanny Trollope's Domestic Manners of the Americans. The author is nursing a slave girl who has accidentally taken poison.
Listen to a BBC dramatisation of Fanny Trollope's account, taken from Domestic Manners of the Americans