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Horror Taken For Granted

July 2024
7min read

The resources open to men who want to believe that a course of action that is profitable is also morally justifiable, firmly based on the eternal verities, seem to be illimitable. Self-interest is both eloquent and ingenious. The darkest villainy imaginable can be made to look virtuous if it yields good cash dividends; some of the worst deeds in history were committed by men who had managed to persuade themselves that they were doing no more than what was right.

A case in point is the notorious African slave trade.

Except perhaps for the satanic Nazi experiment in genocide, history can show nothing worse than this. The trade went on for four centuries, mixing greed with cruelty to create a total of human suffering that is beyond rational computation; as a by-product, it created racial memories so deeply stained with fear, suspicion, and hatred that today they constitute one of the world’s most terrible problems. Yet many generations of good Christian people accepted this business as ethically and morally right—a step toward civilization that was easily taken because it meant money in the pocket, but that was a positive good in any case.

The rationalization had several threads, frail as the filaments of a spider web but devoutly held. Africans were descended from Noah’s son Ham and so were under a curse from of old. Uprooted and put to work on mine and plantation, they were brought out of darkness and often enough their immortal souls were saved; meanwhile the benefits of civilization seeped down to them and redeemed them from the abject barbarism that was their earthly lot. Besides, they were used to slavery. The evil already existed; African kings made wars to get slaves, necessitous parents sold their own children into bondage, and since all of this was part of the Dark Continent’s routine anyway, European society might just as well reap some of the benefits—which, happily, were immense.

This miserable story is familiar enough, in a vague sort of way, and yet in view of the bewildering crisis that confronts Western civilization nowadays—that is, the white man’s civilization, which finds itself somewhat beset—we really need to know more about it. A wealth of material is currently available in four bulky volumes bearing the matter-of-fact title, Documents Illustrative of the History of the Slave Trade to America , compiled and edited by Elizabeth Donnan.

Let it be said at once that this is not easy reading. It is a scholarly compilation, meant for the library rather than for the living-room bookshelf. As the title says, it is made up almost entirely of the original documents, with a minimum of connective comment by the editor. It is the record of the slave trade as written by the men who were part of it—kings, governors, parliaments, legislatures, ship captains, factors, directors of joint-stock companies, and ordinary individual businessmen—and although it is a record of horror it has an odd, matter-of-fact air about it simply because the infamies that are described were so completely taken for granted.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about it is the fact that the African slave trade would probably have collapsed of its own weight (as far as the Western world is concerned, at any rate) if it had not been for the discovery of the Americas. The first European slaver to carry Negroes from Africa into bondage was a Portuguese ship, sailing in the year 1444, and its slaves were sold in Europe. Europe’s need for slaves after all was moderate and was quickly met; but just when this market was saturated, the discovery of the New World opened a new market which seemed to be beyond saturation.

The trade grew like a mushroom. By 1540, slaves were being sent to the Americas at a rate that may have been as high as 10,000 a year. English adventurers discovered that the supposed Portuguese monopoly of trade with Africa was a fiction, and that the Spanish monopoly of trade with the New World was no better; England and France got into the trade on a huge scale, the Dutch and the Danes and the Swedes followed, the West Indies developed an immense sugar trade, and by 1685 Louis XIV of France noted an oddity. French sugar planters in the Indies said they needed 2,000 slaves a year. To buy one slave cost the equivalent of 6,000 pounds of sugar. Total production for the French planters ran to 20,000,000 pounds a year; which meant that 12,000,000 pounds would be used for new slaves, leaving 8,000,000 to meet all other expenses and show a profit.

It had become a big business, in other words. By the opening of the eighteenth century the African slave trade was the foundation not only for the whole European colonial system but also for the domestic industries which made goods for export. Cloth, powder, hardware, iron bars, rum, guns, furniture, and other items went to Africa, slaves went to the New World, sugar and tobacco and gold came back to Europe, and a great deal of money was made. During the eleven years beginning in 1783, Liverpool traders carried more than 300,000 slaves to the New World. Total value of the slaves came to a trifle over fifteen million pounds sterling; profits ran to more than two and three-quarter million pounds.

Obviously, trade of such dimensions had to be well organized. As far as the British were concerned, it was set up at first on a monopoly basis, with the Royal African Company given exclusive rights to the trade along the slave coast. The company accordingly set up a series of forts, each one containing a warehouse for trade goods and a slave pen for captives awaiting shipment. These eventually became public utilities; the British Parliament, late in the seventeenth century, cancelled the monopoly, but paid the Royal African Company 10,000 pounds a year to service all British traders. A slave-ship captain wanting to trade would touch at one of these forts and either buy his slaves from the fort’s stock or go to see some local king who had notified the fort’s overseer that he wanted to deal.

In theory, the slaves were simply prisoners of war and the wars were going on all the time, so the European traders were not really responsible. Actually, things were somewhat different. One of the Royal African Company officers wrote that after a king had served notice that he wanted a ship to come and trade with him, he “goes and ransacks some of his Enemies Towns, seizing the People and selling them for such Commodities as he is in want of. … In case he is not at War with any neighboring King, he then falls upon one of his own Towns, which are numerous, and uses them in the very same Manner.”

Documents Illustrative of the History of the Slave Trade to America , compiled and edited by Elizabeth Donnan. Octagon Books, Inc., New York; four volumes; $75 per set.

To be sure, a writer in The London Magazine in 1740 saw a bright side to this: “By purchasing, or rather ransoming the Negroes from their national Tyrants, and transplanting them under the benign Influences of the Law and Gospel, they are advanced to a much greater Degree of Felicity, tho’ not to absolute Liberty.” Yet the captives do not seem to have appreciated this improvement hi their condition, because if they had the slightest chance to do so they would commit suicide rather than undergo shipment to the New World. The commander of the British ship Hannibal complained that “the Negroes are so wilful and loth to leave their own country, that they have often leap’d out of the canoes, boat and ship, into the sea, and kept under water till they were drowned, to avoid being taken up and saved by our boats; they having a more dreadful apprehension of Barbadoes than we can have of hell, tho’ in reality they live much better there than in their own country.” If they could not jump overboard, the captives often starved themselves to death, and one ship captain wrote a melancholy note about this: “And tho’ I must say I am naturally compassionate, yet have I been necessitated sometimes to cause the teeth of those wretches to be broken, because they would not open their mouths, or be prevailed upon by any entreaties to feed themselves; and thus have forced some sustenance into their throats.”

The compassion of the slaver was something the ordinary man would like to be spared. When the Negroes were put aboard ship they were stripped and branded on the breast with hot irons so that their owners could keep track of them; but it is recorded that many captains voluntarily gave each slave a little square of canvas for clothing, and carefully anointed them with palm oil before branding them: “We take all possible care that they are not burned too hard, especially the women, who are more tender than the men.”

Even so, the business was rough. The Liverpool slaver Brookes , which was quite typical, had a height between decks of five feet eight inches. This was cut in half by shelves that were built in against the bulkheads, and on these shelves (as on the deck beneath them) each male slave was allowed a space measuring six feet by one foot, four inches. Wedged in thus, they had to spend two months or more in darkness, filth, and an almost total absence of ventilation.

Naturally, the mortality among these luckless passengers was immense. A ship carrying 500 slaves might lose 300 of them during the voyage, and the ones who survived were apt to be in such poor condition that they would fetch poor prices. New York records tell how the ship St. Jan sailed from Africa with 195 slaves. Unfortunately, it ran on a reef in the West Indies, whereupon officers and crew took to the boats, leaving ship and living cargo to the mercy of wind and waves. It is good to know that after the storm died down, small boats went to the scene and rescued some of the survivors. Still, it was a losing voyage; aside from the slaves who died in the shipwreck, no had died en route—59 men, 47 women, and 4 children.

Not all of the ship captains were humanitarians. Some of them took note of a quirk in the insurance regulations. A ship master was entitled to jettison part of his cargo, in an emergency, in order to save the rest, and the part jettisoned—that is, thrown overboard—was covered by insurance. So when the death rate became high, it was not uncommon for the captain to weed out the sickliest slaves and toss them into the sea: that way, the loss was made good by insurance.

The captains seem to have felt sorry for themselves. They might take the utmost care to pack their slaves into the hold carefully, and the ship’s doctor (when the slaves could be brought up into the fresh air, where he could endure the labor of examining them) might be diligent; still, the ungrateful wretches did die, and one skipper who lost 320 Negroes on a trip, noted that this “was a great detriment to our voyage.” The Royal African Company, which had chartered his ship, lost ten pounds per head by these deaths, and the owners of the ship lost an equal sum because they were paid only for live slaves delivered in the Indies; the bloody flux had been malignant, and there had been a good deal of smallpox, and when the voyage ended the sorely tried skipper wrote an indignant lament:

“What the small-pox spar’d the flux swept off, to our great regret, after all our pains and care to give them their messes in due order and season, keeping their lodgings as clean and sweet as possible”—the possibilities may have been limited, what with passenger space measuring six feet by sixteen inches, with less than three feet of headroom—”and enduring so much misery and stench so long among a parcel of creatures nastier than swine; and after all our expectations to be defeated by their mortality. No gold-finders can endure so much noisome slavery as they do who carry negroes; for those have some respite and satisfaction, but we endure twice the misery; and yet by their mortality our voyages are ruin’d, and we pine and fret our selves to death, to think that we should undergo so much misery, and take so much pains to so little purpose.”

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