Tuesday, July 20, 2010

History: The Middle Passage

Growing up in the United States and going to public schools, there were some things that were given as far as your education no matter where you lived. We moved a fair amount when I was young so I know this for fact. Even though math and spelling may have been taught differently in Seattle than they were in L.A., history was largely set in stone. The issue of American enslavement of Africans was particularly unassailable: it was a national sin, almost specific to the U.S. and bred of the infamous Triangle Trade: rum, slaves, molasses. The individual humans packed like boxes into slave ships were passive victims. The slavers were slavering sadists who took every advantage through the middle passage. And that was how it was, children.

I'm not here to apologize for slavery. It is a horror that humans have engaged in since probably before we were technically "human" and it diminishes us all. From Roman gladiatorial exhibitions to the killing fields of sugar cane to modern human trafficking, nothing good ever came out of slavery. But studying pirates and privateers has opened my eyes to the realities of humanity and economy as no amount of discussion in Mr. Peters' 8th grade history class ever could.

Although the initial hauling of humans from Africa to first the West Indies and a bit later the American Colonies was a gold mine for French and English merchants, it quickly became an economic nightmare for those who plied the Triangle. Indentured servitude was the first source of labor on Caribbean sugar plantations and it in itself was a bust. The Europeans dropped like flies due to heat, humidity and local diseases (malaria, yellow fever, etc.) that they had no immunity to. Then too they had by law to be allowed to walk away at the end of their indenture should they survive. Even if you didn't give them the land, money or livestock promised in their initial contract, it was still a loss for you as a plantation owner.

As the Spanish in South America discovered much earlier, Africans were far more able to survive the tropical environments and the hard work. And slavery didn't come with a time limit. By the late 1600s all the sugar plantations in the English West Indies were worked by African slaves. Barbados, as an example, counted upwards of 50,000 slaves in her population by 1680 (the European population at the time hovered around 20,000).

This discrepancy in numbers caused problems for white masters. Slave revolts were far more common than history books like to admit. Of course the most famous in the Caribbean was the San Domingue rebellion that made Haiti an independent nation. But elsewhere, less well known uprisings occurred. Over seventy rebellions have been documented in the British West Indies alone between 1685 and 1835. Some historians speculate that the reason colonies like Jamaica and Barbados did not follow the lead of the Americans and revolt against Britain was their abject need of the British Navy to help them keep their slaves in line and their butts safe.

The Andry plantation rebellion of 1811 occurred in Louisiana, north of New Orleans, and was led by a slave from San Domingue named Charles Deslondes. The slaves marched on the city but were stopped by sailors, army regulars and the city militia under Colonel George Ross. New Orleans was thrown into a panic. The Laffite brothers were blamed for the mini-massacre and the incident hurt their trade in human chattel.

Aboard the slave ships things were even harder for a merchant trying to make a buck. The ships coming from New England were always packed to the gunnels with goods for trade: rum first and foremost but also utensils, bolts of cloth, tallow, guns and gunpowder. These costly and easily sold articles made this type of shipping a prime target for both pirates and privateers. And the freebooters wanted the ships as well. Generally speaking they were well armed and under-manned. The first to keep down slave uprisings aboard ship and the second to make more room for cargo. Henry Avery, Bartholomew Roberts and Sam Bellamy - to name only a very few - made careers of taking slavers on their way to or along the African coast.

Then there was the loss of life that inevitably followed the unsanitary conditions aboard a slave ship. It was not unusual for half of the humans in the hold to be dead or too sick to bring a reasonable price by the time the West Indies were reached. Rebellions aboard ship did occur, particularly early in the passage, and the use of force of arms resulted in more loss of life and revenue. No wonder many merchants took what money they could in the Caribbean and went home without the storied molasses. They never completed the ominous Triangle, and fewer and fewer returned to Africa at all.

By the early 1800s, the importation of slaves to the U.S. was banned. The West Indies and Spanish nations continued the trade, though, so smuggling slaves into the U.S. continued as well. A slaver with relatively healthy cargo became a far more attractive prize. Pirates like Vicente Gambi and William Mitchell excelled at spotting them and bringing them in to Barataria for sale by the Laffites.

The whole history of the Atlantic slave trade is more diverse and more horrifying than our children are ever told in school. Maybe that's for the best but to me the stories as we know them now diminish the individuals involved. The slaves were far from passive victims, the merchants didn't always know what they were getting into and the pirates... Well; maybe they're the biggest stereotype of all.

Header painting: The Slave Ship by Joseph M.W. Turner


Sarah said...

Love this blog! I learn so much!

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Sarah and thankee! I always appreciate your input and support.

Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! How can you say that "nothing good ever came out of slavery"? Without slavery most of the so-called wonders of the ancient world would never have been built... Okay I'm just kidding here. Slavery is bad m'kay? No really, slavery sucks...

But it does make for a very interesting post and I do love the painting, as usual. Where do you find all these, Pirate Queen?

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! Sucks is an understatement, huh?

That painting, by the ever impressive Mr. Turner, gives me the creeps every time I see it. The huge, sea monster-like fish in the lower right corner has Heironymus Bosch written all over it. The trail of blood and body parts in the water say far more about the middle passage then my words ever could.