‘The Sea is History’: The Slave Voyages

The first slave voyage of 1619 marked the beginning of the ‘Middle Passage’, the journey from Africa to the ‘New World’ plantations, and into slavery. The year 2019 is the 400th anniversary of this event of extraordinary impact

By Author  |  Pramod K Nayar   |  Published: 10th Mar 2019  12:05 amUpdated: 9th Mar 2019  10:12 pm

Jamestown, Virginia, in the ‘New World’ (eventually the United States of America), a small community was founded in 1607. In a few years, a white man John Rolfe will have married Pocahontas, the daughter of a Native American, and a woman would become the subject of transnational imagination and representation, right down to 20th century Walt Disney productions.

The community set up two pioneering projects, both connected. First, they cultivated tobacco in plantations. For these plantations they needed labour, preferably cheap labour (the settlers knew their economics), and this was to be found across the blue waters of the Atlantic, in Africa. Tobacco would soon change the lifestyle, economy and trading systems across the Western hemisphere, so would the drastic step of bringing Africans.

The year 2019 is the 400th anniversary of this event of extraordinary impact: the first slave voyage of 1619.

On Board White Lion

In August 1619, 50 Africans were brought to the colony on board the ship White Lion, landing at Point Comfort, which in retrospect appears to be tragic irony of the savage kind. This voyage marked the beginning of the ‘Middle Passage’, the journey from Africa to the ‘New World’ plantations, and into slavery.

Historians quibble about the numbers, but some sources claim through painstaking research into shipping manifests, letters and other logs that around eight million Africans were shipped as slaves in the 18th century alone. Philip Curtin in his magnificent The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census believes 11 million Africans were forced into this migration.

Africans, then, constituted the first major, and involuntary, diasporic community of the modern world in terms of sheer magnitude. Documents and evidence are still being uncovered around the Middle Passage, and some of it is available in the Encyclopedia of the Middle Passage (2007).

The Africans, shipped from the coastal regions, Ghana, Gold Coast, Benin, Angola, Senegal and others, were kidnapped, bought and indebted into slavery. The role of the Africans and their rulers in the sale of their fellow countrymen has been debated and is, as Sadiya Hartman documents in Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route, something present-day Africans appear reluctant to talk about.

The slaves were packed into the ships on the 4-month long voyage. Some narratives from the period document the voyage. Here is Olaudah Equiano, shipped from Nigeria to the Caribbean in the mid-18th century writing in The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African (1789):

At last, when the ship we were in, had got in all her cargo, they made ready with many fearful noises, and we were all put under deck, so that we could not see how they managed the vessel …The stench of the hold while we were on the coast was so intolerably loathsome …The closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us. This produced copious perspirations, so that the air soon became unfit for respiration, from a variety of loathsome smells, and brought on a sickness among the slaves, of which many died — thus falling victims to the improvident avarice, as I may call it, of their purchasers. This wretched situation was again aggravated by the galling of the chains, now become insupportable; and the filth of the necessary tubs [large buckets for human waste], into which the children often fell, and were almost suffocated. The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable.

Branded, Sold

Many died at sea, and their bodies were simply thrown overboard. On arrival they were branded, physically examined in humiliating ways, and sold. Plantation owners whipped them frequently to ensure the slaves knew how to work in beyond-endurance conditions and to render them passive.

The famous narrative of Frederick Douglass carries an account of such whippings. They were also separated from their families. Women slaves were subject to sexual exploitation by white slave owners, and younger women were often bought for the purpose, as William Snelgrave records in his 1734 account in which he admits that, when offered two women, he rejected the 50-year old for being ‘beyond labour’.

Numerous slave accounts, illustrated books (including Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which appeared in an illustrated edition in 1852) and pamphlets appeared through the 19th century, offering graphic accounts of slavery, plantation life and the horrors of racism. These texts, studied in Martha Cutter’s wonderful The Illustrated Slave, became a key component of the Abolitionist Movement, have been unearthed and published.

Black Bodies

More recently, as a part of ‘Middle Passage Studies’, Sowander Mustakeem proposes that we need to see the slave ship itself as an instrument of the early stages of globalisation, capitalism and international trade. On board the ships, black persons were reduced to black bodies, dehumanised and rendered into instruments of labour and objects for sale. The comparison and resonance with the ‘cattle cars’ transporting Jews to the camps during the Nazi regime is inescapable.

In Slavery at Sea, Mustakeem argues for the ship as a social space, constituted by crewmen and Africans in which the Africans are actually made into slaves. The slaves were listed alongside other commodities of trade. Slave ships were to record ‘what number of Negroes the said Colony is yearly supplied with and at what rates and how paid for’, the ‘Accot. of Negroes imported into the District of York River’, as the Board of Trade (England) ordered. That is, the slaves made up the ‘quantitative evidence the Board of Trade needed to monitor overseas commerce and ensure that its wheels turned efficiently in the service of the English nation’, as Stephanie Smallwood puts it in her study Saltwater Slavery. One slave trader recording the voyage’s end-results in 1749 embodies this dehumanisation of the Africans:

We have thank God had the good fortune of haveing one of our Guinea Sloops come in, tho after along passage of 79 days in which time they buryed 37 Slaves & Since 3 more & 2 more likely to die which is an accident not to be helped, and which if had not happend we Should have made a Golden Voyage but as it is there will not be much left I fear, unless the other Sloop meets with better Luck.

The emphasis on profits rather than on the human loss and suffering could not be made more directly than in this extract.

 Black Atlantic

The Atlantic would never again be a simple body of water between two continents: it would come to emblematise the horror of transportation, forced migration, cultural loss and cultural mixing. The Atlantic, therefore, is an integral part of the history of Africa and African Americans, and hence termed the ‘Black Atlantic’ by the sociologist Paul Gilroy. In Mustakeem’s pithy formulation,

the ocean was not just where the story of slavery transpired as black bodies were ferried beyond coastal ways and into unknown lands, but as this book reveals, it also became a central conduit for how bondage unfolded and consequentially devastated lives.

To study the Atlantic is to think in terms of racial geographies of the ocean, a field increasingly known as the Oceanic Humanities. Contemporary scholars such as Alison Bashford have, therefore, argued that we need to see the land and seas as interlinked in what she terms ‘terraqueous histories’ (both terra and aqua). For the Middle Passage, then, we need to examine its history right from the sourcing of ‘black bodies’, through various means, across Africa, the transportation to the coast, the voyage itself and finally, their life on the plantations.

Abolitionist Movement

The slave trade and the horrors of the passage were a part of the Abolitionist movement, thanks partly due to the enormous quantity of literature produced about it, including poetry by Robert Southey, Hannah More, Charlotte Dacre, Amelia Opie and others. Lectures by poet-scholars like Samuel Taylor Coleridge and activists such as William Wilberforce were instrumental in seeking and establishing empathy and then sympathy for the African. This literature also recast the thus-far objectified ‘black body’ into a person possessing sentiments, but not always intellect.

Such literature called upon the white men and women to imagine themselves in the position of the slaves. Frederick Douglass would state the necessity of such an imagination: ‘To understand it [slavery], one must needs experience it, or imagine himself in similar circumstances’. Such texts represent the literary invocation of the ‘sympathetic imagination’ – a category that Elizabeth Costello explicates in JM Coetzee’s eponymous novel: to imagine oneself in the place of the exploited, injured, beaten other:

The heart is the seat of a faculty, sympathy, that allows us to share at times the being of another … There are people who have the capacity to imagine themselves as someone else … and there are people who have the capacity but choose not to exercise it … there is no limit to the extent to which we can think ourselves into the being of another. There are no bounds to the sympathetic imagination.

The slave voyages in literature and history bring home to us instances of early globalisation, transnational movements of people and capital, and imperialism. The Middle Passage links continents, peoples, and histories, resulting in a congeries of culture on every side. It is no longer possible to see the histories of Europe, America or Africa as distinct from each other, or without the role of the ocean in which these histories are embedded, and entombed.

It is the centrality of the ocean in African and American history that leads Nobel laureate Derek Walcott to write in ‘The Sea is History’, and who must have the last word on the horrors of this travel:

Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs?

Where is your tribal memory? Sirs,

in that grey vault. The sea. The sea

has locked them up. The sea is History.

(The author is Professor, Department of English, University of Hyderabad)