SlaveryBlog.org is a space for all who are curious, wish to contribute, question, or relate to a subject that is both extremely fraught and extremely relevant.
Essay: Kicking off SlaveryBlog.org
Welcome to the launch of www.slaveryblog.org, an online information initiative on the transatlantic slave trade and Afro-Atlantic world.
It is the result of a strong public response to an essay I wrote on the topic. The piece, which ran in the online magazine Colorlines, spelled out the revelations that I had—after viewing an 1860 slave census map—about slavery, my family, the history of the US, and humanity as a whole. In the article’s wake, I received a number of moving accounts from people of all backgrounds and all parts of the country. These notes spelled out the desire for a wider dialogue about slavery, one that would include accessible, easily understood resources on the subject; the ability to share personal insights and family histories; and an exploration of enslavement’s legacy on us all and the places we live. As a vehicle for this desired journey, SlaveryBlog.org is born.
SlaveryBlog.org will present written, video, photographic and audio resources in a way that honors the complexity of enslavement, as well as the lives of those who constructed—and endured—it. The site will be updated weekly at first and, as demand grows, more often.
Transatlantic slavery lasted for four hundred years, generated the wealth that the West used to catapult itself from a series of small nations into unprecedented global powers, touched hundreds of millions of lives, and altered human history. The grand sweep and intricacy of slavery’s history demands openness and truth. Only in this way can it be even partially understood. Even still it is difficult to totally comprehend: those alive at the time struggled to do so. But even a small piece of knowledge can translate into meaningful personal insights, not to mention a greater appreciation for our forebears, the complexities of our own societies, and the planet as whole. This is the purpose of SlaveryBlog.org.
Over the past forty years, a great deal of painstaking research has been conducted to help the modern world come to grips with the enslavement of men, women and children. Having reached a critical mass, this scholarship has led to a vast array of individual portraits, now available, of the human beings and cultures, which together comprised the Atlantic slave world. Luckily many of these detailed descriptions have been transformed into media more readily understood by the public-at-large, beyond the academy. SlaveryBlog.org will feature these more digestible sources.
At its heart, slavery is a human story. It was constructed, executed, survived, and ended by average people who, like you and me, made choices, responded to events, and went day-to-day the best way they knew how. Surprisingly, many of their accounts have survived orally and otherwise. These memories have made their way down through subsequent generations. Cataloging them, as well as our own reactions and interpretations, is key to engaging slavery’s legacy. Therefore, the site welcomes personal essays, reflections, and family histories. Instructions on ways to provide these are provided here.
My own interest and education in African enslavement has been life long and woven into each strand of my existence. Whether it was conversations with my grandparents about their grandparents’ memories of bondage, childhood trips to Gullah Island, review of slave ship logs at the UK National Archives as a graduate student, or standing in Salvador, Bahia’s former slave market, I can’t remember a time when the issue of my ancestor’s past hasn’t been present.
Undergraduate degrees in history and political science from Columbia, and a Master of Science in Economics from the London School of Economics, only added to my knowledge and ability to interpret. They also underscore my commitment to refer well-researched resources. Misinformation would defile the memories of all those who suffered.
Too often the conversation around slavery is either extremely scholarly, and elite, or rabidly political. SlaveryBlog.org seeks to be neither of these. Rather, it is a space for all who are curious, wish to contribute, question, or relate to a subject that is both extremely fraught and extremely relevant.
Above all, SlaveryBlog.org’s mission is to promote understanding and healing for those who visit it. I am glad that you are among those who have done just that.
*A version of this essay ran on the online blog, caffeineator.com.
So you see, we were —and are now—barely removed from slavery. All of my grandparents were slaves.
Personal Story: Henry Moore, Age 90
(Photo:Library of Congress)
“When I saw (the above picture) in Colorlines of the family in Savannah (Chatham County), Georgia it took me back to 1926, when I was five. At that age, I really began to realize my plight. Take that family of twelve—Mom, Dad and ten children you see—expand that to sixteen, move them 200 miles west, and you have my family. My mother, a widow with four children, married Dad, a widower with five. Together they had five more. As a result, there were twelve of us in or near the plantation house at the same time! There were many hands to pick the cotton.
Born on a dirt floor cabin on Mr. Albert Nobles’ place in Irwin County, near Ocilla, Georgia, in 1921, there was no place to go. To survive you obeyed the master, who was the owner of the plantation, just as the actual slaves did only sixty years before. I would say that more than 50% of the Irwin residents were slaves. Also, an equal amount or more further north in Crawford County, Georgia, where my mother was born (her sister born into slavery there) were slaves until 1865. My grandfather, Lucius Worsham was born of the white slave plantation owner, Lucius Worsham and an African/Cherokee Indian slave, Elija in 1832. Grandfather Lucius and another slave, Grandmother Mary, had twelve children, one (Aunt Berta) was born into official slavery in 1863. Mom was the youngest, born in 1886. Pop was born on another plantation in 1874 (ten years after emancipation). So you see, we were —and are now—barely removed from slavery. All of my grandparents were slaves.
My family looked just like that family in Savannah, but I’d say we were worse off; none of us had shoes (I see one pair there). We were free, and you’d think we would have just up and left the plantation, but there was no place to go. We had no contact up north, and we feared cold weather. That is, before World War II, when we all migrated.”
Staff Sergeant Henry Moore, Tuskeegee Airman
Fact: The Congo region of Africa—today comprised of the current nations of the Republic of the Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Angola—is the area from which the single largest number of the enslaved originated (40%). Brazil was the single largest destination for the enslaved leaving Africa (45%). Only an estimated 5% of the men, women and children who left Africa enchained landed in the US or the preceding thirteen colonies.
Map: Outflow of Africans to the Americas and Europe
This map* shows the major parts of Africa that participated in the slave trade, the number of Africans that arrived in Europe and the Americas, and the commodities they were transported to produce. It does so for the period beginning in 1650 through the mid-nineteenth century. It’s important to note that slavery actually started two hundred years prior than when is indicated here. Though the trade started in the 1450s, it reached maximum velocity during the time period of this graphic representation.
Against this backdrop, here are some of the things which strike me.
Numbers: The broadly accepted figures for the number of Africans transported into the Atlantic slave system is between 10 million and 15 million, though some estimates range as high as 20 million. An important variable in different figures is in the calculation of the mortality rate. We know from slave logs, and other documentation, how many slaves arrived. Settling on the number of people who were actually enslaved means adding the number who arrived with the number who died during capture and transfer. Therefore the mortality rate is key to arrive at a total. This map indicates that 11 million Africans arrived in the Americas and Europe. Another key variable is the accuracy of the ship logs themselves. It was not uncommon for captains to underreport the size of the human cargo in their possession. Each undocumented person in transit represented pure profit that would not have to be shared with the company that owned the ship. That said, the final number of Africans put in chains is still debated within an established range. But, whatever its actual size, it was in the many, many millions.
Origin: The green areas of the map highlight where over 90% of the enslaved men, woman and children called home. Though overwhelmingly from West Africa, there were smaller numbers of East and Southeast Africans funneled into the slave system, mostly from modern day Tanzania, Mozambique, Madagascar, and—by way of these three—South Africa. The single largest number of slaves (40%) came from the current Congo region, comprised of the Republic of the Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Angola; followed by the Bight of Benin (20%), now the countries of Nigeria, Benin and Togo; and the Bight of Biafra (16%), Cameroon, Gabon, and Equitorial Guinea.*
Destination: Brazil was the single largest destination for the enslaved leaving Africa. 45%, or 5 million people, ended up there; followed up by an almost equal number for the West Indies. This is in large part due to the role of sugar in those economies. Sugar made those two areas the Gulf States of their day (superiorly wealthy due to a highly valued, internationally-demanded commodity), but mortality rates on sugar plantations was extremely high. A slave arriving on a sugar estate could expect to live somewhere between 4-8 years.
What’s interesting is the degree to which the United States was a minor destination in the trade with 500,000 being transported there, far fewer than in the neighboring Caribbean. Another interesting fact is the number of the enslaved arriving in Europe, mostly to Spain, Portugal, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and France; though a few ended up in places as far away as Russia.
Work: First and foremost, slavery was an economic system whose purpose was to produce key goods demanded by the emerging global economy. The range of commodities generated by the enslaved is staggering: sugar, rice, tobacco, indigo, cotton, minerals, and gems are among them. As many slaves went to Peru, to work the gold mines there, as were sent to the US. Slaves also harvested pearls off the coast of Colombia. The New World would not have been possible without slavery. Its financial underpinnings would not have held otherwise.
In order to make their ventures successful, commodity entrepreneurs (slave masters) often sought men and women with specific skills. Many assumed that these abilities were endemic to parts of Africa. For example, rice planters were interested in slaves from Benin where rice was the staple, in order to work on their estates. Members of the Ashanti tribe, from present day Ghana—a region rich in gold— were purchased for service in gold mines.
But inquiring the country-of-origin for someone recently enslaved was misleading. Slave transporters often lied to buyers about where men and women were from, in order to close the sale on those in their possession. Moreover, an individual may have been from Benin or Ghana but, instead of having worked rice or gold, they may have been a soldier or textile maker.
The bottom line is that buyers were looking for people with knowledge that could help increase the profitability of their businesses. This is a pivotal point to understanding slavery.
*This map is from website of PBS and New York Life for the, “Slavery in America” series. The original site for this program no longer exists.
Fact: Though its contribution to, and participation in, the transatlantic slave trade was small, the South African city, Cape Town, was itself a slave colony.
Video: “Slave Ship Mutiny”
(Photo: PBS’ Secrets of the Dead)
This moving and compelling video, from PBS’ Secrets of the Dead series, tells the story of a successful slave ship revolt aboard the Meermin, a Dutch company human transport vessel, off of the coast of South Africa in 1766. It does so by following slave descendent Lucy Campbell as she investigates the onboard rebellion aboard the ship, with the help of a team of scholars. I found “Slave Ship Mutiny” a must watch because it:
1) Focuses on the history of slavery off of the East Coast of Africa and South Africa. Although, numerically speaking, this part of the Continent participated to a far lesser degree than West Africa in the slave trade, the stories there are no less important and eerily similar to those from elsewhere across the region;
2) Relays what happened through accounts of the enslaved themselves, including the uprising’s leader, Massavana; as well as the Dutch ship crew;
3) Details both the capture of men and women in Africa, and catalogs the extreme hardship aboard a slave ship; and
4) Lays out the business of slavery as economic system.
As a 50-minute documentary on the topic, “Slave Ship Mutiny” brings together both past and present, enslaved and those who enslaved them, personal perspectives and scholarly research into a riveting, informative package.
Fact: The single largest concentration of millionaires in the U.S. stretched along the Mississippi River in Mississippi and Louisiana, and cotton was the single largest earner of foreign exchange for the U.S. In 1860, the Mississippi Delta was the Silicon Valley of its era.
Essay: The Slavery Map to Freedom
(Image:The New York Times)
In 1860, as part of the 8th Census of the United States, the Department of the Interior created a map to show the distribution of slaves in the part of the country where they were still held: The South. The northern states had emancipated their enslaved residents through law by 1804, and almost all of those born into the institution north of the Mason-Dixon line were out of it by 1848. (In New Jersey, the last bonded person of African descent didn’t walk free until the end of the Civil War.) Liberty for all would soon arrive and the map—the first and last of its kind, as it was the first and last slave census—would be rendered totally irrelevant and obsolete in just half a decade.
The map’s detail is astounding. Every single county in half the country is shown in various shades of light and dark depending on the number of slaves. The darker the county, the more slaves it had. Each jurisdiction is named and the exact percentage of the enslaved population within it is given. At first, I thought that this relic from before the world I knew had nothing to do with me. Upon closer inspection, I realized that the distance between me and the map was far less than expected.
The map’s eerie statistical silence is captivating. When I first saw it in The New York Times’ Web feature on the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, it appeared to be just another yellowed piece of paper (or PDF) from the past. But the document’s quiet power grew as I enlarged it. I recognized the names and places on it. Within the detailed lines and shaded areas drawn on a draftsman’s table long ago, I recognized the homes and faces of my forebears.
Fulton County, Ga., where I grew up, enslaved one out of every four people within its boundaries. In the counties in Georgia where my father and mother were born, Terrell and Dougherty counties, slaves were 47.2 percent and 73.4 percent of the populace. My great-great-grandmother, born in bondage, lost her hand in a cotton gin in her birthplace of Russell County, Ala., where 35.8 percent of residents were enslaved. She raised my grandfather, which means I’m one step removed from someone who was born a bondswoman. One of my ancestors in Neshoba County, Miss., somehow managed to escape his chains and run for the Choctaw tribe there, where he married into a local clan. My last name, Jones, reflects this fact. More than a quarter of Neshoba County’s population was enslaved in 1860.
I followed the map to all the places where I know I had kin—the tidewater of Virginia, McCormick County in the South Carolina upcountry and Beaufort in the low country. The same was true of Orleans Parish, Louisiana. I could not follow the map, however, to my ancestors in the modern day countries of Benin, Cameroon or Nigeria; nor to their New World clansmen scattered in Cuba, Haiti, Brazil, Colombia or Peru. The map counted only the productive capital of the United States. But it couldn’t account for slavery’s full cost to all those enumerated in the 1860 census: both enslaved and not. It is a cost we’re all still paying.
In 2011, it’s hard to reconcile the fact that our country was birthed as a slave republic with our nation’s radical foundational idea that all humans have equal intrinsic worth, value and rights. The incongruity of rhetoric and reality is a bitter pill for all of us to swallow. The first four generations of Americans grew up in this contradiction and fought a bloody war to resolve it. They did so because the institution of slavery showed now signs of slowing its growth by the time demographers drew this map in 1860. On the eve of the Civil War, southern senators were actively pushing the U.S. government to declare war on Cuba. They wanted war with Cuba for the same reason they wanted it with Nicaragua: the men, women, and children in bondage. Cuba, the largest island in the Caribbean, had the single largest concentration of slaves outside of Brazil and the U.S. Given the ban on the trans-Atlantic slave trade, there simply wasn’t enough slave supply here to meet the South’s growing demand.
The South’s slave-driven prosperity transformed into other forms of strength. By the mid-19th century, the majority of presidents and Supreme Court justices were southerners. Though a minority in the House of Representatives, southerners had equal power in the Senate; enough to block change. The single largest concentration of millionaires in the U.S. stretched along the Mississippi River in Mississippi and Louisiana, and cotton was the single largest earner of foreign exchange for the U.S. In 1860, the Mississippi Delta was the Silicon Valley of its era. The combined political and economic might of the South led northerners to label it “the Slave Power.”
What the map shows, then, is the distribution of might across pre-modern America. In terms of wealth, with respect to those who owned humans, the darkest areas are its richest and the lightest its poorest. But with respect to the enslaved and those who helped them, the opposite was true. The dreams of equality and freedom clung most fervently to the blackest places on the map. Those dreams and the acts of resistance that they instigated inspired those opposed to slavery, led eventually to war and—in Abraham Lincoln’s words—ushered in “a new birth of freedom.” The process of liberation for one group now ground its way through all the others. It was continued first by the formerly enslaved themselves, then the labor movement, then women, then by the grandchildren of the enslaved to secure their promised freedom, then by women again, and then by immigrant laborers, the elderly, disabled Americans, and lesbians, gays, and transgendered people. Though the Constitutional barriers to entry were removed, it was up to those left out of the founding document to make their way in. The initial acts of courage by those who faced inhumanity daily led to the expansion of human rights for us all.
What the map conceals is equally important.
It doesn’t show the Quakers, a marginalized fringe at the time, quietly building a national network to spirit enslaved men and women out of bondage. The Quakers were horrified by a system they could not escape but were determined to undermine. Quakers felt rightly that the entire American enterprise was tainted by slavery. Their efforts eventually flourished into the Underground Railroad.
It also doesn’t show acts of rebellion, both large and small, such as the 1811 Louisiana slave uprising—the largest in American history—or coordinated plantation-wide work stoppages. This resistance reminded masters that their subjects were indeed complex human beings, not mindless automatons.
It doesn’t show abolitionists raising money and insisting that anti-racist organizations be mixed race. It doesn’t show slaves pretending to be servile, all the while plotting elaborate schemes of escape—posing as a dead body and shipping oneself North, or pretending to be an upper-class, free slave holder for an 800-mile trip from Charleston to New York. It doesn’t show whites clashing with Federal Marshals in the streets of Boston to protect blacks from being removed and re-enslaved down South.
These points, all obscured in the map’s detailed demography, formed and linked cracks that eventually brought down the whole system. This chart of the Southern United States counts facts about the South’s enslaved except the one above all others the Founding Fathers must have known in their hearts: Liberty always finds a way.
Luckily, there was never again a need for a map like this in American history. And in this week of civil and human rights remembrance, we all must pledge to make sure that will always be the case. Although the institution of slavery is gone, the idea upon which it was created, that some are more human than others, is still believed by too many, in the U.S. and around the world. The fact that our nation was born in paradox is something that we should be mindful of in the ongoing debate on immigration and in the coming debate on the role of Muslims in America—debates promised by the new Republicans controlling the House. This paradox is something that those lawmakers live with everyday; the Capitol building itself was built by those not free.
An inscription atop the map proclaims that it will be sold for the benefit of sick and wounded soldiers. Within 12 months, the Civil War had begun and there were more casualties than the map could foresee; the federal government had to create an entirely new division in the executive branch to deal with them all, now the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Martin Luther King, Jr., once said, “All we’ve ever said to America is ‘be true to what you said on paper.’” Fortunately he meant the Declaration of Independence and not this map. For the map is a mixed testament, and it demands solemnity rather than either scorn or triumphalism. It shows that things can go horribly wrong and then come right. That human beings can be at their worst and then provoke the best. That time can heal and then reopen wounds. But most fundamentally, it shows our resilience—and resilience is the necessary ingredient to freedom. As the Roman philosopher Seneca—himself a citizen in a slave Republic—stated 2,000 years ago, “He who is brave is free.”
*This essay appeared in Colorlines.