The Reality Of Slavery

Slavery is an extremely complex and emotional subject strewn with myths and misconceptions. 

Every continent has known slavery. Indeed the word slave derives from the root of Slav, the name given to the eastern Europe races who were enslaved in great numbers during the later stages of the Roman empire.[1] [2] And slavery was common in all ancient civilizations including Egypt, Babylon, China, India, Greece and Rome. Even before the middle passage Jamaica knew its misery, as the original Taino inhabitants were often hunted by the war-like Caribs from the southern West Indies, who kept captured female Tainos as slaves and sacrificed males to their gods.[3] 

In Africa too slavery had existed since time immemorial. In Edward Reynolds’ words: 


“The common denominator in all definitions of a slave is that such a person is the property of another politically, is socially at a lower level than the rest of society and performs compulsory labour”… slavery in Africa was unlike that of the Western plantations, where it was an exploitative economic as well as social institution. However the fact that African slavery had different origins should not lead us to deny what it was – the exploitation and subjugation of human beings.”[4] 

What made the Atlantic slave trade so uniquely horrible was its sheer scale, and the consequent reduction of human beings into merchandise. This dreadful and complex institution would not have been possible without co-operation between the black African chiefs who actually caught and supplied the future slaves and the white merchants who bought and shipped them. For the majority of slaves sent across the Atlantic were purchased rather than captured by Europeans.[5] 

"Slavezanzibar2" by Unknown photographer - source: Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.
Slavezanzibar2” by Unknown photographeralt source:  Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

Most slaves were prisoners of war, and often chiefs and merchants who sold them defended their actions on the grounds that selling prisoners was better than killing them. African societies rarely sold their own people or those who were culturally close to them. Rather they sold foreigners obtained through trading networks and markets. Just as Europeans argued that the slave trade would only have been immoral were the Africans human beings with souls like themselves, so too did Africans rationalize that the victims of the trade were only ‘foreigners’ or ‘trouble-makers’.[6] 

The usual voyage of a European slaver was three sided, starting from Europe with trade goods, to Africa where these were exchanged for slaves, and thence to the West Indies where the slave cargo was landed and sugar and rum taken back to Europe. The “middle passage” slave leg lasting from six to twelve weeks was perhaps the most dreadful experience new world slaves had to endure. Only greed tempered the horrific circumstances, for pragmatic standards of hygiene and nourishment resulted in more slaves being delivered alive and hence greater profits.[7] 

Jamaica itself was a trans-shipment port and perhaps 5,000 of the large number of slaves that landed each year were kept on the island and the others re-exported. The Africans brought in were of many tribes, the majority being Coromantees from the gold coast, Eboes from the Bight of Benin, and Mandingoes. They were said to differ greatly in character. The Coromantees were considered strong, proud and fierce and not easily broken to gang labour. They made up the majority of maroons and almost every slave revolt was lead by Coromantees. The Eboes on the other hand had long been enslaved in Africa by stronger tribes and as a result were docile and rather sad by nature. The women particularly made good field labourers. However many so-called tribal names (for example Senegalese, Whydas, Eboes, Mandingoes) are imprecise and often refer only to the ports from which the slaves were shipped. Coromantee is in fact the name of a settlement in the Gold Coast area and is used to broadly cover the Akan speaking peoples.[8] 

The slave trade brought over 11 million Africans to the Americas. Brazil received 36 per cent of the total, Spanish America 22 per cent, the British West Indies 18 per cent, the French Caribbean 14 per cent, the United States and the Dutch West Indies 5 per cent, and the Danish and Swedish Caribbean under 1 per cent. [9] This geographic distribution of slaves has little correlation with the subsequent distribution of black populations, for the fundamental factor in the treatment of slaves was not nationality but a society’s ability to readily replenish its supply from Africa. [10] 

The United States was the farthest removed plantation slave economy from Africa with Brazil the closest. And since distance and mercy were inversely related, the US had a much lower slave death rate than Brazil, which imported over six times as many slaves as the US even though the US had a larger resident slave population. Places like Haiti, Cuba and Jamaica fell between both extremes, though only in the waning years of slavery did the Jamaican slave population approach reproduction levels. [11] There was also a positive correlation between slave mortality and sugar cultivation as opposed to say coffee, tobacco or cotton. The demands of sugar plantations which called for 16 to 20 hours of labour in harvesting seasons, led to a high mortality rate among slaves, many of whom survived only eight to ten years.[12] 


It is often forgotten that Moslem merchants traded slaves in Africa long before Europeans discovered the Western Hemisphere and that more slaves were sent from Africa to Arab countries than were shipped across the Atlantic – 14 million as compared to 11 million. Some claim black slaves were treated better in the Arab world than in the west. But the death toll among slaves imported by Islamic countries, who often had to walk across the burning Sahara desert, was twice as high as in the infamous middle passage. And although the Islamic countries imported more slaves than westerners, no large discrete black populations exist in Moslem countries today. This could only be the result of low survival and reproduction rates among black slaves. [13] [next Monday, The Issue Of Reparations]

(Sources : History of Jamaica, Clinton Black. History of Slavery, Susanne Everett. Africa, John Reader. Conquests and Cultures, Thomas Sowell. Stand The Storm, Edward Reynolds. The Story of the Jamaican People, Philip Sherlock. The Slave Trade, Hugh Thomas) – [1] Black, Clinton V., History of Jamaica, page 70 || [2] Sowell, Conquest and Culture, page 190 || [3] Sherlock and Bennett The Story of the Jamaican People, page 43 || [4] Reynolds, Stand The Storm, page 3, 6,13 || [5] Sowell, Conquest and Culture, page 111 || [6] Reynolds, Stand The Storm, page 29 || [7] Black, Clinton V., History of Jamaica, page 73 || [8] Black, Clinton V., History of Jamaica, page 58, 72 || [9] Thomas, The Slave Trade, page 804 || [10] Sowell, Conquest and Culture, page 160 || [11] Sowell, Conquest and Culture, page 159 || [12] Reynolds, Stand The Storm, page 73, 111 || [13] Sowell, Conquest and Culture, page 154

By Kevin O’Brien Chang

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