The Slave Trade
In the four centuries of the slave trade, slavers transported an estimated 11
million Africans to North and South America, about 600,000 of them to British
North America. Most slaves were captured in the African interior by raiding
parties from more powerful tribes along the coast, and were taken on forced
marches to coastal trading forts run by Europeans. There they were inspected by
ship captains in the holds of dungeons or in open pits. Those selected for
transport were branded, chained together, and rowed out to awaiting slave
ships, where they were packed below deck in spaces with no more breathing room
than a coffin.
Olaudah Equiano, an Ibo tribesmen from what is now Nigeria, was kidnapped and
enslaved when he was only 11 years old. And he lived to write an account of one
of these slave ships. Under the deck, the groans of the dying, the screams of
children who had fallen into open latrines, and the vile stench of vomit and
feces combined to create what Equiano described as a scene of horror "almost
As Equiano's ship headed for open sea, a great moan went up from the slaves,
who feared they were being taken to the homelands of the bearded monsters to be
boiled in water and eaten. As they reached the port of destination, the
surviving human cargo was prepared for sale. If slaves had been flogged, their
open wounds were disguised by filling them with black tar.
Some ship surgeons plugged the rectums of slaves with clumps of hemp fiber to
prevent buyers from noticing the bloody discharges that indicated they were
dying from dysentery. Equiano was purchased in Charleston, South Carolina and
taken to a tobacco farm in Virginia, there he was unable to communicate with
his fellow slaves from other areas of Africa. He was part of the Africanization
of the Chesapeake labor force. But had he not been resold to a visiting naval
officer, and eventually freed, he might have married an African-American woman
and been a member of the first generation of slaves in the North American
Hemisphere to increase its size by procreation.
Rice and Rebellion
In the 18th century, a different type of slavery developed in the lowland,
coastal region extending from Cape Fear, North Carolina, to Georgia, an area
whose ecology was unsuited to tobacco cultivation. South Carolina was the
richest colony in this region. It had been first settled in the 1660s by land
hungry emigrants from the crowded sugar islands of Barbados.
Thirty years later, they found a profitable cash crop--rice.
And rice shaped the lowland as strongly as tobacco shaped the Chesapeake. Rice
made South Carolina the richest colony in mainland British North America--and
the only one with a black majority. Rice cultivation was hard, human-killing
work; but greater oppression, ironically, produced greater autonomy for the
Since tobacco required more constant care than rice, masters closely supervised
slave labor. In the Carolina lowlands, masters stayed away from the rice
fields, where the death rate from malaria was frightfully high. The Carolina
grandees, the richest elite in the colonies, built their magnificent plantation
houses on high ground, far away from the rice ditches. In the malaria season
they escaped to town houses in fashionable Charleston.
Slaves died earlier in the Low Country than they did in Virginia and
reproduced more slowly. So owners had to bring in fresh infusions of Africans,
most of them males. These slaves were much more likely to rebel than
American-born slaves were.
In these sprawling agricultural factories, slaves didn't work in
white-supervised gangs, as they did in Virginia. Instead, they were given daily
tasks to perform under the supervision of black foremen, or drivers. The work
was done at a killing pace, knee-deep in the thick muck, in mosquito- and
snake-infested paddies. But when their tasks were completed, slaves returned
to their separate living quarters, where they were free to hunt and fish, grow
their own food, and live together as families in individual cabins.
Living apart from masters who hardly knew them, they developed an autonomous
culture that had its own cycle of African feasts and dances. They developed
their own language, Gullah. And they also developed a culture that was
It's not coincidental that colonial America's largest slave rebellion, the
Stono Uprising, occurred in South Carolina. In 1759, a group of freshly
imported Angolans broke into a store on the Stono River, near Charleston, armed
themselves, and headed toward Spanish Florida and freedom. Along the way they
plundered plantations and killed about two dozen whites before being gunned
down by a militia company.
Although slave revolts were rare in mainland North America, as compared, say,
to Brazil and the Caribbean, slaves resisted in every way possible, destroying
tools, performing work shoddily, running away, and striking, and sometimes
killing, their oversees. Walking through a pleasant wood near Charleston,
Crevecoeur, who was visiting in the area, suddenly came upon a black man who
had been suspended in a cage and left to die. His arms were tied down, and
birds had plucked out his eyes. Crevecoeur got him some water, but he begged
for poison. At his host's home, Crevocoeur was told that the slave had killed
his overseer and that the "laws of self-preservation," in the words of the
master, "[made] such executions necessary."
Now, this might make for dramatic reading, but the slaves' major act of
resistance was not striking back at the master. It was non-violent: the
creation of a resilient, richly varied black culture, the slaves' strongest
weapon against racial oppression. Southern language, cuisine, folklore, music,
and religion were indelibly influenced by this slave culture.
Acculturation did not go only one way. As Africans were being Anglicized,
English colonists in the South were also being Africanized. In this way,
African slaves contributed to the making of a uniquely American culture.
Slaves played a pivotal role in increasing the wealth, as well as the size and
ethnic diversity of early America. By 1776, the two main crops that slaves
produced, tobacco and rice, were, with wheat, British America's most profitable
exports. This is certainly one reason there was a general colony-wide
acceptance of slavery, even though slaves comprised only about 10% of the