To satisfy their huge demand for labor in America, colonial empires developed the vicious circle depicted here. Europeans offered guns, rum, and trade goods to Africans for enemies captured in local wars. With profits from reselling these enslaved workers in the New World, they imported more guns and rum to encourage further conflict, which in turn provided additional African captives.
In 1976, the African-American writer Alex Haley traced the storyof his black family in the popular book Roots. He discovered that his "furthest-back-person" in America was Kunte Kinte, a Gambian who had been brought in chains from West Africa to Annapolis, Maryland, in the 1760s aboard the English slave ship Lord Ligonier. Haley (who also wrote the powerful Autobiography of Malcolm X) was fortunate in knowing the name of his first American forebear and in being able to locate the exact ship on which he arrived. But the facts themselves are remarkably typical. On average, the furthest-back New World ancestor for any African American today would have reached these shores shortly before the American Revolution, just as Kunte Kinte did. (By comparison, the largest migrations of Europeans and Asians to the United States began in the late 19th century and grew larger in the 20th century. So the average white resident of the United States has a far shorter American ancestry, as does the average Asian-American citizen.)
Newcomers like Kunte Kinte were part of a large forced migration that started in earnest shortly before 1700 and ended, for the most part, shortly after 1800. By the time the government of the young United States prohibited further importation of enslaved Africans in 1807, well over 400,000 people had been brought to North America directly from Africa or indirectly via the Caribbean. (Most of these people were trans
ported to English-speaking settlements on the East Coast, although some entered Florida and Louisiana; many fewer entered Canada and the Spanish Southwest.) Roughly 100,000 of these enslaved people arrived during the final generation of the slave trade, between 1776 and 1807. This means that more than 300,000 Africans reached North America during the century stretching between 1675 and 1775. They were described at the time as "Saltwater Negroes," Africans who had endured the Atlantic crossing. This diverse group of men and women occupies an important place in American history.
Africans who survive the Middle Passage remained subject to wars of empire in America. For example, many African. American families were marched aboar ships by the retreati British forces and deported to the Wes Indies after the American Revolution
Even though these black ancestors arrived in North America early compared to most white ancestors, they arrived late in comparison with Africans elsewhere in the New World. By 1700, the slave trade from Africa had been underway for two centuries to the Caribbean and Latin America, although it was only beginning to shape North American society. In addition, these ancestors represent a surprisingly small part—less than 5 percent—of the entire transatlantic movement from Africa. All told, well over 12 million people endured this brutal traffic to the New
World, and several million more perished during the so-called Middle Passage.
Moreover, even within the British portion of the vast African trade, Africans sent to North American ports represented only a small portion of the total exodus. Between 1690 and 1807, English captains deported nearly 2.75 million slaves from Africa. Most were sold in foreign ports, but English planters on the tiny island of Barbados purchased more African slaves than all the mainland British colonies combined, and English-controlled Jamaica absorbed fully twice as many workers. Finally, unlike their countrymen dispersed through the sugar cultures of the tropics, the Africans transported to North America managed to live longer on average and bear more children. Almost from the start, the number of births regularly exceeded the number of deaths in most places over the course of each year, meaning that the black population grew steadily, regardless of new importations from Africa.
The conditions faced by these saltwater slaves were less horrendous than those encountered by their black contemporaries entering the sugar colonies of Latin America. But they were decidedly worse than those faced by the few thousand Africans reaching North America before 1675 (or by the numerous Europeans who arrived in increasing numbers throughout the 18th century). By 1700, conditions were changing dramatically. Diverse forces had combined in the late 17th century to slowly and terribly transform the status of African arrivals from bad to worse.
Two further adjustments assured that this system of race-based exploitation would endure across North America for generations—and in some regions for more than 150 years. The first shift involved the creation of strict legal codes in one colony after another, spelling out the organized practice of discrimination and giving it the full force of the law. Wealthy white assemblymen, representing the landowning gentry who would benefit the most financially from these changes, enacted statutes that destroyed the legal standing of African Americans. The laws of the land they had entered viewed them not as humans with rights but as property to be controlled by others. Specific statutes prohibited enslaved blacks from earning wages, moving about freely, congregating in groups, seeking education, marrying whites, carrying firearms, resisting punishment, or testifying in court. In 1705, Virginia legislators gathered diverse laws aimed against blacks into a single comprehensive "slave code," and other colonies followed this example.
Towns and colonies drafted elaborate legislation controlling the activities and limiting the mobility of enslaved workers. This law, passed by the Common Council of New York City in 1731, prohibited any "Negro, Mulatto or Indian slave" above the age of 14 from appearing on the streets of the city at night alone without a lantern. Those caught breaking this law could receive as many as 40 lashes at the public whipping post.
English colonists took another step as well—less formal but equally destructive. Brutal and dehumanizing treatment of African newcomers was approved not only in the colonial courts of law, but also in the broad court of white public opinion. The phenomenon all Americans know as "racism"—which peaked in the 19th century and persists even at the end of the 20th century—first emerged as a solid feature of North American society in the early 18th century. In Boston, the prominent Puritan minister Cotton Mather (himself a slaveholder) generalized about what he viewed as the "stupidity" of Negroes. In 1701, another Bostonian refused to free his African slave on the grounds that the "character" of every black person was innately deficient. In a bitterly racist poem, merchant John Saffin denounced African men as lustful and murderous, "Cowardly and cruel ... , Prone to Revenge ... , False and Rude." Here were all the ingredients of the degrading racist stereotype that would be mouthed by so many future generations of white Americans, north and south.
Unquestionably, signs of European prejudice and discrimination toward Indians and Africans had been present in the English colonies from the start. But this poisonous pattern of mistrust and abuse became widespread and central within the culture only after 1700, as race slavery rapidly expanded. One indication of this racism was the increased hostility toward marriages between Africans and Europeans. Such interracial unions became illegal in Virginia in 1691, in Massachusetts in 1705, in Maryland in 1715, and soon after in most other colonies.
Another indication was the sharp prejudice exhibited toward free blacks. A law passed in Virginia in 1699 required black persons receiving their freedom to leave the colony within six months. The assembly argued that additional free blacks would represent "great inconveniences ... by their either entertaining negro slaves ... , or receiving stolen goods, or being grown old bringing a charge upon the country."
Ironically, as the situation worsened and the options diminished for African Americans, their population in certain English mainland colonies rose dramatically. In the 40 years between 1680 and 1720, the proportion of blacks in Virginia's population jumped from 7 percent to 30 percent, as white landowners shifted from a labor system of indentured servitude to one of chattel slavery. "They import so many Negros hither," observed planter William Byrd II, "that I fear this Colony will some time or other be confirmed by the Name of New Guinea." In South Carolina during the same four decades the African increase was even more pronounced:
from 17 percent to 70 percent. "Carolina," commented Swiss newcomer Samuel Dyssli in 1737, "looks more like a negro country than like a country settled by white people." During the 1740s and 1750s, an average of 5,000 Africans per year were being sold into bondage on American docks. In 1760, Virginia had more than 130,000 black residents, and 15 years later the number had jumped beyond 185,000. By the eve of the American Revolution, the proportion of African Americans in the population of North America was higher than it would ever be in any subsequent generation.
Several hundred thousand Africans appear as nameless statistics in ship logs and port records from 18th-century North America. Only in exceptional cases can we reconstruct the life of an individual saltwater slave with much certainty. Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, best known as Job ben Solomon, is one such exception. He was born around 1702 to Tanomata, the wife of a Fula high priest named Solomon Diallo in the region of Bondou between the Senegal and Gambia rivers of West Africa, more than 200 miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean.
Raised as a Muslim, Job could read and write Arabic easily; by the time he was 15 this exceptional student had committed the Koran to memory and could copy it by heart. His education proved his salvation after March 1, 1731, when he suddenly found himself in chains aboard an English slave ship. He was no stranger to the slave trade, for French captains on the Senegal and English captains on the Gambia further south bartered regularly for captives, and merchant families like the Diallos often took advantage of this stiff competition to drive profitable bargains. Indeed, by his own later account, Job had just sold two persons into slavery in exchange for 28 cattle. He was beginning the long trek home with his new herd when he was suddenly kidnapped by a group of Mandingo men and sold to an Englishman on the Gambia, Captain Pyke of the Arabella. Job sent a message to his wealthy father asking for help, but before the distant priest could ransom his son (by providing two replacement slaves), the Arabella had set sail across the Atlantic.
For Captain Pyke, the transit from Africa to America was the middle leg of a three-part voyage that began and ended in England and was designed to bring profit to investors Henry and William Hunt.
But for the Africans crammed below decks, this "Middle Passage" was a terrifying one-way journey from which no one could expect to return. The voyage from James Fort on the Gambia River to Annapolis, Mary
land, on Chesapeake Bay was long and hard, as Kunte Kinte would discover three decades later. The men and women were kept in separate, foul-smelling holds. They were given terrible food and almost no chance to move about. For some, the endless motion of the ship brought seasickness; for others, the constant chafing against hard boards created open sores that could not heal. The threat of infection and epidemic disease hung over the captives constantly, made worse by their crowded conditions and the daily changes in temperature below decks, from scorching heat to damp chill.
Job ben Solomon has been called the ' fortunate slave" because he managed to return from Maryland to Gambia. His remarkable story, illustrated with an engraving of the young Muslim man, appeared in the June 1750 issue of Gentleman's Magazine.
At times, for this cramped and weakened array of Africans, the mental suffering exceeded the physical pain. Each individual had been separated from family and friends and thrown together with strangers and, occasionally, enemies. Their captors appeared to be pale men with brutal ways and an unknown language. Their current location, future destination, and ultimate fate remained a mystery. Not everyone could endure this long, dark agony. When the crew, in its daily inspections, found that some had died, their bodies were literally "thrown to the sharks." This prompted further despair, and some, if they shared a common language, spoke of violent revolt. They were physically weakened, narrowly confined, and closely watched. Moreover, they were totally unarmed, uncertain of their whereabouts, and innocent of the workings of the large ship, so an uprising seemed nearly suicidal. Despite these odds, a shipload of passengers occasionally attempted to rebel. But most, however desperate, struggled simply to endure, praying to be saved from this nightmare into the unknown.
For Job ben Solomon, almost alone among more than 100,000 prisoners transported from the Senegambia region to the New World aboard British ships, this prayer would eventually be answered. When Pyke reached Annapolis, he turned over saltwater slaves to Vachell Denton, a local "factor," or agent, who was paid by merchant William Hunt of
London to sell the Arabella's human cargo at a profit. When Denton put Job on the auction block, he was purchased for 45 pounds by Alexander Tolsey, a planter from Queen Anne's County. Job's new master attempted to change his name to Simon and put him to work picking tobacco and herding cattle. This latter task was a thoroughly familiar one, and it gave him time to pray regularly in the woods and also to plan an escape. But when he ran away in desperation, he was captured easily and confined to jail in the back of a local tavern. While there he was visited by an elderly saltwater slave who could still speak Wolof, Job's native language, and the old man explained to Job the full outlines of his predicament.
The ingenious young Fula now wrote a note in Arabic to his important father, explaining his dilemma and requesting Captain Pyke to deliver the letter on his next voyage to the Gambia River. Against all odds, Job sent it to Mr. Denton in Annapolis, who forwarded the curiosity to Mr. Hunt in London, who in turn showed a copy to friends until a translation was obtained from a professor of Arabic at Oxford University. Officials of the Royal African Company, including James Oglethorpe, the idealistic founder of the Georgia colony, took an immediate interest in the note. The author clearly had powerful relatives in Africa who might be of use in future trading ventures, if only the captive could be located in Maryland and returned safely to Gambia. Tediously, the sum of 45 pounds passed from Oglethorpe to Hunt to Denton to Tolsey, and by the spring of 1733 Job was aboard a ship sailing from Annapolis to London. During the eight-week voyage, between bouts of seasickness, he practiced his English and mastered the European alphabet.
When Job ben Solomon was returned to Africa in 1735, after nearly four years away from home, he was delivered first to James Fort, the British slave trading station on James Island in the Gambia River. Agents at James Fort hoped to secure Job's help in the Royal African Company's efforts to obtain additional slaves.
In London, officials of the Royal African Company prepared a certificate "setting forth that Simon otherwise called Job the Gambia black
lately brought from Maryland, is ... to be a free man; and that he is at liberty to take his passage to Africa in any of the Company's ships." They assured Job they would avoid taking Muslim slaves in the future. In return, he agreed to assist them in their competition with the French to gain access to his homeland and its traffic in gold, gum, and non-Muslim slaves. He reached the Gambia River in August 1734, after four years away from Africa, and was met by Francis Moore, the Royal African Company's agent at James Fort.
Job ben Solomon wrote this letter in Arabic to Sir Hans Sloane, an English scholar. job's knowledge of Arabic drew the attention of several influential Englishmen and paved the way for his release from slavery.
Moore was eager to benefit from Job's return, so he sent a messenger to Bondou. The man returned in several weeks with disheartening news. According to Moore, he reported that Job's father had recently died and his prosperous country, once noted for its "numerous herds of large cattle," had been ravaged by such a terrible war "that there is not so much as one cow left in it." On top of all that, one of Job's wives had given him up for lost and had married another man. As Moore recorded in his journal, Job "wept grievously for his father's death, and the misfortunes of his country. He forgave his wife, and the man that had taken her; for, says he, Mr. Moore, she could not help thinking I was dead, for I was gone to a land from whence no Pholey [Fula] ever yet returned; therefore she is not to be blamed, nor the man neither."
Though Job ben Solomon's personal sorrows seemed heavy, his biographer rightly calls him "the fortunate slave." Thousands upon thousands were less fortunate, torn away from Africa unwillingly and sold into bondage overseas, with no hope of return. Some of these men and women had already been slaves in their own lands—captured in war, condemned for a crime, or purchased for a price. But they had been treated as people, not as property. They had been allowed to marry and raise families, and their children did not face continuous servitude. Captives deported across the ocean faced a new kind of slavery. They entered a system driven by enormous profits, tolerated by the Christian churches, bolstered by increasing racism, and backed by the full sanction of the law. Very few found ways to tell their story, but one who did was named Olaudah Equiano, who was seized with his sister at age 11 and shipped to Virginia via Barbados.
Equiano was born in 1745 among the Ibo people living near the lower Niger River, an area under the loose control of the king of Benin. Like Job ben Solomon, Olaudah grew up in a slave-owning family. Like Job, he was captured in his native land and shipped to Chesapeake Bay, eventually gaining his freedom and making his way to England. Unlike Job, he did not return to Africa and become a participant in the slave trade from which he had escaped. Instead, he sailed extensively during the era of the American Revolution—to Jamaica, Portugal, Turkey, Greenland. He spoke frequently in Britain about the evils of slavery, and in 1789 he published a vivid autobiography, in which he described the circumstances of his arrival in the New World.
At last we came in sight of the island of Barbadoes, at which the whites on board gave a great shout, and made many signs of joy to us. We did not know what to think of this; but as the vessel drew nearer, we plainly saw the harbor, and other ships of different kinds and sizes, and we anchored amongst them, off Bridgetown. Many merchants and planters now came on board, though it was in the evening. They put us in separate parcels, and examined us attentively. They also made us jump, and pointed to the land, signifying we were to go there. We thought by this, we should be eaten by these ugly men, as they appeared to us; and, when soon after we were all put down under the deck again, there was much dread and trembling among us, and nothing but bitter cries to be heard all the night from these apprehensions, insomuch, that at last the white people got some old slaves from the land to pacify us. They told us we were not to be eaten, but to work, and were soon to go on land, where we
should see many of our country people. This report eased us much. And sure enough, soon after we were landed, there came to us Africans of all languages.
The extraordinary details of Olaudah Equiano's life attracted a great deal of attention when his autobiography was first published in London in 1789 (the first American edition was published in 1791).
We were conducted immediately to the merchant's yard, where we were all pent up together, like so many sheep in a fold, without regard to sex or age. As every object was new to me, everything I saw filled me with surprise. What struck me first, was, that the houses were built with bricks and stories, and in every other respect different from those I had seen in Africa.
We were not many days in the merchant's custody, before we were sold after their usual manner.... I now totally lost the small remains of comfort I had enjoyed in conversing with my countrymen; the women too, who used to wash and take care of me were all gone different ways, and I never saw one of them afterwards.
I stayed in this island for a few days, I believe it could not be above a fortnight, when I, and some few more slaves, that were not saleable amongst the rest, from very much fretting, were shipped off in a sloop for North America. On the passage we were better treated than when we were coming from Africa, and we had plenty of rice and fat pork. We were landed up a river a good way from the sea, about Virginia county, where we saw few or none of our native Africans, and not one soul who could talk to me. I was a few weeks weeding grass and gathering stones in a plantation; and at last my companions were distributed different ways, and only myself was left. I was now exceedingly miserable.
Henry Laurens of South Carolina, President of the Second Continental Congress, grew wealthy through the slave trade. This newspaper ad from his Import firm assured buyers that many of these quarantined newcomers already understood rice cultivation and had survived smallpox in Africa.
Those Africans like Equiano who were shipped to North America made up only one small portion of an enormous stream. But their numbers grew rapidly, particularly in the Southern colonies. Between 1770 and 1775, Charleston, South Carolina, was receiving 4,000 Africans per
year. All of them were held for several weeks at the so-called pest house on Sullivan's Island, a quarantine station designed to prevent the arrival of epidemics from overseas. So many people arrived there that it has been called "the Ellis Island of black America." Yet unlike the Europeans who poured into New York City through Ellis Island in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the saltwater slaves of the 18th century could have little hope for a life that was more self-sufficient or humane than the one they left behind. No Statue of Liberty, with her Torch of Freedom upraised, welcomed these huddled and oppressed African newcomers, no beacon offered a promise of justice, well-being, and sanctuary from the world's storms. On the contrary, the storm had just begun.
Not all of the Africans arriving in North America went to English colonies. In 1726, the year of this early sketch of New Orleans, more than 500 Africans arrived in Louisiana from Senegal aboard the French ships La Mutine and L'Aurore.