The kingdom of Ndongo, located in South Africa, rose to power through their participation in trade with the Portuguese. While the trade in copper and ivory was profitable, the Portuguese were more interested in extending their slave raids to supply labor for the American sugar plantations. After 1611, the Portuguese made alliances with other African peoples to create a colony that would supply a steady supply of slaves.
The most spirited resistance was from Queen Nzinga who objected to the abduction of her people for the slave trade. For forty years, Nzinga lead her troops into battle, dresses as a male and consistently defeated the Portuguese and their African allies. She offered support to other African tribes who were raided by the Portuguese and made an alliance with the Dutch who wanted to push Portugal out of the Indian Ocean trade. After pushing out the Portuguese, she turned on the Dutch, fearing that increased European presence would endanger her people.
The generals who inherited her kingdom after death were unable to match her ability and the Portuguese expanded into Ndongo.
When Nzinga met with the Portuguese they never provided her with a chair because they wanted to emphasize their idea of her inferiority. Instead, Nzinga made her male servants kneel on the ground and she sat on their backs to meet the Portuguese at eye level.
The Kingdoms of Central Africa and South Africa
Queen Nzinga, 1623-1663
As Africans were converted to Christianity, they blended the religion with their own traditional beliefs and customs creating syncretic religions. An influential syncretic cult was the Antonian movement in Kongo, created by Doña Beatriz, a Kongolese noblewoman. She proclaimed that St. Anthony of Padua had possessed her and chosen her to communicate his messages. St. Anthony was a thirteenth century Franciscan missionary and popular preacher, and became the patron saint of Portugal.
Doña Beatriz gained a reputation for working miracles and curing diseases, and she used her prominence to promote an African form of Christianity. She taught that Jesus Christ had been a black African man, that Kongo was the true holy land of Christianity, and that heaven was for Africans. She urged Kongolese to ignore European missionaries and heed her disciples instead, and she sought to harness the widespread popular interest in her teachings and use it to end the wars plaguing Kongo. These wars were tied to the slave trade.
Doña Beatriz’s movement was a serious challenge to Christian missionaries in Kongo. In 1706 they persuaded King Pedro IV of Kongo to arrest her on suspicion of heresy. The European priests investigated her, determined that she taught false doctrine, and sentenced her to be burned at the stake. 20,000 followers attempted to overthrow King Pedro in an act of revenge and continued to practice Doña Beatriz’s teachings.
The Voyage of the Hannibal (1693-94)
The author Thomas Phillip worked for the Royal African Company, a British company that purchased slaves from Africans in exchange for other goods. These account was sent to an investor to explain how the trade was conducted, in particular interactions with the African king and treatment of the slaves on board the ship.
According to promise we offered his Majesty samples of our goods and negotiated prices, not without difficulty as the king and his traders asked for very high prices. Then the bell was rung to usher in the slaves to sell us. The King’s slaves, if he had any, were the first ones offered to sale, which the traders would insist we buy first before they showed us any others, even though I observed they were generally the worst slaves of the group. Our surgeon examined them to determine if they were healthy by making them jump. He also looked in their mouth to judge their age, for the traders are so cunning. They shave the slaves close so we can see no grey hairs and we must inspect for small pox so they do not infect the entire ship.
When we had selected what we liked, and what goods we would pay for them . . . we marked the slaves with a hot iron, the letter of the ship’s name on it.
The negroes are so unwilling to leave their own country that they have leapt out of the boats and drowned rather than go on. They have a terrible fear of the Caribbean, similar to the fear we have of hell, but in reality they have a better life on the plantations than in Africa. We have also seen negroes eaten by sharks, and a number of sharks follow the ships as the dead negroes are thrown overboard.
I have been told that some captains have cut off the legs and arms of the most willful, in order to terrify the other into obedience. I have been told to do the same, but cannot bring myself to commit such barbarity and cruelty to poor creatures whose only fault is that they are not Christians.
The best goods to purchase slaves with are cowrie shells, brass beads, cotton cloth, coral, glass beads, iron bars, guns, and brandy.
Once at sea, we often let the slaves to the upper decks in the evening and make them jump or dance to keep them in good health. They are guarded by 30-40 Gold Coast Negroes, who will tell us if there is any plotting. We give them a cat of nine tails as a sign of his office, which he uses with great authority.
Two or three negroes died everyday, but I delivered alive 372 who were sold for nineteen pounds per slave.1
Captured and sold as a slave in his native Africa, Joseph Cinque faced many hardships on the Middle Passage, one leg of the slave transport network, from Africa to the Americas. It was during a journey from one port in Cuba to another aboard the slave ship Amistad that Cinque made history.
Joseph Cinque, whose name at birth was believed to have been Sengbe Pieh, lived in West Africa at a time when the slave trade was active. While he was in his twenties, Cinque, who was married with children, was captured and sold to Spanish slave traders.
Once captured, Cinque was forced to walk for days before he reached the African coast. Then, he was taken on board the Portuguese slave ship Tėcora, headed for Cuba. During the voyage, Cinque and other slaves faced numerous hardships, including overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, and lack of food. Many prisoners died during the voyage to Cuba.
Because it was illegal to import slaves into the Spanish colony of Cuba, the slavers smuggled the captives in during the night. To pass the slaves off as Cuban born, their captors gave them Spanish names. Soon he was onboard the Amistad, bound for a Cuban plantation.
Although the slaves on board the Amistad were to be sold to plantation owners, the ship’s cook told Cinque and other slaves that they would be killed and eaten when they reached land. Convincing the other prisoners that they had nothing to lose by trying to break free, Cinque became the leader of a mutiny. During the night, Cinque managed to break free of his chains, He then freed his fellow prisoners. Armed with knives they had found on board, the slaves killed the ship’s captain, the cook, and most of the crew. Cinque ordered the remaining slave traders to sail towards Africa.
Unbeknownst to Cinque, the Spanish headed the ship north toward the United States. The U.S. Coast Guard captured the ship. Cinque and the other surviving Africans were charged with murder and mutiny. After a historic trial in 1841, during which Cinque was defended by former president John Quincy Adams and testified himself, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Africans had, indeed, been illegally kidnapped and sold, and their mutiny had been an act of self-defense.
Private and missionary society donations helped fund the voyage for the surviving Africans’ return home. In late 1841, Cinque and the others returned to Africa as free men.
In the original plan for St. Augustine, Governor Pedro Menendez de Aviles was to establish sugar plantations using the labor of 500 slaves. While the plantations never materialized, the 50 (not 500) Africans established a legacy of service to the small military town. By the 1600s, Africans served as musicians, town criers, and translators. They provided the manual labor needed to build the city’s military fortifications and served as craftsmen in the town. In 1670, they would add another role: defenders of the city.
With the establishment of the English Carolina colonies, St. Augustine’s importance as a military outpost grew. In 1681, the governor established a black militia to help patrol the north border. This was unheard of in the English colonies, where introducing blacks to military service could encourage a slave rebellion. Despite the outrage from the Georgia and Carolina governors that escaped slaved be returned, the Spanish Crown granted freedom for any escaped slave who converted to Catholicism and served in the militia. Hundreds of slaves attempted the journey south to St. Augustine.
By 1738 the black population grew large enough to warrant their own settlement. Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose, or Fort Mose was home to around 100 people, families and single men. Surrounded by a shallow moat, the original fort was modest in size, no more than 20 square meters. The earthen made fort was surrounded by prickly pear for protection and featured a watch tower, well, small thatched homes, and a guard house. The purpose of Fort Mose was two fold. Firstly, the blacks would have their own living section, similar to how groups were segregated in Europe. Secondly, Fort Mose was the first defensive location for St. Augustine. Families could be evacuated to the stone fort while the militia remained behind. This would give the white militia time to secure the town and advance to meet the enemy.
In May of 1740 Governor Oglethorpe of Georgia led an attack to destroy Fort Mose and capture St. Augustine for Great Britain. The attack went well for the English, as the Governor ordered the evacuation of Fort Mose, but the black militia took the lead in surprise attacks against the English. In the battle of “Bloody Mose” Spanish, Indian, and black militia lead a surprise attack that left seventy-five Englishmen dead and persuaded Oglethorpe to leave Florida. The blacks reintegrated themselves into St. Augustine until it was decided to establish a second Fort Mose to defend the town.
Under the 1763 Treaty of Paris, which ended the Seven Year’s War, Florida was turned over to the English. The entire free black population, who feared a return to slavery, fled to Cuba with the Spanish residents of St. Augustine, the Indians, and privately-owned slaves.
In 1994, Fort Mose was listed in the National Register of Historic Places as designated as a National Historic Landmark. In 2009, the U.S. National Park Service named Fort Mose was a “precursor site” on the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.
Francis, J. Michael. St. Augustine America’s First City: A Story of Unbroken History & Enduring Spirit. Éditions du Signe: Strasbourg, France. 2015.
1 Using the figures given, the Company made 98%-78% profit just from purchasing and reselling slaves. Even after factoring the other costs, such as repairs to the ship, wages, and food this is a substantial return.