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Today we're learning about the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, which brought millions of captive Africans to the Americas between the 16th and 19th centuries, with the largest number of people trafficked between 1700 and 1808. We'll look at the ships and crews that brought enslaved people across the ocean via what was known as the Middle Passage and explore the horrific conditions that these captives endured.  

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#crashcourse #history #slavery
Hi, I’m Clint Smith, and this is  Crash Course Black American History,   and today we’re learning about the  Trans-Atlantic slave trade, which   spanned nearly four hundred years from the late  fifteenth century to the late nineteenth century.  The majority of enslaved Africans were  taken from six primary regions, Senegambia,  .

Sierra Leone & the Windward Coast, the Gold Coast,  the Bight of Benin, the Bight of Biafra, and West  . Central Africa also known as Kongo and Angola.

In his 1935 book Black Reconstruction in America,   scholar and civil rights leader W. E. B.

Du  Bois described the Atlantic slave trade as   “the most magnificent drama in the  last thousand years of human history.”  And he didn’t mean “magnificent” in a good way. INTRO  I want to note up top that this episode  will address some challenging topics   including sexual violence and images of  extreme violence. We believe, however,   it is important to discuss these ideas  thoroughly, so that we can fully grapple   with the reality of US History.

An estimated 12.4 million people   were loaded onto slave ships and carried through  what came to be known as the Middle Passage,   which moved across the Atlantic and  included many different destinations.  It was named the Middle Passage because it was  the second of three parts of what became known   as the triangular trade. The first leg of  the journey carried cargo like textiles,   iron, alcohol, firearms, and gunpowder  from Europe to Africa’s western coast.  When the ships reached the coast of Western  Africa, the cargo was exchanged for people.   From there, ships, loaded with human  beings made their way to the Americas,   where the enslaved Africans were sold and  exchanged for goods like sugar and tobacco,   before the ships made their way back to Europe. It is estimated that, over the course of the   Middle Passage, 2 million African captives  died, their bodies often thrown overboard.  What some people might not know about the slave  trade is that the vast majority of people did not   actually go to the United States, far from it.

In fact, only about 5% of captured Africans   were brought directly to what would eventually  become the U. S. The largest proportion,   around 41%, went to Brazil, while millions  of others were scattered across islands   throughout the Carribean and South America.

As we examine slavery in the United States,   from its earliest moments when people are first  taken from their homes, all the way through the   end of the Civil War, it is important to lift up  the narratives and accounts of enslaved people   themselves, as they can provide us with a  perspective on this horrific institution,   in ways that few other documents can. For example, Olaudah Equiano,   an African captured as a boy,  wrote in his 1789 autobiography,  . The Interesting Narrative of the Life  of Olaudah Equiano, about the experience   of being captured and taken to the edge of  the ocean and being boarded onto the ship: .

I was immediately handled and tossed up to see  if I were sound by some of the crew; and I was   now persuaded that I had gotten into a world of  bad spirits, and that they were going to kill me.  Their complexions too differing so much from ours,  their long hair, and the language they spoke,   (which was very different from any I had ever  heard) united to confirm me in this belief… . When I looked round the ship too and  saw a large furnace or copper boiling,   and a multitude of black people of  every description chained together, every one of their countenances  expressing dejection   and sorrow, I no longer doubted of my fate;   and, quite overpowered with horror and anguish,  I fell motionless on the deck and fainted. Captured Africans didn’t really have an  understanding of what lay ahead for them.

Enslaved   Africans weren’t coming back to Africa from the  Americas and warning people about what happened.   All people knew, was what they saw in front  of them. A large ship. An endless ocean.   And for many of these Africans, people  speaking a language they had never heard,   with a color skin some of them had never seen.

It is also important to note   that the story is not as simple as Africans  being hunted and captured by Europeans and   forced onto ships against their will. The Africans who were taken and placed   onboard these ships were typically prisoners  of war from other African tribes, criminals,   and poor members of society who were often  traded to pay off debts. Which is to say,   many captured Africans were sold to Europeans, by  other Africans, for a range of different goods.

Now, this fact can sometimes be used in bad faith  to obfuscate the horror of what Europeans did.   And while it is important not to ignore, the  fact that there were Africans trading other  . Africans into bondage, we should remember  that being a prisoner of war or a poor   member of a society traded for goods is not the  same thing as being held in intergenerational,   hereditary chattel slavery that meant  your children and their children and   their children would all be born into bondage. That is something unique to the experience of   slavery in the Americas.

As the scholar Orlando  Patterson has written “Slavery is the permanent,   violent, and personal domination of natally  alienated and generally dishonored persons.”  You’ve likely heard about how horrible  the conditions were on the slave ships,   but it’s worth naming explicitly. The  conditions on these ships were horrific.   People were packed by the hundreds alongside  one another, chained down, unable to move.  The captured Africans were forced to relieve  themselves in the same places where they slept,   sat, and ate. As a result, the stench from  the bottom of the ship, where there was   little ventilation, was unbearable.

Disease  was rampant. From yellow fever to malaria,   from smallpox to dysentery, it is difficult  to capture how abhorrent the conditions were.  To imagine this, it is helpful  to hear from Equiano again: “I was soon put down under the decks, and  there I received such a salutation in my   nostrils as I had never experienced in my life:  so that, with the loathsomeness of the stench,   and crying together, I became so sick  and low that I was not able to eat…The   closeness of the place, and the heat of the  climate, added to the number in the ship,   being so crowded that each had scarcely  room to turn himself, almost suffocated us.  This produced copious perspirations, so that  the air soon became unfit for respiration,   from a variety of loathsome smells, and brought on  a sickness among the slaves, of which many died.” Violence against the captured Africans was  a devastating yet ubiquitous phenomenon as   these ships crossed the Atlantic. In  an effort to keep people submissive   over the course of the several week-long  trips, enslaved Africans were tortured   in a variety of cruel and unimaginable ways.

Sexual violence was a common fixture as well.   It was not uncommon for sailors to  rape enslaved women while onboard.  But enslaved people did not just passively  accept the conditions that had been thrust   onto them, and they resisted in a myriad of  ways. Some of these ways were individual and   some of them were collective. All of them  were attempts at reclaiming some sense of   agency and control in inconceivable circumstances.

Sometimes they were as explicit as staging revolts   meant to overthrow the crew. And sometimes  they included individual acts of resistance   like refusing to eat or jumping overboard. Now, the idea of trying to take one’s own life,   might seem like a strange form of resistance to  some.

But what you have to consider is that these   captured Africans represented money, like real  money, to those who were holding them in chains on   these ships. So someone attempting to take their  own life, represented the ability to determine the   outcomes of your life for yourself, rather than  having it imposed on you by someone else. It also   allowed them to undermine the economic incentives  that undergirded the entire institution.  Furthermore, in the case of jumping overboard,  some of the captured Africans’ spiritual beliefs   gave them the sense that if they could just make  it into the water, the ocean would carry their   bodies home.

Sometimes, as a result, the enslavers  on the ship would put nets on the side of the   boat, to prevent people from jumping into the sea. One of the most heinous responses to slave   resistance during the Middle Passage, came in the  form of the speculum orum [ohr-UHM], which was a   screw-like device that forced someone’s mouth open  and allowed the resistant African to be force-fed   against their will. It was not uncommon  for this device to break someone’s teeth,   displace their jaw, or rip their mouth apart.

If that didn’t work, other interventions included   placing hot coals on a person’s lips until they  opened their mouths—or thumb-screws, a device in   which a victim’s fingers or toes were placed in  a vise, and slowly crushed until they complied.  Given all of this, we should be clear that  the decision millions made to stay alive   in the face of unimaginable violence and  uncertainty,that too, was an act of resistance.  Historian Marcus Rediker identifies the period  from 1700 to 1808 as the most destructive time   of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Roughly  two-thirds of the total of enslaved Africans   were trafficked out of Africa and  to the Americas during this period.  What’s more, the death toll of the  transatlantic slave trade was staggering. According to historian Jill Lepore, for every  one hundred people taken from Africa’s interior,   only sixty-four of them would survive the  trip to the coast itself.

Of those sixty-four,   around forty-eight would survive the  weeks-long journey across the Atlantic.  Of those forty-eight who stepped off the ship,  only twenty-eight to thirty would survive the   first three to four years in the colony. Before we go on, a quick note here about   language: throughout this series we will try to be  consistent in using the term enslaved rather than   slave to refer to African and African-descended  people who were held in bondage. This distinction   is important because saying enslaved person or  enslaved worker or enslaved human being centers   the personhood of the individual and emphasizes  that slavery is a condition that was involuntarily   imposed on someone, rather than being an  inherent condition to someone’s existence.

One of the central players in the slave trade  was England’s Royal African Company: a chartered   firm that maintained a monopoly on all English  trade to Africa following its inception in 1672.  The period of 1675 to 1725 represented the  most active years of the Royal African Company,   but it continued to play an active role in  the first several decades of the eighteenth   century--an era known as ‘free trade.’ The irony of that term is not lost on me.  I think it’s worth honing in on one state, and  its particular relationship to the slave trade,   in order to better understand how this played out.  According to the work of historian Ira Berlin,   the state of South Carolina prohibited  the African slave trade beginning in 1787.  In 1803, however, the state reopened the  transatlantic slave trade. It remained opened   until 1808, when the federal prohibition of  the atlantic slave trade went into effect.   Between 1803 and 1808, over 35,000 enslaved  people were brought to South Carolina   (more than twice as many as in any similar  period in its history as a colony or state).  The coast of Charleston was the point  of entry for approximately 40 percent   of the enslaved Africans who were brought  to North America through the middle passage.   This has led some to refer to it as  African-American’s Ellis Island, though an   obvious difference is that one group came here  via their own free will and one group did not. The federal government ended the  international slave trade in 1808.   The British had done so in 1807.

However,  traders from both nations continued illegally   trafficking captive Africans for many years  later. And while the international slave   trade was abolished in the United States,  the domestic slave trade would continue. In Britain, it took another quarter century  before slavery was officially abolished in 1833,   and in the United States it  took almost another sixty years   and our nation’s deadliest war, to end it.

Spanish and Brazilian traders   continued trafficking captive  Africans for another half century.  Brazil, which, remember, had the largest  proportion of enslaved people trafficked across   the ocean, was the final country in the Western  world to abolish slavery, doing so in 1888. The transatlantic slave trade was a cruel,  violent, abhorrent centuries-long-project that   would shape the trajectory of the world, of both  black and white life, in ways that we’ll soon come   to more fully understand. We’ll continue to talk  about some of these in our next few episodes.   Thanks for watching, I’ll see you next time.

Crash Course is made with the help of   all these nice people and our  animation team is Thought Cafe.  Crash Course is a Complexly production. If you’d like to keep Crash Course free   for everybody, forever, you can  support the series at Patreon;   a crowdfunding platform that allows  you to support the content you love.   Thank you to all of our patrons for making Crash  Course possible with their continued support.