July 1, 2008
Mary Ann Travis
Historians look at the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade 200 years ago as a step along the way in the African American saga of resistance and emancipation.
As slaves, the Africans on the Portuguese slave ship Vigilante were likely bound for Brazil. As free people, they ended up in the Bahamas—by way of Sierra Leone.
The Africans’ story from 1836 is a narrative that might have been lost, their voices forever silenced, had not historians searched for clues and evidence to piece together stories about the trafficking of enslaved people across the Atlantic Ocean.
Randy Sparks, professor and chair of the history department at Tulane, says that Americans have had a blind spot about the Atlantic slave trade, often called the Middle Passage. “It’s almost inconceivable the suffering that enslaved Africans endured.”
Through the transatlantic slave trade, 12 million Africans arrived in the Americas, forcibly transported to the New World for nearly three centuries.
Historians are trying “to put a human face on these numbers,” says Sparks. “They are overwhelming. It’s hard to wrap your head around those kind of numbers.”
The United States abolished the transatlantic slave trade in 1808, but slavery in America continued until the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1865 after the bloody Civil War.
The British abolished its transatlantic slave trading in 1807 and abolished slavery in their empire in 1834. For six decades, through the authority of a web of international treaties, the British policed illegal slave trading. They interdicted ships carrying Africans on the seas en route to the Americas.
This bicentennial year of the U.S. abolition of the importation of slaves from Africa “should be an opportunity to raise public understanding about the Atlantic slave trade,” says Sparks.
“One of our jobs is to tell as honest a story of history as we can. Even when it’s painful, and sometimes especially when it’s painful.”
—Randy Sparks, professor and chair of the history department
Scholars are trying to individualize stories of the Atlantic slave trade, but it’s tricky to do without much in the way of written records. Few of the imported Africans left any written record at all. “So it’s difficult to tease those stories out of the record, but every one of them is awfully important for that reason,” says Sparks.
As historians, says Sparks, “One of our jobs is to tell as honest a story of history as we can. Even when it’s painful, and sometimes especially when it’s painful.”
The story of the Africans taken from the Vigilante by the crew of a British ship is told by Rosanne Adderley, associate professor of history, in her prize-winning book “New Negroes From Africa”: Slave Trade Abolition and Free African Settlement in the Nineteenth-Century Caribbean.
For her painstaking work about Africans entering the British Caribbean in a new way, Adderley won the 2007 Wesley-Logan Prize in African Diaspora History awarded by the American Historical Association—the professional association of historians in the United States—and the Association for the Study of African American Life and History.
Of the Vigilante incident, Adderley says, “I tell this story because I don’t think we always think about what it meant for Africans with African ways of thinking to have these sorts of encounters in the Americas.
“In dealing with the abolition anniversaries, we tend to forget that there were African and African-descended human beings in the center,” she adds.
It’s all too easy to focus on the British who in the first half of the 19th century “ruled the waves” and were well-equipped for what they called this “costly moral action.”
Approximately 150,000 Africans altogether were liberated from slave ships by the British. Most of the rescued Africans were transported to Sierra Leone in Africa, but approximately 10 percent settled in the British Caribbean, where they acquired a special status separate from the “Creoles” or the slaves already there.
In Adderley’s book, she focuses on the unusual group of approximately 15,000 Africans who settled in the British Caribbean after the British removed them from slave ships. Adderley pays close attention to the Bahamas and Trinidad, comparing the experiences of Africans in the different cultures of those two colonies.
In the Vigilante case, the British vowed to protect the “new Negroes” under their new legal status as free people.
The British colonial authorities in the Bahamas conducted interviews of the Africans to record the violent abuse that had occurred on the perilous transatlantic crossing, asking the Africans to testify under oath about two murders on board the vessel.
Mindful of a cultural divide and apparently respectful of the “new Africans,” the British interrogators asked the Africans how people swore oaths in the land from where they had so recently been taken.
The Africans said that their practice was to lay their hand on a certain bush, and if what they said were not true, they would die.
But the particular bush did not grow in the Bahamas.
The British governor reported to the secretary of state of the Colonial Department that the Africans “were then examined as to their belief in God, and replied that they believe in the Great Spirit who had delivered them from the Portuguese.”
With God’s name invoked, the African immigrants in the British colonial court then said they’d kiss a book (probably the Bible, which the British used in oath-taking during court proceedings).
“If they told an untruth after kissing the book, they would, after death, go into the fire,” reported the governor of the Africans’ first encounter with the British Caribbean legal system. “They were then sworn according to the usual form, the words being interpreted to them.”
An old way of looking at the conversion of slaves—or African people in the New World—to Christianity is that the religion “was imposed by masters as a way to make enslaved people more compliant,” says Sylvia Frey, professor of history.
"We have really done nothing. I see few efforts to sit down and understand how history brought us here."
—Sylvia Frey, professor of history
But Frey and her co-author Betty Wood in Come Shouting to Zion: African American Protestantism in the American South and British Caribbean to 1830 present research that shows the opposite is true.
“White missionaries came in and in a sense planted the seeds of Christianity. But it was the black people themselves who appropriated it against the wishes of their masters,” says Frey.
Masters worried that Christianity would radicalize slaves—and for good reason. “There was a widespread belief among some whites and in the black community as well that baptism freed slaves,” says Frey.
The belief in spiritual equality among all believers took root among black people in the Americas.
And most of the major slave revolts were inspired by the slaves’ own interpretation of the Bible, says Frey.
“Religion is an enormous force for change,” she adds.
In Come Shouting to Zion, Frey states: “The passage from traditional religions to Christianity was arguably the single most significant event in African American history. It created a community of faith and provided a body of values and a religious commitment that became in time the principal solvent of ethnic differences and the primary source of cultural identity. It provided Afro-Atlantic peoples with an ideology of resistance and the means to absorb the cultural norms that turned Africans into African Americans.”
Africans, no matter their status, were vulnerable to being captured and sold as slaves. And the complexities of their stories go on and on.
Randy Sparks in his book, Two Princes of Calabar: An Atlantic Odyssey From Slavery to Freedom, tells the story of two Africans from a ruling family in Old Calabar, a major slave trading port in the Bight of Biafra. The princes, named Ancona Robin John and Little Ephraim Robin John, were themselves slave traders. But in 1767 English traders kidnapped the two men and forced them into slavery. They were enslaved in the Caribbean and Virginia before they escaped to England, converted to Methodism, won their freedom and returned to Old Calabar.
The princes were educated and literate, and they left letters and written documents about their ordeal.
Sparks confirmed the accuracy of each man’s account of his enslavement through a remarkable new tool for historians—the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database.
The database is a major effort by scholars to collect information on the thousands of individual voyages of slave ships, including the names of the ships and captains and the numbers of crew members and slaves on board—both the number placed on board in Africa and the number of slaves that arrived in the Americas.
These consolidated shipping records are transforming the study of the history of the slave trade, says Sparks. They make it possible to do broad demographic studies, including information about the regions of Africa where the slaves originated. The database also supports individual life stories of the kind that Sparks and Adderley have done.
The silence is loud.
Throughout the nation, the momentous bicentennial is about to slip by.
But Sylvia Frey is determined to herald the occasion.
"I want us to get to the place where the knowledge of the importance of the slave market in New Orleans is as commonplace as other commonplace knowledge is about our city.
—Rosanne Adderly, associate professor of history
Two hundred years ago, the U.S. Congress passed the law, signed by President Thomas Jefferson, prohibiting “the importation of slaves into any port or place within the jurisdiction of the United States.”
At the urging of historians in 2007, the U.S. Congress passed H.R. 3432: Commission on the Abolition of the Transatlantic Slave Trade Act, and President George W. Bush signed it into law in February 2008.
The law establishes a commission to plan appropriate activities to commemorate the bicentennial.
In spite of the new legislation, little public attention in the United States has been paid to the bicentennial of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, says Frey.
“We have done nothing,” she adds. “We have really done nothing. I see few efforts to sit down and understand how history brought us here.”
She, however, organized an international conference of scholars and poets to shed light on the slave trade and to teach high school teachers from around the country about new research on the impact of the slave experience.
The conference took place in June on the Tulane University uptown campus.
The conference was part of UNESCO’s (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) Transatlantic Slave Trade Education Project, to which Frey has contributed since its inaugural U.S. meeting in New Orleans in 2000.
Teaching American History groups from the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition at Yale University, Brown University and Penn State University also sponsored the conference.
The conference organizers chose New Orleans as the site of this year’s conference to honor the city in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, says Frey.
“I think Katrina was a clarifying moment, when we saw those images, and this stays in everybody’s mind,” says Frey. “President Bush himself said that we need to have a conversation about race and how we got to this place.”
Bush’s exact words from the speech he made in the French Quarter in Jackson Square, lit up by generator power, on Sept. 15, 2005, two weeks after the storm had hit, when the rest of the city was in darkness, were: “As all of us saw on television, there’s … some deep, persistent poverty in this region. … That poverty has roots in a history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America. We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action.”
Beneath the racial discrimination to which the president pointed, there is something even more dreadful.
“We don’t like to do business with horror,” says Adderley. “We just don’t.”
After the U.S. government in 1808 outlawed the international slave trade, New Orleans became the hub of the domestic slave trade market. African people were no longer legally imported as chattel from Africa into the United States, but the demand for slave labor on cotton and sugar plantations in Mississippi and Louisiana in the Lower South led to slaves being “sold down the river” from the Upper South.
Plantation owners could no longer purchase Africans from slave ships that had traversed the Atlantic Ocean, but the business of buying and selling African people boomed in trading centers such as Natchez, Miss., and especially in New Orleans.
A hundred thousand displaced people were funneled through the port of New Orleans and through the city of New Orleans in the domestic slave trade. Inside “pens” within courtyards in the business district of downtown New Orleans, they were bought and sold as property.
The Africans or their mothers, fathers, grandfathers, grandmothers and earlier ancestors had survived terrible Atlantic Ocean voyages to arrive in the New World. While enslaved, they had created communities— and were sustained by religion as Frey has described—in Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina. And now their lives were being uprooted again.
“They had to start all over in reestablishing families, reestablishing communities,” says Frey. For a city that loves its history, the brutality and violence in the slave trade market in 19th-century New Orleans is a historic reality that has been overlooked, denied, forgotten—or little explored.
“The slave trade abolition anniversary is so much a New Orleans story that is peculiar to this city,” Adderley says.
New Orleanians often speak with pride about the presence of free people of color in the city. But Adderley says, “The presence of the slave market is equally important.
“I want us to get to the place where the knowledge of the importance of the slave market in New Orleans is as commonplace as other commonplace knowledge is about our city,” she says.
Such knowledge can lead to a “different kind of and more fuller understanding of the good and the bad of all of our histories.”
As Frey organized the commemoration of the ending of the international slave trade, she reiterated that the achievement should be recognized with full awareness that it did not represent the end of slavery.
Such a commemoration, however, makes it possible to talk about slavery—and its aftermath.
“One of the things that I hope comes out of the weeklong conference is that we can begin to understand more as a community that the sights we saw at the Superdome [during Hurricane Katrina] were a legacy of slavery. That poverty is an enduring legacy of slavery.”
Americans—particularly Southerners— often have been willing to confront the subject of slavery itself, says Frey. “But what they haven’t been willing to do is confront the continuing legacy of slavery.”
Mary Ann Travis is the editor of Tulanian and a senior editor in the Office of University Publications.
Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000 firstname.lastname@example.org