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A Journey in Chains

Most Africans began their journey into slavery at the hands of other Africans. While Europeans owned and operated the slave ships, the work of kidnapping new victims was generally left to West Africans. Bands of slavers would roam the African countryside, preying on villagers who let their guard down.

Olaudah Equiano was abducted when he was 8 years old.

One day, when all our people were gone out to their works as usual, and only I and my dear sister were left to mind the house, two men and a woman got over our walls and in a moment seized us both, and, without giving us time to cry out, or make resistance, they stopped our mouths, and ran off with us into the nearest wood. Here they tied our hands, and continued to carry us as far as they could, till night came on, when we reached a small house where the robbers halted for refreshment, and spent the night. We were then unbound, but were unable to take any food; and, being quite overpowered by fatigue and grief, our only relief was some sleep.

It sometimes took several months to transport captives to the coast, and they often were sold and resold to several new owners along the way. Once they reached the coast, some captives were taken to slave forts or compounds, where they waited for a slave vessel to arrive. Many of these fortresses still stand on the coasts of Africa, at places like Ilmina and Goree Island, as ruined monuments to the cruel economy of years past.

Once a ship was ready, the Africans were handed over to their new captors, Europeans and Americans, who would take them on their journey to the Americas.

The Middle Passage
For the captive Africans aboard a slave ship, the voyage to the New World was a passage of nearly unimaginable horror. For most captives, the separation from their villages and families was still fresh, and now they were thrust into a hostile and alien world, at the mercy of people who were like none they had ever seen before. Upon boarding, they were stripped of their belongings, branded, chained, and sent below decks, where they would be forced to remain for most of the months-long journey.

The slave deck itself was a living nightmare. To the slave traders, these human beings were cargo, and slave ships were especially designed to transport as many captives as possible, with little regard for either their health or their humanity. Slave decks were often only a few feet high, and the African captives were shackled together lying down, side by side, head to foot, or even closer. Deaths from suffocation, malnutrition, and disease were routine on the slave deck, as were arbitrary torture and murder by the crew. The closeness, the filth, and the fear delivered many into madness, and suicide attempts were common. Other ships could smell slavers from far away, and Portuguese sailors called them tumbeiros, or floating tombs.

Olaudah Equiano described his journey.

The closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us….This wretched situation was again aggravated by the galling of the chains, now become insupportable; and the filth of the necessary tubs, into which the children often fell, and were almost suffocated. The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable.

Those who were not killed by conditions on board were often permanently disabled by beatings or disease. Many slave captains threw sick or injured Africans overboard so that their losses would be covered by insurance.

Though they were shackled, sickened, and outnumbered, captive Africans frequently fought back against their tormentors. On more than 300 voyages, the captives on the slave deck attempted to overthrow the crew, and in several cases they triumphed. In 1839, the victorious Africans on the slave ship Amistad even succeeded in sailing the ship into port and, eventually returned home in freedom.

For more information on rebellions and insurrections on board slave ships, see African American Odyssey: Liberation Strategies, Flights to Freedom, and The Amistad Mutiny.

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