The Atlantic Slave Trade is considered by historians to be the largest movement of slaves in history. It arose from the need of manpower in the rising European empires. The “slave trade” formed a triangular trade route that provided Africa with trade goods, America with manpower, and Europe with raw materials.
Even though there was a variety of people as slaves, Africans were considered the best people to be in the workforce because they were immune to most diseases and were experienced in the work that the Europeans required them to do, such as farming, managing cattle, and other hard labor. However, the slaves didn’t always subject to their owners’ orders and desires. Rebellions occurred on the trips over to America and on the plantations itself.
Others made the sacrifice of jumping overboard to suicide rather than to be enslaved. This forced slave owners to strategically think of ways to subdue or even manipulate their slaves in order for them to obey and follow commands. White slave owners and the Africans who experienced the slave trade firsthand all had individual perspectives, opinions and observations on the events that transpired. It is paramount to understand how everyone felt in order to better understand all that occured, because our perceptions of people can be easily distorted if we only have one type of viewpoint on them.
The process of being selected as a slave in the Atlantic Slave Trade wasn’t regulated fully, but there were some key parts. The typical observation of the Atlantic Slave Trade is that most of the slaves were buff, strong African men. Unfortunately, the population of slaves included a variety of people. The Virginia Slave Code laid out what people would be defined as “slaves.” One statement was that any who were not Christians (with the exception of Turks, Moors, and free people from England), were to be treated as slaves and were to be sold (Course Reader 23). Others included captives, criminals, people in debt who didn’t pay up on time, and even children (Course Reader 32). At the time, this seemed to be the moral standard for the British. If a person has not lived according to the British code of conduct, than they were sold as slave unless otherwise specified.
Management of slaves on the boat trips over to the Americas was a difficult task. Despite the many precautions that were taken to ensure that rebellions never occur, slaves onboard found ways to revolt against the slave traders. Africans found pieces of iron and wood, and knives to use against their captors (Course Reader 20). A result of one rebellion and several suicides caused slave trader James Barbot Jr. to separate the slaves in different parts of the ship based on sex. He and his crew also visited the slaves daily, to make sure that they will not mutiny or suicide. Barbot Jr. considered his methods to be more lenient than the standard for treating slaves by most other Europeans. This was because of more favorable conditions that his slaves had such as better food, lodging, and maintenance. Barbot states that even though the men being transported as labor are of a different color and pagans, slave traders and owners should “ought to do onto others as they would be done in like circumstances” (Course Reader 22).
Unfortunately, most slave traders and owners did not follow in Barbot’s philosophy. The typical treatment of African slaves were harsh and violent in order to keep them in line. If a slave didn’t live up to the trader’s standards, the slave trader would resort to a whipping as punishment. Slaves were frequently whipped if they were slow or simply refused to obey their master’s commands. The conditions of the slaves did not improve much once they landed in America and started working on the plantations. The rules and boundaries of the treatment of slaves were not implemented until 1705, around a hundred years after the British settled in Virginia (Course Reader 23). Many slaves did not know what was in store for them when they boarded the slave ships. Some were filled with astonishment while others were filled with terror. The Africans had never seen such behavior or have been treated as such. They had no knowledge of where they were going or what their purpose was, and they definitely didn’t realize that their nightmare had only just begun. As the slave trade continued, more and more slaves were being shipped across the Atlantic ocean. To maximize their ship’s carrying capacity, slave traders would often store slaves lying down on shelves with only around two feet of space. They were able to fit hundreds of slaves on a decently sized vessel with this method. There were a select few such as Barbot who increased the space to make it more “airy and convenient” for the slaves (Course Reader 20). Unfortunately, a vast majority of slaves suffered on the boat trips over to America.
As the British established more colonies in America, more slaves were necessary in order for the plantations to flourish and the new economy to grow. Nonetheless, with a growing slave population comes a higher chance of rebellion. As a result, lawmakers started to create laws and conditions in order to control the slaves behavior, which culminated into the Virginia Slave Code in 1705 (Course Reader 23). This code gave an outline on the punishments that were to come if slaves and slaves owners were to disobey the new order of conduct. Perceptions behind the Virginia Slave Code tend to be negative, as it took the fundamental rights away from Africans such as freedom of speech and the right to bear arms. However, the code also stressed how the owners must treat their slaves. Slaves needed to be paid a specific amount in corn and shillings, and be provided a healthy diet and lodging, which is similar to how James Barbot Jr. treated his slaves on the boat trips over to America. Nonetheless, this did not alleviate the lives of Africans working under the British.
Slavery in North America, as always with chattel slavery, was an atrocious system. However, especially in America, it left a definite impact upon the social and economic structures of the country. The slaves were forbidden from learning how to read and write, and were treated brutally, with incredibly high mortality rates. It’s important to note that average slave’s life expectancy at birth was as low as 20 years in some places. As a result, there are very few written records from slaves. Most are from slaves that were freed or have bought their freedom. A common theme in these written records is control. When a human is caught and sold into slavery, they lose an enormous amount of freedom in their lives, being “owned” thereafter by a master. There was a chance their husbands or wives and children would be sold to different slave owners. In order to regain their freedom in their lives, they would have to buy it back. However, this was an impossible dream for the vast majority of slaves. It was already difficult for slaves to earn a profit in the first place, save the fortunate few who managed to reach an agreement with their masters for manumission.
Those who did learned to write, and therefore wrote accounts of their experiences. One former slave, Olaudah Equiano, wrote the most popular account of a slave experience in that era (Course Reader 51). Most of his story lines up with the typical slave experience of being forced onboard a slave ship and sold off as a slave. Towards the end of his account, Equiano ranted and kept asking questions behind the morality of the slave trade. Perhaps, from his observations, he has reached a negative conclusion of his former owner and all those involved in the slave trade.
Observing and researching the Atlantic Slave Trade as a student yields interesting results. Perceptions behind the slave owners are overwhelmingly negative and harsh. While some of it is justified, it is paramount to observe events in history in a 360 degree view. One type of justification of slavery was the claim that slavery was necessary in order for a successful economy. This opinion was often voiced by American plantation owners, who believed that their plantations wouldn’t function without slave labor. However, this opinion was also held by British slave owners, who feared that the British economy would collapse without slavery. In the perspective of a white slave owner, they feel superior to the black man. Some British even argued that the slave work isn’t as laborious as people make it out to be. Hugh Jones, an immigrant from England, claimed that Africans did not know how to provide for themselves once they were released from slavery (Course Reader 26). Considering their previous lifestyle in Africa, this argument seemed justificable in the eyes of the white man. Although in present time, slavery is now considered to be pure evil, no matter the justification behind it.
After the end of the Atlantic Slave Trade and the American Civil War that followed afterward, people nowadays assume that slavery is a thing of the past. Unfortunately, human trafficking is still occuring in our society without our knowledge. Despite all the efforts to educate the generations of people after the slave era, slavery is still happening right under our noses. One reason is that either the people or the government tend to discriminate against the minorities, similar to how the British treated the Africans. They are also ignorant to the apparent threat that is human trafficking, most likely due to an aura of superiority. The best way to combat this is to keep educating people on slavery from all perspectives. It is important to observe the slave era from all perspectives because only learning about the horrors behind slavery is learning in a bubble. The “single story” is dangerous, because it strengthens a simplified view of people and events. People will not learn how or why the slave trade started. People must learn all the observations from the slaves, the slave owners, and everyone else that was involved in the slave trade in order to learn how to prevent it from happening again.
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