Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade: An Overview
Before considering the conditions in which African American women lived during Colonial America as slaves, it is significant to understand the Trans-Atlantic slave trade that started in the 15th century and continued till the 19th Century AD.
The trans-Atlantic African slave trade was an occurrence that was unique in the world history. Moreover, the number of Africans forcibly shipped to the American continent is unparalleled in the human history. It is thought that that about two hundred million enslaved Africans laborers lost their lives within the transatlantic slave system (See Angelo 1989). The studies estimated that more than 15 million Africans landed alive in this continent, however for every African who was able to reach the West safely, there was one who was killed in the process of the slave hunting, and about 35% lost their whilst crossing of the Atlantic (See Hart 1980; Also Curtin 1969) .
The Trans-Atlantic slave trade brought about the major demographic source for the re-peopling of the North America. The whites justified the institution of slavery by supporting Africans slave trade, throughout the Americas during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (Beauvoir 1972).
Eltis and Richardson (2008) provided an influential overview of the slave trade:
‘The Trans-Atlantic slave trade was the largest long-distanced coerced movement of people in history and, prior to the mid-nineteenth centuries, formed the major demographic wellspring for the re-peopling of the Americas Nearly four Africans had crossed the Atlantic for every European [and] about four out of every five females that traversed the Atlantic were from Africa (Eltis and Richardson 2008).
The experiences of African slave women were quite different from those of enslaved black men (White, 1998). The slave traders did not place female slaves in ships holds with chained males, consequently making them especially more susceptible to the brutal abuse of white slave owners. The crew members aboard the ship especially “ridiculed, mocked, and treated contemptuously” slave women with children (Hooks 1981).
Slavery in the colonial America continued for more than four centuries. The enslaved Africans were forced to move to the Atlantic. Such a movement of enslaved Africans was greater than the voluntary relocation of other Europeans, as “four out of every five females” that moved to the Americas were enslaved African women.
The history shows that Europeans had traded with Africans well before the Trans-Atlantic slave trade started. As well, there was considerable trade of both gold and salt from the African continent. Although the Portuguese expedition started to search for a direct trade route for African gold, slavery was a highly demanding feature of from African continued, which lasted for many centuries. Earlier, various other Europeans namely the Dutch, French, Spanish, and British started exporting African and Portuguese slaves.
In accordance with Eltis and Richardson Database, “Slaves on documented voyages represent four-fifths of the number who were actually transported.” More than a million of enslaved Africans immigrated to the colonial America from 1626 to 1866. The total number of enslaved Africans during the African migrations was more than 12 million from 1501 to 1866. Michael Angelo Gomez (1998) provides additional data:
‘The various regions of [African] origin differed in their contributions to the North American market, resulting in huge and consistent numbers coming from West Central Africa and the Bight of Biafra. At the same time, the North American market was distinguished by its relatively balanced sex ratios and high importation of children Research substantiates [that] the total number of Africans imported into the Americas is somewhere between 9.6 and 10.8 million, while the total export figure is about 11.9 (Gomez 1998).
Appiah and Gates (1999) stated there is disparity of percentages that relate to African slaves in the colonial America:
‘Most African captives arrived in British North America and the United States from the Congo River area, Senegambia, the Bight of Biafra, the Gold Coast, and the Sierra Leone region’ (Appiah and Gates 1999).
Appiah and Gates suggest that in the colonial America rice planters sought skilled Africans slaves from West Africa. Africans from Angola were generally discarded in North America as a result of the high incidents of slave rebellion and rebellion; however, in Brazil, Angolans were much sought for their strength of the harshest labor condition on the sugar plantations.
Despite the fact the precise numbers are not clearly known, it is clear that millions of
African people were forced into slavery. The general history and demographics of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade requires to be identified in the context of African women slaves contextualize this thesis and the cruel and harsh conditions they endured throughout the slavery period.
African American women as slaves during Colonial America: An Introduction
For black people, especially women during colonial America, slavery was considered as a horrible and devastating experience. Both men and women were forced to leave their homelands as well their ancestral families. They were forced to carry out grueling labor tasks which included both mental and physical humiliations, and were constantly denied their most fundamental rights of the living. The enslaved blacks were beaten cruelly, disconnected from their loved ones, and, irrespective of sex, treated as a chattel.
In spite of common factors, though, the conditions of slavery were quite different for both sexes. The first batch of slaves that were brought to the British colonies of North America was mostly black male. They were shipped to the continent as useful workers due to their immense strength. These men carried out labors that included building houses and plowing of fields.
Soon the majority of planters in colonial America were keen to have robust young blacks as slaves. In addition, slave buyers in the British colonies bought female field hands, who were quite easily available, and were also cheaper. With the skilled labor allocated only for male slaves, the black men available for agricultural work were significantly reduced. Progressively, female slaves surpassed men in the workforce.
On small plantation with fewer slaves, women were more probable to carry out the same work as performed men. Though, on the other hand, particularly on bigger farms and plantations, fieldwork was allocated along gender categories, with those which require more physical tasks allotted to males.
In Africa, the woman's main social role was that of a mother, while as a slave in colonial America, this characteristic of womanhood was dishonored. Moreover, childbirth was considered a rite of passage for African women that could earn them better respect; the American plantation system was an economic advantage for the master only, who increased his workforce through slave pregnancy. Normally, the enslaved woman at that time gave birth to her first child in her teens, and after that, bore more children every couple of years.
Simply, the physical in addition to psychological burdens, with childbearing had telling effects for enslaved women. These women were expected to put the requirements of their masters and their families ahead of their own children. The slave mothers had to return to the plantations soon after giving birth, leaving her child to be cared by others. On a small farm, the motherhood tasks were simply added over their usual tasks. For the sake of their children, these mothers generally favored to continue bondage, whilst their male counterparts tried to flee. Furthermore, the female slaves experienced more chances of being forced into sexual relationships for the aims of reproduction. Possibly more traumatic, the slave women might be while witnessing to their daughters experiencing the same fate.
The slave owner's misuse of the black women's sexuality posed was one of the most major aspects differentiating the experience of slavery for Black males and females. The white man's claim to the slave body of both male and female, was intrinsic in their thought of the slave trade and was actually found perhaps nowhere more than on the auction block, where enslaved Africans were made naked and prodded by prospective buyers. The erotic feelings of such scenes were especially clear in for the black women.
During the slavery era in colonial America, white society firmly thought that black women are fundamentally licentious creatures. As well, the ideal white women were intrinsically pure and, modest to the degree of prudishness, the concept of the African women as hyper-sexual made them both the target of white people his fantasies. Within the bondage of slavery, the white masters generally thought it their rights to involve in sexual activities with black women. At times, bonded female slaves agree to the advances of white owners in the hope that such relationships would improve the chances that they or their children would be freed by their white masters. Generally, though, white slave owners forcibly made slaves.
Mostly, the slave owners made the young, single women slaves the objects of their sexual desires. Moreover, these slave owners occasionally raped married black women. The inability of the black slave husbands to safeguard their wives from such violation points to another significant feature of the relationship between enslaved men and women. The paternal language of slavery, the enforcement of slave law, and the conditions of slave life caused a feeling of similarity between black wives and husbands.
The slave masters' hold over both spouses resulted in a decrease in the black males' control over their wives. Those married slaves, whose matrimonial was not lawfully recognized, possessed no joint property in common. Moreover, labor segregation because of sex and the rate at with which male slaves were sold implied that women were not only meant to take care of their children independently, however also to depend on female relatives and friends over their husbands. As such, black slave women in some ways were independent in ways that white women could not claim. In addition, the focus of the slave masters at times focused on female slaves, the supposed independence of the black woman aroused the resentments of slave masters’ mistresses. At the same time, the outfits provided to the female slaves also showed that that they were intrinsically dissolute.
Irrespective of that, black slave women tried to manipulate their distinctive circumstances in the pursuits for their personal respect and that of their black families. Hence, from time to time the black males, black women also revolted against the cruelties and wickedness of their slave masters.
Similar to their descendants and progenies in Africa, the majority of slave women considered their motherhood critically. They sincerely put their children wants before their own needs and freedom. They supported children not their own, and took care of even for those babies born from violence. As a result of their experience and skill as caregivers, elderly black women were amongst the most respected and in great demand for Southern plantations. For enslaved black men, freedom from the slavery was the most promising way in preserving their masculine and individual identity. For the slave women, experienced with the double responsibilities of being black and female and the additional burden of their dependent children, womanhood was easily realized within their slave community.
The Plight of Enslaved Black Women: An Analysis
The African Slavery promoted gendered models within the socio-cultural and politico-legislative environments of the colonial America.
Various analysts have explored the geographical areas for disparities in the presentation and criticality of trauma on black women’s bodies in order to understand the true picture of their plights. Slavery was not a seen as a similar experience for slave men and women. Deborah Gray White claimed “the images of African American women that grew out of the slavery era reflect that black males and females did not experience slavery the same way” (White 1998).
As such, slavery was not affected by gender issues and was not a shared or homogeneous event in history. The black slave men were hardly ever assaulted by their slave owners, whilst enslaved women were regularly assaulted criminally and impregnated. The slave culture in colonial American supported such human atrocities for the black women, and it was a profitable venture for the slave owners to make female slaves to procreate.
White women on the other hand, were symbolized in the society as unblemished and chaste whilst enslaved black women were consequently known as sexually violent and animalistic.
Similarly, this socially viewed animalistic character of black women considered greater exploitation in experimental medicines. In Medical Apartheid, Harriet Washington (2006) recounted that James Marion Sims, in Alabama, “conducted years of nightmarishly painful and degrading experiments, without anesthesia or consent, on a group of slave women” (Washington 2006). Washington added further that Sims, working with enslaved blacks conducted various surgeries on the black women.
‘The surgeries themselves were terribly painful. Several male doctors had initially assisted Sims by holding down the enslaved women but could [not] bear the bone-chilling shrieks of the women [and] they left, leaving the women to take turns restraining one another (Washington 2006).
In a study Deborah F. Atwater (2009) argued that the great distress meted out by Sims on black women’s bodies was quite frequent. She recounted the brutality that experienced in medical practice and science:
‘This is exemplified specifically in the founding of gynecology, as antebellum physician J. Marion Sims invented the speculum while practicing surgical experiments on enslaved black women in Alabama from 1845 to 1849. One [enslaved woman] named Anarcha would be operated on thirty times without anesthesia (Atwater 2009).
The medical experiments performed on black women’s bodies lasted throughout their enslavement times, and the proof of the distress given out upon their bodies has reemerged in modern times too. In Washington’s Medical Apartheid, Atwater revealed the following finding in Georgia.
In 1989, a century old Greek Revival building, construction workers “stumbled upon a nightmare cached beneath the building. Strewn beneath its concrete floor lay a chaos of desiccated body parts and nearly ten thousand human bones and skulls, many bearing the marks of nineteenth-century anatomy tools or numbered with India ink. The angle of the pelvis bones and bone thickness and ratios revealed gender” (Atwater 2009).
Elizabeth Keckley (2001), a former slave gave attestation to trauma within the paradigms of colonial America. She narrated how William J. Bingham, the neighbor of her mistress, ordered her to strip her clothes, subdued her “stubborn pride,” and “break her” independent spirit (Keckley 2001).
In his influential study James Walvin (1994) stated the “female slave could be a valuable worker in the fields produce new generations of slaves [and] provide sexual services for the slave owner and his coterie All slaves were exploited people, but female slaves endured extra dimensions of exploitation” (Walvin 1994).
The above-mentioned, slave accounts, testimonies, and interviews provide great insights into the socio-cultural conditions of enslaved black women.
African female slaves in the USA were subjected to harsh physical and sexual exploitation. They black women served for life and generally passed that horrible status on to their children. They were denied the basic rights like contracting marriages, buying and selling property, testifying in the law courts court, and making critical decisions regarding their welfare and of their children.
In the USA, the people of African descent came to be known as a distinct “race” of people, created by nature for hard labor and abuse.
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Appiah, Kwame Anthony and H. L. Gates, Jr. Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience. New York: Civitas, 1999.
Atwater, Deborah F. African American Women’s Rhetoric: The Search for Dignity, Personhood, and Honor. New York: Lexington Books, 2009.
Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex. Translated by H M Parshley, Penguin 1972.
Curtin, Phillip D. The Atlantic Slave Trade, A Census. Madison, Wisconsin, 1969.
David Eltis and D. Richardson, Eds. Extending the Frontiers: Essays on the New Transatlantic Slave Trade Database. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.
Gomez, Michael Angelo. Exchanging Our Country Marks: The Transformation of African Identities in the Colonial and Antebellum South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.
Hart, Richard. Slaves Who Abolished Slavery, Volume I, Blacks in Bondage. Institute of Social and Economic Research, U.W.I., Jamaica, 1980.
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Keckley, Elizabeth. Behind the Scenes; Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House. Champaign: University of Illinois, 2001.
Walvin, James. Black Ivory: A History of British Slavery. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1994.
Washington, Harriet A. Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation On Black Americans From Colonial Times to the Present. New York: Doubleday, 2006.
White, Deborah Gray. Ar’n’t I a woman? Female slaves in the plantation south. New York: Norton. 1998.