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Friday, 6 May 2011


On Thursday afternoon I was asked to supervise on of the grade seven classes. Their teacher had to attend a subject meeting at another school. While I was sitting at her desk and the learners were doing the work set for the I paged through a social science text book and came across the part covering slavery. This started me thinking on it's origins and effects on the enslaved and those who were slavers and slave holders.

Slavery is as old as mankind. You read about it in the Bible, the Israelites were slaves for 400 years in Egypt. in  all the ancient empires slavery was considered normal. Slavery was common medieval Europe, the Catholic church often issued edicts against this slavery. Christian Sweden and Russia thought nothing of selling fellow Christians, captured in war, to Islamic counties. But the slavery that has horrified the world and captured the imagination like no other has been the African slave trade.

The Atlantic slave trade is the one that we hear the most about because it included Europe and the Americas.  In 1452 Pope Nicholas V issued the papal bul Dum Diversas,  granting Alfonso V of Portugal the right to reduce any "Saracens, pagans and any other unbelievers to hereditary slavery." 

Trans Saharan slavery had been carried on by Islamic traders from North Africa for centuries before the Portuguese  arrived on the scene. Caravans of slaves from west Africa travelled across the Sahara every year. By 1480 the Portuguese had established slave trading forts along the coast of the bight of Benin and Biafra, and had replaced the Arabs as the main slave traders. The first African slaves arrived in Hispaniola in 1501, the first of millions to be transported across the Atlantic.

No one knows exactly how many were transported across the Atlantic, but a figure I read once was at least 13 million, how many millions died during this transportation is unknown.  At least a third of the slaves loaded on the ships were expected to die. Conditions on these ships were beyond description. Slave were chained together and packed in literally like sardines. They were packed on shelves and could not sit up. Toilet facilities were non-existent, and the food bad. Many slaves just died of heartbreak

The effect on the slaves was unimaginable hardship and suffering that lasted for centuries. Slave holders became less than human. Such absolute control of over other human beings had a corrupting influence on the slave holders.

Slave tied together and marched through the African bush. Forked branches were tied to the necks of the slaves as can be seen in the picture above.

 Cowrie shells were often used as payment for slaves.

Another form of payment.

The Atlantic slave trade took place in what was called the Atlantic triangle. Ships transported slave across the Atlantic to the Americas. Raw materials, produced by the slaves, were transported from the Americas to Europe. From Europe finished goods were transported to west Africa to buy more slaves. Most payment for slaves was in the form of muskets of very poor quality, and industrial quality alcohol. At the peak of the slave trade, the value of this trade was 3.5 million pounds sterling a year!

Slaves on a slave ship, early 1800's.

In South Africa the first slaves arrived in 1658, six years after the establishment of the Cape. The settlement at the Cape was only established in 1652 as a refreshment station for ships of the Dutch East India Company. A special law was passed by the directors of the company that local people may not be enslaved. Slaves came East Africa and Madagascar. The king of slave were considered to be the Malay slaves brought from the East. These slaves had special skills such as cabinet making, building, leather and metal work. Their work can still be seen in the Cape today, especially in the Cape Dutch buildings of the period.

In 1685 a law was passed allowing male slaves to purchase their freedom at the age of 25, female slaves were allowed to buy their freedom at 22. The provision was that they had to have been baptised, confirmed and accepted into the Dutch Reformed church. Due to the shortage of white women in the Cape many men married slave women. Women from India and the Dutch East Indies, today Indonesia, were preferred due to their cooking and home making skills. Thus most people with Afrikaans surname, like yours truly, have black ancestry .  This fact was virtually unknown until the 1970's when a professor from one of the universities started to do research into the founding mothers of Afrikaans families. During the 1970's apartheid era this discovery caused a furor  and people wanted to lynch the professor for daring to question the purity of our European bloodline.

Most slaves in the Cape were treated as badly as slaves any where else in the world and mortality was high. Slave number only increased due to the importation of more slaves. Skilled slave were considered a valuable economic asset, unskilled slave were just used up. There were exceptions. While I was studying at Stellenbosch University, our history group went on a tour of historic wine farms, (more to drink wine than anything else I think). On one of these farms which had been in the same family since the 17th century, they showed us the family grave yard. In the middle of the grave yard was a double grave covered with a slab of marble. The inscription on the slab read in Dutch, " Here lie our beloved slaves, (with names and dates of their passing." ) This was obviously a married couple who had served the family loyally for many years.

Slaves in the Cape were freed by a law passed by the British parliament in 1835, freeing all slaves in the British Empire. The Cape had become a British colony in 1805. This proclamation of the freedom of slaves is celebrated to this day by the descendants of slaves on a day known as the second new year in January.

In my next post I'll say something about the Indian ocean slave trade.


Kay L. Davies said...

Heartbreaking, Phillip, but fascinating ...I knew about the slave ships to America, but you have included so many things I didn't know before.
— K

Kay, Alberta, Canada
An Unfittie's Guide to Adventurous Travel

Gorges Smythe said...

It seems most folks think that blacks were the first and last slaves in America, especially blacks, but America had white and Indian slaves before blacks and unofficial Indian and Chinese slaves afterwards.

*The Old Geezer said...

Interesting history lesson about slavery.

The Griper said...

the history of slavery is the history of mankind.