You ever sat down and wondered why some folks are so quick to dismiss the horrors of slavery and the slave trade? It is with this and similar thought provoking questions in mind that I’d like us to delve into the past, the centuries of the Middle Passage, the forced migration of Africans across the Atlantic which changed the migration patterns of sharks because they learned to follow the trail of bodies left behind the slave ships, feeding fat on our ancestors.
The largest slave trade in the history of the world was created by white Christian Europeans. The transatlantic slave trade took place across the Atlantic Ocean from the 15th through the 19th century. The vast majority of those who were enslaved were deported to the New World, mainly on the triangular trade route and its Middle Passage. Most of those captured were West Africans. The numbers of Africans brought to the New World were so great, that they became the largest number of immigrants to be brought to the New World before the late 18th century. By 1820, nearly four Africans for every one European had crossed the Atlantic, and about four out of every five females that traversed the Atlantic were from Africa.
Before it was over as many as 60 million Africans would be killed for the profit of white Christian imperialism. A key reason for the high death toll was the tidal wave of war and desolation that the slave trade unleashed into the heart of Africa. Huge numbers of people died being marched to the coasts of Africa from the interior as well as in an endless series of wars produced by the quest for new slaves. Millions more would die in concentration camps at both ends of the sea journey, and significant numbers would die due to the appalling conditions on the slave ships.
The financial profits of this slave trade helped build the economic foundations of America. It was not just the south. Northern business interests made huge profits too.
It is difficult to estimate the exact death toll that resulted from the transatlantic slave trade. There weren’t exactly people measuring these numbers at the time. What we looked at are historical estimates of how many people may have died in capture, during the voyage at sea, and due to disease, starvation and back breaking labor in the New World. But what is certain is that the slave trade was a genocide against the African people. The transatlantic slave trade was also the largest, long distance coerced movement of people in history.
The estimate of the number killed during the transatlantic slave trade varies. The official UN estimate is 17 million (UN). However, knowing the UN is a direct scion of the Imperialist colonizers, we ourselves would be inclined to agree the figure of 60 million or more, given all the variables here, including the fact that during the entire period of the slave trade, Africa’s population did not increase. Some may argue that this is because Europe had advanced medicine and technology, while Africans didn’t. Yet during this era Asia wasn’t exactly at a sophisticated, technological level either. But their population nearly doubled. We believe the stagnation of Africa’s population is a byproduct of the transatlantic slave trade.
The waters and wildlife of the Atlantic is rich in African DNA. Sharks migratory patterns were changed because these predators followed the ships in the Middle Passage because when a slave died they were thrown overboard, or if they were killed because they were protesting or if they committed suicide, the sharks knew that they could follow the ships, and it changed the migratory patterns of sharks during this period of time.
In the water, there were often sharks, which followed the ships in warm waters, feeding off refuse. The Dutch merchant William Bosman wrote in A New and Accurate Description of the Coast of Guinea(1705), “When dead Slaves are thrown over-board, I have sometimes, not without horrour, seen the dismal Rapaciousness of these Animals; four or five of them together shoot to the bottom under the Ship to tear the dead Corps to pieces, at each bite an Arm, a Leg, or the Head is snapt off; and before you can tell twenty have sometimes divided the Body amongst them so nicely that not the least Particle is left.”
Aboard the ships, African captives were packed into tight, unsanitary spaces for months at a time. Many slaves who tried to starve themselves to death were force fed. These conditions also resulted in the spread of fatal diseases. Other fatalities were suicide, and slaves who escaped their fate by throwing themselves overboard. The slave traders would attempt to fit anywhere from 350-600 slaves on one ship. The journey typically took anywhere between 2-4 months, and during this time enslaved people were chained naked in rows on the floor of the hold, or on shelves that ran along the inside of the ship’s hulls.
A vast majority of the slaves brought across the Atlantic were imported into the Caribbean and South America. Only 6 percent of African captives were sent directly to North America. And yet by 1825, the U.S. had a quarter of the blacks in the New World. In the Caribbean, Dutch Guiana, and Brazil, the slave death rate was so high and the birth rate so low that they could not sustain their population without importations from Africa. Rates of natural decrease ran as high as 5 percent a year. While the death rate of U.S. slaves was about the same as that of Jamaican slaves, the fertility rate was more than 80 percent higher in the United States. The U.S, unlike other nations, had a self sustaining slave population for more than a century and a half. And the domestic slave trade in the U.S. continued even after the transatlantic slave trade was outlawed in 1808.
Children suffered very high mortality rates in slavery. Pregnant women were not given much of a break from their work in the fields. They still performed three-quarters or more the amount of work of non-pregnant women. Infant mortality was high, twice as high as southern white children. Half of all slaves died in their first year of life. A major contribution to this high mortality rate was chronic undernourishment.
Death due to disease and malnourishment was also common, given that slaves were fed a low nutrition, purely starch based diet. Common symptoms of disease among enslaved populations included: blindness; abdominal swelling; bowed legs; skin lesions; and convulsions. Common conditions among enslaved populations included: beriberi (caused by a deficiency of thiamine); pellagra (caused by a niacin deficiency); tetany (caused by deficiencies of calcium, magnesium, and Vitamin D); rickets (also caused by a deficiency of Vitamin D); and kwashiorkor (caused by severe protein deficiency). Diarrhea, dysentery, whooping cough, and respiratory diseases as well as worms pushed the infant and early childhood death rate of slaves to twice that experienced by white infants and children.
This was not the first time in history that Africans were kidnapped from their homes and enslaved. Europeans and Muslims engaged in the slave trade for centuries before the colonization of the Americas. Yet the transatlantic slave trade further bled Africa of its people and resources. While it was not the only slave trade in Africa, it was the largest in terms of sheer volume and intensity.
As Elikia M’bokolo wrote in Le Monde diplomatique:
The African continent was bled of its human resources via all possible routes. Across the Sahara, through the Red Sea, from the Indian Ocean ports and across the Atlantic. At least ten centuries of slavery for the benefit of the Muslim countries (from the ninth to the nineteenth)…. Four million enslaved people exported via the Red Sea, another four million through the Swahili ports of the Indian Ocean, perhaps as many as nine million along the trans-Saharan caravan route, and 100 to 200 million across the Atlantic Ocean.
Years ago the poet, Toni Cade Bambara, pointed out in a conversation with a friend, “Do you know that there is not a plaque, a memorial, a day, a ritual or an hour that is erected in memory to those 100 million bodies in the Atlantic Ocean?” He was right, there is none. Why do the Jews still receive reparations for the six million murdered in Hitler’s Holocaust but most people are willfully ignorant of the 100 million lost in the African Holocaust spanning over 400 years? Why don’t the popular media propagate this part of history and cast White Christians in as much bad light as they do Hitler (or recent Black freedom fighters like Gaddafi)? Perhaps Black people’s disillusionment plays a role in the continued suppression of this greatest genocide in history, delaying the reparations the People deserve. Apparently minds need to be emancipated, and keeping fresh the memory of the Banquet of Sharks on the Middle Passage should speed our journey to mental liberation. Never forget the Trail of Bodies under the Atlantic.