A Black Perspective of American History
By Leon Dixon, Gerald Hynes, and Carolyn Gaines Nelson
Part One: Prior to the American Revolution
Historical analysis of Pre-Columbian America reveals that the Western Hemisphere was not populated with "savages." Instead, thriving civilizations existed; the Incas and Aztecs of the southern half, and the mound cities which took generations, stretching over hundreds of years to build, in the northern half. The inhabitants had highly developed cultures. There was art, sculpture, astronomy, commerce, and trade all present.
In addition to this, according to historian J. A. Rogers: "Negroes lived in America thousands of years before Columbus. When Columbus came to the New World, Negroes had been crossing from Africa to South America, a distance of 1066 miles." As a matter of fact, the inhabitants told Columbus of Negro peoples who had come from the south and southeast.
In 1415, Portuguese acquired their first African territory by capturing Ceuta (now an enclave of Morocco) in a battle in which Prince Henry, the Navigator, won distinction. Prince Henry learned much of Africa from the Moors and was motivated towards exploration. He thought it expedient to have an African Christian power to balance the Moorish power, but his captains were more interested in trade than Christian allies. To trade, Prince Henry had no objection; he also believed in cheap slave labor. Pope Martin V, upon receiving the first slave gifts from Africa, in 1441, by Henry's captains, assured Henry of Papal support for the slave trade. Herein lies the genesis of the "African slave trade." It should be noted that the holy men of those times saw the slaves in the highest sense free, reasoning (however perverted) that removed from paganism and heathenism that they now enjoyed the LIBERTY of Christianity.
In 1492, Christopher Columbus crossed the Atlantic and reached a continent unknown to him and his part of the world. Columbus was highly impressed with what he saw there, and harbored visions of the possibilities of wealth obtained from the gold and spices he had heard of. The record also shows, according to author/editor Bradford Chambers, "that on his second voyage Columbus sought to colonize Hispaniola with the aid of slave labor"; and also set quotas for each Indian to mine a certain amount of gold dust. Revolts were frequently attempted, but were ruthlessly crushed. Also, on Columbus' second voyage, in 1494, seventeen ships were brought to carry back the riches he expected to find. Disappointed in this respect, he sent back some 500 Indians to be sold as slaves on the European market. But Queen Isabella, espousing the new morality dawning in Europe, stifled his plans. Debates ensued as to the pros and cons of the slave trade of the New World Indians to Europe. "Ultimately, the humanitarian view won out, and the famous Laws of the Indies of 1542 established that the Indians were free persons and not to be taken as slaves," writes Chambers.
Columbus misread the situation of the times. For the settlers in the New World needed laborers to work the fields, plantations, mines, etc. Hence, the market for slave labor was the New World and not Europe.
Attempts to enslave the Indian were abandoned as they knew the countryside and could escape to the hills with their brethren. Attempts were made to enslave poor whites (as indentured servants) but governmental protection and appeals to the king made things difficult; also, because they were white they could escape and lose themselves among other white people.
Since 1502 Black slaves from Spain were shipped to Hispaniola (descendants of the Africans sold into Spanish slavery by the Portuguese). At one point Governor Nicolas de Ovando requested the Queen to restrict the importation of the Negroes, as they often escaped and encouraged the Indians towards rebellion against the Spaniards. However, a few years later he decided that the need for labor was greater than the fear of the threat of rebellion. Also, Bishop Bartolome de Las Casas, in a zealous move to protect the Indians from the Spaniards treatment, proposed to the king in 1517 to allow the planters to have a dozen Black slaves each. Though he regretted this action later on, it opened the floodgate for the African slave trade to the Americas.
There was a yearly average of less than 2000 African slaves imported to the Americas in the sixteenth century. In 1619, we find the first record of slavery in the English colonies, as "twenty niggers" were exchanged for "Victuelle" in Jamestown, Virginia. With 200 Blacks out of a population of around 75,000, in the Virginia Colony, we find the first stature referring to the Negro in 1630. (A white man was publicly whipped for "defiling his body in lying with a Negro.")
The African slave trade grew to about 55,000 annually during the eighteenth century. About one third of all slaves imported to the Americas went to Brazil, one half to the Caribbean Islands and mainland, no more than a twentieth to the United States, and some 200,000 to Mexico. This is explained in part by the natural growth increase of North American slaves as opposed to the excessive death rates of the South American slaves that gave rise to a demand to import more slaves.
For nearly 400 years, European and American slave traders imported over forty million Africans. Millions more died during their capture; aboard ships, on the plantations, or in the African countrysides or shores.
Most of the captives were from the coastal regions of West Africa, who were highly cultured and from all stations of life; but Professor Torday asserts that they were largely from the peasantry, which was in many respects superior to the serfs in large areas of Europe. The "tribal wars" often referred to, from which the Euro-American pirates acquired their merchandise, were mere sham fights (the Africans proclaimed a great battle when around six men were killed) and often instigated by the whites themselves. This evidently gave rise to the apparent "gun-slave cycle." Wherein one African state would acquire guns to capture another tribe and sell the captives for more guns. Sooner or later the neighboring tribes would acquire guns. Hence, guns became a necessity for survival. (It should be noted, however, that many chiefs abhorred slaving.)
Again, the Portuguese were the first Europeans to enslave Africans. Due to the large demands for Blacks as domestics, stevedores and agricultural laborers, they were importing about one thousand Africans annually, within ten years. As the Black intermingled freely among the Portuguese, a resulting Negroid characteristic evolved, which is prevalent to this day. (Many descendents of African and Portuguese ancestry made explorations to the New World. They were with Pizarro in Peru, Cortez in Mexico, Menedez in Florida, Balboa throughout the Pacific Islands, and also with Columbus to the Americas.)
European countries fought for the principle of managing the trade. First Portugal, then Holland, and finally France and England. (Although slavery has been practiced throughout the history of man, only the Euro-American whites did so solely on the basis of color.)
Intricate arrangements were set up for the processing of Africans to be enslaved. Forts and factories were built along the African coast; each had a dungeon or "Negro House" where slaves were confined until shipment.
Surgeons examined the Africans carefully. Those who were diseased, old or crippled were set aside. Healthy slaves were branded (care was taken not to burn the women too hard). They were chained and rowed to the ships; packed like rows of boxes on shelves (more individual room could be found in a coffin, it was impossible for slaves to turn or shift with ease).
In some ships, slaves were put in areas that were only eighteen inches high. Slaves could not turn and could barely breathe. Many slaves would kill their chain-mate in hope to get more air to breathe. It was not unusual to find both dead and living men chained together. The dead were thrown overboard. It was not uncommon for sharks to pick up a ship off the coast of Africa and follow it all the way to the Americas.
The slaves who survived the grueling trip were put ashore in slave markets in American ports. Slaves were sold in taverns, stores and whorehouses. According to C. R. James (Black Jacobins, p. 3), "Having become the property of his owner, he was branded on both sides of the breast with a hot iron. His duties were explained by an interpreter and a priest instructed him in the first principles of Christianity."
Recall that as the colonies prospered the supply of white indentured bondsmen became insufficient. Their desire for freedom coupled with the ease of losing themselves among other townsfolk created quite a problem among the colonies. The high visibility of the Black bondsmen created a preference for the darker skinned servants. In addition to this, their lack of knowledge of the terrain and contacts in the countryside stifled their attempts to escape (as compared to the Indians). Thus, the African became more and more the most desirable candidate for "bondsmanship" (slavery).
Laws began to appear which embraced this growing desire. In 1660, Virginia and Maryland started things off by prohibiting marriage between Black men and white women. Eventually, Black bondsmen were made lifetime servants. Children of Black women obtained the status, free or slave, of the mother. Between 1667 and 1689 laws were passed which stripped the African of all his rights as a person. Thusly, race became the basis for slavery in America.
During the first half of the seventeenth century the Dutch West India Company, located in the Dutch colony of Nieuw Amsterdam, held a monopoly of the African slave trade. When the Portuguese challenged the Dutch for control of Brazil, the Indians and slaves revolted also. The brilliance and bravery of the military leader of the Blacks, Henrique Dias, helped the Portuguese hand the Dutch such a devastating defeat, that they became too weak to fend off the British in the Americas. (Unfortunately, for the Blacks and Indians, Brazil reintroduced slavery.) The English then captured Nieuw Amsterdam and changed its name to New York.
In 1672, when the English Royal African Company was chartered, the slave trade really began to prosper. The British government encouraged the importation of slaves. American built, manned, and financed vessels were licensed by the Royal African Company to carry out the slave trade. Consequently, the slave trade was a major factor in the development of the great shopping industry in New England and the fully established plantation systems in Virginia, Maryland, and Carolina, by 1770.
As the number of slaves increased, the slave owners began to develop nervous fears of insurrection. For they had heard of such instances in the West Indies where whole white families were "wiped out." While they upheld the institution of slavery, they felt that they could control the slaves on hand as they had raised them from infancy for servility, but they were growing apprehensive of introducing "wild ones." Hence, they became critical of the slave trade.
Author's Note: All quotations are from Bennett, Goldstein, and Rogers