Trading of people in the African continent to be sold in Europe and the Americas is a part of the world’s history that can never be forgotten. The marine domain has been a huge witness to this nefarious commercial activity, as poor African people were transported on ships from their homeland only to be sold as goods, thousands of kilometres away, from as early as the 1400s till the 1800s, when firmer laws were introduced to abolish slavery.
Known as slave ships, these vessels have played their part in aiding this activity so much so that these slave trade ships gained an infamous reputation of their own.
A Historical Background
Although the ships of that time weren’t constructed with the basic idea to use them for slave trading purposes, the increasing demand for human trafficking – albeit legally – paved the way for many freight ships to be converted into slave ships.
However the constructional dimensions of these vessels became a huge factor in terms of describing the slave ship conditions.
Slave Ship Conditions
To say that the conditions aboard the vessel were horrible would be an understatement. While slavery in itself was an abominable act, the conditions aboard the slave ships were not only cruel but also spoke about intent to dominate without any precedents.
Food and service provisions aboard any African slave ship followed a typical hierarchy – the captain followed by the crew and later on, if any provision was left, it was served to the inmates. As such, in terms of food and water rations, there wasn’t any surety on any day that the slaves would get to eat and drink adequately.
The inmates were loaded onto the vessels like cattle being herded into a grazing area. There was an absolute dearth of space, the slaves were chained like rabid animals and were left, literally to die. Starvation caused due to the vessels’ skippers’ miserliness and illnesses caused by cramped living conditions led to the deaths of the unfortunate people. And alongside these maltreatments, slaves aboard the vessel also faced punishments, for reasons beyond their control.
Punishments included flogging and whipping and at times to set an example to other inmates, even death by throwing the inmate into the sea.
Illnesses ranged from dysentery to blinding conjunctivitis – also contagious in nature – to even psychiatric maladies that led to people losing not only their physical health but also their mental faculties. In certain cases, as a crude way to curb the spread of more threatening diseases, captains were known to drop the inmates into the ocean. Such harsh measures employed combined with the already existing inhumane conditions in the vessels, resulted in more than three-quarters of the slaves succumbing to ill-health during the long journey itself. And even amongst those who had weather and survived the harsh navigational pitfalls, not many survived in the foreign land.
Tales of Mutiny
While many inmates bore the ill-treatment silently, there were some mutinous ones who tried to escape the harsh future predicated for them. Though some mutinies met with success and resulted in the slaves’ freedom, many mutinies ended up as failures. In such cases, the mutineers were punished, most often with death to set an example and precedent for the other inmates.
The story of the African slave ship Amistad is often quoted an example to describe the bravery of a Congolese slave who led the mutiny successfully, thereby gaining freedom for the inmates of the slave ship.
Slave trading was carried out by the British, Dutch, Spaniards and the French. But it was the Portuguese who revolutionised this sector by exploiting and baring the whole of Africa to this ill-gotten trade venture.
The Middle Passage and the Voyaging Time
Initially in the 15th century, the voyaging time taken by the slave ships was very high. This also resulted in affecting the slaves’ physical health conditions, sometimes even accentuating it. Over the years and centuries, technological advancements in vessel engineering led to shorter voyages, though it didn’t alter the statistics of slaves making it to the intended destination alive.
The slave trading route between Europe, Africa and America (including the Caribbean) forms a unique triangle. These triangular geographic points are called as the Middle Passage, denoting the slave trade network between Europe, Caribbean and America extending from the African continent.
Abolishment and Conclusion
Great Britain was the first amongst the European nations to take a stance against slave trading. The nation came up a law specifically charting slavery and slave trade ships as being unlawful and imposed severe penalisations on those carrying out the activity. In the immediate next year, the United States of America followed suit. The unilateral stand of these two countries led to the initial dwindling of slave ships and later on complete stoppage of the act of slavery itself.
Today, slave trading is merely a name, something that many cannot even being to interpret. Everyone is endowed with rights, which allows them to be what they want and wherever they want. But fact remains that, for the present generation of people to be able to get and gain their rights, many individuals have had to sacrifice not just their rights, but also their lives.