Who Were They?

For the most part, it is not known from which specific communities enslaved Africans came. Over the years, scholars vary in defining their connection to specific ethnic groups on the Continent. Our best method eventually may be DNA testing throughout the Diaspora, undeniably they were from Africa – north, south, east, west, central, coast and interior. Predominantly they were adult males in their prime.

In the beginning, before the demand for thousands, captives were normally prisoners and victims of war, enemy warriors, criminals, political outcasts, human capital for the payment of debt, and purchases from Arab or Muslim slave traders. During the 15th century village raiding for slavery was almost the exclusive practice of Tuaregs who had established routes across the Sahael to supply the Arabian and Mediterranean markets. In subsequent centuries wars and kidnapping would be the common methods in obtaining people for the slave trade. Traditionally, before the transatlantic trade, exported captives were males, except for those intended specifically for domestic labor.

With the exception of some traders who acquired knowledge or had an interest in the variety of different people, purchases were based upon economic expediency and proximity to the shipping port. Even when we rely upon the documented trade records and ships’ manifests, people routinely identified by a number, were more likely to have been labeled by the trade port region than an ethnic group, so again we can only surmise. According to these records the major groups captured included the following:

Bakongo – Democratic Republic of the Congo and Angola
Mande – Upper Guinea
Gbe – Togo, Ghana, Benin (to include Adja, Mina, Ewe, Fon)
Akan – Ghana and Ivory Coast
Wolof – Senegal and The Gambia
Igbo – Nigeria
Mbundu – Angola
Yoruba – Nigeria
Chamba – Cameroon
Makua – Mozambique

Based upon buyers’ preferences, regional agricultural skills (such as rice-growing), and prejudices we can begin to define who they were, these “salt water” Africans, our ancestors. There was much deception on the part of traders throughout the system in order to meet the growing demand – hair dying and body polishing with palm oil were some of the camouflage used. We do know that for the most part these people were the healthiest and most trained of their societies encompassing a wide range of agricultural and industrial skills that had been developed over centuries. They had cultural, artistic, and social ideas and patterns embedded within themselves.

Chancellor Williams, author of The Destruction of Black Civilization stated that many in the Diaspora were descended from royalty. In an attempt to compensate for the prejudices and definitions of Africans as savages and animals, many fail to comprehend that we need not seek a royal heritage but understand a long-accepted fact: the wealth of any society is its people. African communities lost their young, strong, skilled, trained adult males and females, and children. Perhaps some of the royal elite were included but many of the royalty actually were involved in or benefited from the slave trade on some level.

The death of these invaluable people occurred at every stage of the process of enslavement. Countless numbers died en route to the port, in the holding pens and forts on the coast, and on the ships waiting at the port for enough captives to meet a profitable quota margin. Conservative estimates put death rates among African captives in the Middle Passage from 10 to 20 percent.

During the 17th century about 38 percent were women. Here is a projected breakdown of the sex ratio by a noted scholar:

Port of Departure Ratios of Males to Females

1764-88

The Gambia –       72.1::27.9
Gold Coast –        66.8::33.2
Bonny –               56.5::43.5
Windward Coast – 65.7::34.3
Calabar –              58.8::41.2
Gabon –               68.8::31.2
Angola –               68.2::31.8

1781-98

Senegambia –       67.5::32.5
Sierre Leon –        64.9::35.1
Windward Coast – 70.6::29.4
Gold Coast –         64.4::35.6
Bight of Benin –     54.5::45.5
Bight of Biafra –     56.9::43.1
Congo/Angola –     69.9::30.1
Unknown –            65.3::34.7

The primary concern for buyers was that the captives were healthy. The French went so far as to incorporate as part of the ship surgeon’s duties the examination of all females for purchase, insuring the state of their health and ability to reproduce. The ability to assess age was also considered a necessary skill. The only instances in which the old, infirm and infants were purchased were when they were included in a “bulk rate” transaction – all or nothing.

The next factor in considering who to purchase was based on stereotypes and prejudices. Unfortunately these earmarked certain regions and ethnic groups for captive selection. During the 18th century the French wanted people from the Congo because they thought them to be “robust, keen to please, peaceful and loyal.” Brazil planters requested the “blackest” Africans to be found, but “without tribal marks or filed teeth.” They did not want “brown or yellow-skinned” Africans. These were considered troublemakers. This raises the questions: [Is this an indication of problems with the mulatto population in Brazil?] Planters in the British West Indies wanted people from the Gold Coast, preferably the Coromantines who were “hard working, loyal, intelligent and responsive to care.” There also were ethnic groups who were spared by the stereotype: Mozambicans were believed to be “devilish if ill treated and loyal if cared for,” folks from Ouidah were thought to be “weak, vulnerable to small pox and to sore eyes;” and Calabar slaves were described as “rebellious, ill-disciplined and preferring death to hard work.”

Early in the trade children (under 14 years) composed no more than 14 percent of the Africans sold because of their low monetary value and susceptibility to illness and death. However, towards the end of the trade there was a marked increase in both women and children (25%) into the transatlantic system. Several reasons may account for this change. After several centuries and on-going cost analyses it was determined that women survived the Middle Passage at a better rate than men. This may have been reflective of their less harsh physical treatment and storage on board ship. The number of children increased perhaps because once the plantation slavery system was entrenched, planters wanted laborers who could be conditioned not “broken in” or “seasoned” as was necessary for adults. Also another benefit in selecting women was that buyers were doing long term financial planning and anticipating the abolition of the trade – women could reproduce locally, reducing the need for costly importing across the Atlantic.

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