The term “saltwater African” is not familiar to many. It specifically refers to Africans who survived the Middle Passage. They had come across the ocean, the salt water. For the first two hundred years in the Americas there was a continuous supply of this population. Until Africans in the Diaspora were able to maintain fertility rates that lessened the demand to import, a majority of the black population, particularly in the West Indies and South America, were saltwater Africans. These were people who arrived at slave ports with tribal markings, sometimes not speaking or understanding the captor’s language, and unfamiliar with the many adjustments required to survive their enslavement. Often they were delivered to locations in the West Indies for “seasoning.” Both Jamaica and Curacao were locales where “breaking in” or conditioning people for enslavement occurred. After all, enslavement as required in the American Hemisphere was certainly not a natural state of being.
These Africans had experienced personally the transition from freedom to slavery. What could that possibly have been like? They were thrust into a system designed to transform a human being into a commodity. They suffered many levels of social and psychological death repeatedly and often.
In Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora (2007) historian Stephanie Smallwood describes in details garnered from the Royal African Company’s business records and correspondence, the institutionalization of the slave trade on the Gold Coast of West Africa. In relating the Middle Passage based on these documents she states that rather than a cohesive African community enduring and resisting bondage, the holds of the ships actually contained over weeks and months a “mutilated assemblage” of alienated persons (men, women and children) chained together in uncertainty. This experience was a new and abnormal social configuration, traumatizing for them. She argues that unlike other immigrant groups who develop social networks to connect the past and present, enslaved Africans suffered “the serial repetition of one-way departures” in which there was no possible reconnection with the home community and culture. What they knew and remembered of ritual, ethnic identity, and belief was all they had of their past. Much of it was lost. Scholars such as Michael Gomez disagree.
Within the context of what was remembered Africans did create ritual, belief and culture, but it was based and implemented on the particular and alien needs of a life restricted by American or European slavery. Smallwood does not shy away from emphasizing the trauma and loss associated with slavery; and questions the emphasis placed upon African resistance and community strength that usually characterizes other historians’ interpretation of African American survival.
It is a complex and complicated subject matter. Factoring in human resilience and the desire to survive, the experience of the Middle Passage still remains unfathomable. Africans, on a ship in the dark bottom of the vessel were in a space of “motion without discernable direction or destination.” In other words, trapped with strangers they suffered within an unfamiliar universe
Once arriving at the slave port these people who had known Africa now faced a devastating barbaric world.