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Mattie Moon


by Tom Morganthau 
with Mary Talbolt

The boy's name was Olaudah, and he was born in 1745 in the kingdom of Benin, in what is now part of Nigeria. He was the youngest child of an embrenche, or chieftain, of the Ibo people, and he was his mother's pride and joy. Sometime in 1756, when he was 11 years old, Olaudah was kidnapped by rival tribesmen and sold to European slavers. He never forgot the terror of that moment, and his account of his delivery to the white man is a rare and indisputably authentic description of the slave trade as seen by Africans:

“I now saw myself deprived of all chance of returning to my native country," Olaudah wrote, "and my present situation ... was filled with horrors of every kind... The stench of the hold, while we were on the coast, was so intolerably loathsome that it was dangerous to remain there for any time. . - - The closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, being so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us....

"The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered it a scene of horror almost inconceivable. . - - I expected every hour to share the fate of my companions, some of whom were almost daily brought upon  deck at point of death and I began to hope that death would soon put an end to miseries."
Olaudah-plucky, resourceful and highly intelligent-was a remarkable young man who became an even more remarkable man. Shipped to Barbados, sold at auction and renamed Gustavus Vassa by his first master, he eventually earned the money to buy his freedom. He sailed the world with the British Navy and later became a leader in the English antislavery movement of the 1780s. His memoir, "The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African," was published in England in 1789. It is a compelling account of a young slave's survival against the odds and a vivid description of human bondage in the late 18th century, the heyday of the "peculiar institution" that built the New World.

African slavery is fundamental to the history of the Americas. It began earlier, lasted longer and played a larger role in shaping modern societies than most Americans realize. The conquistadors brought African bondsmen to the island of Hispaniola as early as 1505, and slavery was not finally abolished, in Brazil, until 1888. Between 1505 and 1870, when the last vestiges of the Atlantic slave trade were finally suppressed, at least 10 million Africans were shipped to the Americas in chains. Prior to 1820, the number of Africans crossing the ocean outstripped the combined total of all European immigrants by a ratio of 5 to 1. Through 350 years of continuous operation along both coasts of Africa, European and American slavers brought about one of the largest forced migrations in recorded history-the African diaspora, whose result today is an African-American population of hundreds of millions of people distributed throughout the Western Hemisphere.

Slavery is sometimes regarded as a tragic anomaly of history-a dark cloud, threatening but small, on the receding horizon of the past. But it was no anomaly, and its legacies are with us still. The form of slavery that sprang up in the Americas was vastly unlike serfdom in medieval Europe or slavery anywhere else in the world. It was a mainspring of early economic development and the source of enormous wealth, in the form of unpaid labor, for white colonists and their political masters in Europe. The colonizing powers recognized almost from the beginning that African slaves were the only possible remedy for the labor shortages that plagued their New World dominions; slaves mined the precious metals and harvested the sugar, indigo and tobacco that-made colonization worthwhile. The golden age of exploration, says Columbia University historian Eric Foner, was in reality a commercial enterprise, and slave labor made it profitable. "The centrality of slavery in the development of the New World can't be stressed enough," Foner says. "Most people believe that slavery was an aberration. Actually, free labor was the aberration. Without slavery, the New World would not have been developed."

Slavery thus became a vast, highly regimented labor system that stripped captive Africans of their dignity and personal identities, subjected them to merciless deprivation and brutality and sent them to die by the millions from disease, malnutrition, injury and abuse. The average survival rate of a mining slave during the great 18th-century gold rush in Minas Gerais, Brazil, was no more than two years; the survival rate of a field hand in the sugar plantations of northeastern Brazil was only about seven years. Prior to 1800, slave-mortality rates in the Portuguese, British, French and Dutch colonies of Latin America and the Caribbean were so high that only the continued importation of more and more Africans kept the colonial economies thriving. An 18th-century Jamaican document offers a glimpse of the tremendous human cost. Of 676,276 Africans who arrived in Jamaica between 1655 and 1787, a legislative committee found, 31,181 died on board ships, waiting to unload in 
Jamaican ports. This total-for only one sugar colony-does not include the loss of life during the Atlantic crossing, nor does it include the huge numbers of slaves who died during what was quaintly known as seasoning.

Uncovering the whole truth about slavery is a difficult task for scholars even today. The slaves themselves left relatively, few accounts of their lives in captivity, and slaveholders tended for obvious reasons to be reticent about the realities of the system they controlled. The conditions of slavery varied dramatically from place to place and from century to century: depending on circumstances and the attitudes of white colonials, the treatment of slaves ranged from relatively benign paternalism to almost unimaginable brutality. John Gabriel Stedman, a young British adventurer who went to Surinam in 1771 to help suppress one of many slave revolts there, was appalled by the Dutch planter's casual use of torture to discipline their slaves. In his book "Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam," Stedman quotes a white colonist who described the torture-execution of a slave:

"Not long ago, " this colonist told Stedman, I saw a black man hang’d alive by the ribs, between which with a knife was first made an incision, and then clinch’d an Iron hook with a chain. In this manner, he kept living three days, hanging with head and feet downwards and catching with his tongue the drops of water, it being the rainy season, that were flowing down his bloated breast, while the vultures were picking in the putrid wound."

Is it any wonder, Stedman mused, "that the negro slaves rise up in rebellion against their masters? Assuredly, it is not." As Stedman knew, slave uprisings were a continual threat not only in Surinam, where black rebels eventually overthrew the Dutch, but in almost every slaveholding colony and region of the Americas. Brazilian authorities repeatedly sent military expeditions to attack huge settlements of run- away slaves called quilombres, and they were forced to suppress three major slave revolts in Bahia during the 1830s. Spectacular insurrections-like the ones in Haiti in 1794, Guyana in 1823  ,and Jamaica in 1831 alarmed slaveholders everywhere. The historian Eugene Genovese quotes a white Southerner, Mary Boykin Chesnut, to make the point. "What a thrill of terror ran through me as those yellow and black brutes came jumping over the parapets," Mrs. Chesnut wrote in her diary, after seeing a play about the 1857 Sepoy mutiny in India. "Their faces were like so many of the same sort at home. To be sure, John Brown had failed to fire their hearts here, and they saw no cause to rise and burn and murder us all.... But how long would they resist the seductive and irresistible call: 'Rise, kill and be free!"'

Mrs. Chesnut was wrong: slaves in the United States saw many reasons to rise up, and they did so on several memorable occasions. What is remarkable about slavery in the United  States, however, is that slave revolts were relatively rare and never successful. That fact has engendered considerable debate among historians, and it has led (or misled) some scholars to talk of a "Sambo" slave personality-the stereotypical, happy-go-lucky slave. Simply put, the Sambo theory maintains that slaves were "infantilized" by systematic oppression and selective brutality and that, more often than not, they were psychological accomplices in their own subjugation. In recent years this theory has prompted sharp dissents from scholars who argue that slaves fought back in myriad subtle ways. "Slave resistance included carelessness, feigned stupidity, insolence, satire, deliberate evasion and refusal to work," says historian David Barry Gaspar of Duke University. "Slaves handled some of these forms with such finesse that whites tended to accept them as part of the black stereotype."

Frederick Douglass, the great American abolitionist, was riot inclined to finesse. As a young slave in Maryland, Douglass rebelled one day and fought his master, a Mr. Covey, to a bloody standstill. "At this moment ... I resolved to fight," Douglass wrote in his autobiography. "I seized Covey hard by the throat and as I did so, I rose. ... My resistance was so entirely unexpected that Covey seemed taken aback." Covey called another white man for help, but Douglass disabled the second man with a kick to the ribs. Then he and Covey fought for nearly two hours until Covey, "saying that if I had not resisted, he would not have whipped me half so much," finally let him go. "The truth was," Douglass observed laconically, "he had not whipped me at all"-and Covey never again "laid the weight of his finger on me in anger."

Like Olaudah Equiano, Frederick Douglass escaped bondage to become a crusader in the antislavery cause. By the 1840s, when Douglass took up his political and literary career, slavery seemed to be a dying institution. Great Britain and the United States outlawed the Atlantic slave trade in 1808, and Parliament formally abolished slavery in Britain's Caribbean colonies in 1833. France and Denmark followed suit in 1848; the Dutch in 1863. In the United States, Lincoln and his generals drove the slave-owning South to ruin through five years of civil war-and America's bloody example, combined with British diplomatic and economic pressure, ultimately led to abolition in Cuba, Puerto Rico and Brazil. Slavery, as old as mankind, was virtually eradicated less than a century after the founding of the first antislavery societies in the United States and Britain. It was, in all probability, the first example in history of a morally committed minority reversing an entrenched social judgment with propaganda and political pressure.

The economic legacy of slavery has been blight-a pattern of chronic underdevelopment that even today retards social progress through much of Latin America and the Caribbean. "There is a permanent inverse relationship between slavery and economic development," says Foner. "Even in the United States, in the South, slavery permanently distorted the economy." In much of the rural South, for example, the end of slavery meant the rise of sharecropping, a new form of peonage. "We are landless and homeless," the freedmen of Edisto Island, S.C., protested during the Reconstruction Era. "We can only do one of three things: Step into the public road or the sea or remain on [the plantations], working as in former time and subject to [the white man's] will ... We can not resist it in any way without being driven out homeless upon the road. You will see this is not the condition of really free men."

The worst was yet to come. The end of Reconstruction saw the abrupt termination of nearly every form, of political progress for freed slaves-the passage of "Jim Crow" laws, the denial of the right to vote, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and the revival of nightrider terror. The most malign legacy of slavery, in short, was racism. Slavery and racism are chicken and egg. Racism contributed much to Europe's willingness to enslave Africans, and the need to rationalize and defend the institution of slavery played a very large part in the growth of modern racism. From slavery times on- ward-from Stepin' Fetchit stereotypes to the rise of "scientific" racism-millions of white Americans have clung to the notion that blacks are inferior as a group. The persistence of that belief may well be the central tragedy of American history, and its bitterness surely contaminates the national dialogue today.

If there is any redemptive meaning in the history of slavery, it lies in the idea of freedom. To say the struggle over abolition led Americans to a deeper understanding of freedom is perhaps too simple: it took 100 years, and the passion of Martin Luther King Jr., to hold the nation to the promise of the Bill of Rights. But it is nevertheless true, as David Brion Davis observes, that 18th-century political thinkers generally saw no contradiction in espousing a radical view of liberty for whites while denying it to blacks and Indians. By 1865, Americans and Europeans alike accepted the premise that freedom could not be restricted to the few. This turnabout reversed a tradition in Western moral philosophy dating back to the Greeks-and its implications affect all of us today. 
Portraits of African Slaves in Brazil, 1846 
"[Put to work in the salt ponds,] I was given a half barrel and a shovel, and had to stand up to my knees in the water, from four o'clock in the mroning until nine, when we were given some Indian corn boiled in water....We were then called again to our tasks, and worked through the heat of the day; the sun flaming upon our headslike fire, and raising salt blisters in those parts which were not completely covered. Our feet and legs, from standing in the salt and water for so many hours, soon became full of dreadful boils, which eat down in some cases to the very bone...When we returned to the house, our master gave us each our allowance of raw Indian corn, which we ponded in a mortar and boiled in water for our suppers." 
--From the "History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave, Related by Herself" (1831). Born in Bermuda, Prince was sold to a master on Turk's Island, where she worked in the salt ponds for 10 years.

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