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The Slave Trade

“Now that the ship’s cargo were confined together, it became absolutely pestilential.  The closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate…almost suffocated us.  The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying rendered it a scene of horror almost inconceivable…I began to hope that death would soon put an end to my miseries.”

Olaudah Equiano


Slave Ad

The circumstances that gave rise to the “Underground Railroad” were based in the transportation of Africans to North America as part of the Atlantic Slave Trade, along the path known as the Middle Passage.  Almost five hundred years ago ships captained by Europeans began transporting millions of enslaved Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas.  This massive population movement helped create the African Diaspora – or dispersal of Africans the New World.  

About 12 million Africans were kidnapped or sold into slavery in Africa and shipped to the Western Hemisphere from 1450 to 1850.  Of this, about 5 percent were brought the British North America and later, to the United States.The demands for European consumers for New World goods helped fueled the slave trade.  Following a triangular route between Africa, the Caribbean, and North America, and Europe, slave traders from European countries delivered Africans in exchange for products such as rum, tobacco, and sugar, the products European consumers wanted.

Traditionally, the entry of Africans into British North America is dated from the 1619 sale of 20 Blacks from a Dutch ship in Virginia.   For the first few decades the status of Africans in the colonies was uncertain.  Some were treated as indentured servants and freed after a term of service.  Some were kept in servitude because their free labor was invaluable.  When race became a factor in who was enslaved is uncertain, but by the 1640s, court decisions began to reflect a different standard for Africans than for white colonists and to accept the notion of lifetime bondage for African Americans.  In the 1660s, Virginia decreed that a child follows the condition of its mother, thus making lifetime servitude inheritable.  This legal standing soon became the standard wherever slavery lived.

Slave Auction Block, Fredericksburg, VA

Upon arrival in the New World, slave traders would put Africans on display on the trading block.  As Solomon Northrup, an escaped slave, testified [in regard to interstate slave trade], "He [the slave trader] would make us hold up our heads, walk briskly back and forth, while customers would feel up our hands and bodies, turn us about, ask us what we could do, make us open our mouths and show our teeth…Sometimes a man or woman…was taken, stripped, and inspected more minutely."