The Atlantic slave trade brought upward of 15 million Africans to the New World. According to historian Michael Gomez (2005), nearly 85 percent of those who survived the middle passage to the Americas came from one of four regions: West Central Africa (36.5%); the Bight of Benin (20%); the Bight of Biafra (16.6%); and the Gold Coast (11%). Africans were captured for the purpose of enslavement in a variety of ways. Slaves were captured by warring factions in Africa and sold to European slave traders for guns, munitions, money, alcohol, and other products. It is important that the sale of Africans captured in war to Europeans for enslavement not be conflated with the slave trade in the Americas. This is because the capture and sale of Africans by African nations in no way contemplated the destructive and derisive consequences of the chattel slave system that would come to be associated with the Americas. The two systems were dissimilar in many respects. Namely, those captured in Africa and held or sold as slaves were usually from different regions in West Africa. For example, coastal warriors would often capture inland peoples as prisoners of war for use as domestic servants; or, perhaps, those captured would be sold as slaves to other African clans or to Europeans. Thus from this context, Africans were not selling or enslaving their comrades but, rather, they were selling their enemies (Lovejoy 2000).
Besides the regional differences in the capture and sale of Africans as slaves, these potential slaves usually spoke a different language than that of their captors. Moreover, they often had different religions and social customs. As such, this whole enterprise was extremely complex and deserves substantial research and study before leaping to a one-on-one correlation with the chattel slave system in the Americas. That said, the sale of Africans by Africans out of the spoils of war was one means that contributed to the transatlantic slave trade.
Once captured by African warriors, African men and women were chained to one another and would walk in these coffles to the sea where they were held and prepared for a trip of no return. This trek could last for months and could become quite debilitating for those in the coffle. It was not uncommon for captured Africans to die while en route to the coastal shores or to perish in the slave pens while waiting for slave ships to reach port. While in slave coffles that often reached 100 strong, the men and women were often ill-fed and harshly treated. As a result, the loss of life during this process could be staggering. One report estimates the loss of life to have averaged 10 to 15 percent. Others estimate it as high as 40 percent in certain instances (Gomez 2005, p. 73).
African women who were captured in war were less likely than men to be sold as slaves to rival clans or to European slavers. This was because women were important to maintaining African clan societies. The labor of female captives was seen as valuable to clan life. This was because women in African societies were the primary agricultural workers and, as such, their skill in this area was extremely valuable to the sustenance of many African societies. Moreover, women were valued for their fertility. Consequently, their ability to bear children added to the perceived power of a clan culture where the largeness of ones kin group was seen as evidence of the strength of the group. And finally, women were valued in African culture for their socializing function. Because women captives were less likely to flee, and because of their physical vulnerability, they were often easier to acculturate into a new clan group. As such, women were often the teachers of those who were unfamiliar with the ways and customs of the clan. This was a vital and important process in the cultural cohesion of clan life. In many ways, women were more instrumental than men to maintaining clan stability.
In trying to understand the process that went into preparing enslaved men and women for the Middle Passage, it is important to consider the psychological nature of the process that included attacking the dignity and cultural conventions of the captives. For example, men and women were stowed separately during the arduous voyage, with men being shacked in irons and kept in the cargo holds and women kept on the quarter deck without shackles. This separation offended enslaved African mens' cultural sensibilities that were embedded in the belief that men were the protectors of women and children. Other processes of preparation for embarking on the "trip of no return" can be understood through the following passage by a slave ship captain who articulates the twisted "science" involved in the process:
On the appointed day, the barracoon or slave pen is made joyous by the abundant 'feed' which signalizes the negro's last hours in his native country. The feast over, they are taken alongside the vessel in canoes; and as they touch the deck, they are entirely stripped, so that women as well as men go out of Africa as they came into it—naked. This precaution, it will be understood, is indispensable; for perfect nudity, during the whole voyage, is the only means of securing cleanliness and health. (Mayer 1854, p. 102)
SOURCE: Mayer, Brantz. Captain Canot, or, Twenty Years of an African Slaver. New York: Appleton, 1854.
Another way that Africans were captured was through trickery. Although the presence of Europeans on the African continent was underway decades before the beginnings of the Atlantic slave trade, they would often capture Africans by appealing to this familiarity. Before the slave trade Europeans came quite frequently to Africa with the hopes of establishing trade relations. As a continent, Africa was rich with minerals such as gold and copper, and vegetation, such as yams and plantains, as well as kola nuts and palm oil. Europeans would trade such commodities as guns and alcohol to African leaders for these goods. Out of this trade relationship a modicum of mutual trust and respect had developed. As such, when the institution of slavery was in its developmental stages, Europeans saw Africans as holding great potential as slave prospects to reinforce the pool of indentured servants of European descent. As the demand for slaves in the Americas rapidly grew, European slave traders would use all sorts of trickery to get slaves to voluntarily board slave ships. For example, once aboard, slavers would ply unsuspecting Africans with alcohol and food and then refuse to let them off the ship.
Once purchased by European slave traders the slaves were branded, stripped naked and taken aboard the ship. It could take up to one year from the time of capture, to boarding a ship, for a group of African slaves to arrive in the Americas. This time frame, however, was never certain given the precariousness of having human beings as cargo. Thus, there were many things that could go wrong during this period, particularly because the shipping business in general during this time was in its infancy. Therefore, calculus for a voyage had to consider the appropriate amount of provisions for the captives (which was minimal) and crew. Moreover, slavers were oftentimes paid by the number of slaves they could ferry from Africa to the Americas for sale on auction blocks. Complicated calculations such as these had to be considered before embarking on a transatlantic voyage.
Lovejoy, Paul E. Transformations in Slavery: A History of Slavery in Africa, 2nd ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Carmen P. Thompson
cap·ture / ˈkapchər/ • v. [tr.] take into one's possession or control by force: the Russians captured 13,000 men | fig. the appeal captured the imagination of thousands. ∎ record or express accurately in words or pictures: she did a series of sketches, trying to capture all his moods. ∎ Physics absorb (an atomic or subatomic particle). ∎ (in chess and other board games) make a move that secures the removal of (an opposing piece) from the board. ∎ Astron. (of a star, planet, or other celestial body) bring (a less massive body) permanently within its gravitational influence. ∎ (of a stream) divert the upper course of (another stream) by encroaching on its catchment area. ∎ cause (data) to be stored in a computer. • n. the action of capturing or of being captured. ∎ a person or thing that has been captured. ∎ Physics the absorption of an atomic or subatomic particle. DERIVATIVES: cap·tur·er n.
1. Substitution in a crystal lattice of a trace element for a common element with lower valency or larger ionic radius, e.g. Ba++ for K+. There is often a higher concentration of captured trace elements relative to common elements in the mineral than in the liquid from which it crystallized. Compare CAMOUFLAGE.
2. See RIVER CAPTURE.