The Two Middle Passages to Brazil, 1793
The Two Middle Passages to Brazil, 1793
sourceLuiz Antonio de Oliveria Mendes, Discurso academico ao programa: determinar com todos os seus symptomas as doencas agudas, e chronicas, que mail frequentemente accometem os pretos recem tirados da Africa (Lisbom: Real Academia, 1812), pp. 8, 18-32. Translated and published by Robert Edgar Conrad in Children of God's Fire: A Documentary History of Black Slavery in Brazil (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994), pp. 16-23.
introductionThis account of the Middle Passage, the shipboard journey of enslaved Africans from ports in West Africa to the Americas, was written by Luiz António de Oliveira Mendes in 1793. Millions of Africans were forcibly shipped to the Caribbean, Jamaica being the chief trading center, and then transshipped to Brazil, British North America, and other Caribbean islands. Many did not survive the Middle Passage, a horrific experience marked by inhuman conditions of transport, overcrowding, insufficient food, and disease. Mortality rates incurred from the point of capture in the African interior to transfer to a slave ship along the coast may have been even higher, suggesting the tremendous toll on human lives that slave trafficking exacted.
Having been reduced to slavery in Africa, either because he was so condemned, or as a result of piracy and treachery, this once free black human being is the most unhappy person imaginable; because he is immediately placed in irons, and in this condition he eats only what the tyrants, the worst enemies of humanity, wish to give him.
In that moment in which he loses his freedom, he also loses everything which for him was good, pleasant, and enjoyable. In the presence of everything which he must suffer, how could we compare even the suffering of Adam when hewas banished from Paradise.
Since all those fortified places are spread inland at a distance of a hundred, two hundred, three hundred and more leagues, such as Ambaque and others, and since it is always expected that there will be slaves there who have been condemne and imprisoned in order to be bartered, there are backlanders, who in some places are called funidores and in other places tumbeiros, who are always journeying through those interior areas for the purpose of acquiring slaves condemned to captivity through the exchange of the merchandise … which they most prefer, including glass beads, coral, tobacco, rum, some iron instruments which they use, and muskets, powder, and lead.
After the deal has been concluded and the purchased article delivered over, there is a cruel scene, -because the furidores or tumbeiros carry in their manpas or baggage the needed libambo, [an iron chain used to bind the slaves together]. And the slaves leave the stocks or shackles or any other sort of confinement for the libambo. Each of the slaves is attached to this iron chain at regular intervals in the following manner; the backlanders and those persons who accompany the convoy pass a piece of iron through the ring of the chain in the proper place, and out of this piece of iron the pound out another .ring,-placing the iron -points one above the other so that the slave's hand is imprisoned in this new iron ring….
The backlanders or funidores pass from fortress to fortress, taking with them in the convoy the slaves they have purchased. Each slave carries on his back a provision sack, which the backlanders have brought for them to feed themselves until they arrive at another settlement, where they are resupplied….
This brutal and laborious trek lasts from one to six, seven, or eight months. On the way they do not drink water whenever they wish, -but only when they reach some pool or pond. They camp whenever the funidor decides. Their bed is the earth, their roof the sky, and the blanket they cover themselves with the leaves of the trees, which do not cover them completely. The morning dew falls upon them. Their pillows are the trunks of the trees and the bodies of their companions. After the camping place has been selected, the slaves are arranged in a circle, and a bonfire is lit to provide heat and light. This lasts until dawn, when having warmed the earth with their bodies, their journey is resumed.
The night is passed in a state of half sleep and watchfulness, because even during the hours intended for rest and sleep, they are constantly aroused by their black guards, who, fearing an uprising, scream at them and frighten them, when in fact the exhausted and mistreated travelers are more disposed to sleep and to die than to resist. All this results from the unreasonable fear that, with so many slaves together, some might open the iron ring that attaches them to the libambo. And because of an even greater prejudice, and this is common to all, that the captive slaves know of a plant that causes iron to soften and break….
When the slaves coming from many different parts of the interior reach the maritime ports of Africa, they are there once more traded for goods and merchandise to the many agents or merchants who have their houses established there for that purpose. Acquiring the slaves by means of such trading, they keep them for a time in the same libambo, and if they are not kept this way they are closed up in a secure ground-level compound surrounded by high walls, from which they cannot escape.
Here takes place the second round of hardships that these unlucky people are forced to suffer. By these new tyrants they are terribly handled and most scantily provided for, and for them they are like mere animals, their human nature entirely overlooked. The dwelling place of the slave is simply the dirt floor of the compound, and he remains there exposed to harsh conditions and bad weather, and at night there are only a lean-to and some sheds or warehouses, also on the ground level, which they are herded into like cattle….
They suffer in other ways. When they are first traded, they are made to bear the brand mark of the backlander who enslaved them, so that they can be recognized in case they run away. And when they reach a port-they are branded on the right breast with the coat of arms of the king and nation, of whom they have become vassals and under whom they will live subject to slavery, This mark is made with a hot silver instrument in the act of paying the king's duties, and this brand mark is called a carimbo.
They are made to bear one more brand mark. This one is ordered by their private master, under whose name they are transported to Brazil, and it is put either on the left breast or on the arm, also so that they may be recognized if they should run away….
In this miserable and deprived condition the terrified slaves remain for weeks and months, and the great number of them who die is unspeakable. With some ten or twelve thousand arriving at Luanda each year, it often happens that only six or seven thousand are finally transported to Brazil….
Shackled in the holds of ships, the black slaves reveal as never before their robust and powerful qualities, for in these new circumstances they are far more deprived than when on land. First of all, with two or three hundred slaves placed under the deck, there is hardly room enough to draw a breath. No air can reach them, except through the hatch gratings and through some square skylights so tiny that not even a head could pass through them….
The captains, aware of their own interests, recognize the seriousness of the problem, and try to remedy it to some extent. Twice a week they order the deck washed, and, using sponges, the hold is scoured down with vinegar. Convinced that they are doing something useful, each day they order a certain number of slaves brought on deck in chains to get some fresh air, not allowing more because of their fear of rebellion. However, very little is accomplished in this way, because the slaves must go down again into the hold to breathe the same pestilent air….
This contemporary watercolor shows crowded and emaciated slaves on the slave deck of the Albanez. It was painted by Francis Meynell, a lieutenant on a British anti-slavery vessel. "The Slave Deck of the Albanez," c. 1860, is today located at the National Maritime Museum, England.
Second, the slaves are afflicted with a very short ration of water, of poor quality and lukewarm because of the climate—hardly enough to water their mouths. The suffering that this causes is extraordinary, and their dryness and thirst cause epidemics which, beginning with one person, soon spread to many others. Thus, after only a few days at sea, they start to throw the slaves into the ocean.
Third, they are kept in a state of constant hunger. Their small ration of food, brought over from Brazil on the outward voyage, is spoiled and damaged, and consists of nothing more than beans, corn, and manioc flour, all badly prepared and unspiced. They add to each ration a small portion of noxious fish from the African coast, which decays during the voyage….
With good reason, then, we may speak of these black Africans, who resist so much and survive so many afflictions, as men of stone and of iron.