The earliest slaves
The British slave trade was founded under Queen Elizabeth I. John Hawkins is often described as the father of the slave trade. Later, the a company was founded called the Royal African Company, a slave trading business that transported some 60,000 Africans from the horn of Africa between 1680 and 1688. Many of the enslaved swere branded with the letters DY – after the man that ran the company, James the Duke of York and later James II, king of England.
The transatlantic slave trade – how it worked
Slave rebellions aboard ship
There were 485 recorded enslaved rebellions or mutinies aboard slave ships during the period of the Transatlantic slave trade. On October 5, 1764 the New Hampshire ship Adventure captained by John Millar was successfully taken by its cargo. The slaves on board revolted while the ship was anchored off the coast and all but two of the crew, including Captain Millar, had succumbed to disease. Another successful slave revolt occurred six days after the ship Little George had left the Guinea coast. The ship carried ninety-six slaves, thirty-five of which were male. The enslaved attacked in the early hours of the morning, easily overpowering the two men on guard. The enslaved were able to load one of the cannons on board and fire it at the crew. After taking control of the ship they sailed it up the Sierra Leone River and escaped. The most famous example of an enslaved people’s rebellion aboard a ship took place on the Amistad in 1839.
In January 1839, 53 African natives were kidnapped from eastern Africa and sold into the Spanish slave trade. They were then placed aboard a Spanish slave ship bound for Havana, Cuba.
Once in Havana, the Africans were classified as native Cuban slaves and purchased at auction by two Spaniards, Don Jose Ruiz and Don Pedro Montez. The two planned to move the Africans to another part of Cuba. The enslaved were shackled and loaded aboard the cargo schooler Amistad (Spanish for “friendship”) for the brief coastal voyage.
However, three days into the journey, a 25-year-old African man named Sengbe Pieh (or “Cinque” to his Spanish captors) broke out of his shackles and released the other Africans. The enslaved then revolted, killing most of the crew of the Amistad, including her cook and captain. The Africans then forced Montez and Ruiz to return the ship to Africa.
During the day, the ship sailed due east, using the sun to navigate. However, at night Montez and Ruiz would change course, attempting to return to Cuba. The zig-zag journey continued for 63 days.
The ship finally grounded near Montauk Point, Long Island, in New York State. The United States federal government seized the ship and its African occupants — who under U.S. law were “property” and therefore cargo of the ship. On August 29, 1839, the Amistad was towed into New London, Connecticut.
The government charged the Africans with piracy and murder, and classified them as salvage property. The 53 Africans were sent to prison, pending hearing of their case before the U.S. Circuit Court in Hartford, Connecticut.
Local abolitionist groups rallied around the Africans’ cause, organizing a legal defense, hiring a translator for the Africans, and providing material support. Meanwhile, the Spanish government pressured the U.S. President, Martin Van Buren, to return the slaves to Spain without trial.
The case went to the Supreme Court of the United States and the abolitionists argued that the slaves were never Spanish property in the first place, and won. The United States argued that its treaty with Spain required it to return ships and property seized by U.S. government vessels to their Spanish owners.
The Supreme Court called the case “peculiar and embarrassing.” It ruled for the Africans, accepting the argument that they were never citizens of Spain, and were illegally taken from Africa, where they were free men under the law.
The Supreme Court accepted that the United States had obligations to Spain under the treaty, but said that that treaty “never could have been intended to take away the equal rights of [the Africans].”
The Supreme Court also rejected a fairly novel argument by the United States. The U.S. argued that the Africans should not be freed because, in commanding a slave ship and piloting it into the United States, the Africans violated the laws of the United States forbidding slave trade. The Supreme Court stated that the slaves could not “possibly intend to import themselves into the United States as slaves, or for sale as slaves.”
Once the Supreme Court finally affirmed the freedom of the Africans, they sailed back to Africa on the ship Gentleman.
Slavery in the British and American colonies
The life of a slave
Abolition of Slavery
Key individuals in the abolition of slavery
Olaudah Equiano. Born in what was to become southern Nigeria (what he called the Eboe province), his autobiography tells us about his capture and shipment, experience as an enslaved person. Olaudah managed to trade while being enslaved and earned enough money to buy his own freedom. At that point he began travelling the world before joining the abolition movement in England in 1786 where he led a group of former enslaved people known as the ‘Sons of Black men’ and helped Granville Sharp, Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce in their campaign to end slavery.
The sources and instructions for the abolition essay can be found here.
Useful websites on abolition
The Abolition Project explores all aspects of the slave trade and looks at the debate about abolition. It is useful because it contains excellent teaching tools as well as things for students to research.
As always, the BBC Bitesize website is excellent