The trans-Atlantic slave trade is one of the darkest periods in the history of humans. Starting as early as the mid-17th century, the slave trade grew into an extremely lucrative trade for the capitalists in the US and the UK.
It was a period marked by the cruelty of the highest level. Africans were dehumanized and subjected to torture, deplorable conditions on the plantations, brutality and were inhumanely exploited.
Slaves were uprooted from the comforts of the communities into an African land where they were not regarded as human beings but as tools of labor. Life on the plantations was designed to get the maximum output from a slave without giving that same slave an existence worthy of being called sane. When Africans were forced onto the plantations, they had to forget their identity and adopt a new one as provided by the slave master. This was meant to alienate them from their identity so that they would be subservient. Human beings were auctioned off like objects, paying zero attention to the miserable fate that these slaves had been conditioned into.
Life on the plantations was the ultimate worst one could go through. Olaudah Equiano wrote down what they went through as slaves: “When we arrived in Barbados [in the West Indies] many merchants and planters came on board and examined us. We were then taken to the merchant's yard, where we were all pent up together like sheep in a fold. On a signal, the buyers rushed forward and chose those slaves they liked best.”
When it came to the slave trade, it was a hustle for getting the “best” slaves. The slaves were prepared for sale as if they were farm produce or animals. The disrespect for human dignity was heightened by how these slaves were prepared for the market: They were washed, shaved and sometimes oil was applied to their skins to make them seem “healthy” and “fit”. This would increase the prices of the slaves. Slaves were sold through public auctions and it was a “scramble” to acquire these slaves. The demand for slave labor was astronomical.
Africans who had been enslaved were sold through agents and sales involved measuring, grading and invasive physical examination. The sale alone was torturous to the slaves, and worse awaited them when they started their work.
To make them loyal to the brutal conditions and to reduce chances of an uprising against the slave owners, names were stripped from those enslaved (replaced by the slave master’s own choices of names) and they were separated from others. They spent about 2-3 years of being compelled to obey orders – it was called seasoning. A slave had two conditions – obey or receive the lash. It was mental alienation that made them passive, docile and subservient. It was torture both physically and mentally.
Life for the enslaved was an unending, agonizing sequence of hard labor. It was as if they were expected to work non-stop like machines. Work was done 18 hours a day, but the work could even be prolonged in periods like harvest. Weekends and other rest days were a luxury that was denied to the slaves.
Capitalism had given rise to the fixation on commodities, and the major commodities that slaves excruciatingly toiled for were sugar and coffee. Other commodities such as tobacco, cotton, rice, and indigo took center stage. Those exempted from the hard and painful production of these commodities were children under 6 years, the elderly who were incapacitated and some people with disabilities. Jobs were mostly allocated according to gender, age, color, strength, and birthplace.
Age was mostly a determinant for when one could start working. Men were largely involved in skilled trades and women came to dominate field gangs. Children were made available for any sort of task, provided they were physically able. These included cleaning, water carrying, stone picking and collecting livestock feed. Women also carried out the duties of servants and childminders on top of their work in the fields. Children could be sold to different owners at any time, which made most mothers separated from their children.
The slave trade was an unrelenting venture to gain as many profits as possible. This continuous exploitation was hinged on the conduct of the slaves – they were supposed to be loyal all the time. But this was a difficult thing to sustain. Slaves, whenever there was a chance, would cause uprisings for their slave masters. Thus, any slave who was found to be “violence against the plantation owner or destroying property” was put to death. The commonest forms of punishment were beatings and whippings. These laws were bundled under the umbrella term “Black Codes”. Neck collars and leg irons were used for less serious offenses such as insubordination.
It only took the moral strength of abolitionists to put an end to the madness that was the slave trade. It was a period of horror in which life on the plantations for the enslaved was torturous. The capitalistic premise of the slave trade has not yet died completely, people continue being enslaved under the dictates of unfair trade, income inequality and other vices bequeathed by the legacies of the slave trade.