Marooned: Africans in the Americas 1500 - 1750
The experience of the first Africans who arrived in the Americas was one of opportunity. Those who came as slaves or freemen had already spent several years in Spain and came as domestics, soldiers, clerks, and artisans. Those who were slaves had been enslaved in Africa, then eventually sold in the markets of Southern Europe to the person who they served when they landed in the Americas. This early pattern would change drastically as the transatlantic slave trade got underway, but for now they were servants and not the brute labor that would typify the ensuing centuries. These Africans already spoke the language of the people they worked for, they knew them personally if not intimately, and they knew not only the culture that the Europeans brought with them, but an African culture as well. Difficult and dangerous as their lives might have been, their death rate did not exceed that of the Europeans they accompanied and sometimes their lower profile and cultural detachment gave them subtle advantages.
Some Africans who came were free. Juan las Canerias, who sailed with Columbus on the first voyage, was a free man of African descent who had become a sailor. His role typifies that of many Africans in Europe at the time in that he had achieved freedom and a trade. Like the majority of Europeans, he belonged essentially to the servile class, but he had been able to gain a foothold on the social ladder in that he was not an agricultural worker bound to his lords lands but a sailor with certain inherent liberties, including the ability to sell his services under a contract. Columbus first voyage, which was not accomplished with the finest ships or the most desirable Spanish sailors, provided a further opportunity that would have been obscure to some but which may have been obvious to Juan. His name, Las Canerias, implies his origins in the Canary Islands which were Columbus first stop.
There has been a great deal of proof offered to support the fact that Columbus was merely the first to officially discover the Americas while commerce with the unknown continent had been continuous since early times. Certainly fishermen from the British Isles, Bretons, Basques, and Portuguese had already fished the Grand Banks of Nova Scotia, and quite possibly sailors from the Canary Islands had followed or been blown along the route to the Caribbean, which passed their very homelands. Juan may have been able to forecast the success of the voyage in a way that other ordinary seamen could not, and have realized that being part of a crew that would seize new lands for Spain would be much more lucrative than a fishing trip.
Juan Garrido, another free man of African descent, joined Ponce de Leons expeditions to the Caribbean and subsequently traveled to Mexico with Cortez. His experience appears to have been entirely similar to that of any other Spaniard and, ironically to 20th century eyes, the wealth produced by these expeditions came from the sale of Indian slaves as much as anything else. At the time, this would not have seemed any more unusual to Garrido than it was to Cortés or de Léon slavery was a fact of life for the conquered in Spain as it was in the Americas. For centuries, the Moors had been enslaved by Spanish Christians and Christians by Moors, and sub-Saharans had been brought to the slave markets of Italy and Spain, along with Slavs and other eastern Europeans.
However, the Spanish attitude was not monolithic and a debate over the treatment of slaves and even against slavery in general raged in Spanish society long before the discovery of the Americas. Laws governing slavery had been codified under Alonso II of Castile where they pertained to Moorish prisoners of war during the Reconquista and to imported slaves from Eastern Europe. Columbus suggested to the crown that even if the new lands might not be particularly rich in precious metals (as yet) they were rich in relatively unarmed people who could readily be enslaved. However, Queen Isabella decreed that since Columbus had claimed the new lands for Spain, the people were subjects, not prisoners of war, and therefore free. This philosophical distinction was soon lost as Indians began to resist European invasions of their lands and battles produced prisoners of war. Any resistance at all could be interpreted as war and although royal decrees on the subject were issued several times during the 16th century, they were almost never honored unless the Indians converted to Christianity even then their position was precarious.
Garrido was essentially a Spaniard and, as such, his attitude towards slavery would have been forged by his adopted culture and was most likely situational. When Garrido and Cortés fought alongside the Tlaxcalan Indians against the Mexicans and the Tlatelolcans, the losers ran the risk of being enslaved as part of the fortunes of war. After the battle, Cortés offered freedom as one of the terms of surrender, however, this was soon violated. A contemporary account states, "some soldiers began to rob them and take them captive They selected the best-looking young men and maidens and took them as slaves When this account reached [Cortés], he immediately ordered that the offenders be stopped, arrested and brought to him before they could do any further harm, although already they had branded some good-looking young men and women on the face."
Perhaps the most fabled African to take part in the exploration of the Americas is the enslaved man known only as Esteban. He was one of four survivors of the 400 who started out with Panfilo de Narvaezs 1528 expedition to Florida. After losing two ships on the way and having 100 of his men desert, de Narvaez landed in Tampa Bay only to find the Florida Indians hostile rather than helpful. When tortured for information, the Indians told tales of gold-rich cities "to the north" – the expedition force slogged up the coast of Florida through marshes and mosquitoes. After various misadventures de Narvaez decided to take a shortcut and traverse the Gulf of Mexico. Five boats were hastily improvised and the force went to sea once more. Storms arose and the men were weak and ill. One of the boats drifted ashore probably on Velasso Island, south of Galveston Island. Only eight men survived the shipwreck; exhausted and starving, they were quickly enslaved by local Indians who treated them cruelly, and killed five of them. The three remaining were a captain of the infantry, Alonzo del Castillo Maldonado, Andres Dorantes, and his slave, Esteban.
After several years they were able to join forces with Cabeza de Vaca, the only survivor of the four other boats. In his former career, De Vaca had been the kings treasurer but since the shipwreck he had used his time to considerable effect. He had gained a reputation among the Indians as a healer and had become a successful trader between the coastal nations and the Indians of the interior. He led the other men to a friendlier tribe who considered him a celebrity and showered the travelers with gifts. The four men began a long sojourn through what is now Texas in the hopes of reaching Spanish territories in Mexico. Friendly Indians helped them on their journey but, ironically, a low point came when they arrived at a group of villages that had been laid waste by Spanish slavers. At last they reached Culiacán, where they were welcomed as heroes – they had been missing for nine years.
Esteban continued his life as a slave to Dorantes but tales of the quartets travels whetted the appetite of the Viceroy who hoped that the sack of the North American mainland would prove as profitable as Cortés conquest of Mexico. Who should go? Understandably, none of the men were eager to return to the difficult country from which they had so narrowly escaped. Esteban, however, had no choice and Dorantes sold him to the Viceroy who gave him to his friend Francisco Vasquez de Coronado to act as a guide to a scouting expedition. It was March of 1539, and Esteban was to lead three Franciscan friars and a party of friendly Indians on a scouting mission and the possible discovery of the fabled Seven Cities of Cíbola which were supposedly filled with gold.
Esteban, a man of great ingenuity, had equipped himself appropriately for the journey, wearing dyed feathers, tinkling bells, and the medicine rattle that had been given to him by some of the friendly Indians he had met on the survival march. He led the party from Culiacán on the West Coast of Mexico through Arizona to New Mexico, some 250 miles. Along the way, the travelers soon discovered that Esteban was recognized by the Indians not as a slave but as a celebrity and he was showered with gifts and women. The friars tried to reassert their authority by sending him ahead alone. This was surely one of the best times of Esteban life and, despite the friars best efforts, he gathered a fortune in turquoise and a considerable number of followers, many of them the young women who had been given to him. He did his best to reassure the friars but was perhaps looking for a permanent home for himself as he did so.
As he reached Zuni territory, he once more demanded tribute of turquoise and women, but he had not counted on a problem in his regalia – the very medicine rattle that had served as an entree so many other times was recognized by the Zuni as belonging to their eastern enemies and they ordered Estebans company out of their territory. Esteban, who had never before met resistance, forged ahead, only to be arrested by the Zunis who questioned him closely for three days. At the end of this time they surmised, correctly, that he was an emissary from a power who wished to conquer them and they put Esteban to death. They kept a few of his followers but let the rest go, and these people fled back to the friars, who in turn fled home.
Once back in Culiacán, however, Estebans leadership and death became a footnote to a wondrous tale as the official leader of the expedition, Friar Marcos of Nice, embroidered the story of the adventure, adding that they had come to the outskirts of the famed Cities of Cibola. Word soon spread and the Viceroys friend, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado led a glittering company of invaders forward. Perhaps in an attempt to cash in on Estebans memory among the Indians, Coronado hired a free African Spaniard to serve as an interpreter. This man, along with two other Africans, did not return to Mexico but stayed behind with Franciscan missionaries in Quivira located near modern-day Wichita, Kansas. He eventually became a friar himself.
Like Esteban, the first African slaves came to the Americas as male servants of the conquistadors. They had been trained to serve their Spanish masters in whatever capacity was required, ranging from valet to bodyguard. Many of them were enslaved as young or mature adults and brought with them skills that they had learned in their own countries. Archaeological evidence reveals such items as African style pottery, present in increasing quantities according to the age of the site; other evidence includes the introduction of non-native crops and farming styles – ranging from herbs to rice – and African architectural styles used for slave housing. Another important trait in those Africans who reached the Americas was their capacity to adapt and survive, not least among which was a natural resistance to malaria in the form of the inherited sickle cell.
Africans usually entered the slave market when they were made prisoners of war on their own continent. Kidnapping had typified some of the earliest Portuguese attempts to acquire slaves since Africa was not yet colonized and Africans had no inherent rights of citizenship. Later, this evolved into trade as coastal communities grew to know what to expect when large sailing vessels appeared on the horizon. The ancient route by which slaves and other merchandise crossed the Sahara to Moorish traders and the Mediterranean coast was partially replaced as Europeans on African shores obviated the need for middlemen.
Many of the first African slaves to reach the Caribbean recognized immediately that they knew as much about this "New World" as their masters did. In one sense they knew nothing, in another they knew what mattered most: the fate of kidnapping and slavery that lay in store for the native population. They realized that they were surrounded by potential allies and they fled to the interior – their European masters often could do little to stop them. Thus were born the many mixed-race communities and the predominantly African maroon communities. Any sort of hostile landscape – mountains or marshes – could provide a haven.
Yet other groups of Africans were marooned by their masters. In 1526 a large party of Spaniards attempted to found a settlement in South Carolina and brought with them 100 slaves to build it. Disease and battles with nearby Indians quickly reduced their number from 500 to 150. The Spaniards decided it was time to retreat to Hispaniola and left the Africans to their own devices. Not only were these the first settlers on the mainland of North America, they were also the first Africans intentionally marooned. Other examples follow; in Anguilla, for example, the British attempted to found plantations only to find the soil too dry and barren. They left their slaves on the island and went in search of richer pastures.
If these maroonings were not exactly happy results, they provided a better alternative than laboring in the tobacco and sugar plantations of the Circum-Caribbean. After the first wave of personal servants and freemen, the African experience became one of anonymous labor under destructive conditions. Sugar was to be the crop of the Circum-Caribbean and it required intensive, back-breaking work on a year round basis. Worst of all was the harvest time when the canes had to be not only cut but also fed into furnaces in huge quantities. Underfed and ill-used, it was during the sugar harvest that most Africans died.
When Pedro Menendez was commissioned by Philip II to found settlements in Florida, he was given licenses for 500 African slaves who would build the settlement, plant sugar cane, build the sugar works and work the plantations. Menendezs task was extremely difficult; Florida Indians were not necessarily friendly and the French had just reestablished their stronghold at Fort Caroline. Despite all this Menendez was able to set up a network of settlements that would establish Spanish rule in Florida and provide the basis for colonization. In 1568, Menendez was put in charge of a new colonizing effort that would build on the first one, supplying two hundred farmers with livestock, a shepherd boy, and one female and one male slave. Thus the institution of slavery was established in Florida.
The word maroon has two meanings, originally identical. Two early stories illustrate the convergence of the word. In 1502, Governor Orvando sailed to Hispaniola with an African slave aboard whose name is not recorded. This man had served as a slave in Europe as a result of the European slave trade with Africa. On reaching land in the Caribbean, he recognized his opportunity and quickly escaped to the hills to live free with the local Indians. This phenomenon was repeated over and over, to the point that the Spanish developed a name for it: cimarrón. People were not the only escapees from colonial servitude. Cimarrón originally applied to the cows and horses the Spanish brought with them who escaped into the wilds in the early days of the conquest. Soon after, it was applied to Indian slaves who escaped to the hills, but by the mid-1500s it was most usually applied to African runaways. These absences, whether permanent or temporary, were referred to by the French colonists as marronage, and in English the word was shortened to maroon.
Marooned indeed, for there was no way back to Africa and, from this point on, the formative experience of the Africans reaching the Americas would be essentially seaborne. As the conquest continued, patterns of labor changed and there was less and less need to bring trained servant/slaves from Spain. Instead slaves were to be brought directly from Africa by sea on a voyage that would soon become known as "The Middle Passage". Whatever the brutalities of the capture and enslavement in Africa, it was unlikely to rival the terrors of the passage from Africa to the Americas.
Brutal, disgusting, horrifying, and frequently fatal, living through The Middle Passage defined the individuals capacity to survive. If they were to have no further experience of African culture in their whole lives (and most would not) it would be the rite of The Middle Passage, with its mystery, pain, and terror, that would provide Africans with their final link to their personal identity. When Europeans tried to lessen the likelihood of a slave rebellion by transporting people in mixed ethnic groups they did not realize that they were forging a new "African", rather than Yuroba or Igbo identity. The whole term "African American" is born of this experience, when distinctions of nation became secondary (although not lost) as you lay among the dead and dying and anyone who shared your existence was a brother or sister in misery.
Africans of many nationalities who came to the Americas on the same ship regarded themselves as ritual kin, for the rite of passage was an established formality in many African cultures. In Saramaka they called this máti or síbi, in Brazils Palmares they referred to it as malungo. Survivors of the voyage were successful initiates and they recognized and honored each other for the rest of their lives. Often sold to the same plantation, these fellow initiates would become the people on whom you could most rely, who might conspire with you to escape, to play sick, or to poison the masters. Initial difficulties of language would be overcome by trust, in that you knew your bond was sacred and your fellow initiate would not betray you. Slaves on particularly brutal plantations also held to similar bonds, particularly if they escaped or rebelled as a group, as many of them did.
These maroons were runaways and carried with them the sense of recalcitrance and reluctance to give up on their personal ideals that eventually led to the second meaning the dumping off of a crew member who was too obnoxious or resisted the prevailing authority aboard a ship. But these first maroons, land-bound, simply rebelled against one order and returned to their own, they banded together or joined local Indians. Their existence was fragile and although maroon communities provided a haven for runaways, they were often only as safe as inhospitable terrain and poor living conditions could make them. The Everglades and Georgias Dismal swamp, for example, housed several maroon communities, as did the rugged hills of Jamaica and Santo Domingo (an estimate of the number of maroons in Santo Domingo in 1546 was as high as 7,000). The thinly-populated areas of French Guiana and Dutch Surinam; the impenetrable forests, such as the jungles of Brazil; and disputed border territories, such as those of French and Spanish Hispaniola provided maroons with lasting homes.
Running away was less of an option on a flat island like Barbados, which was totally divided into plantations – there was nowhere to run to. Isolation was the key first to perpetuating slavery for if someone were marooned in an unfamiliar culture he or she would need to learn its weaknesses before any escape might be possible. For the slaves who came with the conquistadors, the isolation that they had experienced in Spain was very different from the isolation that their masters shared with them in the New World. There was opportunity for new alliances or flight to thinly populated lands where a new life could be made. As the European conquest expanded and became the dominant culture it was harder for slaves to find anywhere to escape to.
It was difficult at best to have both in the same place as many Native Americans, freed Africans and African Americans found to their dismay. African or Native heritage always meant that you could be enslaved at will, unless a number of Europeans came to your aid in time. Olaudah Equiano recounts the story of a free man of mixed decent who was seized by a ships captain who claimed he was returning him to his master. Even though the young man had a certificate showing that he had been born free, local magistrates ignored his rights and he was carried away to slavery on Barbados. This type of story is a frequent theme in accounts of the African and Indian experience before the abolition of slavery and provides a good indication of why living as a maroon might be safer than trying to make it as a free man or woman of color. Since there was so much miscegenation, many people who were legally black looked white, providing yet another opportunity for the unscrupulous. There are various accounts of Portuguese sailors being enslaved, simply because they did not speak enough English to explain who they were, of dark-haired European children being seized and sold and a variety of other abuses.
In Spanish colonies, the many Indian as well as African slaves suffered similarly swift changes in status. Young people, particularly orphans dependent on distant relatives, might find themselves sold by their families as a punishment for unruliness (that maroon personality again), or sold by the Inquisition as a punishment for blasphemy. Liberty was precarious for people of color and occasionally fragile even for those who were not.
Another means of escape that seemed more durable was to reach Spanish territories. The Spanish, who had been excluded from taking part in the African slave trade by their agreement with the Portuguese that established the Papal Line of Demarcation in 1493, had made do remarkably well not only with having other nations import Africans into their lands, but also by enslaving Indians. Eventually, Spanish colonists in Florida once more found the long-held royal decrees governing the freedom of people who became Spanish subjects useful. Just as they had offered a respite from the activities of slavers to local Indians if they would convert to Catholicism, so they now offered it to African slaves who escaped to Florida from British colonies.
The most famous result of this was the establishment of Fort Mose. Africans enslaved in English colonies knew that if they fled southward and reached St. Augustine they would be safe. Originally, both free and enslaved Africans lived in Florida and the black militia that helped to defend St. Augustine in the late 17th century was composed of both freemen and slaves. Escapees offered a new opportunity for the colony and as early as 1693, Charles II of Spain decreed that all runaways to Florida, men and women, would be considered free "...so that by their example and my liberality others will do the same..." Certainly this had the double benefit to the Spanish colony of providing additional, often skilled labor and of depleting the workforce of the nearby rival colony. This was met with considerable resentment by the British colonies who, perhaps predictably, never considered the option of freeing their slaves themselves and offering them a decent life as a means of keeping them.
As hostilities mounted, British disgruntlement over the slave drain was added to other issues and war seemed imminent. In 1738, the Spanish established a fort to be manned by the escaped slaves just north of St. Augustine, allowing them to defend their own freedom and to provide the first defense against the British. The fort and settlement of Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose was built two miles from St. Augustine, where its remains may be seen today. Black militia companies were formed and outfitted and their families moved into the settlement. It was a unique circumstance of a maroon community that had government sanction. Although it was only one of several new forts constructed along Floridas northern border, the founding of Fort Mose provided further consternation for the British. Not only was this a new fortification manned by desperate people defending their own liberty, but it became even more of an attraction for escaping slaves who saw it not only as their own means of freedom but as a way to give their lives to the cause of freedom itself. Compared to this, those fighting for colonial powers would be seriously outclassed in commitment if not in weaponry. In 1739 the largest slave uprising in the history of North America took place near Charleston, SC, and once more the Spanish were blamed – not the working conditions of those who rebelled.
In fact, because of their knowledge of the territories of South Carolina and Georgia, through which they had all escaped, the soldiers of Fort Mose represented a formidable military threat as well as everything else. The white inhabitants of the Carolinas were particularly threatened by this since the Black residents, enslaved and free, outnumbered them by two-to-one and could be expected to flock to join any invading army. Before this problem could get any worse, the British attacked St. Augustine in 1740 under General George Oglethorpe. Fort Mose was captured by the British, but all of its inhabitants escaped to reinforce the Castillo San Marcos in St. Augustine. Eventually the British were repelled, but they had held Fort Mose briefly and it was severely damaged in the ensuing battles. It lay abandoned for 12 years and its inhabitants remained living in St. Augustine.
Even then, people of African descent continued to fight the British, signing on as privateers for the Spanish. The experience of Africans and African Americans in St. Augustine at this time was one of relative harmony with the civic environment.
As time passed, the Spanish reconsidered the attractive possibility of having an outpost on the Florida frontier and they rebuilt Fort Mose in 1752. The Africans, who now had established themselves in St. Augustine, were not eager to return to frontier life, but were forced to succumb to political pressure. The new fort, near but not in the exact location of the old one, had the usual dirt walls and moat. The surrounding land was converted to fields and the Africans returned to their military/agrarian lifestyle. Many of the men married Indian women and still others hunted and traded with Indian allies. They traded for Indian pottery, built Indian and African-style thatched houses, and, to judge from the archaeological evidence, lived a subsistence lifestyle. Importantly, they were recognized as citizens and their names, dates of birth, and marriages and deaths are recorded, sometimes with a record of the country of origin on the African continent. People living in the fort were expected to feed themselves and their families but they also provided food for the St. Augustine market. The men formed a free trained militia who would have received salaries and been organized with black officers. Such troops were used throughout Spanish colonies in the Circum-Caribbean and elsewhere and once more represented a significant if dangerous step up from other forms of service.
Some ten years later, in 1763, the settlement and fort at Mose had to be abandoned once more when the British received Florida under the treaty that concluded the French and Indian War. The Africans of Florida retired to Cuba, along with their Spanish allies and the Indians who lived in St. Augustine.
Despite their varied outcome, these early tales of slavery are all essentially success stories. In the first days of the conquest Africans were presented with a number of opportunities that ranged from running away and joining Indian communities to siding with the conquerors and reaping huge rewards. Slavery at this time did not have racial overtones since slaves of all colors including white were a fact of European life. The Spanish were used to their Moorish slaves as well as those of other races and they themselves were often captured and enslaved on the coast of North Africa. Enslavement was a regular hazard of travel and the Barbary Pirates and Salé Rovers preyed on shipping and shores from the Mediterranean to as far north as Iceland. Both Miguel Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, and John Smith of the Virginia Colony had been enslaved in North Africa.
Europeans enslaved each other as easily as Africans have ever been accused of doing. Slavery was a profitable way to get rid of troublemakers who could not justifiably be put to death. The Spanish not only enslaved people of other nations but also sent Spaniards to the galleys as a punishment for various crimes against the crown, while the Inquisition could sentence a person to slavery (at least in the Americas) for heresy or bad language. After the Edict of Nantes, the French sentenced their Protestant countrymen to the galleys for refusing to abjure. During the English Civil War, Oliver Cromwells regime sent thousands of prisoners, particularly Irish and Scots, to Barbados as slaves in order to dispose of them in a "more humane" way than simply killing them. Indeed, the two great arguments for slavery at the time were that for non-believers of whatever faith it was a way to expose them to the dominant Christianity and possibly convert them, and for enemies of lesser rank but recalcitrant potential it was a way to get rid of them while recouping some of the costs of war. It was the latter argument that was used by Africans as well as the more frank argument that the predations of war could be a money-spinner for the winning nation.
Getting rid of rebels and enemies was not just solved by enslaving them, their slavery had to involve removal to distant or isolated locations. If galleys provided one such opportunity not too far from home, colonies in the Americas were even better. There they would be in alien territory, unable to find sympathizers to help them escape or to foment rebellion. Africans were ideal in the Caribbean, for they recognized immediately that they had no hope of getting home. Indians were more difficult because they already were home, not marooned like the Africans and Europeans. Consequently, many of the Africans who were brought to the Caribbean or southern British colonies were exchanged for Indian slaves from northern parts of the continent. In 1638, the first Africans brought to New England were exchanged for Native Americans from Connecticut. After King Philips War in 1697, thousands of Wampanoags, including Philips son, were sent to the Caribbean in exchange for Africans. South Carolina was the center of this exchange and Charleston the major port – over 10,000 Indians were shipped from Charleston to English colonies in the Caribbean in the course of a single year. However, if the Indian susceptibility to European and African diseases left them weak enough in numbers to become enslaved it also made sure that that they often endured slavery for a shorter period. Africans were brought to the colonies to replace Indian labor as the Indians died out.
Africans underwent the largest forced migration in history. In biological revenge, their decimated continent sent forth tropical malignancies of its own – yellow fever, malaria, and the like that would haunt Caribbean ports for centuries, making them the second most dangerous destination in the world for non-Africans.
Africans often merged with remaindered native populations bringing in new bloodlines to genetically exhausted survivor populations, renewing the claims of the Caribs, for example, as a people, or the Shinnecock on Long Island, as they later helped forge the new nation of the Seminoles in Florida in the 19th century. Further they formed their own societies, often composed of a variety of African nationals that joined together not through a common culture – which often barely existed, drawn as these people were from Africans wealth of diversity – but from a common experience of a specific persecution – slavery. This bond was forged by travelers on the same slave ship, or escapees from the same plantation, or simply enslaved people from the same area who later escaped – among these were the maroons, whose history and culture have survived in different forms in Jamaica and other Caribbean islands, in the swamps of Florida and Georgia and in other out of the way, inhospitable areas in which desperate and determined people might scratch an existence.
Skills provided a way up the social ladder within slavery itself, although they were no guarantee of freedom. Advertisements for runaway slaves show the lengths that such people had to go to survive. Every talent was exploited as slaves became skilled artisans, linguists, accountants, and the like. Olaudah Equiano recounts almost all the "mechanics" in the Caribbean Islands were people of color, by which he meant artisans, such as potters, carpenters, smiths, wheelwrights, coopers, masons, and the whole support structure of the plantation economy. He himself benefited from having the traditional education of an English servant for a few years, he learned not only how to valet, but how to do basic bookkeeping, and, for his masters pleasure, to play the lute. Since he was shipped back and forth first from Africa to the Caribbean and later back and forth between England and the colonies, he also learned how to be a sailor. His longest period of service was spent in the Caribbean, where he was a clerk for a Quaker merchant, Mr. King. King often told him that he was skilled enough to save him over £100 a year, even though he had been purchased for a mere £40.
As Equiano grew to manhood he traveled widely in the Caribbean, sometimes close to home in a small boat and sometimes ranging far and wide as the mate on a larger vessel, bringing kings goods to various markets. A shrewd negotiator, he soon learned to transform the few pennies he owned into goods that would sell at higher prices on various islands and King, a beneficent master in his own way, allowed him to borrow money from him in order to increase his fortunes through trade. As Equiano found, some people would not negotiate with a man of color and even on the small boat he would have to bring a European along to support the bargaining process. In a sort of "honor among thieves" way, Equiano was protected by being Kings slave from some of the abuses that free people of color suffered. He was not likely to be kidnapped when he could prove he was the slave of a well-known merchant, but on the other hand he only encountered one really good chance to escape and he did not take it because King had promised to let him buy his freedom eventually. He did however, suffer many of the harassments that people of color endured on a daily basis in the Caribbean and elsewhere. People of European origin were in the legal position to cheat him constantly if he did not have a European of his own to back him up. Overt theft was common, such as simply grabbing the wares belonging to a person of color and refusing to pay for them, or buying something and then claiming it was never received and requiring the money back. Women, as always, were particularly vulnerable and Equiano recounts that not only were their meager goods frequently stolen but that the thief would often rape them as well.
The number of Africans (to once more collect the individual nations from that vast continent) brought to the Americas is hard to estimate. While records of the official trade are excellent, records of the early trade and smuggled slaves are non-existent. Estimates vary between 9 and 15 million. Percentages are easier to calculate, based on the large sample that was documented. Over the 400 years of the transatlantic trade 42 per cent went to the Caribbean Islands, 38 per cent went to Brazil, with less than 20 per cent delivered to mainland Central and Northern America. Philip Curtain has suggested that the English colonies of Jamaica, Barbados and the Leeward Islands received $1.5 million – 15 per cent in his estimation and considerably more than the largely English 13 Colonies of the North American mainland. If these numbers were to include Florida and the rest of the Circum-Caribbean, one might hazard that over 60% of all African slaves went to this area. The trade that began in the 1500s as a mere trickle of thousands, reached tens of thousands by the 17th century and dramatically increased from the last quarter of the 17th century through the first quarter of the nineteenth, with more slaves being shipped in the trades last hundred years than in the previous three hundred.
What made it grow exponentially even within cultures to whom slavery was relatively foreign? Sugar, that warm climate crop, created the demand for slave labor, decimated enslaved people the fastest, and enriched plantation holders sufficiently that they could always purchase a new cargo of slaves. It was the crop that "made" the countries of the Circum-Caribbean. As the story of slavery wore on, tobacco and cotton followed the pattern so successfully set up for sugar. There would be less and less opportunity for escape, color would be an increasing bar to solid freedom and financial security, countries would war with their colonies, and colonies war within themselves all over the issue of slavery and the cultural isolation of people of color.
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