Wed | Sep 28, 2022

Sins of Slavery

Published:Sunday | July 28, 2013 | 12:00 AM
Martin Henry
Local people with chains on their necks re-enact the days of slavery in slave port town of Badagry, south-west Nigeria on August 25, 2002. More than fifty black Americans including seven mayors are in Lagos for the 2nd black Heritage Festival which commenced with cultural activities - file

Martin Henry

IN 2007, the world commemorated the bicentenary of the end of the Transatlantic Trade in Africans (TTA), at least its end by law in the British Empire. Several other states and colonial powers, including the United States, continued, the trade beyond 1807 and continued slavery itself beyond the 1834 emancipation of slaves in British territories.

The British Navy which then dominated the high seas would capture slavers encountered and release their human cargo into freedom in British territories. A little known fact of Jamaican history, and one which I myself discovered late, is that 10,000 of these freed Africans were released in Jamaica, many of them in St. Thomas. Some of the African retentions like Kumina, for which St. Thomas is famous, and which includes word retentions from Africa, may be of more recent vintage. And apparently, the freed African group was an even more marginalised group than the descendants of the slaves figured prominently in the Morant Bay Uprising. This is something worth closer examination.

Jamaica had a National Bicentenary Committee (JNBC) which had as its mandate and objectives "to find meaningful and sustainable ways to mark the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the British Transatlantic Trade in Africans; to find appropriate ways to honour the ancestors who endured the Maafa (African Holocaust) and who were abolitionists in the struggle to end the trade; to conduct research to facilitate the production of information for schools and the general public and to advance the cause of reparation."

The JNBC went on to prepare a discussion paper, Jamaica and the Debate over Reparation which has been published in book form by the local Pelican Publishers, part of Dr. Henry Lowe's entrepreneurial outfit. The lead author is Professor Verene A. ("A" for Agency, she says) Shepherd, easily one of the UWI's and Jamaica's most productive historians with a whole library shelf of books and papers authored by her, not to mention her history-driven activism.


Miss Agency, the sparkling keynote speaker at the National Library of Jamaica's "Coffee, Tea, History" open house event on July 11, slipped me the one copy of this book she had brought along to display, and then over refreshments engaged me in a lively sales pitch of the case for reparation for slavery.

I haven't yet bought the case for reparation, as a bankable proposition, however justifiable the moral and economic claims might be. Neither have I rejected it. Prof Verene's dramatic flourishing of CDs and prints during her talk, "Talking History: The NLJ", containing the names of the 15,000 slaveholders in Jamaica who received compensation for the loss of their "property" at Emancipation and how much each got certainly helped to make a convincing case! - as well as forcefully demonstrated the power of research for driving evidence-based action.

But it's not reparation that I want to talk about today. Or even Miss Agency's prowess with History. Four days to Emancipation Day 2013, it is the painful wealth of data that this JNBC publication provides, with over 80 scholarly references, on the costs and consequences of the Transatlantic Trade in Africans with special focus on our Jamaica.

"In order to understand the historical, legal and moral justification for the call for reparation for slavery and the Transatlantic Trade in Africans (TTA)," the book's Introduction begins, "we need to grasp the scope, magnitude and enormity of this crime against humanity." Somewhere between 15 and 20 million Africans were shipped across the Atlantic into slavery during the centuries of the slave trade with the British Caribbean receiving 4-6 million. Up to 29 per cent of those shipped died during the Middle Passage and about 30 million more died in Africa itself as a direct result of capture and enslavement.


About 30 per cent of those who came off the ships alive died within the first two years of their arrival. The slave populations never regenerated themselves from reproduction and child survival, but had to be continuously replenished by fresh importations.

An estimated 3,429 voyages were made from Africa to Jamaica between 1626 (Spanish times) and 1808 (the end of the slave trade as the British Abolition Act came into force). Of the 1,212,351 persons loaded in Africa 1,019,596 disembarked here alive. That's 84 per cent with a 16 per cent mortality rate. These numbers do not take into account the Spanish trade before 1626, the undocumented illegal trade, nor the number of Africans captured, but who died before embarkation.

But don't let the average mortality rate of 16 per cent for 3,429 voyages over 182 years fool you. There were some massive mortality rates on named ships to Jamaica for which there are records. Like the Saint Michel, 1732, 170 embarked, 6 disembarked, 164 dead en route, 96 per cent mortality; and the Vyner, 1680, 600 embarked, 220 disembarked, 380 dead enroute, 63 per cent mortality. From table 3, page 9, "Names of Ships, Embarkations and Disembarkations and Mortality Rates above 50 per cent".

"The TTA was easily the world's largest commercial enterprise in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and the world's largest system of forced migration." The JNBC publication notes. "The TTA was the breeding ground for racialised slavery by the sixteenth century as, by that time, it associated slavery with Africa and people defined as blacks. It was the epitome of violence that manifested itself in all segments of the Middle Passage." The book details the "horrific violence" associated with each of the six identified stages of the Middle Passage: Capture and enslavement in Africa; journey to points of departure; storage and package for shipment; transatlantic crossing; sale and dispersion in the Americas; and seasoning/adjustment.

The story of the Zong is recounted in these pages. The Zong left the Gold Coast (now Ghana) for Jamaica on September 6, 1781 with 440 slaves packed aboard. When disease started decimating the cargo, captain Luke Collingwood hatched a plan to toss sick slaves overboard since insurers would pay for drowning, but not for death by 'natural causes'.

Before the ship docked at Black

River on December 28, 256 Africans had been tossed overboard. In the ensuing court battle between the slave traders and the insurers, the humanness of the African slaves and their murder was not a factor at all.

The solicitor-general, John Lee, argued that a shipmaster could drown enslaved Africans "without a surmise of impropriety". Lord Mansfield, the judge in the case, who is widely acclaimed as declaring against slavery in England in the 1772 Somerset Case, ruled that the case before the jury was whether it had been necessary that the African slaves be thrown overboard.

Lee stridently argued before the court, "What is this claim that human people have been thrown overboard? This is a case of chattels or goods. Blacks are goods and property; it is madness to accuse these well-serving honourable men of murder. They acted out of necessity and in the most appropriate manner for the cause". The case is the same as if horses had been thrown overboard."


The book sets out a case for genocide. "The case for genocide is further strengthened when one quantifies the replacement demand for enslaved Africans in Jamaica." Between 1703 and 1715, for example, the available population data is showing 42,271 slaves were imported, but the slave population increased by only 15,000.

In addition to the abuse of their bodies through physical punishment and arduous work, the enslaved had to contend with verbal abuse, psychological trauma, economic control and 'sexploitation, the book says in its "Sexploitation" section.

In his novel, Die the Long Day, the young Orlando Patterson, then a writer of excellent fiction, plots the story of the defiant slave woman Quasheba who went mad after she was punished by being stripped naked and exposed in front of the other slaves on the estate.

The JNBC book goes back to Thomas Thistlewood, whose diaries have been unearthed and published with commentary by historian Douglas Hall, In Miserable Slavery: Thomas Thistlewood in Jamaica, 1750-86. Thistlewood recorded some 3,852 sexual encounters with 138 slave women.

The book details resistance and the most brutal punishment intended to humiliate to the maximum and to deter with savagery. In a previous column, I drew from Thistlewood's diary:

"On Friday, July 30, 1756, the runaway slave Punch and some others were punished. Thistlewood's diary entry reads: "Punch catched at Salt River and brought home. Flogged him and Quacoo well, and then washed and rubbed in salt pickle, lime juice & bird pepper; also whipped Hector for losing his hoe, made New Negro Joe pin his eyes & mouth."

And that wasn't the limit of Thistlewood's sadistic punishments. A couple of months earlier, Thistlewood noted for Wednesday, May 26, 1756, "[Derby] catched [by fellow slave] Port Royal eating canes. Had him well flogged and pickled, then made Hector sin his mouth."

When Port Royal himself ran away in July and was caught, Thistlewood noted, "gave him a moderate whipping, pickled him well, made Hector sin his mouth, immediately put in a gag whilst his mouth was full and made him wear it for four or five hours."


While we celebrate our freedom, reflect upon our past, and build a case for reparation. The UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, on the occasion of last year's International Day for the Abolition of Slavery (December 2) warned of "new forms of slavery". According to the International Labour Organisation, about 21 million persons are today trapped in servitude all over the world. This is more than the upper limit of the best estimates of the number of Africans landed in the America as slaves over some 350 years of the Transatlantic Trade in Africans!

"Together, let us do our utmost for the millions of victims throughout the world who are held in slavery and deprived of their human rights and dignity," the secretary-general pleaded.

Martin Henry is a communications consultant. Email comments to