History of The Middle Passage: From Igboland to America

Along with Frederick Douglass, the most famous slave in history was probably Olaudah Equiano. Equiano was an Igbo, though there was no way for him to know that until his own Middle Passage. As an African ethnonym, the word Igbo is of recent provenance. During the 1967 to ‘70 Nigerian Civil War, Igbo landers adopted it as a self-identifier, but before that, it simply meant “outsider.” On Equiano’s Middle Passage, he shared space below decks with other Africans from possibly dozens of ethnic groups speaking different languages. Once loaded into the ship’s hold, they were all outsiders.

Anthony Comegna: Equiano believed himself born in 1745 in a village called Essaka. His family was healthy and loving, his homeland fruitful and productive, but like most of interior Africa by the 18th century, Igboland also felt the slave trade’s effects.

Before depopulation, Igboland bustled with trade between regions. Small craftsmen built tools for personal use and commerce, and villages ruled themselves through patriarchal councils of elders. Igbo landers boasted over their localist anarchism, and any subjection to nearby kings was nominal. The proverb or, “The Igbo have no king,” was really meaningful to them. Some Igbos did rule over others, but none of them thought of themselves as Igbo. They were members of particular villages and clans.

Equiano’s father owned slaves, but this was no Atlantic chattel slavery. African slaves were usually incorporated into the family, and masters treated them more as pawns than as property. As Atlantic chattel slavery spread, though, coastal slave raiders invaded Igboland more and more, capturing prizes like Equiano and his sister. Equiano’s story is especially important only because it is especially detailed, but his was one of nearly a million horrifying passages from freedom to slavery out of Igboland. From 1700 to 1807, primarily British slave traders killed nearly a quarter million of these people while transporting the other three quarters to America.

[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]The proverb or, “The Igbo have no king,” was really meaningful to them. Some Igbos did rule over others, but none of them thought of themselves as Igbo. They were members of particular villages and clans.[/perfectpullquote]

The raiders bound Equiano and his sister, marching them quickly to the coast. Traumatized in Hungary, the children did their best to comfort one another. After a few days, the slavers forced the children apart, splitting them into new companies, and the two never saw one another again. Equiano refused to eat, but the slavers forced him to. As the human train approached the coast, a terrifying and amazing machine floated on the horizon, a snow named Ogden, but even this merchant’s craft was a weapon of class war.

From his canoe, Equiano heard his first European words. He saw the giant metal pots he thought the white men would cook him in, and to calm him down, the black slavers gave him his first liquor shot. It was not pleasant. The boy watched in terror as his fellow black skins were loaded below decks. Hundreds of slaves at a time were crammed into the holds, and captains cut every corner possible to fit more into the ship. Slave quarters were open, constantly sloshing sewers, where the dead lay shackled to the living. Seeking compatriots from his old country, Equiano found his fellow outsiders. Igbo identity grew from moments like these.

[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Staring at the sky fever-brained, he died willingly to be free. Sharks surrounded the slave ships. Sailors regularly threw corpses overboard. They made spectacles of execution by a shark, and when the bodies ran low, captains were known to feed them from the ship’s food stores.[/perfectpullquote]

Death traveled on every slave ship. The captain ruled his vessel as a petty monarch, first forcing the crew into submission from Europe to Africa, then forcing aboard the slaves, who shifted the entire social dynamic. Once the slaves were aboard, poor and oppressed European sailors transformed into whites, united in a class war against potential servile insurrection. The ships were floating factories where the human raw material was beaten and shaped into slaves, but still, rebellion abounded.

Perhaps the youngest slave rebel in history boarded the Black Joke in 1765. Plainly depressed and traumatized, this nine-month-old baby repeatedly refused to eat. Captain Thomas Marshall beat the child to death within view of its fellow Africans and commanded the mother to throw her lifeless child overboard. After the mother’s refusal and another beating, Marshall’s will was finally done. Over the centuries, thousands of slaves leaped to their death overboard, convinced that dying close to home allowed their souls to return there. Captains adjusted by outfitting vessels with anti-suicide nets.

One man aboard the infamous ship Brookes in the mid-1780s managed to cut his own throat. The ship’s doctor patched it up, but the slave tore the stitches out overnight with his fingernails. On the operating table, the slave told his doctor that he refused to submit. Staring at the sky fever-brained, he died willingly to be free. Sharks surrounded the slave ships. Sailors regularly threw corpses overboard. They made spectacles of execution by a shark, and when the bodies ran low, captains were known to feed them from the ship’s food stores. When one sailor took it upon himself to kill a shark, his commanding officer flogged him for it. Worse than any James Bond villains, one captain reportedly bound a woman with ropes, dipped her into the sea, and raised her up again after the sharks had bitten her in half. Slavers towed corpses like hers on a line as they sailed, keeping their sharks fat and happy.

Above decks, slaves’ behavior was strictly regulated. Below decks, slaves did all they could with what agency remained to them. They organized resistance from the very beginning, finding one another who shared a language, creating new pidgin and creole tongues, locating their countrymen. Equiano found comfort in the maternal care of a few apparently Igbo women.

As a child, he was given greater freedom aboard ship, and he learned a great deal from the sailors. After being sold and shipped several more times, Equiano’s Quaker master, Robert King, allowed the slave to purchase his freedom. Equiano became a major figure in abolishing the slave trade. Long before British and American Quakers and reformers began founding abolitionist societies, slaves gave their lives in resistance. They were the first abolitionists. Together, they plotted rebellion and revolution. Slaver crews were outnumbered 10 to one, so merchants built the ships to prevent and crush rebellions.

The most visible sign of this class warfare was the barricade, separating the main deck and the fortified quarterdeck. The barricade was a literal class divide, specially built with the door so small that only one individual may pass at a time. It was the key distinguishing feature of a slave ship, the ultimate shield for captain and crew during an insurrection. At the first signs of trouble, those with white skins retreated behind the barricado, protected by the built-in cannons and sharpshooter towers. Slave trader Captain William Snelgrave described his first slave rebellion in vivid detail. He was a child at the time, and the ordeal no doubt impressed itself upon him in many ways.

Speaker 2: A New Account of Guinea and the Slave Trade, Book Two, 1734, by William Snelgrave. “The first Mutiny I saw among the Negroes, happened during my first Voyage, in the Year 1704. It was on board the Eagle Galley of London, commanded by my Father. We had bought our Negroes in the River of Old Calabar in the Bay of Guinea. At the time of their mutinying we were in that River, having 400 of them on board, and not above 10 white Men who were able to do Service: For several of our Ship’s Company were dead, and many more sick; besides, two of our Boats were just then gone with 12 People on Shore to fetch Wood, which lay in sight of the Ship. All these Circumstances put the Negroes on consulting how to mutiny, which they did at four o’clock in the Afternoon, just as they went to Supper.”

“But as we had always carefully examined the Men’s Irons, both Morning and Evening, none had got them off, which in a great measure contributed to our Preservation. Three white Men stood on the Watch with Cutlaces in their Hands. One of them who was on the Forecastle, a stout fellow, seeing some of the Men Negroes take hold of the chief Mate, in order to throw him overboard, he laid on them so heartily with the flat side of his Cutlass, that they soon quitted the Mate, who escaped from them, and run on the Quarter Deck to get Arms.”

“I no sooner heard the Outcry, that the Slaves were mutinying, but I took two Pistols, and run on the Deck with them; where meeting with my Father and the chief Mate, I delivered a Pistol to each of them. Whereupon they went forward on the Booms, calling to the Negroe Men that were on the Forecastle; but they did not regard their Threats, being busy with the Century, who had disengaged the chief Mate, and they would have certainly killed him with his own Cutlace, could they have got it from him; but they could not break the Line wherewith the Handle was fastened to his Wrist. And so, though they had seized him, yet they could not make use of his Cutlass. Being thus disappointed, they endeavored to throw him overboard, but he held so fast by one of them that they could not do it.”

“My Father seeing this stout Man in so much Danger, ventured amongst the Negroes, to save him; and fired his Pistol over their Heads, thinking to frighten them. But a lusty Slave struck him with a Billet so hard, that he was almost stunned. The Slave was going to repeat the Blow, when a young Lad about 17 years old, whom we had been kind to, interposed his Arm, and received the Blow, by which his Arm-bone was fractured. At the same instant, the Mate fired his Pistol and shot the Negroe that had struck my Father. At the sight of this, the Mutiny ceased, and all the Men-negroes on the Forecastle threw themselves flat on their Faces, crying out for Mercy. There were not above 20 Men Slaves concerned in this Mutiny, and the two Ringleaders were missing, having, it seems, jumped overboard as soon as they found their Project defeated, and were drowned. This was all the Loss we suffered on this occasion.”

Anthony Comegna: Decades later, Snelgrave enjoyed a reputation as a good and kind captain, attentive to the needs of his crew and humane to his African cargo. He spent his whole life trading slaves, learning the industry so well that he is among the first Western Africanists. His childhood experience of insurrection built him into a captain who knew when to be loved and when to be feared. Snelgrave highlights his own leniency and attempts to reason with the human property.

Speaker 2: “This Mutiny began at Midnight, the Moon then shining very bright, in this manner. Two Men that stood Centry at the Fore-hatch way, where the Men Slaves came up to go to the house of Office, permitted four to go to that place; but neglected to lay the Gratings again, as they should have done: Whereupon four more Negroes came on Deck, who had got their Irons off, and the four in the house of Office having done the same, all the eight fell on the two Centries, who immediately called out for help. The Negroes endeavored to get their Cutlaces from them, but could not, and perceiving the several white Men coming towards them, with Arms in their hands, quitted the Centries, and jumped over the Ship’s side into the Sea. My first care was to secure the Gratings, to prevent any more Negroes from coming up; and then I ordered People to get into the Boat, and save those that had jumped overboard, which they luckily did; for they found them all clinging to the Cables the Ship was moored by.”

“After we had secured these People, I called the Linguists and ordered them to bid the Men-Negroes between Decks to be quiet, for there was a great noise amongst them. On their being silent, I asked, ‘What had induced them to mutiny?’ They answered, I was a great Rogue to buy them in order to carry them away from their own Country; and that they were resolved to regain their Liberty if possible. I replied, ‘That they had forfeited their Freedom before I bought them, either by Crimes or by being taken in War, according to the Custom of their Country; and they being now my Property, I was resolved to let them feel my Resentment, if they abused my Kindness: Asking at the same time, whether they had been ill-used by the white Men, or had wanted for anything the Ship afforded?’”

[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]I knew many of these Cormantine Negroes despised Punishment, at Barbadoes and other Islands, that on their being anyways hardly dealt with, to break them of their Stubbornness in refusing to work, 20 or more have hanged themselves at a time in a Plantation.[/perfectpullquote]

“To this, they replied, ‘They had nothing to complain of.’ Then I observed to them, ‘That if they should gain their Point and escape to the Shore, it would be no Advantage to them because their Countrymen would catch them, and sell them to other Ships.’ This served my purpose, and they seemed to be convinced of their Fault, begging, ‘I would forgive them, and promising for the future to be obedient, and never mutiny again if I would not punish them this time.’ This I readily granted, and so they went to sleep. When Day-light came we called the Men Negroes up on Deck, and examining their Irons, found them all secure. So this Affair happily ended, which I was very glad of; for these People are the stoutest and most sensible Negroes on the Coast: Neither are they so weak as to imagine as others do, that we buy them to eat them; being satisfied we carry them to work in our Plantations, as they do in their own Country.”

“However, a few days after this, we discovered they were plotting again, and preparing to mutiny. For some of the Ringleaders proposed to one of our Linguists, if he could procure them an Ax, they could cut the Cables the Ship rid by in the night; and so on her driving, as they imagined, ashore, they should get out of our hands, and then would become his Servants as long as they lived. This Linguist was so honest as to acquaint me with what had been proposed to him and advised me to keep a strict Watch over the Slaves. I knew many of these Cormantine Negroes despised Punishment, at Barbadoes and other Islands, that on their being anyways hardly dealt with, to break them of their Stubbornness in refusing to work, 20 or more have hanged themselves at a time in a Plantation.”

Anthony Comegna: In our final selection, Snelgrave shows that he too was an early modern terrorist. When the slave rests assured that the captain would not forfeit his profit by capital punishment, Snelgrave proves him and all onlookers very wrong. Snelgrave ordered his executioners to decapitate the body. Many Africans believed their spirits could travel freely so long as their bodies remained intact. In this way, Snelgrave could control them even after death, all the better to master the lives of those who survived.

Speaker 2: “At the sight of this I called for the Linguist, and bid him ask the Negroes between Decks, ‘Who had killed the white Man?’ They answered, ‘They knew nothing of the matter; for there had been no design of mutinying amongst them,’ which upon Examination we found true; for above 100 of the Negroes then on board, being bought to Windward, did not understand a word of the Gold-Coast Language, and so had not been in the Plot.

But this Mutiny was contrived by a few Cormantee-Negroes, who had been purchased about two or three days before. At last, one of the two Men-Negroes we had taken up along the Shipside, impeached his Companion, and he readily confessed he had killed the Cooper, with no other View, but that he and his Countrymen might escape undiscovered by swimming on Shore.”

“Accordingly we acquainted the Negroe, that he was to die in an hour’s time for murdering the White Man. He answered, ‘He must confess it was a rash Action in him to kill him; but he desired me to consider, that if I put him to death, I should lose all the Money I had paid for him.’ But they immediately saw the contrary; for as soon as he was hoisted up, 10 white Men who were placed behind the Barricado on the Quarter-deck fired their Musquets, and instantly killed him. This struck a sudden Damp upon our Negroe-Men, who thought, that, on account of my Profit, I would not have executed him.”

“The Body being let down upon the Deck, the Head was cut off and thrown overboard. This last part was done, to let our Negroes see, that all who offended thus, should be served in the same manner. For many of the Blacks believe, that if they are put to death and not dismembered, they shall return again to their own Country, after they are thrown overboard. When the Execution was over, I ordered the Linguist to acquaint the Men-Negroes, ‘That now they might judge, no one that killed a white Man should be spared.’”

Anthony Comegna: The slaves shipped to British North America were predominantly identified as Igbos from interior West Africa. Their stories deserve to be remembered. Their memories challenge us to be fuller libertarians, to welcome all peoples into the common cause against concentrated, unjust power. They did not sacrifice themselves to build capitalism, industrialism, or modernity. We should not remember them as 12 million eggs nobly broken so we could enjoy such rich omelets. They died trying to live freely, independently, and nothing more. That is plenty enough to place all those who suffered and died under slavery in the pantheon of libertarian heroes, torchbearers for our movement. Not because they are once again made to serve us, but because we have finally joined them.

A transcript of Episode 20 of Liberty Chronicles.