Updated: Apr 14, 2021
A History of the Atlantic Slave Trade
Author: Dr. Edward Reynolds
Dr. RL Booker's Ratings
WRITING STYLE: 4/5
DID IT MOVE ME?: 5/5
(Rating: 5 highest & 1 lowest)
"Psuedo-scientific evidence lent support to the idea that Blacks were morally and intellectually inferior to Whites and many Whites have yet to liberate their minds from the racism and prejudice that the slave trade and its consequences fostered, which has led not only to their segregation of Blacks on the basis of race but also to their subjugation and suppression."
Dr. Edward Reynolds takes great care to not only explain the origins and effect that the Atlantic Slave Trade had on America but also what slavery looked like in Africa long before Europeans arrived. Many people believe that African slavery was essentially benign, the Atlantic slave trade completely destroyed African society, and that the underdevelopment of Africa began solely as a result of the European slave trade. Dr. Reynolds refutes these claims via the review of other scholarly works from experts who have extensively written about African history. He also helps us understand the difference between what slavery looked like in African countries and what it looked like in North America. In this book review/summary, I aim to highlight key points in the book as well as give my thoughts about his findings. I prefer to use the language "enslaved black bodies", however, I will use "slavery" as that is the language that the author uses.
Slavery in Africa
Dr. Reynolds explains that the common definition of slave that most of us know today was different throughout the African countries. For example:
In Ashante (Ashanti) of Ghana, the term akoa translates as slave, subject or servant.
The term awowa translates as a pawn, a pledge, a mortgage or a security for what someone owed.
The term odonko was applied to a person from the North who had been purchased for the express purpose of enslavement.
The term domum denoted enslaved war captives.
The term akyere referred to people living in designated villages who were looked upon as a human reservoir for sacrifices
These terms determined the types of servitude in different parts of Africa. Dr. Reynolds highlights that "in certain African societies what has been called slavery may not, in fact, have denoted completely servile conditions but rather a status that could be translated as that of subject or servant." Slaves worked in a number of different capacities which included gold mine work for kings, soldiers, used for religious purposes, and employed in a domestic capacity. Most slaves were outsiders who had to be assimilated into a new society which required them to learn their master's language, be married, and procreate. The severity of how slaves were treated depended upon the time and place according to the nature and purpose that they served. In some African countries, the everyday life of a slave and their descendants were indistinguishable from those of free people. Nonetheless, Dr. Reynolds makes it very clear that "the fact that African slavery had a different origin and consequences should not lead us to deny what it was--the exploitation and subjugation of human beings....[which] was common to both Africa and the West."
The Slave Trade, Middle Passage, and the Impact on the Atlantic World
Many Europeans were drawn to Africa because of Africa's gold reserves. Because many of the African nations were small and poorly armed they were unable to defend themselves against slave raiders or those who conquered them and demanded tribute in the form of slaves. In today's current context, I have heard White Americans ask the question, why did your own people sell you to Europeans? The widely recognized answer is that "African societies rarely sold their own people or those who were culturally close to them. Rather, they sold foreigners obtained from distant areas through trading networks and markets.“ In 1854, S.W. Koelle published a major study titled, Polyglotta Africana. In this study, he worked directly with freed slaves and he found that,
34% were war captives
30% were kidnapped
11% were condemned to slavery through the judicial process
11% were enslaved for unspecified reasons
7% were sold because of debts
7% were sold by relatives or superiors
Both Africans and Europeans rationalized their participation in the slave trade. Dr. Reynolds explains that Europeans rationalized slavery by saying,"the slave trade would only have been immoral were the Africans human beings with souls like themselves" and Africans rationalized slavery by saying, “the victims of the trade were only foreigners or trouble-makers.” In my opinion, both were wrong.
When I look at the voyage that many enslaved Africans were forced to endure, I am horrified by the inhumanity of not only the enslavement of a peoples, but also the worse-than-animal treatment and conditions they existed in during the voyage. Dr. Reynolds describes that a few days before every transportation of slaves, males and females had their heads shaved and were branded with pieces of silver wire or small irons which fashioned the future owner's initials. On the day of departure, they were, "given an abundant meal, chained in pairs by the ankles, and stripped naked when they boarded the ship."
There is no doubt that most slaves showed extreme distress and pain at being ripped away from their people and homeland. The slave ships were often afflicted with fevers and disease. Deckhands in charge of rendering medical aid would often find sick slaves dead at dawn still fastened to the living by their leg irons. Those who were enslaved and lacked the will to live often found ways to end the pain and agony they endured. Women used cotton skirts as a rope with which to hang themselves; other slaves jumped overboard when soldiers were not watching. I could give many more examples of the inhumane conditions that persisted on the slave ships, however, I'd rather give this example that Dr. Reynolds outlines,
In 1781, the slave ship Song, headed for Jamaica, ran short of water and food while also having an outbreak of disease. When the captain saw impending disaster, he proposed jettisoning those slaves who were too sick to recover, reasoning that the insurance underwriters, rather than the owners, would bear the loss. He further argued that the action would save slaves from lingering deaths. 136 slaves were dragged to the deck and flung overboard.
This is just a brief example of what the middle passage was like for those who were captured, kidnapped, or sold into slavery. Dr. Reynolds makes it very clear that European expansion, dominance, the subjugation of Black folk, and the separation of races resulted in ideologies and policies that we still see in 2020 in regard to White superiority. He also discusses how lighter-skinned Black folk (also known as mulattos) were often given privileged positions as house servants and skilled trade workers. It's interesting that Dr. Reynolds wrote this book in 1985 and he explained that despite the fact that Black Americans have found a way to persist in this country, they are still yet to be fully part of the American society where they were imported. This year has shown us that even 35 years later, Black people are still fighting for full and equal citizenship. Dr. Reynolds concludes that:
these human beings who were brutally torn from their people and exchanged in a savage trade that brought them in their millions to the New World in dark, crowded, stifling dungeons, who were sold as slaves to hostile masters for whatever their flesh would bring, were nevertheless able to STAND THE STORM of their life and times as a people.
As the 8th generation of enslaved Africans, I experienced a deep pain within my soul when I read this book. I imagined my 5th great grandfather, Anthony Lewis, having to endure the middle passage. I also thought about all of the fear, pain, anger, and uncertainty he must have experienced. In today's context, many people might ask how does this book about history impact people today? The American Medical Association (AMA) which was founded in 1847 has recently announced that racism negatively impacts and exacerbates health inequities among historically marginalized communities. Dr. Willarda V. Edwards, AMA Board Member stated, "Without systemic and structural-level change, health inequities will continue to exist, and the overall health of the nation will suffer." So, this acknowledgment from the medical community along with the mountain of research from social psychologists shows that Dr. Reynolds' book is as valuable today as it was in 1985. I highly recommend this book as a must-read so that we can all be a part of solving the centuries-long issue of systemic and structural racism.
Notable Quotes in the Book
"Although the regulations of the largest 18th-century Dutch slaving company, Middleburg Commercial Company, forbade sexual harassment of female slaves…in most cases, seamen were allowed to have sexual intercourse with females."
"Whether under slavery or after slavery, white males have sexually exploited and abused black women, while at the same time trying to protect their own women from sexual contact with black men."
"In Brazil, particularly, southern Brazil, many freed slaves became sharecroppers…their status as free men, however, neither enhanced their social opposition nor removed the stigma of inferiority."
Reynolds, E. (1985). Stand the storm: A history of the atlantic slave trade. Chicago: Elephant Paperbacks.