Africana studies prof gives brief history of American slavery

Heather Andrea Williams, a Presidential Professor and professor in the Department of Africana Studies in the School of Arts & Sciences, opens her latest book, “American Slavery: A Very Short Introduction,” in 15th century Portugal during the reign of Prince Henry.

In 1441, a newly engineered ship, able to travel down the Atlantic and return safely, left Portugal and headed south toward West Africa. Antam Gonçalves, its young and inexperienced captain, was sent with rudimentary orders to bring back seal skins and oil, but he wanted to impress his majesty by presenting him with goods much more valuable: Africans who would serve the prince as slaves.

As night fell, Gonçalves and his crew prowled the coast of modern-day Mauritania, stalking their victims. They kidnapped an African man and woman on the first night, and captured 10 others in the dark of the following evening before returning home. Henry was pleased with his human plunder, and sent his sailors back for more and more and more.

“This episode marked the beginnings of an era of European exploration that brought the continents of Europe and Africa into contact with one another through forced transatlantic migrations from Africa to Europe, and eventually to the Caribbean and North and South America,” Williams writes.

Part of Oxford University Press’ “Very Short Introductions” series, “American Slavery” is a 160-page précis that utilizes historical analyses and primary documents to encapsulate the history of slavery in America. Williams writes about the work of slavery and explains how the institution was constructed, controlled, endured, and dismantled.

Out of the hell of the Middle Passage, Europeans brought enslaved Africans to America beginning in the early 1600s, and codified the institution of slavery in the colonies through legislation making clear distinctions between blacks and whites. The enslavement of Africans was made perpetual and hereditary in the North and South.

“The laws are different in different places, but up until the Revolutionary War, there was slavery in all of the colonies,” Williams says.

The work of slavery, Williams says—the grueling physical labor forced upon black children, women, and men—was at the heart of the entire system.

“You don’t have slaves unless you want people to work for you for free,” she says.

In the book, Williams gives details about the many different occupations where enslaved blacks labored, cultivating cotton, tobacco, rice, corn, indigo, wheat, sugarcane, and other crops, and working in  shipbuilding, barrel-making, on railroads, and as cooks, coachmen, butlers, valets, blacksmiths, and domestics.

“If you go through the colonies and later states, almost everything that’s being done has some enslaved African or African American involved in that work,” she says. “I really wanted to hammer home just how important these people were in the enterprise of building America and keeping America running.”

Elite white men were clearly in control during slavery, but Williams says “their control was never total because you’re dealing with human beings.”

African Americans rebelled against their enslavement on a personal, day-to-day basis by acts as plain as stealing food from their master or feigning sickness, or as heartbreaking as aborting a baby so he or she would not be born into slavery. There were mass uprisings as well, like the Stono Rebellion of 1739 and Nat Turner’s Rebellion of 1831.

Nearly 13 million people were taken from Africa in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The Middle Passage consumed many souls, and those that survived primarily ended up in South America or the Caribbean. Only about 6 percent of enslaved Africans were brought to America.

Faith, family, and a sense of community helped enslaved African Americans persevere. Williams writes of the cultural practices that African Americans engaged in for survival, and also acknowledges those who were unable to cope. For some of the enslaved, their unimaginable living conditions and the sheer emotional and psychological horror of watching powerlessly as a child or spouse was taken away and sold was too much to bear.

“Some people didn’t survive,” Williams says. “Not just because they died a natural death, but because people committed suicide, people became depressed.”

Americans began to see the glaring hypocrisy of their calls for freedom and liberty while holding millions in bondage during the Revolutionary War. An abolitionist movement, already brewing among Quakers, gained support in the North, and Northern states began to outlaw slavery or decree its gradual abolition.

Williams says 1831 was a big year in the anti-slavery movement with a move toward the immediate abolition of slavery. She underscores three major events that occurred that year that contributed to the process of taking slavery apart: William Lloyd Garrison, a white, radical abolitionist from Boston, started publishing his abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, in January; Nat Turner led his rebellion, which left 55 whites dead, in August; and there was a huge uprising in Jamaica around Christmas that saw ten of thousands of enslaved Jamaicans rise up against British rule.

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 infuriated white Northerners by making them de facto slave catchers, and John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859 terrified white Southerners with his virulent, slavery-hating fury. The U.S. Civil War broke out two years later and slavery in America ended in 1865 with the South’s defeat.

American Slavery