What Was Chattel Slavery?
Slavery refers to a condition in which individuals are owned by others, who control where they live and at what they work. Slavery had previously existed throughout history, in many times and most places. The ancient Greeks, the Romans, Incas and Aztecs all had slaves.
What does it mean to be a slave or enslaved person?
To be a slaveis to be owned by another person. A slave is a human being classed as property and who is forced to work for nothing. An enslaved person is a human being who is made to be a slave. This language is often used instead of the word slave, to refer to the person and their experiences and to avoid the use of dehumanizing language.
What does it mean to be a Chattel Slave?
A chattel slave is an enslaved person who is owned for ever and whose children and children’s children are automatically enslaved. Chattel slaves are individuals treated as complete property, to be bought and sold.
Chattel slavery was supported and made legal by European governments and monarchs. This type of enslavement was practiced in European colonies, from the sixteenth century on.
Africa Before Transatlantic Slavery
Many Europeans thought that Africa’s history before the Transatlantic Slave Trade was not important. They argued that Africans were inferior to Europeans and they used this to help justify slavery. However, the reality was very different. A study of African history shows that Africa was by no means inferior to Europe. As you can see by clicking on the link above, the people who suffered the most from the Transatlantic Slave Trade were civilized, organised and technologically advanced peoples, long before the arrival of European slavers, trying to suggest they were backward peoples.
The Arrival of European Traders
During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, European traders started to get involved in the Slave Trade. European traders had previously been interested in African nations and kingdoms, such as Ghana and Mali, due to their sophisticated trading networks. Traders then wanted to trade in human beings.
They took enslaved people from western Africa to Europe and the Americas. At first this was on quite a small scale but the Slave Trade grew during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as European countries conquered many of the Caribbean islands and much of North and South America.
Europeans who settled in the Americas were lured by the idea of owning their own land and were reluctant to work for others. Convicts from Britain were sent to work on the plantations but there were never enough so, to satisfy the tremendous demand for labour, planters purchased slaves.
They wanted the enslaved people to work in mines and on tobacco plantations in South America and on sugar plantations in the West Indies. Millions of Africans were enslaved and forced across the Atlantic, to labour in plantations in the Caribbean and America.
Slavery changed when Europeans became involved, as it led to generation after generation of peoples being taken from their homelands and enslaved forever. It led to people being legally defined as chattel slaves.
The Triangular Trade
The Transatlantic Slave Trade had three stages:
- Slave ships from Britain left ports like London, Liverpool and Bristol for West Africa carrying goods such as cloth, guns, ironware and drink that had been made in Britain.
- Later, on the West African coast, these goods would be traded for men, women and children who had been captured by slave traders or bought from African chiefs.
- African dealers kidnapped people from villages up to hundreds of miles inland. One of these people was Quobna Ottabah Cugoano who described in the autobiography how the slavers attacked with pistols and threatened to kill those who did not obey. They marched the captives to the coast where they would be traded for goods. The prisoners would be forced to march long distances, as Major Galan describes, with their hands tied behind their backs and their necks connected by wooden yokes.
- On the African coast, European traders bought enslaved peoples from travelling African dealers or nearby African chiefs. Families were separated.
- The traders held the enslaved Africans until a ship appeared, and then sold them to a European or African captain. It often took a long time for a captain to fill his ship. He rarely filled his ship in one spot. Instead he would spend three to four months sailing along the coast, looking for the fittest and cheapest slaves.
- Ships would sail up and down the coast filling their holds with enslaved Africans. On the brutal ‘Middle Passage‘, enslaved Africans were densely packed onto ships that would carry them to the West Indies.
- There were many cases of violent resistance by Africans against slave ships and their crews. These included attacks from the shore by ‘free’ Africans against ships or longboats and manycases of shipboard revolt by slaves.
- In the West Indies enslaved Africans would be sold to the highest bidder at slave auctions.
- Once they had been bought, enslaved Africans worked for nothing on plantations.
- They belonged to the plantation owner, like any other possession, and had no rights at all. The enslaved Africans were often punished very harshly.
- Enslaved Africans resisted against their enslavement in many ways, from revolution to silent, personal resistance. Some refused to be enslaved and took their own lives.
- On the plantations, many enslaved Africans tried to slow down the pace of work by pretending to be ill, causing fires or ‘accidentally’ breaking tools. Whenever possible, enslaved Africans ran away. Some escaped to South America, England or North America. Also there were hundreds of slave revolts.
- Two thirds of the enslaved Africans, taken to the Americas, ended up on sugar plantations. Sugar was used to sweeten another crop harvested by enslaved Africans in the West Indies – coffee.
- With the money made from the sale of enslaved Africans, goods such as sugar, coffee and tobacco were bought and carried back to Britain for sale. The ships were loaded with produce from the plantations for the voyage home.
On the Plantations
Life on the plantations was cruel, and life expectancy was short. When enslaved Africans arrived in the Americas, they were often alone, separated from their family and community, unable to communicate with those around them. The following description is from ‘The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano’:
“When we arrived in Barbados (in the West Indies) many merchants and planters came on board and examined us. We were then taken to the merchant’s yard, where we were all pent up together like sheep in a fold. On a signal the buyers rushed forward and chose those slaves they liked best.”
On arrival, the Africans were prepared for sale like animals. They were washed and shaved: sometimes their skins were oiled to make them appear healthy and increase their sale price.
Depending on where they had arrived, the enslaved Africans were sold through agents by public auction or by a ‘scramble’, in which buyers simply grabbed whomever they wanted. Sales often involved measuring, grading and intrusive physical examination.
Sold, branded and issued with a new name, the enslaved Africans were separated and stripped of their identity. In a deliberate process, meant to break their will power and make them totally passive and subservient, the enslaved Africans were ‘seasoned.’ This means that, for a period of two to three years, they were trained to endure their work and conditions – obey or receive the lash. It was mental and physical torture.
Life expectancy was short, on many plantations only 7-9 years.