Sometime in 1619, a Portuguese slave ship, the São João Bautista, traveled across the Atlantic Ocean with a hull filled with human cargo: captive Africans from Angola, in southwestern Africa. The men, women and children, most likely from the kingdoms of Ndongo and Kongo, endured the horrific journey, bound for a life of enslavement in Mexico. Almost half the captives had died by the time the ship was seized by two English pirate ships; the remaining Africans were taken to Point Comfort, a port near Jamestown, the capital of the English colony of Virginia, which the Virginia Company of London had established 12 years earlier. The colonist John Rolfe wrote to Sir Edwin Sandys, of the Virginia Company, that in August 1619, a “Dutch man of war” arrived in the colony and “brought not anything but 20 and odd Negroes, which the governor and cape merchant bought for victuals.” The Africans were most likely put to work in the tobacco fields that had recently been established in the area.

Forced labor was not uncommon — Africans and Europeans had been trading goods and people across the Mediterranean for centuries — but enslavement had not been based on race. The trans-Atlantic slave trade, which began as early as the 15th century, introduced a system of slavery that was commercialized, racialized and inherited. Enslaved people were seen not as people at all but as commodities to be bought, sold and exploited. Though people of African descent — free and enslaved — were present in North America as early as the 1500s, the sale of the “20 and odd” African people set the course for what would become slavery in the United States.

The broadside pictured above advertised a slave auction at the St. Louis Hotel in New Orleans on March 25, 1858. Eighteen people were for sale, including a family of six whose youngest child was 1. The artifact is part of the collection of The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Its curator of American Slavery, Mary Elliott, cowrote the history of slavery below — told primarily through objects in the museum’s collection.
1455 – 1775

In the 15th century, the Roman Catholic Church divided the world in half, granting Portugal a monopoly on trade in West Africa and Spain the right to colonize the New World in its quest for land and gold. Pope Nicholas V buoyed Portuguese efforts and issued the Romanus Pontifex of 1455, which affirmed Portugal’s exclusive rights to territories it claimed along the West African coast and the trade from those areas. It granted the right to invade, plunder and “reduce their persons to perpetual slavery.” Queen Isabella invested in Christopher Columbus’s exploration to increase her wealth and ultimately rejected the enslavement of Native Americans, claiming that they were Spanish subjects. Spain established an asiento, or contract, that authorized the direct shipment of captive Africans for trade as human commodities in the Spanish colonies in the Americas. Eventually other European nation-states — the Netherlands, France, Denmark and England — seeking similar economic and geopolitical power joined in the trade, exchanging goods and people with leaders along the West African coast, who ran self-sustaining societies known for their mineral-rich land and wealth in gold and other trade goods. They competed to secure the asiento and colonize the New World. With these efforts, a new form of slavery came into being. It was endorsed by the European nation-states and based on race, and it resulted in the largest forced migration in the world: Some 12.5 million men, women and children of African descent were forced into the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The sale of their bodies and the product of their labor brought the Atlantic world into being, including colonial North America. In the colonies, status began to be defined by race and class, and whether by custom, case law or statute, freedom was limited to maintain the enterprise of slavery and ensure power.

National Portrait Gallery, London

Queen Njinga

Hand-colored lithograph by Achille Devéria, 1830s.

In 1624, after her brother’s death,Ana Njinga gained control of the kingdom of Ndongo, in present-day Angola. At the time, the Portuguese were trying to colonize Ndongo and nearby territory in part to acquire more people for its slave trade, and after two years as ruler, Njinga was forced to flee in the face of Portuguese attack. Eventually, however, she conquered a nearby kingdom called Matamba. Njinga continued to fight fiercely against Portuguese forces in the region for many years, and she later provided shelter for runaway slaves. By the time of Njinga’s death in 1663, she had made peace with Portugal, and Matamba traded with it on equal economic footing. In 2002, a statue of Njinga was unveiled in Luanda, the capital of Angola, where she is held up as an emblem of resistance and courage.

Erica Deeman for The New York Times. Objects from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Ballast block on loan from Iziko Museums of South Africa.

Means of Control

Right: An iron ballast block used to counterbalance the weight of enslaved persons aboard the São José Paquete Africa slave ship, which left Mozambique in 1794 and sank near what is now Cape Town, South Africa. Left: child’s iron shackles, before 1860.

“The iron entered into our souls,”lamented a formerly enslaved man named Caesar, as he remembered the shackles he had to wear during his forced passage from his home in Africa to the New World. Used as restraints around the arms and legs, the coarse metal cut into captive Africans’ skin for the many months they spent at sea. Children made up about 26 percent of the captives. Because governments determined by the ton how many people could be fitted onto a slave ship, enslavers considered children especially advantageous: They could fill the boat’s small spaces, allowing more human capital in the cargo hold. Africans were crammed into ships with no knowledge of where they were going or if they would be released. This forced migration is known as the Middle Passage. As Olaudah Equiano, the formerly enslaved author, remembered, “I was soon put down under the decks, and there I received such a salutation in my nostrils as I had never experienced in my life: so that, with the loathsomeness of the stench, and crying together, I became so sick and low that I was not able to eat, nor had I the least desire to taste anything. I now wished for the last friend, death, to relieve me.” Overheating, thirst, starvation and violence were common aboard slave ships, and roughly 15 percent of each ship’s enslaved population died before they ever reached land. Suicide attempts were so common that many captains placed netting around their ships to prevent loss of human cargo and therefore profit; working-class white crew members, too, committed suicide or ran away at port to escape the brutality. Enslaved people did not meekly accept their fate. Approximately one out of 10 slave ships experienced resistance, ranging from individual defiance (like refusing to eat or jumping overboard) to full-blown mutiny.

Saint Louis Art Museum

Cultivating Wealth and Power

“Sea Captains Carousing in Surinam,” painted by John Greenwood, circa 1752-58.

The slave trade provided political power, social standing and wealth for the church, European nation-states, New World colonies and individuals. This portrait by John Greenwood connects slavery and privilege through the image of a group of Rhode Island sea captains and merchants drinking at a tavern in the Dutch colony of Surinam, a hub of trade. These men made money by trading the commodities produced by slavery globally — among the North American colonies, the Caribbean and South America — allowing them to secure political positions and determine the fate of the nation. The men depicted here include the future governors Nicholas Cooke and Joseph Wanton; Esek Hopkins, a future commander in chief of the Continental Navy; and Stephen Hopkins, who would eventually become one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.

ll children borne in this country shall be held bond or free only according to the condition of the mother.’

— Virginia law enacted in 1662

Race Encoded Into Law

The use of enslaved laborers was affirmed — and its continual growth was promoted — through the creation of a Virginia law in 1662 that decreed that the status of the child followed the status of the mother, which meant that enslaved women gave birth to generations of children of African descent who were now seen as commodities. This natural increase allowed the colonies — and then the United States — to become a slave nation. The law also secured wealth for European colonists and generations of their descendants, even as free black people could be legally prohibited from bequeathing their wealth to their children. At the same time, racial and class hierarchies were being coded into law: In the 1640s, John Punch, a black servant, escaped bondage with two white indentured servants. Once caught, his companions received additional years of servitude, while Punch was determined enslaved for life. In the wake of Bacon’s Rebellion, in which free and enslaved black people aligned themselves with poor white people and yeoman white farmers against the government, more stringent laws were enacted that defined status based on race and class. Black people in America were being enslaved for life, while the protections of whiteness were formalized.

Erica Deeman for The New York Times. Object from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

A Deadly Commodity

Sugar cane cutter, metal and wood, 19th century.

Before cotton dominated American agriculture, sugar drove the slave trade throughout the Caribbean and Spanish Americas. Sugar cane was a brutal crop that required constant work six days a week, and it maimed, burned and killed those involved in its cultivation. The life span of an enslaved person on a sugar plantation could be as little as seven years. Unfazed, plantation owners worked their enslaved laborers to death and prepared for this high “turnover” by ensuring that new enslaved people arrived on a regular basis to replace the dying. The British poet William Cowper captured this ethos when he wrote, “I pity them greatly, but I must be mum, for how could we do without sugar or rum?” The sweetening of coffee and tea took precedence over human life and set the tone for slavery in the Americas.

Continual Resistance

Enslaved Africans had known freedom before they arrived in America, and they fought to regain it from the moment they were taken from their homes, rebelling on plantation sites and in urban centers. In September 1739, a group of enslaved Africans in the South Carolina colony, led by an enslaved man called Jemmy, gathered outside Charleston, where they killed two storekeepers and seized weapons and ammunition. “Calling out Liberty,” according to Gen. James Oglethorpe, the rebels “marched on with Colours displayed, and two Drums beating” along the Stono River, entreating other members of the enslaved community to join them. Their goal was Spanish Florida, where they were promised freedom if they fought as the first line of defense against British attack. This effort, called the Stono Rebellion, was the largest slave uprising in the mainland British colonies. Between 60 and 100 black people participated in the rebellion; about 40 black people and 20 white people were killed, and other freedom fighters were captured and questioned. White lawmakers in South Carolina, afraid of additional rebellions, put a 10-year moratorium on the importation of enslaved Africans and passed the Negro Act of 1740, which criminalized assembly, education and moving abroad among the enslaved. The Stono Rebellion was only one of many rebellions that occurred over the 246 years of slavery in the United States.

Erica Deeman for The New York Times. Object from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Memory and Place-Making

Low Country basket, 19th century.

Enslaved black people came from regions and ethnic groups throughout Africa. Though they came empty-handed, they carried with them memories of loved ones and communities, moral values, intellectual insight, artistic talents and cultural practices, religious beliefs and skills. In their new environment, they relied on these memories to create new practices infused with old ones. In the Low Country region of the Carolinas and Georgia, planters specifically requested skilled enslaved people from a region stretching from Senegal to Liberia, who were familiar with the conditions ideal for growing rice. Charleston quickly became the busiest port for people shipped from West Africa. The coiled or woven baskets used to separate rice grains from husks during harvest were a form of artistry and technology brought from Africa to the colonies. Although the baskets were utilitarian, they also served as a source of artistic pride and a way to stay connected to the culture and memory of the homeland.

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