THE BEGINNING OF AFRICA(MOTHER CONTINENT OF BLACKS)
Africa is the setting for the long dawn of human history. From about four million years ago ape-like creatures walk upright on two feet in this continent. Intermediate between apes and men, they have been named Australopithecus. Later, some two million years ago, the first creatures to be classed as part of the human species evolve in Africa. They develop a technology based on sharp tools of flint, introducing what has become known as the Stone Age.
About a million years ago humans explore northwards out of Africa, beginning the process by which mankind has colonized the planet.
|During the latter part of the Old Stone Age (see Divisions of the Stone Age), humans in Africa produce some of the earliest and most significant examples of prehistoric art. Paintings on stone slabs, found in Namibia, date from nearly 30,000 years ago. Rock and cave paintings survive from widely separated areas. They range from those of the San people, in southern Africa, to others dating from about 8000 BC in what is now the Sahara.
The Sahara is also the site of the earliest new Stone Age (or neolithic) culture to have been discovered in Africa.
|A damp Sahara: 8000 – 3000 BC|
|The Sahara at this time supports not only elephant, giraffe and rhinoceros but hippopotamus and even fishes. It is a friendly landscape in which neolithic communities progress from hunting and gathering into a partly settled way of life, with the herding of cattle. Their paintings show that dogs have been domesticated and are sometimes used in the hunt – and that hunting methods include the pursuit of hippopotamus from boats made of reeds.
The paintings also suggest that these people wear woven materials as well as animal skins. The remains from their settlements reveal that they are skilful potters.
|Around 3000 BC a climatic change gradually turns the Sahara to a desert (over the millennia it seems to have gone through a succession of humid and dry periods). The change brings to an end the first settled culture of Africa. The Sahara becomes the almost impenetrable barrier which throughout recorded history has separated the Mediterranean coast and north Africa from the rest of the continent.
At much the same time north Africa becomes the site of one of the world’s first great civilizations, Egypt. There may perhaps be a link, in the migration eastwards of the Sahara people, but archaeology has found no evidence of it.
|Africa’s first civilizations: from 3000 BC|
|Egypt’s natural links are in a northeasterly direction, following the Fertile Crescent up into western Asia. Similarly Ethiopia, the other early civilization of northeast Africa, is most influenced by Arabia, just across the Red Sea. So these two regions, Egypt and Ethiopia, flanked by desert to the west and equatorial jungle to the south, evolve at first in isolation from the rest of Africa.
But the development of maritime trade along the Mediterranean coast, pioneered by the Phoenicians in the 8th century BC, does increasingly bring Egypt into a specifically north African context.
|The people of sub-Saharan Africa: 2000 – 500 BC|
|Much of the southern part of the African continent is occupied by tribes known as Khoisan, characterized by a language with a unique click in its repertoire of sounds. The main divisions of the Khoisan are the San (often referred to until recent times as Bushmen) and the Khoikhoi (similarly known until recently as Hottentots).
The tropical forests of central Africa are occupied largely by the Pygmies (with an average height of about 4’9′, or less than 1.5m). But the Africans who will eventually dominate most of sub-Saharan Africa are tribes from the north speaking Bantu languages.
| The Bantu languages probably derive from the region of modern Nigeria and Cameroon. This western area, bordering the Gulf of Guinea, is also the cradle of other early developments in African history.
Iron smelting is known here, as in other sites in a strip below the Sahara, by the middle of the 1st millennium BC. And the fascinating but still mysterious Nok culture, lasting from the 5th century BC to the 2nd century AD, provides magnificent pottery figures which stand at the beginning of a recognizably African sculptural tradition.
|Probably during the first millennium BC, tribes speaking Bantu languages begin to move south. They gradually push ahead of them the Khoisan, in a process which will eventually make the Bantu masters of nearly all the southern part of the continent.
Meanwhile, in the regions immediately south of the desert, the first great kingdoms of sub-Saharan Africa become established during the first millennium AD.
THE MIDDLE PASSAGE(HOW MANY WENT WHERE)
At the height of the slave trade in the 18th century, an estimated six million Africans were forced to make a journey across the Atlantic often totaling over 4,000 miles. Over 54,000 voyages were made in the course of three hundred years between the 16th and 19th centuries.
The large proportion of slaves ended up in the Caribbean, approximately 42%. Around 38% went to Brazil, and much fewer, about 5%, went to North America. The journey from Africa to North America was the longest. The journey could take as little as 35 days, just over a month (going from Angola to Brazil). But normally British and French ships took two to three months.
INSIDE A SHIP
Ships carried anything from 250 to 600 slaves. They were generally very overcrowded. In many ships, they were packed like spoons, with no room even to turn, although in some ships a slave could have space about five feet three inches high and four feet four inches wide. The slaves were kept between the hold and the deck in appalling conditions.
Olaudah Equiano gave the first eyewitness account of life on a ship from a slave’s point of view.
“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; but soon, to my grief, two of the white men offered me eatables; and on my refusing to eat, one of them held me fast by the hands and laid me across I think the windlass, and tied my feet, while the other flogged me severely.
I had never seen among any people such instances of brutal cruelty; and this not only shewn towards us blacks, but also some of the white themselves. One white man in particular I saw, when we were permitted to be on deck, flogged so unmercifully with a large rope near the foremast, that he died in consequence of it.”
Hear a BBC dramatisation of Olaudah Equiano’s account of his experiences
If sea was rough portholes had to be closed. This often left them gasping for breath and prone to disease.
“…the excessive heat was not the only thing that rendered their situation intolerable. The deck, that is the floor of their rooms, was so covered with the blood and mucus which had proceeded from them in consequence of the flux, that it resembled a slaughterhouse.”
Alexander Falconbridge, a surgeon aboard slave ships and later the governor of a British colony for freed slaves in Sierra Leone.
Women and men were kept separately. Men were chained together. In some ships there was a place in the bilges for defecating and urinating over the edge of the ship, in others, there were brimming buckets.
It was very difficult to get to the right place at the right time manacled to other slaves, especially if a slave had diarrhea. After forty or fifty days at sea, the slave ship would stink of urine, faeces, and vomit. As it came into port people could smell it almost before they could see it.
Women were allowed more freedom than men, being considered less of a threat, and often went out on deck and helped with the cooking. But they paid a price for this in some ships by being the object of constant sexual harassment and even rape, either at the hands of the crew or the captain.
Food was plentiful although not always of good quality. Daily rations might include yam, biscuits, rice, beans, plantain, and occasionally meat, but the way it was served – one bucket among ten men – induced quarrels and infection. Water was part of daily rations but could be in short supply and unpleasant to drink. The records of one Liverpool slave ship show it carried rather generously a massive 34,000 gallons of water for crew and slaves.
Unless slaves proved rebellious the captain and crew were at pains not to ill-treat them. This was not out of kindness but for commercial reasons. If a slave died, money was lost. However, some captains were notoriously brutal to slaves and crew alike. A ship’s surgeon was employed to oversee eating and exercise. Male slaves might be allowed out twice a week on deck and dancing and drumming was encouraged sometimes with words, sometimes with a whip.
“Exercise being deemed necessary for the preservation of their health they are sometimes obliged to dance when the weather will permit their coming on deck. If they go about it reluctantly or do not move with agility, they are flogged; a person standing by them all the time with a cat- o’- nine- tails in his hands for the purpose.”
Taken from Alexander Falconbridge, An Account of the Slave Trade on the Coast of Africa.
There are accounts of rebellious slaves being tortured by having hands, arms and legs cut off, on order of the captain as a lesson to the rest of the slaves, and of women being attacked and disfigured.
CAUSES OF DEATH
The chief causes of death on the ship were dysentery, followed by smallpox. A third cause was sheer misery; sometimes slaves willed themselves to die out of sheer depression and hopelessness. They would refuse to eat, and the crew would resort to force-feeding, or they would jump over the edge and drown in the sea.
Losses were recorded but most of these documents have disappeared. It’s estimated that an average of twenty percent of slaves got lost in transit, and as many as half the slaves have been known to die in one journey. The worst moment for crew and slaves alike was leaving the African coast.
“From the moment that the slaves are embarked, one must put the sails up. The reason is that these slaves have so great a love for their country that they despair when they see that they are leaving it forever; that makes them die of grief, and I have heard merchants…say that they died more often before leaving the port than during the voyage.
Some throw themselves into the sea, others hit their heads against the ship, others hold their breath to try and smother themselves, others still try to die of hunger from not eating.”
Jacques Savary, a businessman, writing at the end of the 18th century.
Igbo Landing Mass Suicide (1803)
Drawing Depicting the Igbo Entering the Waters of Dunbar Creek
Image Courtesy of Dee “Larue” Williams
Igbo Landing is a historic site at Dunbar Creek on St. Simons Island, Glynn County, Georgia. In 1803 one of the largest mass suicides of enslaved people took place when Igbo captives from what is now Nigeria were taken to the Georgia coast. In May 1803, the Igbo and other West African captives arrived in Savannah, Georgia, on the slave ship the Wanderer. They were purchased for an average of $100 each by slave merchants John Couper and Thomas Spalding to be resold to plantations on nearby St. Simons Island. The chained slaves were packed under the deck of a coastal vessel, the York, which would take them to St. Simons. During the voyage, approximately 75 Igbo slaves rose in rebellion, took control of the ship, drowned their captors, and in the process caused the grounding of the ship in Dunbar Creek.
The sequence of events that occurred next remains unclear. It is known only that the Igbo marched ashore, singing, led by their high chief. Then at his direction, they walked into the marshy waters of Dunbar Creek, committing mass suicide. Roswell King, a white overseer on the nearby Pierce Butler plantation, wrote the first account of the incident. He and another man identified only as Captain Patterson recovered many of the drowned bodies. Apparently, only a subset of the 75 Igbo rebels drowned. Thirteen bodies were recovered, but others remained missing, and some may have survived the suicide episode, making the actual numbers of deaths uncertain.
Regardless of the numbers, the deaths signaled a powerful story of resistance as these captives overwhelmed their captors in a strange land, and many took their own lives rather than remain enslaved in the New World. The Igbo Landing gradually took on enormous symbolic importance in local African American folklore. The mutiny and subsequent suicide by the Igbo people were called by many locals the first freedom march in the history of the United States. Local people claimed that the Landing and surrounding marshes in Dunbar Creek where the Igbo people committed suicide in 1803 were haunted by the souls of the dead Igbo slaves. The story of Igbo, who chose death over slavery which had long been part of Gullah folklore, was finally recorded from various oral sources in the 1930s by members of the Federal Writers Project.
While many historians for centuries have cast doubt on the Igbo Landing mass suicide, suggesting that the entire incident was more legend than fact, the accounts Roswell King and others provided at the time were verified by post-1980 research which used modern scientific techniques to reconstruct the episode and confirm the factual basis of the longstanding oral accounts.
In September 2002, the St. Simons African American community organized a two-day commemoration with events related to Igbo history and a procession to the site of the mass suicide. Seventy-five attendees came from different states across the United States, as well as Nigeria, Brazil, and Haiti. The attendees designated the site as a holy ground and called for the souls to be permanently at rest. The Igbo Landing is now part of the curriculum for coastal Georgia schools.