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Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11



In 1495, the Indians of Hispaniola, or Haiti, as it is now known, rose up against their Spanish slave oppressors, and 100,000 of them marched on the town of Isabella. The Indians, a gentle race, knew nothing of the arts of war and, indeed, had no history of war. Columbus met them with a force of 200 infantrymen, 20 horsemen and 20 bloodhounds, large, savage animals used to pull down wild boars and bears in the forests of central Europe. The Indians were massacred and the survivors enslaved to work in the gold mines. Many other Indians were tortured and burned in the hope that their fate would induce others to work, whilst those in the hills were hunted like foxes(l). In a relatively short space of time, the Indians, unable to bear captivity, had virtually died out. The Spanish now turned to Africa for a new source of labour.

The story of the Atlantic slave trade is the story of how African slaves were brought to the Caribbean and the Americas during a period of three centuries. The present trend towards a world historical perspective of Atlantic history leads to an approach that regards the social and economic development on the tropical shores of the Atlantic as part of a single process, regardless of the apparently self-contained empires of mercantilist Europe.

From the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, the central institution was the plantation, located in tropical America, worked by slave labour from tropical Africa but directed by Europeans and producing tropical staples for European consumption. The patterns of society and of the economy were much the same in all the colonies. The commercial influence of the plantations stretched far and wide-to the settlements of North America, to mainland Spanish America and beyond the Atlantic world to the textile markets of India. This whole complex of commerce and production was the South Atlantic system. As this system failed to produce a self-sustaining slave population in tropical America, the slave trade was necessary not merely to increase the American production of tropical staples, but also to maintain the population level(2).

The first African slaves arrived in Hispaniola in 1501, soon after the white colonists themselves, and the organised slave trade began in 1518 with the arrival of the first slave ship in the Caribbean in that year.

Although the slave trade had been virtually suppressed by 1865, the occasional ship carrying human cargo continued to arrive in Brazil and Cuba until 1880. During this time about 15 million Africans were landed in the New World leading as Walter Rodney said, to the loss to Africa of its human resources and its own subsequent underdevelopment(4).

In what became known as the Triangular Trade, textiles, especially calico, trinkets, muskets and gunpowder from Europe were carried in slaving ships, and exchanged, on the West African coast, with local rulers for slaves; in the absence of a regular supply of slaves, punitive military expeditions were threatened by the European Powers. The slaves were then shipped across the Atlantic (this journey was called by slavers “the Middle Passage”) to the Caribbean and the Americas. With the profits from the sale of the slaves in the New World, sugar, tobacco, minerals and cotton were purchased and transported to Europe, thus completing the third side of the triangle (of the Triangular Trade).

Negro slavery was widespread and lasted for more than three centuries; it made the greatest contribution of all the forms of unfree labour to Western capital accumulation. The most profitable type of slavery, it had been preceeded in the New World by native American (American Indian) slavery and then by the labour of the poor white(5). The Indians themselves were members of evolved societies and were unable to withstand the rigors of slavery, associated as it was with excessive labour, poor food, and the diseases imported from the Old World.

Fernando Ortiz wrote that “to subject the Indian to the mines, to their monotonous, insane and severe labour, without tribal sense and without religious ritual was like taking away from him the meaning of his life. It was to enslave not only his muscles but also his collective spirit”(6). Indian slave labour was found to be inefficient in the British North American colonies and, in any case, was unsuited to the colonies’ diversified agriculture. It was never the permanent condition as was Negro slavery and, in addition, the Indian source was not unlimited. The population of the Western Hemisphere was 80 -100 million before the European conquest, with only 10 million inhabitants left after the first century of European colonisation(7). Mexico had an estimated population of 20 million in 1519, which was reduced to 1,069,255 by 1608. Hispaniola had a population of 60,000 Amerindians in 1508, 30,000 in 1554, and 500 in 1570(8). For these reasons, the government in London never legislated regarding Indian slavery as it did in regard to the African Slave Trade; hence the enslavement of the American Indian occurred through default.

Following on the unsuccessful experiment with Indian slave labour, the labour of the poor white was introduced. The poor whites were the indentured servants and others who were “indentured” for other reasons, for example, for the price of their passage, or, for a very limited period, in lieu of the repayment of a debt. Besides these, there were the convicts who had been sent out to serve for a limited period. The policies to make the poor productive were part of the ethos that surrounded the enactment of the Elizabethan Poor Law, and has already been referred to in the Introduction to this book. Indeed the remarks of Bacon regarding the function of excess populations in relation to the imperial purpose, in the early part of the seventeenth century, were to be echoed two and a half centuries later by Cecil Rhodes. Bacon opined that, in emigration, England would benefit by “a double commodity, in the avoidance of people here, and in the making use of them there”(9).

So great was the need for white indentured labour in the seventeenth century that a regular traffic in this “commodity” built up. During the colonial period, one half of all immigrants to the North American colonies were indentured servants and the majority of these went to the middle colonies(10). However, legal immigration proved insufficient to match the needs of the colonies, and kidnapping was resorted to, where simple deception failed. Children were enticed with sweets and adults plied with liquor; family members were separated, and criminals rescued from transport ships(11). German peasants in the Rhine Valley were induced to sell up and emigrate by German labour agents, who themselves received a commission. Convicts were a steady source of white labour. Harsh laws were introduced in England at the time of the “enclosures”, when dispossessed, poor peasants took to petty theft merely to survive. There were at the beginning of the seventeenth century more than three hundred legally defined capital offences, many of which could be commuted to transportation at the discretion of the law officers. None could deny a connection between the law and the labour needs of the colonies.

The number of immigrants swelled, following the English Civil War and Cromwell’s Scottish and Irish campaigns, and also as a result of political and religious intolerance in Europe. However, the labour of white indentured servants was increasingly found to be unsuitable for the needs of capitalism for a number of reasons. There were fears that the white labour in manufacturing and industry would compete with that in the mother country, and, later, even aspire to independence. The increasingly exacting conditions of work demanded by capitalism reduced the number of whites opting for a period of servitude.

Escape on the plantations was easy for whites. A further reason was that white servants expected land at the end of their period of contract; these smallholdings could not expect to survive in the presence of large scale industrialization. The interests of capitalism dictated that, at this stage, there should be, in the colonies, a large and limitless source of cheap labour. The large industries in the New World requiring this labour were sugar in the Caribbean and tobacco and cotton on the North American continent. In South America, mining required Negro slave labour after the native Indian population had been wiped out; it was unlikely that whites were ever employed in any significant numbers in the mines here.

The origin of African slavery lay in the need for cheap labour. Massachusetts was the first state to give a legal status to slavery in 1641, followed by Connecticut in 1650, Virginia in 1661, Maryland in 1663, New York and New Jersey in 1664, South Carolina in 1682, Rhode Island and Pennsylvania in 1700, North Carolina in 1715, and Georgia in 1750. Blacks had at first come to these ares slowly; by 1700 there were only 20,000, but by 1790 there were 550,000 slaves in the United States, about one-fifth of the entire

U.S. population. Slave labour in the South, where the principal crops were tobacco, indigo and rice, and slave-trading by New Englanders made black slavery the keystone of the nation’s economy(12). Economic considerations, therefore, called for the replacement of white servitude by black slavery. Racism was later invented to justify the creation of an inferior social and economic organisation of exploiters and exploited. The illogic of racism would have been transparent in a situation where white plantation workers lived side by side with black peasants. When the black was emancipated, the planter, in the British colony, turned to a plentiful supply of East Indian labour, from a country that had been rapidly underdeveloped, after several decades of foreign exploitation, from the status of an industrial nation to that of a supplier of raw materials. The parts of the Indian sub-continent that had experienced the longest period of contact with the Western maritime powers were the areas that were now the poorest, viz., Bengal, Bihar and the Madras Presidency, and these were the areas from which many of the new indentured labourers came.


The Spanish brought Africans to work in the mines in Hispaniola in 1503, and, shortly after, African slaves were taken to Mexico, Peru and Panama. In 1517, Charles V of Spain sold to a Flemish trader the right to transport 4,000 slaves annually to the Spanish territories in the New World(13). A few years later, the Portuguese government negotiated with some Genoese merchants for the supply of slaves from Guinea. The British set out to investigate the possibilities of opening a spice trade to West Africa, but realised that a much more profitable trade was to be had in slaves. In 1562 Richard Hawkins made the first of three journeys (the others were in 1564 and 1567 respectively) transporting slaves from the West Coast of Africa to the New World, but he soon found it more profitable to attack the Portuguese slavers on the high seas and pirate their human cargoes. At this time, the tobacco plantations in Britain’sAmerican colonies were in need of cheap labour. Over the next hundred years, Britain, earned the reputation of being Europe’s foremost slaving nation. Between 1680 and 1786 nearly 2 1/4 million slaves were imported into Britain’s American colonies and over 600,000 into Jamaica. In the latter half of the eighteenth century, nearly 70,000 slaves were taken annually by the European maritime powers to the New World, with Britain responsible for half of that trade. The slaves came from as far apart as Gambia and the basin of the Zambesi. The first slaves to be brought to the Northern states of North America were brought by the Dutch in 1619 (14).

In the three and a half centuries of the African-Atlantic slave trade, about 15 million Africans were brought to the New World (15). But these were those who had survived a period of more than two years during which they had been transported from the interior of the African continent, across the infamous Middle Passage (the Atlantic voyage) and, finally, to their destination in the sugar islands or the American interior. Not all this time was spent on the move, however, and delays were experienced in finding purchases, waiting for ships or for calmer weather, in quarantine and in the “seasoning” period on the other side of the Atlantic, during which time the slaves were made accustomed to their new enviroment and a new way of life. It has been estimated that the forced marches from the African interior to the coast and the wait here, in inhospitable conditions, claimed the lives of a third of the slaves that had initially been captured; one in five, at a very conservative reckoning, did not survive the Middle Passage, one in ten died in the holding pens of the West Indian islands which were intended to enable the slaves to recover from the horrors of the Middle Passage. Many more died in the slave ports of the Americas and during the journey into the interior.

Much less than half of all the slaves seized in Africa reached their destination in the Americas (16). On the African coast, slaving companies founded military forts and trading centres where they exchanged their manufactured goods for slaves. In large enclosures, the slaving company’s agents sorted out the apparently sick from the apparently healthy before purchase. In other cases, the local slavers sold directly to the captains of independent slave ships.


The slave trade had a dynamic of its own. Although Europeans initially came to Africa for gold, later, with European expansion in the New World, the export of slaves commenced and expanded greatly to meet the needs of mercantile capitalism in the plantations and in the mines. This is not to say that African rulers did not intervene to stop the trade. In the first half of the seventeenth century, at least, regional kings in Angola, Guinea, and Dahomey attempted to stop the trade in human cargoes but without success.

The captains of slaving ships were a varied lot. There were two about whom detailed descriptions are available (17). One was John Newton who was born in 1725 and died in 1807. He went to sea at the age of 10, became a resident slave trader on the West African coast and later the captain of the slaver, the “Duke of Argyll”. He later became an Anglican priest and wrote “Amazing Grace” and “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds”. The other was the one-eyed captain of the slaving ship, the “Kitty Hawk Amelia”, the psychotic Hugh Crow, who was perpetually involved in punch-ups.

The rest of the crew of slavers consisted of officers and experienced sailors, carpenters, sail-makers and coopers. Surgeons were employed, especially during the eighteenth century, and one of their tasks was to vet the slaves being proferred for sale and to try and exclude those with infectious diseases and those otherwise unlikely to be in satisfactory health. In this task, the surgeon was often unsuccessful as some of the slaves embarking were in the incubation period, or in the remission stage of their illness which later became apparent and then caused others of the cargo and, sometimes the crew or the surgeon himself to become infected.

The functions of the medical person, employed in slave societies and in the slave trade, were similar, in principle, to those of the medical officer, later, in the colonial medical service. The functions, during slavery were firstly, to preserve the health of the slaveowners and their families on land and the ships’ crews at sea; secondly, to keep the slaves in as good a (working) condition as possible; and, thirdly, to limit the spread of infectious diseases.


Initially, the West African coast right down to Angola provided most of the cargoes for the Atlantic Trade but, later, with increasing demand, the interior was scoured. In any case, slaves were obtained, in the main, by the Africans themselves, largely through warfare, kidnapping, tribute and the criminal justice system (18). Many acts of warfare were no more than raids on neighbouring rival chieftains for the sole purpose of obtaining captives for sale into slavery.

In Angola, however, the Portuguese intervened directly in the capture of slaves in the hinterland (19). Trusted agents or the mullato sons of the Portuguese officials would be sent into the interior. The Portuguese governors would obtain slaves directly from the tribal chiefs, or would themselves conduct slaving raids into the interior when this became necessary; at other times, slaves would be obtained when captives were taken in the Portuguese wars of conquest. Slaves would be brought from the interior chained together or tied together with leather thongs at about a yard distant from each other (20).

The actual process of trading goods for slaves was carried out in “commodity” currency, which permitted the exchange of slaves for goods on a one-to-one ratio. The value of the goods paid for a slave was known as a unit and, as the value of slaves rose, the amount or value of goods that made up a unit increased. The price of slaves rose throughout the period of the trade, but not uninterruptedly, as it was affected by demand, costs of shipping and insurance, and European wars.

Trading was often dishonestly carried out, and the sellers of slaves were not infrequently shortchanged. The shipping company’s agents and the slaver’s captain, however, carefully examined the slaves from head to foot. According to one description, the slaves were brought together, men and women, completely naked, into a large space where they were thoroughly examined by the company’s surgeons. If any defects were found, the slaves were rejected. Those that were accepted were branded, and then kept at the company’s expense, in a shore prison, like criminals, on bread and water at two pence a day (21).

Accounts abound regarding the scrutiny of slaves prior to purchase. Scott and Mackenzie-Grieve(22) quote sources which related that if the slave was acquired from a factor or broker, the examination took place in the barracoon (enclosure) where the captain and the ship’s surgeon examined limbs, teeth, feet, eyes and genitals and also looked for good general appearance.

John Bardot(23), agent-general of a French slaving company describes the examination as follows:

“As the slaves came down to FIDA from the inland country, they are put into a booth, or prison, built for the purpose, near the beach, all of them together; and when the Europeans are to receive them, they are brought out into a large plain, where the surgeons examine every part of every one of them, to the smallest member, men and women being stark naked. Such as are allowed good and sound are set on one side, and the others by themselves; which slaves are so rejected are there called mackrons, being above thirty-five years of age, or defective in their limbs, eyes or teeth; or grown grey, or that have the veneral disease, or any other imperfection”.

In spite of the careful medical examination, sick slaves boarded the ships (24). They were initially either in the incubation period of an infectious disease or in the subclinical state of a deficiency disease which later progressed to a florid state. The rigors of the trek from the hinterland took their toll either during the trek itself, in the holding pens of the slaving company on the coast, or soon after embarkation. At this stage, the slaves were prone to scurvy, dysentery (the flux) and psychiatric illness. Depression was common and suicide attempts frequent.

It took anything from three weeks to three months for a trading company to load a cargo of 450 slaves and from four to ten months for a slaving ship sailing the West African coast to load a similar cargo. Once the ship was supplied, stores taken on board and accounts settled, preparations were made to set sail. The slaves were treated to a large meal, and before setting sail, the head of every slave was shaved and the slaves stripped for, presumably, health reasons, so that “the women as well as the men go out of Africa as they came into it -naked” (25). Now, the slaves were to suffer the medical and moral outrage that was the Middle Passage (26).


The horrors of the Middle Passage could not have been more eloquently described than a speaker in a debate in the British House of Commons in 1792, and quoted by Chandler (27):

“In the passage of the Negroes from the coast of Africa, there is a greater proportion of human misery condensed within a smaller space than has yet been found in any other place on the face of this globe”. Another observer surmised that “the aggregate of lives lost in the Middle Passage during the two (?) centuries of the slave trade is unparalleled by any other sea route in the world” (28) .

The accomodation for slaves on a typical slave ship was probably not very different from that given by Dr Alexander Falconbridge(29) when writing about his own 235 ton slaver on which he served as a ship’s surgeon. The hold here was 92 feet long, 25 feet wide and a little more than 5 feet high. It was divided into a men’s room 45 feet long, a women’s room 10 feet long, a children’s room 22 feet long and a storeroom. About 600700 slaves were loaded into this space and, to increase the number of slaves the hold would take, the slave rooms were divided horizontally by a temporary wooden plarform between the floor of the hold and the upper deck. This platform was specially constructed for use during the Middle Passage only.

During the first journey of the Triangular Trade, i.e. when the ship went out from Europe with its cargo of trading goods, the hold was used to store these goods. The temporary horizontal platform was added only after the ship had unloaded and emptied its hold, ready for its human cargo. A slave lay on this platform on his side wedged between two of his fellows.

Giving evidence before a Parliamentary Committee in 1789, Dr Falconbridge said that, on one ship in which he sailed, overcrowding was so severe that slaves had to lie on top of each other, with the result that many died on the journey. In good weather, the slaves were allowed on deck, but at night and during both night and day in bad weather, the slaves had to spend the time wedged together. It was difficult for them to turn or shift their positions. At the end of the voyage, the slaves were found to have the flesh over the bony prominences of their bodies completely eroded away, exposing bare bone.

Officers and seamen were permitted to have sexual intercourse with female slaves and to use force, threats and beatings to overcome resistance. A former ship’s captain wrote in his diary that “the enormities frequently committed in an African ship.......are considered.............a matter of course. When the women and girls are taken on board a ship, naked, trembling, terrified, perhaps almost exhausted with cold, fatigue, and hunger, they are often exposed to the wanton rudeness of white savages......where resistance or refusal would be utterly in vain, even the solicitation of consent is seldom thought of” (30).

Lack of ventilation was always a problem on slave ships, which as a rule were usually equipped with only five or six air ports between decks, each being about six inches by four inches. When it rained and during bad weather even these air ports had to be shut. The slave rooms then became intolerably hot and “the confined air, rendered noxious by the effluvia of the bodies and by being repeatedly breathed, soon produced fevers and fluxes which generally carried off great numbers of them”, said Dr Falconbridge in his evidence (31).

Dr Thomas Trotter, another ship’s surgeon, said that when the gratings were covered over in rough weather, the slaves would scream out in their own language, “we are dying” (32). Dr Falconbridge assesses the causes of foul air, sickness and suffering in the hold of the ship as follows:

“In each of the apartments there are placed three or four buckets of a conical form, nearly two feet in diameter at the bottom and only one foot at the top and in depth about twenty-eight inches, to which when necessary, the negroes have recourse. It so happens that those who are placed at a distance from the buckets, in endeavouring to get to them, tumble over their companions, in consequence of their being shackled. These accidents, although unavoidable, are productive of continual quarrels in which some of them are always bruised. In this situation, unable to proceed and prevented from going to the tubs, they desist from the attempt; and as the necessities of nature are not to be resisted, they ease themselves as they lie” (33). The slaves often fought to get near the vents.

Dr Falconbridge gives an account of conditions in the hold during heavy rains when the slaves had to be confined below for some time:

”Some wet and blowing weather having occasioned the port holes to be shut and the grating to be covered, fluxes and fevers among the Negroes ensued. While they were in this situation, I frequently went down among them till at length their rooms became so extremely hot as to be only bearable for a very short time. But 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 slaughter house....... Numbers of the slaves having fainted they were carried upon deck where several of them died and the rest with great difficulty were restored. It had nearly proved fatal to me also. The climate was too warm to admit the wearing of any clothing but a shirt and that I had pulled off before I went down; notwithstanding which, by only continuing among them for about a quarter of an hour, I was so overcome with the heat, stench and foul air that I nearly fainted; and it was only with assistance that I could get on deck. The consequence was that I soon fell sick of the same disorder from which I did not recover for several months” (34).

As a result of the overcrowding and filth on most slave ships, the problems of cleanliness, sanitation and hygiene were virtually insuperable, and disease claimed many victims on the Middle Passage. Moreover, in spite of the surgeon’s critical examination, before the slaves were purchased, the early stages of chronic dysentery, leprosy and yaws, as well as hepatitis, worms and a host of other diseases in their early stages were often overlooked (35).

The ships, therefore, carried medicines and one or two surgeons. The surgeons, however, were not overly concerned with curing or healing the sick slaves, as the financial interests of their employers were paramount. The surgeons merely separated the sick from the apparently well; the sick were segregated in a crude type of dispensary in the ship’s forecastle. A slave ship, was not equipped to cater for epidemics and, if a great number of slaves fell ill, they were merely transferred, and confined, to one of the slave rooms. Notwithstanding that the slave ships were ill-prepared to deal with epidemics, because of the horrendous conditions that obtained during the Middle Passage, epidemics did rage on board ship, not infrequently, to claim the lives of upto half of its human cargo. Of the epidemic diseases, dysentery was the most devastating (36).

Dr Ecroide Claxton, giving evidence before a House of Commons Select Committee, said that his ship lost more than half of its slave cargo from dysentery. With so many of the slaves ill, it had not been possible to separate the sick from the well (37).

It was the opinion of surgeons who sailed regularly on the Middle Passage that dysentery (the flux) was the most prevalent illness, although it did not always take on epidemic proportions. There were varied opinions on its aetiology; one ship’s surgeon, Dr Isaac Walton, thought it was the result of the slaves’ “melancholy”, a commonly diagnosed condition on the slave ships. The sequence of events, Dr Walton explained, was as follows: The despondent slave refused food. This “increased the flux...........and the stomach afterwards became weak. Hence the belly ached. fluxes ensued, and they were carried off” (38). Dr Alexander Lindo, surgeon on the ‘King Pepple’ believed that the epidemic of dysentery on his ship was due to the slaves eating a large quantity of unripe yams, with which the ship had been stocked (39). Next in severity to dysentery on the Middle Passage was small-pox. Ordinarily, it was common in Africa, although not necessarily severe or fatal (40). In the conditions prevailing on the slavers during the Atlantic crossing, it wreaked havoc. One ship’s surgeon, with twenty years’ experience on slaving ships, believed that this was due to the ignorance of ships’ surgeons. The surgeon “because he knows not what they are afflicted with, but supposing it to be a fever, bleeds and purges or vomits them into an incurable diarrhoea, and in a very few days they become a feast for some hungry shark” (41).

It must, however, be recognised that surgeons, at that period in history, were a humble order, linked to the barbers, and below the physicians in prestige, status and learning. Those surgeons who went to sea, and especially those on slavers, were likely to have been the ones who failed to earn an adequate living on land, having been obliged to compete with physicians, apothecaries and a whole range of unqualified medical practitioners.

On one voyage of the slave ship ‘Hero’, the ship lost 159 of its cargo from small-pox, the ship’s surgeon having reported seeing the slaves’ skin and blood left on the decks where they had lain. Another ship’s surgeon, Dr Ellison, caught up in a small-pox epidemic on board ship, remembered the slave platform “as one continuous scab”. As the dead were removed, their skin and flesh tore off and remained adherent to the platform (42). After the 1760s, inoculation was introduced and the mortality and morbidity reduced considerably, when ships’ surgeons took appropriate action. In the 1770s, the surgeon on board the slaver ‘Eliza’ failed to take stocks of vaccine on board ship; when an epidemic struck, the ship lost 40% of its slaves, as inoculation was only carried out after docking at Kingston, Jamaica.

After small-pox, the most feared illness on the Middle Passage was measles. Although apparently healthy, most slaves had become emaciated after the long trek, in all weathers, from the hinterland to the coast, chained and shackled to one another. The disease generally struck eight to ten days after leaving port, and often reached mortality rates of more than 10%. Slaves often died from the combined effects of the multiple pathologies contained within the holds of the slave ships rather than from the effects of one single disease entity.

Scurvy took it toll during the first century of the slave trade, but even after the discovery of the beneficial effects of citrus fruits in the prevention and treatment of scurvy, slaves continued to suffer from the disease. Financial considerations and the slaving companies’ insistence on wide profit margins prevented many ships from loading up with adequate provisions. The continuing presence of the symptoms and signs of scurvy amongst slaves, such as a bleeding tendency, provided proof of the merchant slavers’ parsimony (43). To decrease the incidence of scurvy still further, many ships’ captains attempted to make a stop in the Lesser Antilles, whenever possible, to load up with fresh fruit and green vegetables, before continuing on to Janaica or the American mainland. Even this proved too late to save the advanced cases of scurvy. One ship’s surgeon, Dr Trotter, reported the deaths of several of his slaves before the ship was able to take on fresh supplies in the islands.

Another condition that, reportedly was responsible for many deaths amongst slaves was what surgeons on the slaving ships diagnosed as “fixed melancholia”. A slave suffering from this condition went into a deep depression and was possessed with a desire and even a determination to die. One ship’s surgeon, Dr Isaac Wilson, opined that melancholy gravely complicated other serious illnesses and adversely affected mortality on board ship. He estimated that two-thirds of all deaths on his ship could be attributed directly or indirectly to fixed melancholy. Dr Falconbridge (44) also believed this condition to be one of the greatest causes of mortality, the others being sudden transitions from extreme heat to cold, a putrid atmosphere, wallowing in their own excrement and being shackled together. To avert the onset of this condition, some ships’ captains gave the slaves an opportunity, in good weather and when they had been brought on deck, to wash and anoint themselves with oil. They were also forced to amuse themselves, sing and dance; those who did not were whipped. The female slaves were provided with coloured beads and thread with which to amuse themselves.

One ship’s surgeon, Dr Town, suggested that the major cause of mortality was psychological, owing to “grief for being carried away from their country and friends” (45). Another, Dr Trotter, gave evidence that “the slaves show signs of extreme distress and despair from a feeling of their situation and regret at being torn from their friends and connections”.

In addition, many slaves suffered severe nightmares and hysterical fits. Many other ships’ surgeons gave similar evidence (46). One of the first signs of this psychological illness was the slave’s refusal to eat, although the slave found the European diet that he was often offered rather unappetising. When a slave refused his food, he was whipped, and when this failed, a metal speculum oris or mouth opener was used to force his jaws apart. Food was poured in through a funnel. Thumb screws was another inducemant which one surgeon, Mr Dove, thought was particularly vile torture. Dr Wilson, a surgeon in the Royal Navy, who also went on slaving voyages, related how some slaves were determined to die and so end their misery. They defeated all attempts to feed and keep them alive.

Many slaves simply went mad. Others jumped overboard, requiring slave ships to be fitted with netting. Other ways in which the slaves took their own lives were by hanging, refusing medicine, and tearing their bodies with their own finger-nails. Often they died from the punishment meted out to them. Giving evidence to a House of Commons Select Committee, Dr Claxton said that:“The slaves, being so afflicted with the flux, accompanied with the scurvy and oedematous swelling of the legs, that it was a pain for them to move at all, were made to exercise themselves with dancing and were beaten if they did not............The slaves, by the violent exercise they were obliged to take with their shackles on, often excoriated the parts upon which they were fastened and of this they often made grievous complaints to me.

After dysentery, scurvy and melancholy, yaws was the most common illness on the Middle Passage. Although not fatal, it was a chronic and debilitating disease. On occasion, eye infections affected a slave ship and when this happened it could spread through the vessel’s crew and slaves like wildfire. Often it was a non-specific infection; at other times it was due to the gonococcus. Severe infections of the eye were known as Opthalmia, irrespective of the causative bacterial organism, and not infrequently led to blindness. This was a most dreaded complication, and the crew fearing, quite rightly, that, if blinded by the disease, they would be at the mercy of the slaves, or set adrift. One account, describing an epidemic on board ship, stated that 39 slaves became completely blind and so did 12 of the crew, including the ship’s surgeon. Other accounts spoke of large slave ships drifting aimlessly at sea, manned by a crew of blind sailors (47). Although yaws and scurvy caused ulcers, other ulcers, of non specific origin and probably related to the conditions of incarceration on board ship, occurred and spread widely and deeply into the flesh.

It was not just the diseases common on the Middle Passage that the hapless slaves had to put up with. There was always the threat of maltreatment by a crew, themselves hardened by years of gruelling work at sea and sometimes under an exacting discipline enforced by alcoholic, psychotic or psychopathic captains and officers, and slaving companies intent on maintaining wide profit margins. Cruelty was built into the slave trade, and the seamen inevitably vented their displeasure, anger and frustration on the slaves. All of this added to the mortality and morbidity on board ship.


In good weather, the slaves were taken on deck and allowed to remain there from eight in the morning till five in the afternoon. The women and children were permitted to remain on deck a little longer if the weather permitted it. The slaves were fed twice a day, just after eight in the morning and before going down into the hold. They were separated into groups of ten and were allowed to eat from a wooden container. Group leaders ensured that no one ate more quickly or more greedily than his fellows. Whenever possible the slaves were given the food that was native to their own home areas. It was in the interest of captains that the slaves received all that was given them and thus maintained their health. Water was given out only at meal times and each slave was rationed to half a pint at a time. After a meal, a bucket of sea water was given to each group for washing.

When the ship was slaving on the coast, the captain, whenever possible, endeavoured to obtain the food locally as this reduced the incidence of diarrhoea. Dishes that were universally popular amongst the slaves were beef or fish, liberally spiced, and shrimp soup. Some captains gave their slaves little sticks, to clean their teeth with, after meals and lime juice or brandy bitters as a prevention against scurvy. Very occasionally, the men were given a pipe and a ration of tobacco (48).

Although it had been known that boiling drinking water reduced the incidence of diarrhoea, this was not possible on board ship. If the water was unavoidably from an area known for causing diarrhoeal diseases, vinegar or a few drops of oil of vitriol was added to it.

The threat of starvation was ever present on the Middle Passage, as the duration of the voyage could not be predicted with any degree of certainty. Water and food rations were reduced and extra guards put on the stores at the onset of bad weather, but even this did not prevent starvation and deaths occurring from time to time. Dr Claxton, a ship’s surgeon, reported that on one of his voyages on the Middle Passage, 32 slaves died from starvation and, if they had been forced to spend ten more days at sea, they would have had to eat the slaves that died or make the living slaves walk the plank in order to save the crew (49).

According to the English law of the time, slaves could have been thrown overboard as a last resort, either to save the ship or its crew. When the ships and the cargoes came to be insured in the later years of the slave trade, the insurance companies paid for slaves sacrificed to prevent loss of the ship or its crew; they did not pay for slaves who died from natural causes. Needless to say, this condition was subject to much abuse as ships’ captains, doubtless with the collusion of their surgeons, threw sick slaves overboard or made them walk the plank, in order to claim on the insurance, by stating that they were sacrificed to save the ship or its crew. In the notorious case of the slave ship ‘Zong’, Captain Collingswood threw his sick slaves overboard in order to claim on the insurance (50).


From 1790 onwards, instead of a commission based on a percentage of the profits, slaving companies paid bonuses to ship’ captains and surgeons according to the mortality rate of the slave cargo during the Middle Passage. The sum of £100 was paid to the master, and £50 to the surgeon when a ship’s mortality rate was less than 2 per cent. One half of this amount was paid to each, if the mortality was between 2% and 3%. Ships’ captains and surgeons got around this by misrepresenting their actual losses through the device of lying about the size of their original cargo. This was possible because the maritime laws pertaining to overcrowding were not strictly enforced (51).

The mortality rate did not strictly correlate with overcrowding. Both large and small ships experienced a similar mortality. The actual length of a particular voyage and the consequent risk of the increased incidence of an infectious disease had a greater effect than overcrowding. The duration of the Middle Passage averaged 60 days, with a majority of the slavers accomplishing the journey within 40-70 days. The reduced rations necessary during long voyages lowered the resistance of the slaves, and the longer the voyage the greater the chance of an infected person to exceed the incubation period and show signs of clinical disease. Further, the longer the voyage, the greater the chance of epidemics supervening in the unhealthy cramped quarters of the slaves in the ship’s hold. Not only did bad weather lengthen the voyage, but it prevented the slaves from coming on deck for fresh air, and further obliged the crew to cover the gratings and close the air ports to prevent the ship from taking in water.

The mortality figures for the different areas of the slave trade were dealt with at the beginning of this chapter. According to the records of the Royal African Company, of the 60,783 slaves who were carried on 249 vessels between 1680 and 1688, only 45,396 survived the voyage. This represented a mortality of 24%, although, during the latter years of the trade, the mortality fell. Men died at a higher rate than women, in one series - 19% as compared to 14.7%; youths died at the same rate as older men. Slave cargoes generally carried a higher percentage of boys (52).

In summary, the Middle Passage must be considered an event of unimaginable horror, as the slaves, captured and taken from their native lands, shorn of all human dignity and, at the mercy of their brutal captors and owners, spent months in the putrid atmosphere of the filthy, disease-ridden hold of a slave ship, often wallowing in their own or their fellows’ excreta and even prevented by their goalers’ from taking their own lives in their bid for a merciful release from a living hell.


The Middle Passage was often interrupted for a few days as the slavers called at St Thomas or Princess Islands in the Caribbean to take on water and stores and give the slaves a spell in which to recuperate from the horrors of the journey. Far from being motivated by humanitarian considerations, slave captains realised that this actually improved both the physical and mental state of the slaves and enabled them to fetch higher prices at their sale. Slavers bound for Jamaica and places further west called at the Lesser Antilles to take on fresh provisions. Cases of scurvy at least showed an improvement on this regime. The other side of the coin was, of course, that many ships arrived in Jamaica with serious epidemics on board, and the inhabitants were infected with the diseases carried by the slaves (53).

Jamaica was the centre of the English, and largest, slave trade, and the inhabitants had to be protected from epidemics of contagious diseases. The slave merchants of Jamaica, therefore, built their guinea-yards (points of landing and staging for the slaves) six miles from Kingston, and were free to land their slaves here irrespective of their state of health. On occasion, the slaves were not landed but kept on deck to benefit from the fresh provisions and the attempts of the surgeons and their medicines, to get them in trim for the sale, and to conceal any illnesses (54).

During this period, many slaves died from the manifold effects of the Middle Passage. As on the Middle Passage, many slaves died from small-pox and yaws, as well as from venereal disease. Dr Collins, a Jamaican medical practitioner, helped inoculate the slaves against small-pox and with this scourge under control, dysentery proved to be the major killer in the guinea yards. The other diseases that affected the slaves in the guinea yards were measles, ulcers, mental illness, inflammations of the eye, venereal diseases and guinea worms.

After the slave ships docked, the surgeons on board played one of their most critical roles in the whole slave trade. This role had less to do with curing the ill and healing the sick than it had to do with increasing the profits of capitalism that were wrought from the inhumane commerce in human cargoes. The “medical” skills of the ships’ surgeons reached new heights in professional fraud. Following on a ship’s arrival in port, surgeons set to work on the slaves in much the same way that, say, a sculptor would on a statue. The shackles and chains would be removed and slaves taken into the open for fresh air.A nutritious diet would be given to all. It was common knowledge that guinea surgeons were well practised in the art of camouflaging the ills of the slaves and that they had little regard for the eventual consequences of their actions for the health of their “patients”. What diet, fresh air and increased freedom could not do for the slaves, the surgeon attempted through the skill of his art. Edward Long, a well known Jamaican planter of the time, believed that such frauds were commonly perpetrated. The visible signs of yaws, for example, were cleverly concealed by surgeons, using a mixture of iron rust, gunpowder and lime juice, before the slaves were put up for sale. If these tricks were successful and the slaves were sold, the lesions of yaws broke out with a vengeance a few days later. After this kind of medication, the lesions of yaws were virtually incurable.

Some of the methods used by ships’ surgeons to camouflage the diseases of the slaves are detailed as below:

Venereal diseases were treated with astringent injections.

Yaws and other ulcers were made to disappear by “ischuretic” washes. On the day of the sale, and, for a few days before, the scars were treated with blackening and palm oil. Epidemic dysentery was treated with astringents on the day of the sale.

Dr Collins, the experienced Jamaican practitioner, frequently visited the guinea yards and advised prospective buyers on how to avoid being taken in by the tricks of the surgeons. He reckoned that if, in the guinea yard, just one slave kept going repeatedly to the ‘lavatory', it was highly likely that his symptoms could not even be concealed by the surgeons, such was the severity of the illness. It was also likely that the rest of the slaves in that yard were ill, but with their symptoms temporarily concealed, only to recur later with a vengeance.

Other illnesses, such as measles, eye irritations and itches, did not show up on the black skins of the slaves at least in the early stages. Slave merchants, ships' captains and surgeons had no interest in the slaves after the sale; any delay in the disposal of the slaves meant a financial loss for the company which in its turn was not likely to look on its respective servants with favour.

It is not surprising that many sick and dying slaves were sold, according to the two ships’ surgeons, Dr Ecroyde Claxton and Dr Alexander Falconbridge, giving evidence to a House of Commons Select Committee. Slaves were sold by scramble (on a first come, first buy basis), by auction or by lot. If the sale occurred within three or four days of docking and it occurred on board ship, then all the slaves, except the very sick and dying, were brought out, completely naked, and sold like cattle. It was common to darken the ship by means of the sails in order that the intending purchasers might be denied some of the advantages necessary for a thorough and intimate examination of the slaves. Most buyers brought overseers, doctors, and other slaves with them to the sales in order that they might have all the assistance they needed in making a good choice. The overseers and doctors gave advice as to the physical condition of the intended purchase; their own slaves would question the subject of the purchase in his own language to elicit any history of disease.

The slaves, who were too ill to be sold, were disposed of in one or other of the following ways:

  1. They were given to a local doctor who could keep half of those he saved.
  2. They were taken to the auction, sometimes in a dying condition, and sold, very cheaply to Jews, poor whites and people of colour. Such was the demand for slaves in those times.
  3. They were simply left in the guinea yards to die.


Once the slave was sold into chattel slavery, a new set of difficulties had to be faced, and the problems varied according as to whether the final destination of the slave was to be one of the sugar islands themselves, or South, Central or North America. Those destined for the South American hinterland faced hazardous journeys over difficult terrain and often ended up with probably the most arduous of all slave occupations, viz., mining.

Cartagena was the port of entry for the northern part of South America, the Spanish Viceroyalty of New Granada, which initially included what is now Columbia, Bolivia and Venezuela. All slaves entering Spanish colonial territory had to undergo at least five standard searches (55). These were:

  1. The health inspection
  2. The inventory inspection
  3. The anchorage inspection
  4. The entry inspection and
  5. The customs clearance.

As far as assessing the health of the slaves was concerned, the first and the last of these examinations were the most useful. Again, delays in the examination of vessels and their cargoes meant increased expenses for the owners of the slaving companies and further deaths amongst the cargoes of slaves.

The first (health) examination was urgently carried out whilst the ship was at anchor in the harbour. This was not a detailed individual examination but a rather superficial check to exclude epidemic disease and infectious illnesses and was carried out by Spanish Royal Medical Officers of Health or, in their absence, by a military surgeon or a local civilian practitioner.

According to the results of these examinations, the captains graded their slaves. The apparently healthy were sent to the slave pens in the city, whilst the obviously ill were put ashore under quarantine well outside the city. Those who were not seriously ill, those who were injured and those who, for one reason or another, were unable to disembark, remained on board ship until they were well enough to walk ashore or until transport could be arranged for them.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, that is before slaves were being brought in large numbers from Jamaica in British slaving ships, the Spanish, in the north of the South American continent, bought their slaves from ships arriving directly from Africa. Without any prior selective processes operating, the holds often contained slaves suffering from dysentery, small-pox, scurvy and yaws, and also though less frequently, from measles, yellow fever, malaria, typhus, and typhoid, as well as those with injuries and defects. The arrival of the slave ships with epidemics raging on board sometimes led to epidemics in the town because of the mainly ineffective quarantine procedures. Sometimes, the process was reversed and a slave ship arriving in port during an epidemic led to the infection spreading to involve large numbers of newly disembarked slaves. At other times, it was difficult to know where the epidemic commenced. So devastating were some of the epidemics, that it was calculated that, in Jamaica, a number equivalent to the entire population of the island died every seven years from infectious diseases (56).

Conditions overall improved somewhat, with increasing knowledge of health, disease and quarantine procedures, but the single most important factor was the introduction of ‘way’ (rest) stations in the islands of the Caribbean, such as the Antilles, Jamaica, or Puerto Rico where the slaves could be given a break from all the many horrors of the Middle Passage, and fresh food, water and stores could be taken on board.

Nevertheless, because of the long incubation periods of some diseases, a few ships still arrived on the Spanish Main with epidemics raging on board. In the early seventeenth century, the period in quarantine was defined as a minimum of two weeks in a slave pen, in, or near, the town, in the case of the company or its agent.

Again, conditions in the pens were little different from those in the hold of the ship. Each pen had two large cabins, one for men and one for women in which crude tiers of wooden sleeping platforms had been erected. The slaves were locked in here for the night. A small high window provided ventilation, and sanitation consisted of tubs. The atmosphere was foetid and the squalor, filth and stench were indescribable. Diseases spread and many of the slaves died during quarantine. Whilst the slaves remained in their pens, their owners would very often do their best to fatten them up in order that they might fetch a higher price at the sale. The effect of this on the slaves who had recently undergone such great hardship was to make them even more ill.

After the statutory two week quarantine period customary in the Spanish Territory of New Granada, the slaves were brought out for their final examination. This was called the palmeo and was a very detailed medical examination upon which the customs duties for slaves were based. The duties, of course, went to the King. The palmeo was conducted in the presence of the governor, or his agent the civil surgeon, various royal officials and the owner or his agent. The slaves were closely scrutinized, like cattle, by the surgeon and credits and debits were awarded in order to arrive at a just financial assessment of each. Credits were awarded for height, weight, and good physique. Similarly, debits were recorded for injuries, defects, poor physique and general debility. The civil surgeon, however, who was an employee of the state, gave out debits rather sparingly, because higher financial assessments of the slaves meant increased revenues for the King.

The detailed palmeo records that were kept give an accurate medical assessment of the slaves at any particular period, and, from these, it can be shown that the physical condition, at least, of the slaves slowly improved over the years with changes in hygiene, nutrition and diet, and, especially, with the periods of refreshment, in the ‘way’ stations on the islands, at the end of the Middle Passage. This last measure became customary after 1680, and shortened the long voyage by about two to three weeks and so obviated that part of the voyage which carried the highest mortality. Nevertheless, some of the slaves who would have died, for example, on the mainland, now died on the islands.

After the palmeo, the slave was branded with the royal seal on the right breast and, if the customs duties had been paid, his owner was free to sell him. In the later era of the slave trade in South America, the slaves were usually sold in a few large lots. After the sale, the slave was branded with the new owners’s seal on the left breast.

In the matter of the sale of slaves, Spanish law followed the broad principle of “Let the buyer beware”, although annulment of the sale could be applied for in cases of bad faith on the part of the vendor, and a slave was found to diseased; the period of limitation to commence legal action was six months, although this was interpreted liberally by local judges.

A pregnant slave fetched a higher price for the child she was carrying. Conversely, a buyer often attempted to sue for fraud when he found that a female slave was suffering from venereal disease or was barren, and robbed her owner of the potential for the natural increase of the slave gang.


In Spanish America, many of the slaves were taken inland, after the sale, to work either in the mines or in the haciendas; there was a not inconsiderable mortality associated with this part of the slave trade. To prevent the escape of slaves on these journeys, only a few selected routes were approved by the Crown. Two main routes were approved for the transport of slaves from the coastal towns to the heart of the continent, one was by ship followed by a relatively short inland trek; the other was by slave caravan. Travel by ship involved the horrors of another sea journey lasting up to three weeks on much the same conditions that attached to the Middle Passage, with shortages of provisions, shipwrecks and epidemics of contagious diseases.

The difficult conditions on the inland trek were further exacerbated by the precautions taken to prevent slaves from escaping. Most of the slaves, men as well as women, were chained by the neck or hand to one another in single file, and even then were closely watched by guards. Food and water were often scarce. If the terrain was suitable, mules were used to carry medicines, supplies and equipment for the mines or haciendas. In such cases, the burden of transport on the slaves was much diminished, and this reduced their mortality. Rarely, a barber-surgeon was employed to accompany the slave caravan.

The mortality on the overland trips could be anything up to 20%. The causes of death were dysentery, epidemic disease, accidents, exposure and exhaustion. The slave trade also helped to spread epidemic and infectious diseases into the interior. The American Indian labourers whom the slaves were sent to replace had already died out by the millions. The relatively recently arrived African slaves had also died in great numbers as the conditions obtaining in slavery made them more susceptible to disease and injury, as well as slower to recover when struck down.

Adequate medical care for the slaves was rarely forthcoming. Small-pox epidemics were common (57) and sometimes affected the eyes leading to blindness (58). In the latter half of the eighteenth century, quarantine hospitals were built in all the slave ports in the area to control the spread of the disease.

Contemporary reports point to the differential mortality from small-pox among the three main races then living in South America. The Indians who lacked natural immunity suffered most of all. Although small-pox was endemic in Africa and most adults had natural immunity to the disease, Edward Long, the Jamaican planter, reported 70% mortalities amongst newly arrived African slaves when only a 10% - 14% mortality was common amongst whites in England. It is likely, of course, that the horrendous conditions obtaining on the Middle Passage had undermined the naturally occurring immunological mechanisms of the African. Inoculation against small-pox by means of scarification, with the exudate from a lesion of a person recovering from the disease or with the lymph draining from a lymph node was practised in Africa a century before Jenner introduced vaccination to England (59).

Bacillary dysentery (the bloody flux) was common as a result of overcrowding, poor sanitation and poor general health. Epidemics of dysentery were common in Jamaica and on the Spanish controlled South American mainland, especially amongst the slaves in the mining areas, and was alleged to have slowed the economic progress of Spanish New Granada. Dysentery here was particularly debilitating and often took a fulminating course, with rapid prostration and a high mortality.

Measles epidemics were also common and the disease sometimes took on a virulent form with a high incidence of complications (pneumonia, encephalitis, deafness and blindness) and a high mortality. Children were especially vulnerable.

Typhus was not common in the tropics but sometimes assumed epidemic proportions in the cooler regions of the Bogota plateau, when the mortality was high and very few families were unaffected. When the epidemics were prolonged and aggravated by scarcity and famine, the Indian populations in the affected regions were almost wiped out, again demonstrating their lack of immunity to Western-type diseases. Some of the survivors were reportedly left crippled, deformed or deaf.

Typhoid occurred less frequently and may have been mistaken for typhus or dysentery. Bubonic plague and diptheria were rare, the latter affecting only children. Yellow fever epidemics were not uncommon and were characterized by a high mortality. The slaves appeared to have a greater resistance to this disease than the Europeans. Malaria, reportedly, was introduced into the northern part of South America by the slave trade. It was common in tropical areas and, although widespread, had a lower mortality than the other common epidemic diseases, as far as the slaves were concerned, that is. But again, this was one disease that affected whites more severely. The two ‘infectious diseases’ that commonly killed Europeans were malaria, which was responsible for about 60% of the deaths due to ‘ infectious diseases’, and yellow fever, which was responsible for about 40%. Malaria when not fatal, however, was severely debilitating to all those who harboured the parasite.

Other contagious diseases occurred less commonly viz., amoebic dysentery, yaws, leprosy, hookworm, elephantiasis, trachoma, roundworms, guinea-worms and syphilis. Reportedly dysentery, yellow fever and malaria were brought from Africa, whilst measles, typhoid, typhus and diptheria were introduced by Europeans. In every way, the new world in which the African slave found himself was very inhospitable.


It would have been anything of up to 1 1/2 to 2 years from the time of capture and the beginning of the long trek from the interior of the African continent to the time of arrival at the mines or the plantations in the interior of the Americas. For the most part of this period, the slave would have been kept in close captivity. Before they would have been able to take up heavy work, therefore, they would have required a period of recuperation, acclimatization and adjustment. This was the process that the slave owners called “seasoning”. It took the slaves several months to recover not only from the physical and mental horrors that they had been subject to during the previous couple of years, but also to adjust to the new enviroment, food and climate, slavery and a life without hope.

The slaves were also now in a new microbiological enviroment and they had little resistance to the diseases of the New World (60). His owners did not consider the slave fully adjusted until he had survived his first attacks of the new diseases (61), and, in any case, not before four years had elapsed from the time of the slave’s arrival at his place of work.

There was a further mortality attached to this particular period of captivity which was put at between one-quarter and one-third of all new arrivals. Dr Claxton, the Jamaican physician, wrote that “on an average, at least one-third of the Negroes imported into the island die within the first three years...............and from the observations I have made, three men die to one woman.” The slave owners’ response to this state of affairs was to call for an increase in the volume of the slave trade.

Local doctors suggested three reasons for the high mortality during the period of seasoning: climatic changes, changes in food and general living conditions, and lack of care during the period of “seasoning”. Dysentery continued to be a major killer. Many Africans came from regions with tropical rain forests and could not readily acclimatise to the combined cold and high altitudes of parts of Spanish America, nor the heat in the mines on the Pacific coast.

The dangers from the animal life of the new enviroment also posed problems for the slaves. They were in the mortal terror of the jaguar and the crocodile and had been bitten so often by poisonous snakes that some slaves were trained in the art of “curing” snake-bite. The slave known as Cesar published a remedy for snake-bite in the Massachusetts Magazine in 1792, the first medical publication by a black (62). There were more than a few self-taught or partly trained healers like him with a following. Poisonous caterpillars caused febrile illnesses and some scorpions temporary paralysis. Sores, rashes, itches, and skin irritations were caused by ticks, lice, fleas, mosquitos, flies, gnats and other insects.

Dr Collins, the Jamaican physician, in his classic manual of medical theory and practice, “Practical Rules for the Management and Medical Treatment of Slaves” (63) suggested that deaths during the period of seasoning were caused by three factors acting singly or in combination. They were excessive work, brutal treatment and suicide. He said that newly arrived slaves who did not die of disease were worked to death, and added that it was disastrous to require slaves to work very hard during the first four years. To press for sudden and unremitting work was to kill them by exhaustion as well as to generate, in the slaves, a sense of melancholy which drove them to suicide, or to flee into the jungle where they were killed by animals or died of starvation and disease. Improper, inadequate or unappealing food also had an adverse effect on the slaves. Dr Collins realised the value of healthy working Africans to the slave economy of the sugar islands.

The mortality amongst the new slaves was greatest in the first year after arrival and, for the first four years, was still above the average. For the first few weeks, therefore, the slave was spared any work and for the rest of the first year was given only light duties. Somewhat similarly in the mining areas, it was the practice not to send slaves into the mines for the first twelve months after arrival. But as with practically everything else in the slave industry, questions of economy were given priority above all else and slave owners often looked for short term gains rather than take the long view.

In some areas, slaves could be repossessed if they had not been paid for within two years and many mine owners, therefore, felt obliged to put slaves to work after an inadequate period of “seasoning”. The period of “seasoning” was not, of course, a time of leisure and idleness for the slave. It was considered by the owners to be a period of apprenticeship during which the slave learned all about the jobs that he was to do in later years. It was, of course, not impossible that as he realised what his future life was going to be, by observing the fully working slaves, he was given to fits of melancholy and driven to suicide. During the period of seasoning, the slave was often put to work as a woodsman, pearl diver, boatman or tobacco worker. Because age influenced survival during seasoning, owners began to buy boys and girls of twelve to fifteen years rather than adults over the age of thirty years. The younger slaves also had a longer working life.

Although most slaves in Spanish America worked in the mines or on the plantations, slaves were used in the service of the King to construct public works, roads, walls and fortifications as well as on Crown monopolies such as royal silver and emerald mines, and to produce brandy and saltpetre. Slaves also worked for hospitals, town councils, religious orders and colonial institutions, and as artisans, domestics, vendors and labourers for their masters. Work in and around the mines was the heaviest of any work in the area; blacks guilty of serious offences were sentenced to work in the mines, and capital punishment was sometimes commuted to hard labour on the mines.

Most slave owners were aware of the debilitating effects, and consequent reduction in efficiency, of continuous and unremitting hard work. In 1550, a Spanish planter noted, with some hyperbole, that “before there were sugar mills in Hispaniola, it was the consensus of opinion that, if a Negro was not hanged, he would never die......................we had never seen a Negro die of disease. For it is a hard fact that the Negroes, like oranges, found this land more natural to them than their native Guinea; but, once they were sent to the mill, they died like flies from the hard labour they were made to endure and the beverages they drink made from sugar cane. Thus large numbers of them die daily” (64). The birth and survival rate of slave children was in inverse proportion to the amount of sugar produced on the estate, which itself was an index of the amount of work done by the slaves.


Predictably illness amongst the slaves was much more common than in the European population, for, even if the slave survived all the mental, physical and health hazards of his capture and transportation, “seasoning”, malnutrition and epidemic disease, he was, by virtue of his specific position in a colonial slave society, much more prone throughout his life to disease, accident, maltreatment and natural disasters. (The slave in Spanish America, protected as he was by the Slave Codes, and the activities of the Royal and other state officials and the Jesuits, was probably in a marginally better position as compared to his counterpart in English-speaking America.)

Many states employed slaves as full-time medical aides to care for sick slaves, and, in Spanish America, the larger companies were under a statutory obligation to maintain a hospital. Special supplements and medicines were to be at hand; some of the wealthier slave owners contracted barbers, surgeons and dentists to attend at the settlements.

Slave Lists (inventories) were required by law in Spanish America, in order to evaluate slave stock, in certain situations, such as in probate cases, legal suits and bankruptcies. Assessors drawing up an inventory comprised representatives from both parties and the local mayor and listed the slaves by name, sex, age and market value; the latter was influenced by the slaves’ state of health. Illness and disability, therefore, were usually noted in detail.

Chandler(65) studied 200 such lists appraising nearly 8000 slaves in northern South America, made observations and reached certain conclusions. These lists give valuable insight into the diseases which afflicted the slaves in this area; they were, therefore, (chronic) morbidity lists relating to the slaves only. Dysentery, although common, was rarely noted in the slave lists, because, in the presence of an epidemic, assessment would have been postponed.

Diseases of the musculo-skeletal system were, by far, the commonest noted ailments, followed by skin diseases, diseases of the genitourinary system and endocrine diseases. Then came mental and nervous disorders and eye diseases, which were about equal in incidence. Towards the bottom of the lists came, in order of frequency, gastrointestinal, respiratory and mouth and throat diseases. Afflictions of the ears, heart and lymphatic system were rare. The information collated from these lists would appear to correlate with findings reported from other slave communities in the Caribbean.

These lists do not reveal the extent to which female slaves suffered from health problems related to menstruation, lactation, pregnancy and childbirth, or the extent to which children suffered from worms or died from tetanus. Chandler goes on to suggest that a more accurate picture of the incidence of disease and disability in Spanish Granada was as follows, (in decreasing frequency): injuries and permanent disability, bacillary dysentery, amoebic dysentery, tetanus, yaws, hookworm and other intestinal parasites, tuberculosis, goitre, blindness, skin ulcers, leprosy, and mental and nervous disorders.


In his brief historical survey of health care in Jamaica, Lescene(66) wrote that the slave trade provided the means by which the medical profession was to enter into a statutory relationship with the state (in Jamaica). The Consolidated Slave Act of Jamaica (1792) obliged all slave owners to make provision for the medical attendance of slaves and for hospital accomodation for the sick. Doctors or surgeons on the plantations were to submit annual reports on the causes, and numbers, of all deaths and to give an analysis of the numerical status of the slave population. The government encouraged the natural increase of the slave population and every female slave who had six children was to be relieved of hard work and to be given light duties only.

Each estate or plantation in Jamaica at the time was provided with a small hospital with a resident or a visiting surgeon. The medical men were paid by the owners of the plantations or estates and, although plantation doctors were not highly thought of in Jamaican society at the time, they were, on the whole, well paid. They were paid on a per capita basis (4 shillings was the going rate at the end of the eighteenth century) and, although the doctor’s salary depended on the size of the estate or group of estates for which he was medically responsible, many doctors earned between £2,000 and £4,000 per annum. The plantation owners, however, were known to complain that they found it difficult to recruit doctors of calibre for their estates.

The slave trade was responsible for introducing epidemics to the island from time to time. Slaves who had survived the Middle Passage spread dysentery, pneumonia, leprosy, intestinal parasites, yaws and yellow fever. Dirt eating was not uncommon and was sometimes associated with a death-wish. In Jamaica, dirt-eating slaves were decapitated as a deterrent to the others. The reason why decapitation was chosen as the form of punishment was that many African slaves believed that, when they died, they would return to their villages in Africa. For this reason alone, suicide was not uncommon. Decapitation, by grossly mutilating the body, was said to undermine this hope of return in one piece, at least.

There were no serious attempts at sanitary legislation. Tetanus neonatorum was rife on the estates. The diseases that appeared from time to time in major epidemic form in Jamaica in the eighteenth century were cholera, small-pox and yellow fever. Lescene stated that yaws was the only disease for which attempts at control were made in Jamaica. When a case was reported, the patient was isolated in the Isolation Ground and the hut from which he came was burnt to the ground. Each estate had its own Segregation Camp where treatment consisting of drastic mixtures of potassium iodide, sarsaparilla and other herbal compounds were given and the skin washed and scrubbed daily until the nodules were level with normal skin.. Mothers attempted to inoculate their infant children against yaws by scarification with infected material. Protection against small-pox by scarification with infected material was, as has been described, widely practised in Africa for centuries, long before Jenner introduced this method to England and took the credit for it. Small-pox inoculation either with material from an infected lesion or with the lymph from a draining lymph gland was commonly practised in Jamaica. Following an epidemic in later years, compulsory vaccination was introduced.


DIET. A peck of corn meal and three or four pounds of salt pork or bacon was the basic weekly allowance of the adult slaves. Even though a few supplementary items would have been added, the diet was poorly balanced, although of “adequate bulk”. Throughout the South, slaves lived on little else than this dismal fare, year in and year out. They never tasted fresh meat, milk, eggs or fruits and rarely tasted vegetables(67).

The slaveholders often underestimated the amount of food that a hard-working field-hand needed. Slaves complained that they sometimes consumed their weekly rations within four or five days and then had to make night raids on the hog pen or the corn crib. The slaves were usually responsible for cooking their own meals and, very often, were expected to grind their own corn and gather their own firewood, a great burden after a long day of toil. The slaves carried their noon meals to the fields in the morning and had to wait for their evening meals until they returned to their cabins at night. Although some slaves were provided with tables and utensils that enabled them to eat with decorum, most of them were obliged to eat in a primitive fashion, out of little cedar tubs, iron pots or large wooden trays, using, as spoons, pieces of wood, oyster shells, or pieces of shingles. The children ate with their fingers.

CLOTHING. Most slaves in the North American states wore shabby and insufficient clothing made from some variety of cheap “Negro cloth”. This was due to carelessness, indifference and economy, and a desire on the part of slave owners and slave holders to reduce annual expenditures for clothing. Ragged and meagre clothing not only added to the drabness of slave life but it also added to the real discomfort experienced during the winters, when it posed a serious threat to health. The field hands, who did the rough outdoor work, could not keep themselves comfortably clad with the clothing allowances given them. Their garments were in tatters before the next allotment was distributed. In fact, most of the slaves, both children and adults, lacked sufficient clothing to keep warm when the temperature dropped below freezing. Many of them went barefoot even in winter weather, or wore out their shoes before spring; hence they often limped about on frost-bitten feet.

HOUSING. The dwellings of slaves were only designed as places to sleep and as shelters during inclement weather, not as centres of an active family life. In the towns, each slave family had its own slave cabin near the master’s house; on the plantations, the slaves lived in the slave quarters, which consisted of a single or double row of cabins or multiple-unit tenements for families, and dormitories for unmarried men and women.

Slave mothers and fathers both laboured full time for the master, while their children were supervised by an old slave woman. The common run of slave cabins were cramped, crudely built, scantily furnished, unpainted, and dirty. In the South, the slave dwellings were covered with crudely cut, loose-clapboards. They were not lined within, “so that only the thickness of a single board kept out the winter’s air and cold”. They were warmed by a clay chimney; the windows were unglazed (68). In Alabama, the slave houses were “small, low, tight and filthy...............laboratories of disease”. In Mississippi, “there was more sickness, and consequently greater loss of life, from the decaying logs of negro houses, open floors, leaky roofs and crowded rooms, than all other cases combined”. In Louisiana, it was stated that most of the sickness among slaves was due to “working all day without rest and then sleeping in crowded dirty apartments”. On the rice and cotton plantations of Georgia and South Carolina, the houses of the slaves were “in the most decayed and deplorable condition”. They were not more than twelve feet square, “built of logs, with no windows no opening at all, except the doorway, with a chimney of sticks and mud”.

Again, in Mississippi, the slave cabins were “small, dilapidated and dingy; the walls were not chinked, and there were no windows - which, indeed, would have been a superfluous luxury, for there were spaces of several inches between the logs, through which there was unobstructed vision...........Everything within the cabins was coloured black by smoke........” In Maryland, the houses of the slaves were but log huts the tops partly open, and rain also came through the ground floor (69). The dwellings of the slaves, therefore, were drab and cheerless, leaky in wet weather and draughty in cold. Poor housing and insufficient clothing were common and did not much exceed the minimum requirements for survival.


The frontier conditions, the large number of undrained swamps and ponds in the Deep South’s alluvial river bottoms where the great cotton, sugar and rice plantations were located and where the slaves heavily outnumbered the whites, and the long summers and mild winters which enabled insects to thrive and increased the difficulty of preserving foods, helped to make slaves vulnerable to epidemic and endemic diseases (70).

Labouring in the rice swamps had a decidedly unfavourable effect on the health of the slaves. In the rice districts of South Carolina and Georgia, it was difficult to keep the slaves in good health and there was a high mortality amongst the slaves living there. Few rice planters saw their slave labour forces grow by natural increase. In fact, so great was the mortality and the decline in the numbers of the slaves, that the owners and planters were obliged to make periodic purchases to keep the labour forces at full strength. The picture was the same on the bottom lands in the cotton districts around the Savannah River. This was the chief reason why these fertile lands were offered for sale at comparatively low prices. The health problems were also acute in the other lowlands of the Deep South, around the Arkansas River and in the river bottom plantations around the Mississippi.

The febrile illnesses from which the slaves suffered were referred to, collectively, by the slaveholders as the “ fevers”. In most cases, these “ fevers” were clearly some form of malaria. In 1849, the seventh census revealed that the proportion of deaths from "fever” amongst the total deaths was substantially higher for blacks than for whites. This was due to the fact that many of the slaves lived in the malarial river bottoms and that malaria found its victims among members of both races (71). The sickly season began in July and August yearly and lasted until the heavy frosts of fall when the anopheles mosquitos swarmed out of the swamps to infect blacks and whites with the parasites that cause malaria.

Yellow fever took a heavier toll of whites in the port towns of Charleston, Savannah and New Orleans especially. The blacks contracted the disease in a milder form and suffered fewer fatalities.

The first epidemic of Asiatic cholera hit the United States in 1832 and was more deadly to the blacks than to the whites in the Mississippi delta to which it had spread from New Orleans, In the following two years, great epidemics occurred in Lexington and Savannah, were fatal to thousands of slaves and reduced their owners to financial ruin (72).

However, in the long run, endemic diseases caused more deaths than the occasional epidemic. During the summer months, dysentery or diarrhoea caused as much morbidity and mortality as malaria; in the winter months, pleurisy and pneumonia killed off the poorly clothed and improperly housed field-hands. Tuberculosis was prevalent in the rural South and syphilis was present in the towns and on scattered plantations. Diseases of the heart and great arteries and malignant tumours, the scourges of old age, accounted for only a few deaths amongst the slaves. The mortality from tetanus was high among slaves of all ages but it was greatest among the newborn, who were infected via their umbilical cords. It was nearly always fatal.

Dirt-eating was called Cachexia Africana by the physicians of the U S South. On every plantation, several slaves were found to be addicted to eating substances such as clay, mud, sand, chalk and ashes. Lost for an explanation, the local physicians suggested that it was possibly a symptom of hookworm infection or of some deficiency disease; it was more likely that dirt-eating was the result of the harsh treatment that the slaves received at the hands of their masters. Unlike their Spanish American counterparts, U.S. slave owners managed this problem by forcing the affected slaves to wear wire masks or iron gags. As a result of a poor diet and lack of dental hygiene, most adult slaves suffered from severe tooth decay, which necessitated extraction.


The first U.S. statistics on mental health was a census of the insane taken by the Federal Government in 1840 (73). This report showed that the “insane” and “idiots” in the country totalled 17,456. They were divided into 14,521 whites and 2,935 blacks. In the North, 1 out of 995 whites was listed as insane or idiotic. In the South, the ratio for whites was 1:945.3. For blacks, the ratio in the North was 1 to every 144.5 persons, whilst in the South, it was 1 to every 1,5558. This census report was a great boon to the pro-slavery arguments by Southerners concerning the “beneficial” effects of slavery for the black.

The inaccurate reporting of the “insane” and the “idiots” among Southern blacks was due partly to the failure of the overseers to report such afflictions because of their poor concept as to whom to class as insane, and, partly, to the planters, who, because of their ability to teach their insane slaves simple routines, did not consider them as suffering from such afflictions and did not report them to the census takers. However, an examination of 31,170 slave inventory and appraisement records shows that 1 out of every 85.8 slaves was suffering from some nervous or mental disorder.

Most psychotic slaves could still be employed profitably, and, in any case, it was less expensive to support them at home than to pay their expenses in an asylum. Slave families were often broken up when one or more members had to be sold off separately to pay a debt, for instance. This had a devastating effect on the mental health of the family. Drapetomania was the term devised by physicians in the South to describe a slave’s repeated attempts to run away from his master.

Slaves were also the victims of numerous occupational disorders stemming from the hard unremitting physical labour and the abominable living conditions. Women suffered commonly from painful or irregular menses, suppurative infections of the genital tract, prolapsed wombs, sterility, spontaneous abortions, stillbirths and death in childbirth. The heavy work resulted also in hernias, the dust-laden air of hemp factories led to diseases of the lungs and many slaves were mained through industrial accidents on the railroads and in the mines, mills and factories. Few slaves were without scars on their bodies.


When a slave gained a reputation for being a gifted healer, his master would, on occasion, permit him to administer to the sick and to try out his healing portions. Prior to 1860, violent purging and bloodletting were still popular with white physicians. Many believed that various diseases were caused by atmospheric “miasmata” resulting from decaying animal and vegetable matter, and the principles of hygiene were as yet not understood.

White physicians in the Southern U.S. believed that the physical and emotional differences between blacks and whites were too great to permit the same medical treatment for both races. One Southern physician wrote that “the peculiarities in the diseases of the negroes are so distinctive that they can be safely and successfully treated............only by Southern physicians”; another, that “the Negro was sensual rather than intellectual”. The latter physician urged medical schools to give special study to “Negro diseases” and to warn doctors that remedies which would cure a white man might injure or even kill a black (74).

In the latter half of the nineteenth century, sanitary measures were introduced in the U.S. and trained physicians were more widely available. The average slave owner, however, was not sufficiently concerned about his obligations and tried to economise by keeping down his medical costs. The master or overseer usually made his own diagnosis and prescribed remedies without the aid of a doctor, except in desperate cases. Overseers were expected to be competent enough to manage the great majority of the cases, and to open a vein, extract a tooth, or bandage a broken limb (75).

Slave midwives dealt with the obstetrical cases. Slave women received improper prenatal and post-natal care. “Too often, complained one observer, nothing but actual confinement releases them from the field; to which the mother soon after returns, leaving an infant a few days old at the quarters” (76). There was the impression abroad, at the time, that Negro women were not subject to the difficulty, danger, and pain, which attended women of the better classes, when giving birth to their offspring. Some slaveholders kept their slaves out of doors in the most inclement weather and gambled with their lives in order to save a crop.

The “hospitals” on the plantation were filthy. The floors were “the hard damp earth itself”, most of the windows were unglazed, the rooms were dirty and malodorous, and the inmates “lay prostrate on the floor, without bed, mattress or pillow, buried in tattered and filthy blankets”. Sick and well alike were “literally encrusted with dirt” and infested with “swarms of fleas”. There was complete indifference towards the invalids, and total disregard for the most elementary rules of sanitation (77). Slaves who had been hired out by their masters were especially subject to neglect and suffered most from a lack of medical care.

The census of 1850 reported average ages of 21.4 for blacks and 25.5 for whites at the time of death. In 1860, 3.5 per cent of slaves and 4.4 per cent of the whites were over 60; the death rate was 1.8 per cent for the slaves and 1.2 per cent for the whites (78). As many slave deaths went unreported, the disparity between slave and white death rates was greater than recorded in the census returns, and reflected the combination of lower living standards, greater exposure, heavier labour, and poorer medical care that gave slaves a shorter life expectancy and higher mortality rate than whites.

The black infant mortality rate everywhere was more than double that of the white. A slave mother gave birth to two or three babies in order that one might grow up to be a ‘prime hand’ for her master.And so it was that, in spite of the high mortality, the slave population in the U.S. South grew by natural increase at a rate of about 23 per cent each decade between 1830 and 1860 (79).


White slave owners and officials recognised that slavery could only be maintained through fear - fear of the dreadful consequences that would surely follow escape or rebellion. The French slave code, Code Noir, was specific in its allocation of punishments, which varied from minor amputations to shackles, castration, blowing up with gunpowder and roasting alive on an open fire (80).

In the United States, the most popular form of labour discipline was the whip, or lash; physical cruelty was always a possible consequence of the master’s power to punish. Slavery in the United States enforced a brutal type of equality upon blacks of both sexes. Black women were expected to labour at least twelve hours a day like their sons, husbands and fathers. With the white slaveowner exercising physical violence to maintain the relations of a slave society, the slave system could not confer upon the black man the appearance of a “family provider”, in a privileged position vis-a-vis the black woman. “In slavery’s brutal utilization of every man, woman and child, the black woman was wholly integrated into the productive force” (81).

Slave families in the U.S. were often broken up and sold separately, as black women fetched a better price and so did children over the age of fourteen, who were viewed as prime hands and often taken away from their mothers and fathers.

Slave-breeding was common in the U.S. and this term is taken to mean any form of slavery which indicates that slaves were reared with an eye to their marketability. Many slave masters considered the fertility of black women an economic asset and encouraged them to bear children as rapidly as possible. In this process, sexual promiscuity and rape played a central part. Marable explains the more intense brutality of Anglo-Saxon slavemasters, as compared to that of the Iberian slaveowners, as being due to several factors.

Portuguese and Spanish slave societies had evolved certain cultural and historical relations vis-a-vis Africans. The racism of the Anglo-Saxon was more aggressive; their knowledge of black culture was limited, their desire for profits greater, and their neurotic fantasies more repressively checked by the religious heritage of Calvinism and Puritanism (82).

As Angela Davis wrote: “In its political contours, the rape of the black woman by the white slavemaster was not exclusively an attack upon her. Indirectly, its target was also the slave community as a whole. In launching the sexual war on the woman, the master could not only assert his sovereignity over a critically important figure of the slave community, he would also be aiming a blow against the black man............Clearly, the master hoped that once the black man was struck by his manifest inability to rescue his woman from the sexual assaults of the master, he would begin to experience deep-seated doubts about his ability to resist at all” (83).

It was an aspect of the psychological damage that slave masters wreaked on black men to reinforce their feelings of inadequacy and impotence and to discourage thoughts of escape, resistance and rebellion.

During slavery in North America, whites seldom formally imprisoned blacks, because slavery itself was a form of imprisonment. Slaves charged with petty theft were simply whipped. In misdemeanour cases, they were charged in ‘Negro courts’ before white justices and slaveowners. In the majority of less serious cases, the slaveowners themselves presided over the courts and ordered punishments which varied from doing extra work on the off-days to periods of imprisonment in ‘nigger-boxes’ on the plantations themselves or less commonly in the local county jail.

Castration was a legal and popular punishment until 1800. If a black woman was “uppity”, she could be raped with impunity; if her menfolk objected, they might be lynched or castrated. Black people were not often imprisoned or executed because of their physical importance to the economy of the slave society. After the U.S. Civil War, matters changed, and the demise of slavery, ironically, meant that black lives were no longer important in the economy of white societies. Whites felt they had to depend on lynching to maintain white supremacy. Later, lynching was reserved specifically for blacks (84).


Denmark in 1792 was the first European country to abolish the slave trade, and, in 1802, forbade slavery in all its possessions. The United States prohibited the exportation of slaves two years later, and ten years after that, prohibited the further introduction of them. Amongst the individual states of the U.S. north, Vermont abolished slavery in 1777, followed by Massachusetts and New Hampshire in 1783. Pennsylvania provided for gradual emancipation in 1780; Connecticut and Rhode Island barred slavery in 1784. New York provided for gradual emancipation in 1799, followed by New Jersey in 1804 (85). The French abolished slavery in all their possessions in 1848, although the practice did not completely cease in their colonies until 1896. The Dutch abolished slavery in 1863, the Portuguese in 1878, and the Spaniards in 1886.

When slavery was finally abolished, it had less to do with the efforts of tearful humanitarians than with the fact that the West Indian sugar trade was becoming less important to British capitalism and was, in fact, an obstacle to the moves occurring at that time towards free trade with other areas, from which cheaper sugar could be obtained.

According to the late West Indian historian and politician, Eric Williams: “ ........ the capitalists had first encouraged West Indian slavery and then helped to destroy it.........when British capitalists depended on the West Indies, they ignored slavery or defended it. When British capitalists found the West Indian monopoly a nuisance, they destroyed West Indian slavery as the first step towards the destruction of the West Indian monopoly. That slavery to them (British capitalists) was relative, not absolute, and depended on latitude and longitude, was proved after 1883 (the year of the Act of Emancipation of the British Parliament) by their attitude to slavery in Cuba, Brazil and the United States. They (British capitalists) taunted their opponents (the Abolitionists) with seeing slavery only when they saw sugar and limiting their observation to the circumference of a hogshead (container for storing sugar). They (British capitalists) refused to frame their tariff on grounds of morality, erect a pulpit in every custom house, and make their landing waiters enforce anti-slavery doctrine” (86).

Williams distinguished three steps by which mature capitalism destroyed the mercantilist economic system of which slavery formed a part:

“The attack falls into three phases: the attack on the slave trade, the attack on slavery, and the attack on the preferential sugar duties.

The British slave trade was abolished in 1807, slavery in 1833 and the sugar preference in 1846. The three events are inseparable. The very vested interests which had been built up by the slave system now turned and destroyed that system. The humanitarians, in attacking the system at its weakest and most indefensible spot, spoke a language that the masses could understand. They could never have succeeded a hundred years before when every capitalist interest was on the side of the colonial system. ‘It was an arduous hill to climb’, sang Wordsworth, in praise of Clarkson. The top would never have been reached but for the defection of the capitalists from the ranks of the slave owners and slave traders. The (white) West Indians, pampered and petted and spoiled for a century and a half, made the mistake of elevating into a law of nature what was actually only a law of mercantilism. They thought themselves indispensable and carried over, into an age of anti-imperialism, the lessons they had been taught in an age of commercial imperialism. When, to their surprise, the ‘invisible hand’ of Adam Smith turned against them, they could only turn to the invisible hand of God. The rise and fall of mercantilism is the rise and fall of slavery” (87).

Maroon communities of runaway slaves were, in the later days of slavery in the West Indies, increasing in size, organisation and fighting capabilities, and did battle with, and kept tied down, large sections of the regular British Army. Clearly, the institution of slavery in the New World was becoming increasingly difficult for the Imperial Powers to uphold, as maroon communities became established throughout the Americas, in Brazil, Columbia, Cuba, Ecuador, Mexico, Surinam, Jamaica, the Leeward Islands and the Windward Islands (88).


Following the Eighth U.S. Census in 1862, the opinion of Joseph Camp Kennedy, the superintendent of the Census, that the gradual extinction of the Negro was an “unerring certainty”, was supported by a faulty analysis of the Ninth and Tenth Census of 1870 and 1880 and corroborating statements by physicians, insurance company investigators, and officials in the U.S.Army (89). There were also those for whom the wish for the Negro’s extinction was father to the thought. It was a fitting culmination to the concept of racial inferiority in American life. ‘

The United States Sanitary Commission had warned of the deterioration in the Negro race, and southern physicians, given the responsibility for presenting a clinical analysis, roamed far and wide in their studies and conclusions. Dr E.T. Easley of Dallas, Texas, wrote “That the immediate emancipation of the Southern Negro was a most deplorable event in the history of that unhappy race has become quite manifest”. Dr Easley opined that the new status of freedom, after the American Civil War, brought upon the black the full effects of race struggle and consequent race deterioration; the black’s present status in the body politic had not only proved the Southern argument that the black was “notoriously incompetent”, but also that he could not exist as an equal in a free society (90).

Other medical men argued that just as there were innate hereditary influences which prompted the black to acts of crime, so there were also anatomical and physiological differences between him and the Caucasian -differences which marked him not only as inferior to the white man, but also predisposed him to disease, high mortality and race deterioration. That there were major anatomical differences between the black and the white was commonly accepted by physicians. The Association of American Anatomists requested physicians to keep a careful record of all variations and anomalies between the two races. The black’s heavy, thick and coarse skull had marked him as a race that had “come out of the depth of centuries”, wrote one physician, whilst another declared that the dominant characteristic of the Negro’s physiology was the “lessened sensibility of his nervous system”.

American physicians dwelt at length on the sexual anatomy and physiology of the black and helped to disseminate popular misconceptions and racial stereotyping.” The Negro’s “moral delinquencies” along with elements of “bestiality and gratification”, were demonstrations of the close relationship of the race to “his animal sub-human ancestors”, wrote one Atlanta physician. To deal with “the animal passions of the Negro”, American physicians prescribed castration. They reasoned that, by that method, the rapist, who prided himself on his virility, would become an object of ridicule and contempt within his own society.

Other physicians suggested that white society “help along the process of extinction” and that “the only hope for the southern end of the United States is just these forces that are tending to exterminate the negro”.

Summing up, Haller states that: “Segregation and disfranchisement were first steps towards preparing the Negro race for its extinction. They were policies of anticipation for a singular white society in America and not a policy of two races working consciously toward ultimate equality. The accumulated evidence of the Negro’s inability to survive in a natural order precluded any real relevancy to separate existence other than merely a disguised anticipation for a more fundamental hope or belief” (91)


  1. MANNIX, Daniel P. “Black Cargoes”. Longmans, London. 1963. pp 1-2.
  2. CURTIN, P. “Epidemiology and the slave trade”, in “Political Science Quarter1y’, Vol. LXXXI11, June 1968. pp 190 - 216.
  3. MANNIX, Daniel P. “Black Cargoes”. Op. Cit. p viii.
  4. RODNEY, Walter. “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa”. Boyle - L’Ouverture Publications, London. 1972. pp 103 - 161.
  5. WILLIAMS, Eric. “The Origin of negro slavery”, in ‘Capitalism and Slavery’. Andre Deutsch, London. 1964.
  6. ORTIZ, Fernando, in Chapter 1, Introduction, p xxxviii, in SACO, J.A. ‘Historia de la Esclavitud de los Indios en el Nuevo Mundo (La Habana, 1932), quoted in Eric Williams, ‘The Origin of Negro Slavery’, ibid.
  7. REYNOLDS, Edward. “Stand the Storm: A History of the Atlantic Slave Trade”. Allison and Busby, London and New York, 1985. p 59

    -KLEIN, Herbert S. “The Middle Passage: Comparative Studies in the Atlantic Slave Trade”. Princeton University Press, Princeton. 1978. P 3.

    -SANCHEZ-ALBORNOZ, Nicolas. “The Population of Latin America: A History”. University of California Press, Berkeley. 1974.
  8. CESPEDES, G. “Latin America: The Early Years”. New York. 1974. pp 49 - 52.

  9. “Cambridge History of the British Empire” Cambridge, 1929. Chapter 1. p 69.

  10. BOLTON, H.E., and MARSHALL, T.M. “The Colonisation of North America, 1492
    - 1783”. New York. 1936. p 336

  11. l1.BREADY, J.W. “England Before and After Wesley - The Evangelical Revival and Social Reform”. London, 1938. p 106.

  12. CURTIS, James L. “Blacks, Medical Schools and Society”. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor. 1971. p 5.
  13. SCOTT, H Harold. “A History of Tropical Medicine, Vol.II”. Edward Arnold and Co., London. 1939. p 984.
  14. Ibid., pp 984, 987.
  15. CURTIN, Philip. “The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census”. The University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, Milwaukee, and London. 1969. pp 30 - 35.
  16. CHANDLER, David Lee. “Health and Slavery”. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation. Tulane University. 1972.
  17. MANNIX and COWLEY, “Black Cargoes”. New York. 1962. pp 131 - 152.

  18. HAIR, P.E.H. “The Enslavement of Koelle’s informants”, in ‘Journal of African History’, Vol. VI, 2 (1965), pp 193 - 203.

  19. REYNOLDS, Edward. “Stand the Storm: A History of the Atlantic Slave Trade”. Allison and Busby, London. 1985. p 39.
  20. MOORE, F. “Travels into the Inland Parts of Africa”. London. 1753. p 28.
  21. REYNOLDS, Edward. Op. Cit. p 45.
  22. SCOTT, H Harold. “A History of Tropical Medicine”. Based on the Fitzgerald Lectures Delivered before the Royal College of Physicians of London, 1937-38. 2 Vols. London 1939. II. p 997.

    - MACKENZIE-GRIEVE, Averil. “The Last Years of the English Slave Trade, 1750
    -1807. London. 1971. p 122.
  23. BARBOT, quoted in DONNAN, Elizabeth. “Documents Illustrative of the History of the Slave Trade to America”. 4 Vols. Washington. 1930 - 1935. I, p 293.
  24. DAVIES, K.G. “The Royal African Company”. London. 1957. p 293.

  25. MACKENZIE-GRIEVE. Op. Cit. p 126.
    DAVIES, K.G. Op. Cit. p 291
  26. CHANDLER, D.L. Op. Cit. p 17.
  27. Ibid. p 18.
  28. MACKENZIE-GRIEVE, Averil. “The Last Years of the English Slave Trade”. Op. Cit. p 143.
  29. Ibid. pp 128 - 129.
  30. NEWTON, John. “The Journal of a Slave Trader (John Newton), 1750 1754; with Newton’s Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade”. Eds. Bernard MARTIN and Mark SPURRELL. London. 1962. p 104.
  31. MANNIX, Daniel P. “Black Cargoes: A History of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1518 -1865 “. New York. 1962. p 116.
  32. Great Britain, House of Commons, Select Committee on the Slave Trade, “An Abstract of the Evidence Delivered before a Select Committee of the House of Commons in the Years 1790 and 1791 on part of the Petitioners for the Abolition of the Slave Trade”. London. 1791. pp 34 - 36; (hereafter cited as ‘Abstract o f Evidence’). Quoted in Chandler, D.L. Op. Cit. p 25.
  33. Great Britain, House of Commons, Abstract of Evidence, p 39. Quoted in MANNIX, Op. Cit. p 116.
  34. Great Britain, House of Commons, Abstract of Evidence, pp 35, 39; Falconbridge’s testimony, as quoted in MANNIX, p117. Op. Cit.
  35. SCOTT, H Harold. “A History of Tropical Medicine”. Op. Cit. II. p 997.
  36. Great Britain, House of Commons, “Minutes of the Evidence taken Before a Committee of the House of Commons, Being a Select Committee Appointed on the 29 th. Day of January, 1790, for the Purpose of Taking the Examination of Such Witnesses as Shall be Produced on the Part of the Several Petitioners who have Petitioned the House of Commons against the Abolition of the Slave Trade. (London, 1790.) p 590 (hereafter cited as Minutes against Abolition) and quoted in:

    SCOTT, II, Op. Cit. p 994; and CONOT, Theodore, “Adventures of an African Slaver: Being a True Account of the Life Of Captain Theodore Conot, Trader in

    Gold, Ivory and Slaves on the Coast of Guinea”. Ed. Malcolm COWLEY. New York. 1928. p 110.

  37. Great Britain, House of Commons, Minutes of the Evidence Taken before a Committee of the House of Commonsbeing a Select Committee Appointed to Take the Examination of Witnesses Respecting the African Slave Trade (London, 1791) p 33 (hereafter cited as “Minutes of Evidence”) and quoted in CHANDLER, D.L. Op. Cit. p 29.
  38. CHANDLER, D.L. Op. Cit. p 30; quoting, Great Britain, House of Commons, Abstract of Evidence, p 49.
  39. CHANDLER, D.L. Op. Cit. p 30.
  40. CREIGHTON, Charles. “A History of Epidemics in Britain”. 2nd. Edition. 2 Vols. New York. 1965. I. p 627.
  41. Ibid., p 627.
  42. Great Britain, House of Commons, Abstract of Evidence, p 48. Quoted in CHANDLER, D.L. Op. Cit. p 31.
  43. SCOTT, H Harold. Op. Cit. p 998.
  44. Great Britain, House of Commons, “Abstract of Evidence”, p 49, quoted in CHANDLER, D.L. Op. Cit. p 35.
  45. REYNOLDS, Edward. Op. Cit. p 50.
  46. Great Britain, House of Commons, “Abstract of Evidence”. Op. Cit. p 32 - 49.
  47. SCOTT, H Harold. Op. Cit. p 998.

  48. MACKENZIE-GRIEVE. Op. Cit. pp 129 - 131.
    -MANNIX. Op. Cit. pp 113 - 114.
  49. CHANDLER, D.L. Op. Cit. p 44.
  50. REYNOLDS, Edward. Op. Cit p 49.
  51. REYNOLDS, Edward. Op. Cit. p 53.
  52. Ibid. p 54.
  53. PITTMEN, Frank Wesley. “The Development of the British West Indies, 1700-1763".New Haven. 1917. p 82.
  54. CHANDLER, D.L. Op. Cit. p 50 et seq.

  55. Ibid. p 64.
  56. PITTMEN, Frank W. Op. Cit, pp 384 - 390.
  57. ASHBURN, P.M. “The Ranks of Death: A Medical History of the Conquest of America”. Ed. Frank D. Ashburn. New York. 1947. p 40.
  58. ACKERKNECHT, Erwin. “History and Geography of the Most Important Diseases”. New York. 1965. p 62.
  59. CURTIS, James L. “Blacks, Medical Schools and Society”. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor. 1971. p 7.
  60. CURTIN, Philip. “Epidemiology and the slave trade”, in ‘Political Science Quarterly, LXXXIII (June 1968) p 195.
  61. DUFFY, John. “Epidemics in Colonial America”. Baton Rouge. 1953. p 214.
  62. CURTIS, James L. “Blacks, Medical Schools and Society”. Op. Cit. pp 5 - 6.
  63. CHANDLER, D.L. Op. Cit. p 142.
  64. WILLIAMS, Eric E. “Documents of West Indian History. Vol. I, 1492 1655, From the Spanish Discovery to the British Conquest of Jamaica”. Port of Spain, Trinidad. 1963. p 158.
  65. CHANDLER, D.L. Op. Cit. pp 228 - 230.
  66. LESCENE, G.T. “Brief Historical Retrospect of the Medical Profession im Jamaica”? in ‘West Indian Medical Journal’, Vol. 4, Part 4, 1955. pp 217 - 240.
  67. STAMPP, Kenneth M. “The Peculiar Institution”. Eyre and Spottiswoode, London. 1964. pp 268 - 306. POSTELL, William D. “The Health of Slaves on Southern Plantations´┐Ż. Baton Rouge, 1951. p 78 et seq.
  68. MALLARD, Robert Q. “Plantation Life Before Emancipation”. Richmond 1892. pp 29 - 30.
  69. STAMPP, Kenneth M. “The Peculiar Institution”. Op. Cit. pp 281 - 282.
  70. .SHRYOCK, Richard H. “Medical practice in the Old South”, in ‘South Atlantic Quarterly’, XXIX (1930). pp 160 -163.

  71. SHRYOCK, Richard H. “Letters of Richard D. Arnold, M.D., 1808 -1876". Durham. 1929. pp 66 - 67.

    - SWADOS, Felice. “Negro health on the ante-bellum plantations”, in ‘Bulletin of the History of Medicine’, Vol. X, 1941. pp 463 - 464.

  72. MITCHELL, Martha Carolyn. “Health and the medical profession in the Lower South, 1845 -1860”, in ‘Journal of Southern History’, Vol. X, 1944. pp 430 - 431.
  73. POSTELL, William Dosite. “Mental health among the slave population on Southern plantations”, in ‘American Journal of Psychiatry’, Vol. 110, 1953. pp 52 - 55.
  74. STAMPP, Kenneth M. “The Peculiar Institution”. Op. Cit. p 295.
  75. SHRYOCK, Richard H. “Medical practice in the Old South”. Op. Cit. p 174.
  76. Quoted in STAMPP, Kenneth M. “The Peculiar Institution”. Op. Cit. p 302.
  77. Ibid. p 303.
  78. Ibid.
  79. Ibid., p 305.
  80. MARABLE, Manning. “How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America”. Pluto Press, London. 1983. p 6.
  81. DAVIS, Angela. “Reflections on the black woman’s role in the community of slaves”, in ‘Black Scholar’, Vol. 3, December 1971. p 7.
  82. MARABLE, Manning. “How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America”. Op. Cit. p 73.
  83. DAVIS, Angela. “Reflections on the black woman’s role in the community of slaves”. Op. Cit. p 13.
  84. MARABLE, Manning. Op. Cit. p 117.
  85. CURTIS, James L. “Blacks, Medical Schools and Society”. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor. 1971. p 5.
  86. WILLIAMS, Eric. “Capitalism and Slavery”. Andre Deutsch, London. 1964. p 169.
  87. Ibid., p 136.
  88. CENTRE For CONTEMPORARY CULTURAL STUDIES. “The Empire Strikes Back”. Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, University of Birmingham. 1982. pp 108 110.
  89. HALLER, John S. “The physician versus the negro: medical and anthropological concepts of race in the late nineteenth century”, in ‘Bulletin of the History of Medicine’. Vol. 44. 1970. pp 154 - 167.
  90. Ibid., p 156.
  91. Ibid., p 167.
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