A Glimpse of Predation: Gender and Demography in the Transatlantic Slave Trade

The Transatlantic Slave Trade, the largest forced migration in world history, involved the displacement of at least 13 million African peoples, a majority of them identified as boys or men, a majority of them captives of war sown among West and central African societies by imperial powers within and without the African continent. The grim truth, that it operated as a trade alongside many other profitable goods and exchange, meant that there is considerable record of the transactions themselves. The numbers can blunt us to the human tragedy of it…enslaved Africans had been poets and blacksmiths, brothers and sisters, weavers and house-builders. They were terrified, traumatized; many were from interior regions of the continent, and had never seen an ocean in their lives. To experience it in that fashion, to have nothing but the water, the sound, the smell, the fear, surround you, must have pushed even the bravest to their breaking point. Indeed, slave ships took to installing nets to stop suicide attempts.

But the data of the Transatlantic Slave Trade can also reveal smaller stories, some of which otherwise have been subsumed by the voluminous abolitionist and “slave narrative” accounts. The latter are rightfully important in looking at the trade, but especially abolitionist literature needs to be handled carefully by historians because they were occasionally selective, and thus reductive. That selectivity favored gory details over more widespread experiences, like collective psychological trauma — though seemingly anachronistic, it’s not unreasonable to consider that enslaved Africans would suffer from post-traumatic stress. This could be made worse by the spiritual damage of family and community separation, which for many West and central African religions compromised a person’s ability to be formally initiated into communal ancestry. In fact, a psychological text analysis of Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography reveals dozens of references to 18th century terms for depression (“despair,” “melancholy”, “sad”, as well as the term itself), often focused on longing for family and community. Equiano’s account also draws particular attention to his youth, reminding us of another statistic: the average victim of the Transatlantic Slave Trade was 15 years old.

Thanks to the considerable efforts of Atlantic World historians like Philip Curtin, Paul Lovejoy, John Thornton, and the Davids (Eltis, Richardson, Blight), along with countless colleagues, undergraduate and graduate researchers, “Slave Voyages” (formerly called the “Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database”) is an incredibly deep resource for those interested in researching the Middle Passage. It includes documentation of over 36,000 slave ship voyages, and over 10,000 “intra-American” slave ship voyages, spanning 1514 to 1866. The data includes information on the name of the ship, when it sailed, the number of enslaved on-board, the ship captain and owner, and the national flag under which the ship sailed. It also includes the number of enslaved that disembarked, a reminder that, on average, around 18-20% of the enslaved Africans did not survive the Middle Passage. This rich data has become the basis of stirring visualizations of the trade, like this Slate piece by Andrew Kahn and Jamelle Bouie.

There is also documentation of over 90,000 individual enslaved persons, including many whose voyage was intercepted and they were “returned” to primarily Sierra Leone or Liberia. This information includes names, ages, heights, even estimations of ethnicity along with the general information on their ship’s voyage. It is from this data that we can find that a majority of the enslaved (at least, in this sample) were children — the “randomness” of this sample might be subject for debate, though it seems consistent with the majority of the accounts.

An interesting additional descriptor for many of the enslaved persons was their gender/age identity, which illuminates the gender and age disparity of the African peoples:

As you can see, those identified as “boys,” “men,” or “male” were 2/3 of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, which is consistent with most research on the trade, and essentially the obverse of the Trans-Saharan Slave Trade (900-1900 CE) of which roughly 2/3 were identified as female.

I decided to comb the data a bit further, though, because the combination of ages and gender identifiers intrigued me. I noticed, in some cases, that identified boys and girls under 18 were occasionally being labeled “man” or “woman”, not so curious at a time when young teenagers were considered old enough to marry, but in the context of a slave trade it could shed light on the attitudes of enslavers and Europeans more generally (since a considerable amount of this documentation was of those slave ships that were intercepted). Furthermore, a contemporary lens would show this to be an element of predation and racism, where the empowered are infantilized to innocence, and the oppressed are aged-up to seem willing or capable “participants” in their oppression. And it’s in this data that I saw a substantial trend:

A considerable number of enslaved African children were identified as adults, collectively around 10% of the time. In this sample, that accounts for around 3,500 children — if that trend were consistent across the Transatlantic Slave Trade, it would equal around 500,000. Conversely, you see almost no misattribution in the opposite direction, though certainly enslaved Africans would find it commonplace in the Americas to be referred to as “boy” or “girl” by slaveowners and overseers later on. In addition, those identified as girls were more likely to received this “age-up” misattribution. This included over a dozen girls under the age of 10, their height additionally reflecting their age (all under 4 1/2 feet tall).

The age distribution is especially troubling, with a large proportion of the aged-up children being identified as 14 or 15 years old. This mirrors European attitudes about age and “adulthood” thresholds from the period; once again, context matters. If we’re talking about age with regards to apprenticeship, or leaving the home, it’s not quite the same as age in an inherently predatory arena.

This information lends weight to images like the lead on this post, and the depression and despair Equiano expressed in his autobiography. The human cost, so easily quantified, has nuance that makes it more real to us, and should be faithfully portrayed. In this instance, a Transatlantic Slave Trade that is not simply fulfilling a labor demand in the Americas, but also a predatory trade in children, who in modern terminology would be “groomed” for exploitation. And perhaps in some way this is a contribution to the line of analysis we’ve seen more recently from scholars like Ibram Kendi, that enslaved African children were stamped from the beginning.