Category: Atlantic World history

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.

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