The Transatlantic Slave Trade and Origins of the African Diaspora in Texas
“The enemies of Africa wish to persuade the world that five out of the six thousand years that the world has existed, Africa has always been sunk in barbarism, and that ignorance is essential to the nature of her inhabitants. Have they forgotten that Africa was the cradle of the arts and sciences? If they pretend to forget this, it becomes our duty to remind them of it.”
– Baron De Vastey, African Haitian, writer, 1817
By Dr. Glenn Chambers
Asst. Professor of History
Texas A&M University
The creation of the modern African Diaspora in the Americas is largely the result of a tumultuous period in world history in which Africans were scattered abroad by the pressures of plantation slavery and the ideologies associated with white supremacy. The formation of the black societies and cultures in the Americas that trace their beginnings to this unfortunate period in world history represent a socio-historical phenomenon in which enslaved Africans and their descendants persevered to create a vibrant cultural legacy owing much to both Africa and the Americas, despite the systematic pressures of slave owners and overseers to erase the memory of Africa from the hearts and minds of the population.
Regardless of where one travels throughout the Diaspora, whether in Latin America, the Caribbean, or North America, it is impossible to elude the numerous similarities in art, cuisine, religion, community organization, speech patterns, and world view that pay homage to the legacy of the African experience in the Americas.
The African Diaspora has been defined by the noted historian Joseph Harris as the voluntary and involuntary dispersion of Africans globally throughout history; the emergence of a cultural identity based on origin and social condition; and the psychological and physical return of those in the Diaspora to Africa. Within this definition, Africa is clearly based at the center of any discussion of the Diaspora and has created a tenuous debate within both scholarly and popular circles as to whether the Diaspora remains connected directly to Africa as evidenced by the numerous Africanisms and cultural retentions in the Diaspora that demonstrate to some an unyielding linkage between Africa and the Diaspora unaffected by slavery, or is the Diaspora something else, with its members impacted as much by the social, cultural, and economic legacies of slavery and colonialism in the Americas as by their ancestral homes on the African continent.
It is probable that the answer lies somewhere in the middle depending on the particular situation and how sustainable the relationship between Africa and the country of arrival. In areas such as the Caribbean and Latin America, particularly Brazil and Cuba, clearly discernible African influences persist well into the twenty-first century due to the short life span of enslaved labor on sugar plantations in the region and therefore, the continuous importation of Africans into these areas legally and later clandestinely well into the nineteenth century. In the Southern United States, due to the banning of the Transatlantic Slave Trade in 1807 and the relatively sustainable working conditions of cotton agriculture, slave owners relied primarily on natural reproduction to increase its enslaved population, thus severing the immediate ties with Africa.
However, this is not to suggest that Africa did not persist to be a relevant factor in the lives of the enslaved. This essay focuses on the history of the African Diaspora in the American South, particularly the modern state of Texas. The study of the Diaspora in Texas has received considerable attention in recent years as scholars have begun to revisit the history of slavery and Jim Crow in the South and
Southwest. However, the African Diaspora in Texas has a history that stretches beyond these two themes, due largely to the numerous social, political, economic, and cultural realities that converged in this region as a result of its legacy of falling at various times under the political jurisdiction of both the Spanish and French Empires, Mexico, the Confederacy, the United States, and for a brief, but significant period, an independent nation.
For years, Texas remained on the periphery of discussions on slavery due largely to its status as a frontier region and its dual distinction of representing the rich Mexican and Mexican-American traditions and cultural heritages of the Southwest due to its former status as a Mexican possession as well as the rich legacy of cowboy culture. However, the history of slavery in the Lone star State dates back to the early Spanish settlements of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The institution did not come to play the pivotal role in the Texas economy until Anglo colonization from the Southern United States in the 1820s to the end of the Civil War.
Slavery proved instrumental to the economic success of Texas. As cotton cultivation moved westward, so did the demand for slave labor. Many of the enslaved, like their Anglo-American owners, came to Texas from Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky. Still others were imported into Texas from all over the South in what some have described as the second Middle Passage in which almost one million African Americans were transported from the Upper South (Virginia, Maryland, and the Carolinas) to expanding cotton plantation economies in the Deep South. This internal slave trade unites all African-Americans regardless of the state their ancestors resided in at emancipation. Because only 30% of African Americans on the eve of the Civil War would likely die in the same state they were born, the lives of the enslaved population were in constant flux. Therefore, the history of Africans and their descendants, whether in Africa or in the Americas, is one of continuous movement.
Texas shares a unique history with other Southern states such as Louisiana, Florida, and the Carolinas in that much of its early history beginning with European contact was influenced by Southern Europeans, mainly the Spanish, and tied more to the history of colonial Latin America and the Caribbean, rather than the Anglo-Saxon and Dutch influenced colonies of the Mid-Atlantic and New England.
The African Diaspora in what would later become Texas began in 1528, not with plantation slavery, but with the early missions of Spanish conquistadors and explorers.
The first known African to reach Texas was Estéban the Moor, or Estebánico as he is commonly known. He was an enslaved African who survived the failed Panfilo Narváez expedition from Cuba to Florida. In an attempt to reach Mexico by raft, Estéban, along with his owner Andrés Dorantes de Carranza, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, and Alonso del Castillo Maldonado were shipwrecked on what is now Galveston Island. Estéban’s landing on the island made him the first known person born in Africa to set foot in what would become the continental United States. He, along with Cabeza de Vaca, later explored Texas and accounts of their journey were instrumental in inspiring other Spaniards to explore the Southwest.
Because of Estéban’s rapport with Native Americans, due in part to his African ancestry and ability to learn languages and relate to their culture and traditions, the expedition was often given safe passage on their journey. Estéban made a second voyage through Texas in 1539 as part of the Niza expedition in search of the mythic Seven Cities of Cibola. He was later killed by the Zuni Indians reportedly because he was carrying a religious gourd rattle given to him by Indians from an area south of the Zuni. The Zuni believed that Estéban would lead invaders to them and as a result, killed him. Before he died, Estéban’s voyages successfully marked the route by which Coronado would later follow in his own expeditions.
Despite the legend surrounding Estéban and his lasting imprint on the history of the African Diaspora specifically and the Southwest in general, his most important contribution to understanding the multi-faceted dimensions of the history of Africans in the Americas lies not in his exploits, but rather on his personal journey. Born in the Portuguese North African enclave of Azamor, Estéban, like many early captive Africans, was enslaved at an early age and forcibly converted to Roman Catholicism and indoctrinated in Iberian languages and culture. His status as a ladino, or a Hispanicized African slave made him a highly prized commodity in both Iberia and the Americas.
Many of the first Africans enslaved in colonial Latin America were ladino slaves born in either Upper Guinea, the Senegambia, or North Africa and acculturated in the Iberian peninsula, or born in the Iberian peninsula. Similar to Estéban, many of the early Africans were pivotal to the expansion of Spanish authority in the Americas due to their involvement in the conquest of Native Americans. In
almost every facet of the conquest, there was participation by people of African descent. These early African “conquistadors” were almost always enslaved Africans carrying out the orders of their Spanish owners. Almost all were enslaved either in the Iberian Peninsula or on Spanish Caribbean possessions. In these locales, they acquired skills or trades that proved useful to conquering expeditions.
Unfortunately, most of what we know of black conquistadors comes as a result of them killing a native ruler or being killed by natives themselves, or from their efforts in saving the life of a prominent Spaniard. From the records of expeditions known to employ black conquistadors in Honduras, Peru, Chile, Florida, Mexico, and the Carolinas, there is little to discern regarding the individual experiences of these men.
The early African presence in Texas did not end with the death of Estéban.
Subsequent Spanish expeditions in Texas during the seventeen century found instances of descendants of Africans living with Native Americans on the coast near the mouth of the Rio Grande. It is believed that they were descended from either enslaved Africans in earlier Spanish settlements or survivors of shipwrecked vessels from other Spanish areas. When the Spanish began to establish permanent settlements in Texas during the eighteenth century, African descendants were involved in the process just as they had been in other regions of the empire. Many of the early Spanish garrisons in Texas contained either blacks or Afro-mestizos within its ranks.
African Origins, American Realities: The Middle Passage and the Dispersal of a People
Any discussion of the African Diaspora in the Americas must begin with the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Michael Gomes describes the event as the “quintessential moment of transfiguration, the height of human alienation, and disorientation” of a group of people unlike any other in history. The slave trade began on African soil and involved Africans, Arabs, and Europeans alike. It would be disingenuous to over-simplify the trade as Africans selling other Africans into slavery. Notions of African or Black unity in the Western sense did not exist.
Some have used such arguments to shift the blame for the horrors of the Middle Passage and the plantation experience in the Americas from the European traders who profited from the buying and selling of humans and the American slave owners who capitalized on over three centuries of free labor to Africans. Ethnicity was a marker of identity on the African continent. Raids, kidnappings, and warfare produced the majority of captives brought to the Americas. There were instances of African rulers selling their own subjects into bondage as well as criminals, house servants, and debtors. However, the majority of the enslaved were captured in ethnic conflicts or kidnapped by slave traders.
European slavers often relied on native African or mixed raced (African and European) middlemen to penetrate the interior of the continent and capture men and women to be sold along the coast. This experience alone was traumatic. Once captured, Africans were tied together by rope, and later marched hundreds of miles while suffering from thirst, hunger, exhaustion, physical injuries, and the anxiety of not knowing where they were going or their fate once they reached their final destination. Many did not survive the journey from the interior to the coast. Some died en route while others were too emaciated and weak to endure the transatlantic voyage.
John Blassingame notes that once the captured Africans arrived on the coast, they underwent physical “examinations” in which they were made to jump up and down, and had their genital organs handled by a doctor. Those Africans chosen to make the voyage to the Americas were branded with the seal of the European companies who transported them.
Images of the Middle Passage have captivated the American imagination in recent years. Hollywood films such as “Roots,” based on the Alex Haley novel of the same name and Steven Spielberg’s “Amistad,” based on the 1839 slave mutiny that questioned the legality of slave trafficking in the United States, have detailed the horrors of the trade in African captives to North America. The Cuban director Tomás Gutierrez Alea’s “The Last Supper,” Haile Gerima’s “Sankofa,” and the Brazilian Carlos Diegues’ “Quilombo,” have also contributed to the understanding of the global implications of the Middle Passage and the creation of the African Diaspora in the Americas.
Countless books, articles, novels, and other medium have also been employed to further our understanding of the nuances of the slave trade and its impact on social, political, economic, and cultural spheres of past and present society. However, for the dearth of information available on the subject, most continue to understate the legacy of those captive Africans forced from their homelands to
embark on the horrendous journey that ended with their enslavement.
Scholars disagree on the number of Africans shipped from Africa to the Americas during the Transatlantic Slave Trade. There is no way to be 100 percent accurate given the unavailability of extensive data documenting each and every transatlantic voyage from the inception of the trade to its demise. Estimates range as low as 5 million to as high as 100 million. There is some consensus that the numbers range between 10-12 million. While exact numbers are debatable, the available data from voyages between 1662 and 1867 does much to demonstrate the distribution of Africans throughout the Americas. During this period, roughly 90 percent of captive Africans ended up in Latin America and the Caribbean with 40 percent going to Brazil, 37 percent to the British and French Caribbean, and 10 percent to the Spanish colonies.
Only 7 percent of captive Africans ended up in British North America (the modern United States). The origins of these Africans can be traced to four regions of the African continent: West Central Africa, the Bight of Benin, the Bight of Biafra, and the Gold Coast. The Kongo ethnicity represented the majority of Africans taken from West Central Africa. Their influence was strong in Brazil, Cuba, Haiti, and portions of the United States such as Louisiana. This group was at the center of many of the early slave insurrections in the Americas.
The establishment of the maroon communities of Palmares in Brazil, San Basilio de Palenque in Colombia, the Haitian Revolution and countless other rebellions were overly represented by Africans originating from West Central Africa. In Louisiana, informal musical gatherings of West African slaves at Congo Square, named for the largest African ethnicity imported into Louisiana at the time, provided the early foundations for what would become jazz.
The Congo peoples had a profound impact on the philosophical and religious world view of the African Diaspora in the Americas.
Generally, the Congo people believe in a divided cosmos comprised of the natural world and the land of the ancestors. The worlds are often divided by a body of water. Adherents believe that life is a cyclical movement between the natural and ancestral world. Life does not end at death, with the latter serving only as a transition into another reality. For many of the enslaved Africans of Congo origin, to die in the struggle for freedom meant only that their bodies would return to the land of the ancestors. As a result, death in many ways offered relief from the horrors of the plantation.
Those Africans from the Bight of Benin consisted overwhelmingly of the Fon, Ewe, and Yoruba ethnicities. Their impact is also
evident in many of the religious traditions of the African Diaspora. The African-American Baptist ritual of water baptism, Haitian Vodun, Louisiana Voodoo, Cuban santería, Brazilian candomble, and numerous other religious traditions of the Diaspora trace their origins to these groups from the areas that now constitute the southwestern corner of modern Nigeria.
The Yoruba concept of orí proved a particularly enduring legacy among the enslaved population. In traditional Yoruba philosophy, orí refers to the bearer of a person’s destiny as well as the determinant of personality. The term literally means “head” and represents the spiritual and physical duality within human beings.
There is a common belief among the Yoruba that an individual can be healed both spiritually and physically by aligning themselves with the orishas to achieve balance or inner peace. It is this desire for balance that rests at the heart of plantation culture in the Americas in which Africans and their descendants struggled to retain their African character while being bombarded by the traditions of Europeans.
Those Africans from West Central Africa, the Gold Coast, and the Bight of Benin came from centralized states with standing armies.
As a result, these groups were harder to subdue than the more agrarian societies of the Bight of Biafra where the large numbers of Ibibio, Ijo, and Ibo originated. Therefore, it is not surprising that many of the slave insurrections in the Americas were organized by members of these ethnicities.
The Akan and Ga peoples of the Gold Coast, in modern day Ghana, were overly represented in the enslaved populations in the British Caribbean, most notably Jamaica. Like the Kongo, the Akan were instrumental in many of the slave rebellions in the region. The maroon communities of Cudjoe and Nanny in Jamaica and their numerous cultural, linguistic, and religious traditions trace their origins
to this group.
A fiercely independent and resilient people, the Akan legacy manifests itself in lasting, though sometimes subtle ways. Some of their most important mythological stories, known Anansesem or “spider stories,” which revolve around a trickster spider in human form manifest themselves in the Anansi stories of the British Caribbean and the Brer Rabbit stories of the American South.
The aforementioned regions of Africa represented the largest number of enslaved Africans brought to the Americas in the over two hundred year period between 1662 and 1867 in which the slave trade was most active. However, the Transatlantic Slave Trade began much earlier in the 15th century shortly after the European discovery of the Americas. The first Africans arrived in the Spanish colony of Santo Domingo as early as 1501. Some of the earliest groups of Africans brought to the Americas traced their origins to the Senegambia and Upper Guinea regions of the present day nations of Senegal, the Gambia, Mali, Guinea, and Guinea-Bissau.
Relatively speaking, the region was culturally homogenous and shared a common sense of history. Many of the languages in the region are mutually intelligible. The empires of Ghana, Songhai, Mali, and the Muslim Almoravids all had their beginnings in the Senegambia region.
The Trans-Saharan trade brought this region into contact with the Arab, Mediterranean, and Iberian world centuries prior to other regions in West Africa. This exposure, while initially providing lucrative gains to African leaders and merchants through the trade in gold and salt, proved detrimental in other ways due to the development of the slave trade. Many of the first Africans enslaved in the Iberian peninsula and other parts of the Mediterranean world were products of this trade that was often spearheaded by Arab and Muslim merchants and traders in North Africa. Others arrived as a result of Portugal’s early inroads into the African continent.
It is estimated that between 1475 and 1540, some 12,000 people were transported as captives from the Gold Coast of Africa. African merchants along the coast imported people enslaved from other regions of Africa. Some merchants used the slaves to extract gold from the mines in the regions. Others sold Africans as commodities once contact with Europeans and commercial relations were firmly
Initially, slaves were transported from the Iberian Peninsula to the Americas in sizable numbers at the encouragement of the Spanish Crown. Most of these early enslaved Africans were Iberian-born descendents of Senegambians who had been nominally Christianized and indoctrinated in Iberian culture. The Spanish continually allowed for the introduction of these Africans into the Americas until the high cost of importation and their prominent role in Native American insurrections led the crown to prefer the exclusive importation of African born slaves.
The importation of African born slaves did not make life easier for the Spanish. Most the African born slaves in the early periods of colonization continued to come from Upper Guinea and the Senegambia region, of which the Wolof, Mandinka, Mandingo, Bambara, and others were prominent. These groups continued to be influential in slave insurrections from Hispaniola to Louisiana throughout the
sixteenth and seventeenth century. Once the French took over the slave trade in the Senegambian region in the seventeenth century, they continued to export Africans to their colonies in the Americas.
Two-thirds of all enslaved Africans brought to Louisiana during the French colonial period were of Senegambian origin, mainly Wolof and Bambara. Many scholars argue that it was the Bambara culture in particular that served as the foundation for many of the Afro-Creole beliefs in Louisiana such as the transmigration of the soul, social organization, the use of charms, and sense of justice. Each of these concepts proved instrumental in many of the early slave insurrections in Louisiana. There was little fear of retribution from whites on the part of the enslaved. The hierarchical structure within Senegambian society and the strong belief that death offered a return to the ancestral home and liberation from bondage motivated many of the enslaved to persevere.
The connection between the African Diasporas in Louisiana and Texas are strong considering that many Africans from Louisiana were imported into Texas as a result of the internal slave trade. Still, thousands of Black Louisianans migrated to Texas beginning in the period after Reconstruction and continuing to the present day. As a result, the linkages between these early Senegambians enslaved in the former French possession and Texas are just as strong as the linkages between Texas and those Africans enslaved in the original thirteen colonies of British North America.
The Transatlantic Slave Trade and the Origins of the African Diaspora in British North America
Much of the available information on slavery in North America analyzes four distinct patterns that existed in the original thirteen colonies on the eve of the American Revolution. Distinctions are drawn between the Chesapeake region encompassing Virginia, Maryland, and parts of Delaware; the Low Country region consisting of the Carolinas and later Georgia; the Mid-Atlantic, inclusive of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania; and the New England colonies of Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island and Maine.
The most important pattern for understanding plantation slavery as it evolved in the American South and later Texas was represented by the Chesapeake region. Because Virginia was the first of the British North American colonies to develop a strong plantation economy centered on enslaved African labor, and due to the early migration of Virginians to other regions in what would become the American South, the colony in many ways codified the social and legal system that would define U.S. race relations.
For years, scholars maintained that a Dutch slave vessel was responsible for bringing the first Africans to Virginia. However, in recent years new evidence has surfaced indicating two English pirate ships actually intercepted a Portuguese ship in the Gulf of Mexico and transported the Africans to Jamestown. All of these early Africans are thought to have been of the Congo ethnicity as they were taken from a port in modern day Angola. Because chattel slavery was not entrenched within colonial Virginian society when the Africans arrived, scholars debate whether these initial Africans served in an indentured capacity or were immediately enslaved.
Some of these early Africans, specifically one Anthony Johnson, rose to prominence in colonial society, while others suffered a fate of perpetual indentured servitude and slavery. The status of Africans in early Virginia was often in question. It is not until the 1640s that evidence of Africans being enslaved in the traditional sense surfaces. Even then, it was the result of a legal sentence, rather than a status acquired at birth. The legal system was instrumental in advancing the institution of slavery as blacks became more likely to be enslaved for minor offenses. Children born of interracial unions were also subject to long periods of servitude due to the taboos within colonial society against racial mixture between blacks and whites, particularly white women and black men.
From 1619 through the end of the seventeenth century, the rights of Africans and their descendants in Virginia were constantly being threatened. The dissolution of rights, coupled with the increased development of the tobacco industry and its need for consistent labor would have devastating implications for Africans and their descendants. Slavery as an institution in Virginia was solidified with the Slave Codes of 1705. As a result, black and African became synonymous with slavery.
After the solidification of the plantation system, slavery in Virginia and Maryland grew faster than the white population for the next century. The Tidewater region, Piedmont, and Southern Maryland experienced the largest growth in the black population. Virginia counties along the York River contained the highest number of enslaved Africans as the river provided the main artery for slave traders to bring Africans into the region and possessed some of the best agricultural lands to establish plantations.
Though both were fully engaged in the enslavement of Africans and plantation agriculture, slavery in Virginia and Maryland developed differently in terms of their impact on the larger Diaspora in the Southern United States. Maryland was a relatively small state without much room to expand. As a result, following the American Revolution and the ban on the Transatlantic trade, slavery in Maryland decreased. By the Civil War, nearly fifty percent of the black population was free. It was from the freed population in places like Maryland that many of the early African-American settlers of Liberia originated. Virginia, on the other hand, due in part to its extensive territory, saw the expansion of slavery and growth in the black population until the Civil War. However, by the nineteenth century, the breeding of slaves to be shipped to emerging territories throughout the South rivaled plantation agriculture economically.
Though British North America received only 7 percent of all enslaved Africans during the trade, the impact of this population on the social and cultural dimensions of early America were numerous. In areas where there were fewer white settlers or Native Americans, African cultural retentions persisted. Such was the case in the Low Country of South Carolina and Georgia where Gullah cultural
markers reflect direct linkages with specific ethnicities and regions of West Africa.
Although the first Africans arrived in the Carolinas as part of a Spanish expedition in the early sixteenth century, slavery as an institution was developed by Anglo settlers from Barbados who established large rice and indigo plantations in the region in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Africans continuously outnumbered whites in the low country and during the early years of
the development of the institution came either from the West Indies or directly from Africa. The culture of the slave community in the Carolinas reflects almost all regions of West Africa, unlike Louisiana for instance in which Senegambia and later the Congo were overly represented.
After the implementation of the ban on the Transatlantic Slave Trade in 1808, most of the enslaved Africans arriving in South Carolina came from the Chesapeake region. After 1808, Virginia and the Carolinas supplied large numbers of slaves to the Lower South and West. As a result, the history of these regions directly relates to development of Black Texas in that Texas in many instances represents the culmination of a journey for many African-Americans that began on the continent of Africa, through the West Indies, to Virginia, the Carolinas, the Mid-South, and ultimately the plains of East and Central Texas.
The process by which Africans became African Americans continually evolved throughout the duration of the institution of slavery. Initially, clear distinctions were drawn between those slaves born on the continent of Africa and those born in the Americas. The trauma of capture in Africa, the Middle Passage, enslavement and life on the plantations did much to change the concept of Africa in the minds of slaves on the plantation. The “seasoning process,” as this indoctrination came to be known, was equivalent to the breaking of horses. The goal was to condition African captives for their new status as slaves in the plantation zones of the Americas.
For those African born captives, traders tried to present them as being as much like Creole slaves as possible. The belief was that Creole slaves, because they were born in the Americas under conditions of slavery and therefore had no knowledge of an independent life in Africa, were more likely to accept their lot in life as enslaved.
To help “Creolize” African born captives, traders usually shaved all of the hair from their bodies, washed them, and oiled them with palm oil. The captive African was fed in small amounts and trained, often through violent coercion, not to resist having their body parts examined. In some instances, slaves were placed into work gangs for a few weeks in the West Indies before being sold in the American South to condition them to the back-breaking labor on the plantation.
Another aspect of the seasoning process was the branding, renaming, and torturing of the enslaved. The branding process was not a new one for Africans who experienced the Middle Passage. Many of the enslaved were branded with the marks of the companies or traders who captured and sold them aboard slave vessels in Africa. In the Americas, many Africans were branded again with the mark of their new owner. The renaming process did much to establish an immediate rift between the enslaved and their ethnic identity in Africa. Names, either Christian or from ancient Greece and Rome are prevalent in the records of the Chesapeake and Carolina colonies. African derived names such as Cudjoe, Cuffee, Quack, Squash, Mingo, and others were also common in the Carolinas.
In addition to stripping the African of his freedom, ethnicity, religion, and original name, the seasoning process did much to diminish any possibility of unity among the enslaved. Older, creole slaves were often put in charge of the seasoning process. ]These experienced slaves taught the basics of working in gangs, proper behavior toward whites and also other blacks within the slave hierarchy on the plantation, and more importantly how to apply what they knew in Africa (agriculturally) to the American environment.
Particularly in the colonial Carolinas where Africans from rice growing regions of the Senegambia were favored on the rice plantations in the Low Country, African agricultural methods were preferred by owners in order to maximize economic gains on the plantations.
Similar trends have been documented in colonial Latin America in which Africans from the Gold Coast were preferred in the mining zones of Colombia, Peru, and Mexico.
In the Low Country region, rice production was organized either in labor gangs or through the task system in which slaves days were portioned out to perform specific duties. This afforded the enslaved population more individual time depending on the intensity with which they completed their assigned daily tasks. This ultimately helped preserve more aspects of African culture in that the enslaved population was afforded more time to pass on traditions and customs to subsequent generations. This ended after the transition from rice to cotton production as the largest cash crop in the region. Cotton cultivation was less labor intensive than rice or indigo cultivation. The problem arose when many planters decided to transition to gang labor, therefore regulating a larger portion of the enslaved population’s time. The introduction of cotton cultivation also signaled the beginning of the expansion of slavery beyond the original colonies.
The experiences of women during the Middle Passage and later the seasoning process and plantation living were particularly harsh. Women were often subject to the unwanted sexual advances of the white captors and slave owners. Enslaved women endured the constant threat and practice of rape sexual exploitation.
Because these women were legally and socially considered property with no rights, there were no safeguards to protect them from harassment, rape, or long-term concubinage by masters and overseers. The abuse was widespread, often producing mixed-raced children, who due to the strict racial structure which defined anyone born to an enslaved mother as also enslaved, or anyone with known or visible African ancestry as black, were caught between two diametrically opposed worlds.
Sexual abuse on plantations was widespread, as powerful white males took full advantage of their situation. Even in situations where black women seemed willing to partake in sexual relationships with white men, such as the “danses des milatresses” (octoroon and quadroon balls) of New Orleans in which women of color entered into contractual arrangements of concubinage, or plaçage, with
wealthy whites in exchange for a home, prestige, education for children born to the union, and material possessions, in reality the nature of plantation society and the racial hierarchy left her with little choice. No matter the circumstances women were subjected to in this environment, enslaved men were powerless to protect black women from exploitation.
Those captive Africans arriving directly from Africa possessed a sense of ethnicity and culture shaped by their African world view.
Plantation owners in the American South realized the strength the enslaved population garnered from the African-born due largely to the significant number of African-born slaves involved in early insurrections, despite the brutality of the seasoning process. The African-born were also more likely to runaway. This created significant financial loss to the owner in that not only did he lose an able-bodied slave, but many runaways created maroon societies or joined with Indians to wreak havoc on owners by recruiting other slaves to run away, stealing food and supplies, or kidnapping female slaves for companionship.
The history of maroon communities has been well documented in Latin America and the Caribbean. However, very little attention has been given to the numerous communities that existed in what is now the United States. Over fifty communities are known to have existed in the swamps, forests, and mountains of Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia and the Gulf Coast states of Mississippi, Louisiana, Florida, and Alabama. Within these settlements, Africans lived a relatively autonomous existence by planting their own crops, hunting, gathering, and selling products to outsiders. Maroon communities only flourished in areas where white settlement was scarce and the terrain too difficult to attract white settlers.
In order to curb losses due to marronage, plantation owners outlawed many outward expressions of African identity in the American South. African religion, cultural manifestations such as dance and drumming, and language, suffered under the strict regulation by plantation owners. The drum was specifically outlawed when it was discovered that its rhythms could be used as a form of communication among the enslaved. Such repression did much to quell the number of revolts. However, Africans never stopped asserting their right to freedom as evidenced by the numerous slave revolts and conspiracies that transpired throughout the South.
The act of running away and starting new communities or engaging in armed struggle against the slave system is often referred to as ‘grand marronage.” This was by far the most direct form of slave resistance on the plantation. However, lesser acts of rebellion known as “petite marronage” were more prominent. Acts, such as breaking tools, feigning illness, and damaging crops were all methods
employed to create work stoppage and ease the burden of the enslaved, if only briefly. There is also evidence to indicate that some enslaved women used abortifacients or even engaged in infanticide to deny the planter class an increase in enslaved labor. Though the levels of this practice are debatable, such accounts indicate that the enslaved population, particularly in North America, did not readily accept their fate.
In Latin America, particularly Cuba and Brazil, African traditions were transformed within the plantation environment and retained through ethnic societies sanctioned by the colonial governments In Cuba, African mutual aid societies known as cabildos de nación, met in private and because of their spatial distance from church officials, became very attractive to Afro-Cubans. Cabildos allowed the enslaved the means to enjoy much more religious and cultural autonomy. Plantation owners saw the value in allowing Africans to retain some sense of ethnicity in that it proved easier to control labor and maintain ethnic tensions between the enslaved. This level of autonomy was in many ways synonymous with cultural autonomy in that cabildos proved to be a fertile ground for the nurturing of African traditions. As a result, here exist more outward manifestations of African-derived culture in Latin America than in other parts
of the Diaspora. However, this does not mean that Africa disappeared from the conscience of enslaved Africans in British North America.
Africans in North America had to recast their culture and traditions in means acceptable to their owners. Africans took up European instruments and played them in distinct ways to replace the rhythm of the drum. African sensibilities were brought to vocal and musical performance to create a new and vibrant culture that still owed allegiances to Africa. As a result, some have argued for a “creolist” interpretation of the African Diaspora in which the constant reinvention of Africans and their descendants in the Americas contributed to a uniquely American experience, but deeply rooted in the African tradition.
While plantation slavery in North America was a uniquely Southern phenomenon, the institution of slavery was not. The history of slavery in the Northern colonies has a history almost as long as in the South. However, slavery in the North developed quite differently from the Southern variety. Northern colonists preferred to import enslaved African labor from the Caribbean rather than directly from Africa. Barbados, Jamaica, and Curaçao were the origins of the majority of slaves headed North, with the former supplying the British influenced New England colonies and the latter supplying the former Dutch areas of the Mid-Atlantic. Like their Southern counterparts, Northern owners felt that captive Africans were a riskier investment and preferred those Africans who had been conditioned to slave society. In addition, Africans imported directly from the continent suffered tremendously from Northern winters and were often incapacitated or perished due to the drastic shift in climate.
Unlike the plantation system in the South which was often rural, slavery in Northern environments was overwhelmingly urban.
Africans were often purchased as symbols of economic and social status and worked in a domestic capacity. Large scale agricultural enterprises were rare due to the shorter growing season in the North. The absence of large plantations in no way undermines the struggles of those Africans enslaved in the North. The rights of Africans were stripped of them in Northern locales just as they were in the South. They were still the property of their white owners. Working in a domestic capacity increased the chances of many of the enslaved women being taken advantage of sexually. Because of their closer proximity to whites and isolation from other blacks (most slave owners had no more than two slaves) Africans in the North were more susceptible to assimilation of Western culture.
However, there are instances of African retentions, mainly burial practices surviving in Northern areas throughout the colonial period as evidenced by Akan spiritual markings on graves uncovered during the African Burial Ground project in New York City. African names survive in many of the colonial African cemeteries in places such as Newport, Rhode Island, a city that was instrumental in slave trafficking and slave ship building throughout the period of the transatlantic trade.
The Long, Wayward Voyage: The Emergence of the African Diaspora in Texas
The recorded history of the African Diaspora in Texas began with the expeditions of Estéban and developed further with the early Spanish settlements that introduced enslaved African labor into the territory. However, it was the origins of the institution in the British colonies of North America and the Caribbean that had the greatest impact on the history of Black Texans. Thousands of Texans trace their ancestry back to those enslaved Africans transported in coffles from the Chesapeake and Low Country into the new territories of Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas following the removal of Native Americans from these areas in the nineteenth century.
The expansion of cotton into these regions became synonymous with an increase in the internal slave trade. The culture of Texans of African descent reflects the rich diversity within the slave community. Though Texas is considered for some the final stop on the long journey of African enslavement in North America, in many instances the state marks the beginning of a new journey for people of
African descendants with strong similarities to the early history of British North America.
The internal slave trade was primarily responsible for the increase in the enslaved population of Texas from the early nineteenth century while the state was still a part of Mexico until the U.S. Civil War. However, the state was also involved in the clandestine enterprise known as the foreign slave trade in which thousands of slaves were imported directly from Africa after 1808 despite the ban on the Trans-Atlantic trade. It is unclear as to the number of Africans illegally imported into the United States, but judging from the available political correspondence on the practice in the United States during the period, the numbers were significant. Texas, particularly Galveston and the areas at the mouth of the Rio Grande, served as a direct link in the trade of human cargo between Africa, Cuba, Louisiana, and other locales throughout the region.
Because of its size and terrain, Texas served as a safe haven for illegal slave traffickers such as the Bowie brothers and Jean and Pierre Laffite. However, the far reaches of the state also provided sanctuary for many enslaved Africans who chose to flee the brutality of slavery through marronage. Many of the slaves ran away to Native American tribes or made their way across the Mexican border after Texas became independent. As a result, a culture of mixed African, Native American, and Spanish influences emerged.
From the early expeditions of Estéban to the establishment of the plantation industrial complex, Africans in the Americans have endured the brutality and uncertainty associated with the institution of slavery and the turmoil of being physically disconnected from Africa. Despite being captured in the interior of the continent, sold along the coast, enduring the Middle Passage and the seasoning
process, Africans and their descendents persevered to create a new reality that bore striking similarities to their former lives in Africa, yet represented a new American reality.
The African Diaspora in Texas represented the culmination of a journey that involved numerous social,political, and economic realities. Tracing its history in what is now the United States from the early British North American colonies, French and Spanish Louisiana, Latin America, and the Caribbean, the culture that developed in Texas represents nearly every facet of the American experience.
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