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Middle Passage

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Middle Passage

European slavers altered the way that different African people viewed one another and themselves. The book by Miguel Barnet, Biography of a Runaway Slave is a strong account that can be used to explore how Africans changed their perception of each other, and how this change influenced the lives of Africans in the Americas.

First of all it is important to examine how many African slaves were brought to the New World. The Middle Passage is infamous route of the ships that carried slaves to the Americas. After the arrival to the New World, the slaves were sold or exchanged for the valuable goods. The term Middle Passage might sound somewhat romantic, but in reality it stands as a one of the most terrible events in history. The Middle Passage is the passage of bonded slaves from West Africa to the Americas. In the beginning, there was a trade between Europeans and African leaders who sold their enemies and disabled people in exchange for unique gifts such as guns, tobacco, iron bars and etc. But at the later stages of slavery, Europeans often kidnapped Africans at the costal area of Western Africa and then sent to ships that sailed them to the New World where this new free work force was needed to help stabilize the new nation.

The Middle Passage took about ninety days. However, there where times when few months were need to transport Africans. During the crossing of the Atlantic Ocean, Africans were treated terribly. On the ship, African slaves were crammed like sardines and chained together.

In addition, Africans had to endure the terrible heat, there was little or no food provided. They were subjected to diseases that quickly spread among slaves, and many died due to unsanitary conditions. Most of the time, the sick were thrown overboard to avoid infecting others. One writer describes the terrible conditions that African slaves had to endure, “In the voyage, one of every three Africans died from dysentery, smallpox, or suffocation and was thrown overboard to the sharks, who reportedly followed the slave ships from the coast of Africa all the way to the New World.”

Also, the ship’s crew often treated the Africans badly; they often whipped them because many of the people resisted and tried to escape from the cargo ship.

On the cargo ships, there were people from various African tribes. According to Afro-Louisiana History and Genealogy, there were many different ethnic groups among them, the Congo, the Edo and the Yoruba/Nago, just to name few.2

During the Middle Passage and in the initial stages of life on the plantations, many slaves who came from different ethnic groups united together to resist bandage. (It happened many times throughout history; often people who were enemies united to fight for a common goal.) The slavery for Africans was the uniting factor, allowing them to become friendlier with enemy tribes. In the Americas, slaves became like a family, there was a bond that kept them together in resistance to their common enemies -- the slave owners.

The work on plantations was very hard to endure. Many slaves had to work from morning till dawn and there were very few breaks. Most slaves spent their time picking cotton from the plantations, bending down toward the land all day long. Men had to perform harder tasks, such as cutting sugar cane and working in the mill. Most plantation slaves worked in the fields; others were craft workers, messengers, and servants.

In the book The Biography of a Runaway Slave, Miguel Barnet recorded the narrative story of 105-year-old Esteban Montejo. Montejo was a runaway slave who fled from his master. Montejo describes the life of slaves “life was hard, and bodies wore out quick. If you didn’t escape early on into the forest to be Cimarron, you had to be slave.” 3(Barnet, 40) Slaves often faced terrible treatment for minor misconduct, “many of the horrors of punishment during slavery.”4 (Barnet, 39) In order to provide with more evident mistreatment of Africans, Montejo describes the cruel and inhuman treatment toward bonded people, “the most common type of punishment was whipping…whips were also made of hemp from any old branch in the woods…it sung like the dickens and tore skin into little strips.”5(Barnet 40) In order to escape from the difficult lives they had to bear as the slaves, many African people turned to religion.

The Africans who were brought to the Americas also brought with them important elements of their rich cultural backgrounds. The religions that developed in the Americas among the African people are called African Diasporic Religions. African Diasporic Religions are wide spread among Africans who preserved their customs and beliefs but adapted to new environments. The Santeria, Voodoo, and Puerto Rican Spiritualism are examples of African Diasporic Religions. It is known that people from various ethnic groups were captured and enslaved. From their cultures they brought many important concepts about religion, traditions and music.

The Yoruba people made great impact on other African people that were brought to the Americas. The Yoruba people used their beliefs to spread among the people of other ethnicities, and infusing their traditional religion with the European religions.

The African Diasporic Religions and religions of Mesoamerica share some common ideas.
Africans believe in many gods and goddesses; and believe that the world is “four cornered universe.” The African collection in the Museum of Natural History displays many figures that were used to perform special rituals. The people of Mesoamerica also believe in many gods and goddesses, and they perceive the world “cosmovision”6 The collection of Mesoamerican art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art consists of the exhibits of gods and goddesses. There are goddesses of water, corn, etc. In the societies where people believe in many gods (polytheistic religion), people worship to statues of gods and goddesses. They also perform ritual dances, which are often accompanied by a special music.

During the enslavement years, Africans developed their own unique culture, and much of it served as their response to the extremely difficult life during the years of enslavement.

For example, African slaves played drums to express their difficult life as bonded men and women. The African collection in the Museum of Natural History shows the great variety of different African instruments that were used to play unique African sounds.
Among those instruments there are many drums because drums were the one of the main instruments. Montejo (the narrator) describes a drum: “I knew about an instrument that was called the maribula, and it was tiny. They made it with wicker, and it had a deep sound like a drum.”7 African slaves lead very harsh way of life, however, they also knew ways lighten up their difficult burden as bonded people.

During the years of African enslavement more then ten million of African people were sold into slavery. Among these people there were Africans who were from different tribal groups. Each ethnic group had their own values and traditions. However, when many of them were brought to the New World there they were united by the common name as African slaves and this somehow affected their perception of themselves. In the Americas they were faced with common dilemma, of greater extend then intertribal differences that were so important in Africa.

During the Middle Passage, African people were united by common problem - enslavement.
The fact that ethnic borders were erased is due to the reaction of African slaves to the new way of life that they were forced to lead. They had to work from early morning until the sun went down. For little misconduct African slaves were harshly punished. However, slaves found the way to relive their physical and emotional stress, through the religious practices and melodious songs. In general, the unity that developed between different African people allowed them to survive harsh life as slaves.

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