Watch – “Amistad” online
“Drawing the Color Line,” and “Slavery
Without Submission, Emancipation Without Freedom,” Zinn’s A People’s History
So…how many of you have car insurance? If you have a car, you have to have car insurance here in Texas. And even if you don’t have a car, you at least know what the purpose of insurance is, do you not? Of course. Stick with me, you’ll understand in a minute.
Please compare the version of history in your readings to this depiction of a slave’s experience being captured and then shipped across the Atlantic in the Hollywood film, Amistad. Are they the same? Or is the Amistad version too harsh? Or is it too clean and nice?
If you’re like most of my students you’ll probably be thinking to yourself that it was probably accurate, but that there may have been some exaggerations here and there.
Well, truth be told, what you watched was kind of the “Disney-version” of the slave trade. Source after source from this time period tells us of the unimaginable horror that was the slave ship, and yet most of us grow up never knowing most of this information. Most of us grow up never knowing how truly horrifying the slave’s experience was. But if we were to go back through this film clip and compare it to reality, I think you might begin to understand just what I am talking about.
The Capture: Most of us have heard at one time or another that Africans “sold each other” or “sold themselves” into slavery.
This is NOT TRUE. The only way this could be true would be to say that all Africans were alike because of the color of their skin. We know this is not reality. What was really happening was enemies were selling enemies into slavery. It would be like me selling an Al Qaeda member into slavery today…or maybe a Canadian (if we happened to be at war with Canada!)
The capture though was one of the most frightening parts of this voyage. Imagine being hit over the head and blacking out…and then waking up in a cage on a beach surrounded by people and things you do not know…unable to communicate with the people around you because they don’t speak the same language you do.
The Ship: You are then taken on board a large ship…and did anyone catch what the priest was saying to all of the Africans as they were being taken on board? Once on board, you are taken below deck and chained into a space the size of a coffin. And it is there, chained down, lying their naked, body against body with the people on either side of you, that you will stay for the next 2-6 months. You are packed in like sardines.
You will not be taken up on deck to use the bathroom. You use the bathroom where you lay, as does everyone around you. And people begin to get seasick. People begin to develop dysentery. You end up laying in urine, blood, vomit and feces for as long as 6 months. And there are deck after deck after deck of slave’s chained up in the cargo holds where no fresh air can penetrate and the fluids from the decks above seep through the cracks in the floor until they reach the lowest deck in the hold where often the smallest slave’s were stored…where the children would be forced to lay for months in this accumulation of filth.
Every once in a while, women were taken up on deck for “exercise.” You saw a depiction of this in the film, where the women were dancing with the deckhands. This “exercise” was often when the women were taken on deck and raped. Women were not the only ones subject to rape, men and children were raped as well. But, more often than not, women were the ones most often singled out for rape. This was a particularly cruel part of enslavement for women. Once captured and
put into slavery, women were not only used for physical labor, but they were often made into sex slaves as well.
You saw in the film slaves being whipped on board the ship. This was often done to maintain control on the ships. To make an “example” out of one or two to keep the rest of the slaves under control. What you did not see was what happens to flesh when it is whipped with a cow-hide. Once you reach 10 lashes with a whip, the entire back is lacerated. 20 lashes and your back would look like hamburger. 50 lashes and you are down to bone. One other incident you saw in the film that I will touch upon…the slaves tied together, tied to a bag of rocks, and then thrown over board. This was often done for many reasons…to lighten a ship that was running too heavy, to get rid of sick slaves, to diminish the number of mouths to feed if food rations were running low, to make an example of a few, or any other of a number of reasons.
What was not covered by the film though was this: Often, slave traders had their cargo (the slaves) on these ships covered by insurance. But the catch was that insurance companies would only pay out for slaves that were accidentally “Lost at Sea.” I’ll let you guess what this practice led to……..
Scars from repeated whippings
Suffice to say, of the 50 million Africans lost to the slave trade during this era, it is estimated that half of them were “Lost at Sea.” Historians have suggested that you could literally trace the paths of the slave ships from this era by the litter of bodies lining the ocean floor…25 million people “lost”….between the 100 million Native Americans killed and the 25 million African “lost at sea” it kind of begins to make the Holocaust of WWII seem miniscule by comparison doesn’t it?
So, what if I were to tell you that some of those insurance companies that paid out for these supposedly “lost” Africans are the same companies you have your car insurance with today? These same companies that made their first dollars off of this rather shady practice are some of the very same insurance companies and banks you do business with today? Would that bother you?