Final Paper: Europeans and Africans

Final Paper: Europeans and Africans

HIS379: The Atlantic World

Final Paper: Europeans and Africans

“The crucial differences which distinguish human societies and human beings are not biological. They are cultural” (Ruth Benedict). When Europeans first sought new lands to expand their trade and gain wealth and prosperity, they found societies full of complex and diverse cultures. Upon discovering Africa, Europeans had to learn to adapt and accept enormous cultural differences and make decisions that put survival and religious views over humanity. While slavery was a normal part of African culture, the Europeans exploited it to meet the labor demands of new colonial plantations, all of which had lasting effects on both societies and cultures.

First Contact

The first European trade routes to Africa were set up by the Portuguese in the early fifteenth-century with the goal of finding gold and alternate sea routes to Asia. When those early explorers returned, they brought with them the gold they had been seeking, but also African slaves. What the explores had discovered was a society where slavery was ingrained in a culture of tribal hierarchies. For the next couple of centuries, the Portuguese established successful trading routes and had eventually secured the rights to the trading through the Treaty of Tordesillas, which gave Spain and Portugal papal support to all territorial claims in the New World and Africa. This helped them thrive while the economies of other European nations failed. Motivated by wealth, prosperity, and religion, the French, English, and Dutch banded together to take advantage of the expanded trading of Africa and newly discovered areas of America (Benjamin, 2009). The cultural differences the Europeans had discovered in these lands, especially Africa, was vastly different than they were accustomed to.

Upon first arriving in Africa, the Europeans were fascinated yet appalled by the Africans and their culture. To the Europeans, the African people, with their dark skin and lack of clothing except to cover their private areas were uncivilized. As stated by Jordan (2012) “It was important, if incalculably so, that the English discovery of black Africans came at a time when the excepted standard of ideal beauty was a fair complexion of rose and white. Negros not only failed to fit this ideal but seemed the very picture of perverse negation” (p.6). The physical appearance of the Africans and the uncivilized nature compared to the European’s created a lasting perceptual societal hierarchy where Europeans saw themselves as a superior race over the Africans.

Transatlantic Slave Trade

“A toleration of slavery is, in effect, a toleration of inhumanity,” (Granville Sharp). The institution of slavery was not foreign to the people of Africa, however, the context was more in line with indentured servitude than with chattel slavery, a practice that surged globally during the transatlantic slave trade. In chattel slavery, a person is stripped of all human rights and considered personal property. They are enslaved forever, and slave status was automatically applied to children born to slaves. These people were stolen away from their families, land, culture, and transported overseas to fulfill the labor demands of newly established colonial plantations. Of those who were kidnapped, two million never made it to the slave auctions; dysentery, malnutrition, suicide, and murder at the hands of the ships’ crews wiped out masses of people. The transatlantic slave trade marked the commencement of a centuries-long period of dehumanization of an entire population.

The experience for Africans during the European discovery and the subsequent slave trade was fearful and chaotic. Africans who became prisoners from tribal wars or were kidnapped by rival tribes were taken to the African coast to be sold to the European slave traders. The slave experience was far more extreme and hostile than the customary enslavement of the African culture. As written by Quobna Ottobah Cugoano (n.d.) “I must own, to the shame of my countrymen, that I was first kidnapped and betrayed by some of my own complexion… but if there were no buyers there would be no sellers. So far as I can remember, some of the Africans in my country keep slaves, which they take in war, or for debt; but those which they keep

are well fed, and good care taken of them, and treated well” (para. 1). During the transatlantic slave trade, captured Africans were transported to the coast where they were crammed into ships and sailed to the New World to be sold at auctions. The conditions of the voyage were horrific and cruel. Olaudah Equiano (n.d.), a survivor of the slave trade described the conditions for which she experienced: “This produced copious perspirations, so that the air soon became unfit for respiration, from a variety of loathsome smells, and brought on a sickness among the slaves, of which many died—thus falling victims to the improvident avarice, as I may call it, of their purchasers. This wretched situation was again aggravated by the galling of the chains . . . and the filth of the necessary tubs, into which the children often fell, and were almost suffocated. The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable” (para.2).

Slave traders often made 2-3 times the price of what they paid for a slave in Africa. After arriving in America, slaves were taken to auctions where they were examined like livestock and sold to the American settlers (“Primary Sources from the Transatlantic Slave Trade,” n.d.). As stated by former slave Mary Prince (n.d.) “He took me by the hand and led me out to the middle of the street, and turning me slowly around, exposed me to the view of those who attended the venue. I was soon surrounded by strange men who examined and handled me in the same way that a butcher would a calf or a lamb he was about to purchase, and who talked about my shape and size in like words…I was then put up to sale… the people who stood by said that I had fetched a great sum for one so young a slave” (para. 3). During the 15th-century, there were approximately 100 million people living south of the African Sahara Desert. Over the course of 350 years, between the 15th and 19th centuries, European slave traders were responsible for the kidnapping and enslavement of over ten million African people. (Stockwell, 2012).

Many of the Europeans who settled in the New World were unfamiliar with the level of slavery they grew to depend on, however, the desire to survive and prosper seemed to override their ethics. Many settlers in the southern colonies were given large sections of land, but with no work force to produce crops. For those Englishmen that lacked the financial means to buy passage to the New World, they became indentured servants and they signed labor contracts to work on the plantations. For the plantation owners, this was a costly and temporary solution.

The purchasing of African slaves became an excuse for survival for the plantation owners. They were isolated in the New World without a labor force to help them prosper. Unlike indentured servants who had contracts and were paid wages and land plots, slaves were cheap and because they weren’t under a contract, they could work on the plantations their entire lives. Although the European settlers weren’t accustomed to the magnitude of slavery in the New World compared to the Old World, it became an excused necessity that ultimately became a dependence (Fields, n.d.).

This cultural adaptation to the European lifestyle was about religion as it was about financial means. To the Christian Europeans, slavery was a normal part of life acceptable by God and by taking African slaves, they believed they were doing them a favor by removing them from their heathen lifestyles. In a transcript written by Francisco de Aucinbay to the Spanish council, he declared “The negros are not harmed because it is very helpful to see these wretches to save them from Guinea’s fire and tyranny and barbarism and brutality, where without law of God, they live like savage beasts. Brought to a healthier land they should be very content, the more so they will be kept and live in good order and religion from which they will derive many temporal and, which I value most, spiritual advantages” (Benjamin, 2009, chapt. 7).

African Americans and America.

Colonial America right before the Revolutionary War was in a contradictory state. Colonists were striving for freedom and rights while African Americans were bonded in slavery with no rights or freedoms. Instances of slave uprisings and fears of revolts led to the establishment of slave codes. Slave codes were a series of laws that restricted a slave’s actions to reduce the possibility of a rebellion. Although they varied from state to state, there were many codes uniformly enforced. Slaves were prohibited from owning firearms, travelling without written permission from their owner, learning to read or write, own property, or marrying. African American slaves were property rather than humans. Women slaves were often raped and beaten, while male slaves were tortured and murdered (Bunn, 2014). The northern states eventually strayed from slavery, while the southern states continued to defend it.

As America progressed throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it became divided on the issue of slavery. The northern states had begun to establish laws against slavery and provided African Americans with the ability to live freely, while the southern states stayed adamant about owning slaves and the restrictions African Americans should have. The western expansion of American settlers produced the biggest divided battle of slavery between the North and the South. The southerners who expanded their farms and plantations westward were determined to use and spread slavery, while the north was determined to keep it contained in the south. The issue of slavery and the southern argument of its economic dependence versus the morally unjust view of the north divided the country and eventually led to the American Civil War (Ash, 2010).

The end of the American Civil War, referred to as the Reconstruction period, was supposed be a new era of abolished slavery and equal rights to African Americans. The Thirteenth Amendment was established which ended slavery, the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteed African Americans the rights of citizenship, and the Fifteenth Amendment gave African Americans the right to vote. Unfortunately, this new vision although now part of the constitution was far from reality. As stated by Amirita (2018) “After the civil war, forces such as governmental policy, the Ku Klux Klan, and threats by employers deprived African Americans of new civil and political rights, while forces such as the new sharecropping labor system, racist hiring habits, the black codes, and the Ku Klux Klan, kept African Americans economically disenfranchised” (p. 66).

The philosophy of establishing a free country without slavery had been the driving force behind the success of the Civil War. Entering the Reconstruction phase and creating a way to make it successful proved to be far more challenging. The newly freed African Americans immediately sought to take advantage of their situation by banding together to claim their own farmland and integrate themselves into the same free prosperous society as the whites enjoyed. The Freedman’s Bureau was established to assist in the integration by providing aid through negotiated labor contracts and education. The labor contracts provided a solution to the economic crises the south was facing as a result of the war and the abolishment of slavery. The South’s most profitable resources were its crops which required a large labor force to maintain production. In the south, the idea of freedom and equality through a successful integration was far from reality. The ingrained societal racism in the Southern states was too entrenched in their society. The use of Black Codes was established to keep the blacks restricted and dependent on the white plantation owners. The establishment of these Black Codes resulted in many blacks being arrested and imprisoned. By creating a large prison population, the Southern states were able to take advantage of a Constitutional loophole which allowed them to essentially use the prisoners as slaves. They were contracted out to farms and industries to provide labor while they served their sentences (Pollard, 2012).

The Lasting Effects

“When a man has emerged from slavery, and by the aid of beneficent legislation …. There must be some stage in the process of his elevation when takes the rank of a mere citizen or, a man, ceases to be the special favorite of the laws, and when his rights as a citizen, or a man, are to be protected in the ordinary models by which other men’s rights are protected” (Justice Joseph Bradley). In 1883, it was declared by the U.S. Supreme Court that private acts of segregation could not be controlled by congress. This led to a segregated American society where blacks were restricted from voting, education, using public facilities, and many other things. America had begun with a division of culture and rights between African blacks and European whites and it remained that way for centuries. Segregation finally ended with the 1964 Civil Rights Act, however, the effects of racism and negative culture diversity remain to this day.

The transatlantic slave trade had negative consequences for both America and Africa. It turned America into a country founded by the ideology of self-liberty and freedom into a hypocritical racially divided society. For Africa, the towns and villages that were directly involved in the precolonial exportation of slaves, their political and social structures were severely fragmented, which detrimentally effected their economic development for centuries (Obikili, 2016).

The cultural indifference the Europeans experienced during early explorations in Africa combined with their judgmental Christian ideologies created a view of superiority that made it acceptable to look upon Africans as sub-human. Furthermore, although slavery was part of the African culture before their arrival, it was severely exploited by European traders. Even for the Europeans who weren’t accustom to such high levels of slavery, the establishment of plantations in the New World and the need to survive and prosper, although inhumane, made it acceptable. In the end, this clash of cultures had lasting effects on both societies and cultures for centuries.


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