In 1619, the first African captives arrived in the colony of Virginia. The evidence indicates that the very first Africans were regarded as indentured servants, but by the middle of the seventeenth century a tradition of lifelong labor for enslaved Africans had been firmly established, particularly in the South.
What was indentured servitude? Those in indentured servitude were bound to labor for another person for a certain number of years to pay off a monetary debt or other obligation. When the obligation was repaid, the indentured servant was freed.
Snapshot: Life and Death on a Slave Ship
In 1972, salvager Mel Fisher and other treasure-hunters stumbled across the sunken wreckage of the Henrietta Marie, a slave ship that was lost to the ocean in 1700 after having just delivered perhaps 300 African men to lives of slavery in the Americas.
In the years since the discovery of the Henrietta Marie, treasure seekers and scientists have been retrieving artifacts from the wreckage (See “Last Voyage of the Slave Ship Henrietta Marie,” Jennifer Steinberg, National Geographic magazine, August 2002). Their discoveries have painted a chilling picture of the immense and hellish human toll of the global slave trade. The ship is the oldest slave-trading vessel ever recovered, and one of very few to be located in U.S. waters.
Here are some of the conclusions we can now draw about the Henrietta Marie (and the many ships like her).
Sold to New Captors
Scholars believe that many of the slaves who were transported to North America and Europe in ships like the Henrietta Marie met their fate because they had fallen prisoners to rival tribes in Africa. Their enemies sold them to slave traders for such European goods as beads, spoons, and iron bars.
Keeping the Cargo Fed
The Africans on board the Henrietta Marie were fed two meals each day. A massive copper cooking cauldron was raised from the sea in 1972; it was apparently used to prepare boiled yams and beans.
A Long and Deadly Journey
Captives spent roughly three months at sea making the journey from West Africa to Jamaica. As a slaver, the Henrietta Marie completed two such trips and delivered 450 Africans to captivity in the New World.
Their wrists held in place by iron shackles, the captives were herded into crowded holds like beasts. The conditions were unspeakable, and it is not surprising that an estimated 20 percent of the prisoners perished on the journey.
African men and women who died en route were tossed overboard for sharks to devour.