Item of the Day: An Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species (1786)

Full Title: An Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species, particularly the African, translated from a Latin Dissertation, which was Honoured with the First Prize in the University of Cambridge, for the Year 1785. With Additions. London: Printed by J. Phillips, and sold by T. Cadell and J. Phillips, 1786.[The following excerpt is taken from Chapter 1 of Part Three of Clarkson’s Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species.]

THE
SLAVERY OF THE AFRICANS
IN THE
EUROPEAN COLONIES

Having confined ourselves wholly, in the second part of this Essay, to the consideration of the commerce, we shall now proceed to the consideration of the slavery that is founded upon it. As this slavery will be conspicuous in the treatment, which the unfortunate Africans uniformly undergo, when they are put into the hands of the receivers, we shall describe the manner in which they are accustomed to be used from this period.To place this in the clearest, and most conspicuous point of view, we shall throw a considerable part of our information on this head into the form of a narrative: we shall suppose ourselves, in short, on the continent of Africa, and relate a scene, which, from its agreement with unquestionable facts, might not unreasonably be presumed to have been presented to our view, had we been really there.

And first, let us turn our eyes to the cloud of dust that is before us. It seems to advance rapidly, and, accompanied with dismal shrieks and yellings, to make the very air, that is above it, tremble as it rolls along. What can possibly be the cause? Let us inquire of that melancholy African, who seems to walk dejected near the shore; whose eyes are stedfastly [sic] fixed on the approaching object, and whose heart, if we can judge from the appearance of his countenance, must be greatly agitated.

“Alas!” says the unhappy African, “the cloud that you see approaching, is a train of wretched slaves. They are going to the ships behind you. They are destined for the English colonies, and, if you will stay here but for a little time, you will see them pass. They were last night drawn up upon the plain which you see before you, where they were branded upon the breast with an hot iron; and when they had undergone the whole of the treatment which is customary on these occasions, and which I am informed that you Englishmen at home use to the cattle which you buy, they were returned to their prison. As I have some dealings with the members of the factory which you see at a little distance, (though thanks to the Great Spirit, I never dealt in the liberty of my fellow creatures) I gained admittance there. I learned the history of some of the unfortunate people, whom I saw confined, and will explain to you, if my eye should catch them as they pass, the real causes of their servitude.”

Scarcely were these words spoken, when they came distinctly into sight. They appeared to advance in a long column, but in a very irregular manner. There were three only in the front, and these were chained together. The rest that followed seemed to be chained by pairs, but by pressing forward, to avoid the lash of the drivers, the breadth of the column began to be greatly extended, and ten or more were observed abreast.

While we were making these remarks, the intelligent African thus resumed his discourse. “The first three whom you observe, at the head of the train, to be chained together, are prisoners of war. As soon as the ships that are behind you arrived, the news was dispatched into the inland country; when one of the petty kings immediately assembled his subjects, and attacked a nearby tribe. The wretched people, though they were surprized, made a formidable resistance, as they resolved, almost all of them, rather to lose their lives, than survive their liberty. The person whom you see in the middle, is the father of the two young men, who are chained to him on each side. His wife and two of his children were killed in the attack, and his father being wounded, and, on account of his age, incapable of servitude, was left bleeding on the spot where this transaction happened.”

“With respect to those who are now passing us, and are immediately behind the former, I can give you no other intelligence, than that some of them, to about the number of thirty, were taken in the same skirmish. Their tribe was said to have been numerous before the attack, these however are all that are left alive. But with respect to the unhappy man, who is now opposite to us, and whom you may distinguish, as he is now looking back and wringing his hands in despair, I can inform you with more precision. He is an unfortunate convict. He lived only about five days journey from the factory. He went out with his king to hunt, and was one of his train; but, through too great an anxiety to afford his royal master diversion, he roused the game from the covert rather sooner than was expected. The king, exasperated at this circumstance, immediately sentenced him to slavery. His wife and children, fearing lest the tyrant should extend the punishment to themselves, which is not unusual, fled directly to the woods, where they were all devoured.”

“The people, whom you see close behind the unhappy convict, form a numerous body, and reach a considerable way. They speak a language, which no person in this part of Africa can understand, and their features, as you perceive, are so different from those of the rest, that they almost appear a distinct race of men. From this circumstance I recollect them. They are the subjects of a very distant prince, who agreed with the slave merchants, for a quantity of spirituous liquors, to furnish him with a stipulated number of slaves. He accordingly surrounded, and set fire to one of his own villages in the night, and seized these people, who were unfortunately the inhabitants, as they were escaping the flames. I first saw them as the merchants were driving them in, about two days ago. They came in a large body, and were tied together at the neck with leather thongs, which permitted them tow walk at the distance of abut a yard from one another. Many of them were loaden with elephants teeth, which had been purchased at the same time. All of them had bags, made of skin, upon their shoulders; for as they were to travel, in their way from the great mountains, through barren sands and inhospitable woods for many days together, they were obliged to carry water and provisions with them. Notwithstanding this, many of them perished, some by hunger, but the greatest number by fatigue, as the place from whence they came, is at such an amazing distance from this, and the obstacles, from the nature of the country, so great, that the journey could scarcely be completed in seven moons.” . . .

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Filed under 1780's, Posted by Caroline Fuchs, Slavery

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