THERE WERE TWO schools of loading. The "loose packers" held that more slaves survived in a ship's hold if they had enough room to lie on their backs. The "tight packers" insisted slaves should be jammed in "spoon fashion" on their sides because, even if a few more died that way, the extra bodies a ship could carry more than made up the loss.
For a slave-ship captain, how to pack the cargo was but one of many vexatious commercial calculations. Another was whether to throw ailing slaves overboard or not. If they had something really contagious, it was a good move. If not, it was a needless loss of one of the most profitable cash crops in history. Salable slaves were continually trying to starve themselves to death too. But for this at least, civilized man's ingenuity had a remedy—a caliperlike instrument called a speculum oris (i.e., mouth opener). Its pointed shaft was hammered between the teeth of the recalcitrant black, then its wings spread to pull open his jaw.
"Heathen Bondmen." Matter-of-factly presenting such homely details, author Daniel Mannix has produced a carefully understated but chilling account of the whole 3½ centuries (1518 to 1865) during which 15 million Africans were snatched from their homes and delivered into slavery in the New World. This savage traffic began, ironically, as the result of one man's compassion. In 1517 a pious priest from Haiti interceded with the Spanish King to protest the treatment of the island's gentle Indians, whom the colonists were slaughtering in droves in a futile effort to make the rest work. Moved less by mercy than the practical need for cheap labor to work Haiti's mines and plantations, the King authorized the importation of 4,000 Africans, and the enduring Negro proved a much better worker than any West Indian. Soon England, France, Holland and Portugal joined the search for slaves to cultivate their newly acquired possessions in the New World. Nearly 3,000,000 Africans were shipped across the Atlantic in the 17th century, almost 7,000,000 in the 18th.
When conscience nagged, slave owners cited the Bible (Leviticus 25:44—"Thy bondmen shall be of the heathen") as justification. But the trade offered the chance of such fantastic commercial gain that few men could resist it. In the 1780s, when a man could live on £6 a year, the merchants of Liverpool with 87 ships working the African coast netted £300,000 profit in one twelve-month period.
Jettisoned Cargo. The white man did not invent slavery. For centuries the tribes along the Guinea coast (the 4,000 miles of West African coastline stretching from present-day Mali to Angola) had made slaves of one another. But the insatiable European slavers, trading in guns, powder and rum, set off an ever-widening wave of violence. Rival tribes raided incessantly and reached out into the interior for fresh supplies of victims.
Though the seafaring English came to dominate the trade, England was the first country to try to suppress it. In 1782 the British public was aroused by an incredible court case: an English captain who had thrown 132 slaves overboard tried to collect insurance on them as "jettisoned cargo." In the parliamentary investigations that followed, slavers vied with one another in painting the slaves' happy life aboard ship. "When sailors are flogged," one piously testified, "it is always done out of hearing of the Africans so as not to disturb them." What shocked Britons almost as much as the treatment of slaves was the lot of white seamen. One captain force-fed a member of his crew on live cockroaches, and floggings regularly resulted in death. Proportionately, almost twice as many crewmen died as slaves—their mortality rate ran to more than 20% per voyage.
In 1807 Britain outlawed the slave trade, and Royal Navy squadrons cruised the African coast. But these watchdogs were eluded or defied by the ships of the newly independent American colonies. Southern planters needed slaves to maintain an expanding economy. To meet the demand, Northern ship owners sent ever bigger and faster ships to Africa loaded with New England rum, as well as guns, to exchange for slaves. "Worter yr. Rum as much as possible," one owner counseled his captain, "and sell as much by the short mesuer as you can." In the 1840s, so many Yankee ships from Salem traded on the island of Zanzibar (which specialized not only in slaves but made-to-order eunuchs) that the natives believed Salem was a country.
Tied to the Anchor. British law stipulated that a ship could not be held unless caught with slaves actually aboard. If chased, hard-pressed slavers often ran just long enough to kill and jettison their human cargo. One British slaver, Captain Homans of the brig Brillante, was caught at nightfall. Reportedly he tied 600 slaves to the links in his anchor chain, which was loosely lashed alongside. When, at dawn, he saw that escape was impossible, the anchor—and the human evidence—was sent rattling into the deep.
The Civil War, increased international cooperation and the force of public opinion finally combined to cut off the trade. As the author points out, this barbaric trade, like the cruelty of the Pharaohs, left its monuments: an accumulated wealth in Europe that helped spur the Industrial Revolution, a labor supply in the U.S. and South America that helped build a continent. But for the U.S. it also left a legacy of black hatred and white guilt—both far from final expiation.