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1 The Atlantic Crucible There are very few persons who would challenge the notion that British justifications for the Atlantic slave trade and slavery in the Caribbean were grounded in racist assumptions. Yet to better understand human behavior under these racist institutions, using the lens of “race” alone proves inadequate . Above all else, the history of the Atlantic slave trade is a history of human encounters. Relationships between blacks and whites under slavery may have been defined by “race” and “power,” but it was also defined by perception. How Africans perceived whites and the roles they played on the African coast informed their actions and shaped their experiences. The notion that Africans had immutable conceptions of Europeans that ranged between fear and deification is a simplistic one that does not accurately reflect the historical complexities. From the point of view of those captives— some of whom spent weeks, months, or even years getting to the coast—the whites who purchased them had nothing to do with their actual capture and transport.1 Those acts were committed by Africans. Certainly for some of the captured Africans brought from the African hinterland, the strangeness of European phenotypical appearance coupled with the uncertainty of their eventual outcome served to aid and fuel rumors of cannibalistic whites either in reality or metaphorically.2 But these initial fears and the horror-filled uncertainty of their capture were eventually dispelled and gave way to another reality. The enslaved gradually understood that they were captured so that they could be sold as commodified goods and as units of labor. For some this realization may have taken place on the coast, for others it was during the Atlantic crossing, and for others it was on the other side of the Atlantic. Regardless of when it took place, it was a realization that easily fit in with preexisting African notions. Slavery, after all, had a long history in Africa, and any misconceptions that Africans The Atlantic Crucible · 9 might have had about the humanity and intentions of Europeans would be relatively short-lived. Of course, there were those coastal Africans who had exposure to and interactions with British men, and even women, who were on the continent for one reason or another. But the dynamics of “race” in Africa in no way resembled that which would be later encountered in the Caribbean. In fact, an analysis of European-African interactions on the African coast makes clear the dangers of formulating rigid assumptions about relations on the African coast. Resident coastal Africans, some of whom were also sold into the Atlantic slave trade, had no illusions about white vulnerability and mortality. They certainly knew that whites were trading in Africa by consent granted and not military might. They would see firsthand the lengths to which white traders had to go to bargain and negotiate for captives. They would understand how much British slave traders relied on African suppliers for food and water before every voyage across the Atlantic. And if these were not enough to persuade them about the relative powerlessness of whites on the African coast, they would see whites die in high numbers as their immune systems lost battles with the African disease environment. Whiteness was no guarantee of privilege on the African coast. It was these kinds of encounters between Africans and Europeans, born in the crucible of the Atlantic world, that allowed for the forced transshipment of captive men, women, and children. By the late eighteenth century, the trans-Atlantic trade networks were well established, and those Africans sent to Jamaica were sent on a well-beaten path as there were millions who had preceded them in centuries past. Consuming Captives Between 1701 and the early months of 1808, approximately 1,090,000 African men, women, and children were put on slave ships headed to Jamaica. About 15 percent of them were dead before the ship made it to the island. It is worth noting that this number in no way represents the totality of lives lost as a result of the slave trade. At best, it can be considered a glimpse.3 In fact, it only gives insight into the captives who lived long enough to be purchased by slave traders. This number does not tell us how many captives died at the point of capture, en route to the Atlantic coast, or while they were at the coast waiting to be sold. Nor does it tell us how many captives 10 · From Africa to...


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