30 thoughts on “An Introduction to the History of Slavery”

  1. I knew that slaves were brought in ships, more like stuffed in ships and transported. However, I have it has been a very long time since I have seen an illustration of the fact. It is quite jarring to see the depiction of people lined up like canned goods in a pantry. It is especially uncomfortable when looking at the people “stored” on the shelves. Everything about this concept including the way the photo was drawn – with the slaves perfectly straight and unmoving, like a molded figurine – is so dehumanizing.

    Not that slavery was every humanizing. Seeing this representation – which seems to be created in that time or around that time- forces the present-day viewer to see these slaves in the same perspective as the oppressor. I think that is why I feel so uncomfortable looking at it. That and the cruelty of “shipping people.”

    I think that I also feel guilt. I feel guilty because this image is not a surprise to me. Through my education on racism (though far too limited in my public school) I am already used to hearing about the way they were treated that I don’t feel like it hits me the way it should. The phrase “slave ships” should feel like a kick in the chest. However, hearing it over and over, I don’t get that feeling. You can’t help but think, “it’s in the past.” I think seeing this image made me feel the magnitude of the situation again to a certain extent.

    The reason we need to be affected by the mistreatment of others is that it is still happening. Perhaps slave ships aren’t as common, but racism is ingrained in every aspect of our lives. It’s people getting used to it that makes it so hard to overcome. It’s embarrassing to see that we as a society need to “reeducate” ourselves on something that plays out right in front of us on a daily basis.

    1. such a good point on the difference between knowing something in a general, abstract way and confronting a concrete manifestation of it. you can read so many historical accounts about slavery, wars, prison, etc and know all the facts about it, and yet sometimes none of it makes the impact that a picture or a brief personal account or an object that a dead person leaves behind does.

  2. Some questions :

    The numbers cited—12 million people and over 35,000 trips—is a sobering fact. What years did that span?

    This is called the “middle passage.” Was there a first and a last and if so, what were they?

    Was every black person allowed the twenty years deal to become unfree?

    That human beings were stolen. The image of a set of kids, just playing freely, being grabbed, terrified for their lives, thrown into a dungeon, shackled, put into a dark cramped ship—my god, those blueprints—only to be released to humans considered to be owners, is so revolting. Of course I’ve seen hundreds of films, from “Roots” to “Twelve Years,” but to revisit the images, to listen to your lecture, at this moment in time, is ever the reminder of how oppressive society has been, and continues to be.

    1. it spanned from 16th to 19th century, about 400 years. we should keep in mind that not all of them arrived in America. about 2.5 million died in the ships and another 2 million in camps of the Caribbean islands before the second leg of their journey, which I didn’t even talk about here. so almost half of them perished on the way.
      Middle Passage refers to the route the ships took in the slave trade from West Africa to the Caribbean and South West of the US, which is the middle part of the Atlantic.
      I believe that technically every enslaved African was “unfree” before they legalized lifetime slavery, but I don’t know how many of them were set free after that period.

  3. A very detailed lesson about the historical context of slavery. I personally don’t think slaves were not as smart as whites. Whites had a dominating advantage such as technology back when they met the blacks in Africa and decided to enslave them, and when blacks were brought to America, they knew little about it since that was their first time stepping on a whole different land with another color of people who speaks differently. So I think it’s not that blacks were not smart enough to fight back slavery, it’s just that there was little to nothing they could’ve done.

    One thing that was brought up from time to time is that literacy was a weapon that slaves used to resist and eventually defeat slavery. I have a slightly different take on this, I don’t think that the literacy itself is the weapon. Yes, literacy played a tremendous part in slavery resistance, but in a specific way. They learned the language that are foreign to them to understand what’s going on around them, and as they mastered the language, they realized that they were being cheated into the whole slavery thing. Then they used the language to communicate with others for the purpose of informing them about this, after that, outrage. So it’s more of what they did after they saw the bigger image, not the literacy itself.

    1. Thank you! you’re right about literacy, and that’s exactly what I mean by ‘weaponize’: they learned to read and write not for the sake of it but in the service of a cause. Also nowhere in the lecture I talked about skin color corresponding to intelligence, I said it was the discourse of white supremacy which came about after the legalization of slavery. it was pure ideology, not backed by science.

    2. Interesting point, I thought about this too. How do you think history would have played out if Africa had made similar technological advancements? What if Africa was more technologically advanced than the Europeans? Would there be no slaves in this world or would another group of people get picked on? Obviously, it’s hard to say but it is definitely an interesting concept to think about given the ideas of superiority and minority.

      About the literacy, I think it was definitely a key stepping stone for abolishing slavery and later a component that aided the civil rights movement. If you think about it, without literacy, vocabulary is limited and slaves would not fully understand the big picture of how the world is and the way it should be. They may think that this is just the way life is, that they are lesser than white people, and deserve to be doing fieldwork and abused. Especially once the years go by and many of the slaves were born in America and slavery is all they have ever known in their lives. Literacy is necessary for slaves to understand the world they lived in and that is why many slaveowners did their best to shield them from such education.

      Your last point reminded of today’s current Black Lives Matter Movement. A few weeks ago I was uninformed on the different types of racism and the way black people face racism today. Now, thanks to social media, I am informed and I am outraged. Literacy and communication are very important in order to spread a message.

      Note to professor: I know you mentioned to change our names on here to Author. Is this what you meant? Can you still see who posted this so I get credit?

      1. Hi, no I say pick author as your role, which is the default, I was just highlighting it so you wouldn’t change it. please write your name here, and thanks for your comment!

  4. I’ve always heard the claim that it was other black people sold the slaves to the white people. Whether or not that also happened, most of the slaves were stolen as children confused at the sight of their first white person. It sickens me to imagine this and know how scared they all were. They didn’t even know the horror that was on the other side of the boat trip. They probably looked forward to it thinking it was refuge. And then to be packed in on the shelves, of course the only ones that would survive that would be the ones that were physically stronger and mentally passive since they were quick to kill any rebels and make examples out of them.

    A little background on me for perspective since I’m not from NYC: I am Mexican, born in Houston, Texas. I went to a mostly all white elementary school. When I was 12, my mother moved us into a neighborhood where we were the first non-white family on the block. When I was 16 she married my step father who is black. Our older neighbors used the n-word to describe him and did not see an issue with that. I also served in the US Air Force for 5 years before moving to New York.

    I feel like I already know a good deal about the history of slavery and I have a feeling that after this class I will realize how little I know. Looking forward to this class especially because of everything that’s going on with the world right now.

  5. I want to talk some points that make me “impressive” from professor’s video. Different color, black and white. white represent master and intellectuals; black which totally opposite. The way that African treated as Slaves and shipping from Africa to America for doing many things like work hard in the mining area, cleaning the house and other coolie and so on which really inhuman. The point is, there was millions of people died on the shipping way also many African people died after defeated by the whites. They began shipping large numbers of slaves purchased or looted from Africa to the new continent of America by boat. By the middle of the 17th century, tens of thousands of slaves were shipped to America every year. By the 18th century, the number of slave traders had reached a peak used labor exchange as their main business. During the centuries of trafficking of slaves, tens of millions of black Africans were transported to the Americas. They are unfree for their lives. They kind of own by the owner until one day they are useless. In the United States is the relatively least barbaric country in the history of America to treat black slaves. in fact, they are also quite cruel to slaves.

  6. Hello Professor,

    I found it very eery when you described the scenario of the “slave hunters” and pictured how it would feel like if I was roaming around my land and then out of nowhere get taken by these mysterious people. I was very interested on this topic as well, which led to some questions of my own.

    So when these slave hunters came to these lands, I’m sure they had a lot of power over the people that lived there because of the advancement in weaponry, but were there any scenarios in which the people of the land fought back against the slave hunters? I’d imagined that they’d outnumbered them, but maybe they were just afraid of the weaponry they brought?

    This would be something I’d like to know to get a better understanding of this kind of situation went.

    -Christian Brea

    1. Thank you! they absolutely did resist, but they were overpowered due to the technology and advanced weaponry of Europeans. there is also the shock factor. I can’t exaggerate how weird it was for an African kid playing in the woods, who had seen only her parents and folks in her village, to come across a white European man. people had no knowledge of other cultures back then, and this sight must have absolutely paralyzed them. the case of Native Americans is more telling: the white man looked so otherworldly to them that some tribes thought this was god himself descending from the heavens at the end of the world, and surrendered to their will without putting up a fight.

      1. I was going to mention the similarities from when the Europeans met the Africans and when they met the Native Americans. The Aztecs in the Central America had been waiting for on a prophecy that they thought was coming true with the arrival of the Europeans. They thought of the Europeans as white gods sent to save them and so they gave them offering and were not threatened at first, just shocked and in awe.

  7. What stood out to me was that as the slaves became more literate, they also became more aware of just how horrible the institution of slavery was. I appreciated the background contextualization you provided in that the institution of slavery is as old as civilization itself.
    What interests me is the apparent role that race plays in the American institution of slavery. In ancient societies (such as Greece and Rome), slaves were people from conquered lands but the question of race was never a factor. In classical Greek texts, we see little mention of skin color because it was not interpreted as a significant differentiating factor. The issue of race in the American institution of slavery is most evidently seen in the difference between the treatment of the Irish slaves vs. the African slaves in the seventeenth century. While the Anglo-Saxons may have viewed both groups as a “conquered” people, when they subjected the African slaves to worse treatment than the Irish slaves, we see evidence of modern racism which unfortunately became a recurrent theme lasting onto today. Another thing that stood out to me was that New York and Massachusetts also had the largest concentrations of slavery. I was aware that Virginia had a large population of slaves, but was unaware how much more prevalent the institution was in New York and Massachusetts since both states were key Union states. The fact that two key Union states played so much more of a significant role in the perpetuation of slavery just shows that while the Union may have abolished slavery when they won the war, it was more of a political and economic imperative than a moral one.

    1. Thank you. As for the comparison between the Greco-Roman world and America, it’s also simply about the skin color: the Greeks and Romans were both Mediterraneans and the slaves they took were also from that region, so they didn’t look much different from each other. in the case of America, white Europeans enslaved black Africans, and the conspicuous difference in skin color became part of the institutionalization of racism.

  8. I like the fact that the first and most important theme is the value of education. Booker emphasizes this idea throughout his story because as a slave, he had been denied the right to learn and once he was free, like nearly every one of his race, he soaked up learning like a sponge

  9. Slavery is certainly an uncomfortable topic to speak about but of course, essential to educate ourselves in so that we never “let go” of the injustices that occurred in the world. With the ongoing protests and political climate, I have been attempting to educate myself as much as I can in order to understand the history behind these emotions and why it’s important to ensure that equality is never a question but rather, a given. Recently, I read Claire de Duras’ Ourika, which follows the story of a young black girl who was fortunate enough to have seemingly escaped the turmoils of slavery. At the age of 2, Ourika was captured by a slaver and sold to the local commissioner. He acted in her better interest and gifted her to his wealthy aunt, Madame B in France who showed Ourika kindness. Ourika had the opportunity to receive French education worthy of an aristocrat and became well-versed in a variety of the arts. Even so, it’s extremely disheartening to learn about the reality of young children being ripped from their homes at such a young age with little to no regard of their genuine well-being. As for Ourika, she came to terms with the nature of her existence and the manner in which she will never be able to marry the man she loves nor bear children of her own. Regardless of her fortune in comparison to other slaves captured in Senegal, even in France, Ourika constantly felt out of place due to the color of her skin. She joins a convent where her despair affects her health adversely and at the age of 16, Ourika ultimately dies of prolonged melancholia. What seemed to be a “better” life at the beginning of the novel didn’t end up gaining this young girl a happier life, as the quality of her existence was still less than she deserved due to her race.
    Another point that’s interesting is that many slaves were initially brought to Jamestown for the purpose of aiding in laborious duties often for crop production such as, tobacco. Likewise, the history of slavery in Cuba is closely tied to the development of the sugar industry and it is marked by constant political tensions organized around the colonial status of the island and its prominent place in the emerging world market. It seems that to an extent “free labor” is almost addictive especially concerning lucrative crops. I say this because it’s surprising that even after a rebellion like that of Haiti, when the different Spanish governors of the island of Cuba called for a reduction of slave traffic, it remained an unsuccessful venture. I also agree with the point that literacy was used as a weapon. In a previous English class, I read Osundare’s Ambiguous Legacy, which addressed the “gift” of the English tongue, with a recognition that this same tongue has been “the destroyer”. Certainly, the English language allowed for slaves to better communicate and resist the conditions that were being forced upon them. I believe that’s why many African authors chose to write their works in English because the introduction of the English Language into African cultures enabled them to embrace a language used worldwide, which creates stronger global connections. Overall, literacy was definitely seen as something that grants power and puts individuals in a position to change their circumstances.
    – Simran Sharda

    1. Thank you Simran, it’s a comprehensive and perceptive comment. As I said I only got to lay out the basic facts and didn’t even really discuss the slavery in the south and the cotton industry which flourished on the back of enslaved Africans. at the time the British textile industry was booming and in desperate need for raw material, which led to the concentration of slaves in the south.
      I very much relate to your point about language, being a Middle Eastern immigrant who has chosen English, which is not my mother tongue, as my writing language. but that’s a whole other conversation about the dominance of English in the world and how it became an empire of its own. if you are interested in that topic this is a really good book:


  10. Slavery existed for a long time in world history. In ancient societies, wars were often fought between different tribes, regions or countries. When the war was over, the defeated side often became the source of slaves for the conquering side. The slave trade also fits this logic. The colonists had colonized Africa, and the colonists’ native people, the blacks, could not escape the fate of slavery. However, as slaves, black slaves from Africa suffered the worst treatment from their owners compared to white slaves. It is simply because they have different skin tones. This gave slavery a racist tinge. What makes me wonder is, why does racism continue to this day when slavery has long been abolished?
    I strongly agree with the idea that literacy was the weapon slaves used to resist and ultimately defeat slavery. For a person, literacy means more than just knowing words and reading articles. It also means the knowledge behind words and articles. When slaves master knowledge, they not only have the consciousness of resistance, but also know more about the means of resistance. This is very important.

  11. I found this lecture quite interesting because it introduced me to many new arguments about slavery that I was totally not aware of. Literacy is a topic that is emphasized in the lecture and in our readings. I found it fascinating to read about how Booker T. Washington and other slaves of all ages were determined to become literate. Many of them had to walk many miles every day just to reach their working place and work exhausting hours, they also refused to miss a day of school. Others, like Frederick Douglas as he described in his memoir, had to teach themselves in secrecy, fearing that their masters would discover them and punish them. I believe that W.E.B Du Bois or Douglas mentioned how southerners believed and feared that “An educated negro is a dangerous negro” perhaps because literacy would be perceived as their first step towards freedom.
    I also have few questions for you professor. As I was reading the chapter, the second part of the assignment from Up from Slavery, I noticed that Washington mentioned that Native Americans were harder to enslave, why so?
    The other question that I have is in regards to the first part of the lecture in which you mentioned how the Muslim Empire were enslaving Eastern Europeans and I would like to learn more about that history. Is there any source, book or link that you can recommend or provide?

    1. hi, this is a good source:

      I am not sure what the answer is re Native Americans vs. Africans. Maybe because Native Americans are indigenous to the land, they were here before Europeans arrived, and they had an attachment that the enslaved Africans at the time didn’t have. It also might be that the Africans were so brutalized and demoralized on their journey to America that they had much less energy for resistance. But I’m just thinking out loud, I will take a look and see if I can find an answer backed by evidence

  12. It was interesting to me the theme of black literacy during this lecture, I once read that slave masters were determined to keeping their slaves ignorant/illiterate, their argument would that supposedly “Slaves didn’t have the intellectual ability for training and would just get confounded, Slaves may figure out how to forge documentation to non-slave states and Insurrection and resistance may result from slaves perusing abolitionist readings. Yet, a few slaves discovered ways around bias and law to fulfill their strive for knowledge. Their primary before the war sourcebook for education was the Bible.

    I believe that not only did African Americans improve their own instructive chances and education, but they likewise improved training/education for whites by testing the estate proprietors’ instructive worldview that tutoring occurred in the home, and not in government funded schools.

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