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ome 12.5 million Africans were taken from their homes and forced aboard slave ships that were destined for the New World. About 10.7 million people survived the horrors of the Middle Passage between 1526 and 1866, only to end up in bondage on sugar, rice, cotton, and tobacco plantations throughout the Americas and the Caribbean.
The transatlantic slave trade is the largest forced migration in history. Until recently, however, it was all but impossible to measure the trade’s true dimensions: There were simply too many records among too many geographically dispersed archives. But, today, the slave trade’s broad outlines and its subtler trends can be gauged because of a remarkably collegial and tech-savvy project called the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database. .
Yet countless Americans have not learned these lessons. They cling, instead, to a romanticized interpretation of slavery, one indebted to a book published 100 years ago.
In the spring of 1918, the historian Ulrich Bonnell Phillips published his seminal study, “American Negro Slavery,” which framed the institution as a benevolent labor agreement between indulgent masters and happy slaves. No other book, no monument, no movie — save, perhaps, for “Gone With the Wind,” itself beholden to Phillips’s work — has been more influential in shaping how many Americans have viewed slavery.
William Wilberforce, "The Saints" and the political events in Britain which led up to the abolition of slavery in 1833 across the British Empire.
It had been decades since the first mention of the issue in Parliament. In 1791, 163 Members of the Commons had voted against abolition. Very few MPs dared to defend the trade on moral grounds, even in the early debates. Instead, they called attention to the many economic and political reasons to continue it.
Those who profited from the trade made up a large vested interest, and everyone knew that an end to the slave trade also jeopardized the entire plantation system. “The property of the West Indians is at stake,” said one MP, “and, though men may be generous with their own property, they should not be so with the property of others.” Abolition of the British trade could also give France an economic and naval advantage.
For enslaved African Americans, the ideal of marriage as an enduring lifelong bond was rarely an option. When couples stood before clergy or other officiants, they couldn’t share the traditional, age-old promises of permanent fidelity because their vows had a built-in asterisk: “Do you take this woman or this man to be your spouse—until death or distance do you part?”
Understanding those altered words, couples married with trepidation, fully aware of the turmoil that might result from trying to maintain and nurture their ties while enslaved. Still, they continually took leaps of faith, driven by burning passions to form families of their choosing—and create fundamental human bonds that could help soften the harsh conditions of human bondage.
These leaps were necessary because, for nearly 250 years, the vast majority of African Americans were considered chattel property. Within this system, white slaveholders made all the decisions: They determined whether and when enslaved people could wed. They split them apart when finances dictated. They sometimes chose who would marry who. Or brazenly violated enslaved couples’ marriages by forcing the women to serve as their own concubines. And those in political power set laws that made it exceedingly difficult for freed black people to reside for long near their still-enslaved families without being sucked back into the harrowing state of bondage themselves.
Slavery in the United States
Black slaves played a major, though unwilling and generally unrewarded, role in laying the economic foundations of the United States—especially in the South. Blacks also played a leading role in the development of Southern speech, folklore, music, dancing, and food, blending the cultural traits of their African homelands with those of Europe. During the 17th and 18th centuries, African and African American (those born in the New World) slaves worked mainly on the tobacco, rice, and indigo plantations of the Southern seaboard. Eventually slavery became rooted in the South’s huge cotton and sugar plantations. Although Northern businessmen made great fortunes from the trade of enslaved peoples and from investments in Southern plantations, slavery was never widespread in the North.