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Slavery, Part 1 – Lost Voices

September 18, 2016

Slave ship diagram: Africans transported like cargo, Author Jbolden030170 (CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported)

WARNING:  Graphic Images

‘What profit is there if we kill our brother and conceal his blood?  Come and let us sell him…and let not our hand be upon him, for he is our brother and our flesh’…[S]o the brothers pulled Joseph…out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver.  And they took Joseph to Egypt” (Gen. 37: 26-28).

Lonnie Bunch, director of the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture, and anthropologist, Steve Lubkemann, a founder of the Slave Wrecks Project, have joined forces to excavate a long lost Portuguese slave ship, the first of its kind to be located and studied.

The Sao Jose sank in a storm, off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa in 1794.  More than 200 slaves – men, women, and children – perished [1].  Over 590 ships engaged in the slave trade are known to have gone down [2].

The Middle Passage

Viewed as cargo, slaves were laid side by side in the hold, like lumber, during the Middle Passage.  Often shackled – with limited light and air, no room to move, and little or no provision for sanitation – slaves were forced to endure a trip which could last months.  Women might be raped by the crew at will.

The freed slave and author, Olaudah Equiano, had this to say about the Middle Passage in his autobiography:

“This wretched situation was again aggravated by the galling of the chains, now become insupportable; and the filth of the necessary tubs, into which the children often fell, and were almost suffocated. The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable.”

Estimates vary, but the number of those transported like this may have been as high as 12.5 million.  Many died en route, either from sickness, violence, or despair.

Valuable Property

Ships were equipped with netting that stretched from the hull to catch slaves who might attempt to jump overboard [3].  Slaves could though be tossed overboard to lighten a ship’s load, when weather threatened.  This was a last resort, since slaves were recognized as valuable property.

According to Lonnie Bunch:

“In the years before the Civil War, the amount of money invested in slaves was more than the amount of money invested in railroads, banks, and businesses combined.  This was the economic engine of Europe and the United States.”

The Tentacles of Slavery

Virginia slave auction, from London Illustrated News (1861) (PD)

The tentacles of the grave sin of slavery extend to the present day.  Even the bloodshed of the Civil War could not erase the harm done.

A diverse people – Yoruba, Igbo, Bantu, Shona, and many more – were transported against their will to a foreign land from whose bounty they received little or nothing.  Lives were destroyed; families decimated; history and culture rent.  That should weigh heavily on the national conscience.

Loss had many dimensions.  Writer, Marie Williams, describes it this way:

“I can certainly understand loss in the lives of slaves:  loss of freedom, loss of dignity, loss of the sense of belonging, loss of homeland, loss of family name, loss of family ties (families separated in the slave markets), loss of the essence of their lives:  who they were (identity, relationships), loss of heritage and ancestry:  fathers, grandfathers, and loss of future:  what they and their children could have become (careers, education, professions, achievements, role models).”

The sheer violence of slavery continues to ripple through society today.

The African American community is not, of course, monolithic.  It is a tribute to those who endured the horrors of the Middle Passage that the majority of their descendants are today entrepreneurs, educators, physicians, lawyers, military leaders, politicians, and more.

Somehow this valiant people survived.  From the very start, their sweat and blood enriched American soil.  Over the centuries, they gave their intelligence, talent, labor, loyalty, and love to a new home, while preserving what they could of older traditions.

Sons and Daughters

Some would argue that the descendants of this people are not “real” Americans; that the nation to which they contributed so much should disown its sons and daughters, merely by reason of their skin color.

This is a feeble attempt to distort the truth.  It asks us to overlook the reality of the past 400 years.

Restoring a Voice

Lonnie Bunch and Steve Lubkemann are working to restore a voice to the slaves lost on the Sao Jose, and the 12.5 million others whose stories were lost to history.

Christians should know already that “black lives matter” [4].  But knowledge is not enough.  Good intentions are not enough.  What we must do is take steps to ensure that racial equality becomes – and remains – a reality; to ensure that poverty, drugs, and crime do not consume another generation.

We must stay vigilant.  The forces of hatred and bigotry may have been dormant awhile, but they have by no means been eradicated.

[1]  CBS News, 60 Minutes, “The Slave Ship”, Correspondent Scott Pelley, 11/1/15 and 8/21/16, and

[2]  Slave Wrecks Project, “Slave Wreck Heritage”,

[3]  Eyewitness to History, “Aboard A Slave Ship, 1829”,  2000,

[4]  Black Lives Matter is a national organization advocating on behalf of African Americans.  Founded against the backdrop of contested police shootings, it now promotes multiple causes.

With special thanks to Marie Williams for her invaluable input

Slavery, Part 2 – Life Under the Lash will be posted next week


  1. a shameful part of our history

  2. Great post! this is history you wont get in school.. Was this the the Amistad case?
    An elderly missionary attempts to teach the people of Sierra Leone to rise above what was.. but there appears to be a mindset of free slaves.. if that makes sense.. I believe we are to love all mankind.. but we face the demonic theory that there is somehow an elite race..

    • Thanks so much, Mary Ann. You’re right that the Amistad case involved Africans from Sierra Leone who managed to win there freedom in court. Unfortunately, theirs was an isolated victory. Readers can find a good summary in the National Archives at Your characterization of the belief in an “elite” race as demonic is profound, especially with science now demonstrating how closely related we all are.

      • Thank you for the info.. I am looking forward to reading your next post!

    • Absolutely, Mary Ann. This is history you don’t get in school. Historians never tire of telling us about Henry VIII and all his wives, the wars, the Industrial Revolution in Britain, but how conveniently they “forget” that the backdrop to all of this was the Slave Trade. I suppose it’s something you could easily miss isn’t it? After all it only went on for 400 years!

  3. The history of America is wrought with many grievous and ungodly acts perpetrated against those who were powerless to defend themselves against the might of this nation. It’s treatment of Native Americans for example is a stain upon the conscience of our society that lingers to this day.

    Yet even the barbaric treatment of Native Amercans pales in comparison to what our fore fathers did by enslaving an entire race of people. Surely such arrogance in thinking that one race is inferior to another could only be born in the pit of hell. How could any man in control of his own faculties ever conceive of such an abominable thing?

    Your post prompted me to spend a considerable amount of time researching slavery in America,and I must say Anna that what I found was never taught in school. Certainly,the journey to America aboard a slave ship was horrific enough,yet that was just the beginning of sorrows for these hapless families. I came across many first hand accounts of slavery that were difficult to read,and to be honest were sickening.

    Of particular note was that the church in America did nothing to help to stop the sale of humans,which solidifies my opinion that America has never been a “Christian” nation except in name only.

    Every decision or action necessitates eventual consequences. To which we are reaping to this very day,and will continue to do so.

    America must have a day of repentance, for surely a day of reckoning is upon us.

    • I could not agree w/ you more, Ron. Christianity in the South was so corrupted that slaves were taught their supposed “inferiority” (and their suffering) were ordained by God. Ham, the son Noah cursed, was said to be the father of the black race. Ephesians 6:5 (“Slaves, obey your earthly masters…”) was misinterpreted to justify slavery. Slaves attended church services sitting in the balcony, the same way blacks later attended segregated movie theaters.

      Yet, despite the prohibition against literacy, slaves understood Scripture well enough to identify w/ the Israelites enslaved in Egypt. Freedom was a recurring theme in old Spirituals.

      William Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It is not even past.” The “one drop rule” which classified anyone w/ a single drop of African blood as racially black grew out of slavery. You can still occasionally hear African American mothers scolding their children, “Behave! White people are watching.” Some African Americans even today consider “good” hair less curly and pale skin preferable. Chris Rock made a movie on the subject.

      By the way, I’ve included excerpts from several slave narratives in Part 2 of this series.

    • Hear, hear Ron! Another reader who attests to having never been taught about the Slave Trade in school. Neither was I taught about it and I feel very strongly that the omission of this from the school curriculum is reprehensible. Considering the time period of the Slave Trade: 400 years – how does one manage to overlook this? That day of repentance is well overdue.

  4. It is very True Anna that God does not see the color of someone’s skin as important, He looks at the heart, it is a failing, and comes from those who have limited heart vision and so can only see the outward things and they allow their own evil fleshy thoughts and feelings to influence them.

    We all have Melanin in our skin pigmentation and a few things determine what degree of color results but God chose for there to be differences and we know everything He created was good and for a good reason, so who are we to tell Him He got it wrong.

    Some claim God discriminates but it was because of Pagan worship which was adulterous and evil that God did not want the Jews to intermarry with those who practiced it but this is the same with any of us who Love Him, He tells us to not be unequally yoked to unbelievers because we will be hurt by their fleshy focus but if we become a Christian when Married we are not to leave our unbelieving Partner.

    Christian Love Always – Anne.

  5. tabitha59reachingout permalink

    Reblogged this on sistersreachout and commented:
    May Anna’s post below help to bring greater awareness to those younger and unaware. May this post awaken all of our hearts to care deeply and be more proactive in ensuring the past never repeats itself. May God pour out His blessing and healing on all the descendants of those who suffered so violently at the hands of the greedy the last several hundred years. May God forgive and heal our land from this and other wretched sins against our fellow man. May North America truly become the land of the free and brave. God bless you all,

  6. An important article, filled with compassion for people. While I was reading this, I thought that maybe our nation was not as Christian as we think. I agree with much of what Ron says here. Christians have often romanticized our past and this clearly shows we should not. And yes we can still see wounds in people today. Only the flow of forgiveness will bring healing. Btw, for the history of whites and First Nations people I recommend the old PBS series “The West”. It is long, but extremely well done. And it shows the barbarism of one people against another. Peace, and may God have mercy on our nation.

  7. A beautifully constructed and timely post dear Anna. May I thank you publicly for allowing me to assist you in a small way with this post. It was a real pleasure for me to be asked for my thoughts and opinions and for you to incorporate them into the fabric of your post which really has been brilliantly researched and excellently conveyed by you. Well done for dealing with such a contentious subject with compassion and integrity.

    • I really don’t deserve such praise, Marie. But it means a great deal to me that you approve of the piece. Your own viewpoint deepened my understanding. ❤

      Slavery is an enormously important topic, much overlooked. It has shaped not only our past, but our present.

  8. A rich, thoughtful tribute to a people who suffered unthinkably. The shame is the persistence of slavery today, esp in many parts of Asia. North Korean women who escape through China largely end up sex slaves. It’s an uncountable number.

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