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Jesus of Lübeck
October 1562
Slave Transport Ship


The Jesus of Lübeck was a ship under the helm of Admiral Sir John Hawkins, an English shipbuilder, naval administrator and commander, merchant, navigator, and slave trader. He is widely acknowledged as the first slave trader to bring African slaves to the new world, in 1562. The Jesus of Lübeck left the shores England for Africa in October 1562. Arriving at Sierra Leone, Hawkins gained possession of three hundred African slaves. Hawkins himself claimed to have acquired them “partly by sword and partly by other means,” and is believed to have hijacked a Portuguese slave ship, trading the African slaves in the Caribbean and Lower Americas (A Spanish settlement in Florida).

Africans we among the first non-native inhabitants in the Americas, and pre-date the Mayflower by almost sixty years. Africans, and their African-American descendants have truly built this county with their blood, sweats and tears--with their very lives.

The slave trade started decades after the discovery of America by Europeans, as demand for labor to work plantations made slave-trading a profitable business. The Atlantic slave trade (a route that started in Europe, to Africa and ending in America) peaked in the 17th and 18th centuries when large plantations developed in the English colonies of North America. As the slave trade grew, slave ships developed from cargo ships specially converted for the purpose of transporting slaves, especially newly purchased African slaves.

In order to achieve greater profits, the owners of the ships divided their hulls into holds with little headroom, so they could transport as many slaves as possible. Unhygienic conditions, dehydration, dysentery and scurvy led to a high mortality rate, on average 15% and up to a third of captives. Only the most resilient survived the transport. Often the ships, also known as Guineamen, transported hundreds of slaves, who were chained tightly to plank beds. For example, the slave ship "Henrietta Marie" carried about 200 slaves on the long Middle Passage. They were confined to cargo holds with each slave chained with little room to move.

The most important routes of the slave ships led from the northern and middle coasts of Africa to South America and the south coast of what is today the Caribbean and the United States of America. The captains and sailors of the boats were allowed to do whatever they wanted with the slaves. This included rape, murder, and torture because the slaves were considered their property. As many as 20 million Africans were transported by ship. The transportation of slaves from Africa to America was known as the Middle Passage. The African slave trade was outlawed in 1807, by a law passed jointly in the United States of America and the United Kingdom, the applicable UK Act was the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act and outlawed slavery throughout the British Empire. The US law took effect on January 1, 1808. After that date all US and English slave ships leaving Africa were considered illegal pirate vessels subject to capture by the American and British navies. In 1815, at the Council of Vienna, Spain, Portugal, France and the Netherlands also agreed to abolish their slave trade. During this time, the slave ships became smaller and more cramped in exchange for improved performance in their new role as smuggling craft and blockade runners.

The Middle Passage

The Middle Passage refers to the forcible passage of African people from Africa to the New World, as part of the Atlantic slave trade. Ships departed Europe for African markets with commercial goods, which were in turn traded for kidnapped Africans who were transported across the Atlantic as slaves; the enslaved Africans were then sold or traded as commodities for raw materials, which would be transported back to Europe to complete the "triangular trade". A single voyage on the Middle Passage was a large financial undertaking, and they were generally organized by companies or groups of investors rather than individuals. The term "Middle Passage" refers to that middle leg of the transatlantic trade triangle in which millions of Africans were imprisoned, enslaved, and removed from their homelands.

For weeks, months, sometimes as long as a year, they waited in the dungeons of the slave factories scattered along Africa's western coast. They had already made the long, difficult journey from Africa's interior -- but just barely. Out of the roughly 20 million who were taken from their homes and sold into slavery, half didn't complete the journey to the African coast, most of those dying along the way.

And the worst was yet to come.

The African slave boarding the ship had no idea what lay ahead. Africans who had made the Middle Passage to the plantations of the New World did not return to their homeland to tell what happened to those people who suddenly disappeared. Sometimes the captured Africans were told by the white men on the ships that they were to work in the fields. But this was difficult to believe, since, from the African's experience, tending crops took so little time and didn't require many hands. So what were they to believe? More than a few thought that the Europeans were cannibals. Olaudah Equiano, an African captured as a boy who later wrote an autobiography, recalled . . .

When I looked round the ship too and saw a large furnace of copper boiling, and a mulititude of black people of every description chained together, every one of their countenances expressing dejection and sorrow, I no longer doubted of my fate and quite overpowered with horrow and anguish, I fell motionless on the deck and fainted. . . . I asked if we were not to be eaten by those white men with horrible looks, red faces and long hair?"

The slaves were branded with hot irons and restrained with shackles. Their "living quarters" was often a deck within the ship that had less than five feet of headroom -- and throughout a large portion of the deck, sleeping shelves cut this limited amount of headroom in half.4 Lack of standing headroom was the least of the slaves' problems, though. With 300 to 400 people packed in a tiny area--an area with little ventilation and, in some cases, not even enough space to place buckets for human waste--disease was prevalent. According to Equiano, "The closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us. This produced copious perspirations, so that the air soon became unfit for respiration, from a variety of loathsome smells, and brought on a sickness among the slaves, of which many died."

Faced with the nightmarish conditions of the voyage and the unknown future that lay beyond, many Africans preferred to die. But even the choice of suicide was taken away from these persons. From the captain's point of view, his human cargo was extremely valuable and had to be kept alive and, if possible, uninjured. A slave who tried to starve him or herself was tortured. If torture didn't work, the slave was force fed with the help of a contraption called a speculum orum, which held the mouth open.

Despite the captain's desire to keep as many slaves as possible alive, Middle Passage mortality rates were high. Although it's difficult to determine how many Africans died en route to the new world, it is now believed that between ten and twenty percent of those transported lost their lives.

The picture above shows the horrid conditions which African slaves were transported to the new world. Conditions were based soley on economic considerations, packing as many slaves as possible in a ship, with little regard for the health of the slave cargo.

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