Excerpted from Slavery at Sea: Terror, Sex, and Sickness in the Middle Passage, by Sowande’ M. Mustakeem
The nature of slavery inflicted permanent scars as traders moved purchased captives off land, separating married couples, parents and children, siblings, and other relatives. A surgeon offered testimony on this prevalent practice, testifying that while embarked at Cape Coast Castle during his time within the trade, the captain he worked with ordered that he “choose eighteen Slaves out of the yard.” The number of bondpeople congregated and evaluated for purchase is unclear, yet the physician “objected to one that was meager, and put him aside” to focus on procuring those more potentially valuable. Taking note of the young man originally declined, the surgeon “observed a tear to steal down his cheek,” which he believed the boy “endeavoured to conceal.”
After the conclusion of sales, the physician’s curiosity about the young child persisted, and he inquired about the cause of the boy’s grief, relying on a coastal interpreter to learn the source of his pronounced sadness. He learned that the bonded boy’s somber feelings emerged because “he was going to be parted from his brother,” already selected for transport. Perhaps softened by the pain of the boy’s loss, the surgeon purchased him to provide an opportunity, even if temporary, to remain with his brother during the transatlantic crossing. Once sold offshore and under the control of their new captors, the fate of these siblings fades within the historical record; however, their case reveals the existence of familial connections within slaving voyages. Their lives were further ruptured once sold into different hands and exiled into distant locales; however, bearing the brutalities of captivity alongside their kin helped to lessen the blow for some bondpeople. Familial ties served as the most critical mechanism of survival, underscoring personal connections already in place prior to slaves’ displacement into plantation societies.
The trauma of familial separations emerged during inland capture and coastal sales; however, it operated far differently once at sea. Married captives occasionally comprised disparate groups captured, auctioned, and sold to interested buyers. One trader recollected witnessing “two or three husbands and wives, and many other relations of different degrees of kindred” enslaved together on the same vessel. “When a Man and Wife are on Board they are permitted to speak to each other” only with the help of interpreters and fellow shipmates. Gendered separations were a primary facet of ship life, owing not only to fears of violent uprisings but also the prospect of suicide. “Any intercourse betwixt the husbands and wives,” physician Thomas Trotter explained, “was carried betwixt them by the boys which ran about the decks.” Appeasing boarded family members, even if on a temporary basis, these meager opportunities for communication reduced lingering thoughts of self-sabotage capable of manifesting.
The fundamental core of slavery disjoined African families; however, on rare occasions some relatives were fortunate to board the same vessel. A bondman understood by traders to originate among the “Breeches” and described as “styled of the higher class” was offered and sold to a European slave trader. Once boarded, the male captive “seemed to take his situation a great deal to heart, and go ill.” Displaced off land and permanently severed from his homeland, making any reconnection with his family impossible, contributed to this decline. Observing his saddened disposition, several “indulgences [were] granted to him” with the intention of aiding in his improvement. Amid the man’s restoration, the vessel commander continued negotiating for other slaves in preparation for the ship’s departure. One of the captives purchased and transferred aboard was a young female. In closely observing the bonded girl, several sailors discovered similarities of “countenance and colour” that suggested she and the ailing male were related. They later learned their speculations were true, as the female “proved to be his sister.” Upon seeing each other, the two captives “stood with silence and amazement, and looked at each other apparently with the greatest affection. They rushed into each others arms—embraced—separated themselves again—and again embraced.” Taking note of the pair’s interaction, the ship’s surgeon observed “tears run down the female’s cheek.”
The siblings’ reconnection, however, was short lived. During the passage the bondman “had a return of his former complaint,” an unknown condition weakening his body. Fully aware of her brother’s poor health, the man’s sister offered to assist in his recovery and “attended him with the greatest care imaginable.” The duration of his suffering and details on the medical and emotional support his sister gave him are unrecorded. One morning after helping her enfeebled brother, the bonded girl beckoned the ship surgeon to “enquire how her brother did.” Although hopeful of his improvement, she learned “he at length died.” It is simply impossible to know if the bondman died from a lingering sickness or if he perhaps gave up on living a life in captivity. Receipt of the news greatly affected the young girl in a drastic manner. According to the attending physician, she “wept bitterly, tore her hair,” and allegedly “shewed other signs of distraction.” Deeply internalizing the loss of her brother after a set of mere brief encounters, and unable to aid in his full recovery, she very well may have blamed herself for his death.
Traveling with her weakened brother permitted the girl to manage the stress of slavery at sea, albeit through temporary means. Once deprived of his presence and displaced far from the reach of any of her family, emotional turmoil ensued, making it more than reasonable that she traveled the remaining part of the voyage compounded by unbearable sorrow.
Slave trade records do not intimate how crewmen managed her sadness or if in feeling completely alone and vulnerable among strangers she tried to take her own life. Sailors bore witness to and perhaps even showed sympathy for the emotions she acted out aboard ship, but her grief did not dissuade them from placing her for sale to interested buyers given that she was sold into South America. Undergoing tremendous pain after being forcibly separated from her homeland and forced to watch her brother decline with no sense of recourse, she carried a deep sense of hurt on shore. The culmination of traumatic experiences this girl endured prior to her overseas displacement collectively created a foundation of trepidation she could have harbored against establishing close ties with other plantation slaves to protect herself from undergoing a similar episode of physical, emotional, and psychological loss through separation or death.