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Scotland and the Slave Trade: 2007 Bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act

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The Lives of the Enslaved

"All…slaves…shall be held to be real estate. If any slave resist his master…correcting such slave, and shall happen to be killed on such correction…the master shall be free of all punishment."

1705 Virginian General Assembly

Credit: Slaves from Africa packed on the deck of a slaver ship bound for America (engraving) by American School © Private Collection/ Peter Newark American Pictures / The Bridgeman Art Library Nationality / copyright status: American / out of copyrig

Credit: Slaves from Africa packed on the deck of a slaver ship bound for America (engraving) by American School © Private Collection/ Peter Newark American Pictures / The Bridgeman Art Library Nationality / copyright status: American / out of copyright

Chapter 3: The Lives of the Enslaved

Slave Auctions

After spending weeks on a ship, the enslaved that arrived in the Americas were usually sold by auction, unless an agreement had been made earlier. Slave auctions were advertised and plantation owners or their agents would always try to get the best price. The enslaved would be inspected whilst naked. To get the best price slave traders would rub palm oil into the enslaved's skin to make it shine and dye their hair to cover grey.

Once the sale had taken place the enslaved could be branded with their new owner's sign. They would also be renamed with a European name or a random word, anything to try and remove the identity of the enslaved and push them further into submission. To add to the humiliation it was unlikely that the enslaved person understood what was being said to them. They might also be sold separately from any friends or family, including children, and put to work on a plantation where no-one spoke their language or came from their part of Africa. Slave auctions were also held for those already enslaved on the islands.

Mary Prince was born into slavery in Bermuda in 1788. The following recollection is of her mother being ordered to take her and her sisters to the auction, and is taken from her narrative, recorded and dictated by herself after running away from her owners and reaching London in 1828:

"With my sisters we reached Hamble Town about four o'clock in the afternoon. We followed mother to the market-place, where she placed us in a row against a large house, with our backs to the wall and our arms folded in front. I stood first, Hannah next to me, then Dinah; and our mother stood beside us, crying. My heart throbbed with grief and terror so violently that I pressed my hands tightly across my breast, but I couldn't keep it still, and it continued to leap as though it would burst out of my body. But who cared for that? Did any of the bystanders think of the pain that wrung the hearts of the negro woman and her young ones? No, no! They weren't all bad, I dare say, but slavery hardens white people's hearts towards the blacks.

"At length the auctioneer arrived and asked my mother which was the eldest. She pointed to me. He took me by the hand, and led me out into the middle of the street. I was soon surrounded by strange men, who examined and handled me like a butcher with a calf or a lamb he was about to purchase, and who talked about my shape and size as if I couldn't understand what they were saying. I was then put up to sale. The bidding commenced at a few pounds, and gradually rose to fifty-seven. People said that I'd fetched a great sum for so young a slave.

"I then saw my sisters sold to different owners. When the sale was over, my mother hugged and kissed us, and mourned over us, begging us to keep a good heart, and do our duty to our new masters. It was a sad parting; one went one way, one another, and our poor mammy went home with nothing."

Daily Life

The plantation owners devised strict codes for keeping the enslaved separate and for justifying the brutality that was meted out to them. The enslaved could be kept permanently shackled, and beatings and floggings were daily occurrences, for the slightest hint of resistance or simply as a warning to others.

The majority of the enslaved men and women were sold as field slaves, irrespective of what skills they may have used in Africa. They worked all day, sometimes for 16 or 18 hours if it was harvest time, carrying out back breaking work in the hot and humid climate. They lived in basic huts and were provided with some food and clothing and sometimes a little patch of land to grow additional food. The enslaved were given Sundays off, but it was initially forbidden to convert them to Christianity or teach them to read or write, which would threaten the perceived concept that the Africans were "heathens" and "stupid". Later the arrival of non-conformist missionaries challenged those rules. The majority of the enslaved lived short lives 3, worked until exhaustion or death as they were seen as being easily replaced.

Resistance and Escape

John Newton 4, a slave ship captain who later turned to evangelical Christianity and spoke against the slave trade, said that at least 1 in 10 slaving ships experienced an uprising.

"On Tuesday the 18th of last October, happened a most melancholy and unhappy circumstance in the Road of Mouri belonging to the Dutch settlement, where was riding at anchor a Dutch ship full of slaves almost ready to take her departure from the coast. But the ill treatment of the unfeeling Captain incensed the poor captives so highly that they rose upon the ship's crew in his absence and took possession of the vessel. They consisted in number about 150. But the most dreadful circumstance of all is that after having laid their scheme with subtlety and art, and decoying as many of their countrymen who came far and near to plunder on board and near the ship, and also some white sailors from an English ship in hopes of relieving them, were all indiscriminately blown up to upwards of three or four hundred souls. This revengeful but very rash proceeding we are here made to understand to be entirely owning to the Captain's brutish behaviour, who did not allow even his own sailors, much more the slaves, a sufficient maintenance to support nature. If this is really the case, can we but help figuring to ourselves the true picture of inhumanity those unhappy creatures suffer in their miserable state of bondage, under the different degrees of austere masters they unfortunately fall in with, in the West Indies?"

Philip Quaque, Cape Coast Castle, February 8th, 1786

On the plantation resistance took many forms. Spiritual and personal resistance were the strongest. The enslaved created new communities, sharing and preserving customs, and in the little free time that they had they made clothes, cooking utensils and basic musical instruments. Many had grown up in the tradition of oral histories and they continued that tradition - telling the stories from their ancestors and repeating the traditions of their homeland. Amongst themselves they continued to use their original names and named their children according to the customs they had left behind.

Despite the risk there was also physical resistance through escape. Escape often depended on the geography of the island - was there anywhere to run to? On the smaller islands this was difficult but on the larger islands such as Jamaica there were groups of ex-slaves who lived in the mountains. Runaway notices were often to be seen on the islands, with severe punishments for those who were recaptured. In some instances those recaptured would have a foot cut off to stop them from doing it again and as a warning to others; some would even die as a result of their punishments.

"All…slaves…shall be held to be real estate. If any slave resist his master…correcting such slave, and shall happen to be killed on such correction…the master shall be free of all punishment."

1705 Virginian General Assembly

Over the years resistance in its many forms grew. Some plantation owners responded by giving greater freedoms to the enslaved. Others, however, introduced yet harsher methods of repression, but it did not stop the rebellions.

The Enslaved Who Lived In Scotland

The vast majority of enslaved Africans were taken from West Africa to the Americas for work on the plantations. However, a number of white masters brought the enslaved with them when they visited or returned to Britain. Family portraits including enslaved Africans are found in Scotland. The painting of the Glassford family in the People's Palace, Glasgow, from about 1760, seems to have had the presence of an African enslaved servant 'painted out' at a later date.

The exact number of enslaved Africans in Britain is not known, but records such as runaway slave notices and church records provide some information. There are 70 records of enslaved Africans in Scotland in the 18th century.

Portrait of John Glassford of Dougalston at home with his family in the Shawfield Mansion. An African servant originally stood in the gap on the left but may have been removed from the painting later. Image courtesy of Glasgow Museums and Art Galleri

Portrait of John Glassford of Dougalston at home with his family in the Shawfield Mansion. An African servant originally stood in the gap on the left but may have been removed from the painting later. Image courtesy of Glasgow Museums and Art Galleries.