The defeat of Russia in the Crimean War (1853–1856) convinced the newly enthroned Alexander II (r. 1855–1881) of the need for fundamental reforms in his country. The first institution he tackled was serfdom, and his Emancipation Edict (1861) ostensibly freed peasants from their bondage to the landowning aristocracy. Although the edict affected some 50 million serfs, it was not fully implemented. Peasants were not given land titles per se; the land was turned over to the control of local communities (mirs), which then allocated parcels to individual serfs. Moreover, they were forced to make annual payments to the government in the form of loans that would compensate the former landowners; the loan amounts were often higher than the dues aristocrats had demanded before emancipation.
The Black Muslims (or the Nation of Islam) were founded by an orthodox Muslim immigrant to America, Wallace Fard Muhammad, in 1931, and made into a powerful movement by Elijah Muhammad. Historically and doctrinally distinct from Islam proper, Black Muslims believed that whites were innately evil and that it was necessary to live apart from them. They also condemned Christianity as a slave religion used to hold blacks in a submissive status and advocated discipline and self-reliance to overcome the demoralizing effect of unemployment, broken families, drug abuse, and white racism. Because of his personal charisma, powerful speaking ability, and organizational talents, Malcolm X (1925-1965) rose quickly in the leadership of the Nation of Islam and was appointed to lead the important Harlem mosque in New York City. But following a trip to Mecca in 1964, he broke with the Nation of Islam and modified his views on whites and separatism, stating that he could now envision the possibility of a world brotherhood. While addressing a crowd in a Harlem ballroom in 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated by three Black Muslims who were angered by his defection from the Nation of Islam.
The selection included here comes from one of his 1964 speeches warning America that there will be trouble ahead if race issues are ignored. The historical context of the speech is important: the civil rights movement was approaching a climax and about to reach fruition in Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society legislative avalanche. Moreover, the focus of American race relations was shifting from the apartheid-like system of the South to the urban ghettoes of the North, Midwest, and West, where unemployment and alienation were about to erupt in paroxysms of violence and rage in a series of riots known as the “long, hot summers” of 1964 and 1965. It is also important to note that the speech was made after Malcolm had separated from the Nation of Islam, and it explains why he made a distinction between his Islamic faith and his identity as a black nationalist.
Malcolm X, Address to a Meeting in New York, in Two Speeches by Malcolm X, ed. George Breitman, 7–21. Copyright © 1965 Pathfinder Press.
João José Reis
Although slavery was not abolished in Brazil until 1888, slave revolts were frequent and remarkable for their ambitions, success, and diversity of participating elements. Two urban revolts of the nineteenth century were especially significant. First, the Tailor’s Rebellion of 1798, in Salvador, the capital of the Brazilian state of Bahia, drew on the assistance of freedmen, people of mixed race, and even craftspeople of Spanish descent. The second was a Muslim-inspired and Muslim-directed uprising of slaves in Bahia in 1835, organized by African-born freedmen and slaves who had attained an Islamic education in West Africa before enslavement. This Muslim revolt is particularly fascinating because of the role of written documents, here deployed as protective amulets, among the members of the slave resistance. This excerpt from a book by a Brazilian scholar attempts to demonstrate the role of the written word in this rebellion, illustrating another, and less frequently recognized, “power” within historical documents.
João José Reis, Slave Rebellion in Brazil: The Muslim Uprising of 1835 in Bahia, trans. Arthur Brakel (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), 99–103.
Born in 1946 in South Africa, in the Eastern Cape, Steve Biko engaged in political activism at a very early age, which ultimately caused his permanent expulsion from public schooling. Fortunately, he was able to enroll in and graduate from a private school, from which he entered the University of Natal Medical School to fulfill his life’s ambition to become a doctor. But his interest in political reform always remained strong, and in 1967 he joined the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS), a multiracial organization dedicated to African civil rights. Biko soon became disillusioned with the NUSAS, however, when it seemed to him that “whites did all the talking and blacks all the listening.” The next year, he founded and organized the all-black South African Students’ Organization (SASO). While leading SASO, Biko formulated and spread the philosophy of Black Consciousness. The primary goals of Black Consciousness were to forge pride and unity among all black South Africans, to foil the government’s strategy of divide and rule, and to restore confidence in the ability of Africans to throw off their oppression. As envisioned by Biko, Black Consciousness was both a mental attitude and a way of life. He argued that true freedom could only be achieved once blacks realized that “the most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” By challenging the premises and forces that created identities of inferiority and helplessness, Biko sought to awaken blacks to the potential power within each individual.
The apartheid government first restricted Biko’s activities, then banned all speeches and texts containing any reference to his person or his ideas. For a time, Biko cleverly avoided arrest, and Black Consciousness continued to gain momentum, resulting ultimately in the 1976 “Soweto uprising,” in which student protests against inferior education served as the spark for a massive, violent confrontation between African residents of townships and government security forces. In August 1977, Biko was finally caught at a roadblock, arrested, and severely beaten and tortured in jail over a period of several days. Bloodied, naked, and unconscious, he was then tossed into the back of a truck and driven over 700 miles to Pretoria, where he was pronounced dead at the age of twenty-nine.
The following text, “Black Consciousness and the Quest for a True Humanity,” was written by Biko in 1973 for inclusion in a book on black theology in South Africa. In this essay, Biko discusses the origins and expressions of racism and highlights their effect on people’s attitudes and lives. He also provides a clear definition and explanation of Black Consciousness and offers it as a solution to remedy dependency on whites and passivity in blacks. In doing so, he envisions a new identity for South African blacks that will empower individuals and give them the strength and determination to take charge of their own future.
Steve Biko, “Black Consciousness and the Quest for a True Humanity,” in I Write What I Like: Selected Writings, ed. Aelred Stubbs. Copyright © 1979 Harper & Row.
Rhode Islanders were the principal American slave traders during the eighteenth century, during which a total of approximately 1,000 slave-trading voyages set out from the colony to Africa. The “triangular trade” between the Atlantic seaboard, the Caribbean, and West Africa was the main source of great wealth for many families in this small British settlement. Among these families was that of John Brown, whose donation to a struggling college in Providence would lead to the renaming of the institution in his honor. Aware of their university’s explicit connection to the profitable and lethal slave trade, archivists at Brown University have attempted to tell the full story of voyages like that of the Sally. In the excerpts that follow, lines from the ship’s log are annotated with details of the events they describe.
John Carter Brown Library, http://cds.library.brown.edu/projects/sally/documents.html
Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt
In 1860, Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865), the Republican party candidate from Illinois, won the presidential election without carrying a single southern state. Although he had worked his way up from humble beginnings to a comfortable law practice and even one term in the House of Representatives, before 1858 Lincoln had not earned the political prominence that he burned to achieve. In that year, in a series of debates as part of a campaign for a seat in the U.S. Senate, Lincoln established a national reputation. Although he lost the battle for the Senate, he won the much more important war for national political power. It is important to note that Lincoln had established a much stronger antislavery position than he would present in his First Inaugural Address, as his famous assertion that “a house divided against itself cannot stand” demonstrates. He maintained at that point that America would be all slave or all free. By March 1861, with southern states openly seceding, Lincoln espoused the position of limiting slavery to its existing locales, but not interfering with it there. Although he was willing to compromise on this issue, he would not allow the southern states to secede from the Union. In his view, the Union was perpetual, unless dissolved by the citizens of the whole nation. Unlike Calhoun, who ardently advocated “states’ rights,” Lincoln argued that the Constitution and the sovereignty of the people demanded that he preserve and defend the Union. In his First Inaugural Address, excerpted here, he presented his modified position on slavery but also his own interpretation of the American nation and of the nature of the Union.
Abraham Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln: Complete Work., ed. John G. Nicolay and John Hay. New York: The Century Co. (1894): 2: 1–7.
Martin Luther King Jr.
Under the accelerating pressure of the American civil rights movement—and with images of African Americans being attacked and beaten as they demanded equality beaming across television screens—President Kennedy introduced civil rights legislation during his administration. Realizing that advocacy of this position might endanger the position of his Democratic Party, particularly in the South, in the elections of 1964, Kennedy continued to find ways to shape American public opinion while also cajoling Congress to implement this legislation. Civil rights advocates, spearheaded by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929–1968), convened in a march on Washington, DC, in August 1963. Marchers explicitly demanded “jobs and freedom.” While the electrifying speech King gave on that day is more remembered for its stirring conclusion about his “dream” and about letting “freedom ring,” the prepared remarks at the beginning of the speech reveal even more of King’s brilliance and the depth of his political thought.
This autobiography of a slave who would emerge as a leading voice in the abolitionist cause has been enormously significant for understanding Atlantic slavery. Equiano claimed to have been born a prince among the Igbo people of modern Nigeria around 1745, kidnapped as a child, and transported across the ocean to the West Indies and Virginia. Named by his first (of several) masters after the sixteenth-century king Gustav I of Sweden, “Gustavus Vas[s]a” would travel throughout the southern American colonies and the Caribbean, always longing to achieve his freedom. Shaming his Quaker master into honoring a promise, Equiano was freed in 1765, but he continued to suffer the indignities and risks attending a free black man living in a slave society. His published memoir was designed to galvanize antislavery forces, and his work elicited sufficient sympathy and respect to contribute to the abolition of the British slave trade (though not slavery itself) in 1807.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr., ed., The Classic Slave Narratives (New York: Mentor, 1987), 99–100, 102–103.
In 1789, Olaudah Equiano published his autobiography, titled The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa the African, written by himself. The title is most appropriate, for there is little doubt that he did indeed live a very interesting and exceptional life. Born around 1745 in what is now southeastern Nigeria, he was only eleven years old when he and his sister were kidnapped by African slave traders, brought to the coast, and sold to a European slave merchant. He was then shipped across the Atlantic to the West Indies, enduring and surviving a horrific experience during the “middle passage.” He was subsequently sent to a plantation in Virginia, where he was purchased by Captain Michael Pascal, an officer in the Royal British Navy. Equiano served Pascal well for several years, acting as a shipboard powder boy during several campaigns of the Seven Years’ War. While living in England, he was able to receive some schooling, and he converted to Christianity.
His next master, a Philadelphia businessman named Robert King, returned Equiano to the West Indies and employed him as a shipping clerk. Equiano took advantage of his tolerant Quaker master and his commercial travels to engage in some petty trading of his own, and he eventually saved enough to purchase his freedom in 1766. He continued his maritime voyages as a free man for several years, joining expeditions to the Mediterranean, Central America, and a near-fatal exploratory voyage to the Arctic. He later joined the British abolitionist movement and became a popular speaker against slavery and the slave trade in England. In 1787, he was briefly involved with an ill-fated project to repatriate free blacks to Sierra Leone, but he was forced to resign after he complained about corruption and mismanagement within the organization. He returned to his speaking tours across England and wrote his autobiography, which sold very well in Great Britain and the United States. By most accounts, he died in 1797, with his final wish to return to Africa as a missionary unfulfilled.
The reading consists of excerpts taken from Equiano’s autobiography. Although originally written to promote the abolitionist cause, his accounts of his experiences seem mostly accurate. His story begins with his description of village life in Africa prior to his capture. Here he acknowledges that Africans had their own institution of slavery, but he strives to make a clear distinction between it and the slavery that he experienced and witnessed in the Caribbean. He then recounts the manner in which he was captured, brought to the coast, and transported to the West Indies. His detailed and moving description clearly conveys the shock and subsequent demoralization that accompanied the loss of freedom and removal from one’s ancestral home. It is also interesting to compare his story with the account found in Jacques Barbot’s journal and to identify, analyze, and explain the ways in which they are similar and different. The next section focuses on Equiano’s experiences in the Caribbean, his views on African–European relations, and his unceasing efforts to win his freedom. Through his own example, he illustrates the behaviors and attitudes required for slaves to make the most of their situation. The reading ends with his final plea for abolition, in which he crafts an argument that blends both moral and economic factors in support of ending the trade in slaves.
Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa the African, written by himself, in Equiano’s Travels, ed. Paul Edwards (Oxford: Heinemann Press, 1996): 1–3, 6–9, 13–14, 22–28, 57–67, 143–46. Copyright © 1996 Heinemann Publishers.
Nzinga Mbemba (Afonso I)
A Portuguese sailor came into contact with the Kingdom of Kongo, which occupied a vast territory along the Congo River in central Africa, in 1483. When he returned in 1491, he was accompanied by Portuguese priests and Portuguese products, and in the same year the Kongolese king and his son were baptized as Catholics. When the son succeeded his father in 1506, he took the Christian name Afonso and promoted the introduction of European culture and religion within his kingdom. His son Henrique was educated in Portugal and became a Catholic bishop. However, Afonso’s kingdom began to deteriorate in subsequent decades, as the Portuguese made further inroads into his territory, pursuing ruthless commercial practices and trading in slaves captured in his dominions. In 1526, the king sent desperate letters to King João III of Portugal, urging him to control his own subjects and to respect the alliance—and the common Catholic faith—that bound the Europeans and the Africans together.
Chinese migration to Latin America was a major part of the pattern of mass migration streams across the world that typified the nineteenth century. “Coolies” (from the Urdu word kuli, or “hireling”) were indentured laborers recruited from India and China on 5- or 10-year contracts, who were forced to work to pay off the cost of their transportation. Roughly 235,000 Chinese came to Peru, Cuba, and Costa Rica, working in guano pits and silver mines, on sugar and cotton plantations, and later on railroads. Such work contracts were little better than slavery, and oftentimes were accompanied by institutions familiar from enslavement itself. This photograph, published in a Chilean army newspaper, depicts a Chinese coolie who is being liberated by an invading Chilean army in 1881.
Jacques Barbot (also known as James Barbot) was born around 1650 to a Protestant family in Saint-Martin on the Ile de Re, near the French seaport of La Rochelle. Little is known about his early life, but it is likely that he was engaged in commerce at an early age. The Barbot family had a long history in maritime trade, and Jacques’ younger brother Jean became involved in slave trading at an early age, organizing voyages for the Royal Africa Company, one of the largest slave trading companies in Europe. In 1685, both Barbot brothers emigrated to England following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, which had granted religious toleration of Protestantism in France. Once settled in England, they started their own commercial firm, assisted by additional investors and speculators.
Their first slaving expedition in 1697 ended in a disastrous shipwreck. The next year they tried again, purchasing the Albion-Frigate and refitting it for slaving operations. Jacques accompanied the Albion-Frigate on its maiden African voyage to New Calabar, along what was then known as the “Slave Coast.” The ship left England in 1698, carrying 24 guns, 60 men, and a cargo of manufactured goods worth 2,600 pounds sterling. In little more than three months’ time they purchased 648 slaves and enough food and provisions for the “middle passage,” or the trip across the Atlantic. The trip was not entirely successful: midway through the passage, the slaves found an opportunity to revolt, and in the ensuing fight three sailors and twenty-eight captives were killed before Europeans regained control.
Slave journals such as Barbot’s were written primarily to instruct future travelers and traders about Africa, so they are a very useful historical source for understanding the organization and operation of the slave trade, although from one perspective. Barbot’s journal reveals that slave trading was a dangerous but potentially very lucrative enterprise. Tropical fevers, competition from European rivals, profit-seeking African sellers, and the perilous “middle passage” made slave trading a risky business but one worth pursuing when one compares the purchase costs with the sale prices. It is also interesting to note the character of African–European relations as portrayed by Barbot and his attitudes concerning Africans and their culture. His account of African involvement in the trade, particularly the special role played by local leaders, also provides a glimpse into the impact of the slave trade on African society.
Jacques Barbot’s account has been preserved in his brother Jean Barbot’s English account of his voyages, published in 1732. The selections in this reading come George Francis Dow, ed., Slave Ships and Slaving (Salem, MA: Marine Research Society, 1927), 73–87.
One of the more tragic legacies of how evolutionary theories can be manipulated is how these theories were used to justify the suppression of one group (defined as a race) by another. Biologists, geneticists, historians, anthropologists, in fact, all contemporary people define race differently. Social scientist P. Diagne discusses these often conflicting concepts of what is race in this brief excerpt. He identifies some of the problems with any one definition of race. Furthermore, he also suggests that physical differentiation between the races may have once had an evolutionary purpose, but that this is becoming less and less a necessity: distinct racial identity may be on the wane. In fact, genetic differentiation suggests a more complex understanding of race, and that genetic merging has already mixed the races.
“Theories on ‘race’ and the history of Africa,” P. Diagne, General History of Africa, Vol. I Methodology and Africa Prehistory (James Currey Ltd., 1990, pp. 100-103)
Born the son of an unknown white planter and a black slave mother Frederick Douglass (1817–1895) was one of the most exceptional human rights leaders in American history. His fiery speeches and eloquent writing made him an important leader of the nineteenth-century abolitionist movement, and his autobiography, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845), is considered a classic in American history and literature. Douglass devoted his life foremost to the issues of freedom and equality, and his powerful words on these subjects provide another important perspective on the meaning and the limitations of the American Revolution.
One of the most vexing challenges faced by Douglass during his long career was public skepticism about his slave background. Many whites in both the north and the south doubted that such an articulate and intelligent man as Douglass could ever have been a lowly and ignorant slave, which in itself reveals much about prevailing racial attitudes and assumptions in America at that time. This skepticism compelled him not only to write his Narrative but also to address and challenge white misconceptions in all of his speeches and writings. One of Douglass’s most critical speeches occurred on July 5, 1852, at a meeting of the Rochester (N.Y.) Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society. In his address, “What to the Slave Is the 4th of July?” Douglass used “scorching irony” to denounce American slavery, which he claimed showed a shocking disregard for both the Constitution and the Bible. He concluded that Independence Day was a holiday only for whites; for blacks and slaves, it was only a bitter reminder of the fact that they had no freedom or liberty to celebrate.
Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave Is the 4th of July?” in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Ed. David Blight. Bedford Books (1993): 141–45. This shortened version of the speech is the one Douglass reprinted in his autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855).