National Geographic : 1992 Sep
Some had barely enough room to lie down. One ship's surgeon observed that the traders "wedged them in so that they had not so much room as a man in his coffin either in length or breadth. It was impossible for them to turn or shift with any degree of ease." Some traders, of course, realized that such crowding increased the incidence of disease and death. One agent of the Royal African Company complained in 1704 of inadequate space on the ship Postillion: "The slaves are so large, [and] it being the general opinion that the slaves could not be healthy in the space of three foot, they broke up one of the platforms which was the reason she couldn't carry more than 100 slaves." Eight years later the company advised its agents at Cape Coast Castle: "Pray lade no more than are necessary to prevent Mortal lity which has often happen'd by crowding the ship with too many Negroes." Not until the 18th century did European countries engaged in the trade set standards for the allocation of space to the slaves; it may be doubted whether the rules were obeyed. Fearing rebellion, ships' crews generally chained the slaves securely in the hold, usu ally in pairs, the right ankle of one connected to the left ankle of the other. James Penny, who commanded trading vessels for more than 20 years, recounted that when no dan ger "is apprehended, their fetters are by degrees taken off." The crews did not always depend on harsh discipline, shackles, and whips to control the slaves. The more humane captains permitted music and drumbeating and encouraged singing and dancing. On the better-managed vessels, rum was provided as well as pipes and tobacco. Women were given beads and other trifles with which to adorn themselves. Contented slaves, it was presumed, would be more tractable. WITH SO MANY BODIES closely packed together, the heat below decks became unbearable. The air reeked of excrement and infected sores. By the 18th century, ships customarily had portholes to aid ventilation, "windsails to throw down a current of air and gratings on the decks." But to the human cargo the hold remained a fetid hell. As an aid to good health, slaves were peri odically taken on deck for exercise and fresh air. While they were being "danced" on deck, the crew cleaned and disinfected their quarters with vinegar. Although exercise SLAVERY, DAY IN AND DAY OUT: Owusu Mensa pans for gold in eastern Brazil. He hands his findings to the mulatto overseer, while both are watched by the master. Despair and quiet anger fill the young slave's life. He has learned Portuguese to survive, but he does not speak much. More than 200 years later, African-American poet Langston Hughes will give words to Owusu Mensa's silent yearning: "So long, So far away Is Africa's Dark face."