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Eye on History: Early slave trader’s brutality set the precedent for the next 200 years

The Black Holocaust,” written by S.E. Anderson, contains the following narrative by an African on a slave ship: “We had to either squat with knees and arms folded together or sit with another person wedged between our legs for 8 to 14 hours every day for the weeks and months it took to cross the Atlantic. The alternative was to lie flat on our backs for hours or days on wooden deck boards that were splintered and filthy with blood, human waste, parasitic bugs, flies and vomit. We were shoulder to shoulder, chained to each other and chained to the floor or the ship’s hull.”

The dying and dead lay shackled to the living. They could reach the latrines, if they were available, only by crawling over other human beings in a tossing ship. At the end of the journey, those who survived were often so ill that they were unable to stand without excrement running down their legs or to walk from the ship without having to pause every minute. On many ships, the men were sold and the women were kept for the pleasure of the crew.

Anderson calls the enslavement of African people the “most under-reported major event in world history.”

Africans were prisoners aboard ships of death and brutality, yet these ships had such names as Brotherhood, John the Baptist, Justice, Integrity, Liberty, Good Intent, Black Boy, Morning Star, Mary, Gift of God and the Good Ship Jesus. All of these are recorded in the book, “There Is a River,” by Vincent Harding.

John Hawkins, the slave trader for Queen Elizabeth I, commanded the ship Jesus. Hawkins lived from 1532 to 1595. He was considered to be the first English slave trader to profit from the Triangular Trade. In 1564, the queen partnered with Hawkins by leasing to him the huge 700-ton ship Jesus. Hawkins roamed up and down the west coast of Africa with his cousin, Francis Drake. Their mission: to capture human lives.

Hawkins led brutal raids, conducted violent beatings and terrorized the Africans aboard his ship. In the book, “The Queen’s Slave Trader,” historian Nick Hazlewood wrote: “Hawkins’ actions and attitudes toward his cargo set the precedent for those who followed him for the next two hundred years.”

Hawkins’ fleet consisted of four ships. In the lead was Jesus. It was a floating fortress. Hawkins commanded an artillery of huge firepower. His men, armed with guns, went ashore every day to take the inhabitants, burning and looting as they went along. As the invaders ravaged the land, they recorded the high quality of African craftsmanship and the organization of their settlements. Their homes were kept in order, with a place for everything.

The Africans were well organized in battle. They valiantly fought the slave traders with swords and darts with heads at both ends of iron. One end of the dart was like a double-edged sword, a foot and a half long, with the other end acting as a counterweight so that it flew level. But they were no match to the power of the gun.

Loaded with human cargo, stolen goods and gold, the Jesus set sail across the ocean only to return again. Although Hawkins committed murder and other violent acts, he was knighted by the queen for his role in defeating the Spanish Armada.

Hawkins’ voyages paved the way for slave ships around the world, eventually leading to the shores of America. The slave ships that docked at New York Harbor between 1715 and 1755 had such names as Charity, Friendship, Hope and even the Wheel of Fortune. Slave traders, or Blackbirders, were commonplace in New York. The Anti-Slavery Standard, a newspaper, stated that New York was one of the great slave ship markets on the continent.

A slave market was established at Wall Street in 1711, where slaves were bought and sold. The Wall Street market carried the names of prominent families in America who were involved in the slave trade. The legacy of Hawkins and his ship touched every part of the globe.

Eva M. Doyle has been a columnist for the Criterion newspaper for 37 years.