Background information

Conditions on the plantations

Most enslaved Africans were sold to a plantation either to work in the fields or as domestic slaves in the plantation houses. Conditions were extremely harsh as slaves were forced to work in order for British plantation owners to make vast economic gains. They cultivated crops that were highly sought-after in Britain, especially sugar, coffee, cocoa, and tobacco, and were given the most basic provisions in terms of food and living quarters.


The dreadful experiences of Middle Passage were compounded by further hardships to come as slave ships landed in the West Indies or on the east coast of America. The growth of plantations was most significant in Virginia for growing tobacco (from 1619) and initially in the Caribbean islands of Barbados (under British domination from 1625) and Jamaica (from 1655) for growing sugar.

As the ships approached land, captives were cleaned and prepared for sale.

?The prisoner leaps to lose his chains. But this joy is short-lived indeed. The condition of the unhappy slave is a continual process from bad to worse?

John Newton

Ownership manacle (lock and key)
Ownership manacle (lock and key)
Planters and their agents checked the state of health of newly arrived Africans using the most intimate and humiliating examinations. Slave-traders would use many tricks to disguise ailments that could prevent a sale: anuses were plugged with wadding, grey hair dyed black, and palm oil rubbed into the skin to create a healthy looking shine. The healthiest people were sold first. Others, sick, injured or old, were called?refuse slaves? and could take weeks to sell. These people were auctioned, or most terrifyingly, sold in a scramble. Olaudah Equiano was sold in this way on arrival in Barbados:

?Once a signal is given (as the beat of a drum) the buyers rushed at once into the yard where the slaves are confined, and make choice of that parcel they like best. The noise and the clamour?increase the apprehensiveness of the terrified Africans?In this manner, without scruple, are relations and friends separated, most of them never to see each other again.?

Olaudah Equiano

Along with sale went renaming ? a process designed to deny a person?s former identity and reinforce the control of his or her owner. Given names were either European or nondescript such as ?Gift? or ?Nobody? which further objectified and re-enforced the subjugation of slaves. Many of the enslaved were named after prime ministers or great emperors, as was Equiano when he was called Gustavus Vassa, a deliberately ironic gesture by slave owners. However, Africans often manged to keep their own names as well, passing them down from generation to generation, as an assertion of their personal identity and a link to their own culture and ancestry.


Separation on arrival was not the only time an enslaved African might be torn from his or her family relationships. Slaves could be sold at their master?s discretion, reinforcing their status as possessions rather than as people. Equiano even reported seeing some slaves weighed and sold by the pound. Mary Prince was sold when her owner died and the plantation changed hands.

Thomas Buxton described the separation of children and parents in a speech on slavery in the House of Commons,

?The slave sees the mother of his children stripped naked and flogged unmercifully; he sees his children sent to market, to be sold at the best price they will fetch.?

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