Most African Americans are descended from Africans brought directly from Africa to America to become slaves. Originally captured in African wars or raids and transported in the Atlantic slave trade. African Americans are descended from various ethnic groups, mostly from western and central Africa, including the Sahel. A smaller number came from eastern and southeastern Africa. The major ethnic groups that the enslaved Africans belonged to included the Hausa, Bakongo, Igbo, Mandé, Wolof, Akan, Fon, Yoruba, and Makua, among many others. Although these different groups varied in customs, religious theology and language, what they had in common was a way of life that was different from the Europeans. However, since a majority of the slaves came from these villages and societies, once sent to the Americas these different peoples had European standards and beliefs forced upon them, causing them to do away with tribal differences and forged a new history and culture that was a creolization of their common pasts, present, and European culture . Slaves from specific African ethnic groups were more sought after and more dominant in numbers than others in certain regions of what later became the United States.
Regions of Africa
Studies of contemporary documents reveal seven regions from which Africans were sold or taken during the Atlantic slave trade. These regions were:
- Senegambia, encompassing the coast from the Senegal River to the Casamance River, where captives as far away as the Upper and Middle Niger River Valley were sold;
- The Sierra Leone region included territory from the Casamance to the
Assini River in the modern countries of Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Côte d'Ivoire;
- The Gold Coast region consisted of mainly modern Ghana;
- The Bight of Benin region stretched from the Volta River to the Benue River in modern Togo, Benin and southwestern Nigeria;
- The Bight of Biafra extended from southeastern Nigeria through Cameroon into Gabon;
- West Central Africa, the largest region, included the Congo and Angola; and
- East and Southeast Africa, the region of Mozambique-Madagascar included the modern countries of Mozambique, parts of Tanzania and Madagascar.
The largest source of slaves transported across the Atlantic Ocean for the New World was West Africa. Some West Africans were skilled iron workers and were therefore able to make tools that aided in their agricultural labor. While there were many unique tribes with their own customs and religions, by the 10th century many of the tribes had embraced Islam. Those villages in West Africa that were lucky enough to be in good conditions for growth and success, prospered. They also contributed their success to the slave trade.
Origins and percentages of African Americans imported into British North America and Louisiana (1700–1820):
|West Central Africa
|Bight of Biafra
|Bight of Benin
The Middle Passage
Before the Atlantic slave trade there were already people of African descent in America. A few countries in Africa would buy, sell, and trade other enslaved Africans, who were often prisoners of war, with the Europeans. The people of Mali and Benin are known for partaking in the event of selling their prisoners of war and other unwanted people off as slaves.
In the account of Olaudah Equiano, he described the process of being transported to the colonies and being on the slave ships as a horrific experience. On the ships, the slaves were separated from their family long before they boarded the ships. Once aboard the ships the captives were then segregated by gender. Under the deck, the slaves were cramped and did not have enough space to walk around freely. Male slaves were generally kept in the ship's hold, where they experienced the worst of crowding. The captives stationed on the floor beneath low-lying bunks could barely move and spent much of the voyage pinned to the floorboards, which could, over time, wear the skin on their elbows down to the bone. Due to the lack of basic hygiene, malnourishment, and dehydration diseases spread wildly and death was common.
The women on the ships often endured rape by the crewmen. Women and children were often kept in rooms set apart from the main hold. This gave crewmen easy access to the women which was often regarded as one of the perks of the trade system. Not only did these rooms give the crewmen easy access to women but it gave enslaved women better access to information on the ship's crew, fortifications, and daily routine, but little opportunity to communicate this to the men confined in the ship's hold. As an example, women instigated a 1797 insurrection aboard the British ship Thomas by stealing weapons and passing them to the men below as well as engaging in hand-to-hand combat with the ship's crew.
In the midst of these terrible conditions, African slaves plotted mutiny. Male slaves were the most likely candidates to mutiny and only at times they were on deck. While rebellions did not happen often, they were usually unsuccessful. In order for the crew members to keep the slaves under control and prevent future rebellions, the crews were often twice as large and members would instill fear into the slaves through brutality and harsh punishments. From the time of being captured in Africa to the arrival to the plantations of the European masters, took an average of six months. Africans were completely cut off from their families, home, and community life. They were forced to adjust to a new way of life.