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Most African-Americans in the United States are descendants of Africans taken as slaves to the New World settlements between 1501 and 1808. If European settlers could build their society, it is largely thanks to the forced labor of these black slaves. It is estimated that 15 million Africans were displaced between 1500 and 1870. To this number must be added the millions who died (of illness, lack of air, malnutrition, or ill-treatment) during the extremely dangerous Atlantic crossing, or who preferred to commit suicide rather than undergoing imprisonment or forced labor. Let us examine some major reasons that necessitated the slaving of Africans on the American soil, the attitude of the enslaved, and the contribution to the American society as we go down this article.
A Lucrative Business
At that time, the sale of African slaves in the colonies was a real organized trade. The Spaniards and the Portuguese are the first to control this slave trade. In the late 1500s, the Dutch took part and dominate the market for many years. The French and the English are involved from the 18th century and finally take control of this traffic. African slaves are sent to Brazil (then a Portuguese colony), Haiti or the United States from 1600. From 1750, Africans account for a quarter of the population in the American colonies. The number of slaves sent to the United States is so large that many Africans are beginning to talk about cannibalism to explain the appetite of Europeans for black slaves. Equiano, originally from West Africa who was sent as a slave to the United States, described his experience in his memoirs, published in 1789. "After finding an African to communicate with, he began to understand his situation. He was going to be taken very far to the land of white men in one of those big ships. He was relieved once he was convinced that these strange men were not going to eat him, a usual fear among those who had never seen Europeans before." The goal is, initially, to use this new workforce (with Indians refusing to work for whites) to work primarily in sugar cane and tobacco plantations in the southern United States. Africans, with their experience, also bring their agricultural know-how to the New World and support the hot climate.
The Tragic Story of African-American Slavery
Very early, the history of the black people is marked by suffering and tragedy. Many families are separated, and slaves are treated like merchandise. One of the constants of this traffic is to deprive the slaves of all their rights: No travel without permission of the master, no right to vote, no right to learn to read or write. Reasons why they try, as soon as they arrive on American soil, is to recreate this notion of family unit. Despite their diverse origins (Benin, Congo, etc.), they quickly understand that they are, in fact, the same people—oppressed by white supremacy. Some of them decide to fight their situation by actions such as the destruction of agricultural tools, idle work, and other measures. However, it is unfortunately not always easy to rebel. Many slaves prefer to protect their family than to resist, for fear of retaliation from their master. Thousands of slaves manage to escape. They hide, as they can, at the border of whites-dominated states or in the woods. 50,000 of them managed to reach the free states of the North or Canada.
Industrial Revolution and the Work Black Force
From the industrial revolution, around 1790, cotton became one of the most important products in the world. The need for manpower is again felt in the southern United States. While there were only 75,000 slaves in Alabama and Mississippi in 1820, this figure rises to 500,000 by 1840. With a production of 550 million pounds of cotton per year in the southern United States, white Americans owe their economic well-being to this black labor force. All sectors of American society benefited from these riches. For most of these white Americans, it is perfectly normal and legal to take advantage of the work of these millions of black slaves. Some whites are even ready to fight to keep this state of affairs.