Africans thrown overboard from a slave ship, Brazil

Myths and Misconceptions about the Slave Trade and Slavery

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Myth: Global slavery is a product of capitalism.
Fact: Global slavery is older than the first human records; the laws of Hammurabi contain references to slave from 3,800 years ago (1755-1750 BCE to be exact).

Myth: Slavery is a product of Western Civilization.
Fact: Slavery is virtually a universal institution. The Shang dynasty which ruled China 🇨🇳 from 1766 BC to 1122 BC had slavery.

Myth: Slavery in the non-western world was a mild, benign, and non-economic institution.
Fact: In line with varying societies values, slaves were from time to time and region to region subject to varying levels of physical abuse, sexual exploitation, and arbitrary death.

Myth: Slavery was an economically backward and inefficient institution.
Fact: Many of the most profitable or wealthy societies in the world in world history such as the Roman Empire had slaves. Who hasn’t heard of Spartacus?

Myth: Slavery was always based on race.
Fact: Not until the 15th century was slavery associated primarily with people of African descent.


Myth: New World slaves came exclusively from West Africa.
Fact: Half of all New World slaves came from central Africa.

Myth: Europeans did not physically enslave Africans or hire mercenaries who captured people for export.
Fact: Europeans did engage in some slave raiding; Prince Henry of Portugal 🇵🇹 become the first European to sail beyond the Western Sahara’s Cape Bojador in order to capture and enslave Africans. On August 6th, 1444, Henry auctioned 240 enslaved Africans in Lagos (Portugal), announcing Portugal’s entry into the group of slave-trading nations.

Myth: All African regions were slave trade “abettors” who sold their own people.
Fact: A brown skin is not a race. The idea of all black people of the world being a race is a scientifically unjustified and debunked social construction created by Europeans to justify and sanitise the slave trade. By that logic Europeans sold 10 million to 15 million of their own people too in the slave markets of Genoa, Venice etc. Some of Africans who were transported to the Americas were enslaved by Africans in Africa for various reasons ranging from being prisoners of war, to legal sentences, exile and illegal kidnapping. There is evidence 30 of 2,000 ethnicities in Africa did the majority of the enslavement and sale of other Africans. There is no direct evidence that 1,970 other ethnicities enslaved other Africans.

Myth: Many slaves were captured with nets.
Fact: There is no evidence that slaves were captured with nets; war was the most important source of enslavement.

Myth: Kidnapping was the usual means of enslavement.
Fact: War was also an important source of enslavement; it would be incorrect to reduce all of these wars to slave raids. Other sources of enslavement were punishments for murder, treason, bodily harm and illegal kidnapping. Western writers often downplay the impact of Europe in exacerbating the frequency and veracity of waging war in Africa for instance downplaying their active involvement 16th/17th civil wars of the kingdom of Kongo. 🇦🇴

Myth: The Middle Passage stripped enslaved Africans of their cultural heritage and transformed them into docile, passive figures wholly receptive to the cultural inputs of their masters.
Fact: Slaves engaged in at least 250 shipboard rebellions.

Myth: Africa didn’t enslave any Europeans
Fact: From 711 until well after 1811, Morocco 🇲🇦 and the rest of North Africa (🇩🇿 🇹🇳 🇱🇾 🇪🇬)either enslaved or imported more than 2 million Europeans.

Myth: Only Europeans enslaved or trafficked in Africans
Fact: In addition to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, Africans were enslaved and trafficked through the Sahara and the Indian Ocean. Between 1500 AD and 1890 AD, over twenty-two million (22,000,000) Africans were sold into slavery (R.A. Austen 1979). Seven million (6,856,000) were trafficked east: with 3,956,000 were trafficked across the Sahara and 2,900,000 across the Red sea and the Indian Ocean (R.A. Austen 1979).

Slavery in the Americas

Myth: Most slaves were imported into what is now the United States 🇺🇸 .
Fact: Well over 90 percent of slaves from Africa were imported into the Caribbean and South America.

Myth: Slavery played a marginal role in the history of the Americas.
Fact: African slaves were the only remedy for the labor shortages that plagued Europe’s New World ambitions and dominions. Slave labor made it profitable to mine for precious metal and to harvest sugar, indigo, and tobacco; slaves were used to clear land, as a human source of medicinal knowledge, and some slaves taught whites how to raise such crops as rice and indigo.

Myth: Europeans arrived in the New World in far larger numbers than did Africans.
Fact: Before 1820, the number of Africans in parts of the Americas outstripped the combined total of European immigrants by a ratio of 3, 4, or 5 to 1.

Myth: The first slaves arrived in what is now the U.S. in 1619
Fact: Slaves arrived in Spanish Florida at least a century before 1619 and a recently uncovered census shows that blacks were present in Virginia before 1619.

Myth: Industrialisation began in Europe.
Fact: Industrialisation began in Peru 🇵🇪 in silver mining towns and Suriname 🇸🇷 on Dutch sugar plantations before the Industrial Revolution attributed to England 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁥󠁮󠁧󠁿 .

Myths: The barbarity of the Atlantic slave trade was similar to other forms of slavery seen before in various parts of the world.
Fact: Sometimes slave traffickers committed significant mass-murder: such as The Zong when a crew murdered 130 slaves for an insurance claim; or The Leusden which was the murder of 664 slaves because the Captain took the wrong turn on their way to Suriname & their ship got stuck; or the Guerrero in which a crew left 500+ slaves for dead when the ship ran into trouble, screams could be found for 2 miles.

Slave Culture
Myth: The slave trade permanently broke slaves’ bonds with Africa.
Fact: Slaves were able to draw upon their African cultural background and experiences and use them as a basis for life in the New World; creating Santeria and other beliefs based on African religions.

Myth: Plantation life with its harsh labor, unstable families, and high mortality, made it difficult for Africans to construct social ties.
Fact: Some African national identities persisted in America well into the 18th century and even the early 19th century among newly arrived enslaved individuals.

Myth: Masters assigned names to slaves or slaves imitated masters’ systems of naming.
Fact: It is true, some slaves were named after owners. Some naming patterns appear to have reflected regional African practices, such as the custom of giving children “day names” (after the day they were born) and “name-saking,” such as naming children after grandparents.

Myth: Slaveholders sought to deculturate slaves by forbidding African names and languages and obliterating African culture.
Fact: While deculturation was part of the “project” of slavery, on the initiative of slaves African music, dance, decoration, design, cuisine, and religion persisted and exerted a profound, ongoing influence on American culture. Slaves adapted religious rites and perpetuated a rich tradition of folklore.

Economics of Slavery
Myth: Slavesholders lost money and were more interested in status than moneymaking; slaves did little productive work.
Fact: Slaves worked longer days, more days, and more of their life. They developed improvements in production such as ambidextrous cotton picking. Some slaves taught slave masters to grow rice, to perform inoculations, to make new products from agricultural raw materials and to grow other crops. Slave masters extracted knowledge, and advancements not just labour hours.

Myth: Slavery was incompatible with urban life and factory technology.
Fact: Sugar mills were the first true factories in the world; slaves were widely used in cities and in various kinds of manufacturing and crafts. Many mills in Massachusetts, other parts of North America and mills in Europe, relied heavily for decades on product produced by slaves in the Americas and their efficiencies such as ambidextrous cotton picking.

Myth: Slaves engaged almost exclusively in unskilled brutish field labor.�Fact: Much of the labor performed by slaves required high skill levels and careful, painstaking effort. Masters relied on slaves for skilled craftsmanship.

Myth: West and Central Africans received their first exposure to Christianity in the New World.
Fact: Catholic missionary activities began in the central African kingdom of Kongo half a century before Columbus’s voyages of discovery and Kongo converted to Catholicism in 1491. A sizeable community of African Christians developed around Portuguese settlement. Other kingdoms such as the Itsekiri and Urhobo also accepted missionaries, which reduced the brutality of colonization or shield them from violence when the Scramble for Africa happened centuries later.

Myth: Priests and missionaries were primarily responsible for converting slaves to Christianity.
Fact: In Latin America, slaves were instructed not only by European clergy, but by African Christians, who spread a specifically African interpretation of Christianity.

Myth: Upon arrival in Latin America, slaves were given hasty instruction in a complex foreign religion in a language they could barely understand.
Fact: A certain number of slaves were baptized Christians and others (particularly those from Kongo) were familiar with Christianity.

Myth: The Catholic Church did not tolerate the mixture of Catholicism with traditional African religions.�Fact: In Kongo and in Latin America, the Church did tolerate the mixture of Catholicism with African religions, allowing Africans to retain their old cosmology, understanding of the universe, and the place of gods and other divine beings in the universe.

Myth: Before the Civil War, the Southern churches were highly segregated.
Fact: In 1860, slave constituted about 26 percent of the Southern Baptist church membership.

Myth: Slave Christianity was essentially a “religion of docility.”
Fact: Christianity was dual edged and marked by millennialist possibilities; whites could not prevent black preachers from turning Christianity into a source of self-respect and faith in deliverance.

Myth: Slaves were brainwashed and stunned into submission and rarely resisted slavery.
Fact: Resistance took a variety of forms ranging from day-to-day resistance, economic bargaining, running away and maroonage, and outright rebellions.

Myth: Every ethnicity and political unit in precolonial Africa has slavery and participated in the slave trade.
Fact: Africa is a vast and diverse continent, comprising thousands of distinct ethnic groups, each with its own rich history, culture, and experiences. While about thirty ethnicities sold slaves, for many ethnicities in Africa (up to 1,970) including the Anlo-Ewe, Balanta of Guinea, Bemba, Chews, Chaga, Dogon, Gikuyu, Herero, Himba, Hutu, Ibibio, Ijaw, Imamate of Futa Toro, Kamba, Kikuyu, Kpelle, Luba-Kasai, Luo, Luhya, Maasai, Mossi, Nama, Nuer, Ovambo, Shona, Sukuma, Tigray, Tiv, Tsonga, Tswana, Xhosa, and Zulu, which are significant populations within Africa, it is important to clarify that there is no direct evidence linking them to substantial participation in the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

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Myths and Misconceptions about the Slave Trade and Slavery

by Editorial Team time to read: 7 min