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EDWARD A. ALPERS
THE MIDDLE PASSAGE, traditionally presented as the most traumatic moment in the entire slave trade, has assumed iconographic significance for many diasporic Africans in the Black Atlantic. As Colin Palmer concludes:
The Middle Passage was more than just a shared physical experience for those who survived it. It was and is a metaphor for the suffering of African peoples born of their enslavement, of severed ties, of longing for a lost homeland, of a forced exile.... It is a living and wrenching aspect of the history of the peoples of the African diaspora, an inescapable part of their present impossible to erase or exorcise. A gruesome reminder of things past, it is simultaneously a signifier of a people's capacity to survive and to refuse to be vanquished.
As in the larger historiography of the African slave trade, the Atlantic dominates both the evidence for and the literature of the middle passage. However, there is no evidence that the middle passage in the Indian Ocean occupies the kind of central role in collective memory that Palmer describes for the African diaspora, although persistent recollections bear witness that Africa is still a presence in many of these communities.
My intention is to bring a measure of balance to this historiography by examining evidence from eastern Africa in order to shed some light on the middle passage in the Indian Ocean. In addition, I contend that the sea voyage from Africa west to the Americas or east across the Indian Ocean wasonlyonelegofthetraumaticjourneythatforciblyremovedfreeAfricans from their homes in Africa to their ultimate destinations. Indeed, I believe that it is a mistake to restrict analyses of the middle passage only to oceanic passages, assuming that enslaved Africans embarked from the African coast as though they were leaving their native country, when in fact their passage from freedom into slavery actually began with the moment in which they were swept up by the economic forces that drove the slave trade deep into the African interior.
I also seek to demonstrate that the middle passage encompasses a much more complex set of forced migrations than is usually assumed. From the moment they were seized and began their movement to the coast, captive Africans had to begin the process of personal survival and cultural adjustment associated with the diaspora. They learned new languages, received new names, ate new foods, and forged new bonds among themselves before they ever had to adjust fully to the work of slavery or the conditions of liberation. I will illustrate how some of these processes worked by presenting an album of individual experiences-of capture, enslavement, and movement to the coast and then across the water-from nineteenth-century eastern Africa. All these accounts refer to events at the height of the slave trade intheeighteenthandnineteenthcenturiesandmustbeunderstoodasproducts of the abolitionist movement.
The earliest of these published freed-slave narratives is the story of Swema, a Yao girl from northwestern Mozambique. In 1865, when she was perhaps ten years of age, Swema was given as a pawn to her mother's creditor, because Swema's mother was unable to repay a debt. The creditor then sold Swema to a passing "Arab" slave caravan. During the caravan to the coast, Swema and the other captives were usually fed a diet of millet or bean porridge, sometimes even roasted bananas or sweet potatoes. According to Swema, "To prevent desertion and at the same time husband the strength of the porters of the merchandise, the leaders take care during the march to feed the slaves well who are under their command." But soon the caravan left the fertile country of Yaoland and entered the dry steppe between the Ruvuma River and Kilwa. Despondent at the failing strength of her mother, who had been allowed to accompany her, Swema had to be force-fed by her captor. In the end, Swema's mother was literally worked to death and left to die by the road. After a long, harrowing journey, Swema finally reached the coast at Kilwa, the principal slaving port for all of East Africa, where, after resting and recuperating for several days, "one beautiful morning" she was loaded aboard a slaving dhow bound for the principal Indian Ocean slave market at Zanzibar. According to Swema's account,
The slaves who found themselves in the same group began to tremble all over and to cry out in a strange manner. "Oh!" they said, "we are lost. We are going to Zanzibar where there are white men who eat the Blacks." Although I was generally indifferent to everything that happened around me, I did not long remain in this state in the dhow, where my suffering redoubled. We were so closely packed that not only could I not turn, but not even breathe. The heat and thirst became insufferable, and a great seasickness made my suffering even worse. At night a strong cold wind chilled us and covered us at every moment with sea foam that was raised up by the violence of the wind. The next day each one of us received a little drinking water and a piece of dry manioc root. Thus it was that we passed six long and still more painful long days and nights. Hunger, thirst, seasickness, the sudden transition from great heat to insupportable cold, the impossibility of laying down one's head for a moment because of lack of space, finally all these sufferings combined to make me regret for the first time our painful voyage across the desert. But courage! Our existence will change, because there we are at the island of Zanzibar. A good wind continued to swell our triangular sail [i.e., the lateen sail of the dhow] and soon we found ourselves before the great city. Two cannon shots made the dhow shake. The sail was lowered and the anchor was dropped.
Upon being landed, Swema was examined at the slave market by the Arab who had financed the slaving expedition that brought her to the coast, but because she was so weak, she was discarded as being worthless and buried alive in a shallow grave outside the town. Miraculously, Swema was rescued from her shallow grave, taken to the Catholic mission, and revived.
The exhausted state in which she reached the coast was not unique. According to a report published in by a member of the British anti-slave-trade patrol, "The second day after leaving Zanzibar we took a dhow with slaves, almost all children, or boys under ; and as they had only started they were in good health, all but a few who are significantly called the lanterns by the sailors, because, I suppose, you can almost see through them." In the mid-1870s, Sir Bartle Frere, who headed the British Indian delegation to negotiate the final anti-slave-trade treaty with the sultan of Zanzibar in 1873, reported to his government on the plight of enslaved children: "[W]henever the child could be got to recount the history of its capture, the tale was almost invariably one of surprise, kidnapping and generally of murder, always of indescribable suffering on the way down to the coast and on the dhow voyage."
Dating to the mid-1870s, the edited journals of J. F. Elton, the British consul at Mozambique who was an ardent enforcer of the recently concluded anti-slave-trade treaty with the sultan of Zanzibar, are full of references to the middle passage. Before he reached Mozambique, Elton had marched south from Dar es Salaam behind the coast toward the great slave depot of Kilwa Kivinje, in what is today southern mainland Tanzania. Along the way, he received reports of numerous slave caravans that were taken overland from Kilwa, north along the coast, specifically to avoid the new ban on slave trading and the intervention of the British anti-slave-trade patrol. Most of these captives were destined for the booming clove plantations on Pemba Island; eventually, they would have been smuggled by sea across the channel separating the mainland from the island, thereby avoiding the sultan's enforcement of the treaty at Zanzibar itself.
In addition, Elton directly observed two such caravans. The first presented a scene of chaos, probably caused by the appearance of Elton's party, although he was under strict orders not to interfere with any mainland slave coffles. Arabs were driving gangs of slaves before them through the long grass into the bush, loose slaves and excited slave drivers running in all directions, whipping furiously all the while; water jars, rice bags, grain, papers, slave irons, boxes, and all the baggage of the caravan lay littered about and thrown aside in the hurry of retreat. A long gang of children, whose chain was tangled in the thornbushes, wailed piteously as they were herded away.
The second caravan included "about in all, in wretched condition" (81-82). Elton continues,
One gang of lads and women, chained together with iron neck-rings, was in horrible state, their lower extremities coated with dry mud and their own excrement and torn with thorns, their bodies mere frameworks, and their skeletons limbs slightly stretched over with wrinkled parchment-like skin. One wretched woman had been flung against a tree for slipping her rope, and came screaming up to us for protection, with one eye half out and the side of her face and bosom streaming with blood. We washed her wounds, and that was the only piece of interference on our part with the caravan, although the temptation was a strong one to cast all adrift, and give them, at any rate, a chance of starving to death peaceably in the woods. (82-83)
Later in his account, Elton describes several captures of slavers made in the Mozambique Channel by British naval vessels. On March 13, 1874, a large dhow with forty Arab and Comorian crew was seized after a display of cannonade off the northwest coast of Madagascar. As soon as the slavers were imprisoned, the British served "water and food immediately to the poor starving and emaciated slaves, of whom there were 225, many suffering severely from dysentery." This act of liberation did not, however, end the middle passage for the slaves, who were first carried to Mozambique, where they could not be disembarked, then headed toward Zanzibar, during which passage on March 19 the ship "encountered a cyclone, passing through the vortex at 8:30 P.M., and getting clear at noon on the 20th. The sufferings of the poor slaves, notwithstanding everything humanity could suggest, were intense." Eventually, on March 28, 194 freed slaves were landed, "30 having died since leaving Mozambique." Ten days later, Elton encountered seventy-eight of these souls, who had ultimately been transferred to Natal, where they were housed in newly constructed barracks and provided with blankets, utensils for eating, and used clothing. Their rations included mealie-meal (maize) porridge, rice, sweet potato, and meat. When he departed for Zanzibar on April 15, only one more person had died out of the dozen who had been sent to the hospital. "It would be impossible to describe the state of emaciation in which they were when first landed, or the visible change which even on the second day a few spoonfuls of food had upon them, producing an almost intoxicating effect and an instant exhilaration of spirits hardly to be realized unless witnessed," he wrote (112, 114).
At Durban, Elton also recorded several depositions from freed slaves who had been caught up in the Mozambique Channel slave trade from ports in Mozambique to the Comoro Islands and northwest Madagascar. Maria, a Makua woman, said that she was kidnapped by a Muslim man as she searched for crabs along the shore:
He seized me and put a collar round my neck. He took me to a house in a village and put me in the house. Slaves are put one by one into the house, so that it may not be known they are there. Umkumba Muntu is the Mussulman. He is black, and is set over us by the Portuguese; he takes the people as slaves and barters them. Umkumba Muntu did not actually catch me. The dhow comes, the men catch as many of us as they can, and they pay a royalty for each slave to Umkumba Muntu. Sometimes when a ship comes, Umkumba Muntu gives orders to his men to collect slaves. When the dhow that we left in sailed, there were still four dhows loading with slaves. The slaves are packed in the night, and they sail during the night. I, with these others (picking out some dozen of the freed slaves), have been six months in one house imprisoned, waiting for a dhow. Mozambique is the nearest town to where Umkumba Muntu lives. All the slaves come from the country around the town of Mozambique. I come from close to Cabaceira [on the mainland, opposite Mozambique Island].... Where the dhow came from is a large river, as large as the Jugda, called Umnapa; the next river to the south of Umnapa is Kivolane [Quivolane]; the next is Umfusi [Infusse]. Dhows come to these rivers constantly for slaves. Umkumba Muntu governs the country under the Portuguese. Slave dhows go to an Arab country. They wear Arab gowns (points one out). This ship was going there. I was slave to Umsaji, Patron Moro. He did not sell me, I was kidnapped. (115-16)
From another group of freed slaves at Durban who also came from the area controlled by Umkumba Muntu, Elton learned further: "We were ten days on board before we were captured. We saw no Portuguese whilst we were being collected. They were Arabs who collected us. We were packed closely in tiers one above the other. Those of us who died, died of starvation; they gave us hardly any food and but little water" (116). In September 1875, Elton joined the HMS Thetis to suppress the slave trade from this notorious slaving region. During its patrol, the Thetis captured a slave dhow with 250 slaves and fifty-three crew. According to the account of Captain Ward of the Thetis:
The slaves were stowed on two decks, squatting side by side in such a position as neither to allow of their standing up nor lying down, nor of moving for the purpose of obeying the calls of nature; indeed, the stench in the hold showed plainly that these poor creatures were compelled to squat in their own excrement. They had been only three days from their last port, and, therefore might be expected to be in exceptionally good condition. Some of them were, however, much emaciated, and fifty-three of them were suffering from a most virulent and loathsome description of itch, which gave us some trouble from the necessity which it entailed of isolating them as much as possible. Notwithstanding every care from the medical officers of the ship, three have died since they were received on board; and from the wretched state of the dhow's 'tween decks, which appeared to me to be a pest-house, in which no human being could live for many hours, I can only conjecture that the majority of her cargo would have perished before reaching any port in Madagascar had we not fallen in with her, as her passage, judging from the winds we experienced, would have lasted some five or six days longer. (144)
Elsewhere, Elton describes the extremely poor state of a dhow from the Mozambique coast named the Kunguru (Pied-Crow) that the Thetis scuttled after capturing its crew and liberating its ninety-three enslaved Makua, who were bound for the Madagascar market. He observed that "it was an open question whether she would have reached Madagascar. The water literally poured in between her beams, and the slaves on the lower deck were up to their waists in it, crowded and packed in a solid mass. The wind was strong, and the sea rising with every promise of bad weather" (169-70). In 1887, a member of the Universities' Mission to Central Africa (UMCA) published a collection of thirteen life histories, Kiungani, that were written by child captives who had been liberated by the British and settled at Zanzibar. A Nyasa boy (probably from the region around the south end of Lake Nyasa) remembered living in a state of constant threat by the Ngoni raiders of the paramount chief Mpezeni. Warfare continued and eventually this boy found himself fleeing capture with his mother and sisters in a field of maize. "I soon fell down, for I was quite a little child; perhaps at that time I was as big as C-(about ten years old)" (21). Following his seizure, he was led away to the country of his captors. After staying a while in Mpezeni's country, the boy was sold by his master to a Yao slave trader, who resold him again. The boy stayed about two years at the town of a great Yao chief (probably Mataka, whose town was Mwembe) in what is today northwestern Mozambique. "I learnt the Yao language there, and forgot my own," the Nyasa boy said. Eventually, he was sold to some Arabs from Kilwa. On the long march to the coast, "[o]nly the little children had no slave-sticks or chains, but the grown-up people were all fastened to prevent their running away." After reaching the coast at Kilwa, he was sold to an Arab. "I remember selling mangos in Kilwa, and I remember trying to know the Swahili language." Once again, his master sold him, in this instance "to an Arab of Muscat, who was a very hard master" (24, 25).
Excerpted from Many Middle Passages by Emma Christopher Copyright © 2007 by The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
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