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Saeed Ahktar Rizvi

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Sufferings of Slaves


We have already seen what Islam did achieve in alleviating the plight of the slaves and
how, for the first and last time in the history, slaves were regarded as human beings
having rights upon their masters. Now let us see how the Christians treated their slaves.

Before giving the description, I must make one point clear. These accounts are of the
plight of the slaves during the last five centuries when, as mentioned earlier, the
Christians started slave-trade on a previously unimaginable scale. As I have shown in the
last chapter, the Arabs also gave them a willing helping hand in the last quarter of the
eighteenth century.

As most of the European accounts of the slave-trade in Africa date from this period, so
there are many vivid descriptions of what men saw there. Thus, the Christians must bear
the responsibility of these horrors in a far greater degree. They were inflicting these
injuries for four centuries compared with one century in which the Arabs joined hands with
them on their instigation though quite willingly.

The victims were the poor and defenceless Africans, the Negroes of the west and east
coast of Africa and also of the interior of that continent. They were treated as mere
chattels and tools or even worse. They had to work or rather they were forced to work in
inhuman conditions on the newly acquired plantations of their masters, the Christian
Western powers, who had taken possessions of the islands across the Atlantic and in the
New World and also at home in Portugal and Spain and the countries of central Europe of
the Holy Roman Empire under the spiritual domain of the Roman Catholic Popes.

The horrors of the slave trade were most pronounced during the last quarter of the
nineteenth century. Wherever a raid on a village took place, death and destruction
followed. Many more people died defending their homes and families, or as a result of the
starvation and disease which usually followed such violence, than were ever actually
enslaved, let alone sold at the coast.

One shudders to think of the most diabolical ways in which the poor natives of Africa
were captured, separated from their kith and kin, carried away and treated as worse than
animals. We shall now give a short account from the books of Western authors themselves on
how the slaves were treated and what cruel methods were employed by the slave hunters.
Their methods were at once crude and wasteful, because they were robbers, not warriors.
"Their practice was to surround some villages which they have marked down for their
prey, and approach it silently at night. The village was usually a collection of primitive
mud huts thatched with bamboo's and palm leaves, all highly inflammable, which they set
alight without compunction, generally at dawn. As the inhabitants woke to the cracking of
flames and struggled into the open, they were rounded up and made prisoners. Any of them
who resisted were cut down, as the slave hunters had no mercy for them. They had no use
for the old or infirm or for babes who were all killed on the spot, and only men and women
in their prime, and young boys and girls, were spared, to be carried off into slavery,
leaving behind the dead bodies and dying ashes, where once there had been happy homes and
flourishing settlements. The waste was out of all proportion to the prize. But waste,
wanton waste, was the hall-mark of the negro slavery, from its first moments to the last.
Wherever it reared its head, death, disease and destruction were its invariable
concomitants...

"Those captured far inland were less fortunate, for they had to march to the coast
on their feet - a dreary trudge over many miles of thick forest and rough desert. They
walked almost naked, with no protection against sharp thorns, and jagged stones. To
prevent escape, they had heavy forked poles fastened round their necks; their hands, if
they were troublesome, might be secured through holes in a rough wooden board, and they
were fettered with chains on their ankles. Linked together by ropes, the long lines known
as coffles, they trudged miserably on towards their terrifying fate; for all Africans knew
that the white were fed on the negroes bought from the barracoons. Their captors drove
them relentlessly forward, ignoring wounds and lacerations, and physicking their energy by
plentiful flicks of the whips. If any succumbed, he was thrown on one side; if any of them
became too ill, they were left to die or more mercifully knocked on the head."href="#r20" NAME="n20">

"...In fair weather or foul, in spite of diseases and deaths, and for all the
insurrections and suicides, every year the ships brought thousands of slaves to America
and the West Indies.. They came in ships of many nations - French, Dutch, Portuguese and
Danish - but more than half were brought in English ships that sailed from Bristol,
London, or Liverpool. Year in and year out, they were set ashore diseased or whole,
resigned or despairing and were lost for ever to the land of their birth... The uses of
servitude, like its abuses, never change; they were the same all the world over and from
one age to another. In America and the West Indies, as in ancient Rome, or in Greece or
the dim beginnings of history, slavery was divided into two broad types - domestic slavery
and the slavery of the works and plantations."

Let us now give some more extracts from the same book Freedom from Fear or the Slave
and his Emancipation by O. A. Sherrard, to show how and to what degree the
foremost Christian nations of the West meted out the most inhuman treatment to the
defenceless Negroes. The reader would also see their debased beliefs and notions about
human beings who differed from them in colour and race.

"From the broad historical outlook, they had passed through two stages: in the
first bearing on their shoulders, like a patient Atlas, the glories of many long dead
civilizations; and in the second, more wretched than the first, losing even that vicarious
honour, and failing to an abject state in which they contributed solely to private greed.
Their condition, specially in their second phase, should have scared the conscience of a
nominally Christian world, but left it peculiarly unmoved. The idea of slavery was so
deeply ingrained that no one questioned its propriety. All nations either endured or
enjoyed it."

"The lot of plantation slave was really very hard. The job assigned to him was,
from his point of view, skilled; he was to cultivate a crop unknown to him - for the most
part sugar in the West Indies, cotton or tobacco in America - and, in that his work was
novel, he endured a heavier burden than his counterpart in Greece or Rome or among the
serfs of Europe.. All was new and strange to him; he had, therefore, to be broken in; he
had to be taught his new duties; he had to be seasoned' as the saying was. 'Seasoning' was
a euphemism for a harsh discipline, which was reckoned by the opponents of slavery to
carry off not less than twenty per cent of those who underwent it. May be that was over
the mark, but it must nonetheless be admitted that large numbers died. The discipline was
painful, and there was little to ameliorate and much to embitter its seventy.href="#r23" NAME="n23">

The slaves had to pass through terrible stages of suffering. The cumulative effect of
all the hardships was disastrous. To quote Sherrard again, "this was particularly
true of the 'seasoning', for beyond doubt a large proportion of those who died under its
discipline would have died in any event from the effects of the middle passage. Experience
showed that the greater number of those who were weak or emaciated on arrival, died soon
afterwards whatever they did. The medical authorities put this down to 'long confinement
in slave-houses previous to embarkation, want of cleanliness and ventilation while on
hoard the slave-ships, alterations in dress, food and habits, and, not the least, change
of climate' (Buxton, p. 188). But they agreed that there was something more - a
psychological or spiritual malaise, which they described, perhaps a little portentously,
as 'the sad recollection of kindred and friendship, the rude violation of all the sacred
and social endearments of country and relationship, and the degrading anticipation of
endless unmitigated bondage.' This when add to the physical hardships too often dissolved
the will to live, and the slave seized the first chance to do away with himself, or more
simply, pined away and died." There were at least five types of owners and five forms
of negro slavery - Spanish, French, Dutch, Danish and British - without counting America,
which at the outset was British. The Americans, in the U.S.A, are even now, in the
twentieth century, flouting their own laws and the Negro has not yet succeeded in securing
full rights of citizenship, and there are problems for the Negro in his own home-land as
the world knows too well.

The terrible fate of plantation slave is notorious - how he was branded with hot irons,
how he was forced to work heavy chains, his back was torn and scarred with the lash, how
at night he was locked in a prison, the ergastulum, often underground and always filthy.
"The Portuguese built a series of forts or barracoons as they came to be called, on
the Guinea coast, where wretched Africans could be rounded up and kept safe till the
numbers were sufficient to justify transhipment to Spain, to slavery...and eventually to
America and the New World...their souls were doomed to eternal perdition; their bodies
were the property of the Christian nation who should occupy their soil."href="#r24" NAME="n24">

The author describes how slavery was introduced into England's colonies in America:
"A Dutch ship was entering the James River in Virginia and landing twenty Negroes for
sale. The colonists promptly bought them and thus Negro slavery was introduced into
England's American colonies." In a short time, "England acquired the first place
in the coveted traffic in slaves, a position which she held for over ninety years."

"The slaves were sold at auctions, being bought in stark naked, men and women,
alike, and mounted on a chair, where the bidders handled and prodded them and felt their
muscles and examined their teeth and made them jump and flex their arms, to satisfy
themselves that they were not bidding for a diseased or disabled lot. As the slaves were
bought single, it followed that often husband and wife, children and parents went to
different owners; and the loss of kith and kin and all that the slaves held dear was added
to the loss of liberty. So the slave left the auction room, bereaved of everything, to
begin a new life of 'abject, hopeless and crushing servitude'."NAME="n25">


. Sherrard, B.A., Freedom from Fear (London,
1959) pp. 61-62.

. Ibid, pp. 67f.

. Ibid, p.11.

. Ibid, p. 69.

. Ibid, p. 26.

Ibid, p. 67.

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