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Slavery as a Form of Social Death: Discursive Essay

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From the periods between the years 1600-1800, Black Africans were subjected to a grueling expedition of torment and torture. In Emma Christopher’s historical writing known as “Many Middle Passages: Forced Migration and the Making of the Modern World”, we are thrown into the earlier ages where there were journeys of slave ships from the west coast of Africa, across the Atlantic, to North America. This voyage was referred to as the Middle Passage. It was named so because it was the middle leg of the ‘Triangular Trade’ route that was used by European merchants. Slaves would be traded in the Americas for goods which in turn would be shipped to Europe. At which point slave traders would then head back south to Africa; pick up slaves and repeat the whole process over again. In regard to my findings in the reading, I focused on the experiences of the Trans-Atlantic migration that contributed greatly to the idea of the African diaspora featured in chapter one “The Other Middle Passage the African Slave Trade in the Indian Ocean.” While in comparison look to focus on the recruitment, export, and transportation of Chinese coolies, who were almost exclusively male, to Cuba and Peru, which served as the mid-nineteenth century surge of enslavement for human labor from the lucrative export-oriented revenue production that blew up in Cuba. Of This can be found in chapter 9 “La Trata Amarilla the “Yellow Trade” and the Middle Passage, 1847–1884” by Everyln Hu-DeHart from pages 166-183. The slave experience speaks to an African diaspora that recognizes loss, trauma, and death as key contributors in the formation of culture and community in an African ‘homeland’. In Many Middle Passages: Forced Migration and the Making of the Modern World, Emma Christopher does describe the gruesome deaths aboard the Brookes, a slave ship that made about ten voyages during the eighteenth century. Instantly, Christopher, Pybus, and Redikerl establish the transatlantic middle passage as the journey between Africa and the Americas in order to quickly dive into the poor social conditions, the resistance adopted by the enslaved Africans, and the creativity that abolitionists worked on bringing to the light of the public.

The excruciating temperatures, limited airflow, inadequate sanitation situation, and being packed in the lower decks caused death from skin infections, scurvy, and other horrible diseases. After death, there was no peaceful way of disposing of the bodies, the bodies were thrown overboard and eaten by sharks (Introduction: Page 3). The enslaved witnessed the violent deaths of those who attempted rebellion. For example, one woman involved in a conspiracy of insurrection was hung upside-down and killed by being slashed with knives. On slave plantations of the Caribbean, the reality of oppression was made visible by presentations of deceased rebellious slaves hung throughout plantations as a warning to other slaves considering rebellion. Abolitionist campaigners, such as Thomas Clarkson, understood the impact that the depiction of the “Brookes” would play in the public. Clarkson believed that a picture really could be its own language, “which was at once intelligible and irresistible’ Christopher, Pybus, and Redikerl (page 12). There was yet a significant silence with abolitionists during the eighteenth century despite emancipation becoming an international concern. Christopher, Pybus, and Redikerl (page 13) note how Christopher’s silence draws attention to the abolitionists that “turned away from a protest against the treatment of transported felons” despite previous appeals.

The middle passage illustrated the importance of human cargo for America’s profit, and the disregard held for the individuals forced to migrate under harsh conditions. Social and cultural death also significantly shaped the experiences of enslaved Africans. Continuing from the introduction on page 10, Orlando Patterson describes slavery as a form of social death that stripped African peoples of their identities and cultures and rendered them dehumanized, passive laborers for their white masters. Patterson reflected enslavement as a process from “theories of social death have applications in settings beyond chattel slavery. Certainly, the people discussed here were alienated from the place of their birth, and many were dishonored and stripped of their personal power” (Page 10). All slaves were branded and their hair cut, teeth filed, and their clothes and personal articles connecting them to local gods of protection were removed. Cultural and social alienation as well as loss of life were significant representations of the slave experience. In the New World where protocol made enslaved people alienated from traditional practices in a manner resembling Orlando Patterson’s “social death” enslaved people tooled violence, loss, and death in its variety of manifestations as a site for creativity and cultural reconstruction. These features have been realized in African diasporic communities historically.

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Slaves wanted death resulting in purposely drowning themselves, and refusing to eat, actions that worked against their immediate oppressors and the capitalism that drove the slave trade. Aspects of the slave experience and in particular the formation of cultures and communities in the context of slavery contribute to a notion of an African diaspora that is deviant from structures of race, ethnicity, and the nation-state. The interpretation of diaspora relies on notions of a common origin among members of a community and predicates unity on the common territory. Historical accounts of slavery support a hybrid interpretation of diaspora in different ways. The nature of cultures and communities that were born out of slavery were not restricted by ethnicity, race, or national origin, but emphasized by cultures. Enslaved Africans being transported on the so-called “floating dungeon” found that the alternative geography of the ocean provided a completely new platform on which to establish a community. Enslaved Africans on slave ships were separated from nearly all previous forms of a social common language. In the incredible suffering they endured, slaves drew on the common experiences aboard the slave ship in order to build social meaning, while efforts to have individual cultural heritage held little significance. In result Alliances formed within the process of dispersal were founded on shared experiences of suffering; slaves were alienated from a sense of a singular homeland. In this way, cultures formed on the middle passage contribute to the idea of culture, class, family, and ethnicity in the African diaspora (Lovejoy).

The diasporic community that arose from common experiences of slavery and the middle passage is one founded on movement, confusion, and innovation: a diaspora influenced by cultural realities of Africa and the Americas but not defined by either shore. However, in Chapter 9 “La Trata Amarilla the “Yellow Trade” and the Middle Passage, 1847–1884” by Everyln Hu-DeHart from pages 166-183 the focus is on the recruitment, export, and transportation of Chinese coolies. Chinese coolies were regarded as derogatory and/or a racial slur in the Caribbean, Africa, Oceania, North America, Southeast Asia, and Europe – in reference to people from Asia. Most Chinese workers labored in the sugar and cotton industries, where plantation agriculture expanded significantly in the nineteenth century as a result of the guano boom that invigorated the Peruvian economy. On plantations, the coolies faced limited mobility via debt peonage and tightly controlled lives via corporal punishment. On plantations, many coolies resisted total domination by planters through tactics very similar to those of African slaves and indentured servants, sometimes going against Chinese contractors that acted as enforcers. Coolies would steal, run away, pretend to be sick, strike, and hold back or disrupt production in order to frustrate owners in the hope of gaining concessions that would better their living conditions. So again, we see inadequate living conditions between different types of enslaved ethnicity.

In a result, the coolie trade constituted as a prime example of globalization where ships could be owned by any number of entrepreneurs; American or European. There can be no question that the coolie trade was extremely lucrative since profits were made not only on the coolie cargo but also upon other freight that the coolie ships carried around the world, not wasting any carrying capacity as they crossed the oceans. Even further as we can calculate the profits of this “triangular trade”/ “yellow trade”. For example, on page 180 DeHart quotes that “One account of a ship that carried 900 coolies to Cuba reported that the cargo represented a value of 450,000 pesos for the importers, with original outlay at only 50,000 and the cost of the expedition less than 100,000.” ( DeHart pg. 180) Which amount to an easy 300,000 pesos profit, which as you can tell was very lucrative. Between the Atlantic slave trade and the yellow triangular trade occurring across the globe, both acts of enslavement changed the lives of all that were involved, especially those that were forced to migrate. Christopher, Pybus, and Rediker’s account of the middle passage highlighted how human life was literally cheap, as individuals who became human cargo were no longer considered to be human being in the eyes of the usurper. A true way to set the tone for globalizing capitalism, and that slavery really is social death.

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Slavery as a Form of Social Death: Discursive Essay. (2022, September 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved September 30, 2023, from
“Slavery as a Form of Social Death: Discursive Essay.” Edubirdie, 27 Sept. 2022,
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