Today’s selection — from The American Slave Coast by Ned Sublette and Constance Sublette. The coffle was a common way of transporting slaves from the slave breeding states on the Atlantic coast such as Virginia to the slave markets and plantations of the deeper South.
“Southern children grew up seeing coffles approach in a cloud of dust.
“A coffle is ‘a train of men or beasts fastened together,’ says the Oxford English Dictionary, and indeed Louis Hughes referred to the coffle he marched in as ‘a herd.’ The word comes from the Arabic qāfilah, meaning ‘caravan,’ recalling the overland slave trade that existed across the desert from sub-Saharan Africa to the greater Islamic world centuries before Columbus crossed the Atlantic. …
“But the people trudging to Mississippi … were not Africans. They were African Americans, born into slavery and raised with their eventual sale in mind. Force-marched through wilderness at a pace of twenty or twenty-five miles a day, for five weeks or more, from can’t-see to can’t-see, in blazing sun or cold rain, crossing unbridged rivers, occasionally dropping dead in their tracks, hundreds of thousands of laborers transported themselves down south at gunpoint, where they and all their descendants could expect to be prisoners for life. …
“About a quarter of those trafficked southward were children between eight and fifteen, purchased away from their families. The majority of coffle prisoners were male: boys who would never again see their mothers, men who would never again see wives and children. But there were women and girls in the coffles, too — exposed, as were enslaved women everywhere, to the possibility of sexual violation from their captors. The only age bracket in which females outnumbered males in the trade was twelve to fifteen, when they were as able as the boys to do field labor, and could also bear children. Charles Ball, forcibly taken from Maryland to South Carolina in 1805, recalled that
The women were merely tied together with a rope, about the size of a bed cord, which was tied like a halter round the neck of each; but the men … were very differently caparisoned. A strong iron collar was closely fitted by means of a padlock round each of our necks. A chain of iron, about a hundred feet in length, was passed through the hasp of each padlock, except at the two ends, where the hasps of the padlocks passed through a link of the chain. In addition to this, we were handcuffed in pairs, with iron staples and bolts, with a short chain, about a foot long, uniting the handcuffs and their wearers in pairs. …
“The captives were not generally allowed to talk among themselves as they tramped along, but sometimes, in the midst of their suffering, they were made to sing. The English geologist G. W. Featherstonhaugh, who in 1834 happened upon the huge annual Natchez-bound chain gang led by trader John Armfield, noted that ‘the slave-drivers … endeavour to mitigate their discontent by feeding them well on the march, and by encouraging them’ — encouraging them? — ‘to sing “Old Virginia never tire,” to the banjo.’ Thomas William Humes, who saw coffles of Virginia-born people passing through Tennessee in shackles on the way to market, wrote: ‘It was pathetic to see them march, thus bound, through the towns, and to hear their melodious voices in plaintive singing as they went.’ …
“An enslaved person could always be sold to another owner, at any time. Charles Ball described a deal that took place on the road in South Carolina:
The stranger, who was a thin, weather-beaten, sunburned figure, then said, he wanted a couple of breeding wenches, and would give as much for them as they would bring in Georgia. … He then walked along our line, as we stood chained together, and looked at the whole of us — then turning to the women; asked the prices of the two pregnant ones.
“Our master replied, that these were two of the best breeding-wenches in all Maryland — that one was twenty-two, and the other only nineteen — that the first was already the mother of seven children, and the other of four — that he had himself seen the children at the time he bought their mothers — and that such wenches would be cheap at a thousand dollars each; but as they were not able to keep up with the gang, he would take twelve hundred dollars for the two. …
“Women with babies in hand were in a particularly cruel situation. Babies weren’t worth much money, and they slowed down coffles. William Wells Brown, hired out to a slave trader named Walker, recalled seeing a baby given away on the road.”
The American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave-Breeding Industry
Authors: Ned and Constance Sublette
Publisher: Lawrence Hill Books
Copyright 2016 Ned Sublette and Constance Sublette
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