The Louisiana state and New Orleans city in particular presented new fronts in the practice of slavery during the antebellum period in the United States. The way slaves were treated by their masters, including being exchanged through trade was the antithesis of the call for equality and human rights as outlined in the constitution of the United States. During this period, there was open trading of slaves where slave-owners operated markets, and slaves could be auctioned among rich slave-owners. It was also during this period that the slaves contribute to the economic development of the Louisiana and New Orleans. It was much needed especially at a time when sugar and cotton plantations had come. There was a discovery of ginnery for cotton processing, and rich white men were interacting more through trade and commodity exchange in the market. The brutality of the slave-owners towards their slaves during this time pointed to the increasing demand for services of slavers in the houses and plantations of masters.
The antebellum period was characterized by influx of slaves into Louisiana from different parts of the world. Since the living conditions were not good and the demand for the slaves was high, the slave owners failed to have better housing and social amenities like sewerage systems, health facilities, and water for slaves. Due to this fact, the slaves in Louisiana stayed in poor and squalid conditions where they were exposed to diseases like bilharziasis and malaria. The slave-owners raped wives of slaves as a form of punishment for the mistake of their husbands. It was also during this period that there were many cases of attempted suicide, and many slaves attempted to run away from their masters with catastrophic results — sometimes sentenced to death when they are caught trying to run away. The current paper presents an exploration of the slavery conditions during the antebellum period in Louisiana and New Orleans. The focus of the paper is on the areas of slave-trade and its facilitating mechanisms, slave auctioning in the market, the areas where slaves came from and stopped. The paper will also focus on the reasons they took the patterns when coming to Louisiana, slavery experiences during the process of being transferred to their masters, among many other areas of consideration.
Slave Trade in Louisiana/New Orleans
Since its foundation as the capital of French Louisiana in 1722, New Orleans presented a destination for many slaves from the various parts of the country and the whole world. Existing conditions in Louisiana meant that there was a shortage of labor in New Orleans and other areas in Louisiana. One of such conditions is a need for laborers to work in cotton and sugar plantations and the fact that many whites had acquired large tracts of land through Louisiana takeover. The solution to the challenge was a turn to African slavery as a way of satisfying the needs for labor supply. Given that most of the Louisiana region was built on a swampy ground, labor from slaves was required to unload and reload ships, maintain and rebuild structures, keep the water out after hurricanes and floods, among many other responsibilities.
Because of the kind of work that existed in Louisiana, the white supremacists preferred slaves from Africa, especially the Senegal and Gambia. These slaves had special skills in rice growing including draining of swampy areas and turning them into rice paddies; processing farms produce tobacco and indigo as well as lumbering. Senegalese slaves also turned out to be skilled doctors and surgeons, having abilities that were very important to the white slave-owners in Louisiana. Once they picked up the slave from their place of origin, they did not stop on their way for fear of losing their cargo through purchase by other slave-owners.
During the antebellum period, slavery in Louisiana was facilitated through a thriving market. During the period lasted from 1739 to 1849, the practice of slavery against Africans and other nations was designed in a way that diminished the dignity of people to mere commodities with assigned prices in the market. For example, a young and healthy slave went for about 1000 to 1500 US dollars, the equivalent of 35, 000 today. This is just one of the many intriguing stories described by authors to illustrate how the markets at the time were used as showrooms to display slaves for sale. The slaves were appraised in the market depending on the characteristics that slave-owners were looking for. To this end, most of the people involved in slave-trade had different stakes and liabilities per sale. Many auctioneers who were more or less licensed brokers made a living by selling slaves.
The economy of New Orleans and Louisiana was dependent on the fur trade with India. However, slaves had the responsibility of producing a variety of products for the purposes of local consumption. Among the crops that they produced in farms were rice, cotton, tobacco, and indigo. Tobacco and indigo were also exported to gain the masters more benefits from the work performed by slaves. All estimates indicate that New Orleans and Louisiana were the center of slave-trade during the antebellum period. New Orleans port was the center for shipment of slaves from different parts of the world to Louisiana. The slaves came from Upper South to meet the demands for labor in the farms and plantation located in the southern part of Louisiana. The shipment of slaves was forceful leaving a shift in the African people who formed the majority of slaves in Louisiana. There were also slaves from France who were the rejects of the French society.
Many of the slaves who attempted to run away with their families were punished through prosecution in the court of law. The slaves would attempt to run away from their masters due to deplorable working conditions and a lack of food. The cypress swamps formed the escape route in New Orleans where they successfully established maroon communities to protect their interests in the region. The visibility of human market in Louisiana was characterized by marketing, auctioning, and purchasing of slaves from different regions in the country and around the world.
Proponents of slave trade exonerated slave masters and the institution of slavery by arguing that slaves were an integral part of the economic growth in Louisiana. They also argued that the paternalistic relationship between the masters and their slaves was based upon the fact that other regions were willing to supply the slaves to quench the demands of rich white plantation-owners in the south. Abraham Lincoln, who later became the president of the United States, was a witness to the atrocities of slavery carried out by slave masters on slaves who worked at the large sugar and cotton plantations. Lincoln was a witness to the big-city slave-trade that involved shipment of large numbers of slaves from the North to Louisiana.
The incidences that witnesses of slavery encountered were contributed to the formation of activities and operations among the slaves including resisting the affronts from the masters through movements and demonstrations. Nonetheless, in spite of the public practice of slavery in Louisiana, leaders in private and public sector did not attempt to hide the fact that slaves were a commodity to be traded in the market. Thus, slave trade consists of numerous people including brokers and traders, professionals, auctioneers, pen-keepers, and lawyers, among many others. These groups directly benefited by earning income for facilitating the process of ownership.
At some point, slave-trade became an open business in Louisiana that new traders would put up advertisement calling for people willing to buy or sell slaves for contacting them. The announcements to trade slaves were made publicly as described in the Newman and Mortimer partnership. It proclaimed that they “have formed a partnership [of] Brokers, offer[ing] their services to their friends and public [in the] buying and selling of real property, slaves and all kinds of produce….” (p. 2). Almost every bank, professional firm, and insurance companies in New Orleans city participate in slave-trade in different forms. Slavery took place in two different spaces. One form involves the private pens controlled by traders or brokers who purchased and displayed many slaves for other traders. The other form was a public action, which was characterized by auctioneers coordinating the transactions between present and prospective slave-owners. The places that were used to perform public auction of slaves were open to all and were aggressively advertised throughout the whole city. The public auctions were popular and attracted many visitors looking for slaves to buy due to their ritualistic approach to the exercise.
The level of influx of slaves into Louisiana doubled during the antebellum period. A number of factors contributed to this increase. The first is that there was a high demand for slaves in the state, prompting other regions to supply them upon purchase by slave masters. Most of the slaves came from Africa, but there were some others who came from other parts of the world such as the Caribbean. The Angolan region in Africa was the major destination for masters who wanted to have a slave in their farms due to the interaction of the British North and the fact that the region was unavailable to get to by sea. Thus, more than 11 million slaves were shipped across the Atlantic Ocean with a good number of them dying in the sea during the Middle Passage. Around 500,000 slaves were acquired from other states in the US to work in Louisiana after the forceful transfer.
Majority of the slaves went to the British North in America arriving there during the 1890s. American plantations cannot be compared to those in the West Indies with only 125 plantations having more than 250 slaves working there. The Caribbean region was characterized by a high death rate and a low birth rate of slaves necessitating the need for importing slaves from the region. Prior to this, the Caribbean region served as a supply hub for slaves in Louisiana and other Southern parts where the demand for slaves was high. Slaves from different regions contrasted in terms of their death and birth rates, which contributed to the phenomenon where slave-owners started to have a preference of slaves depending on where they had originated. As such, the majority of slaves in Louisiana were taken from Africa rather than from the Caribbean region. It is because the former could withstand the harsh weather conditions in the state as well as the fact that they were hard-working and persistent in their work. During the antebellum period, the majority of slaves were fourth or fifth-generation slaves who were born in other parts of the United States.
Slavery in Louisiana was introduced by the French who brought in people from Senegal and Gambia because of the similarity in weather conditions. The merchants who shipped in the slaves were specifically required to look out for slaves with the skills to cultivate rice. As a result, rice plantations were among the most successful farms in the region. Investigations were done to determine the suitability of the slaves brought from Africa and other parts. The African practices carried out by the slaves became a dominant feature of the culture in Louisiana as opposed to the culture of the slaves who came from the Caribbean and Haiti.
To this end, Louisiana had an interrupted supply of African slaves practiced during the colonial period. Slaves who were purchased in the colonial Louisiana came directly from Africa, and most Atlantic slave-traders stopped at the Caribbean Islands. Their aim was to get other supplies refreshed on their way to Louisiana. They also brought whatever slaves they could get at Caribbean to Louisiana even though their major reason for stopping was not to get slaves. Large numbers of ships with slaves arrived in Louisiana regularly during the antebellum period. The slaves were transported for long distances through the sea and a stop on the way ensured that they are refreshed and also reach their destination in good physical conditions. Many slaves died during the trip from diseases that they got in the sea.
However, ships that had come directly from Africa were received in jubilation by slave-traders and slave-owners as they stopped in different Caribbean islands to make new purchases of African slaves and ship them to Louisiana. The preference of African traits for slaves was a mark of posterity for slaves who came to Louisiana. The slaves influenced the culture of the Louisiana people to a great extent. The slaves came in with their practices and beliefs that they continued to practice even while working at the farms. They had their own culinary from the West African region where they came from.
Slave Pens in Louisiana, New Orleans
The slave pens of New Orleans were the most atrocious hallmark of slavery and slave trade in Louisiana. Many slaves were held in the slave market for many days like animals waiting for possible buyers to come. In many cases, slaves were priced according to their age and physical characteristics. It meant that those who did not meet these standards would even die in the slave pens because there was no one willing to purchase them. Those being lucky were sold together as a pair, for example, a mother and her child. However, this did not guarantee them a good future since they were required to work even more as a family at the farms. In most cases, families taken to slave pens were separated at this point as slave masters came from different parts of Louisiana. Those who were separated did not have an opportunity to see each other again since they would be working at the farms all their lives. In fact, they did not know where their relatives or family members were taken.
Slave masters did not approve of family reunion once they obtain of a particular slave because they believed it to be a source of discontentment and resistance among slaves. In many cases, staying in slave pen for a long period was just the beginning of the many battles that slaves would have to fight for their lives. After purchase, they trekked for long distances to New Orleans and other regions of Louisiana wearing tattered clothes with shackles around their wrists. The conditions that newly-bought slaves were exposed to were usually imprisonment and torture. Families were separated at this point and subjected to physical torture and derogatory abuse from their masters. This was considered as a form of intimidating them into obedience and avoids any thoughts about disobeying the master or trying to run away.
Slave pens were designed to ensure that family ties are eliminated because slaves were filed in accordance to their sex and in a descending order. The slaves were not considered as human beings in the market but rather as possessions with appended prices. The dehumanization process of slaves was filled with physical examination of the slaves by whites and by having slaves dressed according to categories of their prices under which they could be sold. Slaves were also required to dance before the potential buyers as a way of proving their capacity to handle difficult tasks. During the night, they spent their time in jails, and when they were not in the market, they spent their days in yards exercising or being examined in showrooms. Slave-traders were mainly in charge of training and feeding the slaves who had travelled long distances from their original homes. The exercise and training was meant to prepare them to face the potential buyers in confidence and demonstrating that they were capable of playing any role assigned to them in the high labor-intensive plantations.
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Slave-traders believed that they could make quick sales on physically fit slaves with the possibility of making huge profits without paying attention to the risks to which they were exposing slaves. The latter who were not sold in the late spring attracted low prices. It was a way of exposing them to illnesses during the summer period. Potential slave-owners travelled from remote regions in order to come and observe the slaves in yards, showrooms, and salesrooms with an intent to make a purchase. As it turned out later, the New Orleans' society was formed according to whether one was a slave-owner or a slave. Slaves became the embodiment of the slave-owners’ social and economic power since they could produce more for the slave-owner and thereby enrich them. Slave-trade became an official activity, and slave-traders were registered by the local authority in New Orleans. With more than 250 registered slave-traders, New Orleans became the leader and the epicenter of slave-trade ahead of other states like Alabama and Montgomery city in particular.