African American Frontiers (Part 1) — Introduction:

The role frontier is profoundly significant for persons of African descent. Beginning with the Atlantic Slave Tradethe Middle Passage impacted both sides of the Atlantic.  The meeting of Africans with those who would later be known as Americans transformed the African continent while the American frontier transformed the Africans who were transported there.


For the purpose of this program, the term “frontier” will be defined as: The point, region, or cultural space in which two or more groups of people meet – a definition forwarded in the 1960s by scholar Jack Forbes.  Thus, frontier history becomes the study of the interaction between those groups.

The way I have defined the frontier here paints a very different picture than the one we are accustomed to with regard to the European colonization of Africa. As we have seen in Episode 3: Africa in Historical Context, West Africans were not simply passive victims of the Atlantic Slave Trade, but made choices based on historical circumstances and centuries of interaction and conflict between various groups. The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano or GustavasVassa the African, provides a rare firsthand account the Atlantic Slave Trade from someone who actually experienced it and gives a glimpse of the nature of the frontier – the nature of the interactions between groups West Africans who considered themselves distinct from one another – that brought about his experience on the Middle Passage. He writes:

Soon after this, the blacks who brought me on board went off, and left me abandoned to despair. I now saw myself deprived of all chance of returning to my native country, or even the least glimpse of hope of gaining the shore, which I now considered as friendly: and I even wished for my former slavery, in preference to my present situation.

Equiano’s narrative reveals that slavery was not new to West Africa. The frontier of West Africa – the point at which two or more groups who considered themselves distinct – was often a place of conflict. With conflict comes warfare, with warfare comes war captives, and with captivity typically comes enslavement. That is the reason why the institution of slavery is about as old as human civilization itself. As it turns out, Africans had no moral qualms about selling members of an enemy group to European slave traders.

Once in the Americas, seasoning was a disciplinary process intended to modify the behavior and attitude of slaves and make them effective laborers, acculturate them to the new life and work routine of the Americas. As part of this process, the slaves’ new masters gave them new names, the language was literally beaten out of them as well as their native religion which was often a vehicle for resistance and rebellion. That is the reason why, as we saw in Episode 5, Africans adapted by modifying their religion so that they could disguise it as a European mode of worship.

Planters housed slaves undergoing seasoning with the older Africans and creoles – second generation Africans who were born in the Americas. Seasoned Africans and creoles were worth three times the value of unseasoned new Africans.

As we discussed in Episode 3: Africa in Historical Context, Africa was at one time a thriving center of world. The impact of the Atlantic Slave Trade on the African continent was absolutely devastating on many levels. The sheer scale of it was devastating – estimates on the sheer numbers vary, but the most common estimate of the persons who were transported from Africa to the Western hemisphere ranges from about 9 to 11,000,000.

More elusive is the number of Africans who died over the three centuries in which the trade was conducted. Between the death marches from the interior to the coast where they were held in factories awaiting transportation and the arduous middle passage, some have estimated that up to 35% died before they ever reached the Americas. The seasoning process also took a heavy toll. An estimated 15 to 50% died within 7 years of crossing the Atlantic. With such a wide variation in the estimates of between 35 and 80% of those who left Africa having perished, the number dead ranges widely between an extremely low estimate 6 million and an upper extreme 150 million although most scholars put the number between 20 to 40 African souls lost during the Atlantic Slave Trade.

The sheer numbers – the depopulation of the continent of Africa (particularly West Africa) – took a huge toll in terms of human resources. Additionally much of West Africa had a cultural practice of dividing society along specific age groupings – usually in seven year sets. So we have from 1 to 7 being one age set, from 7 to 14 being another age set and so on. And there are specific rites of passage to mark the transition from one age set to another that are usually marked with elaborate rituals. Thus, the Atlantic Slave Trade was devastating both in terms of sheer numbers, and in the particular population – primarily males of a particular age set (mostly from the 14 to 28 age set). What happens as a result is described in the book by a West African author, Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart – a book that captures at West Africa this historical moment.  Because one age set is built on the other, removing one or more age sets causes society to collapse as the society is no longer able to maintain a sense of continuity. That’s the reason why we see such continuity of African culture in places like Brazil to such an extent that until very recently people in West Africa studying traditional West African religion actually went to Brazil.


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