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Toolbox Library, primary resources thematically organized with notes and discussion questionsOnline Seminars, professional development seminars for history and literature teachersThe Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
The Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
Theme: FreedomTheme: EnslavementTheme: CommunityTheme: IdentityTheme: Emancipation
Theme: Freedom

Slave capture, detail, 1791
- Capture in west Africa, accounts from the narratives of former slaves (PDF)
- Slave mutinies, early 1700s, account by a slaveship captain

"One day a big ship stopped off the shore." "A big boat was down at the edge of a bay." For innumerable Africans, the appearance of a strange ocean-going ship signalled the end of their lives as free people. Whether captured by European or African slave traders, or enslaved as prisoners during war, the Africans' fate was the same—to be shackled, confined in a ship, and transported across the ocean and sold into a life of forced labor. Here we read from two perspectives, the enslaved and the enslaver.
  • Capture in west Africa. From the narratives of formerly enslaved African Americans come these fifteen descriptions of capture: (1) the accounts of Olaudah Equiano, Boyrereau Brinch, and Ayuba Suleiman Diallo (Job ben Solomon), whose narratives were published between 1734 and 1810; and (2) the accounts of their relatives' capture related by former slaves interviewed in the 1930s by the Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). How do the two groups of accounts differ? What patterns do they share? (You might include Venture Smith's description of his Gold Coast homeland, which he concludes with a detailed account of his capture.)

  • Slave mutinies. William Snelgrave, an English slaveship captain, describes three mutinies by captive Africans in his 1734 narrative, A New Account of Some Parts of Guinea, and the Slave Trade. Why caused the mutinies, according to Snelgrave? How did he strive to avoid mutiny on his ships? How does he justify enslaving Africans? How would formerly enslaved persons judge his order to treat captives "with Humanity and Tenderness"?
How many of these captured Africans are the ancestors of African Americans? Of the twelve million Africans brought to the Americas, the vast majority (95%) were taken to the Caribbean islands (West Indies) and Latin America (Central and South America). The other five percent, about 500,000 Africans, were brought to British Atlantic colonies on the eastern coast of North America.1 It is their experience, and their creation of personal and group identity as African Americans, that we pursue in the rest of this Toolbox. (13 pages.)

Discussion questions
  1. Overall, what impressions do you gather from these readings of the experience of capture and enslavement?
  2. How did the captives deal with their fate, especially the permanent loss of freedom?
  3. What aspects of their capture did they emphasize to their children and grandchildren, as evidenced in the WPA narratives? Why?
  4. How did captured Africans respond to each other on the transatlantic journey and after their sale in America?
  5. How did native Africans relate to African Americans, including their own children and grandchildren?
  6. Compare the accounts in the published narratives (Equiano, Brinch, and Diallo) with those recounted by former slaves interviewed in the 1930s. What do the accounts share? How do they differ?
  7. Compare these accounts of capture with those in other sections of this Theme, FREEDOM. How did capture by Europeans and by Africans differ?
  8. How does William Snelgrave describe slave mutinies of the early 1700s? How did he strive to avoid mutiny on his ships? How does he justify enslaving Africans?
  9. Rewrite one of the mutinies from the perspective of a captured African. Perhaps include a brief dialogue between Snelgrave and the captive.

Framing Questions
  • How did Africans live in freedom before enslavement?
  •  How did Europeans and African Americans perceive African cultures?
  •  What was the experience of capture and enslavement for those who became African Americans?

Capture in West Africa:  6
Mutinies on board:  7
TOTAL 13 pages
Supplemental Sites

Venture Smith, account of capture in Guinea, ca. 1735; from Bruce Dorsey, Swarthmore College

The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, in In Motion: The African-American Migration Experience, from the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (New York Public Library)

Primary resources related to the transatlantic slave trade, mid 1700s, in Slavery and Freedom in American History and Memory, from the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition (Yale University)

Timeline of Art History: Guinea Coast, 1600-1800 A.D. (present-day Sierra Leone, Guinea-Bissau, coastal Guinea, Liberia, Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, Togo, Republic of Benin, and Nigeria)

African Nation Founders, with useful maps, in African American Heritage and Ethnography, from the National Park Service

Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database (Emory University Digital Library) North American Slave Narratives (18th-19th century), full text in Documenting the American South (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library) WPA Slave Narratives, 1936-1938, Library of Congress An Introduction to the WPA Slave Narratives, Norman A. Yetman (Library of Congress)

"Should the Slave Narrative Collection Be Used?," by Norman R. Yetman (Library of Congress)

Guidelines for Interviewers in Federal Writers' Project (WPA) on conducting and recording interviews with former slaves, 1937 (PDF)

1 Colin A. Palmer, Passageways: An Interpretive History of Black America, Vol. I: 1619-1863 (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Group, 2002), p. 25.

-Illustration (detail) in T. Clarkson, Letters on the slave-trade . . . , 1791, p. 36, plate 2. Digital image courtesy of the online collection The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record, by Jerome S. Handler & Michael L. Tuite Jr., a project of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the Digital Media Lab at the University of Virginia Library.

*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.

1. Senegal & Guinea   2. Mali   3. Ghana
4. Benin   5. Nigeria   6. Capture

TOOLBOX: The Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
Freedom | Enslavement | Community | Identity | Emancipation

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