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Suicide and the Transatlantic Slave Trade

Suicide and the Transatlantic Slave Trade

Chapter:
(p.23) One Suicide and the Transatlantic Slave Trade
Source:
The Power to Die
Author(s):
Terri L. Snyder
Publisher:
University of Chicago Press
DOI:10.7208/chicago/9780226280738.003.0001

Acts of suicide by captive Africans were ubiquitous aboard slave ships crossing from Africa to the Americas. Mariner's observations generated a commercial, working knowledge in the trade about Africans and suicide, one that revealed as much about the enslavers as it did about their human cargoes. This chapter examines the lore accompanied slave ships across the Middle Passage. It also analyzes shipboard suicide by captive Africans from the perspectives of both slaves and enslavers. Africans and Europeans carried competing and changing ideas of good and bad deaths with them through the Middle Passage, and these concepts shaped their views of shipboard suicide. Africans' shipboard suicides reflected specific physical, emotional, and psychological experiences of captivity. African shipboard suicides also shaped the conduct of mariners. For captains, surgeons, and crew, preventing slave suicide was essential to controlling shipboard order. As mariners and traders assessed their human cargoes' propensities for self-destruction, they effectively branded slaves according to ethnicity and temperament, qualities that made them more or less saleable commodities. These descriptions underscored the idea that slave suicide was endemic to certain types of human cargoes, specific ethnicities of Africans, rather than to the system of enslavement itself.

Keywords:   slavery, suicide, Middle Passage, disarticulation, ethnicity

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