Ep 2: Slavery, the West Indies, & Biblical Interpretation*

In our second episode, we (your co-hosts Ashley and Mandy) re-introduce ourselves. We then examine the forced deportation of 8.5 million to 12.4 million Africans in the transatlantic slave trade between 1500 to 1820 (Horn and Morgan 20; Rediker). We go on to define key terms like chattel slavery and domestic slavery. We also touch on the fact that slaves in the West Indies primarily produced a luxury good that is still popular today. And we explore accounts of the slave trade, including the best-selling slave narrative written by a former African male slave named Olaudah Equiano (Hochschild 166). Lastly, we talk about how specific Bible interpretations played a role in why many Christians justified their participation in the slave trade and owned slaves themselves.  

*This episode contains graphic content (such as physical violence, sexual assault, and descriptions of trauma). Listener discretion is advised.

Scripture References (KJV/ESV)

Colossians 3:22; Ephesians 6:5; Galatians 3:28; 1 Timothy 1:10; Revelation 18:11-13; 1 Corinthians 7:21.

Featured Women of the Church  

Rebecca Protten (1718-1780): A former slave turned Moravian missionary who faced persecution for taking “the Bible's liberating grace to people of African descent” in the Danish colony of St. Thomas. As one biographer has noted, “She would talk any time to anybody about Jesus, but she reached out especially to African-American women, pulling many into the church with her words.” (Sensbach)

Magdalena: A free African who converted to Christianity and became a member of the Moravian church in St. Thomas. She became known as a “venerated evangelical elder” of the women. Her letter to the Queen of Denmark in 1739 helped to humanize “the abstract idea of African-American people striving for the cause of Christian worship.” (Sensbach)

Mary Prince (born in 1788): One of the featured British abolitionists for Season One of “Women of the Church.” She was the daughter of slaves and was born in Bermuda.  Mary was “the first black British woman to ‘walk away’ from slavery, claim her freedom, and chronicle her experiences.” Her narrative, The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave, was published in 1831. (Ferguson)

 Quoteworthy 

“Therefore, as colonization spread and the demand for these luxury goods increased, the need for a labor force grew— simply put, the slave trade became understood as a solution to an economic problem in the New World colonies (Blackburn 13). In fact, the American poet Ralph Waldo Emmerson who fought for slavery in the United States would later write regarding the West Indian plantations: ‘The sugar they raised was excellent: nobody tasted blood in it’ (“West India Emancipation” 124).” 

Former slave Ottobah Cugaono, who was kidnapped and sold into slavery as a boy: “Many of my miserable countrymen [were] chained two and two, some handcuffed, and some with their hands tied behind…There was nothing to be heard but rattling of chains, smacking of whips, and the groans and cries of our fellowmen” (qtd. in Mustakeem). 

Former slave Olaudah Equiano describes the conditions aboard a slaving vessel: “I was soon put down under the decks, and there I received such a salutation in my nostrils as I had never experienced in my life: so that, with the loathsomeness of the stench and crying together, I became so sick and low that I was not able to eat. I now wished for the last friend, death, to relieve me; but soon, to my grief, two of the White men offered me eatables; and on my refusing to eat, one of them held me fast by the hands, and laid me across I think the windlass, and tied my feet, while the other flogged me severely. I had never experienced any thing of this kind before; and although not being used to the water, I naturally feared that element the first time I saw it, yet nevertheless, could I have got over the nettings, I would have jumped over the side, but I could not; and besides, the crew used to watch us very closely who were not chained down to the decks, lest we should leap into the water: and I have seen some of these poor African prisoners most severely cut for attempting to do so, and hourly whipped for not eating…The white people looked and acted, as I thought, in so savage a manner; for I had never seen among any people such instances of brutal cruelty; and this not only shown towards us Blacks, but also to some of the Whites themselves…The stench of the hold while we were on the coast was so intolerably loathsome, that it was dangerous to remain there for any time, and some of us had been permitted to stay on the deck for the fresh air; but now that the whole ship's cargo were confined together, it became absolutely pestilential.The closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us…This produced copious perspirations, so that the air soon became unfit for respiration, from a variety of loathsome smells, and brought on a sickness among the slaves, of which many died, thus falling victims to the improvident avarice, as I may call it, of their purchasers. This wretched situation was again aggravated by the galling of the chains, now become insupportable; and the filth of the necessary tubs, into which the children often fell, and were almost suffocated. The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable” (Equiano 48, 49, 51).

 Excerpt from Magdalena’s letter to the the Queen of Denmark on behalf of “the negro women of St. Thomas”: “Great Queen! At the time when I lived in Popo, in Africa [today this is the Republic of Benin in West Africa], I served the Lord Masu [a diety, who was a type of supreme god]. Now I have come into the land of the Whites, and they will not allow me to serve the Lord Jesus. Previously, I did not have any reason to serve Him, but now I do. I am very sad in my heart that the Negro women on St. Thomas are not allowed to serve the Lord Jesus. The Whites do not want to obey Him. Let them do as they wish. But when the poor black Brethren and Sisters want to serve the Lord Jesus, they are looked upon as maroons (rebel/runaway slave). If the Queen thinks it fitting, please pray to the Lord Jesus for us and let her intercede with the King to allow [the Moravian minister] to preach the Lord's word, so that we can come to know the Lord and so that he can baptize us in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” (qtd. in Sensbach).

Dates to Remember 

1492 :The year that Christopher Columbus sailed to the West Indies from Spain. By the early sixteenth century, slave traders brought Africans to the West Indies as enslaved laborers.

 1700-1808: “500,000 [African slaves] perished on the way to the ships, another 400,000 on board, and yet another quarter million or so not long after the ships docked” (Rediker).

Terms to Know 

West Indies: The area southeast of the Gulf of Mexico and the North American mainland. Includes islands like Jamaica, the Leeward Islands, Barbados, and Grenada.

Middle Passage: The dreaded and infamous transatlantic naval journey from the Western coast of Africa to the West Indies. 

Domestic slavery: “Domestic slavery – usually called 'serfdom' – also existed in Britain: serfs were bought and sold with the estate on which they had to work for a fixed number of days a year without payment; they could only marry with their lord's consent, could not leave the estate and had few legal rights. However, as they could not be easily replaced, they were not as physically abused as enslaved Africans a few centuries later. The institution of serfdom was not abolished in Britain until 1381” (Sherwood).

Chattel slavery: “The transatlantic slave trade implemented chattel slavery, in which the people were reduced to property and purposefully stripped of their culture and language. Chattel slavery also attached an ideology of inferiority based on biology and race that was used for centuries as a justification for the practice of slavery” (Murray). 

 Scripture Memory 

“But you, O LORD, are enthroned forever; you are remembered throughout all generations.” (Psalm 102:12)

Ashley’s Sources*

Horn, James and Philip D. Morgan. “Settlers and Slaves: European and African Migrations to Early Modern British America.” The Creation of the British Atlantic World. Edited by Elizabeth Mancke and Carole Shammas. John Hopkins University Press, 2005, 19-44.

Rediker, Marcus. The Slave Ship: A Human History. Viking, 2007.

Hochschild, Adam. Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves. Houghton Mifflin, 2005.

Bourne, E. G. The Northmen, Columbus and Cabot, 985-1503: The voyages of the Northmen, The voyages of Columbus and of John Cabot. Charles Scribner's Sons, 1906. 

Hanke, L. The Spanish struggle for justice in the conquest of America. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1949. 

Ponnampalam, Mark. Of Germs, Genes And Genocide: Slavery, Capitalism, Imperialism, Health And Medicine. United Kingdom Council for Human Rights, 1989. 

Blackburn, Robin. The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, 1776-1848. Verso, 1988.

 Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. Penguin Books, 1986.

 “Pounds Sterling to Dollars: Historical Conversion of Currency.” University of Wyoming, https://www.uwyo.edu/numimage/currency.htm

 “Currency Converter: 1270 – 2017.” The National Archives, http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/currency-converter/#currency-result

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson: Miscellanies. The Riverside Press. 1904.

“The slave trade – a historical background.” British Library, https://www.bl.uk/learning/histcitizen/campaignforabolition/abolitionbackground/abolitionintro.html.

Mustakeem, Sowande’ M. Slavery at Sea: Terror, Sex, and Sickness in the Middle Passage. University of Illinois Press, 2016.

Thomas, Hugh. The Slave Trade: The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1440-1870. Simon & Schuster, 1997.

Bulliet, Richard, Pamela Crossley, Daniel Headrick, Steven Hirsch, and Lyman Johnson, editors.The Earth and Its Peoples: A Global History, Volume 2. Wadsworth Cengaga Learning, 2009. 

Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, the African. 1794.

“Letter from a planter.” British Libraryhttps://www.bl.uk/learning/images/makeanimpact/large9003.html..

“Extracts from John Newton's journal.” Liverpool Museums, http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/ism/slavery/middle_passage/john_newton.aspx

Noll, Mark. The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield, and the Wesleys. InterVarsity Press, 2003.

Kidd, Thomas S. George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father. Yale University Press, 2014.

ESV Study Bible. Crossway, 2008. See notes on Genesis 9:24-27; 1 Cor 7:21; Ephesians 6:5; Col 3:22-25; 1 Tim 1:10; Rev 18:12-13.

Heiser, Michael. “The Naked Bible Podcast,” episode “Noah’s Nakedness, the Sin of Ham, and the Curse of Canaan” (https://nakedbiblepodcast.com/podcast/naked-bible-159-noahs-nakedness-the-sin-of-ham-and-the-curse-of-canaan/).

Gerbner, Katharine. Christian Slavery: Conversion and Race in the Protestant Atlantic World. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018.

 “The Slave Bible: Let the Story Be Told.” Museum of the Biblehttps://www.museumofthebible.org/exhibits/slave-bible

Martin, Michel. “Slave Bible From The 1800s Omitted Key Passages That Could Incite Rebellion,” 9 December 2018, https://www.npr.org/2018/12/09/674995075/slave-bible-from-the-1800s-omitted-key-passages-that-could-incite-rebellion

Sensbach, Jon F. Rebecca’s Revival: Creating Black Christianity in the Atlantic World. Harvard University Press, 2005.

Reyes, Angelita Dianne. Mothering across Cultures: Postcolonial Representations. University of Minnesota Press, 2002, 117.

Ferguson, Moira. “Prince [married name James], Mary (b. c. 1788).”

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, 2004. 

 Sherwood, Marika. “Britain, slavery and the trade in enslaved Africans.”

Source of RP Painting: Sensbach, Jon F. Rebecca’s Revival: Creating Black Christianity in the Atlantic World. Harvard University Press, 2005.

 *A special thanks to Dr. Joshua Murray and Dr. Suzanna Geiser for providing helpful feedback on early drafts of this episode’s script. 

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