History is important. If we do not know our history, we will not know where we are at present, let alone where we are headed – John Quincy Adams (1767-1848), eminent jurist and 6th President of the US
Let’s call the boy X!xo.
Yes, some Africans have exclamation marks in their names, which they pronounce with a clicking sound that they make with their tongues – funny to you and me but natural to the hunter-gatherer bushmen of Sub-Saharan Africa.
I assume that this naming system was prevalent even in 1820, the period during which the sequence of events in DARK PLACES OF THE EARTH: The Voyage of the Slave Ship ‘Antelope’, occurred.
X!xo was in the clearing in front of their little hut, playing a nineteenth century African version of hop, step and jump, with his 6-year old sister, X!xi. They were alone since their parents were away for a gathering in a neighboring village.
All of a sudden, out of the brush emerged six men carrying spears and nets of the kind X!xo’s father used, to snare baboons. Like X!xo, those men were black too and he remembered wondering if they were associates of that man his father had fought with the previous week, over a baobab tree.
One of the men grasped X!xo’s nose in a vice-like grip, forcing his mouth to open and shoved something sweet and sticky into his mouth. At that instant, the little boy’s world blacked out and when he came to, he found himself stuffed inside a dark dungeon-like space, around half the size of a basketball court.
The room had no doors or windows and in the August heat, it sweltered like an oven. It’s roof did have a small wooden grill around two by two feet but the breeze that blew in was scant. For a short period during the day, sunlight came through the grill and fell on one wall and as the floor pitched and yawed, so did the sunlight. There was a stench of urine and feces in the air that was overpowering.
X!xo might have guessed he was on a sailing vessel of some kind, had he known that such large vessels were possible to build. This vessel was around half an Olympic-sized swimming pool in size. In comparison, the boats in his village were tiny two to four-man skiffs that plied the Cunene River near where he lived.
There were others in there, mostly boys like him, some maybe a few years older. In the dark, he couldn’t have known that there were altogether 331 of them in there. Some were bleeding from open gashes where their skins had split open from the lashes. Desperately X!xo peered in the dark, to see if he could find his little sister but there was no sign of her.
In fact, having known only those who lived around him all his young life, in that tiny hamlet in eastern Angola, X!xo was amazed he couldn’t recognize any of the faces in the crush around him – they were complete strangers and all of them had looks that were congealed into in a mixture of terror and despair.
Just as we would feel no anger if we were suddenly told that an asteroid was heading our way and was only minutes from vaporizing us, so it was with those boys – no anger, just total despair.
X!xo tried to whisper to the boy next to him in his native Kikongo but the boy stared blankly back at him, his eyes glazed and unseeing.
The above account of the boy’s ordeal is fiction. I have to tell you that I made it up. However, there was in fact such a boy as the one I let my imagination loose about and it is quite likely that the ordeal that he actually had to face was many times more horrendous.
Historians know of the boy because he testified (through an interpreter slave) before the US Supreme Court and was recorded in the court documents simply as ‘the 10-year old boy’.
The dark, cavernous space that he and the others found themselves in, was also real. It was the hold of a sailing ship – the Antelope, a Spanish slaver, ‘Slaver’ being a term that meant ‘slave trafficking ship’. White businessmen (‘privateers’, as they were known) who trafficked in slaves, were also known as slavers.
My account of the boy’s capture may be fiction but the events related in DARK PLACES OF THE EARTH: The Voyage of the Slave Ship ‘Antelope’ are not. They in fact culminated in one of the most significant US Supreme Court cases of all time.
The year was 1820. The slave trade was booming, even though it had been outlawed a decade prior, by most European nations. In the US, rooted in duplicity, owning a slave was legal, but trafficking in slaves was outlawed. No guesses on what that meant to the spread of slavery – it thrived. Even American Presidents owned slaves. George Washington owned 350 slaves, Thomas Jefferson – 200, Andrew Jackson – 200, all demi-Gods to present-day Americans.
Slavery in the 1800s was booming, a line of business which afforded a near-400% profit margin for the traffickers. It was in every respect like today’s drug trafficking, without the risk of incarceration. For almost no cost (except for the hiring cost of the slaver and the salaries of it’s crew), every slave, who was essentially a zero-maintenance toiling machine, brought $300 to the trafficker, which is like $35000 in today’s dollars. Multiply this by 10000, which is the number of new bodies coming in every year and you are looking at an annual trade that was worth $350 billion, in 21st century dollars.
The Antelope had left Havana, Cuba, for the western African coast near the Cabinda Province of present-day Angola. There it was met by African traffickers who handed over anywhere between 300 to 500 captives, mainly young boys and girls whom the Spanish crew of the Antelope called negro posales. The loading was swift and then the Antelope turned around and headed back to Cuba, to work it’s cargo to death on the sprawling plantations there. The slaves had been contracted for delivery to Spanish and Portuguese slavers who had already paid for them in advance.
It was while in the process of weighing anchor to set sail, that the Antelope was attacked and boarded by the heavily armed crew of a Baltimore-based privateer, who forcibly took possession of all the captives on board the Antelope. By then 50 slaves in the hold had already perished and were simply heaved over the side of the ship into the Atlantic – an insignificant loss to the traffickers, since they had paid just a few dollars each to their African ‘business partners’.
Having commandeered the Antelope, the two ships set off across the Atlantic. The privateer however didn’t make it, being wrecked in a storm en route, but the Antelope continued on, eventually being apprehended by an American revenue cutter and taken to Florida. Revenue cutters were small, fast-moving ships operating under US flag, their job – to try and stop illegal trade practices that were against the interests of the American government.
When the revenue cutter captured the ship, under American law at that time, the captives aboard the ship were supposed to be put under the control of the President of the United States who was then supposed to arrange for their return to Africa as free men. This didn’t happen.
By the time the Antelope arrived in Savannah, only 258 of the original 331 captives were still alive, some of them barely. The rest had died from thirst, hunger and the heat. The surviving slaves were offloaded and driven forward with whips to an old horse racing track in Savannah which had stables and bales of hay and therefore some shelter. Besides a blanket each, the boys were buck naked.
The case of the slave ship, Antelope, is one of the most significant US Supreme Court cases that you have never heard of – Jonathan M. Byrant, author
Johnathan Bryant’s DARK PLACES OF THE EARTH: The Voyage of the Slave Ship ‘Antelope’, has it’s genesis in the days when he began teaching an undergraduate course in constitutional history at Georgia Southern University. He soon realized that it was difficult to maintain the interest his young pupils in some of the case histories that he taught.
Bryant says he began searching for cases that had a local connection and a powerful emotional component, which might engage the students and that is how he zeroed in on the case of the Antelope. The case record was 17000 words – too long to wrap up with tutorials and exams in one term, but the story gripped him and as he started discussing his research with friends and colleagues, Bryant was amazed to find that very few Americans had heard of the Antelope.
So Bryant decided to write this story himself – Dark places is spellbinding, like nothing I have ever read before.
From the moment the Antelope docked at Savannah, folks came out of the woodwork and began to file claims for the possession of the slaves. The captives represented thousands of dollars’ worth of valuable merchandise. It appeared for some time as if the captives’ fate was sealed and they were doomed to toil in some plantation in Mississippi or Alabama or be sent to the Spanish/Portuguese owners who had purchased them.
But fate had other plans. Out of the mist appeared the hero of the narrative, a guy named Richard Wylly Habersham, the US Attorney at Savannah, who said – no – the captives could not be handed over to any private citizen. Under US law, the captives were free and had to be returned to Africa.
Now it became a fight over whether those boys were free or whether they should be enslaved and given to either the Spanish and Portuguese claimants or even perhaps to the captain of the Antelope, a privateer named John Smith.
The argument for the Spanish and Portuguese claimants was that these captives had been captured by pirates and pirates did not enjoy property rights to stolen goods. John Smith’s argument was that he was a legitimate privateer for the Banda Oriental, a predecessor to Uruguay, and that he had obtained title to these captives. So we have a pirate/privateer, the Spanish and the Portuguese and the US in a tripartite fight over a ship-load of negro boys.
Enter a dude named Francis Scott Key, famous as the author of “The Star Spangled Banner” and a paragon of patriotic fervour. He was actually a powerful and wealthy lawyer in Georgetown and had a thriving practice. Francis Scott Key had grown up in a family that owned a plantation with slaves and he was himself a slave owner. But he also had very powerful Christian convictions.
Key struggled all of his life, to balance the Jesus’s sermons on the Mount with his role as a slave master and found it a very difficult thing to do. One way he dealt with this was to found the American Colonization Society, which created a colony in Africa where manumitted slaves and free blacks from the United States could be settled. That colony eventually grew into a sovereign nation on the west coast of Africa – Liberia. Francis Scott Key was an enigma – an opponent of the international slave trade and yet at the same time, a slave owner himself who was not an opponent of slavery in itself.
At that point in time, the US Supreme Court only had a six-week session and there could be a100 cases on the docket, of which the court could process only 30-40 each year. One would expect that the backlog would mean that the 280 odd captives would have to languish at that race track a long time before their case was heard, under the charge and care of the local US Marshal.
But what happened then was something even worse – the U.S. Marshal put the Antelope captives out for labor, for free. Some of the boys were put to work on the Marshal’s own plantation, while the others he hired out to other plantation owners for a fee. The going was so good that he bragged to a friend that he was making $30,000 a year off the labor of the captives and that he intended to ‘swamp’ them, which meant – to literally work them to death. At the same time, he continued to bill the Federal Government for the care and maintenance of the captives.
At one point during the litigation process, 16 of the captives (the 10-year old boy included), were deemed to be free. The process by which this came to pass was a lottery – lots were drawn and 16 chosen to be freed for transportation back to Africa. They just lined up all the captives and then drew lots for who would be freed and packed them off to one of the earliest settlements in Liberia on the slave ship Strong that was led by Jehudi Ashmun, one of the founders of that nation. Some did not make it through the voyage, owing to their already weakened physical state and the rest perished within weeks of being dumped on the shores of a land that was alien to them.
That’s it, I’ll halt the narration here or else, I’ll be playing the spoilsport and giving the whole story away. I am so glad that Jonathan Bryant wrote the story of the Antelope. I know he was looking at constitutional law for his students, but he touched on something that has suddenly become relevant and is trending in America today – the question of equality.
But wait a minute – I cannot leave without firing a parting shot across America’s bows –
The US Supreme Court was divided on the merits of this case, but the Chief Justice, a dude named John Marshall, a slave owner himself, had very clear opinions.
John Marshall had been a very interesting man. Through the force of his personality and with his own understanding of the US Constitution, he had literally shaped the US Supreme Court. Even though the first principles of the Constitution (as laid out in the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence) stated that all men are created equal and have unalienable rights), Marshall opined that the specific laws that have been passed or made by legislatures or by treaties are superior to any natural law derived from the constitution. And thus, Marshall decreed that property rights were superior to the natural rights of human beings.
Today, the same John Marshall’s engraved image occupies the pride of place on a frieze, high on the wall of the US Supreme Court’s main chamber. That is justice, American style for you. You sit in the highest court in the land with a racist, slave-owner Chief Justice staring down on you from above.