AFRICAN AMERICANS, THE: MANY RIVERS TO CROSS: THE BLACK ATLANTIC: 1500-1800 {EPISODE ONE} (TV)

Summary

The premiere of this documentary miniseries about the social and cultural history of African-Americans, hosted by Henry Louis Gates Jr.

This episode focuses on the origins of the American slave trade and the early formation of the African-American people. The first African known to have set foot on American soil was Juan Garrido in 1513, a freedman who accompanied Cortez on a number of his expeditions. In 1534, an African known as “Esteban the Moor” traversed the deserts of modern-day Texas, one of a handful of survivors of a failed Spanish expedition. He served as a guide and trekked over 15,000 miles, surveying a large portion of the continent of North America. By 1619, the settlement of Jamestown was established in Virginia, the first British settlement in North America. It was there that slaves from Africa started to be shipped, beginning the long practice of enslavement in the American colonies. At the time, the Jamestown outpost was a “fragile” and dangerous place clinging tenuously to survival. Gates travels to the former site of Jamestown to investigate the life of an African at the time known as “Anthony Johnson,” using him as an example of the evolution of the slave trade. Records indicate that Johnson earned first the trust of his owner and then his freedom due to the vital necessity of his labor in establishing agriculture in the area. Johnson prospered, owning his own farm and growing rich along with the rest of Jamestown, which in a few decades had become an economic power due to its tobacco crop. Its dominance in this regard was predicated on securing labor via slavery, and the practice was further institutionalized and expanded; earned freedom such as Johnson’s became an impossibility in the new system. In addition, the “stigma of blackness” was an easily observable indicator of status in the new society and quickly served to create a deep racial divide. Johnson was legally declared an “alien” after his death and his family’s land was seized by the government.

The British attempt to get in on the slave trade was by no means a new practice; over half a million Africans had already been brought over to the New World as slaves by other European powers. Africans were commonly viewed as a large labor force with which to maintain society, as they had been used in places such as Lima or Mexico City. African came to be synonymous with “slave” as part of the “brutal equation” of the New World. Gates visits Sierra Leone, once a major hub for the slave trade, and notes that the first slave traders in that place were actually other Africans as part of long-standing traditions based on the enslavement of different ethnicities by conquering kingdom. Gates visits Port Loko, a river town where the local Temne people once captured locals and sold them as slaves to European traders. Ethnic differences between Africans were present long before the arrival of Europeans, and tribal chiefs would be the ones engaging in the “lucrative” business of securing slaves for the Europeans. Gates interviews locals descended from villagers who directly profited from the slave trade. Slaves at the time were commonly prisoners of war and ethnic discrimination was based on language differences and differing tribal histories and traditions.

Although slavery had existed in many cultures for thousands of years, the Europeans were to first to enslave people based solely on racial lines. Europeans came to believe that Christians could not enslave each other, and Africans represented an attractive target since they were entirely outside of their societal norms. On Bunce Island, Sierra Leone, a British fortress built in the 1670’s stands; Gates uses it as an example of the treatment of slaves at the time, with British officers living in luxury while slaves were forced into yards like cattle, forced to endure dehumanizing inspections and branding. Many such forts once lined the African coast, processing more than tens of thousands of slaves each. Gates recounts one of only a handful of stories of African slaves brought to America at the time in the form of “Priscilla,” a ten year-old girl brought to Charleston, South Carolina in 1756. Brutality towards slaves at the time was quite horrific; public flogging, decapitation, and other such indignities were commonly visited upon slaves at the time. Female slaves were also in danger of being sexually assaulted by the crews of the slave ships; some committed suicide or mutilated their own genitals in response, while others would die from the assault itself. Priscilla made such a journey, witnessing a number of her countrymen die along the way. Many slaves entering America did so through Charleston, at the time the city’s slave population outnumbered the whites.

Priscilla was bought at one of the city’s daily slave auctions and sent to the Ball Plantation, owned by Elias Ball, a rice planter. Gates visits the Ball Plantation accompanied by Edward Ball, Elias’s descendant. Ball feels uncomfortable with his family’s legacy, particularly since it seems that some generations did not acknowledge their ownership of slaves. Priscilla arrived there in July of 1756 as an orphan; Ball notes that his ancestor was fond of purchasing child slaves as a “long-term investment.” The Ball plantation was home to extremely lucrative rice fields, and slaves brought there primarily worked in these fields. The fields represented a dangerous or even lethal workplace: they were infested with deadly snakes, disease-ridden mosquitoes, and other such hazards. Large numbers of South Carolina’s slave population died from these conditions, and children were especially vulnerable. Priscilla, however, managed to survive; the Ball family kept detailed records of everything about the plantation, including the birth and death dates of all of their slaves. The family’s records were compiled in an archive in the South Caroline Historical Society, where Ball spent years investigating them to learn about the lives of the slaves on the plantation. He discusses the extremely brutal and draconian punishments meted on runaway slaves who were caught. His investigations reveal that Priscilla survived into adulthood and gave birth to children of her own, starting a family tree that continued into modern times; it is “extraordinarily rare” for this sort of discovery to occur. Gates visits Thomalind Polite, Priscilla’s distant descendant, and she talks about what the knowledge of her ancestry means to her. Polite is one of only a handful of African-Americans to know the identity of their original African ancestor. The removal of surnames and genealogical connections from African slaves was a deliberate act of their owners in order to further dehumanize them.

Slavery proved to be vital in constructing the infrastructure of the fledgling colonies and making them prosper. Despite the efforts of their masters to dominate their lives, African-Americans also created their own culture and ideologies, neither derived wholly from Africa nor from their new home. Gates visits food historian Michael Twitty, who cooks him a traditional 18th-Century meal to demonstrate the distinct cuisine and food preparation techniques invented by slaves based on their new surroundings. He notes that slaves were able to influence the culture of their masters in this manner, starting by revolutionizing their cuisine through a synthesis of techniques derived from Africa, the Americas, Europe, and the Caribbean. It was during this time when African slaves began to create a unity amongst themselves, spurred partially by the political desire for independence from Britain in the mid and late 18th Century. The then-Spanish city of St. Augustine, Florida, was declared by the Spanish to be an asylum for escaped slaves. They did so in order to further their conflict against the British colonies; these fugitive slaves were required to convert to Catholicism and serve the Spanish crown as soldiers. Large numbers of escaped slaves made their way to St. Augustine through great danger, and the Spanish constructed a town for them, Fort Mose, the first settlement in the United States populated entirely by African-Americans. The British began publicly executing slaves to try to deter them from fleeing to St. Augustine.

On the morning of September 9th, 1739, a massive slave revolt took place just outside of Charleston, initiated by news of St. Augustine. A group of twenty slaves made their way south, burning plantations to the ground as they went. They recruited more into their ranks as they went, soon numbering over a hundred. A local militia captured them before they could reach their goal, beheading them and placing their severed heads on posts along the road as a warning. In response, South Carolina imposed even harsher measures to deal with runaway slaves. This did nothing to abate slave revolts all over the Americas, most of which proved to be unsuccessful. In 1776, major political figures in the colonies publicly expressed a desire for freedom, resonating with African-Americans everywhere. However, the Founding Fathers were reticent to extend their dreams to African-Americans; George Washington owned many slaves at his home Mount Vernon. When the Revolutionary War comes, many slaves consider fighting for the British, as they become convinced that the revolution will not serve their interests and that the British might be more amenable to granting them freedom. Harry Washington, one of George Washington’s slaves, joins a loyalist regiment of African-Americans, one example of African-Americans fighting for the British. Many of them died during the war from violence, smallpox, and other causes. Harry was one of the few who survived and was deposited in Canada by the British, who had no intention of making African-Americans equal in their society. He was exploited by whites in Canada and left, immigrating to a colony in Sierra Leone built by the British for former slaves. He fought back against the British for trying to impose property restrictions on the settlers there and was banished as punishment, whereupon he vanishes from history.

The newly formed United States of America continues to engage in slavery, even selecting the site of the capital to appease Southern slave owners. The Declaration of Independence made slavery legal in the thirteen colonies; the Capitol Building itself was constructed by slave labor. In 1791, the Caribbean island of Saint-Domingue was a major economic power, and also had the greatest concentration of slave labor in the Western world. August of that year sees a massive slave revolt, inspired by the same ideology which began the American Revolution. The eventual result of this revolution was the creation of Haiti, the first “black republic” in the world. The Haitian Revolution represents a “beacon of hope” for many African Americans as news of it spreads throughout the United States. Gates points out Haitian Vodoun traditions which still take place in modern-day, such as in New Orleans.

Details

  • NETWORK:
  • DATE: 8:00 PM
  • RUNNING TIME: 0:56:07
  • COLOR/B&W: Color
  • CATALOG ID: 121902
  • GENRE: Public affairs/Documentaries
  • SUBJECT HEADING: African-American Collection - News/Talk
  • SERIES RUN: PBS - TV miniseries, 2013
  • COMMERCIALS:

CREDITS

  • Henry Louis Gates Jr. … Executive Producer, Writer
  • Peter Kunhardt … Executive Producer
  • Dyllan McGee … Executive Producer
  • Julie Anderson … Executive Producer
  • Stephanie Carter … Coordinating Producer
  • Rachel Dretzin … Senior Producer
  • Leslie Asako Gladsjo … Senior Story Producer
  • Rebecca Brillhart … Supervising Producer
  • Timothy Messler … Supervising Producer
  • Sabin Streeter … Producer, Director
  • Talleah Bridges McMahon … Co-Producer
  • George Kunhardt … Co-Producer
  • Teddy Kunhardt … Co-Producer
  • Nicole Bozorgmir … Associate Producer
  • Jaime Sukonnik … Associate Producer
  • Stef Gordon … Line Producer
  • Christopher Chuang … Animation
  • Joe Posner … Animation
  • Jessica Hutchinson … Animation
  • Andy O'Donnell … Animation
  • Andy Cahill … Animation
  • Donald Yacovone … Researcher
  • Marial Iglesias Yutset … Researcher
  • Jill Cowan … Researcher
  • Paul Taylor … Writer
  • Paul Brill … Music by
  • Wynton Marsalis … Music by
  • Elizabeth Ziman … Music by
  • APM … Music by
  • Henry Louis Gates Jr. … Host, Narrator
  • James H. Sweet … Interviewee
  • Christopher Brown … Interviewee
  • Annette Gordon-Reed … Interviewee
  • Abu Bangura … Interviewee
  • Isatu Smith … Interviewee
  • Stef Gordon … Line Producer
  • Sowande Muskateem … Interviewee
  • Edward Ball … Interviewee
  • Thomalind Polite … Interviewee
  • Vincent Brown … Interviewee
  • Michael Twitty … Interviewee
  • Jane Landers … Interviewee
  • Bernard Powers Jr. … Interviewee
  • Elias Ball
  • Juan Garrido
  • Anthony Johnson
  • George Washington
  • Henry Washington
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