click to enlarge
Many slaves shipped directly to North America bypassed this process; however most slaves (destined for island or South American plantations) were likely to be put through this ordeal. The slaves were tortured for the purpose of "breaking" them (like the practice of breaking horses) and conditioning them to their new lot in life. Jamaica held one of the most notorious of these camps.
Immediately owners and their overseers sought to obliterate the identities of their newly acquired slaves, to break their wills and sever any bonds with the past. They forced Africans to adapt to new working and living conditions, to learn a new language and adopt new customs. They called this process 'seasoning' and it could last two or three years.
For Africans, weakened by the trauma of the voyage, the brutality of this process was overwhelming. Many died or committed suicide. Others resisted and were punished. The rest found ways of appearing to conform which still preserved their dignity.
Most of the Africans brought into North America prior to 1740 came by way of the West Indies. The most valuable slaves were those born in the Americas--known as Creole slaves, and the least valuable were those directly from Africa. Traders tried to present the enslaved African as being as much like a Creole slave as possible in look and behavior. The process began with the sale itself. Although no standard applied for everywhere in the Americas, the most experienced slavers usually cleaned up the Africans by shaving all the hair from their bodies, washing them with water, and oiling them down with palm oil. The about-to-be-sold slave was also fed often but in small amounts for a few days prior to the sale, trained not to resist having all parts of their bodies examined--especially their reproductive organs, and sometimes allotted a little rum to liven their spirits. In the West Indies, traders might put those slaves destined for the American South into sugar plantation work gangs for a few weeks labor to break them in to the routine. After 1740, when the demand for slave labor was highest, most enslaved people sold into the American South came directly from Africa, and they had to be seasoned by their American owners.
Already branded in Africa with the traders mark, they might be branded again with the mark of the new owner. They also would receive new names--usually Christian ones, or names from Classical Rome and Greece--such as Jupiter or Plato, or African-sounding names--like Quack (which was derived from the African word Quaco, meaning a male born on Wednesday) or Squash (which probably came from the word Quashee, meaning a female born on Sunday). Usually older slaves would be put in charge of the seasoning process, teaching the newly purchased enslaved African how to work in gangs, how to conduct themselves, and how to adapt what they knew in Africa to the new environment of slavery.
The following is a transcript from a slave named Olaudah Equiano in 1789. This is part of the Hanover Historical Text Project