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History of slavery is dehumanized, prof says

The slave trade is usually left out of the American immigration story, former Professor of Africana Studies James Campbell said in a lecture yesterday at the John Nicholas Brown Center.

Speaking to a small group of teachers and community members about the history of the transatlantic slave trade, Campbell emphasized the need to "unsettle the ways in which Americans have been taught to tell the story of their history."

Targeting educators, Campbell's lecture was the first of the "Coming to America" series sponsored by the Rhode Island Geography Education Alliance. Future lectures in the series will explore the immigration experiences of Asians, Latinos and Cape Verdeans.

If you ask most Americans to describe early migrants to the Americas, most would say they "look like Pilgrims or conquistadors," Campbell said. "They don't look like Africans."

However, he said, in the first 300 years after Columbus's voyage to the Americas, three-quarters of transatlantic migrants were African slaves. By the time the United States and Great Britain outlawed the transatlantic slave trade, over 12.5 million Africans had been packed onto slave ships bound for the mines and plantations of the New World.

The vast majority of these slaves went to Brazil and other sugar-producing regions, where few slaves survived the brutal work environment and heat for long. Campbell said North America, which was colonized later than the rest of the Americas, depended on white indentured servants until the end of the 17th century.

Even in the 18th century, when slavery largely replaced indentured servitude as the base of the American plantation economy, North America imported relatively few slaves, Campbell said. In the temperate climate, the slave population increased. By the Civil War, the number of enslaved Africans in the United States had increased to almost four million, he added.

While the presentation of slavery in American history textbooks has improved significantly since the civil rights movement, Campbell said, misconceptions still abound. Americans tend to think of slavery as "abhorrent and anomalous," he said. "And it certainly was abhorrent. But it isn't historically anomalous."

The concept of labor as a transfer between free equals is a relatively modern development, he said. "Slavery is not the exception, historically - it's the rule," he said.

Campbell said the economic importance of slavery meant that the forced migration of Africans was much better documented than migrations of free Europeans. But, according to Campbell, almost no first-person accounts of Africans brought to the Americas exist - the data is almost entirely numerical.

Campbell demonstrated the wealth of data available on Web sites like, which provides a database of information about transatlantic slave ships from 1514 to 1866. The information includes the ships' points of origin and disembarkation, the number of slaves who began the journey and the number who survived it.

"In some sense the data we have reproduces the process of dehumanization, reducing Africans to commodities," said Campbell. "There's very little about the human content of this experience."

Campbell, who announced in February that he would leave the University to join the faculty at Stanford - his alma mater - chaired the University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice. He encouraged teachers to use primary source materials unearthed by the committee, including remarkably detailed records of slave ships commissioned by the Brown brothers.

Campbell, who is working as a historical consultant on a children's encyclopedia of slavery, acknowledged the difficulty of presenting information about the slave trade to younger students without "reducing" it. He encouraged teachers to draw from a variety of sources in order to engage students in the nuance of the slave trade without losing sight of its "human dimension."


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