The West African black was brought across the Atlantic, at first to the West Indies, in large part because plantation owners were disappointed with the native Indians. As slaves the Indians were hopeless. At the start of the 17th century, one Antonio de Herrera, a historian, contended that the work of one Negro was more than equal to that of four Indians. On the other hand, he caustically noted, "These Negroes prospered so much in the colony that...as yet none have been known to perish from infirmity."
Indians, though, as one Spanish planter complained, "died like fish in a bucket," partly because they were less resistant to European diseases—like smallpox and measles—than the blacks.
Some African slaves died by their own hands. Suicide was a particular characteristic of members of the Ibo tribe, many of whom either escaped their chains and threw themselves into the sea or hanged themselves on their chains. To this day a folk saying in Haiti observes that the Ibo is prone to hang himself. Some slaves were encouraged to kill themselves by a belief that their souls would then return to Africa, where they would be reunited with their families and friends.
A theory quoted by Arnold Toynbee holds that the black man surpassed the Indian as a slave because he came from a superior culture. Certainly the West African was no savage. He created an architecture of respectably high standards. He was a skilled and artistic weaver. No white men had to teach him to smelt iron or make brass. And he was a highly competent woodworker. He was a good herdsman of cattle, sheep and goats. He used the donkey as a beast of burden. He was a fine farmer, considering what he had to work with. When the European introduced the musket he was able to copy it and make his own. He had not, though, for the most part, reached that fine stage of civilization in which he was able to make gunpowder. And, as Mannix and Cowley point out in Black Cargoes, a History of the Atlantic Slave Trade, he never invented the wheel and the plow.
With the skills he had and the ability to learn new ones, the Negro became a very valuable piece of property in America and was treated as such once he passed the seasoning test. Though many slaves died aboard ship, even there it was not too unusual for the slaves to be better fed than the white crewmen, who were considered expendable and often were marooned in the Indies once the westward passage was completed. The idea was that a sailor could be shanghaied in London and abandoned in Jamaica at a bit of extra profit to the captain and the owners. There are tales of compassionate black slaves sharing their rations with starving white sailors.
Once at work ashore, properly trained and much more valuable than he was when bought on the African West Coast, the slave was sometimes given less arduous and hazardous work than gangs of Irish and German laborers, whose services were leased out by contractors to the plantation owners. One Virginia planter, asked why he should pay Irishmen to dig drainage ditches when he could have it done by black slaves, explained that it was dangerous work "and a Negro's life is too valuable to be risked at it. If a Negro dies it is a considerable loss, you know" (as much as $2,500 in the currency of the day). Similarly, a traveler in the South observed that when a boat was being loaded with cotton from a high bluff on the Alabama River, Irish deckhands were given the perilous job of remaining below, there to deal with crazily bounding bales pitched down a chute to them by black slaves from the bank above.
"The niggers are worth too much to be risked here," the captain explained. "If the Paddies are knocked overboard or get their backs broke, nobody loses anything."
The slave had not known much of sport in Africa, where he had little time or incentive for it. The idea of exertion and competition for the fun of it was generally unknown in tribal culture. Sport is a product of leisure. Dancing was fun for the African, but it had meaning, too, often of a religious nature. And it was not competitive.
There were some sports, to be sure. Lutte, which still survives and is very popular in Senegal, is a ritualistic form of wrestling rather like the Japanese sumo. It begins with singing, dancing, boasting and the hurling of insults to the rising beat of drums. Then there is a flash of action and one of the participants is knocked off his feet. That ends it. The winner need not pin his man. And there is an Ethiopian game called genna, which resembles field hockey.
For their own amusement the slave owners taught their blacks to compete against each other in racing and a primitive form of boxing, just as the owners raced their horses in plantation vs. plantation competition. This was the start of the black athlete's eventual preeminence in boxing. In 1890 bantamweight (later featherweight) George Dixon became the first black to win a world championship. For a while it was not considered fitting for a white prizefighter to oppose a black. But that attitude began to break down, and around the start of the present century there emerged such fine fighters as Jack Johnson and Sam Langford, dubbed the "Boston Tar Baby." In the 1930s came Joe Louis and Henry Armstrong, the only fighter ever to hold three world titles simultaneously, and black men have dominated the sport in America since.