Remembering Slavery

Remembering Slavery Online Exhibition

We were Strong: Life on the plantations

Leg-irons

Leg-irons

These leg-irons are typical of those used to restrain enslaved Africans. The two horseshoe-shaped irons fitted around the ankles and were fastened into place with the connecting rod which has a flat spade shape at one end and a narrow loop at the other end. A padlock would then go through the rod loop after the ankle pieces had been connected.

Made out of solid steel, the leg-irons are strong but also heavy and roughly finished. Someone locked in them would soon suffer from skin chafing, bleeding and bruising. If the irons were tight, they would also restrict blood circulation.

The enslaved Africans would be restrained using leg-irons during the voyage from Africa to the Caribbean and the Americas - the 'middle passage'. Men were packed below deck, chained together in pairs. The space was so cramped they were forced to crouch or lie down. Women and children were kept in separate quarters and were sometimes allowed to move around the ship by day. They were fed twice a day and those refusing to eat were force-fed. Those who died were thrown overboard.

In good weather all of the enslaved Africans were brought on deck twice daily for an exercise period. When taking exercise they were often put in leg-irons in pairs to prevent them from attacking their guards and forced to perform a shuffling dance under the crew's whips. Being 'put in irons' was also a punishment on the plantations.

  • Leg-irons

    These leg-irons are typical of those used to restrain enslaved Africans. The two horseshoe-shaped irons fitted around the ankles and were fastened into place with the connecting rod which has a flat spade shape at one end and a narrow loop at the other end. A padlock would then go through the rod loop after the ankle pieces had been connected.

    Made out of solid steel, the leg-irons are strong but also heavy and roughly finished. Someone locked in them would soon suffer from skin chafing, bleeding and bruising. If the irons were tight, they would also restrict blood circulation.

    The enslaved Africans would be restrained using leg-irons during the voyage from Africa to the Caribbean and the Americas - the 'middle passage'. Men were packed below deck, chained together in pairs. The space was so cramped they were forced to crouch or lie down. Women and children were kept in separate quarters and were sometimes allowed to move around the ship by day. They were fed twice a day and those refusing to eat were force-fed. Those who died were thrown overboard.

    In good weather all of the enslaved Africans were brought on deck twice daily for an exercise period. When taking exercise they were often put in leg-irons in pairs to prevent them from attacking their guards and forced to perform a shuffling dance under the crew's whips. Being 'put in irons' was also a punishment on the plantations.

  • Leg-irons

    These leg-irons are typical of those used to restrain enslaved Africans. The two horseshoe-shaped irons fitted around the ankles and were fastened into place with the connecting rod which has a flat spade shape at one end and a narrow loop at the other end. A padlock would then go through the rod loop after the ankle pieces had been connected.

    Made out of solid steel, the leg-irons are strong but also heavy and roughly finished. Someone locked in them would soon suffer from skin chafing, bleeding and bruising. If the irons were tight, they would also restrict blood circulation.

    The enslaved Africans would be restrained using leg-irons during the voyage from Africa to the Caribbean and the Americas - the 'middle passage'. Men were packed below deck, chained together in pairs. The space was so cramped they were forced to crouch or lie down. Women and children were kept in separate quarters and were sometimes allowed to move around the ship by day. They were fed twice a day and those refusing to eat were force-fed. Those who died were thrown overboard.

    In good weather all of the enslaved Africans were brought on deck twice daily for an exercise period. When taking exercise they were often put in leg-irons in pairs to prevent them from attacking their guards and forced to perform a shuffling dance under the crew's whips. Being 'put in irons' was also a punishment on the plantations.

  • Slave-irons

    These slave-irons are typical of those used to restrain enslaved Africans. Two flattened loops fasten over and are locked together by a central overlapping split ring.

    Captains of slave-ships feared that their captives would escape and take over the ship during the voyage from Africa to the Caribbean and the Americas. Crew members would regularly search the holds for possible weapons and severely punished even minor acts of resistance. The enslaved Africans were therefore chained up for the entire voyage, except for brief and closely guarded exercise periods on deck: 'the crew used to watch us very closely who were not chained down to the decks', Olaudah Equiano, freed slave 1745-1797.

    On the plantations, enslaved Africans were not simply passive victims of slavery. Here, resistance was widespread if not always successful. The obvious forms of resistance included working slowly, sabotaging crops or machinery, running away and even suicide. There were also many slave revolts in the Caribbean.

    Continuing and developing their distinctive cultures and traditions were indirect forms of resistance used by the enslaved Africans. A style of fighting known as capoeira evolved on Brazilian plantations. The enslaved Africans would often be shackled and chained together nevertheless, capoeira continued, disguised as a dance. It was a way for enslaved people to celebrate their culture using percussion instruments and songs.

  • Split ring

    This ring was used to lock together the slave-irons.

  • Slavery clamp

    This is a brick-shaped piece of wood, split in two with a large rectangular hole crudely carved out of the middle. A small hole pierces both of the longer sides so that a wooden peg fits through. This was possibly used to clamp the enslaved Africans' feet together after capture and while they were waiting to be transported to the Caribbean or the Americas.

    Slavery existed in many parts of Africa before the trans-Atlantic slave trade. People were enslaved after being captured during warfare, as a punishment for committing a crime or as a means of escaping famine. African slaves had a social and economic value and they were still generally considered people and part of society

    The number of Africans involved was small compared to the millions shipped to the Caribbean and the Americas by Europeans. However, the fact that this trade already existed made it easier for Europeans to set up business in Africa.

    Africans were captured inland and forced to march the hundreds of miles to the Atlantic coast where they were held in pens known as barracoons. Professional slave traders set up bases along the west coast where they purchased the enslaved from the Africans in exchange for commodities such as cloth, metals, firearms and gunpowder, spirits, cutlery, coins and cowrie shells.

"They will remember that we were sold but they won't remember that we were strong. They will remember that we were bought, but not that we were strong."William Prescott, former slave in the United States, 1937

Any relief that the enslaved Africans felt when they sailed into the ports of the Caribbean Islands was short-lived. Family groups that had survived the middle passage (the journey across the Atlantic Ocean from Africa) were torn apart when they were sold to European plantation owners. For some of the Africans, the Caribbean was not their final destination - they returned to the ships and sailed on to North or South America.

More information on plantation life

The majority of the enslaved men, women and children ended up cutting cane on sugar plantations, whilst a few became skilled workers such as carpenters or sugar boilers. Whatever they did, slaves were valued only for what they could do for their owners, and had no control over their lives and work.

Yet the enslaved communities had their own beliefs, organisations and values which kept them strong. Although separated from their families, the people enslaved in the Caribbean and the Americas developed close ties with each other. A community would often include people from many different backgrounds in Africa, and their varied customs mixed with European ones to create new cultures.

Take a look

  • Cane cutters in the Caribbean. At harvest time men, women and children could work 14 hours a day, six days a week, in extreme heat.
  • A black domestic servant in the United States. Many enslaved women and children worked in the homes of the white plantation owners as cooks, cleaners or nannies
  • On some Caribbean plantations, enslaved people were allowed to grow food on poor land. They sold surplus produce at local markets, and white people were their main customers.  Although this activity created more work, it gave the enslaved people dignity and could allow them to save money to buy their freedom

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