Soon after the settlement of Maryland in the 17C, British ships with Africans for sale as slaves began to appear in the Chesapeake. The Atlantic Ocean route between Africa and the Americas was called the Middle Passage. Planters looking for a cheap labor force were interested in using Africans as forced laborers on their tobacco plantations. For example, Governor Leonard Calvert negotiated with a ship captain as early as 1642 for the purchase of 13 Africans to work on his St. Mary's property. Africans were in rising demand by the colonists and British merchants continued to bring them in large numbers. Between 1675 and 1695, about 3,000 Africans entered the Chesapeake region to be put to work mostly on the tobacco plantations of Maryland and Virginia.
These Africans came from various West African ethnic groups from the region of the Gambia River around the coast of present day Nigeria. Men and women, whose complexions ranged from brown to black, brought with them numerous languages and customs, including their own African religious beliefs. Occasionally Muslims were among them, and sometimes Africans came from regions as far away as Madagascar. The Africans wore little clothing, sometimes only strings of beads. Many had filed teeth. Some had hair plaited in elaborate styles, while others had shaven heads. Slave owners often commented on the scarification—slave owners called them "country markings"—the Africans had on their bodies. These markings might be on their faces, arms, or torso and had a variety of distinctive designs, sometimes for ethnic identity and also for body ornamentation. African music, drums, and singing frightened whites who soon outlawed many African practices—especially drumming. After a time an Africanized English became the language that the Africans and their owners all understood. The Africans received new names and learned their work and the stringent boundaries within which slave life was confined. Owners wanted to break the Africans' rebellious spirits and restrict their movements.
Early accounts of Maryland history provide glimpses of the lives of some of the Africans. Ayubva Suleiman Dially was a well-educated Muslim merchant who was born about 1700 in an area located in an area that is now in Mali. He was captured and sold after he had traded two other Africans to a British merchant. He was taken to Annapolis where he was sold. He worked on a tobacco plantation for two years before he was rescued, taken to England and then finally allowed to return to his home.
Charles Ball, a slave sold into the cotton kingdom from the state of Maryland, wrote that after the sale of his mother, his master also decided to sell his father to a southern slave dealer. Ball said that his grandfather, an African, secretly went to his son's cabin, gave him some cider and parched corn, prayed "to the god of his native country" to protect his son, and told him to run away. Ball never saw his father again. His grandfather was originally enslaved in Charles County, Maryland, in about 1730.
By the 18C, Maryland was beginning to get a new generation of Africans, born in America, who did not know their parents' African homeland first hand. In Tobacco and Slaves (1998) Allan Kulikoff uses records of several Maryland plantations to show the gradual changes in the fertility of the enslaved population. On the Edmond Jennings plantation in 1712 almost all the workers were Africans. By 1730, nine out of ten black men and almost all of the black women working on the Robert Carter estates were born in Africa, but beginning in the 1730s the enslaved population began to grow naturally and was composed of both Africans and African Americans. In a few generations Africa became simply a distant misunderstood land to most African Americans.
By Debra Newman Ham