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The slave trade flourished because there was new land that needed to be harvested and slave work was cheaper. They endured harsh conditions because they were believed to be in the bottom of all. Weekly food rations -- usually corn meal, lard, some meat, molasses, peas, greens, and flour -- were distributed every Saturday. Clothing, distributed by the master, usually once a year and often at Christmastime. The lives of enslaved men and women were shaped by a confluence of material circumstances, geographic location, and the financial status and ideological stance of a given slaveholder.
In the mid-fifteenth century, Portuguese ships sailed down the West African coast in a maneuver designed to bypass the Muslim North Africans, who had a virtual monopoly on the trade of sub-Saharan gold, spices, and other commodities that Europe wanted. These voyages resulted in maritime discoveries and advances in shipbuilding that later would make it easier for European vessels to navigate the Atlantic. Over time, the Portuguese vessels added another commodity to their cargo: African men, women, and children.
The slave trade and slavery left a legacy of violence. Brutality, often of near-bestial proportions, was the principal condition shaping the character of the enforced migration, whether along a trade route, on board ship, or laboring on an American plantation. The degree of power concentrated in the hands of North American slave owners, interested only in maximizing their profits, allowed excessive levels of physical punishment and the perpetuation of sexual abuse and exploitation that have marked in many ways the development of the African-American community.