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Africa Began The Iron Age, But Africa's Enslaved Were Men of Iron!

Recent studies date the inception of iron metallurgy in Africa between 3000 and 2500 BC. Evidence exists for early iron metallurgy in parts of Nigeria, Cameroon, and Central Africa, possibly from as early as around 2,000 BC. Some evidence from historical linguistics affirms that the Nok culture of Nigeria practiced iron smelting from as early as 1000 BC. The nearby Djenné-Djenno culture of the Niger Valley in Mali shows emperical evidence of iron production from c. 250 BC. The Bantu expansion spread the technology to Eastern and Southern Africa between c. 500 BC to 400 AD, as shown in the Urewe culture.

By convention, the Iron Age in the Near East began around 550 BC (or 539 BC), roughly the beginning of historiography with Herodotus; the end of the so-called proto-historical period. Iron working was introduced to Europe in the late 11th century BC, probably from the East, and slowly spread northwards and westwards over the succeeding 500 years. The Iron Age did not start when iron first appeared in Europe but it began to replace bronze in the preparation of tools and weapons. Highly skilled enslaved Africans brought advanced ironwork to the antebellum south. Iron Works were established long before the Civil War. NC Markers says “as early as 1846”. The Charlotte library says Vesuvius Furnace, Tizrah Forge and Rehoboth Furnace were operating 35 years earlier!

The Baltimore Iron Works located at Mount Clare was one of the largest industrial enterprises in colonial America. Dr. Charles Carroll had shares in the company and sold part of the tract of land he named “Georgia” to the company. In 1733 the company completed its first forge located on the Gywns Falls and production began that year. The Baltimore Iron Works used enslaved labor from the beginning. The enslaved workers performed a wide spectrum of jobs within the ironworks, most of them skilled.

The Baltimore Iron Works had a labor force of eighty-nine individuals. Forty-seven were white and forty-two were enslaved African Americans. At the height of its development in 1781 the Baltimore Iron Works owned two hundred enslaved African Americans and hired still more free African Americans as they had the skill sets required and their health did not have to be taken into consideration like white employees would. During the late 1760s and early 1770s the people and stock were almost starving. A correspondence between Clement Brooke, manager of the Baltimore Iron Works during the 1770s and Robert Carter, a partner in the company, is filled with constant requests for food.

Under these conditions the managers realized that the incentive to escape would be great. Working with the white indentured servants also likely gave the enslaved individuals additional opportunities and increased their chances of successful escapes.

Indeed, throughout the mid 1700s Charles Carroll posted multiple ads in the Pennsylvania Gazette, for runaways, indentured servant and convict laborers. It appears that planning and group efforts were often involved as most of the runaway postings indicate the escape of multiple individuals simultaneously along with the theft of horses, food and supplies.

Living in slavery required strength, skill, intelligence and often courage. Enslaved railroad workers, who laid the foundations for the Iron horses that would connect the nation for example, chopped trees and cleared brush. They placed dynamite, lit fuses and ran, literally, for their lives. They built trestles over rivers. They dug the wide, even trenches that railroad tracks required, filled them with gravel, positioned the heavy rails and hammered spikes into place. They worked from sunrise to sunset and often beyond. They endured heat, cold, illness and injury. Many of them died.

For most of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Charleston’s black inhabitants outnumbered whites, because the economy of the city and the surrounding region depended primarily on enslaved black labor. While the overwhelming majority of enslaved Africans in the Lowcountry worked in crop cultivation on rural plantations, in the urban context of Charleston, the female black labor force worked primarily as domestic servants males were in industrial enterprises and skilled crafts, such as carpentry and ironwork. Many whites were hostile to the high skill levels of blacks both free and enslaved. According to the 1848 Census, Charleston slaves were involved in at least forty-five different occupations, many of which required considerable skill but until and even after emancipation it was rare one would be allowed to prosper from their skills and talent. A significant free black community also existed in antebellum Charleston, and by 1850 approximately eighty-two percent of free black males practiced skilled crafts for unskilled level pay.

By 1870, black male Charlestonians are documented as working in 158 different occupations. Twenty-five to thirty percent practiced skilled trades, and their numbers made them the most highly skilled group in the city (compared to the numbers of native whites and recent immigrants working in skilled trades). In the late nineteenth century, both jealousy, envy and racial discrimination forced most black workers back to the low paying jobs they had typically practiced during the antebellum slavery years. African Blacksmiths with iron making skills were imported to the Chesapeake to work as blacksmiths on plantations and in the iron industry that, by the early 18th century, had begun to develop in Colonial America. Ironworkers were an elite group in West and West Central Africa.

The story of blacksmithing in New Orleans begins with the founding of the city over 300 years ago. French settlers made plans to turn the piece of land on the banks of the Mississippi River into a sprawling community, but they didn’t have the manpower or skills to do it themselves.

So they turned to African enslaved.

Europeans knew that Africans had a history with ironworking and a deep understanding of the skills. Dating back to the early fifteenth century, Portuguese explorers saw blacksmiths’ art at the mouth of the Congo River. Because of their established knowledge of metal work, the French brought over slaves from west Africa and west-central Africa to support a rapidly growing need for metal work in their American colonies in the early 18th century. The number of skilled craftspeople continued to grow in the latter half of the century when tens of thousands of free people of color found refuge in New Orleans and cities on the East Coast of the United States following revolutions in Haiti and Cuba. This surge of craftspeople in New Orleans helped to restore the architecture after two fires nearly destroyed the city in 1788 and 1794.

The work of African blacksmiths in New Orleans was an integral part of daily life, like in other emerging American cities like Charleston, Baltimore, and Atlanta. Their services included everything from making doors and locks to forging tools to shoeing horses. Because of this, blacksmith shops were spread out every few blocks in the city. Harlem Renaissance scholar Alain Locke observed in Negro Art: Past and Present, “The most authentic tracing of any considerable school of master craftsmen has been in connection with the famous Creole and Negro blacksmiths of New Orleans. ”Iron pieces created by blacksmiths of color in the 18th and 19th centuries are covered with symbols from their home countries. Circular patterns that signify the regeneration of life, Ghanaian adinkra symbols and Haitian vévés were forged into the craftsmen’s work as a way of covertly speaking to their people.


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