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Slavery and the Slave Trade


SLAVERY AND THE SLAVE TRADE. Slavery has existed throughout history. Most societies have made provisions for it within their structure, and most peoples have been sources of slaves at one time or another. The expansion of slavery was often a by-product of empire building as a dominant power turned its prisoners of war into slaves through conquest. However, from empire to empire there was considerable variation in slaves' legal status and prospects for incorporation into the polity; likewise, within a given society or state, there could be a wide range of status, labor, and opportunities among different slaves.

Indeed, a precise definition of slavery that will fit all societies is difficult to present. Most forms of slavery share the following characteristics: (1) slaves are obliged to live their lives in perpetual service to their master, an obligation that only the master (or the state) can dissolve; (2) slaves are under the complete power of their masters, although the state or community may impose certain restrictions upon the master's treatment of the slave; (3) slaves are property, which may be sold or passed along as an inheritance at the master's discretion; and (4) the condition of slavery is transmitted from parent to child.

Historians often distinguish between "slave societies" and "societies with slaves," based upon the centrality of slavery to the economy. Ancient Rome and the plantation colonies of Brazil, the Caribbean, and the American South were "slave societies"; during the early modern period, most European countries and many Latin and North American colonies were merely "societies with slaves."

The question of who can legitimately be enslaved in any society often boils down to a definition of who constitutes an "insider" and who is fundamentally excluded from a society. Over the course of the early modern period, these lines shifted from religious to somatic categories, thus creating the relatively new category of "race." Thus, fifteenth-century Christians justified the enslavement of non-Christians on fundamentally religious grounds. In some contrast to the Russian and Ottoman empires, by the seventeenth century all western European powers defined Africans as peculiarly destined to enslavement, an opinion that was often justified by the biblical account of the curse upon Noah's sons. As Enlightenment secularism and materialism became influential in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a new, biologically justified discourse of racism was buttressed by the pronouncements of science. Some theorists, including those in nations with no direct ties to the slave trade, embraced these attitudes. For example, the German Enlightenment thinker Immanuel Kant cited with approval David Hume's characterization of blacks as highly superstitious, overly talkative, lacking intelligence, and ungifted in the arts. Various forms of racismscientific, institutional, and culturaloutlived the institution of slavery and persist in Europe today.


While slavery was a significant feature of ancient Greek and Middle Eastern societies, the direct roots of Europe's early modern traffic in slaves can be traced to ancient Rome and to early Islam. At the height of its power (c. 200 b.c.e.200 c.e.), the Roman republic depended upon perhaps 2 million slaves (or about a third of its population) to perform every kind of labor, from agricultural production and domestic service to military command and political advising. Many of these slaves were taken from the communities and cultures at the empire's periphery and pressed into service where, through trade networks, they relocated throughout the lands under Roman imperial control.

With the collapse of the Roman Empire in the late fourth century, slavery became much more marginal in most European regions. While some families continued to maintain small numbers of slaves, often as domestic servants, widespread agricultural slavery generally gave way to serfdom, especially in northern and western Europe (including England, Scandinavia, and France). The chief difference between serfs and slaves was that serfs were bound to the landthey could not be traded away from the manorial estate to which they were born. Slaves, by contrast, were chattel property that could be bought and sold; their legal existence was mediated through their masters. By 1086, when William the Conqueror ordered the survey of the lands of EnglandcommonlyknownastheDomesday("Doomsday") Book, only about 10 percent of the English population was counted as slaves, and the proportion continued to decline after that. Regions with stronger ties to the Byzantine Empire (for example, Russia) and Muslim northern Africa (for example, Sicily) had greater access to slave markets, and slavery continued as a minor but persistent feature of southern and eastern European medieval societies.

Islam, being religiously and linguistically distinct from Christian Europe, expanded a preexisting slave system in the seventh and eighth centuries during its major conquests from Europe's Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) to the frontier of China. The Islamic empire, like Rome, allowed for the integration of conquered people into its own population through various assimilation mechanisms, including slavery. The Arabic languagethe dominant language of the original Muslimsprovided bureaucratic and cultural unity to elites while many vernacular languages and customs persisted. Yet the religion of Islam gave legal, cultural, and linguistic unityat least at the elite administrative levelto a diverse and cosmopolitan empire.

Slavery under Islamic regimes, however, differed from Roman slavery in certain ways. First, it was not a central feature in agricultural production, as slavery had been to the Italian peninsula; most slaves held by Muslims were employed in domestic service. Second, the great majority of slaves in early Islamic states were women and childrenmale prisoners of war who resisted were more likely killed than enslaved. However, male slaves came to be used by the thousands as soldiers and administrators in later empires, like those of the Mamluks of Egypt and of the Ottomans.

Another important feature of Islamic slavery, from the perspective of early modern Europe, is the development of trans-Saharan slave routes and an emerging discourse associating blackness with slavery. While Muslims enslaved an extremely diverse range of peoples, from the blond and blue-eyed Caucasians to the ebony-skinned Zanj of East Africa, a literary trope emerged around 675725 under the Umayyad dynasty, connoting inferiority to those with dark skin. The Muslim world also supplied the Iberian Peninsula with slaves, so that by completion of the Reconquista in the fifteenth century, there was a stable community of several thousand blacks of sub-Saharan African descent in the major cities of Portugal and Castile.

Constantius II (ruled 337361), the Christian emperor of Rome, had decreed in 339 that Jews were not permitted to hold Christians as slaves. During the Middle Ages a new policy barring the enslavement of fellow Christianspossibly in imitation of similar Muslim prohibitions against the enslavement of coreligionistsserved to win pagan converts to the expanding Christian feudal order. Most of the western European languages' words for slave are etymologically related; "slave" (English), Sklave (German), esclave (French), esclavo (Spanish), schiavo (Italian), and even the Arabic saqaliba are all based upon the ethnic term "Slav" and refer to the southern Balkan peoples who were one of the chief sources of slaves during the ancient and medieval periods.


Europeans were not only slaveholders in the early modern period; they were also slaves. From at least the sixteenth century, thousands of Europeans were captured by Muslim privateers in or along the coasts of the Mediterranean Sea, Atlantic Ocean, or North Sea and sold into slave markets from Alexandria, Egypt to Meknes, Morocco. Seamen, fishermen, traders, travelers, and soldiers were the most vulnerable to seaborne raiders. On land, with the expansion of the Ottoman Empire into Europe, peasant families were just as subject to enslavement as were combatant soldiers. Some Christian captives converted to Islam and made new lives for themselves, others were ransomed by their relatives, escaped, or died in captivity. Some were pressed into service as galley slaves on Muslim ships. Many observers noted that their treatment there was better than on the French, Italian, or Spanish galleys. In general, slavery in the Ottoman Empire was reportedly milder than slavery elsewhere, and manumission (the individual freeing of slaves) was a common, even expected, form of charity for observant Muslims.

In the second half of the seventeenth century, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the chief minister to France's king Louis XIV (ruled 16431715), expanded a system of galley slaves as punishment for many different kinds of crimes. More than 1,500 Protestant dissenters were condemned to the French galleys. During the same period, the Habsburg emperor Leopold I (ruled 16581705), in conjunction with Louis XIV, suspended the religious freedom guaranteed by the Hungarian constitution and sent some sixty Protestant ministers to be sold to the Spanish galleys; twenty-six surviving prisoners were released in 1676. The French galley penal system continued until 1748.

In the same period, from the end of the seventeenth century until the end of the eighteenth, the seizure of war captives for ransom or labor became a fixture of warfare between the Russian and Ottoman empires. However, in contrast to the Ottomans, whose slaves were overwhelmingly non-Muslim outsiders, Russia drew most of its slaves from its own domestic population, many of whom sold themselves to escape famine or destitution.

Slavery persisted in Russia until the early eighteenth century, when the tsarist state redefined domestic slaves as serfs so that they might be taxable. The line between serf and slave, however, was often blurred in practice. Slavery in Ottoman Europe continued in reduced form through the nineteenth century until its formal abolition at the end of the century.


The roots of Europe's slave colonies in America can be found in Portugal's fifteenth-century exploration of the western coast of Africa. Upon conquering the Muslim fortress of Ceuta in North Africa in 1415, Portuguese rulers turned their attention to the trade goods being delivered across the Sahara desert. By skirting the coast, royally sponsored explorers hoped to trace the supplies of gold and other precious goods to their source, thus bypassing the costs of the middlemen traders. By the mid-1450s, the Portuguese had begun to purchase slaves along the West African coast, establishing contracts with Wolof, Mandinga, and Bati rulers to exchange gold, cotton, ivory, and slaves for horses, red cloth, and iron. In the 1480s, the Portuguese established the entrepôts of São Tomé and Elmina to serve the regular trade routes from Congo and Benin. At the same time, following the medieval model of sugar production in North Africa and several Mediterranean islands, the Portuguese established plantations on the Atlantic islands of Madeira, the Cape Verde islands, and the Canaries, and they increasingly worked them with slaves imported from Africa.

Though some African slaves arrived in America along with Spanish conquistadors as early as 1502, most early colonial labor needs in the New World were initially met by Amerindians. The Spanish rulers replicated the feudal tribute system of encomienda in their New World colonies, compelling Amerindians to produce staples such as corn, beans, and cotton, as well as luxury products, including gold and silver. Due to this exploitation, susceptibility to Old World diseases, and perhaps, in some regions, an environmental crisis of soil depletion, native populations died at appalling rates: in the highly populated Mexican basin, 90 percent of the population died within a century of conquest. A confluence of this labor shortage with ready supplies of African slaves from the entrepôts in the western and central African regions of Senegal, Elmina (along the Gold Coast), Angola, and Congo facilitated Spanish colonies' experimentation with the importation of African slaves to the Caribbean, Mexico, and Peru. By 1580, some 74,000 Africans had been shipped from Africa for the Americas, while some 232,000 Spanish and Portuguese left for the Americas during the same period.

From 1580 until 1700, the relative proportion of emigration from Africa and Europe reversed. Approximately 1,531,000 Africans left Africa for the Americas (though an average of 20 percent perished during the grueling Middle Passage), while during the same time only about 944,000 Europeans ventured out for the New World, primarily to Spanish and British colonies. Key in this transformation was the introduction of sugar cultivation, first in Portuguese Brazil, then in the Caribbean. Unlike tobacco, another exotic product grown in America for export to Europe, sugar required a large labor force to process the ripe sugarcane on site before it rotted. Colonial planters sought economy of scale by consolidating large plantations, with gangs of 20 to 200 slaves staying up through the night to feed the proto-industrial sugar mills and tend the refining vats.

Also in the seventeenth century, the Dutch took over much of the Portuguese empire, conquering trading posts in Africa and Brazil and confiscating the lucrative transatlantic slave trade. Meanwhile, English and French colonists began to encroach on the Iberian colonial monopoly in North America, the Antilles, and coastal Guyana. At first, the favored commodity in Virginia and the Caribbean was tobacco, grown primarily with indentured servants from Europe, but gradually this was overtaken in the tropics by sugar and indigo, and it was supplemented by coffee and cotton. These crops accelerated the colonial demand for slave labor so that from 1700 to 1760, some 2,775,000 Africans were shipped for the New World, while only 891,000 Europeans departed for the same destination.

In this way, a "triangle of trade" emerged, linking the continents of Europe, Africa, and the Americas. Slave traders from Portugal, the Netherlands, England, and France brought raw and manufactured materials (such as iron, glass, guns, cloth, and horses) to African traders. African rulers profited from this trade, waging war on neighbors or requiring tribute in the form of slaves, which they, in turn, bartered to Europeans for the exotic luxury items they supplied. European traders packed slaves into sailing ships for the notorious Middle Passage, which averaged two to three months in the sixteenth century but could be completed in as little as 20 to 40 days by the nineteenth century. Survivors of the transatlantic voyage were sold to slaveholders for sugar, gold, tobacco, and rum, which in turn were sold in Europe.

The royally sponsored Portuguese trade was eclipsed in the seventeenth century by the Dutch, English, and French trading companies, each with exclusive national privileges, or charters, to trade between specific regions. Yet many colonists chafed against these mercantilist restrictions, and smuggling was widespread, especially outside the central commercial hubs. By the mid-eighteenth century, the English and French dominated the Atlantic slave trade.


The effect of Atlantic slavery on Europe's economies has been a matter of considerable debate since the 1944 publication of Eric Williams's Capitalism and Slavery. As part of his argument about the rise and fall of Atlantic slavery, Williams asserted that the Atlantic slave system created the export demand, the trading network, and one of the main streams of capital that fueled England's industrial revolution. Williams's claims have been challenged, however, by a generation of historians, such as Roger Anstey and Seymour Drescher, who have argued that profits from the slave trade were never sufficient to be a significant source of capital for the industrial revolution, and that the slave colonies, rather than generating substantial profits, were actually a net loss for the metropole.

Still, the complex economic relationships established within and between Europe, Africa, and the Americas during the early modern period make it difficult to isolate Europe's economic developments from the American slave complex. Some historians continue to argue that African slaves were responsible for about 75 percent of the American products that fed the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century commercial revolution, which in turn contributed to Britain's urbanization, creation of markets, export manufacture, and shift to industrial production after 1750. Others suggest that the concentration of capital, technological innovation, and organization of labor for efficiency in the colonial sugar plantations were models for the industrialization of the European textile industries.


Slave law, as with law more generally, encompasses positive law (statutes), jurisprudence (legal philosophy), and case law. While knowledge of the statutes is necessary to know the prescriptive status of slaves in any given jurisdiction, a better understanding of their actual condition in any community can be found through an examination of the judicial cases concerning slaves, as well as those concerning former slaves or "freedmen."

Roman slave law, codified in Justinian's sixth-century Corpus juris civilis, influenced most continental European legal systems, although as slavery became economically important to American colonies the law was modified to reflect local interests. Several characteristics of Roman law were fundamental to later jurists, including manumission practices, civil status, and criminal law. For some purposes, the law treated slaves as though they were human beings, for others, as things.

Roman law facilitated manumission, or individual freeing of slaves, and slaves' entry into the populace as citizens. Although manumitted slaves did not enjoy all the rights of freeborn Roman citizens, their freeborn children did. Slaves, like freeborn sons or daughters of Roman citizens, could not own property in their own right until the death of the master/patriarch. However, Roman law allowed for the creation of a savings fund, or peculium, whichthough technically the property of the masterwas administered by the slave within the constraints dictated by the master. Thus slaves were permitted to purchase their freedom through accumulated savings, with the permission of, and at the price set by, the master.

The emperor Justinian introduced a range of procedures that, if enforced, would moderate the slave system from the point of view of the slave. For example, Justinian's code held that a master could not kill his slave with impunity and, in cases of extreme abuse, a slave could seek the protection of the emperor or the church. And while the late Roman republic (c. 50 b.c.e.) had recognized only three avenues to freedommanumission by enrollment on the census, manumission by testament, and proceedings whereby liberty was restored to a free person who had been wrongfully held as a slaveunder Justinian, additional means of manumission were recognized, including a letter signed by five witnesses, manumission in the Christian church, and official recognition by a master that a slave was his son.

Yet under Roman law, slaves could not be parties to civil lawsuits, nor accusers in criminal cases, nor under Roman law could they marry. Their testimony could, under certain conditions, be accepted, but not against their masters. In those instances where their testimony was authorized, they were required to undergo torture. At the same time, it was perfectly legitimate to try slaves as defendants in criminal cases. Escaped slaves were not punished by the state, but, if caught, were subject to the master's discipline.

Most of the judicial courts of western Europe absorbed Roman law as part of their legal culture, yet innovated according to their own customs and conditions through the medieval and early modern eras. For Castilian Spain, Las siete partidas, a compilation consolidated under Alfonso X (ruled 12521284) around 1265 (and promulgated in 1348) integrated Roman features with Visigothic codes and medieval practices. The new Spanish law recognized slave marriages, even over a master's opposition, and masters would be penalized for fostering a clandestine marriage between their own slave and that of another. Portugal's Ordenaçoes Filipinas, promulgated by Philip II (ruled 15561598) and confirmed by the Portuguese king John IV (ruled 16401656) in 1643, established general slave laws for Portuguese territories past Brazilian independence in 1822, but these were supplemented explicitly by the Corpus juris civilis until 1769, when Roman precedents were discarded for natural law principles of the Enlightenment. In many regards, including manumission, Portugal's laws were therefore identical with Rome's. While France's Code noir of 1685 strongly reflected Louis XIV's desire to make Catholicism the sole religion of the kingdom (an innovation over Roman traditions), many of the French law's provisions mirrored the ancient Justinian code.

Despite these continuities with Roman law, the new Atlantic slave experience generated new legal customs and, eventually, statutes. In French Caribbean colonies, the Code noir contained a provision, apparently following local custom but no doubt sanctioned by the church, to the effect that any master who sired a child with his slave concubine would bear a hefty fine and the slaves would be confiscated for the state, unless the master married the slave in question, whereupon both mother and child would be thereby recognized as free. When the Code noir was reissued for the new colony of Louisiana in 1724, however, this provision was omitted and a new one explicitly forbade marriages between whites and blacks.

The most striking innovations were apparent in England and its colonies, where neither Roman legal traditions, nor the practice of enslavement, carried through the Middle Ages into the early modern period of Atlantic colonization. England's colonial assemblies were authorized to make local law distinct from that of the metropole; hence each colony developed its own unique statutory and case law with regard to the status and treatment of slaves and freedmen. During the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, British American colonies passed increasingly harsh measures regulating slaves and free blacks. For example, a Virginia statute of 1682 held that if a slave died resisting the force of his master, the master would not be liable for felony charges since "it cannot be presumed that [premeditated] malice should induce any man to destroy his own estate [property]."

The written law of Spain mutated further in the colonial settlements of the New World. For example, slaves were sometimes permitted to testify in court and a master's privilege of re-enslaving an ungrateful freedman fell into disuse. One of the most significant customary innovations in slave law was the practice of coartación, which developed in eighteenth-century Spanish America. On the basis of coartación, a slave who presented a fair price to his master could achieve his freedomwith or without the master's consent. This factor, along with demographics, economic conditions, and cultural reasons, helps to explain why people of color made up a larger proportion of the free population in many Latin American colonies.


The movement to abolish slavery has roots in European urban culture, elite European religious and intellectual movements, and African-American slave resistance. Yet it was not until the late eighteenth century that all of these forces combined to create a sustained attack on the institution of slavery itself, and not until the nineteenth century that the Atlantic slave trade, and then American slavery, were finally abolished.

Since at least the thirteenth century, urban centers in France, such as Toulouse and Pamiers, became refuges from the most extreme forms of bondage by adopting charters that freed slaves upon entrance to the village. In England, a Russian slave was freed in 1567 on the grounds that "the air of England is too pure for a slave to breathe." In seventeenth-century France, local traditions supporting liberty were extended to the French kingdom in the maxim, "All persons are free in this kingdom; and as soon as a slave had arrived at the borders of this place, being baptized, is freed."

As the Atlantic slave system began to expand, some critics argued for limitations on the excesses of slavery and the slave trade throughout the early modern period. In sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spain and Spanish America, some Catholic clergy voiced their concerns, including Bartolomé de Las Casas (14741566), who opposed the enslavement of Indians, and Tomás de Mercado and Alonso de Sandoval, who challenged the most extreme cruelties of the slave trade. In 1646, the Capuchin missionary order was expelled from the French Antillean colony of Saint-Christophe, allegedly because they preached the idea that once baptized, blacks could no longer be held as slaves since "it is an unworthy thing to use one's Christian brother as a slave." In 1688, several Dutch-speaking Quakers of Germantown, Pennsylvania, chastised their coreligionists for owning and trading slaves, for they "have . . . as much right to fight for their freedom as you have to keep them as slaves." Yet many Christians also stressed the virtue of slaves' obedience to their masters, and the suspension of reward until the hereafter, thus implicitly sanctioning slavery and inequality in the here and now.

In the eighteenth century, more secular voices began to critique slavery on the grounds of natural law and the linkage of personal slavery with political despotism. Scottish Enlightenment writers Francis Hutcheson and George Wallace were among the first to attack both slavery and the slave trade as violations of "natural justice" and "humanity." French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (17121778) drew directly from Wallace to challenge the right of slaves to sell themselves into bondage in his On the Social Contract. By 1762, there was a sufficient body of antislavery thought for the Pennsylvania Quaker Anthony Benezet to publish the first title devoted solely to the abolition of slavery and the slave trade, a collection he titled A Short Account of That Part of Africa Inhabited by Negroes, which was widely read on both sides of the Atlantic.

The third source of abolitionism was the actions taken by slaves themselves to resist slavery. In the Americas, slaves who ran away, known as "maroons," established independent communities in the regions beyond direct colonial power, such as the canyons of Jamaica, the mountains of Guadeloupe, the sertão of Brazil, and the swamps of Florida. Some of the maroon communities were so powerful militarily that they established treaties with the local European colonial powers, as in Surinam.

From as early as 1527 and throughout the expansion of plantation slavery in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, slaves plotted and revolted against masters. Most such revolts were small-scale events, with the aim of seeking local justice. Whether they were enacted on the individual or communal scale by the maroons, or in the wider arena of revolt or revolution, slaves overcame tremendous odds in seeking autonomy for themselves and, when possible, in extending that freedom to others. The 1791 slave revolt in northern Saint Domingue that escalated into the Haitian Revolution articulated a strong antislavery ideology and effected the first universal emancipation (of French colonies, in 1794) and the first independent republic established by former slaves (Haiti, 1804).

The end of the eighteenth century also marks the beginning of the bourgeois Atlantic abolition movements. Granville Sharp, an eccentric and pious Englishman, took up the cause of a slave who had been kidnapped and beaten by his master in England in 1765. Sharp's research into the law convinced him the English constitution was antithetical to slavery. English abolitionists had their first major success when they rallied to the support of the slave Somerset, whose master attempted to expel him from England on a ship bound for Jamaica in 1772. Though the extent of Judge Mansfield's decision in the Somerset case has been debated by historians, it was widely interpreted at the time as effectively abolishing slavery within England, and Scottish courts soon followed suit with an even broader pronouncement against slavery in 1778.

In North America, patriots of the American Revolution equated British political tyranny with slavery and offered proposals to ban the slave trade. Some extended the critique to slavery itself, though antislavery and antiblack sentiments were sometimes intertwined. Vermont prohibited slavery in its 1777 constitution while Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Connecticut all adopted emancipation statutes. Judges in Massachusetts and New Hampshire issued decisions similar to England's Somerset decision, thus establishing these territories as free states. In the North, only New York and New Jersey, both with sizable slave populations, maintained a legal apparatus permitting the continuation of slavery, yet these states also generated active, if elitist, abolitionist societies.

Sharp was soon joined by other antislavery activists in England, including the Methodist founder John Wesley, who preached against the evils of slavery on both sides of the Atlantic. Quakers, Methodists, Sharp, and others formed the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1787 and set about lobbying the British Parliament for their cause. Thomas Clarkson was the society's full-time organizer and propagandist. Within months, the group had collected more than 10,000 signatures on an antislavery petition from the city of Manchester alone, comprising half of the adult male population. Former slaves, including Olaudah Equiano (Gustavus Vassa) and Ottobah Cugoano penned their life stories and went on the lecture circuit to rally audiences to the cause. William Wilberforce, an influential member of Parliament, translated the antislavery sentiment into legislative initiatives. The first of these was defeated by pro-slavery opponents in 1791. Petition drives increased, with nearly 400,000 signatories in 1792. At this same time, the Danish government announced that it would abolish its own slave trade within ten years.

In France, the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 and the Saint Domingue slave revolt of 1791 made it expedient for the French antislavery association, the Amis des noirs, to focus on mulatto rights. In 1794, the French Convention ratified the republican commissioners' offer of freedom to slaves who would fight against the royalists in Saint Domingue, and they extended it as a universal emancipation to slaves in all other colonies still under French control. However, Napoleon's forceful reimposition of slavery to the Caribbean colonies in 1802 precipitated Haitian independence and postponed French abolition until 1848.

The French and Haitian revolutions proved a setback to the British abolitionist movement, as conservative forces asserted that the popular classes were incapable of self-rule. It was not until 1808 that the Atlantic slave trade was formally abolished by Britain and the United States, with Britain policing the seas in an attempt to prevent Spanish and Portuguese trade to the Caribbean and Central and South America. It would take another thirty years for Britain's abolitionists to eliminate slavery within its remaining colonies (for example, Jamaica and Barbados), and not until 1888 was slavery abolished within the last American state, Brazil.

Though slavery was officially abolished in the Americas in the nineteenth century, it expanded in some parts of Africa as a direct result of Euro-American abolition. Slavery and related forms of coerced labor still exist today in many countries of the world. Women and children are especially vulnerable.

See also Africa ; Equality and Inequality ; Industry ; Laborers ; Race, Theories of ; Serfdom ; Servants .


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Sue Peabody

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Slave Trade


SLAVE TRADE. The widespread enslavement of diverse peoples for economic and political gain has played a fundamental role throughout human history in the development of nations. Ancient Greek and Roman societies operated by using slave labor, as did many European countries in the modern period. As early as the Middle Ages, Mediterranean cities were supplied with "Moorish" black slaves from Muslim countries in North Africa. By comparison, the "slave trade" is a term which has grown to be associated specifically with the "transatlantic" or "triangular" trade that spanned four centuries (roughly between 1518 and 1865), involved three continents (Europe, Africa, and the Americas), and was responsible for human suffering on an unprecedented scale.

Slavery Comes to the New World

African slaves were first brought to the New World shortly after its discovery by Christopher Columbus—legend has it that one slave was included in his original crew—and they could be found on Hispaniola, site of present-day Haiti, as early as 1501. Upon his arrival in the Bahamas, Columbus himself captured seven of the natives for their "education" on his return to Spain. However, the slave trade proper only began in 1518, when the first black cargo direct from Africa landed in the West Indies. The importation of black slaves to work in the Americas was the inspiration of the Spanish bishop, Bartolomé de Las Casas, whose support of black slavery was motivated by "humanitarian" concerns. He argued that the enslavement of Africans and even of some whites—proving that in the early period slavery did not operate according to exclusive racial demarcations—would save the indigenous Amerindian populations, which were not only dying out but engaging in large-scale resistance as they opposed their excessively harsh conditions. As a result, Charles V, then king of Spain, agreed to the asiento or slave trading license (1513), which later represented the most coveted prize in European wars as it gave to those who possessed it a monopoly in slave trafficking.

The widespread expansion of the oceanic slave trade can be attributed to the enormous labor demanded by sugarcane, one of the first and most successful agricultural

crops to be cultivated by slaves. The earliest lucrative Spanish sugar plantations were in the Caribbean and West Indies on the islands of Haiti, Cuba, and Jamaica, while Portugal controlled large areas of Brazil. However, Spanish and Portuguese domination of the trade was soon challenged by other Europeans, including the British. One of their earliest adventurers, Sir John Hawkins, undertook his first voyage between 1562 and 1563, and as a direct consequence of his gains was knighted by Elizabeth I. By the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the Dutch had also secured prominence by founding the Dutch West India Company, taking control of northern Brazil, and conquering the slave-holding fort of Elmina on the West African coast. Among Britain's major slave-trading successes was Barbados (and later Jamaica, seized from Spain), upon which sugar was cultivated by Africans imported by the Royal African Company, founded in 1672 to protect a British monopoly in the trade. Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Britain's transatlantic slaveholding empire was unrivaled. By using vessels that embarked from the ports of Liverpool, Bristol, and London, Britain traded slaves from diverse areas of the African continent: from Senegambia south to the Gambia River as well as within Sierra Leone (later a settlement of British missionaries), the Gold Coast, the Bight of Benin, and West-Central Africa. The main African tribes associated with the slave trade were the Ibo, Mandingo, Ashanti, Yoruba, and Ewe—and each responded very differently, with various consequences, to white processes of enslavement.

Height and Decline of the Slave Trade

According to Philip Curtin, a recent statistician of the "transatlantic" slave trade, the eighteenth century both represented the height of the trade and also marked the beginnings of its decline. As far as the practice of negotiations between African and European sellers and buyers was concerned, the trade was made possible by "middlemen." These were usually mixed-race in origin or lower-class whites, who traveled deep into the interior and bartered with local African peoples. The sale of weapons in exchange for slaves represented the preferred commodity of Africans, as these were needed to maintain the trade and to protect their communities from raids and incursions by illegal traders and kidnappers (many of them European). The slave trade stimulated divisions within Africa as European rivalry encouraged various nations to enslave, kidnap, or wage war on each other while—as part of its more prolonged legacy—it devastated indigenous populations and economic structures. From a European point of view, it greatly stimulated national wealth and laid the foundations for modern capitalism as, in particular, the financial infrastructures required by the slave trade inaugurated new systems of banking and insurance.

Throughout the period, the slave trade remained closely linked to advances in the sugar plantation system as, for example, major production areas were transferred from offshore African islands to northeastern Brazil by the mid-sixteenth century. As the arrival of the first Africans in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619 attests, slave populations working tobacco crops in the British colonies of Virginia and Maryland, as well as rice plantations in the Carolinas of mainland North America, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, could only be sustained by the transatlantic slave trade.

The major reasons for the need of a trade in slaves on such a scale can be traced to the much smaller populations of the Americas in comparison with those of the Old World. For white immigrants (including paupers, criminals, and some kidnapped children) who arrived in the seventeenth and eighteenth century as indentured servants, the conditions were so harsh that they were unable, and in many cases refused, to fulfill the existing labor market; they frequently opposed the renewal of their contracts or simply died out.

While the first Africans who were imported to the Americas were described somewhat euphemistically as "apprentices for life," as labor demands increased and racist rhetoric became more deeply entrenched in everyday life,

they acquired an unambiguous "chattel" status. It was not long before slavery in the Americas operated according to, and was legitimated by, white racist discourses of "natural black inferiority." Proponents of slavery ideology, including such prominent nineteenth-century figures as John C. Calhoun and even Thomas Jefferson, argued that slavery (or the "peculiar institution," as it became known in North America) served a "civilizing" and "christianizing" process (the Portuguese were well known for the baptism of their slaves) by educating the "heathen" and "barbarous" African while instilling both discipline and a religious sensibility. Thus, Europeans and Euro-Americans did not try to impose slavery on the poor, on victims of war, or on those imprisoned for crimes in their own continent. Instead, they undertook extremely expensive and hazardous journeys in merchant ships to buy peoples from the African coast.

In addition to their being subject to racist definitions of cultural differences, Africans were selected for other reasons, including the widespread belief that they were better able to withstand the climate and disease; however, it is unlikely that many Africans outlived Europeans in plantation areas of the Americas. One historian has commented perceptively that the "African slave trade appears rooted as much in cultural perceptions and social norms as in economic and demographic imperatives."

The slave trade's contribution to European and American understanding of Africans as "property" with "no rights that they were bound to respect" left behind a legacy that has continued well into the twentieth century, arguably undergirding the racial politics of the civil rights movement in North America and continuing to shape the contemporary debates concerning reparations for slavery. Despite early problems, the slave trade was enormously financially successful: Britain's colonial status was fueled by wealth from tobacco and sugar plantations in both the West Indies and mainland North America as ports in London, Liverpool, and Bristol prospered, ushering in a modern age dominated by a "plantocracy" of elite slave owners or "absentee" landlords with "interests" (rarely specified) abroad. The later transatlantic slave trade complemented earlier trans-Saharan practices, which had traded primarily in men, by its demographic diversity. European traders preferred male slaves; however, despite popular belief, on the slave ships men were outnumbered by women and children, who were exported in unprecedented numbers and to such an extent that, by the end of the period, the largest numbers of slaves were children. The numbers of human beings involved are staggering: both when considered by themselves and even more so when placed within a context of earlier slave-trading practices. For example, over the course of some twelve centuries, three and a half to four million slaves crossed the Sahara in the trans-Saharan trade of Arabic origins. However, in the transatlantic trade, which lasted less than half that time, a "conservative estimate" (which significantly neglects to consider the recent statistics of Afrocentric historians) suggests that as many as twelve million (ten and a half million surviving) were transported out of Africa between the mid-fourteenth century and 1867, when a final slave ship arrived in Cuba with its human cargo (it is likely that the last cargoes landed as lately as 1880).

Statistics are almost impossible to verify but research suggests that, by the early nineteenth century, for every European who crossed the Atlantic, two Africans were exported. Approximately one-half of the total number of Africans shipped in the eighteenth century, and onequarter in the nineteenth, was sent to the Americas. A little-discussed subject concerns the mortality rate among slaves (for which statistics are not known) who died in the African interior. By far the greatest "bulk" of captives for sale had traveled far across the continent, in some cases as many as "a thousand miles," previous to their departure at the Atlantic coast.

European Character and Intervention

The slave trade was primarily European in character, as among those profiting in the trade were Spain, Portugal, Britain, France, and Holland; they were later seconded by Swedish, Danish, and North American participants. Much earlier—in the thirteenth century—Italy had also played an important role in the human trade; bronze sculptures dating from the medieval period and representing shackled Africans can still be found in Venice. While slavery did exist in Africa before 1400 (slaves were traded largely as the result of internal raids and wars for "domestic" purposes), European intervention changed the face of indigenous slavery as it became systematized and organized to a previously unimaginable extent. The slave trade was

operated internationally and combined the economic interests of the Americas, Britain, and continental Europe as it simultaneously exacerbated and contributed to the impoverishment of western Africa. European dominance in the slave trade also encouraged slavery within Africa itself—especially the enslavement of women—and fomented dissensions across and within different African societies while stimulating war and kidnapping between various traders as they represented conflicting national interests.

European intervention into African slavery revolutionized existing systems and internal trading patterns as slave ships participated in the "triangular" trade between Europe, Africa, and the Americas. Slave captains took manufactured goods (rum, textiles, weapons) to Africa, which they exchanged for slaves whom they then sold in the Americas in return for raw materials such as sugar, tobacco, and later cotton, which they then brought back to Europe, completing the triangle. In the early period of the slave trade, Europeans built medieval forts such as Elmina Castle, a Portuguese stronghold that later fell to the British and that survived as a tourist attraction until the twenty-first century. These castles functioned as "barracoons" where slaves were held under horrendous conditions until they were loaded on ships bound for the Americas. Initially Europeans took slaves to the Iberian Peninsula, Madeira, the Canaries, and São Tomé; they were moved from one part of the African coast to the other before they were transported to the Americas. Throughout a four-hundred-year period, slaves were exported from western Africa to Brazil, the Caribbean Islands, Greater Antilles, and North America. Regardless of the fluctuations in trading routes and agreements throughout this period, one factor remained constant: the cost of slaves increased and profits soared.

What was the likely destination for slaves from Africa who made the transatlantic voyage? Brazil and the Caribbean took as much as 90 percent of the slaves—where upon arrival they underwent a process of "seasoning," which even fewer survived—while the American colonies took as little as 8 percent. Within the Caribbean and Central America, Spain dominated the early trade, while Britain, due to its improvements in maritime technology, gained prominence between the mid-seventeenth and mid-eighteenth centuries. Following the abolition of the slave trade by Britain and the United States in 1807 (full emancipation was not to be awarded in the British colonies until 1834, while the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolished slavery much later, in 1863), nine-tenths of slaves were taken to Cuba and Brazil. After the above legislation, many illegal voyages took place with paradoxically greater human suffering, as they were forced to operate clandestinely. By far the most important reason for exporting slaves was sugar cultivation; by comparison, tobacco, rice, coffee growing, and mining for precious metals accounted for less than 20 percent of Africans.

Despite popular opinion, the "booming" production of cotton depended not on the transatlantic slave trade

but on the nineteenth-century internal slave trade, which operated from east to west, north to south, and which was made possible only by an expanding black population. This trade brought with it its own horrors, including not only the separation of slave families and suffering under brutal conditions on remote plantations, but also the kidnapping of free blacks into slavery and the wholesale exploitation of the black female slave for "breeding" purposes. In 1790, there were approximately 697,897 slaves in North America as compared to 3,953,760 in 1860, all of whom were indigenous rather than imported.

Slave Resistance and the Abolitionist Movement

Throughout the years of slavery in the Americas, slave resistance played a fundamental role and contributed to the abolition both of the slave trade and slavery as an institution. The earliest recorded slave uprising took place in 1494 as slaves protested Columbus's policy of enslavement in the Caribbean. The methods of slave rebellion were various and ranged from day-to-day resistance (sabotage of machinery, dissembling to avoid work) to escapes involving large numbers of runaways and the establishment of maroon communities. Slaves on the mainland also spearheaded organized revolts such as those led by the black preachers Denmark Vesey (North Carolina, 1822) and Nat Turner (Virginia, 1831). Contrary to earlier scholarship documenting the slave trade, certain areas of the Americas repeatedly drew on particular parts of Africa, so that many more African cultural and social practices have survived than had been previously supposed.

Often compared by historians to the Holocaust, the transatlantic slave trade and the extent to which it legitimized and endorsed the mass enforced migration of enslaved peoples nevertheless remains unparalleled in human history. The full extent of the horrors of the "Middle Passage," by which the transportation of slaves from Africa to the Americas is known, will forever remain insufficiently realized or understood. However, it can be said that this journey was characterized, as a minimum, by annual average losses of between 10 and 20 percent during the six-to-fourteen-week voyage. These deaths were due to dehydration from gastrointestinal disease (known as the "bloody flux") caused by unhygienic conditions in slave ship holds, over-tight "packing" as the slaves were placed close together like "books upon a shelf," and epidemics of smallpox. Life aboard the slave ships was relentlessly oppressive: slaves were chained together, unable to exercise, fed from communal bowls, and provided with minimal sanitation. They suffered from the whites' brutality (including severe whippings and the rape of slave women), starvation in some cases (as supplies ran out), disease, and severe psychological trauma (many of them remained chained throughout the journey to those who had died).

The slave-trader-turned-abolitionist-and-preacher, John Newton, as well as the former slave, Olaudah Equiano, provide moving testimony concerning its perpetual terrors during the eighteenth century and after in their written accounts of the slave trade. John Newton described this "unhappy and disgraceful" trade as contradictory to the "feelings of humanity" and as the "stain of our national character." Captured and placed upon a slave ship, Equiano testified to personal "horror and anguish"; he wrote in 1789: "I saw a multitude of black people of every description chained together, every one of their countenances expressing dejection and sorrow." Each slave ship was designed to hold an average of 330 slaves, although this number was regularly doubled. This is made clear in the notorious case of the Liverpool slaver, the Brookes, which is known to have carried as many as 609 slaves on a single voyage. In the eighteenth century, British abolitionist Thomas Clarkson took a plan of this ship (including the illustrations of how the slaves were to be "stowed") to Paris, where a small model was made of it which was used to convert European opinion to antislavery activism. Faced with these conditions and nothing to lose, slave resistance aboard ships was frequent: they refused to eat so that implements had to be devised for force-feeding; they committed suicide in the mythical hope of their soul being freed upon death so that they could "return to Africa" (captains cut off their heads and returned their headless bodies to Africa as proof to others that even in death they were enslaved); and they led slave revolts against the white crews—some of which were successful, including those aboard the Amistad (1839) and the Creole (1841). Resistance was hardly an issue, however, in one of the most notorious examples of cruelty toward slaves ever recorded, which happened aboard the Liverpool-owned slave ship the Zong (1783). The slave captain decided that, in view of their unhealthy status, it would be more profitable to throw his 131 slaves overboard and submit an insurance claim for their loss than to treat them.

The slaves' prospects hardly improved upon their arrival in the Americas; as many as one-third of Africans died within four years of landing, and few survived the "seasoning" process, as they were unable to adjust to the vast changes in climate, culture, and living conditions. In addition to the slaves placed in the holds, large numbers occupied the slightly more fortunate position of working aboard ships as sailors, interpreters, bookkeepers, and cooks (the latter, with their proximity to knives, are historically related to slave revolts).

Paradoxically, however, it was the suffering of white crews—condemned by contemporaries as the "rapid loss of seamen"—which marked the beginning of the campaign for the abolition of the slave trade. While this is a subject for ongoing debate, it seems clear that the slave trade did not die out solely due to economic losses but as a direct result of a number of forces, not least of which included the escalating acts of successful slave resistance—most notably the Haitian Revolution (1794), as well as the American, British, and French abolitionist movements. In its enduring effects for British, French, and Dutch economies, among others, the European-engineered slave trade—described by one historian as a "corrosive commercial and human virus"—encouraged the expansion of merchant shipping, provided a market for goods produced by new industries, and supplied the capital to fund the British Industrial Revolution. Thus, steel products from Sheffield, England, for example, such as hoes and knives, equipped slaves with tools for their labor on plantations in the Americas. By comparison, following the abolition of the slave trade, almost all African regions that had participated in the trade experienced severe financial losses, which continued to have a profound and nefarious impact upon the economic stability of the continent well into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Despite all the efforts of European and North American slave traders to suppress slave culture, enslaved Africans in the Americas nonetheless had the final word, as they developed vast networks across communities. These resulted in rich "creole" cultures and languages as well as an inspirational legacy of art, music, literature, and history the full extent of which remains to be explored.


Curtin, Philip D. The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969.

Engerman, Stanley, Seymour Drescher, and Robert Paquette, eds. Oxford Readers: Slavery. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano Written by Himself. 1789. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 1995.

Mannix, Daniel P., and Malcolm Cowley. Black Cargoes: A History of the Atlantic Slave Trade 1518–1865. New York: Viking, 1962.

Newton, John. Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade. London: J. Buckland and J. Johnson, 1788.

Rawley, James A. The Transatlantic Slave Trade: A History. New York: Norton, 1981.

Walvin, James. Black Ivory: A History of British Slavery. London: Fontana, 1992.

Wood, Marcus. Blind Memory: Visual Representations of Slavery in England and America, 1780–1865. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 2000.


See alsoMiddle Passage ; andvol. 9:Voyages of the Slaver St. John ; Spanish Colonial Official's Account of Triangular Trade with England .

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Slave Trade

Slave Trade





The history of most modern societies has involved, in some form or fashion, the use of coerced labor, including the institution of slavery and the exploitation of slave labor. And where slavery existeddefined as a system in which the production process is carried out by human beings owned by other human beingsa mechanism for supplying slaves was necessary. This mechanism is called the slave trade. While slavery and the slave trade as concepts and as practices have an ancient pedigree and global itineraries, their relationship to the history, practices, and realities of modern societies continues to stir considerable concern and controversy. The tools of historians must be combined with tools and insights from economics, political science, and other social sciences to explore how empirical data and theoretical debates have animated our understanding of the slave trades global history, especially the transatlantic slave trade.

Slavery was commonplace in many ancient societies, including Greece, Rome, and Egypt. Slaves were forced to work in almost all sectorsagriculture, mining, domestic service, and even as gladiators and soldiers. Many of these slaves were captured in war, but formal mechanisms to supply slaves were also well established. Rome drew its slaves from all over its expanding empire, for example, and at one point there were as many slaves as there were Roman citizens. The slave trade was also a prominent feature of medieval societies, with Africans being enslaved and shipped to the Muslim world across the Sahara, the Red Sea, and the Indian Ocean. Scholars have estimated that as many as 19 million people from sub-Saharan Africa were shipped to the Muslim world between 650 and 1890.

Until the fifteenth century, the major destination for the slave trade was the Muslim world, with slaves coming from Africa and from Europe. In fact, the word slave is derived from the word slav, the name for a large ethnic and linguistic group residing in eastern and southeastern Europe, including Russians, Ukrainians, Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Bulgarians, and others. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Africa became the major source of slaves, and the international slave trade was dominated by Portugal, reflecting the development of European colonies in the Americas that needed labor. In the seventeenth century, Britain emerged as the largest carrier of slaves.


There have been three waves of estimates regarding the numbers of Africans who were traded as commodities in the slave trade across the Atlantic Ocean. The first wave included estimates ventured by scholars who repeated earlier numbers gleaned mainly from popular writing and not based on systematic analysisW. E. B. Du Boiss approximation of 100,000,000 Africans lost to the slave trade was a prime example. Such estimates were the main target of Phillip Curtins The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census (1969), one of the pioneering studies seeking to provide more accurate numbers. The second wave of estimates, to which Curtin contributed, was based on more extensive compilation and synthesis of available data and estimates using statistical inferences based on population changes in importing countries, but not on research into original sources. Curtin provided an estimate of 9,566,100 Africans between 1451 and 1870, concluding provocatively that it was unlikely that new scholarship would alter his estimate by a number greater than 10 percent. Noel Deerrs The History of Sugar (1949-1950) was an earlier representative of this tradition extended but not initiated by Curtins census. The major impact of Curtins work was not its originality but its method, comprehensiveness, and timing, appearing at a time when concerns over race and race relations were mounting, and drastically lower estimates of the number of Africans traded were bound to provoke controversy.

Joseph Inikori (1976, 1982) provided one of the earliest critiques of these census efforts. He pointed to his own research and synthesized the work of other scholars as the basis for concluding that Curtins estimate required a 40 percent upward adjustment. Most important was his discovery of new shipping data that provided more accurate numbers of slaves carried. Beyond confirming that all such estimates are far from complete or final, the continuing debate underscores the centrality of intellectual history in exploring heated disagreements in historical interpretation where perspectives are shaped by the dynamics of color, class, nationality, morality, disciplinary paradigms, ideological orientations, and claims about objectivity.

A third wave is represented by scholars who have compiled the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database (TSTD), sponsored by Harvard Universitys Du Bois Institute and published in 1999. With data on more than 27,000 slave voyages, TSTD concluded that 11,062,000 Africans were transported from Africa between 1519 and 1867, with 9.6 million landing in the Americas, figures not substantially different from Curtins. More than half were carried between 1700 and 1799, and about 30 percent after the abolition of the slave trade by Great Britain and the United States in 1807. Beginning with Prince Henrys traders in 1441, Portugal was the major carrier in the trade involving Africans, and 75 percent of all slaves were carried by the Portuguese in the first 150 years of the trade. Overall, however, British citizens transported 46 percent of all Africans, followed by the Portuguese (29.1%), France (13.2%), Spain (4.8%), the Netherlands (4.7%), and Denmark (1%). Only 2.5 percent of all slaves were transported by slave merchants based in the United States and British Caribbean. Up until 1820, more Africans were transported across the Atlantic than Europeans8.4 million Africans to 2.4 million Europeans.

TSTD enables more detailed attention to the geographical distribution of the origins and destinations of enslaved Africans and the resulting demographic and cultural shape of the diaspora in which Africans were dispersed or scattered. Almost 45 percent of all slaves came from the West African coast that is today Ghana, Togo, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Benin, and parts of Nigeria, for example. As destinations, 41 percent of enslaved Africans were shipped to present-day Brazil, 27 percent to British America, 11 percent to French territories, and 13 percent to Spanish territories. And there was method in the madness, with European slave traders and slave-purchasing areas in the Americas showing preference for Africans from particular regions (e.g., rice-growing South Carolina preferred slaves from Gambia and rice-growing regions of West Africa).

There have also been substantial updates to TSTD, bearing out earlier and unwelcome insistence that all such estimates were only provisional. A new revised TSTD now includes over 34,000 slaving voyages. It recognizes major gaps in the 1999 database, especially with regard to the early history of the slave trade and that of Brazil, the largest importing nation. It adds 7,000 new voyages and provides additional information on more than 10,000 voyages in the 1999 database.


Political economy generally denotes an approach that focuses on the relationship of economic activitytrade and commerce as well as productionand their interrelationships with the activities of government, politics, and the broader society. To paraphrase Adam Smiths 1776 title for his pioneering volume in this tradition, the slave trade and slaverys contribution to the wealth [and poverty] of nations was critical. This line of thinking was continued in the next century by Karl Marx, who pondered in Vol. 1 of Capital, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of Black skins as an initial source for early investment in capitalist production. The approach is also closely related to Walter Rodneys How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (1974) and similar discussions by such scholars as J. M. Blaut (1992, p. 206) of the role played by colonialism in industrial production.

Meeting the need for labor in the Americas was essential if European nations were to realize the goals of mercantilismfavorable trade balance, increased amounts of precious metals, and the like. Therefore, beyond the issue of how many Africans were taken from the continent into slavery in the Americasespecially the horrendous treatment during the middle passage between Africa and the Americasand who played what role in enslaving them, is the need to understand the contribution of African labor to wealth production in the various nations that were carriers of slaves and beneficiaries from the economic productivity of slave labor.

Expectedly, sharp differences have emerged as well over this area, generally termed profitability of the slave trade, an assessment dependent in part on calculations of the number of slaves traded. For example, Roger Anstey (1975) suggested 9.6 percent as the rate of profit in the British slave trade between 1761 and 1897, calculating profits by using data on the number of slaves landed, slave prices, and other data on cost and revenue. Inikori (1976) provided evidence pointing to underestimations in the number of slaves landed in the West Indies and the average price for which slaves were sold. William Darity (1985) used these corrected figures to demonstrate a plausible increase in the rate of profits from 9.6 percent to 30.8 percent, a figure consistent with the conclusion of Eric Williams in Capitalism and Slavery (1944).

Efforts to calculate the contribution of the slave trade to economic development became more controversial when prominent scholars concluded that profits from the slave trade were not large enough to make a significant contribution to British industrialization, a view that diverged from the long-held conventional wisdom about the impact of what had been called the triangular trade (Anstey 1975; Engerman 1972; Davis 1984, p. 73). Darity (1990), Barbara Solow (1991), and others highlighted the impact that different definitions, theoretical assumptions and economic models can have in calculating rates of profits, concluding that the slave trade was a relatively important source of industrial capital. Moreover, Ronald Bailey (1986, 1990) has given the term slave(ry) tradeactivities related both to the slave trade and slavery and closer to the multiplier effect concept used by some economistsas the source of profits that should be utilized in calculating contributions to industrialization and not just profits from buying and selling slaves. Substituting profits from the Caribbean trade in place of profits solely from the sale of slaves, he concluded that enough profits could have been generated to finance the British industrial revolution several times over. (As an additional example, the 7,000 new voyages added to the 1999 TSTD database discussed above requires a recalculation of the slave trades impact on the expansion of the ship-building and shipping industry.)

In this approach, this contribution from the slave(ry) trade would include the important role and economic significance of agricultural crops produced by slave labor in the colonies, including sugar, tobacco, rice, coffee, and cotton, as well as profits generated in related shipping, banking and insurance, and manufacturing, a central thesis in Williamss Capitalism and Slavery and argued by Inikori (2002). Importantly, this approach facilitates a sharper focus on the role of slavery and the slave trade in U.S. history, an emphasis admirably treated, for example, by Du Bois (1896) and in the chapter on Black Merchandise in Lorenzo Greenes The Negro in Colonial New England (1942).


Ships in the transatlantic slave trade rarely carried Europeans and were rarely owned and operated by Africans. This color/race and class dynamic helps to explain why the controversy over the slave trade provokes sharp debates over morality and ethics. It is so potent because modern capitalist nations, which early prohibited the enslavement of Europeans, were the worlds leaders in the enslavement and trade of Africans, a legacy related to both poverty and racism that hovers over world history and the history of many nations and peoples. Even more perplexing, the slave trade and slavery were consolidated and expanded at the same time as the rise of the progressive transatlantic philosophical movement called the Enlightenment in the late eighteenth century, and such practices were enshrined and extended, not abolished, by the American Revolution and the U.S. Constitution. Edmund S. Morgan, a scholar of early America, was provoked to probe the paradoxical marriage of convenience he called American slavery/American freedom.

Ideas about abolition surfaced as early as the late 1600s with the work of the Quakers and other religious groups, but it was not until 1807 that legislation to end the slave trade was enacted in Great Britain and in the United States. It was another eighty years before such practices were finally outlawed by all of the nations whose citizens had been involved as slavers and beneficiaries of slavery. Scholarly debates regarding the root causes of abolition and the slow unfolding of its success have been as intense as those regarding the causes and consequences of slavery and the slave trade, with some scholars emphasizing humanitarian motives and others stressing economic and political dynamics. That the system of U.S. slavery that fueled the transatlantic slave trade necessitated for its abolition a civil war resulting in the deaths of more than 620,000 people will guarantee that discussion and debate will continue in the decades to come.

Two hundred years after the 1807 abolition of the slave trade in Great Britain and the implementation of a similar measure in the U.S. Constitution, the slave trade continues to rest uncomfortably in scholarship and in social memory. In recent times, the controversy has taken the form of calls for and debates over apologies for participation in the slave trade and slavery, and over the payment of some form of reparations similar to what was provided to Jews and other victims of the Holocaust and to U.S. citizens of Japanese ancestry incarcerated in World War II camps. And there are growing contemporary movements to grapple with new forms of slavery, poverty, and economic coercion in a deepening globalized economy. Research, thinking, and writing about the history of the slave trade should provide a solid foundation for understanding and acting in the present and future.

SEE ALSO Caribbean, The; Cotton Industry; Du Bois, W. E. B.; Engerman, Stanley; Holocaust, The; Immigrants to North America; Incarceration, Japanese American; Inikori, Joseph; James, C. L. R.; Jews; Marx, Karl; Mercantilism; Plantation; Race; Racism; Rodney, Walter; Roma, The; Slave-Gun Cycle; Slavery; Slavery Industry; Smith, Adam; Sugar Industry; White Supremacy; Williams, Eric; World War II


Anstey, Roger. 1975. The Atlantic Slave Trade and British Abolition, 1760-1810. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press.

Bailey, Ronald W. 1986. Africa, the Slave Trade, and the Rise of Industrial Capitalism in Europe and the United States: A Historiographic Review. American History: A Bibliographic Review 2: 1-91.

Bailey, Ronald W. 1990. The Slave(ry) Trade and the Development of Capitalism in the United States: The Textile Industry in New England. Social Science History 14 (3): 373-414; reprinted in Stanley Engerman and Joseph Inikori. The Atlantic Slave Trade: Effects on Economics, Societies, and Peoples in Africa, the Americas, and Europe. Durham, NC, and London: Duke University Press, 1992.

Blaut, J. M. 1992. The Colonizers Model of the World: Geographical Diffusionism and Eurocentric History. New York: Guilford.

Curtin, Phillip. 1969. The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Darity, William, Jr. 1985. The Numbers Game and the Profitability of the British Trade in Slaves. Journal of Economic History 45 (3): 693-703.

Darity, William, Jr. 1990. British Industry and the West Indies Plantations. Social Science History 14 (1): 117-149.

Davis, David Brion. 1984. Slavery and Human Progress. New York: Oxford University Press.

Deerr, Noel. 1949-1950. The History of Sugar. 2 vols. London: Chapman and Hall.

Drake, St. Clair. 1987-1990. Black Folk Here and There: An Essay in History and Anthropology. 2 vols. Los Angeles: University of California Center for Afro-American Studies.

Du Bois, W. E. B. 1896 [1999]. Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America. Mineola, NY: Dover.

Eltis, David. 2001. The Volume and Structure of the Transatlantic Slave Trade: A Reassessment. William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Ser., 58: 17-46.

Eltis, David, Stephen D. Behrendt, David Richardson, and Herbert S. Klein. 1999. The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade: A Database on CD-ROM. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press. The revised database, released February 2007, was sponsored by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and is accessible at

Engerman, Stanley. 1972. The Slave Trade and British Capital Formation in the Eighteenth Century: A Comment on the Williams Thesis. Business History Review 46: 430-443.

Greene, Lorenzo. 1942. The Negro in Colonial New England, 1620-1776. New York: Columbia University Press.

Inikori, Joseph. 1976. Measuring the Atlantic Slave Trade: An Assessment of Curtin and Anstey. Journal of African History 17: 197-223.

Inikori, Joseph, ed. 1982. Forced Migration : The Impact of the Export Slave Trade on African Societies. New York: Africana Publishing.

Inikori, Joseph. 2002. Africans and the Industrial Revolution in England: A Study in International Trade and Economic Development. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Rodney, Walter. 1974. How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. Washington, DC: Howard University Press.

Solow, Barbara, ed. 1991. Slavery and the Rise of the Atlantic System. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press.

Thomas, Hugh. 1997. The Slave Trade: The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1440-1870. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Williams, Eric. 1944. Capitalism and Slavery. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Ronald W. Bailey

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Slave Trade


The buying and selling of humans for servitude was an old tradition in the Middle East as in many other parts of the world.

Since antiquity, slavery was an integral part of the various societies that inhabited the Middle East. Men, women, and children were enslaved within these lands or imported into them from neighboring and faraway regions. From the early sixteenth to the early twentieth centuries, the Middle East was part of the Ottoman Empire, in which slavery was legal and the slave trade active. The traffic in slaves was substantially reduced toward the end of the nineteenth century, and slavery died out in most of the Middle East during the first decade of the twentieth. In certain parts of Arabia, the practice lingered on well into the second half of this century, and various forms of slavery continue to exist even today.

"Slavery" in Middle Easternand othersocieties can be difficult to define. Some attempts to answer the question "who is a slave?" have resulted in "one whose labor is controlled and whose freedom is withheld," a person "in a state of legal and actual servility or [who is] of slave origins," or a "natally alienated and generally dishonored person" under "permanent, violent domination." In Islamic legal terms, slavery grants one person ownership over another person, which means that the owner has rights to the slave's labor, property, and sexuality and that the slave's freedoms are severely restricted. But in sociocultural terms, slavery sometimes meant high social status, or political power, for male slaves in the military and bureaucracy (Mamluks and kuls ) and female slaves in elite harems. Even ordinary domestic slaves were often better fed, clothed, and protected than many free men and women. In any event, slavery was an important, albeit involuntary, channel of recruitment and socialization into the elite and a majorthough forcedmeans of linking into patronage networks.

Slavery gradually became a differentiated and broadly defined concept in many Islamic societies since the introduction of military slaves into the Abbasid Caliphate in the ninth century. In the Ottoman Empire, military-administrative servitude, better known as the kul system, coexisted with other types of slavery: harem (quite different from Western fantasy), domestic, and agricultural (on a rather limited scale). While the latter types of slavery remained much the same until late in the nineteenth century, the kul system underwent profound changes.

From its inception, the kul system was nourished on periodical levies of the unmarried, able-bodied, male children of the sultan's Orthodox Christian subjects, mostly from the Balkans. This child levy was known as the devşirme. The children were reduced to slavery, converted to Islam, and rigorously socialized at the palace school into various government roles, carrying elite status. However, freeborn Muslims gradually entered government service, and the kul system evolved to accommodate this change. Ultimately, the child levy was abandoned during the seventeenth century, the palace school lost its monopoly on the reproduction of military-administrative slaves, and a new, kul -type recruitment-cum-socialization pattern came to prevail.

With the evolution of the kul system, the classification of kuls as slaves was gradually becoming irrelevant. Ottoman officials of kul origins and training held elevated, powerful positions with all rights, privileges, and honors, and cases in which the sultan confiscated their property or took their life became increasingly rare. Whereas kuls and non-kuls were subject to the sultan's "whims" to the same extent, the intimacy and mutual reliance of the master-slave relationship often provided the kul with greater protection than that enjoyed by free officials. Harem women of slave origins were in much the same predicament, playing a major role in the reproduction of the Ottoman elite. Toward the nineteenth century, the servility of persons in the kul /harem category becomes more a symbol of their high status and less a practical or legal disability. All that has led some scholars to question the very use of the term "slaves" for such men and women. In any event, the Hatt-i Serif of Gülhane of 1839 freed government officials from the last vestiges of servility attached to their status.

In the Ottoman Middle East, and with local modifications also in other Muslim societies, there was a continuum of various degrees of servility rather than a dichotomy between slave and free. At one end of that continuum were domestic and agricultural slaves, the "real slaves" in Ottoman society, while at the other were officeholders in the army and bureaucracy, with little to tie them to actual slavery. In between, but close to officeholders and far from domestic and agricultural slaves, came officials of slave origins (kul -type) and then harem ladies of slave origins.

The overwhelming majority of the slaves living in the Middle East during the Ottoman period were female, black, and domestic; they served in menial jobs in households across a broad social spectrum. A smaller number of white female slaves also worked in similar circumstances, as did a number of black and white male slaves. African male slaves were employed in the Red Sea, Persian/Arabian Gulf, and Indian Ocean as pearl divers, oarsmen, and crew members in sailboats, in Arabia as agricultural laborers (in date, coffee, and other plantations) and outdoor servants, and in Egypt as cotton pickers in the 1860s. African men were used as soldiers in scattered instances in Yemen and other parts of Arabia, as in Egypt where the experiment of Muhammad Ali Pasha to recruit Sudanese slave soldiers failed. Kul and harem slaves were a relatively small minority among Middle Eastern slaves in the nineteenth century.

At the time, a fairly steady stream of about eleven thousand to thirteen thousand slaves per year entered the region from central Africa and the Sudan, from western Ethiopia, and from Circassia, Abkhazia, and Georgia. They were brought in by caravan and boat via the Sahara desert routes, the Ethiopian plateau, the Red Sea, the Nile river valley, the Mediterranean, the Persian Gulf, the Black Sea, and the pilgrimage routes to and from Arabia. After raids, sales, and resales, they reached their final destinations in the great urban centers of the Middle East, where they were sold in markets or in private homes of slave dealers.

Whereas slaveholding was still legal at the beginning of the twentieth century, the slave trade into the region had already been prohibited by law for several decades. The traffic in Africans and Caucasians practically died down, although it would pick up from time to time on a small scale. Slavery was gradually being transformed into free forms of service-cum-patronage, such as raising freeborn children (mostly female) in the household, socializing them into lower- or upper-class rolesas talent and need determinedand later marrying them off and setting them up in life. Ottoman elite culture was articulating a negative attitude toward the practice and gradually disengaging from it on moral grounds. This was a significant development, given the fact that slavery enjoyed Islamic legitimacy and wide social acceptance in the Middle East and that, except for cases of cruelty and ill-usage, it was a matter over which no serious moral debate ever arose.

The profound change that occurred was part of a major reform program introduced into the Middle East during the nineteenth century. Much of this happened during the Tanzimat (loosely covering the 1830s to the 1880s), generally regarded as a period of change in many areas of Ottoman life, although it is not certain how deeply the reforms affected the over-whelming majority of the population or even the peripheral groups within the Ottoman elite. Visible changes in the army, the bureaucracy, the economy, law and justice, education, communication, transportation, and public health went along with the reinvigoration of central authority. This was the work of a strongly motivated, Ottoman-centered group of reformers, who implemented their own program and political agenda and were not merely the tools of Western influence. While the government came to possess more efficient means of repression, its reforms also sowed the seeds of political change, giving rise to a strong constitutional movement, although the extent to which Western ideasnot just technology and fashionwere assimilated into Middle Eastern culture is still under debate.

Having abolished slavery by the end of the first third of the nineteenth century, the powers of Europe now turned their zeal to slavery in the Americas. But in the 1840s, the British government and public opinion were already beginning to take an interest in the abolition of slavery in the Ottoman Middle East. Attempts to induce Istanbul to adopt measures to that effect soon proved futile. Insteadand as an alternative method that would ultimately choke slavery for want of supplya major effort was launched to suppress the slave trade into the region. The essence of that long-term British drive was to extract from the Ottomans, on humanitarian grounds, edicts forbidding the trade in Africans and Caucasians. The implementation of such edicts was then carefully monitored by British diplomatic and commercial representatives throughout the Middle East and reported back to London. In turn, London would press Istanbul to enforce the edicts, and so on.

This pattern yielded the prohibition of the slave trade in the Gulf in 1847, the temporary prohibition of the traffic in Circassians and Georgians in 18541855, the general prohibition of the African slave trade in 1857, the Anglo-Egyptian convention for the suppression of the slave trade in 1877, and the Anglo-Ottoman one in 1880. The campaign reached its climax in the Brussels Act against the slave trade, which the Ottoman government signed in 1890. From the mid-1850s onward, Caucasian slavery and slave trade were excluded from the realm of Anglo-Ottoman relations. In that area, the Ottomans initiated some major changes, acting alone and according to their own views.

One of the most important factors that shaped Ottoman policy toward Caucasian slavery was the large number of Circassian refugeesestimates run from 500,000 to 1 millionwho entered Ottoman territory from the mid-1850s to the mid-1860s. That Russian-forced migration contained about 10 percent unfree agricultural population, which put the question of non-African slavery into a different perspective. Increased tensions between refugee owners and slaves, at times causing violence and disturbance of public order, induced the Ottoman government in 1867 to design a special program for slaves who wished to obtain their freedom. Using an Islamic legal device, the government granted the slaves the land they were cultivating in order to purchase manu-mission from their own masters.

In 1882, the authorities moved further in the same method to facilitate the conscription of Circassian and Georgian slaves. Such a step was necessary because only free men could be drafted into the army. Measures were also taken from the mid-1860s onward to restrict the traffic in Circassian and Georgian children, mostly young girls. Thus, by the last decade of the nineteenth century, the trade in Caucasian slaves was considerably reduced. The remaining demand was maintained only by the harems of the imperial family and the households of well-to-do elite members. The imperial harem at the time contained about 400 women in a wide array of household positions quite different from those consigned to them by Western fantasy. Those harems also continued to employ eunuchs, and as late as 1903, the Ottoman family alone owned 194 of them. In the nineteenth century, a perceived decline occurred in their political influence, both as individuals and as a distinct corps in court politics. Whether officially abolished by the 1908 revolution, or only later by the new Turkish republic, Ottoman slavery died piecemeal, not abruptly, with the end of the empire.

Except for the issue of equality for non-Muslims, the call for the abolition of slavery was perhaps the most sensitive and culturally loaded topic processed in the Tanzimat period. Although it was rarely debated in the open, this was a matter of daily and personal concern, for both the public and private spheres of elite life were permeated by slaves on all levels. Faced with British diplomatic pressure to suppress the slave trade into the Middle East and with the zeal of Western abolitionism, Ottoman reformers and thinkers responded on both the political and the ideological planes. However, that response came when slavery was already on the wane, doomed to disappear with other obsolete institutions.

see also mamluks; tanzimat.


Baer, Gabriel. "Slavery and Its Abolition." In Studies in the Social History of Modern Egypt, by Gabriel Baer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969.

Lewis, Bernard. Race and Slavery in the Middle East: An Historical Enquiry. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Peirce, Leslie P. The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Toledano, Ehud R. "The Imperial Eunuchs of Istanbul: From Africa to the Heart of Islam." Middle Eastern Studies 20, no. 3 (1984): 379390.

Toledano, Ehud R. "Ottoman Concepts of Slavery in the Period of Reform (1830s to 1880s)." In Breaking the Chains: Slavery, Bondage and Emancipation in Modern Africa and Asia, edited by Martin A. Klein. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993.

Toledano, Ehud R. The Ottoman Slave Trade and Its Suppression, 18401890. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1982.

Toledano, Ehud R. "Slave Dealers, Women, Pregnancy, and Abortion: The Story of a Circassian Slave-Girl in Mid-Nineteenth-Century Cairo." Slavery and Abolition 2, no. 1 (1980): 5368.

ehud r. toledano

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Slave Mode of Production

Slave Mode of Production





Although one of the least developed Marxist concepts, slave mode or organization of productive relations has spawned rich intellectual debate. There are four major lines of inquiry. Must the number of productive workers be the dominant form of labor? What is the significance of surplus extraction (profit through exploitation) in the organization of production, and how does it define a social formation? Is there one mode of production or several competing social formations at any one time? What was the historical evolution of the slave mode of production?

Although Karl Marxs primary concern was with the historical evolution of capitalism, not pre-capitalist social formations, he occasionally referred to the slave mode of production. The German Ideology identified the first historical form of property as communal, containing within it familial and slave relations (1978, p. 151). The Communist Manifesto recognized three forms of class society: capitalist and proletarian during the bourgeois epoch, lord and serf during feudalism, and master and slave during antiquity (1978, p. 474). The Grundrisse described the second system of historical development as antiquity characterized by dynamic, urban, warlike conditions, with chattel-slave relations (1965, pp. 36, 71-75). Despite these references, Marx provided little conceptual explanation for the origins and nature of slavery. In contrast to his analysis of the conditions of modern capitalism, he gave little attention to the internal dynamic of the slave mode of production and how this mode rises out of past social formations and dissolves under new historical conditions.


Unlike Marx, scholars of antiquity have long debated the nature of classical slavery. According to Moses Finley, slavery was insignificant both temporally and geographically in the Greco-Roman world. The dominant labor force produced under various degrees of unfreedom in a society with different relations of production. The key question, concludes Finley, is whether the relations of production were sufficiently different to preclude the inclusion of such societies within a single social formation in which the slave mode of production was dominant (1991, p. 496). On the one hand, Ellen Meiksins Wood argues that peasant-citizens rather than slaves constituted the productive basis of Athenian democracy and that forms of tenancy, leasing, and management, not slavery, formed the basis for surplus extraction (1988, pp. 64-82). Geoffrey E. M. de Ste. Croix agrees that non-slave producers accounted for the demographic majority during antiquity, but argues that the dominant form of exploitation was slavery because slaves provided the surplus extraction for a wealthy elite. According to Ste. Croix, Marxs concentration on the distinctive feature of society is not the way in which the bulk of the labour of production is done, but how the extraction of surplus from the immediate producer is secured (1981, p. 52). It was slaverys increase in surplus extraction that accounts for the magnificent achievements of Classical civilization (1981, p. 40). Perry Anderson agrees on the importance of slave surplus extraction during antiquity, although he argues that the imperial state played a more important role in organizing the actual process of extraction (1992, pp. 19-22).

Another key question concerns the historical evolution of ancient slavery into new social formations. Marx simply described the movement of progressive epochs in the economic formation of society (1978a, p. 5). In contrast, Ste. Croix explains that slavery as the most efficient form of surplus extraction was transformed once Roman frontiers stabilized and the number of war-supplied slaves trailed off. The consequence was increased slave-breeding as landowners sought to maintain their labor force. The crucial factor was female slave reproduction over slave production. To make up for the lost surplus, landowners extended exploitation to hitherto free laborers, with the result of the emergence of a uniform class of coloni whose rate of exploitation was down, but volume had expanded. Thus, the ancient world was destroyed by a social crisis from within and finished off by the so-called barbarians from without (1991, p. 503). Anderson agrees on the internal social crisis but pays equal attention to external factors. The dual predecessors of the feudal mode of production, he argues, were the decomposing slave mode of production on whose foundations the whole enormous edifice of the Roman Empire had once been constructed, and the distended and deformed primitive modes of production of the Germanic invaders (1974, pp. 18-19).


Although Marxs own historical moment was dominated by the capitalist mode of production, slavery was not a peculiar institution in the mid-nineteenth century. When Marx was forty-two years old in 1860, there were about six million enslaved Africans in the New World, two-thirds of whom were imprisoned in the American South. Numerous scholars have debated this duality. Eugene Genovese argues that southern slavery was in conflict with capitalism and created a powerful and remarkable social class (1967, pp. 34). In contrast, John Blassingame has focused upon slave non-productive relations, especially communal and cultural formations. Other scholars insist on the centrality of productive relations. Ira Berlin and Philip Morgan insist that work engaged most slaves, most of the time (1993, p. 1). Still others insist on the exploitative nature of slavery and the role of surplus extraction. Eric Williams argued that slavery built up capitalism, while capitalism destroyed slavery. Robin Blackburn has recently argued that the profits from colonial slaverys surplus extractionwhat he dubs extended primitive accumulationfueled Britains remarkable industrial takeoff. The passage from pre-modern to modern society was not that of the classic Marxist transformation of agrarian property relations, but rather exchanges with the slave plantations helped British capitalism to make a breakthrough to industrialism and global hegemony ahead of its rivals (1997, p. 572). Unlike economic arguments for the shift from antiquity to feudalism, political explanations for passages from slavery to modernity, especially slave revolts in the New World, have been persuasively made by W. E. B. Du Bois, C. L. R. James, Robin Blackburn, and others.


The debates on slave surplus extraction, competing social formations, and historical evolution have been extended to Asia and Africa. Walter Rodney argues that there was no epoch of slavery in pre-fifteenth-century Africa because of the absence of perpetual exploitation. He prefers the notion of competing social formations to one mode of production with pre-colonial Africa in transition from communal agriculture to feudalism (1982, p. 38). Claude Meillassoux agrees that the absence of perpetual relations of exploitation and the exploiting class ensured there was no system of slavery in Africa and that there were several social formations (1991, pp. 36, 235). But he goes further. Slavery was not only a relationship of production, but also a mode of reproduction (1991, p. 324). In contrast to Ste. Croixs argument for antiquity, this reproductive slavery had little to do with procreation and much more to do with the economy of theft through war, abduction, and brigandage (1991, pp. 76, 92). Wars of capture and markets, Meillassoux argues, had their counterpart in the sterility of the women slaves who, despite their sex and their numbers, were deprived of reproductive functions (1991, pp. 85, 278). Although John Thornton does not subscribe to Marxist concepts such as mode of production and surplus extraction, he does insist on the centrality of slavery to the continents historical development, and his argument has been quite influential. Specifically, ownership or control of labor (in contrast to land ownership in feudal Europe) was the dominant principle of property relations in African societies, and slavery was rooted in deep-seated legal and institutional structures of African societies (1998, p. 74). This view has been correctly criticized for downplaying the qualitative change wrought by the advent of the Atlantic slave trade.

Returning to the lines of inquiry above, there are some key points. The number of productive workers does not have to be dominant. This was as true of slaves in antiquity as of slaves in the New World. Surplus extraction is critical to particular social formations.

Slaves in antiquity and the New World helped build magnificent civilizations. Slavery is a modern as well as an ancient social formation. Kevin Bales counts twenty-seven million slaves today operating as part of the global economy (1999, p. 9). Slavery plays a role in the historical evolution of social formations in terms of both reproduction and production. There is no one passage from slavery into other social formations.

SEE ALSO Anderson, Perry; Capitalist Mode of Production; Conjunctures, Transitional; Du Bois, W. E. B.; Feudal Mode of Production; James, C. L. R.; Labor, Surplus: Marxist and Radical Economics; Marx, Karl; Marxism; Mode of Production; Surplus


Anderson, Perry. 1974. Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism. London: NLB.

Anderson, Perry. 1992. Geoffrey de Ste Croix and the Ancient World. In A Zone of Engagement, 1-24. London and New York: Verso.

Bales, Kevin. 1999. Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Berlin, Ira, and Philip D. Morgan, eds. 1993. Cultivation and Culture: Labor and the Shaping of Slave Life in the America. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.

Blackburn, Robin. 1988. The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, 1776-1848. London and New York: Verso.

Blackburn, Robin. 1997. The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern, 1492-1800. London and New York: Verso.

Blassingame, John W. 1972. The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South. New York: Oxford University Press.

Du Bois, W. E. B. 1992. Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880. New York: Atheneum. (Orig. pub. 1935.)

Finley, Moses I. 1991. Ancient Society and Slavery. A Dictionary of Marxist Thought, ed. Tom Bottomore. Oxford, U.K., and Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

Genovese, Eugene. 1967. The Political Economy of Slavery: Studies in the Economy and Society of the Slave South. New York: Vintage. (Orig. pub. 1961.)

James, C. L. R. 1963. The Black Jacobins: Toussaint Louverture and the San Domingo Revolution. New York: Random House.

Marx, Karl. 1965. Grundrisse. In Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations. Trans. Jack Cohen. Ed. Eric J. Hobsbawm. New York: International Publishers. (Orig. pub. 1941.)

Marx, Karl. 1978a. Communist Manifesto. In The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert D. Tucker. New York: Norton. (Orig. pub. 1848.)

Marx, Karl. 1978b. German Ideology. In The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker. New York: Norton. (Orig. pub. 1932.)

Meillassoux, Claude. 1991. The Anthropology of Slavery: The Womb of Iron and Gold. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Rodney, Walter. 1982. How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. Washington, DC: Howard University Press. (Orig. pub. 1972.)

Ste. Croix, G. E. M. de. 1981. The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World: From the Archaic Age to the Arab Conquests. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Thornton, John. 1998. Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press.

Williams, Eric. 1944. Capitalism and Slavery. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Wood, Ellen Meiksins. 1988. Peasant-Citizen and Slave: The Foundations of Athenian Democracy. London and New York: Verso.

J. R. Kerr-Ritchie

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Slavery Industry

Slavery Industry


The word industry (from the Latin industria, meaning diligent activity directed to some purpose) generally refers to a combination of business operations related to a primary economic product or process. Hence, slavery industry refers to business activity related to the institution of slavery, including not just the process of supplying slaves but also the relationship of slavery-related activity to linked activity in manufacturing, agricultural production, commerce, shipping, and financial institutions. The main issue involves exploring whether Africa, the slave trade, and slavery-related economic activityconventionally characterized as the triangular trade or what Ronald Bailey (1992) calls the slave(ry) trade was important to the development of commerce and industry in Europe, especially Great Britain, and the United States.

An estimate of the numbers of Africans taken as slaves was produced by Harvard Universitys Transatlantic Slave Trade Database in 1999. It provided up to 226 pieces of information for more than 27,233 slaving voyages. Some 11,062,000 Africans were transported between 1519 and 1867, though these numbers are constantly revised upward. About 55 percent were transported between 1700 and 1799, and 29.5 percent between 1800 and 1849. Surprisingly, about 30 percent were transported after Britains slave trade abolition acts of 1807.

British slave traders (including those living in British colonies) carried almost 46 percent of all slaves, and the Portuguese were responsible for about 29.1 percent. The remaining Africans were carried by France (13.2%), Spain (4.8%), the Netherlands (4.7%), and the United States (2.5%). British slave traders dominated in the all-important period in the eighteenth century when European industrialization surged. Some 280,000about 2.5 percent of all slaveswere imported into the United States, and 48 percent of these were imported after the beginning of the American Revolution (1775-1783).

Some scholars have called the forced importation of Africans into the New World cauldron before the nineteenth century the Africanization of the Americas, one of the most significant demographic transformations in world history. Up to 1820, Africans outnumbered Europeans by a ratio of over 3 to 1 among those people who were transported across the Atlantic: almost 8.4 million Africans and 2.4 million Europeans. This had an obvious impact on population trends in Africa (depopulation) and in the Americas. The black population of the West Indies, for example, grew from 15,000 to 434,000 between 1650 and 1770an increase of almost 2,793 percentwhile the white population remained almost static, increasing from 44,000 to 45,000. The need to repeople the Americas resulted in part from the demand for labor and the almost genocidal impact that European settlement had on the Native American population. Thus, African peoples composed an even larger proportion of the labor force in all of the American regions associated with expanded Atlantic commerce than is generally known.

Beyond the number of Africans who were enslaved, the most hotly debated issue has been the impact that enslaved African labor had on the economic development of slave-trading nations. This was the central thesis in a book by Eric Williams (1911-1981), historian and former prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, titled Capitalism and Slavery (1944). Williamss book is, in his words, strictly an economic study of the role of Negro slavery and the slave trade in providing the capital which financed the Industrial Revolution in England and of mature industrial capitalism in destroying the slave system (1944, p. v). Both aspects of his argument continue to provoke considerable debate, especially whether or not British abolition resulted more from economic forces than from humanitarian impulses. This issue has particular relevance to the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when large-scale manufacturing using machines became the dominant activity in industrial capitalist economies, especially in Great Britain and the United States, with cotton textiles as the leading sector.

For example, British colonies in the Caribbean and in the South, where slavery thrived, produced an average of more than 80 percent of the total value of British Americas exports in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. Enslaved African labor played a central role in the production of rice, sugar, tobacco, and cotton and in other key sectors, including the mining of gold, silver, and precious metals. Sugar and cotton, however, are the two most important sectors, and data in Joseph Inikori (2002, p. 489) bear this out: from 1752 to 1754, sugars share of British American imports into Britain was 49 percent as compared to cottons 2 percent. By 1814 to 1816, sugars share was 52 percent and cottons only 22 percent. By the 1854-1856 period, however, cotton dominated with 48 percent as compared to sugars 15 percent.

Sugar and its cultivation provide the first context and a key link in the story of the evolution of racial slavery in the Americas, a point early recognized by Noël Deerr, who concluded that trying to write a history of sugar without at the same time treating of slavery was like trying to produce Hamlet with the part of Laertes omitted (1949-1950). Sugar was the crop for which large-scale plantation slavery was constructed, first on European islands in the Atlantic and then in the Caribbean. It was brought over to Hispaniola (now Haiti) in 1493 by Christopher Columbus (1451-1506), who had learned about its cultivation from his Italian father-in-law on Madeira Island, a Portuguese territory. Once transferred to the so-called New World, sugar production became a crucible with an incessant demand for labor of any type first Native American and then European indentured servants, before the industry fastened onto African labor that was more accessible, available, abundant, and cheap. Scholars have estimated that between 60 and 70 percent of all the Africans who survived the transatlantic slave trade ended up as slaves on the sugar plantations of the Americas.

Cotton was the most decisive raw material for the British and U.S. industrial revolution in textiles, the leading industrializing sector in both nations. The industry was spurred by the invention and improvement of such technologies as the flying shuttle (1733), the spinning jenny (1764), the mule (1779), and the power loom (1785). But the labor of enslaved Africans was also crucial. In 1860 enslaved Africans working on only 3 percent of the earths land mass in the South produced 2.3 billion pounds of cotton, or 66 percent of the worlds total crop, up from 160 million pounds in 1820. This was the sole source for 88.5 percent of British cotton imports in 1860, and even supplied the growing needs of a rapidly expanding cotton textile industry centered in New England after 1790. African and slave-based economies in the Caribbean also provided important markets for British and later American manufactured cloth. Moreover, economist Robert North and others concluded that incomes from marketing slave-produced cotton, tobacco, rice, and sugarproducts sold in the markets of the world shaped the pattern of regional specialization and the division of labor that helped to consolidate the U.S. national economy before the Civil War (1861-1865).

Beyond its pivotal contribution to consolidating the first global commercial and industrial economies centered around the Atlantic Ocean, the slave(ry) trade was also a focal point of intense national rivalries among European powers. Such rivalries were part and parcel of the rise of new nation-states, initial testbeds in which the policies and techniques associated with mercantilism, international diplomacy, colonial administration, and war were refined.

Many historical aspects of the slavery industry involving people of African descent from the fifteenth century to the nineteenth century continue to have contemporary consequences. Slavery and the slave trade helped shape the persisting inequities that have historically existed in the economic and social conditions of peoples of African descent all over the world, a theme provocatively captured in the title of Walter Rodneys How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (1972). Second, the slavery industry played a key role in fostering and sustaining racism, an ideology that groups human beings into socially constructed biological categories labeled races, and then treats these groups as if they are inherently inferior or superior in the allocation of economic, political, and social resources and opportunities.

Inequality based on class and race has historically been the target of social protests from the earliest days of the slavery industry and continuing through the civil rights and Black Power movements up to the present. Recent calls for reparationswhich demand apologies and various forms of compensation to repay people of African descent for their contribution to the profits and developmental success of nations, companies, and citizens with historical ties to the slave trade and slaveryhave sparked considerable controversy. Some governmental units have demanded full disclosure of corporate ties to the slave trade and slavery as a precondition for granting contracts. Other recent movements, however, do not distinguish between historical forms and consequences of slavery and the slave trade that linked African peoples to the rise of capitalism from more recent systems of exploitation and oppression, such as the growing international traffic in human beings associated with contemporary globalization. Such continuing debate and ongoing struggles will undoubtedly shape these movements for social change for many decades to come.

SEE ALSO African Americans; Cotton Industry; Industrialization; Liverpool Slave Trade; Reparations; Servitude; Slave Trade; Slavery; Sugar Industry


Bailey, Ronald W. 1992. The Slave(ry) Trade and the Development of Capitalism in the United States: The Textile Industry in New England. In The Atlantic Slave Trade: Effects on Economics, Societies, and Peoples in Africa, the Americas, and Europe, ed. Stanley Engerman and Joseph Inikori, 205-246. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Blackburn, Robin. 1997. The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern, 1942-1800. London: Verso.

Darity, William, Jr. 1990. British Industry and the West Indies Plantations. Social Science History 14 (1): 117-149.

Deerr, Noël. 1949-1950. The History of Sugar. 2 vols. London: Chapman and Hall.

Eltis, David, Stephen D. Behrendt, David Richardson, and Herbert S. Klein. 1999. The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade: A Database on CD-ROM. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press.

Inikori, Joseph. 2002. Africans and the Industrial Revolution in England: A Study in International Trade and Economic Development. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Rodney, Walter. [1972] 1981. How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. Rev. ed. Washington, DC: Howard University Press.

Solow, Barbara, ed. 1991. Slavery and the Rise of the Atlantic System. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Thomas, Hugh. 1997. The Slave Trade: The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1440-1870. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Williams, Eric. 1944. Capitalism and Slavery. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Ronald W. Bailey

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Slave Trade

Slave Trade


Africans. The purchase and sale of African people was a major part of the early American economy. It was one of the most obvious ways Americans were linked to the global trading economy. From 1783 to 1815, around 150, 000 Africans were forced to migrate to the United States, many of them carried on American ships, and sold through networks of traders after their arrival. Thousands more were carried by American slavers to other parts of the Americas, especially Cuba, until trade there was banned in 1794. The United States accounted for an increasing proportion of the slave trade, as many as 16 percent of all people taken from Africa from 1801 to 1805. The trade centered in New England, especially Rhode Island, but leading merchants in every colony were slavers. Traders would send ships to the west coast of Africa with stores of guns, manufactured goods, and rum. These items would be traded for people brought from the interior by networks of African and European traders centered in the factories, or forts, along the coast. The ships would then return to America, stopping at the Caribbean colonies and southern states, before returning to the North, loaded with sugar (often in the form of molasses), rice, and other agricultural produce. (This was the so-called triangular trade, although few ships actually made the complete trip.) The trade was complex, with American and European slavers bartering among themselves off the African coast in order to acquire the most desirable variety of goods and selling slaves at various ports along the way home. Rhode Island slavers, for instance, sold half their slaves in Cuba between 1783 and 1802, dispersing the others around the West Indies and on the mainland. The ships themselves were often owned by groups of investors of different nationalities. The trade as a whole also included traffic between Europe and America, with many kinds of commercial goods, of which slaves were only one part. The profits New Englanders enjoyed from the slave trade also helped expand their trading efforts elsewhere; Samuel Brown of Boston, a leader in opening trade to China in the late 1780s, made his initial fortune as a slaver.


After the end of the legal importation of slaves from Africa in 1808, some traders did continue to bring Africans in by smuggling. While never very significant economically, this trade still took its toll in human terms on the individuals involved. An 1812 venture described in an abolitionist memoir conveys something of the scope and nature of the traffic:

After resting a few days at St. Augustine, I agreed to accompany Diego on a land trip through the United States, where a kaffle [gang] of negroes was to precede us, for whose disposal the shrewd Portuguese had already made arrangements. I soon learned how readily, and at what profits, the Florida negroes were sold into the neighboring American States. The kaffle, under charge of negro drivers, was to strike up the Escambia River, and thence cross the boundary into Georgia, where some of our wild Africans were mixed with various squads of native blacks, and driven inland, till sold off, singly or by couples, on the road. The Spanish possessions were thriving on this inland exchange of negroes and mulat-toes; Florida was a sort of nursery for slave-breeders, and many American citizens grew rich by trafficking in Guinea negroes, and smuggling them continually, in small parties, through the southern United States.

Source: Philip Drake, Revelations of a Slave Smuggler (New York: Robert M. DeWitt, 1860), p. 51.

Middle Passage. One of the most notorious aspects of the slave trade was the conditions Africans endured on their voyage to America. They were crowded onto small ships, most of the men chained together in pairs. Even without chains the conditions were harsh. Slaves stayed in holds as small as five feet high, and food and water were scarce. If the weather permitted they were forced to exercise or dance in their chains on deck once a day. In these conditions scurvy and other diseases flourished, and in many cases between 5 and 20 percent of the slaves died. Mortality was high among the white sailors as well, who shared at least some of these conditions, as well as the dangers of sea travel in this period. Slavers considered the slaves to be valuable property, and some did seek to protect their cargo. The Vernons of Rhode Island ordered the captain of their slave ship to let the Africans have a sufficiency of good Diet as you are Sensible your voyage depends upon their Health. Many slavers

carried doctors to help keep the slaves alive during the voyage. Those who lived faced the ordeal of auction, a frightening process where they were scrutinized publicly by men speaking a foreign language and usually separated from their families and friends, then led to their owners farms.

Legislation . Although some early Americans profited from slavery, many others objected to it. Opposition was helped by a reduced demand for slaves in the years around the Revolution. The important factor here was declining tobacco production, hurt by stagnant European prices. The abuses of the slave trade were well known, and there were many efforts to end it. Eventually, only Georgia and South Carolina permitted slave ships to land, making Savannah and Charleston the largest American slave markets. Southern states inserted some protection for the trade into the Constitution, which included a clause barring Congress from ending the trade for twenty years. Most Americans understood that slave importation would end soon, and the trade boomed after 1790, bringing more Africans into the country in the next two decades than had entered in any previous twenty-year period. In 1807 Congress passed legislation ending the trade, which took effect in 1808. By the Civil War, almost all American slaves were native-born.

Cotton . Although the legal transatlantic slave trade ended in 1808, slave trading continued to be an important part of the American economy. In 1793 a young graduate of Yale College, Eli Whitney, traveled to Georgia. Although he went to pursue studies in law, he already had a reputation as an inventor. He had learned something of mechanics while working as a boy in his fathers metalworking shop in Westborough, Massachusetts, and is said to have invented a mechanical apple parer when he was thirteen years old. In Georgia he noticed how difficult it was to remove the seeds from the cotton grown on the plantations there and set about devising a way to mechanize that task. The result was the invention called the cotton gin (short for engine). The gin used a toothed roller to catch the tufts of cotton and pull them through a wire mesh, leaving the seeds behind, and the cotton ready for the textile mill. Whitneys idea was quickly copied, and the rapid spread of the gin changed the face of southern agriculture and affected the fates of millions of people. Before the gin extracting the seeds was so difficult that cotton was profitable only along the Georgia and South Carolina coasts, where a certain variety grew. With the gin other varieties became economical, and the cultivation of cotton spread across the South, meeting the demands of the booming textile industry in the North and in Britain. By 1803 American growers supplied 45 percent of the cotton imported into Britain, and more and more of the new southern territories devoted themselves to the crop. Where cotton went, slavery followed.

Plantation Economy . The early nineteenth century saw the firm establishment of the plantations that were the basic feature of the antebellum southern economy. This economy rested on slave labor. Plantations were large farms, single economic units run by the owner and his family, geared toward the production and sale of staple crops such as cotton. Most owners were closely involved in the work, sometimes personally overseeing the work of between five and ten slaves. Although most plantations were small, the economy was dominated by owners of larger plantations with more than fifty slaves and much higher productive capacity. As the value of cotton rose, the wealth of these slaveholders increased as well. Southern planters rivaled northern traders in economic power and displays of wealth. In the South the slaves themselves were a main source of that wealth. A principal feature of the plantation economy was the steady rate of natural increase within the slave population. Alone in the Americas, the United States slave population continued to grow despite the end of slave importations from Africa.

Domestic Trade . Behind the growth of the plantation economy lay a thriving internal slave trade, which drastically undermined the significance of the end of the transatlantic trade in 1808. The trade was well established as early as the 1780s. Around 100, 000 slaves migrated internally between 1790 and the end of the foreign slave trade, and around another 100, 000 migrated by 1815 as slave sales grew quickly. By 1860 over one million slaves would move from the old slave states of Virginia, Maryland, and the Carolinas to the West, first to Kentucky and Tennessee, and then to the Deep South. The domestic slave trade was deeply embedded in larger economic relations. In South Carolina, for instance, slave-rich low country planters dominated the legislature and passed regulations limiting the slave trade, in part to prevent agricultural overproduction in the back country, where slaves were in short supply. After 1808 there were no more slave ships, but the domestic trade was just as harsh. Some slaves moved with their masters as they settled new areas, but more were taken from one master in the East and sold to new ones in the West. Most of these were abruptly torn from homes and families, and had to start new lives under harsh conditions. The horrors of this domestic trade were also well known, but it was too profitable to end. The slave Charles Ball brought a price of $400 in the Charleston market in 1805. Speculators crisscrossed the country offering cash for slaves, a sign of the strength of the market. Over time, the chance that a slave born in Virginia where labor was plentiful would be sold to a trader and moved further south increased dramatically, and the threat of sale became a common disciplinary tool. Even Thomas Jefferson used it. In 1803 he sold a slave who had angered him into so distant an exile as to cut him off completely from ever being heard of [again].


David Eltis, Economic Growth and the Ending of the Transatlantic Slave Trade (New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987);

James A. Rawley, The Transatlantic Slave Trade (New York & London: Norton, 1981);

Michael Tadman, Speculators and Slaves: Masters, Traders, and Slaves in the Old South (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989).

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Slave Trade

Slave Trade


Early Efforts. The first slaves to be purchased in the British colonies in the seventeenth century were sold by Dutch slave traders. By the latter half of the seventeenth century England was able to prevail over Dutch control of the Atlantic Ocean. The English Crown sponsored a trading company in 1660 which they reorganized and rechartered in 1672 as the Royal African Company. For the next twenty-six years this group maintained a monopoly over the sale of African slaves. With the termination of the monopoly, New England merchants became active in the colonial slave trade. They sent goods to West Africa, where they traded for slaves whom they then sold in the West Indies or Carolina. Their slave trade was particularly active in Barbados. Puritan John Winthrop attributed the salvation of the New England economy to trade with the Caribbean. It please the Lord to open to us a trade with Barbados and other Islands in the West Indies. Part of that success was based on the sale of African slaves. New England slavers sailed primarily from Massachusetts until 1750, when the center of American slave trade shifted to Rhode Island.

Statistics. Between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, ten million to eleven million African slaves crossed the Atlantic Ocean. Relatively few of those slaves arrived in the English continental colonies. Most of the slaves (85 percent) went to Brazil and the Caribbean colonies of the British, French, Spanish, Danish, or Dutch. Nine percent of the slaves went to the Spanish mainland. Six percent, or 600,000 to 650,000 Africans, went to the American colonies. Most of the slaves were from the coast of West Africa or from the Congo/Angola area further south. At best a trip between Senegambia and Barbados lasted three weeks. Storms or becalming waters could delay a ship so that the transatlantic voyage took three months and exhausted the food and water supplies. Between 5 and 20 percent of the slaves died in transit during the seventeenth century, but the mortality rate declined in the eighteenth century. Merchants made money only if the slaves arrived alive, so they sought captains who could deliver healthy slaves.

Middle Passage. Sailors referred to the shipboard experience of enslaved Africans across the Atlantic Ocean as the middle passage. On board ships men were usually chained, while women and children were allowed some freedom of movement on deck. Captains chose one of two methods for transporting slaves: tight packing or loose packing. Tight packing squeezed as many slaves into a space as possible. Male slaves lay in spaces six feet long, sixteen inches wide, and two-and-one-half feet high. Female slaves lay in spaces five feet long, fourteen inches wide, and two-and-one-half feet high. Such tight spaces prevented the slaves from moving about or even sitting up. Captains who chose this style of storage did not want to waste space. They believed that their net receipts were higher from the larger cargo even if a higher ratio of slaves died. Part of the profit derived from less food and a smaller crew. The Reverend John Newton observed, The poor creatures, thus cramped, are likewise in irons for the most part which makes it difficult for them to turn or move, or attempt to rise or to lie down without hurting themselves or each other. Every morning, perhaps, more instances than one are found of the living and dead fastened together. Other captains chose loose packing. They believed that more room, better food, and a degree of liberty reduced the mortality of slaves. Healthy slaves increased the profit. Some captains insured their stock of slaves against drowning. Because

insurance did not cover slaves who died aboard a ship, some captains dumped dying slaves overboard and claimed drowning to collect insurance benefits.

Auction Block. The goal of the slave merchants was to make a profit from the quick sale of the enslaved Africans. In some cases an entire cargo might be consigned to a planter or group of planters, which would close the sale to anyone else. A more common circumstance for the sale of slaves was an auction. Prior to bidding, slaves walked before prospective buyers for public inspection, to be poked and prodded. Upon completion of the examination an auctioneer would sell the slaves to the highest bidder. A second method was the scramble. Merchants would establish a fair market price before buyers rushed aboard ships to select slaves. Olaudah Equiano, an emancipated African, remembered, On a signal given, the buyers rush at once into the yard where the slaves are confined, and make choice of that parcel they like best. The noise and clamor with which this is attended, and the eagerness visible in the countenances of the buyers, serve not a little to increase the apprehension of terrified Africans.


Expanding European empires relied on extensive trade across the Atlantic Ocean. From the sixteenth to the eighteenth century they established a triangular pattern of commerce that reached from Europe to Africa to North America. From Africa to the Western Hemisphere thousands of Africans were brought to slave markets. From North America to Europe raw materials such as coffee, fish, furs, gold, grain, indigo, lumber, naval stores, rice, sugar, and tobacco supplied manufacturing needs. Europe then sent the manufactured goods of alcohol, cloth, metalware, household goods, and weapons to Africa and North America.

Source: Richard Middleton, Colonial America: A History, 15851776, I second edition (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996).


Winthrop Jordan, White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 15501812 (New York: Norton, 1977);

Peter Kolchm, American Slavery, 16191877 (New York: Hill & Wang, 1995);

Allan Kulikoff, Tobacco and Slaves: The Development of Southern Cultures in the Chesapeake, 16801800 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986);

Edmund Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom (New York: Norton, 1975).

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slave trade

slave trade. The slave trade of Great Britain, and those of other European countries, transformed the indigenous African and surpassed the Muslim trades. Britain's became the largest national trade. About 75,000 Africans were carried in British ships in the 17th cent.; in 1701–1800 the numbers were about 2.5 million out of the 6.13 million slaves exported, reflecting the expanding demand from the British plantations, especially the sugar colonies, as well as exports to Spanish America. Between 1701 and 1810 British North America received about 348,000 slaves, the British Caribbean about 1.4 million.

The English trade after 1600 was first conducted by monopolistic chartered companies, of which the Guinea Company (1618) lasted until the 1650s. The Royal Adventurers into Africa (1660, 1663) was succeeded by the Royal Africa Company (1672–1752). However, private traders were always active, even before the company's quasi-monopoly was ended in 1698, and numerous merchant partnerships were involved. The royal family's patronage of trading and colonizing companies in the 17th cent., particularly the duke of York's, and the granting of parliamentary subsidies for the maintenance of African forts and trading posts in the next, mirrored the involvement, if not the direct participation, of all classes of British society. Slaves were traded for an increasing number of English commodities, so that by the early 18th cent. groups as diverse as Devon textile producers and iron manufacturers from the Birmingham area sought to influence legislation. The trade was viewed as a pillar of the plantations and necessary to economic and commercial expansion. Lawyers, legislators, and churchmen viewed it as morally and theologically justifiable. The quakers were unusual in their early attacks on it as contrary to Christian equality and compassion.

The slave trade has given rise to a vast historical literature. Topics examined include: the regions of west Africa from which the slaves were brought—the major regions for the European trade as a whole were roughly west central Africa (2 million), Bight of Benin (1.2 million), Bight of Biafra (814,000), Gold Coast (677,000), Sierra Leone (483,000), and Senegambia (210,000)—how these changed over time and the extent to which preferences for Africans from one or another region could affect the market; the organization of the trade on the African coast; the nature of slave voyages, the size of ships, the treatment of slaves, and their mortality rates; the sex and age ratios of the slaves taken from Africa; the volume of the trade; its impact on African societies. Econometric analyses have been complemented by studies examining the growing unease over the cruelties of the trade, part of the change in sensibilities, expressed in the literature of benevolence and sentimentalism, that found expression in the writings of, for example, William Cowper, Samuel Johnson, and the Wesleys. Other studies have looked sympathetically at the black population of 18th-cent. England and have documented the lives of individual Africans.

The trade was critical to the production of major colonial commodities, especially sugar, tobacco, and rice, whose export helped shape the global market economy of the late 17th and 18th cents. as well as sectors of the British economy. Its importance for certain British ports is well known. Liverpool's dominance is clear and Liverpudlians were in the forefront of opposition to reform. Figures for 1750–76 suggest 1,868 ships sailed from there to Africa, 588 from Bristol, and about 260 from London. However, while profits from the trade in some periods may have run at about 9 per cent, arguments that it provided important investment capital, contributing to the British industrial revolution, are now discounted. See anti-slavery.

Richard C. Simmons

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slav·er1 / ˈslāvər/ • n. chiefly hist. a person dealing in or owning slaves. ∎  a ship used for transporting slaves. slav·er2 / ˈslavər/ • n. saliva running from the mouth. ∎ archaic, fig. excessive or obsequious flattery. • v. [intr.] let saliva run from the mouth: the Labrador was slavering at the mouth. ∎  show excessive desire: suburbanites slavering over drop-dead models.

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slave trade

slave trade • n. chiefly hist. the procuring, transporting, and selling of human beings as slaves, in particular the former trade in African blacks as slaves by European countries and North America. DERIVATIVES: slave trad·er n.

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slaver allow saliva to fall. XIV (also sb.). prob. of symbolic orig. (cf. SLOBBER); see -ER4.

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slavercadaver, slaver •halva, salver, salvor •balaclava, Bratislava, carver, cassava, Costa Brava, guava, Java, kava, larva, lava, palaver •woodcarver •clever, endeavour (US endeavor), ever, forever, however, howsoever, never, never-never, sever, Trevor, whatever, whatsoever, whenever, whensoever, wheresoever, wherever, whichever, whichsoever, whoever, whomever, whomsoever, whosoever •delver, elver •Denver •Ava, caver, craver, deva, engraver, enslaver, favour (US favor), flavour (US flavor), graver, haver, laver, paver, quaver, raver, saver, savour (US savor), shaver, vena cava, waiver, waver •lifesaver • semiquaver •achiever, beaver, believer, cleaver, deceiver, diva, Eva, fever, Geneva, griever, heaver, leaver, lever, Neva, perceiver, receiver, reiver, reliever, retriever, Shiva, underachiever, viva, weaver, weever •cantilever

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