The Business of Slavery Overview

views updated

The Business of Slavery Overview

As explorers and merchants from Europe spread around the globe from the fifteenth to the seventeenth century in search of treasure and trade, they discovered that trafficking in African slaves was a most profitable venture. Seeking labor for the plantations in the Americas beginning in the sixteenth century, European merchants, colonial plantation owners, and the crowned heads of Europe created the notorious Middle Passage in which at least 12 million Africans were taken from their native lands through the complicity of African chiefs, lashed like cords of wood in the hulls of the ships of European slavers, seasoned by whipping in the Caribbean islands, and then sold like cattle in auction blocks throughout the Americas. At least a million Africans perished during the Middle Passage from disease and harsh treatment, their bodies dumped unceremoniously in the oceans. Ironically, insurance policies often covered the market value of these losses for the slaver.

The impact of the slave trade on Africa went beyond these numbers, as millions more Africans died in European-inspired wars and under the subsequent direct colonial rule of the continent in the nineteenth century. The population of Africa shrank and the continent's economic development was thwarted by these centuries of slave trade and colonialism.

The Middle Passage was part of the triangular trade that enriched the upper classes of Europe and the Americas. European merchants exported goods such as muskets and various other manufactured items to Africa to exchange with African chiefs for slaves they had captured during their conflicts with other African ethnic groups (or for captives simply kidnapped by African slavers for sale to the Europeans). The merchants then sold their slaves in the Americas, buying American primary products (e.g., cotton, sugar, tobacco, molasses, and rum) to sell in Europe.

Put to work on sugarcane plantations in the Caribbean, Brazil, and Louisiana, in tobacco plantations in Virginia and North Carolina, in rice plantations in South Carolina and Georgia, and ultimately in the rigorous cotton plantations of the Deep South, African slaves labored and died under the lash of slave masters interested only in maximizing their financial return from plantation operations. Thus did world capitalism gain much of its early accumulations of wealth from the blood, sweat, and misery of African slaves.

The termination of the transatlantic slave trade in 1808 by the United States did not end slavery or the internal slave trade in the Americas. The peculiar institution, as slavery was sometimes delicately termed, developed pathologies beyond the simple injustice of one person owning another, pathologies fueled by the pursuit of profit in the complex market for human chattel. When soil exhaustion rendered slavery less profitable in the Virginia tobacco fields, slave breeding for the Old Southwest cotton plantations became another source of profit for the slave owners of Virginia. Upper South slave owners found another profitable outlet in the slave-hiring market, through which slave owners could lease their slaves via urban brokers to rich families needing domestics, to chewing tobacco factories in Richmond, Petersburg, and Lynchburg, to the salt mines of Kanawha (in today's West Virginia), and to railroad companies needing laborers to clear the way for the westward march of the iron rails of commerce.

Breaking apart slave families to sell slave offspring (or rebellious adult slaves) down the river to cotton plantations in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana was commonplace, and yet slaves struggled mightily, and often successfully, to maintain connections with families separated by hundreds of miles of difficult terrain.

The accumulations of capital from the slave trade and plantation slavery spurred the growth of manufacturing in the northern United States and in Europe. The textile, metal, and food industries grew apace with the growth of primary commodities produced in the Americas. State and local governments also thrived on slavery, as slave owners paid substantial property taxes on their slaves. The enslavement of Africans was the economic engine for the growth of the American economies.

Estimated volume of the transatlantic slave trade by African region and half-century
African RegionsWestern AfricaWest Central AfricaSoutheast AfricaTotalWest Central Africa %
*Data in columns for West Central Africa and Southeast Africa and the Total trade are summed from the source table; the data in the column for Western Africa are calculated from these sums. Percentage column is calculated from the bolded column for West Central Africa and the totals for each period. The original data include varying estimated components, and the numbers are not in fact known as precisely as their expression in the table. Confidence levels are generally in the 95% range, or above.
Source: Calculated* from "Introduction," in Eltis, David, and David Richardson, eds. "Introduction." Extending the Frontiers: Essays on the New Transatlantic Slave Trade Database. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.
1651–1700771, 932408,61829,8761,210,42639.7%

Justifying slavery in the midst of a democratic revolution in the American colonies required vast intellectual dishonesty. Quoting selected passages from the Bible, asserting African inferiority, and even claiming that Africans were a different, lower species from Europeans, Southern planters and their political and intellectual allies created a thoroughgoing racist ideology that still tragically resonates today. The pro-slavery argument intensified in the 1830s after rebellions and resistance among slaves and assaults from abolitionists challenged, in practice, the specious reasoning of the pro-slavery apologists. Pro-slavery apologists no longer claimed that slavery was merely a necessary evil, but was instead a positive good, needed to Christianize the savages and control their supposedly animalistic behavior. But underneath this rhetoric lay the bald truth: slavery was profitable for the Southern planter oligarchy, for the world capitalist system, and for the individual plantation owner. Some have argued that the lack of incentives for slaves to work hard rendered slavery unprofitable, and that only the gentleman farmer culture kept planters in the slave-owning business. Nothing could be further from the truth. While controlling slaves was complicated, the low cost of slave maintenance and the brutal coercion of slave labor kept planters rich, yeoman farmers poor, and slaves in misery.

The profitability of slavery is no longer in dispute; it was fundamental to the rise of wealth in the Americas. Slavery encountered serious obstacles, however, when adapted to the urban environment and used in manufacturing activities, for slaves brought together in such settings saw greater opportunities for individual and collective resistance. Factories mysteriously burned, overseers were killed, and slaves escaped by ship and by foot, often assisted by emerging urban black institutions such as the First African Baptist Church of Richmond, as well as national black and white abolitionist groups. The problem of social control engendered by the modest presence of slaves and free blacks in urban industrial centers reduced the ability of the Southern U.S. colonies to develop a balanced economy of industry and agriculture.

Even in the plantation setting, however, slave owners faced the threat of rebellion. The memory of Nat Turner's rebellion in 1831 remained vivid throughout the South. Ultimately, slave resistance doomed the Southern armies defending slavery because masses of slaves defected from plantation labor after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. Their refusal to fuel the South's economy meant that the economic base for the Southern armies quickly withered. Slavery was, of course, ultimately defeated and abolished. Yet, its legacy remains throughout the world in the form of inequality, racial discrimination, underdevelopment, and poverty.


Aitken, Hugh G. J., ed. Did Slavery Pay? Readings in the Economics of Black Slavery in the United States. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1971.

Franklin, John Hope, and Alfred A. Moss Jr. From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans, 8th ed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000.

Genovese, Eugene D. The Political Economy of Slavery: Studies in the Economy and Society of the Slave South, 2nd ed. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1989.

Green, Rodney D. "Black Tobacco Factory Workers and Social Conflict in Antebellum Richmond: Were Slavery and Urban Industry Really Compatible?" Slavery and Abolition 8 (September 1987): 183-203.

O'Brien, John T., Jr. "Factory, Church, and Community: Blacks in Antebellum Richmond." Journal of Southern History 44, no. 4 (1978): 509-536.

Wade, Richard C. Slavery in the Cities: The South, 1820–1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967.

                                         Rodney D. Green