Slavery and the Slave Trade
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 racism—scientific, institutional, and cultural—outlived the institution of slavery and persist in Europe today.
ROOTS OF EARLY MODERN SLAVERY
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 land—they 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 language—the dominant language of the original Muslims—provided bureaucratic and cultural unity to elites while many vernacular languages and customs persisted. Yet the religion of Islam gave legal, cultural, and linguistic unity—at least at the elite administrative level—to 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 children—male 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 675–725 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 337–361), 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 Christians—possibly in imitation of similar Muslim prohibitions against the enslavement of coreligionists—served 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 AS SLAVES
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 1643–1715), 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 1658–1705), 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.
EUROPE AND THE TRANSATLANTIC SLAVE TRADE
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.
SLAVERY AND THE ECONOMY OF EUROPE
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.
SLAVERY AND THE LAW
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, which—though technically the property of the master—was 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 freedom—manumission 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 slave—under 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 1252–1284) 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 1556–1598) and confirmed by the Portuguese king John IV (ruled 1640–1656) 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 freedom—with 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.
ANTISLAVERY AND ABOLITION
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 (1474–1566), 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 (1712–1778) 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 .
Anstey, Roger. The Atlantic Slave Trade and British Abolition, 1760–1810. Atlantic Highlands, N.J, 1975.
Blackburn, Robin. The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern, 1492–1800. New York, 1997.
——. "The Old World Background to European Colonial Slavery." William and Mary Quarterly 3rd ser. 54, no. 1 (January 1997): 65–102.
——. The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, 1776–1848. London, 1988.
Braude, Benjamin. "The Sons of Noah and the Construction of Ethnic and Geographical Identities in the Medieval and Early Modern Periods." William and Mary Quarterly 3rd ser. 54, no. 1 (January 1997): 103–142.
Cotter, William R. "The Somerset Case and the Abolition of Slavery in England." History 79, no. 255 (1994): 31–56.
Davis, David Brion. The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770–1823. Ithaca, N.Y., 1975.
——. The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture. Ithaca, N.Y., 1966, reissued 1971.
——. Slavery and Human Progress. New York, 1984.
Drescher, Seymour. Econocide: British Slavery in the Era of Abolition. Pittsburgh, 1977.
——. From Slavery to Freedom: Comparative Studies in the Rise and Fall of Atlantic Slavery. New York, 1999.
Drescher, Seymour, and Stanley L. Engerman, eds. A Historical Guide to World Slavery. New York, 1998.
Eltis, David. The Rise of African Slavery in the Americas. Cambridge, U.K., 2000.
Epstein, Steven A. Speaking of Slavery: Color, Ethnicity, and Human Bondage in Italy. Ithaca, N.Y., 2001.
Finley, Moses I. Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology. London, 1980.
Gerzina, Gretchen. Black London: Life before Emancipation. New Brunswick, N.J., 1995.
Hellie, Richard. Slavery in Russia, 1450–1725. Chicago, 1982.
Karras, Ruth Mazo. Slavery and Society in Medieval Scandinavia. New Haven, 1988.
Klein, Herbert S. African Slavery in Latin America and the Caribbean. New York, 1986.
Lewis, Bernard. Race and Slavery in the Middle East: An Historical Enquiry. New York, 1990.
Lind, Vera. "Privileged Dependency on the Edge of the Atlantic World: Africans and Germans in the Eighteenth Century." In Interpreting Colonialism, edited by Byron Wells and Philip Stewart. Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century. Forthcoming.
Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York, 1985.
Patterson, Orlando. Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study. Cambridge, Mass., and London, 1982.
Peabody, Sue. "There Are No Slaves in France": The Political Culture of Race and Slavery in the Ancien Régime. New York, 1996.
Phillips, William D., Jr. Slavery from Roman Times to the Early Transatlantic Trade. Minneapolis, 1985.
Restall, Matthew. "Black Conquistadors: Armed Africans in Early Spanish America." The Americas 57, no. 2 (2000): 171–205.
Saunders, A. C. de C. M. A Social History of Black Slaves and Freedmen in Portugal, 1441–1555. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1982.
Shyllon, F. O. Black People in Britain, 1555–1833. London, 1977.
Tannenbaum, Frank. Slave and Citizen: The Negro in the Americas. New York, 1946.
Thornton, John. Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400–1800. 2nd ed. Cambridge, U.K., 1998.
Toledano, Ehud. The Ottoman Slave Trade and its Suppression, 1840–1890. Princeton, 1982.
United Nations Office of the High Commission for Human Rights. Fact Sheet No. 14: Contemporary Forms of Slavery. Geneva, June 1991. Available online at: 126.96.36.199/html/menu6/2/fs14.htm.
Vitkus, Daniel J., ed. Piracy, Slavery, and Redemption: Barbary Captivity Narratives from Early Modern England. Introduced by Nabil Matar. New York, 2001.
Walvin, James. Black Ivory: A History of British Slavery. Washington, D.C., 1994.
Watson, Alan. Slave Law in the Americas. Athens, Ga., 1989.
Williams, Eric. Capitalism and Slavery. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1944.
The Atlantic slave trade was one of the most important demographic, social, and economic events of the Modern Era. Extending over four centuries, it fostered the involuntary migration of millions of African peoples from their homelands to forced labor in the Americas and elsewhere around the globe. In the process, it reshaped African societies; provided much of the raw material for constructing new social, economic, and political structures in the New World; promoted the development of a new industrial order; and furnished essential ingredients of modern world culture. It also left an unfortunate legacy of racism by establishing a connection between servility and barbarity and peoples of African descent.
The eighteenth-century interest in slavery derived from the nature of the mercantilist imperial structures that supported the production of tropical staples through plantation labor. Africa was the source of this labor. Since the material or technological distance between Africa and Europe was not then as great as it was to become later, Europeans approached Africans as approximate equals. European traders were highly dependent upon their African partners and associates to ensure an orderly trade. Since trade frequently depended upon the political vagaries on the African coast, European traders had to be aware of political and social conditions in the areas where they wanted to trade. Consequently, they stationed agents ("factors") where Africans would permit, and these factors collected slaves and forwarded reports on African conditions to mercantile companies in Europe. Although these reports were colored by ethnocentrism, factors made a serious attempt to understand the situations they encountered, mainly because such comprehension was crucial to their ability to offer trustworthy advice. In this way, Europeans disseminated important information about Africa and Africans.
While the circumstances of African migration were unique, neither slavery nor the plantation have been singularly associated with blacks. Slavery maintained a continuous
existence in southern Europe from ancient times into the Early Modern Era, and it shaped the attitudes and outlooks of southern Europeans when it was reinvigorated in the New World. In addition, the European-sponsored Atlantic trade was not the only market for bound African labor. Historians have estimated that about six million Africans were taken to Asia and the Middle East, starting as early as the seventh century ce, but reaching a peak between 1750 and 1900. Moreover, an additional eight million slaves were involved in an internal African trade, mostly between 1850 and 1914. But the Atlantic trade, starting as early as the fifteenth century but becoming important after the discovery of America (it reached its height from about 1650 to 1850), carried approximately twelve million people to captivity in the New World. It was the largest mass movement in history up to that time.
The slave trade can be divided into four epochs, determined by source, destination, and the major carriers of slaves. During the era of Iberian domination in the sixteenth century, when Portugal was practically the sole carrier, slaves were taken from Guinea to Spanish colonies and from the Congo-Angola region to Brazil. During this period, slaves were only one of a number of African commodities, all of equal importance. The seventeenth century was a period of transition. The Dutch broke Spanish control of the seas, destroyed the Portuguese monopoly of the African and Indian trades, and established themselves as the leading European maritime nation. Between 1630 and 1650, Dutch control of the sea and of trade was supreme. Dutch ships carried slaves and supplies to Spanish, French, and English colonies, and they transported New World staples from these colonies to Europe. After 1650, England and France moved to establish themselves in Africa and to tighten the mercantilist system in their respective imperial spheres. The eighteenth century thus represented a period of French and English dominance. They took most of their slaves from the Slave Coast (an area along the Bight of Benin), from east of the Volta River, and from the Niger Delta, while maintaining important interests at the peripheries in Upper Guinea and in southern Africa along the Loango Coast. They carried these slaves in British and French ships to their respective possessions in the West Indies and to Spanish America. This represented the height of the period of trade when human cargo was the over-riding European interest in Africa. Finally, there was an Iberian epoch in the nineteenth century. Northern Europeans abolished the trade north of the equator and deprecated the practice everywhere, but the demand in Brazil and Cuba continued until the middle of the century.
The Portuguese Hegemony
Although the acquisition of slaves was not the prime motivating force of the Age of Discovery, it was an early consideration. The era is dated from the Portuguese taking of Ceuta—on the Moroccan coast across the Straits of Gibraltar—in 1415. The first black slaves reached Portugal directly from the Atlantic coast of Africa in 1442, and the first slave trading company was formed in 1444. It obtained slaves through periodic raids. But the Portuguese learned early that trade, whether in slaves or other commodities, proceeded best in cooperation with, rather than in opposition to, Africans. In the fifteenth century, when they laid claim to all of Africa, they divided the western coast into a series of regional monopolies, and the right of exclusive trade in these areas was sold in Lisbon. Some of the Portuguese agents settled in Upper Guinea, intermarried with local peoples, and became middlemen in the trade between Africans and Europeans. These Afro-Portuguese had been joined by a class of Afro-French and Afro-English by the eighteenth century, and these groups operated in competing spheres of influence for the benefit of their respective metropolitan powers. Racially and culturally mixed, they achieved political influence through real or fictitious consanguineous ties to local royalty, and they achieved economic power through their control of trade. Because of their prestige, they—in traditional African fashion—gathered to themselves full-blooded Africans (grumetes ), who adopted their cultural affectations and became part of a hybrid trade community on the coast. Whereas in the sixteenth century these people were usually in a state of subservience to native chieftains, this condition had reversed by the eighteenth century. By this time they were also able to repel European attempts to circumvent them and establish direct contact with local peoples in those places where they assumed hegemony.
Captain William Bosman
"Not a few in our country fondly imagine that parents here sell their children, men their wives, and one brother the other. But those who think so, do deceive themselves…"
a new and accurate description of the coast of guinea. london, 1705, p. 363.
But Portuguese activities were not uniform over all the coast. While a policy of peaceful penetration was adopted in Upper Guinea, in the Gulf of Benin and the coastal regions leading to it a relationship of power politics developed. The Portuguese could not move around freely, but instead were restricted to fortified coastal stations. The most venerable of these, São Jorge da Mina (established in 1482), was important to the Portuguese as a source of gold rather than slaves, with the metal being obtained through barter with local peoples. Africans brought gold from the interior, and because of the long distances they had to travel, they required porters to carry goods secured in trade on the coast to the interior. The slave trade that developed was an internal African trade in which the Portuguese
participated. They brought slaves from the African kingdom of Benin; from their settlement at São Tomé, an island farther down the coast; and from locations in Upper Guinea to meet the demand. The gold trade was so important that in 1610 the king forbade Portuguese subjects to take captives within several miles of São Jorge da Mina so as not to disturb it.
The fifteenth-century slave trade was basically an Old World affair. The Portuguese utilized Africans in colonial settlements on islands off the African coast, where they produced sugar, and they also supplied them to southern Europe and the Mediterranean. Between 1450 and 1500, about thirty thousand Africans were shipped to Europe. Lisbon now served as entrepot, an intermediary center of trade and transshipment for the Mediterranean trade. In 1551, 10 percent of the city's population was servile, consisting of Moorish and Guinea slaves. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, the servile percentage was about the same, but they were now nearly all black.
During the sixteenth century, the center of major Portuguese slaving activity gradually shifted from Guinea to south-central Africa, in association with the development of a New World plantation system. São Tomé was entrepot for this trade, which for most of the century centered around the Congo. It was here that the first voluntary African attempt at westernization and Christianization played out, as the Portuguese treated the king of the Congo (Manicongo) as an equal and sent craftsmen and missionaries to aid him. But the attempt foundered on the shoals of the slave trade—the Portuguese slaving interests fomented discontent to encourage warfare, from which they secured captives. The kingdom broke up under the strain.
The ruler of Angola was not treated as an equal. Instead, the Portuguese king granted the region to one of his nobles. In 1576 the Portuguese founded Luanda, which supplanted São Tomé as the center of slaving operations—and Angola replaced the Congo as the major source of slaves. Slaving operations were different in Angola than on the Guinea coast. Instead of setting up trading posts, or "factories," to which native chieftains brought captives, merchants sent out their own servants or employees (generally blacks or mulattos) called pombeiros, who went into the interior to secure bondsmen by trading or raiding. When captives could not be had, they incited wars or rebellions. Captives were brought to Luanda where they were kept in barracoons, or holding stations, to recuperate until ships arrived to take them away. As in Upper Guinea, a racially and culturally hybrid Luso-African trading community developed. Unlike their counterparts on the northern coast, however, the Afro-Portuguese in Angola kept control of their slaves through the Middle Passage and could benefit directly from the price of slaves in Brazil, though they also had to suffer the loss of slaves at sea. The latter consideration caused them to confine their interests to Africa by the end of the eighteenth century. In the three centuries between 1550 and final abolition of the Brazilian slave trade (1850), Angola furnished the majority of Brazil's captive labor.
The Dutch destroyed Portuguese pretensions to an African monopoly. By 1642, Arguim and Gorée in Upper Guinea, São Tomé in the Gulf of Benin, Luanda in Angola, and all the Portuguese forts on the Gold Coast were in Dutch hands. Although Portugal recaptured São Tomé in 1648 and retained the Cape Verde Islands and Cacheu, Holland was the strongest European power in Guinea during the 1650s. The Dutch advantage, however, and their virtual control of the whole European carrying trade for a time, drew the concentrated ire of the English and the French. The latter part of the seventeenth century, therefore, was one of keen competition. Dutch success derived in part from her capitalistic, joint-stock West India Company, formed in 1621. While the Portuguese, claiming all of Africa, granted individual monopolies in various parts of it, the Dutch, claiming parts of Africa, granted a monopoly of trade to one corporation in all of it. Only members of the West India Company were legally enabled to carry slaves or other goods from Africa to Dutch colonies or elsewhere. To better compete, other European nations followed the Dutch model. Most important were the French West Indies Company (1664) and the English Company of Royal Adventurers trading into Africa (1660), which was superceded by the Royal African Company (1672).
The Spanish, largely excluded from African trade but possessing large territories where slaves were useful, resorted to the asiento. This slave contract provided exclusive rights to importation of African bondsmen into Spanish colonies for the nation who held it. The movement of this contract from one European nation to another is to some extent a measure of its ascendancy in the slave trade. It was held successively by the Portuguese, Dutch, French, and English.
The French and the English
Although slaves were the single most important trade article by the eighteenth century, gold, ivory, beeswax, rice, camwood, and malaguetta pepper were also traded in significant quantities. The French and English followed in the Dutch wake, establishing their own companies, designated as sole carriers of their countries' trade between Europe, Africa, and the American colonies. These companies were responsible for maintaining factories in areas where Africans would permit in order to secure their nation's position in trade. The British had forts along the Gambia, the French along the Senegal, and each at various other locations in the region, and they all engaged in competition to attract African middlemen. The two nations, along with other Europeans, had outposts along the Gold Coast and adjacent areas, where competition was likewise stiff. The expense of these factories was born by the companies as partial recompense for their monopoly.
The African Input
At the height of the trade in the eighteenth century, the whole coast was regulated on the African side by middlemen who were highly conscious and jealous of their position. They had a monopoly on trade with the interior and insisted that business be conducted through them. Moreover, they refused to be bound by any one European power and insisted on free trade with the outside world. On different parts of the coast, however, different circumstances required distinctive considerations, which changed over time. In Upper Guinea, African polities competed with Afro-Europeans for trade at the posts set up by the French and English in the Senegal and Gambia rivers to
attract commerce. On the leeward coast in the Gulf of Guinea, Akan and Fon kingdoms mediated the trade. In the Niger Delta, various city-states, both monarchies and republics, grew up in response to new opportunities for exchange. Ruled by special political associations, they developed a distinctive trade organization known as the "House system." In Trade and Politics in the Niger Delta, 1830-1885, K. Onwuka Dike describes this as "a kind of co-operative trading company based not so much on kinship as on commercial association between the head of a dominant family, his relatives and trading assistants, and all their followers and slaves" (1956, p. 31)—in other words, a creative adaptation to business opportunities. In Congo-Angola, local governments also ruled, though the Portuguese, busily creating a colonial preserve, claimed exclusive rights in parts of the region. These disparate governments and people had their own peculiar requirements in articles, seasons, and methods of trade. Even the trade mediums or units of accounts diverged, with Europeans adopting African practices. In Upper Guinea they used the iron bar; on the leeward coast, the ounce of gold (in the west) and the cowry shell (in the east); in the Niger Delta, the manilla, a bracelet of brass or lead; and in Congo-Angola, a piece of local cloth. For these reasons, European representatives had to be seriously attentive to peoples and conditions at their station or lose trade to their rivals. They had to treat Africans traders with considerable respect.
Early European observers often justified slaving activities by arguing that many, if not most, Africans existed in some form of indigenous servitude, and that the European version was preferable. Later Europeans justified imperialism on the same basis of Africans' widespread enslavement, which they now sought to abolish. Opponents sought to counter these rationales for injustice by contending that few examples of involuntary servitude existed in Africa before European contact, and that where they existed they were of such a nature as to be scarcely comparable to the Western conception let alone the American reality. Where observers stated otherwise, according to these opponents, they were deluded by racism, ethnocentrism, or ignorance. In Slavery in Africa (1977), Suzanne Miers
and Igor Kopytoff argue that this confusion results from a misapprehension of the nature of African society. Based on kinship relations that give people social existence to the extent that they belong to or are part of a local lineage, they regard those outside the group as nonpersons. Outsiders, whether slave or free, are nonpersons. Indeed, in some African societies the words for "slave" and "outsider" are the same. There is no dichotomy between slavery and freedom (with its emphasis on autonomy and individualism) as exists in the West, but between nonperson and person (whose identity is found in his association and obligation to the group). Nor are the dichotomies absolute; there are degrees of belonging connected with increasing privileges and acceptability.
Those slaves susceptible of sale (trade slaves) were usually adult males captured in warfare who might never adjust to their captivity and therefore posed a danger to their hosts. At the very least they might run away. They could best serve the community by what they brought in trade. Women and young children, however, were more pliable and less likely to be sold, and therefore were more likely to be absorbed by the local community. The demands of the Atlantic trade were coincident with these African outlooks, in that while Atlantic slavers had more call for adult males, internal African requirements placed more value on women. Consequently, women were not equally available for trade on all parts of the coast, a consideration that slavers had to weigh. Yet Africans who participated in the trade made their decisions within their own contexts and for their own reasons. African slaves were seldom viewed as the simple commodities that capitalism made them in the Americas.
The American Demand
New World planters, thinking of slaves as work units, and being interested in maximum production for the least outlay, ideally desired an adult male in his twenties or thirties. Women, who could also be worked in the fields, were in less demand. Consequently, planters normally asked for slaves in the proportion of two men for every woman. This desire for men was especially great in sugar-producing regions, which had a firm capitalist base by the seventeenth century and considered profit above everything else. Brazilian and Caribbean planters, for example, regarded harsh treatment contributing to high slave mortality in as few as five to seven years after importation to be a more economical management practice than expending either time or money to better the slave's condition and extend his life for labor. They viewed the raising of slave children as equally unprofitable and did not encourage it. Consequently, they had to depend on the slave trade to replenish their labor force for most of the period of slavery's existence in their regions. British planters in North American, raising different crops, computed their finances differently, and while they also asked for slaves in the normal proportions, by the first decades of the eighteenth century they had come to recognize the value of a self-perpetuating labor force. They began to encourage reproduction, an effort that required a more equal balance between males and females. Cargoes containing more males than females, therefore, were likely to find a better market in North America, though such cargoes sold everywhere.
Planters also had distinctive slave preferences, which varied from region to region and over time. The economy of seventeenth-century Brazil was highly dependent on bound labor from Angola, and planters described these laborers as the best that Africa had to offer. In the eighteenth century, both the source and judgment of African labor changed: Brazilian planters now rated "Sudanese" or "Mina" slaves from the leeward coast of West Africa as superior. Indeed, a special relationship developed between the northern Brazilian city of Bahia and the leeward coast, while southern Brazilian traders, centered in Rio de Janeiro, maintained an attachment to Angola. Eighteenth-century Jamaicans exhibited an affinity for Akan-speaking peoples from the Gold Coast, while South Carolina planters desired Senegambians. Virginians expressed no strong likes or dislikes. Traders had to consider these slave fashions,
among other factors, when they planned their voyages. They had also to figure climatological conditions and seasonal variations, since the winter months in North America or the hurricane season in the West Indies could create hazards to trade and sales. Slaves were in greatest demand when they could be put directly to work, and they sold more briskly in some seasons than in others.
Humanitarian sentiment against the slave trade grew during the second half of the eighteenth century, supported by economic change in industrializing powers like Great Britain. This sentiment began to have some effects by the century's end. Northern Europeans moved to stop the trade during the nineteenth century's first decade. Denmark outlawed the trade for its citizens effective in 1802, and Great Britain (the largest of slave traders) and the United States followed in 1808. The British government used diplomacy to try to evoke a consensus that the trade was objectionable, and—joined occasionally by the United States, France, and other nations—they sent ships to patrol the African coast to interdict the trade. As the world's strongest naval power, the British attempted to make agreements with other nations that would allow its warships to search vessels suspected of engaging in human commerce, and to seize those that did. Few nations, excluding even the United States, possessed Britain's moral fervor, however, and the struggle continued throughout most of the century.
Iberian nations were conspicuously absent from the developing consensus. Economic expansion in Brazil, Cuba, and Puerto Rico placed a high premium on slaves, and neither Spain nor Portugal regarded the prospect of restricting its labor supply with any enthusiasm. Britain pressured Portugal in 1810 into confining its trade to Portuguese imperial possessions in Africa and America, an agreement that meant that Portuguese subjects could carry slaves only between those regions in Africa where Portugal already had a claim or sphere of influence and other regions within the Lusitanian monarch's realm—most importantly, to Brazil. Portugal agreed to limit the trade to her African possessions below the equator in 1815. That same year, France prohibited the trade. Spain fell into line in 1820, and Brazil, having separated from Portugal, did so in 1830.
These legal prohibitions bore little relationship to reality, however, particularly in Cuba and Brazil. A greater volume of slaves came into Brazil in the first half of the nineteenth century (approximately 1.5 million between 1801 and 1850) than had ever gone to any plantation region, including a half-million or more in the twenty years between its legal cessation and its effective termination by British naval action in 1850. While most of those involved in Brazil's illegal traffic were Brazilian or Portuguese, Spain's replacement of the asiento with a free-trade policy in 1789 opened the Cuban market to United States, British, French, and other merchants, and American traders dominated the market after Spain agreed in 1835 to permit Britain the right of search and seizure. By then, the flag of the United States, as the only important seafaring nation to refuse to come to a reciprocal arrangement with Great Britain, provided slavers their sole refuge. Some American traders smuggled slaves into the United States, but the market was better in Cuba and Brazil. Not until the American Civil War did American official attitudes change, effecting the end of the Cuban trade in 1865. Still, by various ruses the trade continued until the end of the century. For example, the French and Portuguese adopted theoretical systems of contract labor that were nothing short of slavery: the indentured, often bought in Africa as slaves and legally freed on the coast, had little or no say
in the matter and were shipped off to colonial possessions in the Americas and elsewhere. Even the British and the Dutch, who considered themselves enlightened in this regard, adopted similar practices for short periods. Nevertheless, in practice, the Atlantic slave trade essentially came to an end with the closing of the trade to Cuba. Moreover, New World slavery itself was moribund, although it lingered in Cuba and Brazil until the 1880s.
Nineteenth-Century Trade Distinctions
In the process of its long expiration, the nineteenth-century slave trade developed some distinctive features. Economic expansion, together with the prospect of the trade's termination, caused slave prices to rise in the Americas, while the activities of British anti-slave-trade squadrons off the African coast caused them to fall there. At the same time, increased demand and depleted resources near the Congo-Angola coast caused slaves to be brought from regions farther inland, which involved different African middlemen. Although slaves might be smuggled from any part of the coast, slaving was heaviest in this region of west-central Africa—partly because it was a Portuguese preserve and legal there (for Portuguese subjects) until 1836, which permitted smugglers to use the Portuguese flag for cover, and partly because the British naval presence was not as great there as along the northwestern coast. It remained a focus of activity after the 1830s ban. Few Atlantic slavers went to Mozambique in the eighteenth century, but in the nineteenth century the trade there at one point reached a height of twenty-five thousand slaves yearly, encouraged by increased demand and an initial absence of British warships from the eastern coast. Portuguese, Arab, East Indian, and mixed-blood middlemen facilitated the trade and dispensed their human cargo to Spanish, French, Brazilian, and American vessels. The Portuguese edict ending the trade in Angola in 1836 applied equally to Mozambique, but neither ceased before rigorous British action rendered it infeasible after 1850. Slavers maintained their preference for males over females, but they accepted more children than formerly because they occupied less room than adults and more could be carried.
By the nineteenth century, then, the trade had come full circle. The Portuguese, having initiated an Atlantic trade in slaves, were among the last to abandon it. Nevertheless, the nineteenth-century Iberian trade would have been much more difficult without active British and American collaboration. Even while their government sought to abolish it, British merchants continued to invest in Brazilian slave-trading voyages, and British manufacturers continued to produce and forward to Brazilian middlemen goods suitable only for the African market. Americans, meanwhile, furnished speedy ships suitable for evading patrolling squadrons, and they innovated the use of steamships, which could carry larger numbers of slaves, though they did not always carry them better as slaves placed too close to boilers could be burned or scalded. Many of the vessels involved in the West Coast trade, and most of those involved in Mozambique, though manned by citizens of other nations, were constructed in the United States.
In a final irony, the desire to abolish slave trading and establish "legitimate" commerce in Africa furnished the basis for British imperialism there, an example that other Europeans copied. In many places, the forced migration of African peoples from their homelands, either to other parts of Africa or to regions outside of it, was ended by the imperial dictates of western Europeans, though not completely before the twentieth century. By that time, Africans, or peoples with a significant African genetic component, populated much of the globe.
Bethell, Leslie. The Abolition of the Brazilian Slave Trade: Britain, Brazil, and the Slave Trade Question, 1807-1869. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1970.
Boxer, Charles. The Portuguese Seaborne Empire, 1415-1825. New York: Knopf, 1969.
Conrad, Robert E. World of Sorrow: The African Slave Trade to Brazil. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1986.
Curtin, Philip. The Image of Africa: British Ideas and Action, 1780-1850. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1964.
Curtin, Philip. The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969.
Curtin, Philip. The Rise and Fall of the Plantation Complex: Essays in Atlantic History. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Davies, K. G. The Royal African Company. New York: Longmans, Green, 1957. Reprint, New York: Octagon, 1975.
Diaz-Soler, Luis M. Historia de la esclavitud negra en Puerto Rico (1493-1890). Madrid: Revista de Occidente, 1953.
Dike, E. Onwuka. Trade and Politics in the Niger Delta, 1830-1885; An Introduction to the Economic and Political History of Nigeria. Oxford: Clarendon, 1956. Reprint, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1981.
Duffy, James. Portugal in Africa. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1962.
Eltis, David. The Rise of African Slavery in the Americas. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Eltis, David, et al. The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade: A Database on CD-ROM. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
Fage, John D. A History of West Africa: An Introductory Survey. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1969.
Gemery, Henry A., and Jan S. Hogendorn, eds. The Uncommon Market: Essays in the Economic History of the Atlantic Slave Trade. New York: Academic Press, 1979.
Inikori, J. E., ed. Forced Migration: The Impact of the Export Slave Trade on African Societies. New York: Africana, 1982.
Littlefield, Daniel C. "The Colonial Slave Trade to South Carolina: A Profile." South Carolina Historical Magazine 91 (1990): 68–99.
Littlefield, Daniel C. "'Abundance of Negroes of That Nation': The Significance of African Ethnicity in Colonial South Carolina." In The Meaning of South Carolina History: Essays in Honor of George C. Rogers, Jr., pp. 19–38. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991.
Littlefield, Daniel C. Rice and Slaves: Ethnicity and the Slave Trade in Colonial South Carolina. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991.
Lovejoy, Paul E. Africans in Bondage: Studies in Slavery and the Slave Trade. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1986.
Lovejoy, Paul E. Transformations in Slavery: A History of Slavery in Africa. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Manning, Patrick. Slavery and African Life: Occidental, Oriental, and African Slave Trades. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Mauro, Frédéric. Le Portugal et L'Atlantic au XVIIe Sièce (1570-1580). 2d ed. Lisbon and Paris: Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian/Centro cultural portuguès, 1983.
Miers, Suzanne, and Igor Kopytoff, eds. Slavery in Africa: Historical and Anthropological Perspectives. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1977.
Miller, Joseph C. Way of Death: Merchant Capitalism and the Angolan Slave Trade, 1730–1830. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988.
Palmer, Colin A. Human Cargoes: The British Slave Trade to Spanish America. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981.
Postma, Johannes. The Dutch in the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1600-1814. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Polanyi, Karl. Dahomey and the Slave Trade: The Study of an Archaic Economic Institution. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1966. Reprint, New York: AMS Press, 1991.
Rodney, Walter. "Portuguese Attempts at Monopoly on the Upper Guinea Coast, 1580-1650." Journal of African History, 7 (1965): 307–322.
Rodney, Walter. A History of the Upper Guinea Coast, 1545-1800. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1970.
Solow, Barbara, ed. Slavery and the Rise of the Atlantic System. Cambridge, Mass.: W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research, Harvard University, 1991.
Stein, Stanley. The French Slave Trade in the Eighteenth Century Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1979.
Thornton, John. Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Verger, Pierre. Flux et Reflux de la Traite des Nègres entre le Golfe de Bénin et Bahia de Todos os Santos du XVIIe au XIXe Siècle. Paris: Mouton, 1968.
Verlinden, Charles. L'Esclavage dans l'Europe médiévale. Brugge, Belgium: De Tempel, 1955.
daniel c. littlefield (2005)
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 existed—defined as a system in which the production process is carried out by human beings owned by other human beings—a 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 trade’s 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 sectors—agriculture, 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 analysis—W. E. B. Du Bois’s approximation of 100,000,000 Africans lost to the slave trade was a prime example. Such estimates were the main target of Phillip Curtin’s 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 Deerr’s The History of Sugar (1949-1950) was an earlier representative of this tradition extended but not initiated by Curtin’s census. The major impact of Curtin’s 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 Curtin’s 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 University’s 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 Curtin’s. 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 Henry’s 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 Europeans—8.4 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 activity—trade and commerce as well as production—and their interrelationships with the activities of government, politics, and the broader society. To paraphrase Adam Smith’s 1776 title for his pioneering volume in this tradition, the slave trade and slavery’s 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 Rodney’s 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 mercantilism—favorable 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 Americas—especially the horrendous treatment during the middle passage between Africa and the Americas—and 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) trade”—activities related both to the slave trade and slavery and closer to the “multiplier effect” concept used by some economists—as 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 trade’s 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 Williams’s 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 Greene’s 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 world’s 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 Colonizer’s 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.
Deerr, Noel. 1949-1950. The History of Sugar. 2 vols. London: Chapman and Hall.
Du Bois, W. E. B. 1896 . 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 http://www.dataarchive.ac.uk.
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.
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
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.
Latin America, including the Caribbean region, received more than 85 percent of the 10 million or so Africans brought to the New World between 1494 and sometime in the 1860s. Brazil took about 35 percent of the total, the Caribbean (including the British islands) somewhat more, and the mainland colonies of Spain only about 10 percent.
The leading slavers of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were the Portuguese. The Dutch joined them during the seventeenth century, and the British and French transported the majority of the captive humans taken across the Atlantic in the 1700s. Among the Americans, only Brazilians at Rio de Janeiro and Salvador became prominent as slavers, accounting for a major part of the trade to those ports in the eighteenth century. As the British withdrew from slaving starting in 1807, Brazilians and Portuguese became the major nineteenth-century purveyors, with the Spaniards joined by a few North Americans and, intermittently, the French in providing African labor to Cuba.
The slave trade began as a minor component in Portugal's fifteenth-century attempts to buy gold and commodities in West Africa. Africans at first tended to sell products, not people. But droughts there threw the region into violent conflict. Warlords seized captives and thrived on selling them to other Africans and to Europeans. Also, in western Africa there was an older trans-Saharan trade to Muslim lands with which European Atlantic traders competed.
New African mercantile sectors arose to broker this trade in labor and to import textiles and commodity currencies (particularly shells, copper rods, iron bars, and beads), along with smaller quantities of spirits and wines, firearms, and consumer luxuries. The growing cohort of Africans committed to selling refugees from drought and captives taken in wars thrived on the Europeans' willingness to pay higher and higher prices for labor.
Gradually, the dominant African political interests in the most densely inhabited portions of the continent became dependent on selling slaves. Most came from the Lower Guinea Coast between modern Ghana and Cameroon or from Angola, a vaguely defined region along the west-central shores of Africa on either side of the mouth of the Zaire River.
Demand for African slaves arose out of long-term shortages in American colonies. There, low-cost virgin lands and accessible deposits of precious metal ores—principally silver in Mexico and Peru and gold in Minas Gerais, Brazil—generated rapid economic growth. Already sparse Native American populations declined under the onslaught of European diseases, while an expanding economy in Europe absorbed the local working population there. With the demographic stage thus set, American specie, multiplied by early modern banking techniques, financed merchants in buying the refugees and captives of Africa to fill the labor deficit. American land, African labor, and European capital formed an economic triangle that generated lethally explosive growth.
|Some estimates of numbers of slaves transported to Latin America, by destination|
|Period||Exports from Africa |
|Imports in Americas |
|Spanish Main |
|aNumber for Spanish Main covers period 1450–1700.|
|bData for 1811–1867 from David Eltis, "The Nineteenth-Century Transatlantic Slave Trade: An Annual Time Series of Imports into the Americas Broken Down by Region," in Hispanic American Historical Review 67, no. 1 (1987): 109-138.|
|cTotal from Paul E. Lovejoy, "The Impact of the Atlantic Slave Trade on Africa: A Review of the Literature," in Journal of African History 30 (1989): 368; not modified by Dutch figures from Johannes Menne Postma, The Dutch in the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1600–1815 (1990). Columns do not add to the revised totals given in this line.|
|Source: Columns (1) and (2): Paul E. Lovejoy, "The Volume of the Atlantic Slave Trade: A Synthesis," in Journal of African History 23, no. 4 (1982): 473-501, Tables 1, 9; Column (3): Philip D. Curtin, The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census (1969); Column (4): Interpolated from Philip D. Curtin, The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census (1969).|
Slavers delivered human cargoes in large numbers, first to the expanding sugar captaincies of the Brazilian Northeast at the end of the sixteenth century through Recife, in Pernambuco, and Salvador da Bahia. The Dutch then invested in and supplied labor for English cane plantations in the Caribbean, the main magnet for slavers about 1640. By 1700, the English West Indies, principally Jamaica, and French Saint Domingue drove the West Africa-Caribbean branch of the trade, with Bahian sugar and tobacco planters adding a second major, southern Atlantic, sector. Gold and diamonds in south-central Brazil propelled the trade from Angola to Rio de Janeiro until about 1760. Thereafter, diversifying exports of sugar, cotton, and coffee led Brazilian economic expansion into the nineteenth century. The African slaves headed to the New World thus formed one leg of an Atlantic commercial triangle completed by European manufactured goods sent to Africa and American minerals and agricultural commodities headed for Europe.
War in Europe from 1793 and British efforts at suppressing Atlantic slaving from 1807 gradually ended the trade from West Africa, with the Bahians among the last to give up there in the 1840s. Cuba, with Havana the main entry point, became the principal nineteenth-century Caribbean importer of African labor, increasingly from central Africa, to support the island's emergence as a major producer of sugar and, later, coffee. In southern Brazil, Rio slavers intensified their exploitation of Angola and expanded into Indian Ocean markets, particularly Mozambique. Brazil suppressed these last currents of slaving after 1850, and the Cuban trade finally died out in the 1860s. Thereafter, free immigrants from Europe replaced enslaved Africans in Brazil and Argentina, and indentured Asians supplemented French and British needs in the Caribbean region and the Guianas.
The Spanish and Portuguese monarchies attempted to regulate and tax the trade in slaves to their American colonies, with decreasing success. Spain's famous Asiento contracts, begun in 1518, licensed royally favored Seville merchants to hire foreign traders to carry slaves to its mainland colonies, mostly through Cartagena and Buenos Aires, until the middle of the eighteenth century. These foreigners—Italians; then Portuguese; and eventually Dutch, French, and English, in a succession that reflected the rise of commercial bourgeoisies in Europe—exploited the privilege of delivering slaves by smuggling manufactured goods into the Spanish preserves and selling them there for silver.
The Portuguese concentrated their regulatory efforts on the Angolan coast, which they treated as a trading monopoly centered on a small colony at Luanda. They levied export taxes on slaves leaving the port and until 1769 subcontracted these duties out to Lisbon merchant interests, who dominated the trade financially. In Angola a community of resident colonials who intermarried with their African suppliers, along with exiled Portuguese criminals, Jews, and Gypsies, brought the slaves down to the coast, often owning them on through the point of sale in Brazil.
Brazil-based Portuguese merchants, who had married into American planting families, became the dominant shippers of slaves and supplied the sugarcane brandies that lubricated Angolan slaving and the sweetened tobacco that gave Bahians a secure niche in a separate "Mina" trade (named for a Portuguese post in Africa) between northeastern Brazil and the West African Lower Guinea coast. These varying commercial structures allowed Portuguese merchants to limit their involvement to the low-risk financial aspects of the trade until the late 1700s. Iberian merchants left the hazards of owning and carrying the slaves to foreigners within the Spanish sphere and, in Portugal's domains, to colonials.
Private commercial interests gradually took over slaving, as early government-sponsored trade receded before the rising tides of mercantilism and, later, of liberal "free trade." In northern Europe only a few early ventures enjoyed royal patronage or participation. The precocious Dutch West India Company led Netherlands merchants in their assault on Iberian slaving beginning in the 1620s. By the 1670s and 1680s, companies of private merchants, though still aided by royal charters and grants of monopoly trading privileges, had emerged everywhere, even to buy up Spain's asiento—notably the Royal African Company and the South Sea Company in England, the Compagnie des Indes in France, and the Companhia da Guiné in Portugal. By 1700, smaller free traders that were intruding as smugglers or interlopers quickly overwhelmed the unwieldy corporate behemoths. The Brazilians in the southern Atlantic, British shipping interests from Bristol and Liverpool, French traders in Nantes and small Breton ports, private merchants in Holland, and Rhode Islanders from North America then pushed the trade to its eighteenth-century heights.
Portugal, which had lost the slave trade in its own empire to the colonials in Angola and Brazil, went against this tide of private entrepreneurship by floating two old-fashioned chartered companies of national merchants, active in the 1750s and 1760s. These commercial anachronisms, the Maranhão and Pernambuco companies, quickly failed. Spain finally loosened its antiquated restrictions on private trade in the empire during the 1780s, but too late. Its merchants had too small a market for slaves, too little capital, and only a toehold in Africa on the equatorial island of Fernando Po and so did not consolidate a Spanish slaving industry before American independence movements ended the mainland trade after 1810.
The nineteenth-century slave trade to Cuba and Brazil depended on colonial capital in Havana, Rio de Janeiro, and Bahia, supplemented by emigrant Portuguese merchants resident in Brazil. British manufacturers and merchants, though forbidden by Parliament from investing directly in slaving, drew profits from captive humans by financing the trade of the Iberians, safely protected by contracts from its primary risk—mortality. North Americans provided ships for the illegal trade of the 1840s. Thus, although the trade has sometimes been termed a "triangular" one because of the European goods, African slaves, and American commodities flowing clockwise with the winds of the North Atlantic, few individual ships or shippers completed all three of its legs. The institutions of slaving thus reflected the broad outlines of economic growth throughout the Atlantic economy, in Europe, America, and Africa.
Historians have inquired also into the economic contribution that slave trading may have made to the growth and transformation of the European economy, some claiming that it directly financed industrialization in Britain. Though exceptionally profitable voyages inspired many hopes, average returns did not exceed those common in other sectors of the economy. Slaving was a small component of all international trade flows and was minor in relation to domestic economies everywhere—including Africa and Brazil—except in the specialized sugar islands of the Caribbean.
On the other hand, slaving allowed new and still-fragile munitions and other manufacturing sectors in England and France to reach captive colonial and some African markets for their early, crude products. In Brazil the Africa trade sustained indebted planters unable otherwise to support the burden of Portuguese mercantilist taxes and monopolies. It restored the fortunes of a few of the Portuguese exiled and condemned to Angola and enabled even weak Portuguese merchants to compete with British-backed competitors in Brazil. For Portugal, too, it delayed the decline of national munitions and textile makers, as the country's economy fell steadily behind that of the rest of the continent. It animated commerce in the out-ports of northern Europe at a time when Amsterdam, London, Paris, and Rouen were moving ahead in finance and in continental trade. As trans-Atlantic economic diversification and specialization accelerated, Europe's weaker economic sectors, and disadvantaged colonial subjects, found markets in Africa and used the slaves acquired there to buy the American gold, silver, sugar, cotton, and coffee that they would otherwise have had to concede to stronger competitors.
Slavers purchased enslaved Africans in ratios of about two males to each female, although sex ratios varied somewhat from one part of the African coast to another. American planters and miners may have preferred males because they found the costs of raising slave children—including high infant and child mortality—high so long as the price of African labor remained low. On the other hand, Africans may have preferred to retain women for themselves, to bear replacements for the people they lost to drought, war, disease, and enslaved exile abroad. Women worked in the fields on both continents, alone in Africa but alongside male slaves on American plantations. The high cost of raising children to an age of productivity reduced the number of youngsters in the trade to a small fraction. Slave prices rose steadily into the 1790s, however, and the differential between buying and training youngsters decreased so that the average age of the slaves carried across the Atlantic tended to fall through time. By the nineteenth century, the typical enslaved individual was an adolescent boy.
The European slavers refined their techniques over the centuries so that more slaves survived, at lower transport cost, though without significantly relieving the extreme discomfort of their captives. The earliest human cargoes rode in the holds of ships built for carrying commodities rather than people, with no special accommodation. Provision for food and, in particular, water while at sea was minimal. Slaves died in numbers averaging as much as 25 percent during crossings that ranged from 40 or 50 days in the South Atlantic upward toward 80 to 120 days between West Africa and the Caribbean. By the early eighteenth century, slavers had developed specialized vessels carrying 300 to 400 passengers, though smaller operators, particularly Americans, still used general cargo vessels of lesser capacity.
On African coasts, slavers established commercial contacts that reduced the highly lethal time spent loading slaves, and they could estimate the water and food requirements of their captives closely enough that mortality at sea dropped toward 10 percent. Captains under pressure from their employers, or novice sailors, still sometimes dangerously overloaded their ships. Calms or storms at sea, pirates, war, equipment failure, or other accidents could always strike the slaves with catastrophic losses. However, on balance slaving in the high-volume decades of the 1700s tended toward business as usual, risky but bearable—for the slavers.
As the British navy gradually drove the slavers from the seas after 1811, the traders dispersed to remote and concealed ports in both Africa and the Americas. Although abolition raised the costs and risks of slaving, African and European traders survived the challenge. Africans held slaves safely near the coast and Europeans loaded ships in shorter periods of time when they arrived. The ships themselves became faster, some of them adding copper plating on their hulls. The slaves, packed more closely than ever below decks, bore the burden of other cost efficiencies, such as reduced rations of water and food, but gross neglect was less common in the furtive, highly professional, last, illegal years of slaving. As a result mortality among the slaves dropped further toward 5 percent on average, and catastrophes occurred less often.
Medical conditions, though always deadly, moderated over time. Throughout the long years of the trade, most slaves entered the holds of the ships in marginal nutritional condition. Many boarded after weeks and months of forced and underfed marches over long distances to the coast and after lengthy confinement with inadequate food or water in overcrowded shoreside barracoons. Spoiled foodstuffs, contaminated water, and illnesses acquired in unfamiliar disease environments left many with uncontrollable diarrheas. The stench added horribly to the miseries of those confined below decks, and ships carrying slaves trailed their malodorous stigma for hundreds of meters downwind.
Slaves from the higher African elevations also suffered from fevers picked up on the low-lying coast, particularly malaria. Contagious afflictions, especially smallpox, surged through some vessels in waves that, from Angola at least, rose after extended periods of drought in Africa. Emotional trauma was severe. Slaves experienced the loss of family and home, extreme isolation and dependency, and utter terror at an experience many believed had delivered them into the hands of red cannibals from beyond unending waters of death. Diarrheas, the nausea of seasickness, and profuse sweating in the holds must have depleted the body fluids faster than scarce supplies of drinking water could replace them. Slaves appeared to grow despondent and die, and these morbid melancholies, or banzos, may have been symptoms of terminal dehydration and mineral imbalances as well as of the profound psychological shock of captivity. The multiple afflictions of the slaves are almost impossible to translate into precise modern medical diagnoses.
Slavers gradually stumbled into remedies for starvation, dehydration, and salt depletion. From the early eighteenth century, the British occasionally inoculated slaves against smallpox, and slavers in the nineteenth century sometimes used Jennerian vaccine to prevent epidemic outbreaks of the disease in Africa from coming on board the slave ships. However, European medical technology never became widely efficacious under the extreme conditions of the trade. Better care for slaves before they boarded the ships, faster crossings, and adequate water and food probably contributed more to the falling death rates over the long history of the trade.
Most slave males spent the passage crammed below decks, lying beneath low ceilings on rough planks in darkness, chained to hull, deck, or bulkhead, so close to companions that they could not move. Some captains brought small, heavily guarded groups of their captive passengers onto the deck once or twice a day to get a breath of fresh air, exercise a bit, and eat a ration of manioc or rice or other starchy porridge flavored with small quantities of cooking oil, peppers, or dried meat or fish. On some ships, women, some with infants, occupied cabins, where the crew surely subjected many to sexual assault.
In a tragic irony, the slaves' human frailty, their very susceptibility to death, gave them their principal—albeit passive—influence over the organization and history of the trade. Monetary investments in people led the slavers to adopt technological and financial refinements that gradually enhanced the chances of their human cargoes for survival. The presence of hundreds of resentful captives bound below decks, ill and weakened as they were, frightened crews into designing specialized slaving ships for security, with heavy bars and barriers, chains and irons. Some slaves somehow occasionally overcame these obstacles to seize or scuttle ships, though recorded instances of revolt at sea number only in the dozens out of tens of thousands of voyages.
For bibliographic information, see the bibliography supplements in the historical journal Slavery and Abolition (1983–) and Joseph C. Miller, Slavery: A Worldwide Bibliography, 1900–1982 (1985).
See also Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (1944); Philip D. Curtin, The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census (1969); Robert Louis Stein, The French Slave Trade in the Eighteenth Century: An Old Regime Business (1979); Edward Reynolds, Stand the Storm: A History of the Atlantic Slave Trade (1985); Herbert S. Klein, African Slavery in Latin America and the Caribbean (1986); David Eltis, Economic Growth and the Ending of the Transatlantic Slave Trade (1987); Barbara L. Solow and Stanley L. Engerman, British Capitalism and Caribbean Slavery: The Legacy of Eric Williams (1987); Joseph C. Miller, Way of Death: Merchant Capitalism and the Angolan Slave Trade, 1730–1830 (1988); Paul E. Lovejoy, "The Impact of the Atlantic Slave Trade on Africa: A Review of the Literature," in Journal of African History 30 (1989): 365-394; Philip D. Curtain, The Rise and Fall of the Plantation Complex: Essays in Atlantic History (1990); Patrick Manning, Slavery and African Life: Oriental, Occidental, and African Slave Trades (1990); and Johannes Menne Postma, The Dutch in the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1600–1815 (1990).
Andrés Gallego, José. La esclavitud en la América española. Madrid: Ediciones Encuentro; Fundación Ignacio Larramendi, 2005.
Vila Vilar, Enriqueta. Aspectos sociales en América colonial: De extranjeros, contrabando y esclavos. Bogotá: Instituto Caro y Cuervo: Universidad de Bogotá "Jorge Tadeo Lozano," 2001.
Joseph C. Miller
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 activity—conventionally 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 University’s 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 Britain’s 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 280,000—about 2.5 percent of all slaves—were 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 1770—an increase of almost 2,793 percent—while 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). Williams’s 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 America’s 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, sugar’s share of British American imports into Britain was 49 percent as compared to cotton’s 2 percent. By 1814 to 1816, sugar’s share was 52 percent and cotton’s only 22 percent. By the 1854-1856 period, however, cotton dominated with 48 percent as compared to sugar’s 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 earth’s land mass in the South produced 2.3 billion pounds of cotton, or 66 percent of the world’s 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 sugar—products “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 Rodney’s 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 reparations—which 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 slavery—have 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.
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.
Rodney, Walter.  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
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 Marx’s 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, Marx’s 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 slavery’s 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 Marx’s 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. 3–4). 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 slavery’s surplus extraction—what he dubs “extended primitive accumulation”—fueled Britain’s 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. Croix’s 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 continent’s 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
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 Eastern—and other—societies 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 major—though forced—means 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 roles—as talent and need determined—and 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 ideas—not just technology and fashion—were 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. Instead—and as an alternative method that would ultimately choke slavery for want of supply—a 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 1854–1855, 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 refugees—estimates run from 500,000 to 1 million—who 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.
Toledano, Ehud R. "The Imperial Eunuchs of Istanbul: From Africa to the Heart of Islam." Middle Eastern Studies 20, no. 3 (1984): 379–390.
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, 1840–1890. 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): 53–68.
ehud r. toledano
Jews engaged in the slave trade – although they never played a prominent role in it – from the early Middle Ages to the early modern period. While it was not proscribed to pagans, none of the three monotheistic religions either prohibited slavery or trade in slaves except insofar as converts to a particular religion were concerned. It was as if three circles were drawn, each opposing only the enslavement of its own members by a member of one of the other two. Thus the only legitimate objects of slavery and the slave trade were pagans and Jews, Christians, and Muslims captured in war by victors of either of the other religions. In Europe, aside from the Nordic countries, in the early Middle Ages there remained pagans in the Slav countries only (and their generic name, or variations thereof, became the appellation for the slave throughout Western Europe). Slaves were needed for agriculture, domestic service, and as eunuchs in Muslim harems. They were one of the few "commodities" that Europe could export to the Byzantine and later Muslim Mediterranean, from which it imported so much, thus restoring to some extent the balance of payments. The Jewish slave owner, however, was expected by the Church to release his slave the moment the latter converted to Christianity, sometimes by inducement. Jews also used slaves in their vineyards, and a forced conversion of a slave was a loss to them. As each slave owner in all religions considered himself responsible for the soul and behavior of his slaves, he felt in duty bound to convert them to his faith; in the case of the Jews, who were in a minority everywhere, this caused friction and problems for the Jewish owners. Thus tension colored the attitude to Jewish ownership of slaves and participation in the slave trade in Christian countries.
Under the Muslim rule in Spain, where there was a slave market in Baena in the ninth century, Jews owned slaves without hindrance as long as the slaves were not Muslims. However, there is no evidence of a slave trade carried on by Jews in Christian Spain (Baer, Spain, 1 (1961), 417). Slaves were employed primarily for domestic and agricultural service in the households of the Jewish upper classes, and this situation persisted for some time under Christian rule, especially in *Majorca, where Jews owned large estates and many slaves; in the middle of the 13th century James i put obstacles in the path of Jewish ownership of Moorish slaves in Majorca, who wished to be baptized and thereby freed. In late Roman Spain and Frankish Gaul, Church opposition to Jewish ownership of slaves was much in evidence. *Church councils repeatedly denounced Jewish ownership of Christian slaves and of those slaves who wished to convert to Christianity; but these denunciations remained ineffectual. Pope George the Great (sixth century) inveighed against a Jewish merchant, because his import of slaves from Gaul into Italy included some Christians. The Muslim conquest of Spain created a nearby market for slaves, to which Jews were accused of catering. Emperor Louis i the Pious granted a number of Jews (c. 825–8) the right to import foreign slaves and sell them within the confines of the empire. Archbishop *Agobard of Lyons claimed that royal officials in Lyons accepted the Jewish traders' view that heathen slaves who requested baptism should be considered as doing this solely in order to gain their freedom, and that this should not be granted unless the owner was paid the sum he demanded. Agobard denounced this view, claiming in the course of his arguments that in some cases Jews even sold people born Christian into slavery. Jewish slave traders (among others) are recorded in 906 in the custom dues rolls of Raffelstetten on the Danube, a major interregional market in the early Middle Ages. The Arab geographer Ibn-Khurdadbah (c. 870–92) includes slaves (eunuchs) among the many articles sold by the *Radhanites, said to have traveled from Franconia to China by sea or land. *Ibrahim ibn Yaʿqub, the Jewish traveler, recorded the presence of Jewish slave traders in Prague around 970 (alongside Muslims and Turks), and Bishop Adalbert of Prague resigned in 988 after failing to buy the freedom of a group of slaves bought by a Jewish trader. The Jews of that period regarded the Slavic east as the land of slaves par excellence – "Canaan" (see Gen. 9:25 and Midrashim to this verse). Jewish slave traders appear in the *Koblenz custom rolls of 1004; they are mentioned in 1009, when the margrave of Meissen was accused of selling slaves to Jews, and in 1085, when a Polish princess in Silesia was praised for buying up Christian slaves from Jews and freeing them. With the Christianization of most of the Slavs, this trade ceased as far as Jews in Christian Europe were concerned.
While responsa and deeds of manumission indicate the frequency of slaves, mainly women employed as housemaids and occasionally men who were business agents, in personal service in Jewish households in Muslim lands, a thorough study of conditions in Egypt in the 11–13th centuries reveals that "during the classical Genizah period the Jews had no share in the slave trade" (S.D. Goitein, A Mediterranean Society (1967), 140), in particular after Maimonides' time. Slave ownership in Muslim lands raised the problem of responsibility for the slaves' conversion to Judaism and, frequently, that of sexual relations between the owner and his female slave. Ketubbot quoted in Maimonides' responsa include the condition that the husband promise not to buy a female slave without his wife's consent, parallel to his promise not to take a second wife against his first wife's will. He also referred to the question of castration (forbidden in Jewish law) and the sale of eunuchs.
In the Ottoman Empire slavery flourished through the wars of expansion. Most wealthy Jewish families owned one or more slaves for domestic purposes. The Marrano Diaspora in the New World (particularly in the Carribean) became both customer for, and trader in, African and Indian slaves. Slave-owning Marranos settling in Protestant countries created serious legal difficulties (as in London and Hamburg); a Portuguese relative of Albertus *Denis was forced to leave Danzig because of public indignation at his treatment and ownership of slaves. The Ottoman authorities opposed Jewish participation in the slave trade, but one exception occurred during the 1571 war against *Cyprus when Jewish slave traders were required to pay a special state tax. Toward the end of the 16th century the sultan decreed also that a special tax be paid by Jews who owned slaves. Subsequently, slaves and slavery gradually disappeared from Jewish life. Modern European and U.S. historians up to the mid-1950s (including Jewish historians) confused the ownership of slaves by Jews with their part in the slave trade. The role of the Jews in the slave trade was also vastly exaggerated. This was done either to overemphasize the importance of Jews in early medieval trade or to put the odium of this trade onto the Jews (according to modern views – in disregard of the acceptability of slavery during the period of Jewish participation in it). This tendency was reinforced by antisemitic prejudices.
[Toni Oelsner and
In the Americas
Until 1730 the Dutch West India Company maintained a monopoly on the importation of slaves into all the Dutch colonies in the Americas, but Jews appear to have been among the major retailers of slaves in Dutch Brazil (1630–54), because Jews possessed ready money and were willing to trade slaves for sugar. The bylaws of the Recife and Mauricia congregations (1648) included an imposta (Jewish tax) of 5 soldos for each slave which a Brazilian Jew purchased from the West Indies Company. In Curaçao, the Dutch occasionally gave permission to a merchant to conduct independent transactions in slaves; two such Jewish entrepreneurs were the brothers David and Jacob Senior, who came to the island from Amsterdam about 1685. Another Curaçao Jew, Manuel Alvares Correa (1650–1717), who was active in the local slave trade for many years, served in 1699 as an intermediary between the Dutch and Portuguese West Indies companies for the transfer of a shipment of slaves from Africa to Mexico via Curaçao.
In all of the American colonies, whether Dutch, French, or British, almost every merchant or trader had dealings in slaves: when he acted as auctioneer or agent for the sale of an estate, when he served his planter clients in the sale or purchase of slaves or in the pursuit of runaways. In the Barbados, until 1706, Jews were limited by law in the number of slaves they themselves could own, but in Jamaica there was no such restriction. Among the Jamaican Jewish merchants who seem to have specialized in the slave trade were David Henriques, Hyman *Levy, and especially Alexander Lindo (1753–1812), who was a major importer of slaves during the period 1782–92. During an investigation of slave mortality conducted in Jamaica in 1789, Lindo testifies that 150 slaves on a ship "consigned to" him had died in the Middle Passage and that another 20 perished after their arrival in Jamaica, but it is unclear whether he owned this slave shipment or any of the others in which he was involved. Members of the well-known *Gradis family of Bordeaux were active in the shipment of slaves from West Africa to such French colonies as Santo-Domingo (Dominican Republic).
On the North American mainland, a number of Jews were active participants in the infamous triangular trade, which brought slaves from Africa to the West Indies, where they were exchanged for molasses, which was in turn taken to New England and converted into rum for sale in Africa. David *Franks of Philadelphia was in this business during the early 1760s; Aaron *Lopez and Jacob Rodriguez *Rivera of Newport, Rhode Island, had at least one slaver on the high seas each year after 1764, and in 1772 and 1773 had a total of eight such ships under sail. Isaac Da *Costa of Charleston was another large-scale importer of slaves. In Louisiana, under both French and Spanish rule, the Monsanto brothers made frequent transactions in slaves; during 1787 they purchased 44 blacks.
Although Jews in Philadelphia and New York City were active in the early abolition movement, Jewish merchants, auctioneers, and commission agents in the Southern states continued to buy and sell slaves until the end of the Civil War. The fact that Jacob Levin of Columbia, South Carolina, and Israel I. Jones of Mobile, Alabama, two merchants who often dealt in slaves, were leaders of their Jewish communities in the 1850s is evidence that at no time did Southern Jews feel tainted by the slave trade. Levy Jacobs was an active trader in slaves both in New Orleans and in Mobile during the 1820s; Ansley, Benjamin, George, and Solomon Davis of Richmond and Petersburg, Virginia, went on the road to sell gangs of slaves in the states of the lower South beginning about 1838; B. Mordecai of Charleston had large slave pens alongside his warehouses and purchased $12,000 worth of slaves at one sale in 1859. But the total business activity of all the Southern Jews who dealt in slaves in any way probably did not equal the turnover of the largest single non-Jewish firm which specialized in slaves, Franklin and Armfield.
[Bertram Wallace Korn]
S.D. Goitein, A Mediterranean Society, 1 (1967), index; T. Oelsner, in: yivoa, 12 (1958/59), 184f.; idem, in: ylbi 8 (1962), 188f.; Baron, Social2, 3 (1956), 30f., 243f.; 4 (1956), 187–96; 332–8; idem, in: Essays on Maimonides (1941), 229–47; Roth, Dark Ages, 27f., 306–10, 386, 410; S. Assaf, Be-Oholei Ya'akov (1943), 223–56; idem, in: Zion, 4 (1939), 5 (1940); M.S. Goodblatt, Jewish Life in Turkey (1952), 125ff.; A.S. Diamond, in: jhset, 21 (1962–67); J. Starr, Jews in the Byzantine Empire (1939), index; D.B. Davis, Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (1966), 98ff.; S. Grayzel, Church and the Jews in the 13th Century (19662), index; J. Parkes, Church and Synagogue (1934), index; M. Hoffman, Der Geldhandel der deutschen Juden waehrend des Mittelalters (1910), 15ff.; Baer, Spain, index; B.Z. Wacholder, in: hj, 18 (1956), 89–106; I.A. Agus, Urban Civilization in Pre-Crusade Europe (1965), index; A. Hertzberg, The French Enlightenment and the Jews (1968), index; E. Taeubler, in: M. Philippson Festschrift (1916), 381–92; B. Blumenkranz, Juifs et Chrétiens dans le Monde Occidental 430–1096 (1960), 18–55, 107, 190f., 337; C. Haase, in: Die Staedte Mitteleuropas im 12. und 13. Jahrhundert, ed. by W. Rauch (1963), 133 and n. 50; C. Cahen, in: rej, 123 (1964), 499–504. in the americas: F. Bancroft, Slave Trading in the Old South (1931); Chyet, in: ajhsq, 52 (1962/63), 295–300; I.S. Emmanuel, Precious Stones of the Jews of Curaçao (1957), 304; idem, History of the Jews of the Netherlands Antilles (1970), index; Friedenwald, in: ajhsp, 5 (1897), 60–97; B.W. Korn, Early Jews of New Orleans (1969); idem, Jews and Slavery in the Old South (1961); Report, Resolution and Remonstrance of the Honourable the Council and Assembly of Jamaica at a Joint Committee on the Subject of the Slave Trade (London, 1790); A. Wiznitzer, Jews in Colonial Brazil (1960), 72–73; idem, Records of the Earliest Jewish Community in the New World (1954), 28, 74; Jamaica Royal Gazette (March 30, 1782; Apr. 12, 1806); Kingston Journal (July 28, 1787; Nov 10, 1787); H.M. Alvares Correa, Alvares Correa Families of Curaçao and Brazil (1965), 10–11.
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 father’s 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. Whitney’s 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].”
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).