Slave Trade Ideology

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Slave Trade Ideology









The institution of slavery, which defined the lowest possible social status in colonial America, required the approval of the prevailing political elites. The transatlantic slave trade therefore rested upon a composite ideological foundation that reflected the core values of the ruling classes of European maritime societies, the African coastal societies, and the colonial elites of the Americas.

The international slave trade of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was part of the explosive intellectual, political, and territorial expansion of western Europe, of which the Renaissance was the intellectual expression. The ensuing colonization of the Americas represented its political expression, while the resources of Africa and other colonized parts of the world, including their human capital, were plundered to maximize the economic potential of the so-called New World. Regardless of what is said about the multifarious gradations of black-on-black bondage and its alleged humane mildness, the fact remains that millions of black people were available for acquisition by other people in exchange for things deemed of value. This essay focuses on the potentials for and actual process of exchange far more than the morality of it. The process itself involved vast numbers of purchasers dealing with even greater numbers of sellers. According to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, compiled by the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, between 25,000 and 35,000 European voyages took something of value to Africans between 1450 and 1867. These ships came away with enslaved human cargoes, containing among others Igbos and Yorubas from Nigeria, Ewes and Minas from Ghana, the Mbundu of Angola or Makua natives from Mozambique on the other side of the continent. In general, Europeans could make their purchases of captives at barracoons and forts only a short distance from their vessels anchored in sight of land.

The basic argument here is that certain preexisting traditional ideological foundations and economic practices in place in Africa coincided with the European demand for highly regimented and effective colonial labor force not to be found among white indentured workers or coerced Native Americans laborers. In particular, the types of bondage transactions developed in traditional African societies unwittingly suited the process by which European colonial labor demands were addressed. In addition, the accelerated intensity of European exploitation of African economic practices was a consequence of large-scale state-sponsored mercantilism and the unprecedented maritime capabilities of the Europeans. The striking differences in technology, in coloration, and cultures between Europeans and Africans were codified and stratified by Europeans in the social construction of the concept of “race” as a biological fact of nature. Europeans and Africans thus were seen as polar opposites with attributes of the European world being most positive and those of the African world the least positive, perceptions resulting in the concomitant behaviors that maintained this construction. The elitist ideologies of all three continents—European, African, colonial New World—placed enslaved Africans on the very margins of their respective systems of rights. Enslaved Africans were treated as rightless when held in the forts or baracoons on the African coasts, treated as rightless when purchased by slave traders and sold as rightless in the New World. In the slave trade per se, all business parties were engaged in buying and selling rights over the enslaved, the latter being without legal voice or rights. In the case of enslavement by military conquest, the victors were under no obligation to honor the rights of the vanquished. Indeed, such rights became the property of the victorious, who could and did sell them to third parties.

Whereas transactions involving rights in people and rights to people were continent-wide in Africa, the moral sense of responsibility for others was local and limited to individual identity, kinship or affinity groups. Many scholars forget that traditional Africa comprised many, many diverse political groups and locations, and they erroneously analyze it as a single entity. They frequently presume similarities of condition and status of blacks in the Diaspora to be merely continuities of African continental homogeneity. Common economic practices, however, do not mean uniformity of cultures or of cultural values, otherwise transactions beyond one’s primary group would not be possible. The slave trade was based on common factors of acquisition and economic availability on all sides of the continent. That is, however, initially acquired by sellers, humans were available for commercial exchange. Likewise, Europeans acquired Africans for slave labor because they were available for a number of reasons: European religious ideology permitted the enslavement of God-cursed Hamitic “pagans”; and European beliefs that subSaharan Africans, bond or free, were an inherently different and inferior species of humankind whose coloration was an obvious indicator, blackness being associated with negativity of quality, value and condition.

The transatlantic slave trade of hundreds of thousands of enslaved was of an unprecedented scale and intensity that dwarfed the annual 5,000 to 10,000 captives headed for Arabia or India. The usual explanation of the availability issue is that Europeans stimulated intertribal warfare on a massive scale with the losers enslaved for European purchasers. Left unexplained is how ship captains, many of whom had never been to Africa, from the relative security of their ships, and later, ground settlements, were able to persuade free Africans to make slaves of other free Africans. Or how they created numerous situations where an Olaudah Equiano could be kidnapped and sold several times before final sale to a European buyer. Assuming the conventional instigation, divide and conquer theory of slave acquisition, how did the European sea captains, with often derelict crews, overcome the multiple barriers of communication, transportation and distance to in effect “control” the behaviors of their African slave procurers, especially from sources hundreds of miles inland? In short, how could so few command so many with such astonishing success among so many politically disparate groups?

If theories of unilateral European control of the slave trade as process are accepted, then one is looking at history’s most persuasive human beings. If one accepts theories of cupidity and economic greed, then what accounts for their reduction of others to the level of chattel slaves, a reduction made permanent through sale? These questions will be examined in an effort to provide a perhaps more rationale explanation of the nature and volume of economic transactions that comprised the slave trade.


The European labor demands were driven by the highest political authorities in Spain, Portugal, France, England and Holland, and the work of acquiring this labor was carried out by professional slavers. Correspondingly, enslaved Africans were made available by the highest authorities of various regions of Africa, including the kingdoms of Wolof, Igala, Oyo, Anziku, Ashanti, and Dahomey. The elites of settler communities in the New World were the ultimate customers of this inhuman trade. Often forgotten is that the European acquisition of economically available Africans was undertaken on a ship-by-ship basis. From this perspective of acquisition, a remarkably few Europeans on the beaches of Africa obtained astonishingly large numbers of Africans in relatively brief periods of time. The following excerpt from the 1675 report of Captain Peter Blake of the Royal African Company is not unusual in its description of the almost casual manner in which he worked to obtain a satisfactory number of enslaved Africans:

Monday 30: … came in sight of the towne of Assence. … Sent my pinase, with six of my passentg” rs to cape Corso with all the lett” rs and pap” rs belonging to the Agent. … Tuesday 31st: … several canoes came aboard from this towne to whom I sold severall goods for gold and slaves. … Sept” r 1675, Wednesday 1st: severall canoes came … to whom I sold severall goods for gold and slaves. (Donnan 1930)

Many accounts exist of negotiations between Europeans and African for slaves. In a journal entry made in 1746, a Captain Thomas Phillips complained about having to purchase the local king’s slaves: “the worst in the trunk, … ere they would shew us any other,” Phillips wrote, adding:

we paid more for them than any others, which we could not remedy, it being one of his majesty’s prerogatives… .When we had selected from the rest such as we liked, we agreed in what goods to pay for them, the prices being already stated before the king, how much of each sort of merchandize we were to give for a man, woman, and child, which gave us much ease, and saved abundance of disputes and wranglings, and I gave the owner a note, signifying our agreement of the sorts of goods. (Dow 2002 [1927], p. 61).

Phillips then had to pay taxes to the king’s representatives, a stipend to the “and captain” (the local African security man who kept watch over the growing assemblage of slaves), and supply gold to the seven African canoemen who ferried manacled slaves to his ship, the Hannibal. This type of interaction occurred hundreds of thousands of times over the 300-odd points of sale between Senegal and Madagascar.

Phillips’s report does not state the number of European seamen on the Hannibal, although by the mid-1700s European governments and chartered trading companies had began prescribing the ratio of sailors to the size of the ship, with a doubling of the number if the ship was engaged in the transatlantic slave trade. David Moore, in his account of the Henrietta Marie salvage project, notes the following: “In 1702, the frigate Angola, tonnage (capacity) of 125, carried a crew of 24; the 1706 galley Grayhound, tonnage 100, carried a crew of 20 seamen, in addition to the captain, quartermaster, doctor, book keeper and black “linguister” or translater [sic].” (Moore 1989, p. 41). The 120-ton Henrietta Marie itself, which foundered in Key West in 1700, had a crew of eighteen to twenty basically poor whites and a cargo of 205 slaves. In writing of the battles for a share of the slave trade between the Portuguese and Spanish (and later the French), Basil Davidson noted that “out of these grim rivalries, in small ships and with small crews, … wrecked and ruined by one another in sudden battles from the coast of Senegal to the Bight of Benin, there nonetheless emerged a pattern of commercial exchange and, gradually, a recognized order of behavior” (Davidson 1961, p.53). This “recognized behavior” was essentially persuasion rather than coercion. In actual practice, European slavers generally purchased slaves already in captivity, as Captain Phillips and many others reported.

Some African societies refused to be a part of the transatlantic slave business, most notably, at least for a time, Queen Nzinga Mbande of the Ndongo Kingdom, whose Imbangala mercenary warriors valiantly battled Portuguese slavers in the 1620s. Ironically, Nzinga later became “a Dutch ally, and undertook several small wars locally in order to provide the Dutch with more slaves than she could otherwise supply” (Thomas 1997, p. 184).


In treating the issue of availability, it is necessary to note the various ways in which individuals were designated “unfree.” Orlando Patterson, an international authority on global slavery, has identified at least eight different ways that individuals could become unfree: by military defeat, by community assault or kidnapping, as payment of tax, as payment of a debt, by judicial decree, by abandonment (of minors), by voluntary self-enslavement, and by being the offspring of a slave. If unfree Africans were not technically considered slaves by their overlords, after they were bought by Europeans slavers and placed into the international streams of commerce, they clearly became chattel, regardless of the words or concepts used by their sellers.

Stressing the “mildness” of the original African bondage system does not cancel the fact that these pawns, clients, vassals or fictive kinmen were sold to Europeans. Along with a host of other scholars, Patterson holds that the vast majority of Africans in the slave trade were captured in war or were kidnapped. These two sources provided more slaves than all the others combined, except perhaps birth.

The near universal prevalence of warfare as a means of creating unfree categories of individuals rests on a simple ideological foundation: In traditional warfare, the winner literally owns the loser, the victor having held off killing the vanquished. The loser owes the winner everything, including life itself. In traditional Africa, as elsewhere, the defeated males were often massacred, while the women and children became social outsiders whose “rights” were the prerogatives of the groups now controlling them. These prerogatives may include the ability to “own” others, to “own” material goods, or to marry and create families and to be considered adopted kinsmen. In many societies, a military victory was interpreted as a godly blessing for the winner and a reward for righteous conduct. This is the idea behind the concept of just and unjust wars. However, in wars of acquisition in traditional Africa, this European concept of a “just war” did not apply. In the Ganda kingdom in Uganda, for example, “it was in war … that lay the sources of their wealth such as livestock, slaves and ivory; in sum, the very things of which there is a shortage in Buganda”(Davidson 1969, p. 238).


It has been argued that traditional Africa was perhaps unique in its concept of the nature of rights. Here, “rights” had a dualistic aspect, in that they could: (1) be “owned” or recognized as belonging to the individual in accordance with his or her group membership status and under certain rules, or (2) be treated as commodities available for negotiated exchange. Suzanne Kopytoff and Igor Miers, who are close students of bondages in Africa, have this to say about rights: “When the question of rights-in-persons is considered in relation to African cultures, it becomes clear, first that such rights tend to be explicitly recognized and precisely defined in law; second, that they are the subject of complex transaction; and finally, that the position of the so-called “slave” can only be understood in the general cultural context of these rights” (Miers and Kopytoff 1977, p. 7).

In examining the precision, explicitness, variability and transferability of rights in traditional African cultures, anthropologists have concluded that few if any societies surpassed these societies in marketing such rights, which were seen as transferable in whole or in part. This meant

that many different levels of status and service existed as a consequence of the sale of rights, the lowest possible level being that of chattel slavery, where individual rights were totally transferred from a seller to a purchaser.

In kin-based societies where persons were also assets, the details of group membership rights are matters of customary laws of exchange, the ultimate purpose being that of conserving original values while effecting change. This point is best illustrated in the case of traditional marriages throughout continental Africa. Traditional Africans saw marriage as an occasion for the negotiated exchange of assets (both bride wealth and bride price), not only between the prospective bride and groom, but also between their corporate bodies or clans. “Bride price” refers to the value of the items involved in the bride wealth. Rights related to sexual expression and to individual and clan claims on children were altered under customary rules and modified by circumstance to determine the new conditions of kinship and “belonging.” During the slave trade era, “lobola,” or bride price, was measured in cattle—the number of cattle required depended on the bride’s particular assets, skill level, previous role in her family, and other factors. Details were determined by custom, and families planned years in advance to comply with them. Whereas in the early twenty-first century cash is as likely to be used as cattle, such practices are still followed in some societies. Jan Vansina, the author of Kingdoms of the Savanna, notes that in the traditional Kongo, “the Bolia and Kuba … have a type of marriage whereby in return for a great amount of bride wealth, the children or some of the children are detached from the descendents of the mother and become members of the father’s lineage.” Depending on the group custom, bride wealth rules may require, for example, that “men and their spouses and children … shift from the village of the husband’s father to that of his mother’s brother” (Vansina 1966, p. 25). If there are several daughters, each of whom is planning to marry, the transfer of clan membership presents bride wealth and bride price negotiators with a complicated scenario, the contents of which must meet the requirements of custom and satisfy the expectations of the groups involved.

Here, the concept of “belonging” is helpful in understanding traditional African practices of human exchange. If one were a full kinship member of a group, then one’s person and one’s rights were considered as “belonging in” the group, and as such they were basically not automatically subject to commodity exchange away from the group. Within the group was focused the intense religious devotion to the welfare and moral conduct of its members toward one another and toward peaceful outsiders. Full kinship, and hence full membership, rested on birth, marriage, and ritualistic total adoption or fictive inclusion. In between full inclusion and total exclusion of rights were many levels of subordination with customary “rights” attached to each level.

These rights could be modified, depending on given circumstances, by juridical decision, by in-group rules of “loaning” or pawning group members to other groups to satisfy an obligation, or by “self-sale” to a group for survival. “Belonging to” a group, on the other hand, stressed an external, outsider attachment to a given group. If one “belonged to” a kin group as a non-kin person, then in certain situations the rules of the commodity system could be applied. The remarkable thing about rights-in-persons transactions is that they appear to have been peaceful, with revolts of dependents being quite rare. The critical point is that once detached from a “belonging in” or a “belonging to” group, the affected person sold had no third party clan or community protection. Rights were detachable assets and could be treated as property in and of themselves. No continent-wide rule or agency existed to supervise human commodity rights transactions between European purchasers and African sellers.


In precolonial African societies, the larger the group, the greater a person’s individual status was in the context of other groups. If kinship was the cement holding together African lineages, “in the struggle for prestige, what was critical in all African societies was the number of dependents an ambitious man could acquire” (Patterson 1982, p. 83 [emphasis in original]).

Increases in group size were a function of natural increase among members within the group and of the numbers of individuals who were acquired by the group. Group enlargement also occurred as a result of peace negotiations. Ironically, the greater the size of a given group, the greater the ease with which it could reduce smaller groups to feudalistic vassalage and certain individuals to chattel slavery. The larger the group, the greater its prestige. This kind of situation might be defined as “wealth-in-people.”

Not only did traditional African societies value wealth-in-people as defining the intrinsic status of the group, but such societies appreciated people-as-wealth from a commodity standpoint. Regardless of the size of the social groups involved, and virtually independent of their relations with one another, people as exchange commodities were a common part of precolonial social systems throughout most of the African continent. The practice was quite common, whether in Senegal on the west coast or Kenya on the east, and whether in small kin-based social formations of a thousand souls or within large states such as the fifteenth-century Songhai Empire, whose boundaries could contain modern France and part of Spain. In the fourteenth century, Mansa Musa, ruler of ancient Mali (the predecessor state to Songhai), went to Mecca with an entourage of a reported 500 slave porters carrying supplies and exchange goods, bankrupting himself in the process.

Dependent persons without rights in traditional Africa were not only a form of wealth in and of themselves, they were also a source of additional wealth through their labors. According to John Thornton, who has looked rather closely at traditional bondage practices in Africa, “If Africans did not have private ownership of one factor of production (land), they could still own another, labor” (Thornton 1992, p. 85). Thornton argues that the relative absence of individual private ownership of land as wealth facilitated the view that ownership of labor was wealth. Land itself was the joint property of the group and was vested in the king or official head of the group. Persons possessing control or ownership of dependents, bond or otherwise, could profit by working communally held lands. The rulers, especially on the Gold Coast, used slaves as part of the apparatus of government. They were “used by state officials as a

dependent and loyal group, both for the production of revenue and for performing military service in the struggles between kings or executives … and other elite parties who sought to control royal absolutism” (Thornton 1992, p. 89).

All of the practices involving the acquisition and use of detachable dependents with attenuated or nonexistent rights contributed to the formation of a commercial ideology and mindset that made enslaved Africans available for exchange to lands east, north, and west of the African landmass, so that dependent Africans were soon found in India, China, and even Russia. The great tragedy, then, of traditional African social history is that its varied societies universally recognized commercial property rights in dependent persons far more than universal human rights. For traditional African societies, freedom was limited to persons “belonging in” their corporate groups. In practice, this meant that the market for rights as commodities was the whole world, whereas the venue for freedom was only one’s own defining local unit of humanity. African bondsmen were available to those who had the means to acquire them. The African proprietors of rights in and over other Africans treated the latter as gold.

The Europeans, meanwhile, in their accumulation frenzy to supply colonial labor demands, treated African availability as a gold rush, literally cashing in on the African conception of people-as-wealth. Their acquisitive greed stimulated African acquisitiveness regarding certain European trade goods: cloth, iron bars, guns, alcohol, basins, beads, mirrors, and so on, for the African ruling elites, stimulating commercial transactions that set in motion millions of human souls on thousands of ships over hundreds of years. Neither European purchasers nor African sellers could have existed without the other, sharing the ideology that some people of Africa could be treated as commodities. In retrospect, greed may be seen as the only common link between Africans and Europeans in the watershed years of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. This greed may have boomeranged on Africa, but it propelled Europe toward global power.


The international transatlantic slave trade lasted nearly 500 years, and the principal ideology that governed the European aspect of it was mercantilism or state coordination of private economic transactions, which was as important to the ideology of the slave trade as the ideology of transferable rights was to African participation in it. Both were ideologies of acquisition and wealth production. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, mercantilism was the belief that the state should coordinate all aspects of its economy in order to maximize its political power in an international environment of multistate competition among sovereigns claiming a divine right to rule.

The term mercantilism is a product eighteenth-century thought, when it was retroactively applied to historical analyses of the preceding two centuries by Adam Smith, Edward Ricardo, and Jeremy Bentham in their economic laissez faire arguments. The ruling elites of Spain, Portugal, England, France, and Holland, all maritime nations, were convinced that only by controlling the productive energies of their respective social systems could they achieve the power to prevail in economic and military contests among themselves. Gold and silver were required for funding large mercenary military forces on land and building a navel presence at sea. This meant that buying and selling commodities of any sort had to be done for the purpose of increasing rather than decreasing the gold supply within the nation. Of course gold was the original European interest in Africa. For the mercantilists, a healthy economy called for a balance of trade, or a situation in which the net result of the economic transactions of a nation was that it gained more gold and silver than it lost. To achieve this balance, a given nation was expected to export more goods than it imported. Tariffs or taxes on imported goods were also used to achieve this balance. Under mercantilism, a great value was placed on the control of import-export items, as well as on the sources of gold and silver.


The movement of gold and silver, and of slaves and the byproducts of slave labor, called for a strong naval presence. If mercantilism dictated economic collaboration within a society, then naval capabilities were necessary to move items of wealth, whether it was gold or human capital in the form of enslaved Africans. Mercantilism was the master ideology of the age of European expansion, and it directed and concentrated social energy with unprecedented precision. Whatever the form of these commodities, the wealth of nations depended on the conscious supervision of economic activities, including productive European domestic and African foreign labor. Enslaved colonial Africans worked out of sight of the peoples of the mainland of participating nation-states, a fact that may have contributed to spread of the concept of freedom for the average European and bondage for the average African in the Americas. Thus, the color line was drawn several centuries before W. E. B. DuBois, the eminent African American polymath, declared it to be “the problem of the twentieth century.” In the context of mercantilism, the institution of slavery was a secondary institution, a means to an end much larger than itself. It was an extremely controlled support of mercantilism.


The sixteenth-century European seafaring societies bordering the Atlantic Ocean had several things in common, including several natural advantages. England, Holland, France, Spain, and, above all, Portugal, possessed extremely long and easily accessible waterfronts, a situation that helped to sharpen their maritime skills. These societies also had geographic size sufficient to support investments in the transatlantic slave trade, and all but one was headed by an absolute monarch (Elizabeth I in England, Louis XIV in France, Dom Joâo III in Portugal and Charles V and different Phillips in Spain). The West India Company, established in 1621, was a principal transatlantic conveyer of slaves, governed by a Council of Nineteen, whose members were usually of one mind in matters of trade.

The trading company was the instrument of commerce and settlement, operating with delegated authority and partial funding from the state. Portugal, Spain, France, England, Holland, and even Sweden set up trading companies with varying levels of authority and autonomy to link colonies to the home country. To cite their names is to conjure up the age of exploration and settlement: the Casa de Contracio (Portugal, 1510), the Caracas Company (1628), the Dutch West India Company (1621), Compagnie des Cent-Associés (Company of a Hundred Associates, 1628), the Massachusetts Bay Company (1629), the Brazil Company (Portugal, 1649), the English Company of Royal Adventurers (1660), the Hudson Bay Company (1670), and the Royal African Company (1672), among others. In one way or another, the political and mercantile elites dominated these companies, whose existence represented sums of money and other resources far beyond the reach of a single merchant. The companies were de facto representatives of their governments as well as agents of private investors. In international trade, they were cargo carriers; the Royal African Company, for example, transported several hundred enslaved Africans across the Atlantic Ocean. Like the triangle of trade itself, these companies had three places of business: the home office, the African station or garrison, and the office of agents on the various islands, on the American mainland, or in the Brazilian coastal cities.

Companies established to underwrite the international business operations, including the use of slaves, initially were headed by the political and financial elites of their sponsoring countries. When the Royal African Company was organized, among its twenty-plus investors were the Duke of York (for whom New York is named); Sir George Carteret, the commissioner for Trade and Plantations; and the philosopher John Locke. The chief personnel of England’s Company of Royal Adventurers in 1660 included four members of the royal family itself, four barons, five earls, and two dukes. Queen Elizabeth I initially opposed slavery, but in 1564 she became an investor in slaving expeditions. When the French West India Company was organized in 1664, King Louis XIV himself set aside 3,000,000 livres to cover its expenses, including the purchase of African slaves for its Caribbean operations. His finance minister, Jean Baptiste Colbert, was its principal director. In Spain the “House of Contracts” was a subdivision of the Treasury Department, which reported directly to the king. The rulers of Spain and Portugal were direct participants in the operations of the colonial slave holdings, each receiving tax revenue from the slave acquisition agreements, or asientas. The Dutch Council of Nineteen hired the upper-status managers of the West India Company.

In short, colonial territories were held to be the possessions of kings and queens and by extension of the societies that established them. Mercantilism brought together rulers and their agents, agricultural and manufacturing sectors, and entrepreneurs and shippers on both sides of the Atlantic. Iberian, French, English, or Dutch companies were the micromanagers and movers of settlers and slaves, of gold and silver, of tobacco and other agricultural products such as sugar, coffee, rice, and cotton, and of forestry products such as timber. They transported the first generations of European settlers, including indentured servants and enslaved Africans to do the work of producing the goods and services for the trade side of the triangular system. In the context of mercantilism, the historian Niels Steensgaard wrote: “The specific north-west European contribution to the organization of European expansion became the companies, a unique form of co-operation between merchant entrepreneurs and government interests”(1981, p. 263). The entire trade system, however, depended on tightly controlled labor.

Such was the powerful combinations behind their seagoing agents dealing with African fragmented authorities representing social formations ranging from several hundreds to hundreds of thousands of persons “belonging in” them, the Ashanti and Dahomey kingdoms being examples of the larger size groups.

Some fifty years before Christopher Columbus dropped anchor in San Salvador in 1492, precolonial sugar cultivation shifted from a multicultural, multicolored workforce of Greek, Jewish, Islamic, and Cypriot slaves in the Middle East and the Mediterranean regions to an all-black enslaved labor force producing sugar on the West African Islands of Fernando Po and São Tomé and Principe, as well as the Cape Verde Islands and the Madeira and Canary Islands in the Atlantic Ocean. By the middle of the fifteenth century, Islamic and Christian slaveholders had adopted the ideology of the Hamitic curse, which lent a biblical imprimatur to consigning blacks to bondage, even as their own faiths began prohibiting, in theory, their enslavement of their fellow Christians, even as they continued to engage in internecine wars that usually ended in some sort of peace without enslavement of losers.

Before sugar cane cultivation became the key commodity of the slave trade, the people of the Iberian Peninsula were already accustomed to seeing blacks as a servile race of laborers. As early as 1450, the city of Lisbon, Portugal, contained an estimated 10,000 enslaved African domestics and porters. The Spanish cities of Seville and Cadiz contained large numbers of both Moslem and pagan blacks, some enslaved and some free. Religious creed, non-Iberian cultural backgrounds, and a lack of wealth appear to have been more influential than color per se in determining status. But with the advent of an all-black, all-slave workforce on the sugar plantations, a conflation of creed, culture, condition, and color took place. Henceforth, any African outside of Africa itself was presumed to be a slave.

Enslaved black laborers thus represented the personification of a host of negatives long associated with ideologies and traditions that represented blackness as evil, God’s curse, the devil, beauty’s opposite, and nighttime fears. The separation of blacks from other categories of humankind was seen as absolute. The black ideological color line existed in the European popular mind long before it appeared in European overseas commodity production. In large measure this pre-existing concept accounts for the speed with which colonial powers acquired and sprinkled the New World with enslaved Africans. This color line, in turn, rested on an ideological predisposition toward black servitude that was jolted into prominence by the almost convulsive energy of colonization. This color line has lingered ever since, embedded in the cultural memory of Western civilization. This rigorously enforced line, once literally a matter of life or death, has given the social construct of “race” a power that confounds reason.


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Russell L. Adams