Intro to Afro-American Studies
Colonialism and the Slave Trade
Toward a Paradigm of Unity in Afro-American Studies
|LOGIC OF CHANGE||Social Cohesion||Traditional Africa||-||Slavery||-||Rural Life||-||Urban Life|
|Social Disruption||-||Slave Trade||-||Emancipation||-||Migrations||-|
|UNITS OF ANALYSIS||Ideology||A1||B1||C1||D1||E1||F1||G1|
1694 the ship "Hannibal" dumped 320 of its cargo of 700 slaves
overboard during the Middle Passage. Thus 43% of its cargo was brutally
murdered on the voyage from Africa to the "New World." In 1781,
the captain and crew of the ship "Zong" tossed 133 slaves
overboard before landing because the voyage from Africa had left them too
ill to bring a good price. This barbaric method enabled the owners to
collect the insurance. These horrors were common during most of the slave
television series "Roots" excited much interest in this phase of
Afro-American history. The narrative of Gustavus Vassa, an African slave
writing in the 18th century, is vivid as an eyewitness account of these
horrors: forced capture; a long voyage with men, women, and children
packed like sardines below a ship's deck; attempts
to seize control of the ship punished by death; suicides as means
of escape; torture; and, finally, induction into a life of slavery.
THE SLAVE TRADE?
why the slave trade in the first place? And of what significance was the
result of the slave trade, especially the institution of slavery in the
United States? Few popular discussions provide sufficient answers to these all important questions. The usual practice is to dismiss the slave
trade and slavery as the result of "man's inhumanity to man" -
natural events that we are now too "civilized" to
practice again. Or slave trade and slaves are blamed on the "inherent
evilness of the devil - the white man." Both of these explanations
fall far short of explaining what actually happened in history and why.
The story is much more complex than that. In this chapter we will look at
some of the factors which caused the trade in Africans. In the next
chapter we will discuss the slave system of the antebellum South.
slave trade involved several important factors. The slavers were, for the
most part, European and American merchants. The source of slaves was
Africa, though slaves were taken from other continents as well. The
destination to which most slaves were taken was the so-called "New
World" - especially the West Indies. It is very important for us to
place the slave trade in international perspective if we are to understand
Eric Williams (1970) indicates the extent to which slave trading was an international venture:
early as the 15th century, England passed from raising sheep and producing
wool, an agricultural activity, to manufacturing cloth. This signaled the
beginning of capitalist production. It is in capitalist production that we
can locate the basic cause of the slave trade.
the system that preceded capitalism in Europe, was based on the ownership
of land by landlords, and their exploitation of serfs, who owned no land
and had to work for these landowners to survive. The production and trade
of goods and clothing was monopolized by a few skilled craftsmen and
merchants. Because of the increase in international trade, production had
to be carried out on a much larger scale. This system was not able to
produce the increased amount of goods and was therefore replaced by
manufacturing, a system in which many craftsmen still producing goods by
hand were brought together in a single "manufactury" or factory.
This enabled each craftsman to specialize in performing a single task in
production (e.g. putting the heel on all the shoes produced, instead of
working on the entire shoe). This division of labor and specialization
increased the amount of shoes, cloth, and other goods produced.
commerce and trade kept expanding, especially overseas, and more and more
goods were needed. The old manufacturing system was no longer sufficient.
Machines were invented to speed production, and large-scale industries,
based on the use of these newly-invented machines, steam, and water
power, were developed. It is in this historical context that we can see
how Africa and the slave trade were connected to this history-making
process. The slave trade was caused by the development of capitalism. It
also made an important contribution to the continued development of
OF CAPITALIST SLAVERY.
contribution to capitalism's development was made on two continents -
Europe (especially in England) and North America (in the United States).
Let us look briefly at some of the aspects of this relationship: markets,
land, labor, and profit.
Demands for Markets
was the economic theory which guided England. This theory stated that the
possession of gold, silver, and other precious metals was the basis of the
wealth of nations. Therefore, trade became important as England and other
nations struggled to monopolize sources of precious metals and to export
(or send to other countries) more goods than they imported (or received
from other countries).
was this need for precious metals and their shortage in Europe that led to
a period of exploration and discoveries. While many historians distort the
real motivation, Christopher Columbus who "discovered" America
in 1492 was very clear on why he undertook the trip: "Gold is a
wonderful thing! Whoever possesses it is lord of all he wants. By means of
gold one can even get souls into Paradise." Most of the great
discoveries we read about in geography and history - Vasco da Gama, Sir
Francis Drake, and even Estavanico (Little Stephen), the Black Spanish
explorer who discovered New Mexico - should all be understood as part of
the struggle of European countries to find gold so that one nation could
be stronger than another. Later, however, as capitalism developed further
and the techniques of production improved (more skilled labor, better
machines, bigger ships, faster communications, electrical power, etc.),
foreign lands were needed not so much for gold but as markets to sell the
manufactured goods which could not be sold at home.
Struggle for Land
continent escaped the domination of British colonialism. As the British
were once fond of saying (until the peoples of the colonies rose in
revolution and threw off the shackles of colonialism)., "The sun
never sets on the British Empire." It was the colonization of America
- especially the United States and the West Indies - that paved the way
for capitalism's rapid development in England. These colonies were ideal
for mercantilism. They provided a lot of wealth and required very little
investment. Colonial Virginia's tobacco, Carolina's rice, the sugar of the
West Indies, and New England's timber and tar for ships were important
goods that were exported exclusively to England. These colonies were
forbidden by England to trade with any other countries (so smuggling
became popular). They also were prohibited from manufacturing any item
that competed with a product made in England (like iron). On top of all of
this, gold and silver mined by Indians and Africans were also a great
source of wealth.
In providing all of this wealth, these colonies served the mother country well. It was to break this colonial exploitation by England that the American people (as others before and after them) declared in 1776: "GIVE ME LIBERTY OR GIVE ME DEATH!"
The Struggle for Labor
If the lands colonized in the Americas were to yield a
profit, labor was needed. The ruling class of England first attempted to
supply the labor from England by using indentured servants. Indentured
servants were given free passage to America in ex-change for their pledge
to work for a set number of years (usually four to seven or until they
were 21). This was very similar to slavery. This source of labor, however,
was insufficient. Slavery became the answer. The first instance of slave
trading and slave labor in the New World involved not Africans, but
Indians. As if taking the lands of the Native Americans were not enough,
the colonizers enslaved them. Excessive work, insufficient diet, and
diseases of European origin resulted in almost total genocide (the
systematic killing of a national group) of the Native American population.
was to Africa and the slave trade that England finally turned in order to
obtain the labor needed in America. Other kinds of labor proved too scarce
or too costly. The origin of Black slavery, according to Eric Williams in Capitalism
and Slavery, "can be expressed in three words: in the Caribbean, Sugar; on the
mainland, Tobacco and Cotton." He went on to add,
"The reason [for slavery] was economic, not racial; it had to do not
with the color of the laborer, but the cheapness of the labor."
population of Africa was abundant and could be purchased cheaply. Besides,
racism - an elaborate set of lies and distortions that branded Black
people as inherently inferior - was developed to facilitate economic
exploitation of the slaves by the capitalists. As Eric Williams pointed
out, "The features of the man, his hair, color and dentifrice
[teeth], his 'subhuman' characteristics so widely pleaded, were only later
rationalizations to justify a simple economic fact that the colonies
needed labor and resorted to Negro labor because it was cheapest and
best." We will return to the important issue of racism in almost
every chapter in this text.
The Source of Profit
In addition to supplying an all important labor force for the
development of the Americas, the slave trade itself yielded great profits.
To one influential mercantilist in the 18th century, slaves were "the
fundamental prop and support" of the English colonies. Another
described the slave trade as "the first principle and foundation of
all the rest, the mainspring of the machine which sets every wheel in
motion." Why this glowing tribute? It was because the slave trade not only
provided the population of workers for the plantations and mines of the
Now World, but it also made big profits for both the slave traders and
those who provided them with goods and services. Eric Williams in Capitalism
and Slavery cites many examples of ship owners' making double their
money in profits on the sale of slaves. The slave trade was perhaps the
most abundant source of quick and substantial profits during this period
The overall importance of all of this can be brought together by discussing the triangular trade. As stated in Capitalism and Slavery:
we see the close connection between the slave trade and the development
of capitalism in Europe. Capitalism represents an increased use of
machinery and increased demanded for more raw materials. This led to the
colonization of the Americas to secure land (raw materials), and to the
slave trade which supplied the needed labor. The profits from the sale of
slaves and slave-produced products were accumulated by merchants. They
then used these profits as capital to build bigger and better factories to
further exploit the workers and peasants of Europe. The exploitation of
African and European workers was two sides of the same coin.
addition, important inventions of the Industrial Revolution (when the use
of machines in production became widespread in all industries), like
Watts' Steam engine and several inventions in
the textile industry, were financed by slave-trade profits. Huge banking
fortunes, like Barclays Bank, also began with the slave trade.
significant, however, is the fact that the trade in slaves was the key
aspect of the triangular trade in which the increasing demand for goods
led to the expansion and further development of capitalist industry in
Europe. It is important to understand the historical though costly
contribution of Africans and Afro-Americans to the modern world of
capitalism through the slave trade.
IMPACT OF THE SLAVE TRADE
colonial relationship between England and America must first be emphasized
before we can understand the importance of the slave trade to the
development of the United States. America was colonized to serve the needs
of the English ruling class. Economically, it provided England with land
for agricultural production, valuable raw materials, a market for English
goods, and a profitable place in which to invest. Politically, England
dominated America. There was taxation without American representation
and the laws were made in England to serve its own economic interests.
make the best use of its colonial empire, English capitalism implemented a
colonial division of labor which enabled each colony to specialize and
produce more of certain goods. The West Indies specialized in sugar, which
was shipped to England and the mainland colonies. The mainland colonies
supplied England with tobacco, cotton, rice, indigo, grains, fish, and
naval supplies, to mention a few.
capitalism expanded in England, the demand for all of these goods
increased. It was for this reason, particularly in the southern colonies
and in the West Indies which were best suited for large scale plantation
agriculture, that slavery expanded, along with the slave trade which
supplied slave labor.
pointed out in the previous chapter that England and other capitalist
countries in Europe were the main slave traders. But American merchants
were also deeply involved in the slave trade, contrary to what many scholars say. Their
involvement, however, was not as great as England's because the American
merchants were part of a young capitalist class. Most had not had the time
to make enough money to build the large ships required for the voyage to
Africa. England thus supplied the American colonies with most of its
slaves, just as it dominated other markets.
not extensive, the trade involving American merchants and Africa was
concentrated in New England - Rhode Island and Massachusetts. For example,
93% of the exports of the American colonies to Africa between 1768 and
1772 were sent from New England. This specialization developed because New
England with its harsh winters and rocky soil was less suited to
plantation agriculture than other colonies, and it depended on shipping,
shipbuilding, and fishing to pay its debts to England. Slaves became an
important article of commerce in New England's trade. New Englanders
played a major role transporting slaves between West Indian Islands and
between the West Indies and the United States.
England merchants also engaged in a triangular trade: from New England, ships sailed with
food - especially fish - and other goods to be exchanged in the West
Indies for rum. The rum was then taken to Africa and, exchanged for slaves
who were brought back to the West Indies and exchanged for more sugar,
rum, and molasses.
Two important factors stand out in New England's involvement in the slave trade. First, the slave trade had the same impact on the development of capitalism in New England that it had in England. The slave trade stimulated the development of industries which supplied the slave traders with the goods they exchanged for slaves. The manufacture of rum, for example, became the largest business in New England before the American Revolution. Rum was so abundant and so cheap that it became the main item to be traded for slaves on the coast of Africa. In fact, it was so important that the price of slaves was often stated in quantities of rum!
New England benefited as much from the services it provided the slave traders as from direct involvement. In addition to its rum, its ships were widely used in the trade. Because the economies of the West Indies were forced to produce sugar for England, they had little time or land to grow food. Thus, fish from New England was its principal food item. As Lorenzo Greene summarizes:
The second important contribution of the slave trade is that it provided the source of capital from which many important and wealthy Americans accumulated their fortunes and gained prestige. Senators, governors, judges, philanthropists, newspapermen, scientists, educators, and many others were slave traders or profited from the trade. Josiah Franklin, Benjamin Franklin's stepbrother, was a prosperous merchant who not only sold slaves at his tavern but also permitted other traders to show their slaves there. He was hardly alone, for as Lorenzo Greene points out:
may have gained their wealth and position from the exploitation of slave
labor, but it was New Englanders who reaped the real profits from the sale
of slaves. T'he most important people were the capitalists who used the
profits from their slave trade- related activity to finance the textile
industry. The first industry to use machines and water power on a large
scale, the textile industry moved the United States into the age of
The Brown family of Rhode Island was one of the leading families of merchants in the United States. The Browns were involved in shipping to all parts of the world, importing molasses and distilling it into rum, making candles which they monopolized, banking, insurance, and real estate. Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island was named after them for their financial support.
few people know (and those who know don't tell) that the Browns were also
slave-trading merchants. Part of their fortune was made by selling
Africans into slavery or by supplying goods to those who did. In 1736,
Captain James Brown was the first Providence merchant to enter the slave
trade. 'One of his sons, Moses Brown, became interested in textile
manufacturing. The Brown family money financed experiments by Samuel
Slater an English mechanic, who, using now inventions from the textile
industry in Europe, perfected the first water-power mill. It pushed the
United States into the first stage of its Industrial Revolution.
important fact to remember about the rise of capitalism is
that it was during this process that the two great classes of our own time emerged: the bourgeoisie or capitalist class
and the proletariat or working class. By bourgeoisie we mean the
class of capitalists who own the means of producing goods and services
(factories, banks, land, mass media, etc.) and employ or buy the
labor-power of workers for wages. By
proletariat we mean the working class of people who own no means
of production of their own and who are forced to sell their labor-power for
wages in order to get enough money for food, clothing,
shelter, and other necessities.
is it important to mention these two classes in a chapter on the slave
trade? Because most discussions on television or radio or what we read in
our textbooks and in the newspapers fail to tell us where this ruling
class - capitalists like the Mellons, DuPonts, Rockefellers, Fords, etc. -
came from. Did they 'always exist? Did they just fall from the sky? Of
course not. Like everything else, the ruling class in this country and in
every other country in the world has a history. Our point here is that the
capitalist class that rules the United States has its roots in the slave
trade, which was one of the important sources of profit from which this
class accumulated the wealth that financed the early industrial
development of the United States.
It was the accumulation of wealth from the slave trade and other forms of exploitation (like paying workers low wages in factories and employing child labor for pennies a day) that enabled these early capitalists to build more factories, start banks, open newspapers to advertise their products and to shape public opinion in their interest, support universities to train new personnel, elect presidents and Congresses, and fight wars. All this was done in an effort to build their empire, to consolidate their control and domination over the United States and much of the world. It is important that we understand the relationship of Black people's history to this process, since any solution to today's problems must be based on an accurate and thorough assessment of this history
the significance of the slave trade extends beyond these important
economic factors. The slave trade was the historical process that forcibly
transported millions of Africans throughout the world, and concentrated a
significant number in the Black Belt section of southern United States.
Table 6 (below) indicates the growth of the slave population from 1790 to
The slave trade thus set the conditions for the subsequent development of the Afro-American experience. African influences in social life (institutions like religion and the church) and cultural life (language and artistic activity like music and dance) were transported during the slave trade. The slave trade also had important ideological ramifications. Racism, a set of beliefs which sought to justify the enslavement of Black people for exploitation and oppression, was born during the slave trade and nurtured during slavery in the antebellum South. Thus, the Afro-American experience of which the slave trade is an integral part is a complex set of experiences with many aspects that we will systematically examine in the remaining chapters of this book.
What is the triangular trade thesis on the slave trade as presented by
What were the similarities and differences in the way the rising
capitalist class in England and in the United States were connected to the
What impact did the slave trade have on England?
What impact did the slave trade have on the United States?
Jay A. Coughtry, The Notorious Triangle. Philadelphia: Temple
University Press, 1981.
W. E. B. Dubois, Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United
States of America. Now York: Social Science Press, 1954 (first
published in 1896).
Lorenzo J. Greene, The Negro in Colonial New England, 1620- 1776.
New York: Atheneum, 1968 (first published in 1942).
C. L. R. James, "The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slavery: Some
Interpretations of Their Significance in the Development of the United
States and the Western World." In Amistad 1: Writings on Black
History and Culture, edited by John A. Williams and Charles F. Harris.
New York: Vintage Books, 1970.
Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery. New York: Capricorn Books,
1966 (firsted published in 1944).