Slave Labor and the European Development of the New World

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Within several centuries, African American life had been framed by forced migrations. One of these enormous migrations was the transatlantic slave trade in which several regions like Africa, America, the Caribbean, Europe, and the Indian Ocean were involved. According to French historian Jean-Michel Deveau the slave trade and consequently slavery, which lasted from the 16th to the 19th century, constitute one of “the greatest tragedies in the history of humanity in terms of scale and duration.’’ The slave trade had its beginning when the Portuguese ships sailed down the West African coast in the 1400s. Under the leadership of Prince Henry the Navigator, Portugal took the leading role in searching for a trade route to Asia by traveling down to the coast of Africa. That is when the Portuguese were introduced to the African slave trade, which was already actively practiced among African states. Recognizing the value of this source of labor and discovering the possibility of purchasing huge numbers of black slaves at a low cost, the Portuguese soon began exporting African slaves along with African ivory and gold. This age of exploration and creation of the Atlantic world served as the earliest point of interaction among Native Americans, Africans, and Europeans. The African slave trade would become an imperative part of European settlement and development of the New World. By the middle of the eighteenth century, slaves could be found everywhere in the Americas. Between 1492 and 1820, approximately twelve million enslaved Africans were forcibly brought to the New World. The presence of African Slavery in America in 1861 was inevitable because most European colonial economies in the Americas from the 16th through the 19th century were dependent on enslaved African labor. The profits gained by Americans and Europeans from the slave trade and African slavery served to promote economic development and political growth in major regions of the Americas and Europe. Cheap labor, physical endurance, racial attitudes and, religious factors made Africans become the preferred people to enslave.

The earliest exploration and travels of Portuguese traders to western Africa was mainly motivated by the pursuit of profit. The primary goal of the exploration was not only to expand European geographic knowledge, but also to find the source of African gold, and to locate a possible sea route to valuable Asian spices. As a result, the Portuguese began conducting trades with local African groups along the west coast. Even though their initial intention was to trade for gold, ivory and spices, the voyagers found another even more valuable commodity—humans. In exchange for slaves, the Portuguese provided African kings with guns, cloth, and other European luxuries. The Portuguese also began experimenting with planting sugar cane on the coasts of Cape Verde and Madera Island realizing that sugar perfectly thrives in those climates. As a consequence, sugar plantations were established. As plantations were growing, the demand for labor to sustain production was rising. To keep profits high, plantation owners demanded a cheap labor force, and quickly, to cultivate and process the sugar. Since the sugar plantations needed a large number of workers, they decided that enslaved Africans could be the best providers of that labor. As a result, the Atlantic slave trade developed. Within years these plantations were wholly dependent on African slave labor. Many people were making enormous profits from voyages and this new economy: investors based in Europe, local plantation owners as well as slave traders.

Like many European explorers, Christopher Columbus encountered indigenous people throughout his voyages to the New World during an attempt to find a sea-trading route to the Far East. With his mission to find riches and conquer new lands, Columbus and his people perceived the natives as obstacles to their greater mission. In an era in which the international slave trade was starting to grow, Columbus enslaved many native inhabitants of the West Indies and subjected them to extreme levels of barbarity. On his famous first voyage in 1492, Columbus landed on an unknown Caribbean island and as soon as he came to the New World, he ordered six of the natives to be seized. As Columbus himself wrote in his journal, ‘‘They should be good and intelligent servants, for I see that they say very quickly everything that is said to them; and I believe that they would become Christians very easily, for it seemed to me that they had no religion.’’ (Johnson, 21) In other words, Columbus’s interactions with the indigenous people he labeled “Indians” was imbued with violence, slavery and the forced conversion of native peoples to Christianity. After his return to the Caribbean in 1493, Columbus intended to colonize the Tainos, seize their lands and planned to use them to mine gold. He also brought sugar cane from Spain’s Canaries into the New World to grow it for profit. Soon, Columbus established sugar plantations on the island of Hispaniola, forcing indigenous people to work his fields. Eventually, Hispaniola began reproducing industrial techniques and processes of the Atlantic islands and made the first shipment of sugar into Europe in 1516. The process of sugar production increased drastically through ages, and soon other European nations started cultivating it in newly conquered territories across the ocean. However, all efforts to force the native populations to work on the fields were unsuccessful because the inhabitants began dying in large numbers from diseases brought by Europeans (smallpox and tuberculosis), overwork and Spanish violence. Those who survived refused to work, and with their knowledge of the area, they were simply escaping to the countryside. Eventually, European colonists found an answer to their pressing labor shortage by importing enslaved Africans, who seemed to survive longer than the Native Indians. African slaves became a new source of slave labor. In 1501, the first shipment of enslaved African workers was sent to Hispaniola. The Spaniards purchased the slaves from the Portuguese and English traders in Africa.

The use of African slaves was essential to growing colonial cash crops and producing agricultural goods, which were later exported to Europe. Alternately, European goods were used to purchase African slaves, who were then brought on the sea lane west from Africa to the Americas, the so-called Middle Passage – the horrific journey during which those slaves who survived were sold as chattel. For decades, Spain brought African slaves and sugar plants into the New World. By 1619, many years after the Portuguese were first introduced to the slaves on the African coast, European ships had brought a million enslaved Africans to colonies and plantations in the Americas, where they were forced to labor.

The primary goal of European expansion and colonization was to acquire land and resources to produce exports to sell for profit on the growing Trans-Atlantic trade. Therefore, profitable production demanded significant labor resources. In 1607, English colonial ambition set the stage for England’s first lasting settlement in the New World: Jamestown. The colony on the Chesapeake Bay was a business enterprise that was funded by investors in the Virginia Company of London. However, their ambition was soon suppressed as English colonists were faced with famine in winter and suffered great losses. In the next few years, they experimented with planting tobacco and soon Jamestown had found a way to survive by growing and selling the crop. Since all these new tobacco fields required many hands and hard labor, white indentured servants from the working class of England came to the Americas. While the world of colonial America was controlled by the wealthy Englishmen, most of the indentured servants were poor English who traded 4-7 years of their labor while being fed and clothed in exchange of their work. After their time was up, these indentured servants received their so-called “freedom dues.” While the life of an indentured servant was harsh and restrictive, it was not as same as slavery. There were particular laws that protected some rights of the servants. Since the turn-over in indentured servants was rapid and the native Americans were unreliable and susceptible to new diseases, planters considered another option for solving the need for plantation labor. In 1619, a Dutch ship anchored at Jamestown and traded the Africans for food. In the beginning, some of the Africans, with no slave laws in place, were treated as indentured servants, and were given the same opportunities as whites. However, slave laws were soon passed – in Massachusetts in 1641 and Virginia in 1661 –and any small freedoms that might have existed for blacks were taken away. According to Different Mirror, “African Americans would remain degraded as unpaid laborers and dehumanized as property until the Civil War.” (Takaki 7) After making Black suitable for slavery, the colonial elite considered African slavery as a more profitable (unfree for life) and ever-renewable (child of a slave mother became a slave) source of labor.

Like many African slaves, white indentured servants were brought against their will to work for the elite in Virginia. Even though at the beginning, the white indentured servants and the Africans in America held fear for one another, after working side by side for their masters they began to share a strong bond. Some of them even came up with plans to escape, however most of the time they were caught and severely punished. The Africans always received harsher punishment with a much greater addition of commitment of working for the white masters. Despite such racial prejudice, despite the special subordination of blacks in the Americas in the seventeenth century, there was evidence that whites and blacks still maintained as comrades who respected each other. Because they shared their problems, their work, their common enemy in their master, white servants and black slaves behaved toward one another as equals. Therefore, there was always a possibility of cooperation. For that reason, American colonies became extremely concerned. Not only were they afraid of a black rebellion, but they were also horrified by the idea that discontented whites would join black slaves to overthrow the existing order. And eventually, they did. Nathaniel Bacon led a militia of discontented indentured servants, African slaves, and landless freeman, both white and black who revolt against the elite burning down the tobacco plantations, destroying homes, taking lives, and forcing the governor Berkeley to flee. Bacon’s Rebellion became the largest revolt in colonial English America. As Edmund Morgan saw it:

There are hints that the two despised groups initially saw each other as sharing the same predicament. It was common, for example, for servants and slaves to run away together, steal hogs together, get drunk together. It was not uncommon for them to make love together. In Bacon’s Rebellion, one of the last groups to surrender was a mixed band of eighty negroes and twenty English servants. (327)

In the respond to Bacon’s Rebellion, class resentment was redirected by colony leaders to racial hatred. After the landowners realized that the social order was in danger while being relied on white labor, the Virginia assembly began passing laws that gave indentured whites and poor white freedmen certain legal advantages over people of color. In his book, A Different Mirror, Takaki states, «By importing and buying more slaves, they could reduce their dependency on an armed white labor force and exploit workers from Africa, who could be denied to right to bear arms because of the race.» (60) The revolt had become the primary factor that changed the color of slavery and made Africa the primary source of labor.

Besides safety measures, the shift from servitude to slavery was beneficial for white elites in economic and social terms. According to Edmund Morgan, it was not only economically beneficial for the elite to have slaves who would serve for life, but the shift was also socially advantageous as it released tensions and opened up greater opportunities for poor white men. As he himself puts it, «The rights of Englishmen were preserved by destroying the rights of Africans.» (24) So basically, Morgan is addressing American Paradox, where two things such as slavery and freedom not only coexisted side by side, but also reinforced one another as slavery supported American freedom. In this case, the class was created by race. After 1680, in order to keep slaves as inferior as possible, new laws were enacted that restricted slaves from having freedom of assembly and movement. All blacks were disarmed and all children of ‘‘interracial unions’’ would be enslaved and classified as black. These laws made the cultural gap between blacks and whites even larger.

Many years after Bacon’s Rebellion, the Founding Father Thomas Jefferson, while being a slave owner himself, admitted immorality and shortcomings of slavery. However, despite his personal morals and feelings of guilt about his ownership of slaves, Jefferson was not willing to free them due to his personal debts. Since the plantations he owned were the only source of his income, Jefferson was simply depended on the labor of his slaves. Hoping that once he cleared off his debts, which never came true as he remained as a debtor until his death, Jefferson planned to abolish slavery. However, he argued that blacks had to leave the territory of America once they were freed. Jefferson argued that blacks and whites could never coexist together in a society. Seeing blacks intelligently inferior to whites and ignoring the facts that proved him wrong, Jefferson argued,

Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions which nature has made; and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions, which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race. (Foner 133)

Thomas Jefferson clearly felt conflicted on the subject of slavery, so he stated that slavery was «a necessary evil», and he hoped that one day at some point the institution of slavery would die a natural death. However, strong political and economic forces behind the institution of slavery as well as international influences made landslide abolishment of slavery impossible back then.

During the Antebellum period, slavery was utilized in the agricultural segment and was mainly concentrated in the South due to climate conditions. In those states, white settlers grew crops and used slave labor on their plantations. The invention of the cotton gin in 1793 strengthened the importance of slavery to the economy of the South and increased the demand for slave labor thus making Southern states slave-oriented. Moreover, the invention of the cotton gin combined with other developments initiated global trade. The quality of the cargo ships was significantly improved as they became much bigger and easier to navigate. These ships were equipped with newly invented steam engines, as well as weaving machines, which made it possible to increase cotton fabric production. All these factors significantly increased production and distribution and the South was ready to expand its cotton-based economy. With the increase in the amount of land needed for cultivation, the number of plantations expanded in the south and moved west to new territory. As cotton became the backbone of the Southern economy, slavery brought impressive profits. Therefore, the profits from trans-Atlantic slave trade prevented any incentive for reforming the economy. Meanwhile, in industrialized northern states, indentured servants proved themselves being more profitable as they manufactured goods in factories. During that period economical and political divisions between northern and southern states became surfacing more often. With each new state, a conflict arose, what economic model would this state adopt, Northern or Southern, and which political side would benefit from it. Northern states that adopted industrialization and paid labor, were in distaste of slavery, while Southern states that were depended on farming did not agree to free their slaves. Ultimately, the system of laws, politics, business, and social customs of the South reinforced slavery and racial stereotypes. The increased pressure of Southern politicians resulted in a revised Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 according to which the runaway slaves had to be arrested and returned to their owners. The law also considered slaves as property which allowed slave owners to move anywhere and still own their slaves. Unfortunately, Congress did not have the authority to decide where slavery could be allowed, which meant that all territories were reopened to slavery once again. However, by the middle of the 19th century, the expansion of America to the west and the abolition movement in the North provoked a debate on slavery that eventually led to the bloody Civil War. Although the victory of the Union liberated four million slaves in the country, the legacy of slavery continued to influence American history, from the Reconstruction Era to the civil rights movement.

To conclude, slave labor and its products were indispensable to the European development of the New World. It is certainly hard to imagine that European colonists could have developed North and South America without the hard work of African slaves. Moreover, a large amount of cheap labor in the form of African slavery was essential to producing the major consumer goods that were the basis of world trade during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries: tobacco, cotton, and sugar. With those cash crops, the southern states of America developed into the economic engine of the country. The benefits of slavery were visible in the profits and wealth of many planters and traders. In addition, the enormous profits made on the backs of enslaved Africans provided the capital needed for the rapid industrial expansion that took place in Britain. As a result, the transatlantic slave trade, New World plantation agriculture, and the westward expansion all facilitated a major shift that launched new definitions of freedom and connected the slave labor to new extremes of economic profit and oppressive racial categories. There is no doubt that slavery was extremely cruel, barbaric, and absolutely unjustifiable. But in the world where people were too concerned about chasing profit and wealth, economic growth trumped morality thus making cheap labor in the form of African slavery inevitable.

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