Racial Slave Labor in the Americas

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Editor: John Hartwell Moore
Date: 2008
Encyclopedia of Race and Racism
Publisher: Macmillan Reference USA
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 8
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Racial Slave Labor in the Americas

No other people in the history of the world are as identified with the institution of slavery as peoples of African descent. While they were not the original slaves and have not been the only slaves, black people came to occupy that status to such an extent that at certain times and in certain places, to be black was almost by definition to be a slave. For the purposes of this entry, slavery is defined as “basically a system of political economy in which the production process is carried on by slaves, human beings owned as property by other human beings. Slaves work under direct coercion, and the product of their labor is owned entirely by their owner” (Alkalimat 1986, p. 67). Slavery does not by definition have a racial element. But as Orlando Patterson has insisted, “race is not a factor to be ignored in the study of slavery where phenotypic differences exist.” When Africans became the main, almost exclusive, source of this labor in the Americas, it became the kind of social system most commonly referred to as “racial slavery.” Such systems were motivated by the need for cheap labor and the desire for maximum profit and effectively utilized both socially constructed biological categories of “race” and culturally propagated ideologies of racist animosity.

THE GEOGRAPHY OF RACIAL SLAVERY IN THE NEW WORLD

Patterns of “racial slavery” in the Americas cannot be divorced from historical developments in the broader international arena, especially economic dynamics. A fuller analysis should include a broader and historically deeper context not ordinarily considered: the development of the earth’s natural environment and the emergence, migration, and “racialization” of the human species from the place now called Africa. Europe, Africa, and the Americas are situated amid oceans and ocean and wind currents that made transatlantic navigation possible with the invention of new shipping technologies. Different geographical locations and climates were more conducive to growing some crops such as sugar and cotton than others, and even to where some crops are best processed and manufactured, a reality that spurred international trade. Cotton, for example, grows mostly in a belt between latitudes Page 473  |  Top of Article36° south and 46° north, with most being harvested in the early twenty-first century above 30° north (New Orleans is at 30.2° north). The skin color and other body features of the world’oldest human ancestors, who lived in Africa more than 100,000 years ago, would become the basis on which ideas about human differences and “racist” ideas about superiority and inferiority could later develop.

More recent historical dynamics, however, are the common starting points and these took on added significance as global economic competition started to unfold. In the waning centuries of the “medieval” period—Latin for the “Middle Ages” between antiquity and modern, generally between the fifth century and the fifteenth century—a new international economy had been established involving all the major powers of Europe. They all tapped into the worldwide economic network that the Muslims had established after they completed their capture of the Byzantine Empire in the early 700s. Central to this were the Muslim-led development of sugar production in the Mediterranean, sugar’s discovery and subsequent cultivation by Italians during the Crusades after 1099 and its introduction to Europe around 1150, and the eventual transplantation of sugar production to Iberia (modern Spain and Portugal), to the African Atlantic (e.g., the Canaries), and then to “New World” plantations beginning around 1500. The outcome of all of this was the consolidation of an Atlantic economy based on sugar production, which became the vessel for a new global system. The exploitation of this new set of relationships—to which the term colonialism is often applied—laid the foundation for the expansion of European economies and furthered the political development and consolidation of its major nation-states, a fact not fully enough explored in many discussions of global economic history.

In 1494 Spain and Portugal agreed to the Treaty of Tordesillas, which established an imaginary line of demarcation that had been drawn by the Catholic pope 1,100 miles west of Africa’s Cape Verde Islands. The treaty gave Spain control over much of the Americas to the West but prevented it from direct participation in securing slaves from Africa to the east of the line, a privilege that was granted to the Portuguese. As a result, Spain issued the asiento, an agreement that allowed other nations, including Portugal, Britain, and Holland, to sell slaves to the Spanish colonies between 1543 and 1834.

The lives and personal livelihoods of two men intent on serving their Christian God and seeking their fortunes—Prince Henry the Navigator (1394–1460) of Portugal and Admiral Christopher Columbus (1451– 1506), an Italian sailing under the flag of Spain—were closely linked to the developing world economy in which racial slavery in the Americas emerged, and prepared the foundation for it. Prince Henry’s successful 1415 conquest of Ceuta, the Moroccan trading center in North Africa, initiated his lifelong quest to discover and dominate the Eastern sources of the tremendous wealth accumulated by Muslim merchants he found there, especially extensive holdings of gold. Blocked from a route across the Mediterranean because of Muslim control, he sponsored many voyages that eventually led to the rounding of Africa’s Cape of Good Hope in 1488. Two of these voyages—in 1441 and 1444—returned to Portugal with Africans, an event that launched the trade of enslaved Africans into Europe. Prince Henry ordered that sugarcane be taken from Sicily to Madeira in the 1420s. By the 1550s these islands and São Tomé all had booming sugar plantations with enslaved African laborers. Prince Henry thus developed the old world precursor of the form of sugar growing—the plantation—as well as laid a foundation for the recruitment of its principal source of labor—Africans.

From his first voyage in 1492, Columbus was eloquent about the importance of gold in a 1503 letter to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella on his forth voyage, calling it “the most precious of all commodities. … He who possesses it has all he needs in this world, as also the means of rescuing souls from purgatory, and restoring them to the enjoyment of paradise.” But it was gold and sugar that was decisive for the rise of racial slavery in the Americas. In 1493, while looking for gold, Columbus took the first sugarcane from the Spanish Canaries to Hispaniola—now the Dominican Republic and Haiti— and this island became the site of the first sugar industry in the Americas and shipped the first sugar back to Europe in 1516. Three factors combined to create what Alfred W. Crosby Jr. (1972) called “the Columbian exchange,” summarizing the global developments of this era: the transplantation of sugar to the Americas, access to vast new lands, and a seemingly unlimited source of labor from Africa. By 1630, sugar had spread from Brazil to Guyana, Surinam, Barbados, St. Christopher, Nevis, Montserrat, Antigua, Dominica, Grenada, St. Vincent, and Tobago. Over the course of the eighteenth century, Jamaica became the leading sugar producer in the British Empire. The Spanish undertook similar promotion in Santo Domingo, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Jamaica.

The colonizing impulse grew out of the system that would in the future be called mercantilism. Because mercantilism sought a favorable balance of trade—where exports exceeded imports—and because precious metals were a primary measure of wealth, the conquest of foreign territory and the subsequent control of the available mineral resources, especially gold and silver, were prime tactics in the arsenal of mercantilism. The demand for labor was shaped by the need for the large-scale labor systems—plantations— on which sugar cultivation was based. Slavery, however, did not emerge immediately as the first system of choice for supplying labor in the colonial territories of European powers, and the slavery that was transferred to the Americas Page 474  |  Top of Articlewas not mainly or exclusively the enslavement of Africans. White indentured servants were first used, and attempts to forcefully enslave Native Americans led to a disaster of genocidal proportions, with some scholars estimating that perhaps three-quarters of the entire population of the Americas was wiped out in the 1500s. In 1537 Pope Paul III recognized the humanity of Indians and prohibited their enslavement, a ban not extended to Africans. But millions died in battle with the Spaniards and the Portuguese and in forced labor centers such as the mines of Mexico and Peru, with much greater numbers dying in epidemics. This is what Eric Williams meant in Capitalism and Slavery (1944) when he declared: “Slavery in the Caribbean has become too narrowly identified with the Negro. A racial twist has thereby been given to what is basically an economic phenomenon. Slavery was not born of racism: rather, racism was the consequence of slavery. Unfree labor in the New World was brown, white, black, and yellow; Catholic, Protestant, and pagan” (p. 7). It was to meet the demand for labor, to use Williams’s even plainer words, that “Negroes therefore were stolen in Africa to work the lands stolen from the Indians in America” (p. 9).

SLAVERY, THE SLAVE TRADE, AND THE NUMBERS GAME

As sugar production and mining spread, so too did slavery and the slave trade. Understanding the dimensions of the trade in enslaved Africans as real commodities, not what Sidney W. Mintz (1985) called “false commodities,” is necessary to fully understand the impact of racial slave labor in the Americas. One of the most contentious debates in all of world and U.S. history since the 1950s involves the number of Africans enslaved via the slave trade and the social, cultural, economic, and ideological impact and significance for points of origin, points of destination, and the home ports of the traders. This issue was central to one of the two main propositions in Williams’s Capitalism and Slavery, and it was addressed provocatively in Walter Rodney’s classic How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (1972), which challenged prevailing paradigms by asserting that the development of the West and the underdevelopment of Africa and the Third World were flip sides of the same coin.

A recent estimate of the total numbers involved in the slave trade was based on detailed compilations resulting from a project organized by David Eltis and a team of scholars at Harvard University’s W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. Published in 1999 as The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade (TSTD), this database initially covered 27,227 voyages. That was increased in a 2007 update by 7,000 new voyages and additional information for more than 10,000 already included voyages that Philip D. Curtin had provided in an earlier estimate of the slave trade in his 1969 book, The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census. His figure was challenged and revised upward by Joseph E. Inikori and other scholars, leading to the assertion that roughly 9,566,100 slaves were imported into the Americans between 1451 and 1870. Neither this estimate nor the relative shares of its various national participants were substantially altered by the findings of the Du Bois Institute team, which concluded that some 11,062,000 slaves were transported from Africa between 1519—their date for the first transatlantic voyage from Africa to Puerto Rico—and 1864, the year of the last recorded voyages. Additionally, TSTD estimated that 55.1 percent were transported during the eighteenth century and that 29.5 percent were imported during the first half of the nineteenth century. They also found comparatively minor participation by U.S. merchants, a figure shaped more by their small size and not by moral and ethnical considerations. Only about 2.5 percent of slaves were imported into the United States—some 280,000—and almost 48 percent of these Africans were imported after the American Revolution in 1776. The Du Bois Institute database did cast new light on where the enslaved Africans originated and where they were taken and by whom, information that is important for the study of the cultural dynamics of the African “diaspora”—a Greek word meaning “a scattering or sowing of seeds.”

Comparing the growth of the African population in the Americas with the population of European ancestry yields important insights. In 1650 there were approximately 100,000 European colonists in British America and only about 16,200 African slaves, with 15,000 in the British West Indies. The mainland British colonies were 97 percent white, and the British Caribbean islands were 75 percent white. One century later, the mainland was 80 percent white, and the islands were only 16 percent white. In most decades between 1650 and 1750, the percentage increase was greater for blacks than for Europeans. During this period more African people than European people entered the Americas. Up to 1820, among those people who were transported across the Atlantic, Africans outnumbered Europeans by a ratio of more than three to one: almost 8.4 million Africans and 2.4 million Europeans. Between 1820 and 1840, the number of Africans imported as slaves totaled 1,165,900, whereas the number of free migrants totaled only 824,500. The result was the firm establishment of the Atlantic economy based on slave labor from Africa—the demographic revolution long labeled as “the Africanization of the Americas.” Scholars who study this issue often ignore the fact that the Americas were already “peopled”—Columbus in 1493 described Native Americans as “a population of incalculable number.” They also ignore or slight the role of Africans in the process of “re-peopling” British North America after the genocidal impact on the population of Native Americans, Page 475  |  Top of Articlethe original inhabitants who were mislabeled by Columbus as “Indians.”

ROOTS OF GLOBALIZATION AND THE CAPITALIST WORLD ECONOMY

When comparing the history and geographical distributions of African slaves in the Americas with other economic activity, one is led to the same conclusion reached by Williams (1944): “Negro slavery, thus, had nothing to do with climate. Its origin can be expressed in three words: in the Caribbean, Sugar; on the mainland, Tobacco and Cotton” (p. 23). In fact, it had everything to do with climate, specifically a climate—and geographical regions— that offered competitive advantages in the growth and shipment of sugar, tobacco, and cotton for plantation slave economies. Williams, by contrast, was battling against a climate-based theory that suggested Africans were more fit to work in tropical regions than Europeans.

Some scholars continue to misconstrue the argument in Capitalism and Slavery by asserting that Williams emphasized only the slave trade rather than slavery as an integral part of a broader global economic dynamic called “the triangular trade” or “the slave(ry) trade” (Bailey 1992, 1990). Inikori’s Africans and the Industrial Revolution in England: A Study in International Trade and Economic Development (2002) is a powerful contribution to this discussion. His analysis includes the role and impact of African labor in several sectors: commodity production and the growth of Atlantic commerce; the growth of shipping; the development of financial institutions; the mining and production of raw materials and industrial production; expansion of markets; and the rise of manufacturing. Discussions of slave labor in the Americas should not be considered complete without such breadth of coverage.

Inikori concludes that the share of export commodities produced by Africans in the Americas can be summarized as follows: 1501–1550, 54 percent; 1601–1650, 69 percent; 1711–1760, 80.6 percent; 1781–1800, 79.9 percent; and 1848–1850, 68.8 percent. Overall, during this same span, the average annual value of export commodities increased from almost £1.3 million to more than £61 million. These trends can be seen in the big three of British exports: tobacco, sugar, and cotton. Between 1752–1754 and 1854–1856, they comprised between 69 and 77 percent of the value of all exports. Over this same period, the value of tobacco exports increased 2.2 times, that of sugar 2.5 times, and that of cotton an astounding 329 times. The link between these crops and slave labor is clear.

Sugar, for example, shaped the Atlantic slave trade in the early period. “It was Europe’s sweet tooth, rather than its addiction to tobacco or its infatuation with cotton cloth, that determined the extent of the Atlantic slave trade,” according to Robert William Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman (1974). “Sugar was the greatest of the slave crops. Between 60 and 70 percent of all the Africans who survived the Atlantic voyages ended up in one or the other of Europe’s sugar colonies” (p. 16). And most of the world’s sugar supply was produced by enslaved African labor in the Americas.

Overall, the significance of commodities produced by enslaved African labor has been vastly underestimated, an important issue in economics theory when the “multiplier effect”—when spending or economic activity in one sector stimulates activity and expansion in other sectors—is ignored by historical and static approaches. Combined, two African-produced commodities—cotton and sugar— accounted for 63 percent of all imports into England in the 1854–1856 period.

Cotton is by far the best example of how the processing of African-produced raw materials undergirded England’Industrial Revolution and highlights the impact of racial slavery first in America and later in the United States. As a share of the total value added in manufacturing, cotton increased its share from 2.9 percent in 1770 to 29.2 percent in 1831. Raw cotton consumption grew from £312,000 in 1770 to £13 million in 1831. The source of this raw cotton is key in understanding slave labor in the Americas. In the 1854–1856 period, raw materials from Africa and the Americas accounted for 43.3 percent of total imports into England. In this same period, raw cotton from the United Sates and produced by enslaved African labor contributed 91.1 percent of this total. Further, Africa and slave-dominated economies in the Americas were important as “vents” or markets for British manufactures and helped in their expansion, consuming almost all of a British cloth called “checks” in 1769. The need for credit in the Atlantic slave economy had a major impact on the development of financial institutions that arose primarily to deal with bills of exchange originating in overseas trade centered in the Atlantic basin (Inikori 2002).

Because of the demand for cotton, the slave population in the United States grew from 697,124 in 1790 to almost four million in 1860 owned by 393,967 slave owners. Forty-five percent of these owners held six or more slaves. It is no accident that the leading cotton-producing state in the United States in 1860—Mississippi—was the state with the largest population of slaves, and it remained a majority-black state until 1940 when cotton was still the largest earner of export dollars for the U.S. economy. But slavery in the United States was a national institution. Slavery in the U.S. North is so often neglected that many people express surprise that owning slaves was an established practice in all of the original thirteen colonies,

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Slaves Working on a Cotton Plantation.

Slaves Working on a Cotton Plantation. Slavery began in America as an answer to the need for cheap labor and the desire for greater profits. GENERAL RESEARCH & REFERENCE DIVISION, SCHOMBURG CENTER FOR RESEARCH IN BLACK CULTURE, THE NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY, ASTOR, LENOX AND TILDEN FOUNDATIONS.

with almost 50,000 above the Mason-Dixon Line in 1790. Slaves in the North were mainly concentrated along the seacoast, in major cities, and in the few regions such as southern Rhode Island and Connecticut where plantation-style agriculture was conducted (Greene 1942, Melish 1998).

But it was not the numerical presence of slaves and slave labor in the North that was most significant, but rather the North’s dependence on the raw materials produced by the labor of enslaved Africans in the southern United States, especially cotton. This provided the platform from which industrial capitalism was launched, a case that parallels the story in England. Between 1787 and 1825, three groups concerned about the economic independence of the new nation used wealth largely accumulated in the slave(ry) trade—buying and selling slaves, manufacturing commodities using slave-produced raw materials, selling to slave-based economies, and so on— to finance and expand the industrial revolution in the United States (Bailey 1990, 1992) the first was the Beverly Cotton Manufactory of Beverly, Massachusetts, launched in 1787 by the Cabot family (brothers John, George, and Andrew, and sister Deborah) and other prominent investors. It lasted for more than a decade and was influential in several ways. It pioneered the use of public credit for private capitalist ventures, employed forty workers, invented new equipment, produced as much as 10,000 yards of cloth of increasing quality per year, and educated and inspired the next generation of industrial innovators.

The second was Moses Brown, a member of the founding family of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1791. With the help of Samuel Slater, a young mechanic who violated British laws against the emigration of textile specialists, Brown built the first U.S. mill to use British technology and waterpower to spin raw cotton into yarn. The third and most decisive was Page 477  |  Top of ArticleFrancis Cabot Lowell and a group that came to be known as the Boston Associates, which founded the Boston Manufacturing Company in Waltham, Massachusetts, in 1813. Eli Whitney’s cotton gin solved the bottleneck in the supply of raw cotton by mechanically removing its seed, and this laid the basis for the explosion of cotton production and slavery in the South and of cotton textile manufacturing in the North. Between 1815 and 1860, the consumption of raw cotton in the United States increased from 31.5 million pounds to 470 million pounds, mainly as a result of demand in New England. The contribution of slave-produced cotton did not stop there. In emphasizing that the extension of the domestic market was the key influence on manufacturing development in the United States and that this resulted from regional specialization, Douglass C. North (1961) puts the cotton trade at the very center of this process of regional specialization, concluding that “the growth of cotton income in the 1830s was the most important proximate influence upon the spurt of manufacturing growth of that decade” (pp. 166–167). Karl Marx had already extended this line of thinking on a global scale: “Direct slavery is as much the pivot upon which our present-day industrialism turns as are machinery, credit, etc. Without slavery there would be no cotton, without cotton there would be no modern industry. It is slavery which has given value to the colonies, it is the colonies which have created world trade, and world trade is the necessary condition for large-scale machine industry” (quoted in Bailey 1986, p.10).

Finally, one can also see the impact of slave labor in the Americas not only on nations but also on corporations and their owners that developed through historical ties to the slave trade and slavery and their exploitation of African labor. The controversy sparked by the call for reparations is based in part on such evidence. Among British financial institutions with links to the slave(ry) trade are the Bank of England; Barclays Bank, the third largest in Great Britain in the early twenty-first century; and the insurance underwriter Lloyd’s. The Anglo-French financial firm Rothschild is also reported to have such links. In the United States, Wachovia Bank contracted with a historical research firm to explore the role of its predecessors in slavery, and its research revealed that two of its predecessor institutions—the Georgia Railroad and Banking Co. and the Bank of Charleston—owned slaves. The former FleetBoston—once Bank of Boston and subsequently owned by Bank of America—has acknowledged that one of its predecessors was Providence Bank, owned by the slave trader John Brown. Aetna issued an apology in 2000 because it had once issued insurance on slaves.

The State of California and the City of Chicago are among the governmental units that currently require corporations desiring to do business with them to specify any historical relations with slavery, and it was such a law that prompted Wachovia’s disclosure. President Bill Clinton came close to an apology for U.S. complicity in slavery on his Africa tour in March 1998, and in November 2006 Tony Blair, then the British prime minister, issued “a public statement of sorrow” over Great Britain’s role in slavery and the slave trade. Virginia’s 2007 apology was rare among states, and others have followed suit. Even institutions of higher education have engaged this aspect of their legacies, among them Brown University’self-study initiated in 2003 by Ruth Simmons, its first African-American president. Whether the demands for reparations are historically justifiable and exactly how such reparations are to be realized—through payments to individuals, through funding expanded educational opportunities, or through statements of apologies—are the focal points of spirited discussion and debate.

SLAVE LABOR AND THE NONAGRICULTURAL SECTOR

Much scholarly research and debate has centered on slavery in the rise of commercial, manufacturing, and industrial capitalism, and the production of agricultural products. Ironically, the roles enslaved Africans played outside the agricultural and industrial sectors as domestic and personal aides have been more important both historically and currently in shaping the public mind-set of slaves as a subservient class. This fact, for example, was dramatized both by the role of Mammy in the 1939 movie Gone with the Wind and by the controversy that this portrayal sparked. For that portrayal, Hattie McDaniel won the first Academy Award presented to an African American. Slaves were essential as maids, cooks, tailors, seamstresses, butlers, and barbers. Traditional economic theorists have been as reluctant to include the important contribution of unpaid slave labor to national productivity—especially the unpaid labor of enslaved service workers—as they have been to include a full accounting of the importance of unpaid labor of women’s household work, a point of considerable controversy.

It is in this economic sector where the particular experiences of black women in the slave labor force must be highlighted, a condition described by many scholars as “triple oppression” on the basis of race, class, and gender. “As blacks, slave women were exploited for their skills and physical strength in the production of staple crops,” writes Jacqueline Jones in Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow (1985); “as women, they performed a reproductive function vital to the individual slaveholders’s financial interests and to the inherently expansive system of slavery in general” (p. 12). In the “Valley of the Shadow” database, a powerful database of Civil War information, one can glimpse service occupations for enslaved women of Augusta County, Virginia—housekeeper, house servant, maid, seamstress, Page 478  |  Top of Articleand washerwoman. Men worked in such unskilled jobs as attendants, carriage drivers, gatekeepers, shoeblacks, stage drivers, and waiters. These roles can be confirmed by firsthand testimony in such works as the slave narratives compiled by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and, especially for black women, in such literary works as Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) and Margaret Walker’s Jubilee (1966).

It is also important to highlight the role of slavery outside the agricultural section in the section of the United States that one scholar called “North of Slavery.” In The Negro in Colonial New England (1942), Lorenzo Johnston Greene concludes that “to meet the demands of New England’s diversified economy, the slave had to be more skilled and more versatile than the average plantation Negro accustomed to … a single crop. The New England slave had to be equally at home in the cabbage patch and in the cornfield; he must be prepared … not only to care for stock, to act as servant, repair a fence, serve on board ship, shoe a horse, print a newspaper, but even to manage his master’s business” (p. 101).

CONCLUSION: RACIAL SLAVERY, THEN AND NOW

Widespread commemorations and celebrations were planned for 2007 and 2008 to mark the two-hundredth anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade. In the minds of some observers, such celebrations are misplaced. Despite Great Britain’s slave trade abolition in 1808 and the Congressional mandate to end the slave trade to the United States that same year, slavery continued in Great Britain until 1833 and in the United States until the Civil War, which cost the lives of more than 620,000 people between 1861 and the abolition of slavery in 1865 with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. The fact that more slaves were imported into the United States after the 1808 decree than before demonstrates that racial slavery in the Americas flourished rather than subsided.

The significance of slavery and its legacy continue to echo in the history of the Americas, and in world history, and the debates will continue. Some argue that putting too much emphasis on race and ethnicity—and on racial slavery—hampers progress in achieving racial unity and a color-blind society. Others argue that a focus on racial slavery distorts one’s grasp of the economic or class component of slavery in the Americas, and the dynamics and impact of capitalism that should unite working people across racial lines. Still others argue that such historical considerations have little bearing on the current conditions of black people in the United States or around the world, and should be discouraged because they divert the search for solutions to such pressing problems as poverty.

Regardless of what position is taken, one should grasp that the abolition of the slave trade and racial slavery in America and the recognition of the progress since is no substitute for fully understanding the phenomenal contribution that slave labor made to the rise of Europe and the United States. While the debate over profitability may continue, there is too much evidence to dispute that slave labor in the Americas produced an enormous economic surplus or profit that financed many new economic ventures and social and political initiatives. But E. J. Hobsbawm (1968) reminds his readers that the real contribution of the slave(ry) trade was well beyond profits collected by any individual and resides in structural transformation during the period called the “general crisis” that marked the last stage of transition from feudalism to capitalism. It involved the expansion of the consumer market in Europe, the rise of overseas colonies tied to supplying Europe’s needs, and the spread of colonial enterprises to provide more consumer goods for Europe and more markets to consume what Europe produced. Racialized slave labor in the Americas was an inextricable component of the very foundation for these developments.

What is needed most is a theoretical paradigm or framework that can be used as a guide to considering how an array of factors—color, class, culture, and conscious-ness—all interacted (and still interact) simultaneously and across all periods of history to shape the complexity of the black experience in the Americas and, in fact, the experiences of all the peoples who lived and live in what is now popularly called “the Atlantic world.” With such a framework, it would be easier to understand that the historical issues connected to racial slavery in the Americas go well beyond academic debate. Worsening race relations amid a deepening crisis of the U.S. and global capitalist economy is one of the dynamics of general interest. The deepening poverty and the spread of AIDS are also disturbing. And the sharpening debates about reparations and the Supreme Court’s leanings to revisit and revise affirmative action rulings in the United States, including its June 2007 ruling, are examples of things to come.

If it is true that “the significance of race in the American past can scarcely be exaggerated,” as Leon F. Litwack asserts (1987, p. 317), it is even more powerfully the case that the significant contributions that flowed from the confluence of race and color with class and wealth that is the essence of racial slave labor have shaped the history of the Americas in ways that have eluded all but the most perceptive observers. As people seek to understand the realities of a post-9/11 world, the dangerous rise of terrorism, and the appropriate relationship between the developed and underdeveloped sectors of the globe, it would help to have an accurate view of the economic contributions of racial slave labor in the Americas and its broader social and political impact in order to Page 479  |  Top of Articleproperly grasp the contemporary significance of this bygone era, and to choose the most appropriate road forward for the future.

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Ronald Bailey

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2831200319