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The Black Experience in America By Norman Coombs Characters: 22961

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07

The Human Market

The Slave Trade

Neither slavery nor the slave trade came to West Africa with the arrival of the Portuguese in the middle of the fifteenth century. To the contrary, both institutions had a very long history. A two-way slave trade had existed between the West Africans and the Arabs for centuries. In view of the social structure of both societies, sociologists believe that the Arabs could make use of more slaves than could the West Africans. Therefore, West Africa probably exported more slaves than it imported.

Slaves, besides being common laborers, were often men of considerable skill and learning, Slavery was not a badge of human inferiority. Thus, the first slaves procured by the Europeans from Africa were displayed as curiosities and as proof of affluence. While, especially at the beginning, some slaves were taken by force, most of the African slaves acquired by the Europeans were obtained in the course of a peaceful and regular bargaining process.

When the Portuguese arrived in West Africa, they found a thriving economy which had already developed its own bustling trading centers. Before long, a vigorous trade opened up between the Portuguese and the West Africans. Slaves were only one of a great variety of exports, and guns were only one of a large variety of imports. One of the ways in which the slave trade came to cripple the West African economy was that slaves became almost the exclusive African export. The more the Africans sought to fulfill the Europeans' thirst for slaves, the more they needed guns with which to procure slaves, and to protect themselves from being captured and sold into slavery. Therefore, the Euro-African trade, instead of further stimulating the African economy, actually limited production of many items and drained it of much of its most productive manpower.

The rulers, who had voluntarily and unwittingly involved themselves in this gigantic trade, soon found themselves trapped. Those who wanted to eliminate or reduce the trade in slaves and who preferred to develop other aspects of a trading economy, found themselves helpless. A ruler who would not provide the Europeans with the slaves they desired was then bypassed by all the European traders. Besides losing the revenue from this trade, his own military position was weakened. Any ruler who did not trade slaves for guns could not have guns. Without guns, he would have difficulty in protecting himself and his people. Any ruler or people who could not provide adequate self-defense could be captured and sold into slavery. Once begun, the Africans found themselves enmeshed in a vicious system from which there seemed to be no escape. The only possibility for escape would have been the development of some kind of African coalition, but each petty ruler as too concerned with his own power to be able to contemplate federated activity. European greed fed African greed, and vice a versa.

In the beginning, African slaves were carried back to Portugal and other parts of Europe to be used as exotic domestic servants. In some cases, they were also used as farm laborers. Parts of Portugal were suffering from a distinct shortage of farm laborers, and Africans filled the void. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, in some sections of rural Portugal as much as one third of local population was African in origin.

Even so, European labor needs could not support much of a slave trade for long. The enclosure system was under way, changing farming techniques, and it had created a labor surplus. However, at the same time, emerging capitalism financed explorations in Africa, Asia, and the western hemisphere. African sailors were involved in most of these explorations including Columbus's voyage in 1492. New World gold provided the economic basis for even more rapid European expansion. When the New World came to be viewed by the hungry capitalists as having a potential for agricultural exploitation, New World labor needs expanded astronomically. At first these needs were filled by surplus labor from Europe or by exploiting the local Indian populations. When these labor sources proved to be inadequate, the exploitation of slave labor from Africa was the obvious answer.

While the Portuguese were the first to reach the shores of West Africa and the first to bring African slaves back to Europe, neither they nor the Spaniards ever dominated the slave trade which followed. In 1493, as European exploration of the world moved into high gear, the Pope published a Bull dividing the world yet to be explored into two parts. His intention was to limit competition and conflict between the rulers of Spain and Portugal and to prevent undue hostility between his two main supporters.

However, this left the other European powers, officially, with no room for overseas expansion. While these powers refused to acknowledge the legality of the Bull and soon became involved in exploration and colonization in spite of it, they also tended to become more involved than did Portugal or Spain in some of the by-products of colonization, such as the slave trade. When the Spaniards began to use slaves in their American colonies, the Dutch, French, and British were only too eager to provide the transportation. Before long, they too had colonies and slaves of their own.

The triangular trade between Europe, Africa, and the New World, was one of the most lucrative aspects of the mercantile economy. Mercantilism sought to keep each country economically self-sufficient. Within this framework the role of the colony was to provide the mother country with raw materials which it could not produce for itself and to be a market for the consumption of many of the manufactured goods produced within the mother country.

This triangular trade began in Europe with the purchase of guns, gunpowder, cheap cotton, and trinkets of all kinds. These were shipped to the coast of West Africa and unloaded at a trading station. At key points along the coast, the European nations had made treaties with the local rulers allowing them to set up trading stations and slave factories. At this point, the European traders entered into hard bargaining sessions with the representatives of the local ruler in which the manufactured goods from Europe, especially guns, were traded for African slaves. When the deal was completed, the slaves were loaded on the ship, and the captain set sail for the New World.

Upon arrival in the West Indies, another bargaining process was begun. Here the slaves were traded for local agricultural products which were wanted in Europe. Then the ships were loaded with tobacco, sugar, and other West Indian produce and returned to Europe for still another sale and another profit. At every point along the route, large sums of money were made. A profit of at east one hundred percent was expected. Vast wealth was obtained through the slave trade, and this money was reinvested in the developing industrial revolution. Thereby the Africans unwittingly helped to finance the European industrial revolution which widened the technological gap between Africa and Europe.

The African slave was sometimes a criminal, but, more often than not, he was captured in battle. As the slave trade grew and with it the need for more slaves, the number of these battles increased. Clearly, many battles were being fought solely for the purpose of acquiring slaves who could then be sold to the European traders. Sometimes, too, the slave might have been the political enemy of the ruler or of some other powerful person.

The slaves were then marched to trading stations along the coast where a European agent, who resided at the station, inspected them and negotiated their purchase. The inspection was humiliating and degrading procedure. Men, women, and children usually appeared stark naked and underwent the close scrutiny of the agent and sometimes a physician. After the trauma of capture and the shame of inspection, the slaves were regimented into crowded quarters at the trading station or "factory" to wait for the next shipment to leave. They had to be supervised very closely as many tried to escape and others tried to commit suicide.

When a ship was ready to sail, the slaves were chained together and marched down to the shore. There they were bundled into large canoes and were paddled through the crashing breakers to where the slave ship was waiting. Slaves have told how they began the voyage in trepidation, being frightened by the sight of the "white devils" who, they had heard, liked to eat Africans. Then the long voyage commenced. Conditions here were even more crowded than at the "factory." Slaves were generally kept below deck with no sunshine or fresh air. They were crowded so close together that there was never any standing room and often not even sitting room. Again, they had to be supervised closely as many tried to starve themselves to death or to jump overboard. However, the greatest loss of slave property was due to disease, The ship's captain feared that disease would whittle away his profits, and, even more, he worried that it would attack him and his crew. When the passage was completed, and the West Indies had been safely reached, the slave again had to undergo the same kind of degrading inspection and sale which had occurred in Africa, but this time he had to experience the torment in a strange and distant land.

While the economic profits in the slave trade were great, so were the human losses. Statistics concerning the slave trade are often inaccurate or missing. However, it is generally agreed that at least fifteen million Africans, and perhaps many more, became slaves in the New World. About nine hundred thousand were brought in the sixteenth century, three million in the seventeenth century, seven million in the eighteenth century, and another four million in the nineteenth century.

The mortality rate among these new slaves ran very high. It is estimated that some five percent died in Africa on the way to the coast, another thirteen percent in transit to the West Indies, and still another thirty percent during the three-month seasoning period in the West Indies. This meant that about fifty percent of those originally captured in Africa died either in transit or while being prepared for servitude.

Even this statistic, harsh as it is, does not tell the whole story of the human cost involved in the slave trade. Most slaves were captured in the course of warfare, and many more Africans were killed in the course of this combat. The total number of deaths, then, ran much higher than those killed en route. Many Africans became casualty statistics, directly or indirectly, because of the slave trade. Beyond this, there was the untold human sorrow and misery borne by the friends and relatives of those Africans who were torn away from home and loved ones and were never seen again.

Statistics concerning profits in the slave trade are also difficult to obtain. Profits often ran as high as two or three hundred percent, and were an important part of the European economy. These profits provided much of the capital which helped to spur on the industrial revolution. When Queen Elizabeth, in 1562, heard that one of her subjects, John Hawkins, had become involved in the slave trade, she was very critical and commented that he would have to pay a very high price for dealing in human lives. However, when she

was confronted with a copy of his profit ledger, her moral indignation softened, and she quickly became one of the members of the corporation. Some merchants were hit hard by the risks accompanying the slave trade and suffered financial disaster. The possible profits were so high, however, that other merchants were always eager to venture into this field and new capital was ever lacking.

The industrial revolution, which was partly financed by the slave trade, eventually abolished the need for slavery. The humanitarian outcry against both the slave trade and slavery which occurred at the end of the eighteenth century and swelled in the early nineteenth century, became a significant force as the need for slave labor diminished. In the beginning, as previously noted, the Europeans were not powerful enough to seize slaves at will or to invade the African kingdoms. But the industrial revolution had immeasurably widened the power gap between Europe and Africa. By the time the slave trade ended, and European adventurers had found new ways to achieve gigantic capital gains, Europe had achieved a power advantage sufficient to invade Africa at will.

As European interests in colonizing Africa increased, the European powers, at the middle of the nineteenth century, were also tearing one another apart in the process of this competitive expansion, In order to avoid further misfortune, the great powers of Europe met at the conference of Berlin in 1885. Without troubling to consult with any Africans, they drew lines on a map of Africa dividing it among themselves. It took only a very few years for a map drawing to become a physical reality. When the Europeans had finished exploiting Africa through the slave trade and had greatly weakened its societies, they invaded Africa in order to exploit its nonhuman material resources.

Caribbean Interlude

Most of the Africans, who were enslaved and brought to the New World, came to the American colonies after a period of seasoning in the Caribbean islands. To the Europeans who had settled in America the Colonies were their new home and they strove to develop a prosperous and secure society in which to live and raise their families. They hesitated to bring their slaves directly from Africa as they believed that Africans were brutal, barbaric savages who would present a real danger to the safety and security of their new homes. Instead, they preferred to purchase slaves who had already been tested and broken.

In contrast to this, Europeans who had gone to the Caribbean islands did not consider the New World as their new home. The island plantations were to be exploited to provide the wealth with with which their owners could return to Europe and live like gentlemen. Many of them did not bring their families to the islands, or, when they did, their stay was a temporary one. Therefore, they were more willing than were the Americans to purchase slaves directly from Africa. Moreover, because their sole interest in the islands was economic profit, they could make a double profit by selling their seasoned slaves as well as selling their plantation produce. While the Africans' stay in the Caribbean, obviously, was not part of their African heritage, it was part of the experience which they brought with them to the Colonies. Many of the events which occurred in the Caribbean islands had important repercussions in the American Colonies.

A quarter of a century after Columbus had discovered the New World, the first African slaves were brought to the West Indies to supplement the inadequate labor supply. The Indians who lived on the islands were few in number and had had no experience in plantation agriculture. As the shortage of labor became severe, the plantation owners began to import criminals and were willing to accept the poor and the drunks who had been seized from the streets of European ports.

There was also a continual stream of indentured servants, but this influx was nowhere nearly large enough to fill the growing labor demands. The advantage of African slaves over indentured servants was that they could be purchased outright for life. Moreover, the Africans had no contacts in the European capitals through which they could bring pressure to bear against the abuses of the plantation masters. In fact, African slaves really had no rights which the master was obliged to respect. The supply of African labor seemed to be endless, and many masters found it cheaper to overwork a slave and to replace him when he died, rather than take care of him while he lived. In short, the plantation experience was a brutalizing one.

In the beginning, the major plantation crop had been tobacco, It could be grown efficiently on small plantations of twenty or thirty acres. The tobacco plant needed constant, careful attention throughout the season, and this meant that the number of raw, unskilled laborers that was needed was relatively small.

However, when the new colony of Virginia entered the tobacco field in the early seventeenth century, it was able to produce larger quantities of tobacco at a lower price. The Caribbean islands were hit by a severe economic depression. The Dutch came with a solution. They had previously conquered parts of northern Brazil from the Portuguese, and there they had learned the techniques of plantation sugar production. It could only be carried on efficiently with plantations of two or three hundred acres, and it required large numbers of unskilled laborers both to plant and harvest the crop and to refine the sugar. The Dutch, then, brought sugar cane to the West Indies. This gave them a new plantation crop, and it also gave them a new outlet for the slave trade which, at that point in history, they had come to dominate.

The development of the sugar cane economy in the West Indies produced a basic social revolution. The small tobacco farmers did not have the capital to develop the large sugar plantations. Some of them went into other occupations, but most of them returned to Europe. The new labor needs were filled by a gigantic increase in the importation of African slaves. The ratio of whites to blacks within the islands changed markedly within a matter of one or two decades. The white population consisted of a handful of exceedingly wealthy plantation owners and another handful of white plantation managers. Many of the slaves soon learned new skills associated with sugar manufacturing, thus reducing the need for white labor even further. The rising demand for slaves meant an expansion of the slave trade, and, as West Indian slaves had a high mortality rate and a low birthrate, this meant a continually thriving slave trade.

As the ratio between whites and blacks widened, the problem of controlling the slaves grew more serious. Brute force was the only answer. The European governments had tried to solve the problem by requiring the plantation owners to hire a specified number of white workers. However, many owners found it cheaper to pay the fine than to comply with this regulation.

In 1667, the British Parliament passed a series of black codes intended to control the slaves in the Caribbean colonies. Other colonial powers followed their example. The law stated that a slave could not be away from the plantation on a Sunday and that he was not permitted to carry any weapons. It also specified that, if he were to strike a Christian, he could be whipped. If he did it a second time, he could be branded on the face. However, if a master, in the process of punishing a slave, accidentally beat him to death, this master could not be fined or imprisoned.

Because the Europeans did not view the islands as their home, there was always a shortage of white women. One of the results of this was the development of an ever-growing class of mulattoes. More and more of them were granted their freedom. While these freedmen did not receive equal treatment with the whites, they were careful to preserve the advantages they held over the slaves. Many of them served in the militia to help keep the slaves under control. However, the threat of slave revolts continued. The greater the possibility of success, the greater the probability that slaves would take the risk of starting a revolt. All of the islands in the West Indies had a history of slave rebellion.

Undoubtedly, the most outstanding slave revolt in the western hemisphere took place in Haiti. During the French revolution, concepts of the rights of man spread from France to her colonies. In Haiti, the free mulattoes petitioned the French revolutionary government for their rights. The Assembly granted their request. However, the French aristocrats in Haiti refused to follow the directives of the Assembly. At this point, two free mulattoes, Vincent Oge and Jean Baptiste Chavannes, both of whom had received an education in Paris, led a mulatto rebellion. The Haitian aristocrats quickly and brutally suppressed it.

By this time, however, the concepts of the rights of man had spread to the slave class. In 1791, under the leadership of Toussaint l'Ouverture, the slaves began a long and bloody revolt of their own. Slaves flocked to Toussaint's support by the thousands until he had an army much larger than any that had fought in the American revolution, This revolt became entangled with the French revolution and the European wars connected with it. Besides fighting the French, Toussaint had to face both British and Spanish armies. None of them was able to suppress the revolt and to overthrow the republic which had been established in Haiti.

After Napoleon came to power in France, he sent a gigantic expedition under Leclerc to reestablish French authority in Haiti. While he claimed to stand for the principles of the revolution, Napoleon's real interest in Haiti was to make it into a base from which to rebuild a French empire in the western hemisphere. Toussaint lured this French army into the wilderness where the soldiers, who had no immunity to tropical diseases, were hit very hard by malaria and yellow fever.

Toussaint was captured by trickery, but his compatriots carried on the fight for independence. Finally, Napoleon was forced to withdraw from the struggle. One of the results of his failure to suppress the slave revolt in Haiti was his abandonment of his New World dreams and his willingness to sell Louisiana to the United States. Unfortunately, this meant new areas for the expansion of the plantation economy and slavery. In other words, the Haitian revolution was responsible for giving new life to the institution of slavery inside America.

American plantation owners were faced with a dilemma. The Louisiana Purchase, resulting from the revolution in Haiti, greatly expanded the possibilities of plantation agriculture. This meant a greater need for slave labor. However, they were not sure from which source to purchase these slaves. They hesitated to bring new slaves directly from Africa. They were also loath to bring seasoned slaves from the Caribbean. Events in Haiti had demonstrated that these Caribbean slaves might not be as docile as previously had been believed. Certainly, Americans did not want repetition of the bloody Haitian revolt within their own borders. Greedy men still bought slaves where they could, but many American slave owners were deeply disturbed and began to give serious thought to terminating the importation of African slaves to America.

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