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June 26, 2006

The Beginnings of the Atlantic Slave Trade: Jeremy Black explains how and why the Atlantic Slave Trade came to develop

Posted by Jeremy Black

The world would be a very different place today if it were not for the Atlantic Slave Trade. Jeremy Black - Professor of History, University of Exeter - explains how and why the Atlantic Slave Trade came to develop.

The row between five scholars over slavery heard by the audience of Start the Week on 12th June 2006 offered a pointed reminder of the emotive character of the issue and of its capacity to act as a push button for strong animosities. This is true for academic scholarship and even more for the public sphere, where slavery is seen as a living issue in narratives of allegedly continued racism. Indeed, it is one of the leading examples of the continued role of the past in creating a sense of empowering outrage.

The uniqueness of Western-controlled slavery, however, can be queried, which needs to be considered amidst demands for apologies. Aside from the widespread nature of slavery practised by non-Western societies, such as those of the Islamic world, and the very large-scale slave trade that met these needs, in some aspects slavery can be compared to the serfdom of many Eastern European peasants in the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries.

Serfdom was a system of forced labour based on hereditary bondage to the land. Its purpose was to provide a fixed labour force, and the legal essence of it was a form of personal service to a lord, in exchange for the right to cultivate the soil. Serfdom was used to provide the mass labour force necessary for agriculture. It entailed restrictions on personal freedom that, in their most severe form, were akin to slavery. Serfs were subject to a variety of obligations, principally labour services. They also owed dues on a variety of occasions, including marriage and death. The character of Russian serfdom was bitterly criticised in Alexander Radishchev's book A Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow (1790), which denounced arduous work, poor living conditions, and the right of lords to sell and to flog serfs. Radishchev was arrested and exiled to Siberia for this book.

The slave trade might seem to open up an important distinction between slavery and serfdom compulsory movement for work but those who were not slaves included people subject to such movement: transported convicts, others sent to colonies or on internal exile against their will, and even, in one light, the indentured servants and others travelling for economic opportunity within a system in which their choices were limited or non-existent.

However, although there were slaves in Christian Europe during the Middle Ages, and, in the shape of galley slaves, they continued to exist throughout the early-modern period, a characteristic of Western slavery, unlike its very extensive non-Western counterparts that formed a topic of dispute on Start the Week, was that not only was it predominantly part of the commercial economy, but also it was generally practised in trans-oceanic colonies. Slavery in the Western world was a system of servitude driven essentially by free enterprise, and this provides the crucial context for the slave trade: it was a response to economic need, and a product of the search for economic opportunity.

Here the comparison already made with serfdom is pertinent. Co-terminous with the establishment of Western slavery in the New World, rural society in Eastern Europe was transformed towards a "second serfdom", with heavy labour services provided by the peasantry. Each reflected land-labour ratios. Paralleling the role of plantation exports from the New World, this "second serfdom" was a response to the commercial opportunities of early modern grain exports to other parts of Europe.

It appears also to have been, at least, prefigured by fifteenth-century changes, as lords, who had gained private possession of public jurisdictions, responded to the economic problems of the late medieval period, particularly fixed cash incomes. Paralleling the role of landlords in the New World, the attitudes and powers of landlords in Eastern Europe, not least the character of their seigneurial jurisdiction, were crucial to the spread of serfdom. The state stood aside or stepped back, and peasant rights were lessened, for example in the Russian legal code of 1649. In another parallel with New World slavery, ethnic divisions, for example between German landlords and Polish peasants, or Polish landlords and Ruthenian peasants, exacerbated differences in some areas.

Need and opportunity were also crucial in European slavery, which was focused on the Atlantic world; and not the Indian Ocean, the other key area of European expansion from the cusp of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In essence, this contrast reflected the key role of need, although opportunity was also a factor. In the Indian Ocean world, and its outliers, such as the Persian Gulf and the South China Sea, the Europeans did not require large quantities of slave labour and, also, did not have the means to coerce it. Although European plantation economies did develop in this widespread world, especially, under the Dutch, in parts of the East Indies (modern Indonesia), and some of these economies, such as Mauritius, used slaves, most of the goods the Europeans brought back to Europe round the Cape of Good Hope were not produced by slaves and, indeed, were obtained by purchase.

Furthermore, in the case, for example, of tea from China, there was no way in which this relationship could be altered, as the Europeans were in no position to dictate to China. Instead, trade with China was fed with silver, in response to the negative trade balance. As a result, the tea trade was very different to that of coffee. The ability of the Europeans to establish plantation economies, and to move from trading bases to colonies, was limited around the Indian Ocean and, even more, in the Orient, and this was to be demonstrated further when fortified bases that had been established could not be defended successfully from non-Western attack, as with the Dutch base of Fort Zeelandia on Taiwan in 1662, and the Portuguese base of Fort Jesus at Mombasa in 1698.

The situation was different in the Atlantic world. There, labour was needed and labour was available; but not at the same place. The need for labour sprang from the inherent demographic difference between the Americas and South Asia, from the impact of European expansion, and from the specific labour tasks that the colonists required.

In the first case, although this was obviously a pre-census age, and there are problems with assessing population numbers, there was a major difference between the percentage of the world's population in the Americas and the much greater percentage in South Asia. This difference was greatly accentuated by the impact of disease brought by the European invaders of the Americas. This was particularly true of smallpox, which broke out in Mexico in 1520. It appears to have killed at least half the Aztecs, including their energetic leader Cuitlahuac, and to have weakened the morale of the survivors.

More generally, disease weakened potential resistance to European control, and acted like enslavement in disrupting social structures and household and communal economics, leading to famine. It also hit the potential labour force. The herding together of enslaved peoples, for example Arawaks brought from the Bahamas to work the gold mines of Hispaniola in the 1510s, exacerbated the impact of disease, both new and old. Smallpox decimated the population of Hispaniola. Afterwards, Spanish and Portuguese colonial policies and practices limited the possibility of post-epidemic population recovery.

The potential labour force available to the Europeans, was also limited by native resistance. This was to be important in British North America from the seventeenth century, but was already apparent in Latin America in the sixteenth century. From the outset, the Spaniards had encountered difficulties. They came to the West Indies via the Canary Islands, where, from 1393, the native Guanches had mounted a vigorous resistance to Spanish conquest.

This was also a factor in the Americas, but, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Spaniards never devoted, nor were in a position to devote, military resources to the New World that in any way compared with their effort in much closer and more urgent European and Mediterranean struggles. While the Spanish conquests of some areas Cuba, central Mexico, Peru and Columbia were relatively swift, others took far longer and in some areas, such as southern Chile, they were never successful; ensuring that native-Spanish relations were not simply defined by the control exercised by the latter. Similarly, in Brazil, which they "discovered" and claimed in 1500, the Portuguese made only slow progress in extending control.

After the initial conquest stage on the mainland in the first half of the sixteenth century, Spanish and Portuguese territorial expansion in the Americas was therefore slower. This had major implications for labour supply. It was possible to seize labour by raiding into unconquered areas, and the practice was widespread, but it was far from easy. Raiders were resisted, with a major rebellion in the leading Brazilian sugar-producing area in 1567, or were fled from. In addition, some of the areas into which raids were conducted, for example the interior of Brazil, were distant from the coastal centres of agriculture.

Furthermore, control over native labour within the area of Spanish control was affected by royal legislation which sought to address clerical pressure to treat the natives as subjects ready for Christianisation, and not as slaves. As a result, native slavery was formally abolished in the Leyes Nuevas of 1542. The Portuguese government followed in 1609. The implementation of edicts, however, took time and was frequently ignored by local officials and landowners. Moreover, systems of tied labour and forced migration represented de facto slavery, paralleling the situation with Eastern European serfdom.

Nevertheless, the difficulty of ensuring sufficient numbers of malleable workers encouraged the spread of African slavery in the Spanish New World, which had started in the 1510s. Then, however, this was not so much in order to deal with the labour problems created by the death of much of the native population of the West Indies as, at that stage, the Spaniards satisfied such labour needs primarily from other Caribbean islands. This process was extended to the mainland, where there was large-scale slaving among natives in Honduras and Nicaragua, the former to satisfy Caribbean demand and the latter for Peru. This method was later extended to North America.

Initially, Africans were shipped via Spain, but, in 1518, permission was granted for the direct import of slaves from Africa to Spanish America. African slavery was widely regarded by European thinkers as justified in natural law. The supply to Spanish America of African slaves who had to be purchased in Africa and brought across the Atlantic was initially more expensive than that of native slaves, and as a result, they were often house slaves, although some Africans fought as conquistadors.

By the mid-sixteenth century, however, the situation had changed and Africa became steadily more important as a source of slaves, not least because it was believed that Africans were physically stronger than natives. Nevertheless, slaves remained more expensive than native labour, which could be variously controlled, including by service due to debts. By 1570, there were probably only 20,000 African slaves in Spanish America, and, in comparison with future movements of slaves, fewer than five per cent of the 1450-1900 total "exported" from Africa in the Atlantic trade were moved prior to 1600, although the trend was upwards, especially from the mid-sixteenth century. In the last quarter of the century, Portuguese Brazil imported about 40,000 slaves.

African slaves were used for a variety of tasks across Latin America. In some areas, agricultural work was important, usually for cash crops, such as sugar in the valleys of northern Peru and wine on the Peruvian coast. In Peru, Africans were judged more suitable for the heat and humidity of the coastal valleys than native Indians, who were generally used in the higher and drier terrain with which they were more familiar. As a result, the slave trade was part of the process by which Europeans reconceptualised and responded to the geography and demographics of the areas they conquered.

Slaves were also used to produce food to be sold to the cities and to the mine towns such as the great silver-producing centre of Potosi. Mine towns were another area of employment for slaves, although the prime labour supply there was from native Indians, and Africans tended to be used in refining and as overseers. In the cities, slaves were employed for a variety of tasks, including as craftsmen, servants and labourers.

In Brazil, also, the initial emphasis was on the use of native labour, but, as sugar cane was introduced, and became more important, it proved necessary to supplement slave raiding into the interior with the import of slaves from West Africa and from Angola, in both of which the Portuguese had colonies. Indeed, the Portuguese also used slaves in their plantations in Angola: aside from the African slaves kept by other Africans, some slaves in the Western-dominated Atlantic world did not cross the ocean.

Portuguese expeditions along Africa's Atlantic coast in the fifteenth century had been motivated primarily by a search for gold, not slaves, but from 1442 the sale of slaves brought from Africa either to Portugal or to its colony of Madeira became important. Slaves acquired elsewhere on the African coast became useful in order to have something to sell in order to acquire gold.

The demands of sugar production ensured that Brazil played a key role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Sugar production had been developed within the European world in the Atlantic islands: Madeira, the Azores and the Cape Verde islands. Portuguese settlement of Madeira began in 1424, and of the Azores in the 1430s, and it was from there that the plantation system was transferred to Santo Domingo (Hispaniola) in 1503, and to Brazil in the 1530s.

Brazil rapidly supplanted Madeira as the leading producer of sugar in the Portuguese world, employing a comparative advantage due to slave labour, and enabling Portugal to benefit from its colony. The number of sugar mills in Brazil rose from 60 in 1570 to 192 in around 1600. North-East Brazil, the centre of sugar production, was close to Africa, a reminder of the extent to which oceans linked rather than separated. Indeed, continents, i.e. landmasses, as a way to define space are an artificial construct. Relatively short slaving voyages were particularly valuable because they reduced the need for credit in bridging the period between the purchase and sale of slaves. The slave population of Brazil rose from about 15,000 in 1600 to about 150,000 in 1680.

In both Brazil and Spanish America, the high death rate and low fertility rate of African slaves ensured that it was necessary, in order to sustain numbers, to import fresh slaves. This affected the nature of slave society, sustaining its African character, and thus its foreignness to native societies.

The Atlantic slave trade from Africa was a new variant on the longstanding pattern of slavery and slave trade within Africa, a point that tends to be overlooked.

On the west coast of Africa, where their presence was a precarious one, the Europeans obtained slaves by trading. They were not powerful enough to seize them by the large-scale slave raids employed in Central America and Brazil; the Portuguese initially favoured this method, but abandoned it in the late 1440s because the rulers of Upper Guinea were too strong. The slave trade provided royal revenues to the crown of Portugal: aside from slaves moved on the royal account, private slave traders were taxed.

The Portuguese led in the trade to, and from, the coasts of Africa, but their position was challenged in the mid-sixteenth century. The English made an attempt to break into Portugal's trade with West Africa, and the profitable slave trade between there and the Spanish New World, but the unwillingness of Elizabeth I (r. 1558-1603), in the early days of her reign, to confront directly the imperial interests of Portugal and Spain encouraged a reliance on unofficial or semi-official action such as privateering.

John Hawkins sold slaves to the Spaniards until, in 1568, on his third slaving voyage, at San Juan de Ula near Vera Cruz in modern Mexico, the presence of the Viceroy of New Spain led to a Spanish attack on what was, in the official view, an unwelcome interloper, helping ensure that the venture made a large loss. Only two English ships survived. Hawkins' descendant Andrew and a group of twenty friends locked themselves in chains in June 2006 in Gambia in order to demonstrate their sense of sorrow, before being forgiven by the Vice-President.

England did not go to war with Spain until 1585. By then Portugal's position had changed because, in 1580, Philip II of Spain became also Philip I of Portugal. This dynastic link continued until a successful rebellion in Portugal in 1640. As a result, it was possible for those at war with Spain, such as England and the Dutch, to breach the Portuguese monopoly of the slave trade without fear of admonition from their home governments.

In the late-sixteenth century, however, the English role in the slave trade was far less than it was to be in the seventeenth century, while the Dutch were, first, subjects of Philip II of Spain and, after they rebelled in the 1560s, initially primarily concerned with the war for their independence and the naval struggle in home waters. Most English voyages in this period to West Africa were for pepper, hides, wax, ivory and in search of gold, rather than for slaves. No English fort was built in West Africa in this period. English trade with West Africa did not focus on the slave trade until the mid-seventeenth century.

Nevertheless, the greater experience in long-distance, deep-sea voyaging and commerce gained in the sixteenth century was an important background to the later expansion of the slave trade. This rested on an important improvement in the capability of shipping. Late fourteenth- and fifteenth-century developments in ship construction and navigation included the fusion of Atlantic and Mediterranean techniques of hull construction and lateen- and square-rigging, the spread of the sternpost rudder, and advances in location-finding at sea. Carvel building (the edge-forming of hull planks over frames), which spread from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic from the late-fifteenth century, replaced the clinker system of shipbuilding using overlapping planks, contributing significantly to the development of stronger and larger hulls which were necessary for trade across the Atlantic. The increase in the number of masts on large ships increased the range of choices for rigging and provided a crucial margin of safety in the event of damage to one mast. Developments in rigging, including an increase in the number of sails per mast and in the variety of sail shapes, permitted greater speed, a better ability to sail close to the wind and improved manoeuvrability.

Navigational expertise also increased. Thanks to the use of the magnetic compass, the spread from Mediterranean to Atlantic Europe of astrolabes, cross-staffs and quadrants, which made it possible to assess the angle in the sky of heavenly bodies, and other developments in navigation, such as the solution in 1484 to the problem of measuring latitude south of the Equator, it was possible to chart the ocean and to assemble knowledge about it. This was an important prelude to the further development of the slave trade, not least because better charts helped reduce the risk of voyaging, and thus the harshness of sailing.

In 1516, the explorer Amerigo Vespucci's nephew, Juan, was instructed to produce a pardon real (official royal chart), a work that was frequently updated to take note of new reports from navigators. In 1569, Mercator produced a projection that treated the world as a cylinder, so that the meridians were parallel, rather than converging on the Poles. Taking into account the curvature of the Earth's surface, Mercator's projection kept angles, and thus bearings, accurate in every part of the map. A straight line of constant bearing could thus be charted across the plane surface of the map, a crucial tool for navigation. As the shape of the world was increasingly grasped, so the opportunities for profit appeared more realisable. The growth in trans-Atlantic trade, in goods and slaves, was to reflect this.

In turn, this growth fortified the perception and treatment of sub-Saharan Africans as slaves. "Blackness" had proved a slippery concept for Europeans, who tended to see some of their own number as dark-skinned. As a result of the slave trade, however, Black Africans were stereotyped and many African cultural practices were misunderstood and recast in a negative light. Denigration as inferior and uncivilised was related to pigeonholing in occupations related to physical prowess and thus to slavery.

The same process took place in the Arab world where the slave-trade from Africa was more longstanding than in the Atlantic world. This trade, however, does not fit with the narrative of Western exploitation and is therefore widely ignored in public history as well as in the demand for apology and compensation. African and American scholars are prone to ignore or underrate the Ottoman, Arab and Indian Ocean dimensions to slavery, and the same is true of much of the scholarship and public debate in Britain.

This piece draws on the introduction to Jeremy Black, The Atlantic Slave Trade I: Origins-1600 (Aldershot: Ashgate, forthcoming).

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. Amongst much else, he is the author of The European Question and the National Interest (Social Affairs Unit, 2006) and The Dotted Red Line: Britain's Defence Policy in the Modern World (Social Affairs Unit, 2006).


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