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June 26, 2006

The Atlantic Slave Trade in the Seventeenth Century: Jeremy Black considers the expansion of the Atlantic Slave Trade during the Seventeenth Century

Posted by Jeremy Black

Jeremy Black - Professor of History, University of Exeter - considers the expansion of the Atlantic Slave Trade during the Seventeenth Century.

The major growth in the Atlantic slave trade in the seventeenth century was to be driven by the expansion of New World exports to Europe. This was especially true of plantation crops, particularly sugar, tobacco and coffee, while it was not true, for example, of cod exports from Newfoundland, and fur exports from Canada although they were key to the profitability of North Atlantic trade. This is a reminder of the need to relate economic advantage to the specific requirements of individual trades.

The export from the Americas of plantation crops, and the export of European manufactured goods to the Americas it helped finance, played a major role in restructuring much of the European economy, developing and accentuating the role of its Atlantic seaboard, and crucially the importance of port-cities, particularly Bordeaux and Bristol, Liverpool and Nantes.

The import of plantation crops also greatly affected the material culture of Europeans, and their diet and health. By supplying new products, or providing existing ones at a more attractive price, or in new forms, this trade both satisfied and stimulated consumer demand.

Transoceanic trade provided goods designed to stimulate: sugar, tobacco, and caffeine drinks: tea (from Asia), coffee and chocolate. As none of these was "necessary", this was very much consumerism, and one linked to shifts in taste.

Sugar came to be much more important to the response of individuals to food and drink, partly replacing honey as a sweetener in cooking and drinks. Demand interacted with rapidly-rising supply from the Americas, and the average retail price of sugar fell considerably in the second half of the century. The addition of sugar to drinks increased their popularity by making them easier on the European palate, while, as the consumption of caffeine drinks rose, so demand for sugar increased.

Chocolate was altered by sugar, making it a sweet rather than a bitter drink, and encouraging the growth in export to Europe of its main ingredient, cacao. Much cacao was obtained by the Spaniards from the native population, but this was supplemented by plantations - the French establishing cacao plantations on Martinique and Guadeloupe in the West Indies in the early 1660s, the Portuguese following in Brazil in the late 1670s, and the Dutch (in Surinam) and the English (on Jamaica but with limited success) in the 1680s –and as the production of cacao increased prices fell, and this encouraged consumption. Sugar was also added to jam, cakes, biscuits and medicine.

Sugar was profitable, but it also meant slaves. Plantation work was arduous, ensuring that labour availability and control were issues. The labour regime in sugar and rice cultivation was particularly arduous and deadly; tobacco and cacao less so. Hacking down sugar cane – crucial to the production process – was backbreaking work. It also required a large labour force, and slavery provided this more effectively than indentured labour, which was not only less malleable but also less ecologically attuned to the working environment.

The impact in the late 1640s of disease on the white settlers encouraged this process. Captain William Freeman, who from 1670 developed a sugar plantation on the English colony of Montserrat in the West Indies, claimed that "land without slaves is a dead stock". Partly as a consequence, colonies that shifted from tobacco, the price of which slumped in the 1640s, to sugar saw a marked increase in the slave population and less of a reliance on indentured labour: on Montserrat, 40 per cent of the 4,500-strong population in 1678 was non-white; but this grew to 80 per cent of the 7,200-strong population in 1729.

All too often, the slave trade is seen in terms of the North Atlantic, in large part because of the role it plays in current debates about British and American responsibility, but the South Atlantic trade was crucial. It tends, however, to be underrated, in large part because of the lesser prominence of Brazil in the subsequent Atlantic story, and also because of the relatively greater difficulties – linguistic, archival and other – of working on South, as opposed to North, Atlantic history.

Sugar production developed at a major rate in Portugal's colony of Brazil from the 1570s, producing a "white gold" economy. Based on slave labour, which closely linked Brazil to Angola, this production helped ensure that Brazil received 42 per cent of the slaves imported into the Americas during the seventeenth century. This flow was necessary because, on the sugar estates in Brazil, slaves had a life expectancy of up to eight years only. Afro-Portuguese (Luso-African) slaving networks, rather than the government, dominated the supply, and these networks linked the African interior to the Atlantic coast where, in the Portuguese colony of Angola in 1616, a new port was opened at Benguela in order to support the trade. It was to take second place to Luanda as the port for the Angolan slave trade.

The Dutch attempt to conquer Brazil from the 1620s, however, greatly disrupted sugar production there and led to a marked shift in production to the West Indies, a process accentuated when Dutch failure in Brazil, which began in 1645, was followed in 1654 by the expulsion of Dutch and Jewish settlers from Brazil. They brought to the Caribbean their capital, mercantile contacts and expertise in sugar-mill technology.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the Dutch had also captured the Portuguese slaving bases of Luanda, Benguela and Săo Tomé in 1641, but, in 1648, a Portuguese fleet from Brazil recaptured these positions. This provided the basis for a revival of the integrated Portuguese slave and sugar economy in the South Atlantic. The profitability of Brazil ensured that the Portuguese Atlantic empire did not suffer from the lack of capital and relative uncompetitiveness seen in Portuguese Asia.

France, Britain and the Dutch meanwhile had all acquired bases further north. The French settled a number of islands in the West Indies – St. Christopher (St. Kitts, 1625), Martinique (1635), Guadeloupe (1635), Dominica (1635), Grenada (1650), and St. Domingue (now Haiti, 1660) – as well as Cayenne (1635) on the Guiana coast of South America, and Louisiana. Claimed by La Salle in 1682, the latter had its first French base at Fort Maurepas in Biloxi Bay on the Gulf of Mexico coast of the modern state of Mississippi in 1699. The French also established bases on the coast of Africa: St. Louis in 1638, Gorée in 1677, and Assinie in 1687 becoming bases for slavers.

The British established lasting colonies on Barbados in 1627, Nevis in 1628, and Antigua and Montserrat in 1632. These were no mere adjunct to the British possessions in North America. Instead, they generated more wealth and, until the 1660s, attracted more settlers than the possessions on the North American mainland, Barbados proving the most popular destination.

Buccaneering remained important in the British colonies, but more settled activity developed. The islands were rapidly used for commercial agriculture, and the labour-intensive nature of the resulting plantation economies led to a need for settlers. Sugar was to lead to slaves, and, in particular, the replacement of tobacco smallholdings by sugar plantations; but it is important not to see this as the inevitable economic and social pattern of the colonies in the West Indies. Sugar was not the sole plantation crop there in the late-seventeenth century: on Jamaica, the British also had cacoa, cotton, ginger and indigo plantations. Moreover, a more mixed economic pattern that was less capital-intensive was initially dominant, and it continued to be important even after there was an emphasis on sugar, although sugar dominated exports. Similarly, the use of slaves in Spanish American agriculture was not simply linked to export agriculture.

The British presence in the West Indies was expanded by the settlement of Jamaica and the Cayman Islands from 1655, the Virgin Islands from 1666, and the Bahamas from 1670, although much immigration by both white migrants and slaves was to already-established colonies. Expansion took place within a system made dynamic by conflict. The value of plantation exports encouraged the European powers to try to seize each others positions. Thus, the Dutch failed to take Martinique from the French in 1674 and the French Curaçao from the Dutch in 1678. Britain unsuccessfully attacked Guadeloupe in 1691 and Martinique in 1693, and failed to capture St. Domingue in 1695. There were also struggles over control of trade from West Africa, a prize that in 1661-4 caused a bitter conflict between the (British) Company of Royal Adventurers Trading into Africa and the Dutch West Africa Company.

Greater European demand led to an increase in the number of slaves imported into the Americas in the seventeenth century, both compared to the previous century and across the century. About half a million slaves were imported in the first half of the century, but a million in the second half, including over 600,000 in the last quarter. The slave trade had initially been dominated by the need to supply the Portuguese and Spanish colonies with labour, but, as the Dutch, French and British expanded their colonial presence, so they played a more direct role in the trade, selling to their own colonies, and not, as hitherto, simply one of selling to the Portuguese and Spanish colonies. The first slaving voyage from Bordeaux sailed in 1672, although the French slave trade became important largely after 1713.

Higher death rates in the West Indies than in North America, and higher death rates for whites than for slaves (both the consequences of disease), ensured that the colonies there did not become settler societies with large, locally-born white populations. Yellow fever, which first struck in 1694, was to be a particular scourge, that was especially virulent in those previously unexposed to the disease, while malaria was also a serious problem.

In North America, the British established their first permanent colony at Jamestown on the Chesapeake in 1607. The colony expanded as a result of the continued arrival of new settlers, and tobacco became the major crop in both Virginia and Maryland. Its limited capital requirements and high profitability encouraged settlers and investment, while, because it was an export crop, the links with England were underlined.

However, there was a move to slaves in the Chesapeake labour system. White indentured workers were difficult to retain in the face of the opportunities offered by rapidly-spreading English settlement, and an alternative labour source, Native Americans, were hit by European diseases, and also, as on Grenada and St. Vincent, resisted control. In contrast, slaves proved a more controllable labour force, although not always so: slave resistance developed, especially from escaped slaves on Jamaica. Escaped slaves often fled to the margins of settlement, such as the Dismal Swamp in North Carolina, where they were also an important aspect of relations between Africans and Native Americans.

The development of slavery interacted with white racism. The establishment of Carolina as a separate colony in 1663 helped expand the British presence. The new colony was closely linked to the British West Indies, and it developed as a key exporter of colonial goods. Nevertheless, by 1700 only 23,000 Africans had arrived in British North America, with most labour needs met by white servants.

More generally, the price for male slaves was greater than that for females, both on the African coast and in the New World, and more males than females were imported, reflecting the role of demand factors in the trade, specifically the hard physical nature of the work that was expected. The profits and possibilities brought by slavery and the slave trade readily explain both, but it would be wrong to present the complex dynamics of enslavement simply in terms of rising demand for labour in the New World. It is also necessary to look at the African dimension.

Accounts focusing on Western economic domination in Africa, and on the gun-slave cycle, by which slaves were obtained by the Europeans, in return for the provision of European guns to the Africans, are inadequate. This is not least because it was not until after the Industrial Revolution had transformed Western Europe's economy in the nineteenth century that traders could exert significant economic pressure on Africans, while weapon sales, although important, do not provide the key to the trade.

Instead, it is necessary to focus on the supply of labour, as well as the means for satisfying demand, and also to offer a specific examination of the different slave-supplying regions in order to suggest the danger of broad generalizations. What emerges clearly is a politics of frequent conflict within Africa, that produced slaves. Fighting was also often linked to serious droughts and famine. The seizure of people for slavery was seen as a way to weaken rivals; certainly so in Senegambia and the Gold Coast.

Warfare between African powers provided slaves. European powers were not able to seize large numbers. By far the most expansionist European power in Africa was Portugal, but its experience there revealed the limitations of European land warfare. In South-East Africa, Portuguese attempts to operate from its bases in Mozambique up the river Zambezi were thwarted in the 1690s when they were driven from what is now Zimbabwe, while, in Angola, they were effective only in combination with African soldiers, as in the victory over Antonio I of Kongo at Ambuila in 1665. In Angola, the Portuguese were subsequently defeated at Kitombo in 1670, while their wars against the kingdom of Ndongo, begun in 1579, ended in stalemate in the early 1680s.

The Portuguese found the Africans well-armed with well-worked iron weapons, as good in some ways as Portuguese steel weaponry, and certainly better than the native wood and obsidian weapons of the New World. The slow rate of fire of muskets and the openness of African fighting formations both reduced the effectiveness of Portuguese firearms, while their cannon had little impact on African earthwork fortifications. Central Angola was not to be conquered by Portugal until the late nineteenth century.

Other European powers did not try to make conquests in Africa, and the European presence in West Africa was anchored by coastal forts that served as protected bases for trade, particularly in gold, but also in other products including slaves. Although the Dutch base at Offra and the French one at Glehue were destroyed in 1692, the Danish base at Christiansborg fell in 1693, and the secondary British base at Sekondi fell in 1694; nevertheless, the leading British base at Cape Coast Castle was never taken, and was successfully defended against African attack in 1688.

However, the British were well aware of the weakness of their position. The emphasis was on co-operating with African rulers. British posts in West Africa were not held by sovereign right, but by agreement with local rulers – rent or tribute was paid for several posts, and the officials of the Royal African Company sought to maintain a beneficial relationship with numerous local caboceers (leaders) and penyins (elders) through an elaborate and costly system of presents and jobs.

In so far as comparisons can be made, European slave traders did not enjoy coercive advantages greater than those of Arab counterparts on the Indian Ocean coast of Africa, while those of Moroccan and other slave raiders operating across the Sahara, and from the sahel belt into the forested regions further south, were probably greater. The major European advantage rested on purchasing power, and this derived from the prosperity of plantation economies in the Americas, and thus on the integrated nature of the Atlantic economy.

Local co-operation in the slave trade was crucial, a topic that is underplayed in modern public history. Indeed slavery entailed the interaction of the Western economic order and the dynamics of African warfare, at the cost of the victims of the latter. The demands of the European-dominated Atlantic economy pressed on local African power systems and, in providing slaves, these systems served the Atlantic economy, while many slaves were kept in use for the local economy. African rulers proved more than willing to sell captives, and the widespread belief among many Africans exported as slaves that they had been sold to cannibals to be cooked and eaten, possibly expressed a wider opposition to the cannibalistic social politics of selling slaves to foreigners. The compromises of negotiated shared interests, and of the relations summarized as globalisation, were made at the expense of others. It is important to see both. To treat the subject in terms only of compromise or simply of coercion is naïve and limited.

Two popular religious movements in West Africa, led by Nasr al-Din in 1673-7 and Abd al-Kadir from 1776, included hostility to the sale of slaves to Christians among their Islamic reform policies. They failed, but are a reminder of the contentious nature of the trade.

At the individual level, the reality of slavery was of the trauma of capture by African chieftains, sale to British merchants, and transportation: violence, shock, hardship and disruption. Individuals were taken from their families and communities, and many died in the process of capture, in the drive to the coast, in the port towns where they were crowded together in hazardous circumstances while awaiting shipment, on the ships that transported them across the Atlantic, and, also, soon after arrival, as the entire process exposed slaves to unaccustomed levels and types of disease.

There are no precise figures for overall deaths, but many slaves died on the Atlantic crossing where they were crowded together and in poor, especially unsanitary, conditions. Furthermore, the slaves had already been weakened by their journey to the coast, while there was also an unwillingness on the part of their captors to spend much on provisions.

The percentage of deaths clearly varied, not least because, if delayed, casualty rates rose; but the percentage was high. An average loss of 17.9% on Dutch ships between 1637 and 1645 has been calculated, but the losses for the British Royal African Company between 1680 and 1688 were about 23.5%. This was but a part of a wider process of loss to which the organization of the slave trade contributed.

Although distantly, such treatment can be related to the powerful racism of the period, with its notion of a clear racial hierarchy. This was linked to false explanations, such as that of Marcello Malpighi (1628-94), Professor of Medicine in Bologna and the founder of microscopic anatomy, who believed that all men were originally white, but that the sinners had become black.

Transported, the Africans used their culture to adapt to the Americas, developing social and cultural practices that variously reflected African and hybrid forms. The condition of slaves and former slaves was not simply that of oppression and labour, not least due to the widespread practice of freeing slaves. Indeed, by 1650, Mexico alone had about 22,000 free Africans and mulattos, some of whom did well. This was part of the process by which migration, however coerced, was a dynamic in which those who wielded political and economic power were unable to prevent the development of independent associational patterns, a key stage in the creation of Black America.

This piece draws on the introduction to Jeremy Black, The Atlantic Slave Trade II: The Seventeenth Century (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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