As a recent graduate of Metropolitan State University, Minnesota, I look back over my years as a history major and see a missed opportunity by several history departments (I have attended four colleges and universities) to foster better race relations between white students and black, and the teachers of world history are in a unique position to lead the way in changing the current pedagogy. No student of history gets his or her BA without encountering the subject of the Atlantic Slave Trade whether it is in classes for American history, African history, Latin American history, or world history, and in every class the subject of the slave trade inevitably doles out a steady diet over the course of the semester of the horrific inflictions blacks suffered at the hands of whites. It has been disconcerting to watch historical debates in such classes deteriorate into arguing between two groups: uncomfortable or defensive white students and angry, impassioned black students but never have I heard a black student rail against the Spanish, nor against the Africans who willing participated in the sale of their own people. As a student, I can say that the current generation incorrectly associates Spanish people with today’s Latin American people groups, and does not realize they are part of the “white Europeans” we discuss when studying the Atlantic Slave Trade. Students seem to automatically translate “white Europeans” into North Americans and the English—only once did I hear a professor correct a student who was vehemently arguing that the United States had the biggest piece of the pie regarding the Atlantic Slave Trade(!), and even then it was only a brief comment on the percentage differences between the U.S. and Brazil—Portuguese-dominated Brazil had 90% of the slave trade. No discussion followed on what is apparently a common misconception, and the student simply looked confused as the instructor moved on, apparently not wanting to get off on a “tangent.”
Since the Atlantic Slave Trade involves multiple continents, teachers of world history, in particular, have the opportunity to foster better race relations in our schools, colleges and universities by teaching about the economic structures of slaving societies, rather than the standard faire of “what whites did to blacks.” I suggest that all teaching involving the enslavements of blacks by whites, should be prefaced with percentage data—a pie chart would be a great visual—showing the pittance of U.S. slaves as compared with Spanish holdings in the Caribbean and Latin America, as well as a serious look into Africa’s internal history of slavery and Africans’ willing economic involvement in the Atlantic Slave Trade. Granted these subjects have a multitude of viewpoints and there is excellent historical debate on innumerable issues, but the teachings in undergraduate classes, especially lower division classes, and definitely in high schools, ought to first cultivate a basic understanding of the structure of slaving societies throughout history and the world before examining the infamous atrocities of white, southern, American slave holders. In addition, it has been my observation that many black students are under the misconception that no one had it worse than the African slaves in the United States. Teachers of history can easily refute this false impression. Especially after the importation of slaves was no longer allowed in the U.S., the differences in the treatment of slaves is vastly different compared to slaveholders in other countries who simply worked them to death then replaced them, and, of course, the Holocaust is forever history’s most glaring example of white on white atrocities. I once attended a heated debate regarding race relations, and as a black man was angrily and loudly expressing his belief that no one in history ever had it as bad as the black slaves of the American South, a white man stood. Since the white man could not get a word in edgewise as the black man was defending his position, he simply began to pull up his sleeve. There on the underside of his forearm was tattooed a series of concentration camp identification numbers. You could have heard the proverbial pin drop in the room.
Teachers of world history have the knowledge and the opportunity to be the vanguard in changing how the next generation views the Atlantic Slave Trade, and thus can have a much needed positive impact on student race relations. Teachers ought to save the examination of the atrocities black slaves suffered at the hands of white Americans or the English—which is always included in the biographies of famous blacks such as Frederick Douglas etc.—until after a basic understanding of slaving societies of several different nationalities is understood, and this should include whites enslaving whites, and Africans enslaving Africans. Inspired by the third-year (!) college student who thought the U.S. was the world leader in slave holding during the Atlantic Slave Trade, I wrote the attached essay during my senior year, and I suggest that similar assignments be required of students who are learning about the slave trade.
In the debate over whether economic motives or cultural motives caused the creation of the Atlantic slave trade it is necessary to first define the word “cause.” The standard dictionary definition is understood to be that “cause” is a generative force that is the origin of something. With this definition in mind, historian Eric Williams explains the origin of African slavery in the Atlantic as being rooted in a primarily economic base, not a cultural one. Though it is true that throughout history cultural biases quickly ensue following the enslavement of any people group, it cannot be shown that cultural or racial reasons came first, and thus were the primary cause of, and the origin of, the Atlantic slave trade. To suggest so would be to make the Atlantic slave trade an anomaly in the history of slaving societies. Economics, not culture, was the basis for the Atlantic slave trade.
According to Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson, “slavery has existed from before the dawn of human societies…in the most primitive societies and in the most civilized. There is no region on earth that has not at some time harbored the institution. Probably there is no group of people whose ancestors were not at one time slaves or slaveholders.” The institution of slavery has taken many forms over the centuries and it is interesting to note that “prior to the fifteenth century, most enslaved persons were not Africans.” In fact, legal records from the tenth century reveal that the root of the word “slave” is actually “slav,” and refers to a person of Slavic origin. These slavs, or slaves, encompassed “one of the most continuously productive sources of slaves in human history—the peoples from Caucasia [Caucasians] to the eastern Balkans…Armenians, Circassians, Georgians, Abkhazians, Mingrelians, Russians, Tatars, Albanians, and Bulgarians.” In other words, Caucasians, or white people, have historically been the largest group of slaves. Physical characteristics or the color of one’s skin, which were “attributed to the effects of climate and environment,” made no difference, and as various Greek writers explained, “slavery should be reserved for ‘barbarians,’ but they considered Ethiopians no more barbarous than the fair Scythians of the north.” In later centuries, slavery would include Catholic and Protestant Europeans. Thus, we have a long historical record to consult when investigating the origins and causes of the exploitation of one people group by another.
Historian David Eltis claims that the primary cause—and he uses the word to mean origins—of the Atlantic slave trade was cultural due to the “non-slave status that Europeans reserved for themselves.” Eltis argues against an economic explanation, alleging that it would have been more economical to use European slaves than it was to import Africans and that, conversely, there were no “sound economic reasons” for not using European forced labor. He argues that the cost of shipping a slave from Africa was greater than it would have been to ship a European slave from Europe in large part because the mortality rate for both passengers and crew was lower in the north Atlantic than it was in the south. In addition, Eltis offers evidence from primary documents that list the prices of “unskilled male convicts from England and Ireland” at 16 pounds each, whereas the price for an African male was “triple this amount.” Superficially these sound like solid counter points to the economic-based view of slavery in the Atlantic, but there are some problems with Eltis’s argument.
Refuting Eltis’s claim that there were no sound economic reasons for not using European forced labor is the scholarship of historian Eric Williams. Williams explains that forced European labor was indeed used and proved not to be cost effective. For example, though the initial cost of passage was lower for an indentured servant, redemptioner, or convict, their terms of service were usually for a limited number of years, whereas an African was forced to labor for life. In addition, any children of the African were claimed as property, unlike the descendants of indentured servants and convicts, etc. Packing the slave ships very tightly offsets the higher cost of African shipping, whereas the ships transporting European indentured servants, etc., also had fare-paying passengers on board that expected a fair measure of space for the price of their tickets. There is no doubt that passengers who were paying for their tickets would have objected to being crammed in or stacked horizontally as the Africans were, and they would have certainly taken their business elsewhere. Adding to the roster of enslaved Europeans were the Irish and Scottish as well as religious (e.g. Quakers) and political dissidents. The outright kidnapping of white Europeans was even “encouraged to a great degree and became a regular business in such towns as London and Bristol.” Again, it was not cost-effective to retain these European groups because escaping proved to be a goal foremost in their minds. After all, they often spoke English and could blend into the surrounding populace with much more ease than could the Negro. In addition, the Irish, who were so heavily enslaved on the sugar plantations that they eventually formed an Irish colony in the West Indies, were bent on revolt and “were always ready to aid England’s enemies.” Eltis’ use of the price differences between European verses African slaves as evidence that using African slaves was not cost effective is brought into question with a closer reading of his own words. He writes that “unskilled male convicts from England and Ireland sold for sixteen English pounds,” but the Africans, who were three times the price, were not considered unskilled. They already knew how to cultivate rice and were relatively immune to parasitic-born illnesses such as malaria and yellow fever, making them especially desirable in South Carolina. Also, Eltis gives no ages for the white, unskilled male convicts that cost sixteen pounds each (they could have been ten-year-old pickpockets or the elderly, and thus the lower price was justified), yet he openly writes that the “newly arrived African male slaves were in the prime age group.” Finally, unlike Africans, indentured servants expected to receive land at the end of their term of servitude—land that they could in turn use to compete with their fellow colonists. Thus, using Africans and their descendents as slaves, for life, was a much better deal in the long run.
Eltis also suggests that it would have been more cost effective to sell British convicts and their descendants into a lifetime of service instead of importing Africans. This is a suggestion fraught with difficulties. The wholesale disregard of the rights of English citizens would surely have caused fear and distrust of the government—the seeds of revolutions are planted in such a political climate. In order for Eltis’ suggestion to come to fruition, the legal system of Britain would have had to no longer recognize British children as separate entities from their parents, nor as future British citizens. By contrast, the descendants of an African slave were considered property in the same way the offspring of one’s cow or horse was. Ultimately, Eltis’ suggestion was simply not among the economic choices for merchants or plantation owners since their government did not permit it. His cost analysis also does not take into account the costs that accompany implementing and enforcing new laws, as well as the judicial costs of prosecuting violators. In addition, Eltis’ suggestion of taking away the established rights of British citizens could have risked destabilizing the government—a government that, at the halfway point of the Atlantic slave trade, could hear the nonstop reverberations of the guillotine across the channel.
The reason that slave trading and slave labor began in the New World was due to an economic need for cheap labor, it was not invented by Europeans as a way to express pre-existing racial hatred for Africans. Williams explains that the first slaves in the New World were Indians, not Negroes. He goes on to explain that Indian life expectancy rapidly declined in the face of “insufficient diet, the white man’s diseases, and their inability to adjust themselves to the new way of life.” In addition, the Indian resisted becoming a docile slave and when he was able to escape, he had (unlike Africans) a tribe to go to in the interior. Even with the disappointing results of Indian labor, the Europeans still did not seek out Negroes as a second choice—instead, the regular transport of Europe’s poor whites began. “The use of bound white labor preceded the use of black slaves in every British American colony.” Williams tells us that “between 1654 and 1685 ten thousand sailed from Bristol alone, chiefly for the West Indies and Virginia…In 1683 white servants represented one-sixth of Virginia’s population…Two-thirds of the immigrants to Pennsylvania during the eighteenth century were white servants…25,000 came to Philadelphia alone.” As the markets for cotton, tobacco, and sugar skyrocketed, massive amounts of cheap laborers were needed—amounts that Europe alone could not generate.
Slavery within Africa had been a common practice for centuries by the time Europeans began to look for new sources of labor to fuel the plantations. Warring African tribes often raided each other for booty, women, and slaves. “As early as 1495…Sao Tome [in Central Africa] imported more slaves than Europe, the Americas, or the other Atlantic islands.” Africans who were owned by other Africans had “no right to the protection of the law, and could be treated with severity, or sold to a stranger, according to the pleasure of their owners,” and it is notable that in West Africa there was a “comparatively small proportion of free people, to the enslaved.” Mungo Park, an observer in West Africa in 1790, explained that though Africans could become slaves to other Africans through debt, famine, or crimes (slavery being the punishment for most everything), being captured in wartime, or in raids for the purposes of collecting slaves to sell, was the main cause for African slavery. He also explains that after the African conquerors “carry off their plunder and their victims…such of the prisoners as, through age or infirmity, are unable to endure fatigue, or are found unfit for sale, are considered as useless and frequently put to death.” It was established custom in Africa that the descendants of slaves were also the property of the master, and that Africans sold off their own children or family members to pay off debt. Mungo Park concludes, “It is evident from its nature and extent, that it [slavery] is a system of no modern date. It probably had its origins in the remote ages of antiquity.”
Historian John Thornton writes that the slave population inside Africa was “enormous at the time of the arrival of Europeans and during the whole era of the slave trade…This meant that the necessary legal institutions and material resources were available to support a large slave market, one that anybody could participate in, including Europeans and other foreigners.” It is not hard to understand that with the coerced labor of Europeans dwindling, coupled with the tremendous economic pressures brought about by the cotton, tobacco, and sugar boom, Europeans would take their slice of the slave market willingly being offered to them by a multitude of African merchants who dealt in slaves. How much easier it must have been for the European traders to simply bring their ships to port on the coast of Africa, where Africans had already chased and captured hundreds or thousands of slaves for them, and were keeping them in large holding pens awaiting the traders’ arrivals. By participating in this already existing and successful market, the Europeans no longer had to deal with indentured servants who would sometimes sue for wrongful detainment, convicts who petitioned the British Parliament for their freedom, inconspicuous escapees, and the hassle of attaining laborers through an assortment of (sometimes illegal) venues. It was akin to our own “one-stop shopping” and made economic sense. In addition, African slaves had no legal recourse for addressing grievances and traders had no accountability since, unlike Europeans, Africans had no political rights.
Finally, David Eltis argues that the African slave trade was not caused by economic factors because “a properly exploited system drawing on convicts, prisoners, and vagrants from all countries of Europe could easily have provided fifty thousand forced migrants a year without serious disruption to international peace (emphasis added).” While the numbers he offers may be correct (it is estimated that fifty thousand Africans a year were shipped from 1700-1750), it is still highly unlikely that “all the countries of Europe” in these early centuries would have come together to orchestrate a cooperative system to equitably divide up the numbers of forced laborers across the various countries. The countries of Europe had long histories of warfare and competitiveness with each other, so Eltis’ argument only seems possible in a twenty-first-century global-market economy.
Ultimately, as Eric Williams succinctly sums up, “The origin [of the Atlantic slave trade] can be expressed in three words: in the Caribbean, Sugar; on the mainland, Tobacco and Cotton.” Concisely explained, the tremendous need for cheap labor on the plantations far surpassed the numbers of white servants and convicts available; African slavery had been in full swing for centuries so utilizing that existing market made economic sense; and Europeans would not have shipped 15 million Africans to the New World if there had been no economic reason for doing so. Racism certainly followed slavery—it was common in slaving societies for people to want to play up differences between themselves and the enslaved peoples, and to also downplay any similarities (such as humanity in the case of Africans). But to say that racism and hatred came first, and not the labor needs of the plantations, and that race and hate was the cause or generative force behind the formation of the Atlantic slave trade, is putting the cart before the horse. As appalling and horrific as it was, Negro slavery simply brought a good return on investment.
Edited by Susan E. Smith
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