Week 4 – 1/30 Origins of the Slave Trade


22 thoughts on “Week 4 – 1/30 Origins of the Slave Trade

  1. ewm1 January 29, 2013 at 6:40 pm Reply

    The stubborn and ingenious qualities of various slave traders concerning the economics of slavery stand out in this week’s reading. Plantation owners greatly preferred owning black slaves over white slaves, both from religious and ease of recognition standpoint. However, in cases where one could purchase these white “vagabonds, criminals, and prisoners of war” (77) for a lower cost, masters still demanded black slaves, even after the cost for them rose ten fold between 1680 and 1830. Some even argued that they were doing these Africans a favor by saving them from being “killed, starved, or cannibalized” (81). Slave traders, on the other hand, cared very much about which slaves they were carrying. In some cases, they would even buy and sell slaves along the coast of Africa, depending on what slaves cost at various places. They were always in it for the profit.

    • Ben Wright January 29, 2013 at 7:38 pm Reply

      How do you reconcile the fact that “they [slave traders] were always in it for a profit,” with the fact that “masters still demanded black slaves [even when white labor would be cheaper]?” What reasons might masters have to prefer black slaves over white un-free labor even when the latter was cheaper?

      • ewm1 January 30, 2013 at 12:37 am

        Well, Eric Williams suggests that black slaves were more fitted for slave labor, their dark skin allowed them to work longer in the sun and they tended to last longer than whites and indians. Their “subhuman characteristics” also made it easier for others to recognize them as slaves. Davis also states that some cultural forces had “brought a sense of unity and freedom to Christians of Western Europe.” (Davis, 77) Once the demand for African slaves was clear, slave traders had only to supply them.

      • Gahbrielle Armrdi January 30, 2013 at 12:24 pm

        Christianity nullified the idea of Europeans enslaving other Europeans. It would actually be cheaper for slave traders to enslave other Europeans and save the trip to Africa. So I think it was for more than just profit.

    • Taylor Neal January 30, 2013 at 2:57 am Reply

      I remember reading about those who thought that were doing the Africans a favor by enslaving them. It reminds me about our discussion from last week. Is this a real thought or only a statement of redemption?

  2. Christine Shaw January 29, 2013 at 7:25 pm Reply

    Both of the readings for this week deal with the question of why Africans, as opposed to white slaves or Native Americans, became the primary source of labor in the New World. At one point, the Italian merchants’ trading of “white” slaves from the Black Sea region grew to such an extent that it “foreshadowed almost every aspect of the African slave trade” (82) and could have been a major source of slaves for the New World had the Ottoman Turks not cut off the supply to Christian Europe. This brings up the question of why traders turned to Africa instead of finding another source of white slaves. The “sense of unity” (77) felt by Christians in Western Europe played a role in discouraging white slavery, as did the argument that the use of African slaves in the New World “stimulated domestic jobs”, prevented at least some white laborers from leaving, and provided Britain with “a favorable balance of trade” (81). Williams mentions several other economic motives, including that African slaves were cheaper, more efficient workers, and more resistant to diseases than the Native Americans.

  3. cal72013 January 29, 2013 at 9:58 pm Reply

    Williams and Davis disagree about the reason that Europeans resorted to African slavery in building the New World. They both agree that enslaving Native Americans was not a viable option because the presence of European diseases caused all the Native Americans to die. Where they disagree is over white enslavement. Williams cites one slave owner who said that “three blacks worked better and cheaper than one white man,” (Williams, 6) while Davis pulls from David Etlis, a historian, who says that “if only economic forces had prevailed, western Europeans would have revived slavery,” (Davis, 78) but that “these economic desires were also fused with issues of identity, ideology, and power,” (Davis, 79). Davis argues that whites did not enslave other whites because of their common identity. What I find most interesting though is that, for whatever reason Europeans chose African labor, that choice stimulated the European and global economies and built the New World. As Davis says, black slavery “anticipated much of the efficiency, organization, and global interconnectedness of industrial capitalism,” (Davis, 76) and it was also “basic and integral to the entire phenomenon we call ‘America,’” (Davis, 102).

    • Daniel Land January 29, 2013 at 10:59 pm Reply

      I also thought it was interesting that Davis mentioned white unity as overcoming economic factors in favor of white slavery. Many economically minded historians, he says, “tended to ignore or underestimate cultural and ideological factors”.

      • ewm1 January 30, 2013 at 2:58 am

        I’m not sure many historians would agree on the full effect of economic factors versus social factors. For one, the cost of a black slave changed drastically over this time period, but they were the ones expected to out-perform all other slaves, and in many other ways they were considered the superior slave to have.

  4. Daniel Land January 29, 2013 at 10:45 pm Reply

    In the supplemental reading, historian Eric Williams argues for economics as the primary cause of slavery, with racism proceeding as a result. The original Native American slaves were replaced by poor whites in the form of indentured servants, who were in turn replaced by more profitable blacks as the chief source of labor in the New World. In my opinion, while Williams does make a strong case that economics both shaped and motivated slavery, his conclusion that racism was not a necessary component of its formation, labeling it rather as a “consequence” of slavery, goes too far. Surely “racism” taken specifically cannot be said to be a universal factor within the formation of all forms of slavery – the fact that whites enslaved whites and blacks enslaved blacks disavows this conclusion. However, such cases for the most part contain an inherent “us and them” mentality, whether it be through identification with a specific tribe, religion, or social class such as Davis cites. Racism undoubtedly served as a frequent catalyst amongst a variety of social factors that provided the necessary conditions for this slave-accepting mentality to emerge, and an economically exclusive model would have to assume that members of any group or society would just as soon enslave their own members as outsiders given economically favorable conditions.

    • Taylor Neal January 30, 2013 at 2:29 am Reply

      I disagree with Williams’ conclusion about racism as well. I would like to ask him. if racism had nothing to do with slavery, then why were African slaves so much cheaper than other slaves? I feel like that ties in with the racist ideology that blacks were inferior to whites.

    • cal72013 January 30, 2013 at 8:31 am Reply

      I don’t think Eric Williams says that racism comes out of all kinds of slavery. I think his argument is that since Europeans enslaved whites and Native Americans and then finally landed on black slaves, there could not have been racism involved in the formation of the slave trade.

    • Christine Shaw January 30, 2013 at 8:48 am Reply

      After the discussion last week about the relationship between race and slavery, I also disagree with the idea that racism always appeared as a consequence of slavery. Williams mentions that different races provided “unfree labor” in the New World, but it seems overly simplistic to attribute the switch to African slaves to solely economic motives.

  5. Taylor Neal January 29, 2013 at 10:57 pm Reply

    Although the readings focus on the origins of slavery, Davis (in Inhuman Bondage) and Williams (in Economics Not Racism as the Root of Slavery) also discuss the origins of racism. Eric Williams argues that slavery caused racism, not the other way around (Williams 2). The rise of larger plantations for sugar, tobacco and cotton required a change in “labor supply” and black slaves were “superior” to Indians and white slaves (6). Davis says, “From the beginnings, America was part black, and indebted to the appalling sacrifices of millions of individual blacks who cleared the forest and tilled the soil” (102). Davis and Williams seem to share the idea that slavery was needed in order for America to get to where it is today.

    • Christine Shaw January 30, 2013 at 9:15 am Reply

      Davis mentions the contradiction of the idea of a free society that originally depended on black slave labor and argues slavery became an “indispensable part of New World settlement.” While slavery may have paved the way for America’s economic and societal development, it is interesting to think about what would be different today had slavery not become such an integral part of early American history.

  6. Daniel Land January 29, 2013 at 11:14 pm Reply

    Davis has given me a greater appreciation of the role of slavery in preparing the way for the American phenomenon. However, I’m unconvinced that such a unique society that truly had “commited themselves to the twin ideals of liberty and equality” could not have proceeded without it.

  7. cal72013 January 30, 2013 at 8:40 am Reply

    It seems hard to believe that the United States never would have happened without slave labor, but I think Davis convinced me. Throughout the chapter, he talks about the economic structures that were created because of the Atlantic slave trade and how “that prepared the way for everything America was to become,” (102).

  8. Gahbrielle Armrdi January 30, 2013 at 10:29 am Reply

    Davis exemplifies the influence of religion in slavery. He refers to the face that “well over a millennium, the ultimate division between “Us” and “Them,” came from the Christian crusades of Muslim areas (pg.78). At this time, enslavement was not based on any form of race or color, but on religion alone. From the Christian European perspective, slavery could was a form of salvation. An opportunity for Africans to embrace Christian culture and become “civilized” (Davis pg.81). The Europeans also associated darkness with the devil, including skin color. Portugal’s King Manuel I ordered that “all masters to be sure that all black adults had been baptized within six months of landing”. Popes demanded slaves to be “Christianized”. The shift from “white slavery” to African slavery directly related to the flowing Christian ideologies that enveloped Europe. Christianity brought a unity among Europeans. Davis argues that this unity made enslaving other “white” Europeans unreasonable, although economically feasible. In Eric Williams, “Economics, Not Racism as the root of slavery“, he argues that white slaves were more likely to create “rivalry with the mother country in manufacturing”. This could lead to independence and then the mother country would not benefit at all from the labor. Obtaining slaves from Africa would not incur this problem. The Christian religion played a major role in annihilating “white slavery”.

  9. Andrew Johnson January 30, 2013 at 11:04 am Reply

    Hi everyone,
    I’m one of Ben’s colleagues and he asked me to give some thoughts on Davis, Williams, and the origins of the slave trade. First off, I’d like to say that I’ve enjoyed reading your class’s posts. I think you all have hit the essence of what many historians have said (Williams), and what historians are saying (Davis) about Atlantic slavery. I would just like to add a few points to complicate this narrative even further.
    One could argue 1492 (or, say, 1607) was not a watershed moment in the Americas with respect to the “rise” of slavery. Slavery had been practiced in the Western Hemisphere since time out of mind. Native Americans had a long history of enslaving captives taken in warfare to bolster their labor force as well as replace loved ones who had been killed. When British colonists reached North America and the Caribbean, their assumptions about slavery collided head-on with Native American slave culture. In South Carolina, a colony whose raison d’être was the mercantilist/capitalist production of commodities, slavery was always a part of the program. In fact, the initial settlers brought a few African slaves with them across the Atlantic. But in their search for commodities in the southern lowcountry, Carolinian settlers discovered there were fortunes to be made trading with Native Americans well before they decided on a staple crop to sell abroad (rice). The deerskin trade between colonists and Native Americans became a huge enterprise, but so did slavery. One slave, taken “in battle” by Native Americans, was worth the equivalent of scores of deerskins to the Carolinians. Since Carolina offered European goods for trade with the Indians, slavery became a relatively easy way to obtain items Native Americans wanted.
    On the other side of the trade, although Carolinians were not opposed to slavery in general, they did in fact prefer Africans to keep in bondage. That being said, at the height of the Indian slave trade, about 25% of the slaves in South Carolina were Native American. Historian Stuart B. Scwartz has argued that in a similar context (Brazil), Native American slaves were more expensive because of higher “management costs.” Basically, they were much more likely to run away than were Africans, who were an ocean away from home. So, South Carolinians sold most Native American slaves to the Caribbean, where they were put to work mainly on sugar plantations. Something like 95% of all Indian slaves traded to the Carolinians were then sent to the Caribbean. Current estimates believe that somewhere around 50,000 Native Americans were traded through Charleston.
    You may be thinking: what does this have to do with Atlantic slavery? Well, the fact that Carolinians sold an overwhelming proportion of their native bondsmen is telling. They preferred to receive the liquid capital from selling slaves abroad to actually using them for a labor source. After the height of the Indian slave trade, imports of Africans into the lowountry picked up drastically. In short, The British colonists in the southeast used this liquid capital to fund the plantation regime and the move towards Atlantic slavery. So, the enslavement and exploitation of the Native Americans was a first step in the accumulation of capital that ended up industrializing Great Britain.

    • Gahbrielle Armrdi January 30, 2013 at 12:34 pm Reply

      Thank you for sharing your wisdom! Now I have a clearer understanding of why slave owners preferred African slaves over native slaves.

    • Daniel Land January 30, 2013 at 3:08 pm Reply

      Thanks Andrew! Could you also comment on the collision between British slavery assumptions and Native American slave culture?

      • Andrew Johnson January 31, 2013 at 9:09 am

        I’d be glad to elaborate. European chattel slavery cultural assumptions involved what some scholars have called a “social death,” whereby people were transferred into property and lived outside society. Native American slavery was very different. Slaves in Native American societies, no matter their origin, could easily be reintegrated into the community and adopted by their captors, thereby being reborn and given a new identity. Also, the children of Native American slaves were not given the status of their enslaved parent, unlike Euro-Atlantic chattel slavery.

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