Thursday, February 22, 2007

Slavery and the slave trade (general)

This post tries to put the slave trade into a wider context. The subject of the European involvement in the slave trade is a vast one and there are many excellent web sites.

Aristotle had divided human beings into two kinds: the masters and the slaves, and he argued that freedom and slavery were ‘natural’ rather than man-made conditions. It is important to realize that up to the nineteenth century slavery was the normal condition of society, though northern Europe was the exception to this rule.

In the Middle Ages in England and France slavery was replaced by serfdom (unlike chattel slaves, serfs had some property rights) and by the fifteenth century even serfs ceased to exist in England. But in the rest of the world slavery continued. It flourished in the Mediterranean in both Christian and Muslim societies. The Arab conquests of North Africa revived the old Roman slave trade; the nomadic Arabs of the southern Sahara traded in slaves with the black African societies of West Africa.

The European Slave Trade
According to Hugh Thomas (The Slave Trade, 1997, 23 ff) the slave trade took a new turn on 8 August 1444 when Portuguese seamen landed 200 African slaves near Lagos on the south west point of the Algarve. These slaves had been seized rather than purchased by a Portuguese raiding party. They were Muslim Azanaghi, some of whom converted to Christianity. From 1444 onwards, more and more kidnappings took place, though the Portuguese soon came to buy rather than kidnap slaves.

The Spaniards were the next nation to enter the slave trade. By the early 16th century the native Indians were in rapid decline possibly more through overwork than disease. For example, in Hispaniola (Haiti), one of the first European settlements, the local population collapsed from 4 million to 100,000. It has been estimated that the smallpox epidemic which spread through the Caribbean might have killed up to 90 million people. (James Walvin, Questioning Slavery, 2.)

Confronted with a labour problem, King Ferdinand gave authority in 1510 for fifty slaves to go to Hispaniola and Santo Domingo to work in the gold mines. The decrees did not specify that the slaves should be Africans though there is no doubt that Africans, though already in Europe, were intended. Further licenses granted rights to carry African slaves to the Americas. Soon ‘the complete collapse of the population of the Caribbean changed the African slave trade to the Americas into a major enterprise’ (Thomas, 96). The slaves worked in the mines and in the newly established sugar industry.

In the 1530s the Portuguese conquered Brazil and Africans were imported to work in the sugar plantations. By the end of the century Brazil was Europe’s main sugar supplier, with about 120 sugar mills along the coast in 1600 (Thomas, 135).

In the second quarter of the 16th century about 40,000 slaves were shipped from Africa to the Americas. The figure may have reached 60,000 by 1575 (Thomas, 114). By this time the Spanish market had eclipsed the Portuguese, who were able to make this dramatic progress thanks to their trading connections in West Africa (James Walvin, 1996, 3-4). Between 1600 and 1620 the African slaves were coming to eclipse the native Indian slaves.

In the sixteenth century Spain and Portugal ‘assumed that they could together retain the Atlantic as a private lake’ (Thomas, 153), but French, English and later Dutch ‘pirates’ posed continual challenges. In 1525 a French ship anchored north of the River Congo and from the 1530s captains from Dieppe were continually harassing the Portuguese. In 1562 John Hawkins captured at least 300 blacks in the River Sierra Leone and (illegally) sold them in Hispaniola. In 1600 the Dutch, who were still fighting Spain for their independence, secured half the carrying trade between Brazil and Europe and were trading for slaves along the Guinea coast. By 1641 they had displaced the Portuguese on the African coast through force of arms and commercial dealings with Africans (Walvin, 7).

Some 11 million Africans survived the Atlantic crossing – the largest forcible migration in human history.

King Sugar
In the seventeenth century the northern Europeans established their own colonies in the West Indies. The Caribbean was converted into ‘the archipelago of sugar’ (Thomas, 188), manned by African slaves. In 1619 twenty Africans landed in Jamestown, Virginia, carried by a Dutch man-of-war, to work in the tobacco plantations.

In 1624 the Dutch established slaves in their colony of New Amsterdam. At first the legal status of Africans in America was poorly defined, and some, like European indentured servants, managed to become free after several years of service. From the 1660s, however, the colonies began enacting laws that defined and regulated slave relations. Central to these laws was the provision that black slaves, and the children of slave women, would serve for life.

Throughout the first half of 18th century, France and England battled for control of the Guinea Coast. In Lower Guinea, Britain’s main adversary was the Dutch. But when the Dutch Company was liquidated, the British soon gained control of the entire Ivory, Grain, and Gold Coasts. By the mid-18th century, Britain had full control of West African trade. In addition, the British won the asiento, the sole license to ship black slaves from Africa to Spanish controlled territories in America, in the Treaty of Utrecht of 1713. British dominance in the slave trade began a new period of change in the European/African relationship.

What work did slaves do?
There were few jobs that were not done by slaves. They were barbers and nurses, doctors, cow-keepers, messengers, clerks, cooks, shoemakers, butchers and jewellers. (Walvin, 42) But most slaves – women as well as men - toiled in the fields. On Sundays they could work on their own plots. This was encouraged by the owners on the grounds that it made them more contented. By the 1820s slaves in the British colonies were growing more of their own food than was provided by their owners (Walvin, 142).

In the Caribbean the extremely labour-intensive economy was geared to sugar, with the French West Indian islands being the largest sugar producers.

After 1793 cotton was the great slave crop in the United States. In 1790 the South was producing 3000 bales a year, by 1810 178,000 and more than 4 million by 1860. It was America’s greatest export. On the large estates slaves worked in gangs supervised by overseers.

The greater plantations also had large numbers of domestic slaves, mainly women. This made them a prey to the sexual attentions of their male owners. Yet their knowledge of family secrets and their care of the children could give them a degree of power within the households.