Handout on The International Slave Trade Philip Foner Abstract

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The International Slave Trade

Philip Foner

This chapter examines the origins and expansion of the international slave trade and its role in financing the Industrial Revolution in England. The instability of other sources of labor in the New World colonies is described along with the processes by which trade in enslaved Africans came to dominate other trade relationships with Africa. The international slave trade is shown to have transformed the institution of slavery into a purely economic enterprise that fueled intense competition among European nations for dominance. It is argued that the British victory in this competition facilitated the amassing of enormous profits that underwrote the rapid development of industrial enterprises.

The discovery of America added an entirely new dimension to the demand for slaves. By the sixteenth century the demand for cheap labor to exploit the new continent’s resources had created an enormous market for slaves, and the slave traffic in Africa changed from an accessory to the older trades into a major economic enterprise, providing enormous profits for the rising European capitalist class. Africa would continue to supply gold dust, ivory, dye, woods, animal skins, tortoise shells, beeswax, and bamboo canes, but so lucrative was the slave trade that no other form of commerce could compete with it. Henceforth what money thirsty European merchants demanded from Africa was human beings for slaves, and the demand did not slacken for two hundred years....

In a number of European possessions in the New World, especially in the English West Indian and North American colonies, the immediate successor of the Indian slave was not the Negro but the landless poor white of Europe. Promoters of colonization appealed to hard-pressed tenants, craftsmen, farm hands, unemployed artisans, and agricultural laborers to start a new life in the New World. Many responded eagerly and came over under the terms of a labor contract or indenture that bound them to service for a specified term, usually from five to seven years, in return for their passage. But there were others who came, not of their own volition, but as victims of a highly organized, thriving kidnapping business, which dragged them off the streets of large cities - grown men and women and young boys and girls - and brought them in chains aboard a ship. Many more, victims of the heavy sentences of that day for petty misdemeanors or destitution, were sold out of the crowded prisons by a government eager to rid itself of costly public charges. Still others received court sentences for deportation or, given their choice, preferred indenture to long prison terms or the gallows.

A constant stream of poor whites from Spain, Portugal, France, and especially England moved to the colonies of the New World. But they failed to satisfy the tobacco and sugar plantations’ voracious appetite for labor. Many ran away into the wilderness or countryside and were lost to their masters. Most had come over hoping to become landowners; at the end of seven years, when they became free, many acquired land. Others, leaving before their contracts had expired, had little difficulty disappearing into the mass of free citizens.

What the plantations needed was a cheap and stable labor supply, and slavery met this need. Slavery was a lifetime status; moreover, it was passed on to the slaves’ children. The owner was not limited by the expiration of the indenture or by the inconvenience of hiring a new worker. Men and women with black skins could be held for a lifetime of service. An indentured white worker, after eluding his master, might be assimilated in the mass of free workers. Because of their color, runaway Negro slaves could more easily be recognized and captured. Even when they had attained freedom, they were viewed with suspicion when seeking work, and sometimes were thrown back into slavery. As blacks they were held to be descended from Ham, the accursed son of Noah; as pagans, their “savagery” and “barbarism” placed them beyond the pale of civilization, and the usual rites of Christian conduct did not apply to them. As Eric Williams points out, the owners of plantations “would have gone to the moon, if necessary, for labor.” But they had Africa, with its seemingly unlimited cheap labor supply. In an essay entitled “On the Populousness of Africa,” a British official on the Gold Coast wrote in 1764: “Africa not only can continue supplying the West Indies in the quantities she has hitherto, but, if necessity required it, could spare thousands, nay, millions more, and go on doing the same to the end of time.” It was to Africa that the European colonists turned.

The Atlantic Slave Trade

For a short time the Portuguese were preeminent in deriving profits from the transportation of slaves to the New World. In 1493 the Pope had issued a series of papal bulls that established a line of demarcation between the colonial possessions of Spain and Portugal. The West, including the New World, went to Spain, and the East, including Africa and most of the lands in Asia, to Portugal. (A year later, in the Treaty of Tordesillas, Portugal was permitted ownership of Brazil, her sole possession in the New World.) Since the papal judgment excluded Spain from Africa, she was never able to supply her own colonies with slaves. Even if she had been inclined to ignore the papal division, Spain would have found it difficult to engage in the slave trade. [Although] her gold and silver helped to finance the European economic revolution then in progress, Spain’s own social system remained basically feudal, and she lacked the capital and industry to make her independent. She had to rely on foreigners to populate her colonies with slaves....

After 1640 the official Spanish contract to supply slaves to her colonies, the Asiento do Negros, was awarded to various contractors in turn, and although Portuguese merchants were often able to purchase the exclusive privilege, their monopoly over the trade with the Spanish possessions was broken. While an illegal trade in slaves flourished, and the official policy of exclusiveness was difficult to enforce, the Asiento became a highly coveted and bitterly contested prize among nearly all the European powers. There is some question as to whether the Asiento was prized for the profits to be made on the slave trade or for the opportunity it provided for illicit sale of other goods in Spanish America in return for silver. Probably both were factors.

England and Holland emerged earliest as capitalist countries; during the sixteenth century the merchant capitalists in both countries achieved preeminence over the landed aristocracy, and during the revolutions of the seventeenth century, they became the dominant force in the state and assumed direction of its policies. For this rising class, the slave trade and the slave plantations in the New World provided an important source of wealth in the crucial period of primitive (or original) accumulation of capital. Nevertheless, in the early years of the slave trade, none of the maritime countries of northern Europe showed much interest in becoming directly involved. Not that they had any scruples. But the high cost of the African slave trade made it unattractive until the end of the sixteenth century. Between 1620 and 1650 the English, Dutch, and French all established colonies in the Caribbean. Sugar cultivation was introduced into these colonies during the 1640s, and the Caribbean islands rapidly developed into large-scale sugar producers. As sugar consumption soared, the vast profits from sugar production quickly justified the high cost of slave importation from Africa. The demand for slaves increased at a phenomenal rate. Having now become a highly profitable business, the slave trade inevitably attracted all maritime Europe. “Strange,” writes Eric Williams, “that an article like sugar, so sweet and necessary to human existence, should have occasioned such crimes and bloodshed!”

As early as the sixteenth century, the British and French were already staging occasional raids on Portuguese slavers, but they posed no real threat to Portuguese dominance of the slave coast. The arrival of the Dutch in the seventeenth century, with a formidable navy and the capital and shipping resources of the Dutch West Indian Company, was another matter. The Dutch seized Portuguese vessels on the high seas, established contacts with Africans who opposed the Portuguese, and set up permanent settlements of their own on the Guinea Coast. By the middle of the seventeenth century, the Dutch navy had seized all of the Portuguese forts on the Gold Coast and had even added Luanda and northeastern Brazil to their overseas dominions. Although Portugal lost her preeminent commercial position in West Africa, she soon regained control of Angola and Brazil. The Congo and Angola remained in the hands of the Portuguese and continued to supply Brazil until the end of the slave trade.

In the course of the seventeenth century, other European nations competed for African slaves and built posts along the West African coast: Sweden, Denmark, France, England, even Brandenburg, a province of present-day Germany. Jean Baptiste Colbert’s West Indian Company, representing the France of Louis XIV, occupied the mouth of the Senegal River and established an important center there. Although the company failed, a successor was formed that in 1677 captured the important island base of Gorée (near Cape Verde) from the Dutch. By the last quarter of the seventeenth century, the Dutch position on the slave coasts, so strong in midcentury, was being challenged by both England and France.

The English were the chief competitors of the Dutch, and they soon replaced them as the dominant power in the slave trade. English merchants were slow to enter the traffic, for they enjoyed a lucrative trade in gold and ivory with the African tribes and feared that the slave trade might cause a disruption in this commerce. When in the mid-sixteenth century an Englishman, John Lok, carried off five Negroes from the Guinea Coast under the justification that they “were a people of beastly living, without God, law, religion or commonwealth,” the trade in gold and ivory was halted, and the London merchants forced Lok to return his booty in order to help them reestablish their trade. No such difficulty, however, confronted Sir John Hawkins in 1562, when he encroached on the Portuguese monopoly of Africa, acquired three hundred Negroes on the Guinea Coast and carried his “good merchandise,” as it was described, across the Atlantic on a ship called the Jesus. Aboard this vessel, the psalms of David, the Lord’s prayer, and the Creed were recited every evening in the English tongue. Amid these religious surroundings, the Negroes were herded together in pest-ridden holes. Those who survived were sold to the Spaniards in Hispaniola.

Queen Elizabeth, when she first heard of Hawkins’ venture, commented that it “was detestable and would call down vengeance from the heavens upon the undertakers. . . .” But when Hawkins came to see her and informed her of his “prosperous success ... and much gaine to himselfe,” she not only forgave him but became a shareholder in his second slaving voyage. After his first venture, Hawkins formed an African company with the leading citizens of London. According to Philip II’s Spanish envoy to London, Hawkins’ second voyage “brought him 60 per cent profit.” As a result, his chronicler happily wrote, “His name therefore be praised, for evermore! Amen.”

On three separate occasions Hawkins sailed with his human cargo to the New World - in 1562, 1564, and 1568 - and while he attracted increasingly wealthy and powerful backers, he did not inspire many Englishmen to emulate him. As yet England had no colonies, and when, in the early seventeenth century, she did acquire such colonies in the West Indies and in North America, the colonists obtained their small numbers of Africans from the slave traders of other European nations. But with the introduction of sugarcane in the Barbados in 1641, and the occupation of Jamaica by the British in 1655, the demand for Negroes grew to the point where the English themselves began to transport large numbers of slaves from Africa. The lucrative business was handled by chartered companies. The Royal African Company, chartered in 1672 with the backing of the Duke of York (later King James II), was given a monopoly of the English trade between Cape Blanco on the north and the Cape of Good Hope on the south for one thousand years. No subject of the crown, other than the company, was to visit West Africa except with the company’s permission, and the company was authorized to seize ships and cargo infringing on its monopoly. In return, the company promised each year to supply England’s American colonial possessions with three thousand slaves.

The Royal African Company established forts along the African coast, but the Dutch opposed the English intrusion, and the two European nations fought an undeclared war over the African trade, with the British emerging victorious. Between 1673 and 1711 the Royal African Company delivered about ninety thousand slaves to England’s West Indian and North American colonies. But the company was powerless against the competition of freebooters. The coast was too long and the number of forts too few to prevent interlopers from operating. Some traders bought licenses from the company, but many successfully evaded the attempts to enforce the monopoly privilege and profitably carried slaves to the West Indies. After a long and bitter controversy waged between the Royal African Company and the separate traders, Parliament, in 1712, refused to confirm the company’s monopoly. In 1731 the Royal African Company abandoned the slave trade and specialized only in trade in ivory and gold dust. After 1712 any Englishman, including those in the colonies, was free to engage in the African trade.

In the first edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, published in London in 1771, there is the following entry under African company: “A society of merchants, established by King Charles II for trading to Africa; which trade is now laid open to all his majesty’s subjects, paying 10 per cent, for maintaining the forts.” The fact that this trade was in human merchandise was thus concealed.

With the ever-increasing demands of the sugar plantations, the volume of the British slave trade skyrocketed. The British colonies imported 2,130,000 Africans from 1680 to 1786, and the island of Jamaica absorbed as many as 610,000 slaves from 1700 to 1786. Between 1712 and 1721, Bristol ships alone carried 160,950 slaves to the sugar plantations.

But British slave traders did not stop at providing laborers for England’s colonial possessions. In 1713, as a result of her victory in the War of Spanish Succession, England was conceded the Asiento, the exclusive right to carry slaves to the Spanish colonies for thirty years. British traders were quick to take advantage of the privilege. At the same time, they were furnishing slaves to the French West Indian colonies. It was estimated in 1788 that of the annual British export of slaves from Africa, two-thirds were sold to foreigners, and according to one authority, during the whole of the eighteenth century British slave traders furnished the sugar planters of France and Spain with half a million Africans.

With her powerful navy, her industries capable of supplying the necessary goods, and her unlimited resources in capital for investments, England emerged as the most powerful nation in the slave trade. For most of three centuries, from the last quarter of the seventeenth century until the middle of the nineteenth, the English dominated the trade, although at various times the French, Dutch, Portuguese, and Americans were active competitors....

If Liverpool was practically built on traffic in slavery, so too was the African trade a key factor in the rise of British industry. The triangular trade, of which the slave trade was the cornerstone, involved the barter of manufactured goods for African slaves; these in turn were sold in the West Indies in exchange either for sugar or for bills of exchange payable in England. The New England slave trade in the mid-eighteenth century was three-cornered, like the British trade. But only three commodities were usually involved: rum, slaves, and molasses. Rum was shipped from Newport, Salem, Boston, and New York to the west coast of Africa. Here it was exchanged for Negroes, who were shipped across the Atlantic to the West Indies and sold mainly for molasses, which would be carried back to New England to be distilled into more rum, to buy more slaves, and so on and on.

The triangular trade stimulated the growth of the shipping, iron, woolen, linen, and cotton goods industries; and the manufacture of cotton goods for the purchase of slaves provided the initial stimulus for the emergence of Manchester as the great cotton-manufacturing center of the world. The trade in slaves provided employment for thousands of British seamen, ship carpenters, riggers, sail makers, ironmongers, rope makers, and makers of cotton, linen, and woolen goods, silk handkerchiefs, guns and ammunition, hardware and household utensils of all kinds. Even though there were some Europeans who saw that the huge sale of firearms to Africans in exchange for slaves might boomerang by enabling Africans to resist, the inexorable requirements of the slave trade overcame such concerns. As Basil Davidson notes, “huge quantities of firearms were poured into West Africa during the major period of the slave trade.... At the height of the eighteenth century commerce, gunsmiths in Birmingham (England) alone were exporting muskets to Africa at the rate of between 100,000 and 150,000 a year.”

The profits from the triangular trade provided one of the major sources for the accumulation of capital that financed the Industrial Revolution in England. Merchants who made money in the African trade invested their profits in a variety of other industries and in banking, and provided the capital necessary for the “takeoff” of England’s great industrial development. In the first volume of his classic work, Capital, Karl Marx pointed out that, together with the discovery of gold and silver in America, the enslavement of the Indian population, the beginning of “the conquest and lotting” of the East Indies, “the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black skins, signalized the rosy dawn of the era of capitalistic production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief moments of primitive accumulation.” As Marx pointed out, all capitalist societies have needed as a condition for their early development what he called “the primitive accumulation of capital.” This was a relatively swift, open plundering of wealth to prime the pump, to launch the building of the factory system. In the European countries the slave trade was a primary source of the primitive accumulation of capital, and upon this to no small extent the British, French, and Dutch capitalist systems were built. Thus Marx speaks in Capital of European capitalism emerging out of the “bloody womb” of African slavery.

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