1973.03.01: Economics of the Slave Trade (Red Tide)

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Red Tide, Vol. II, No. 5 [Issue #9]
March 1973

Black History Series, No. 5
History of An Unfree People
Economics of the Slave Trade
[By Michael Letwin and Karen Pomer]

In the last issue, we dealt with some of the horrors in the treatment of black slaves in their voyage from Africa to the “New World”. But it is not enough to know just of day to day treatment that slaves had to endure. In order to really understand slavery and the slave trade as an institution, we must understand how slavery was a major factor in the development of the
economic and cultural system that exists today — capitalism.

Black slavery played two important roles in the “New World”, where plantations were developing, and in Europe where new companies and firms were growing.

NEW WORLD

In the colonies of the “New World”, much labor was needed to grow and harvest crops such as tobacco, cotton, sugar cane, and metals such as gold, silver, copper and others. But different methods of labor were tried out before black slavery was introduced.

The first method tried was that of Native Americans. However, because they were in their own land and could escape easily, and because they were very susceptible to the white illnesses and died, the experiment proved unsuccessful.

The next method tried was that of white indentured servants, who sold a part of their life in exchange for passage from the “Old World” to the “New World”, or people who had debts in Europe that they could not repay. However, there were not enough of these people, or of free white people, to do the amount of work that the early capitalists wanted done.

It was at this point, in the early 17th Century, that the black slave trade, and slavery in general, became a widespread method of labor. Africa was a continent with a fairly large population, and a small slave trade already in existence, and the white capitalists moved in.

Subsequent advantages of black slaves turned out to be that since they were of a different color than whites they were easily distinguishable as slaves. And because they were of a different race, it was easy to make up myths about their natural inferiority to justify slavery.

OLD WORLD

The slave trade made possible vast capitalist development in a time when the monarchies of Europe were still competing with the new capitalist class for power.

The slave trade itself helped build the shipping industry of England and France. The risks of loss were high because of the terrible conditions of the ships, and the brutality of the masters, but the profits made off human life were higher.

This was a time when banks came into prominence due to the slave system, indeed, many of the large capitalist firms of Europe made their fortunes off the sale and products products of slavery. Merchants as a class made their power as class due to the trade, and the goods produced by the slaves in the colonies.

Yes, the slave trade, and slavery as a labor force, was a major part of the process of laying the economic and cultural groundwork for the capitalist system that exists in this country today.

And slaves were not the only ones that endured tremendous brutality. Workers of all sort at that time would be killed or have their hands ears chopped off for the most minor or ficticious offenses. Many hundreds of thousands of vagrants were hung at this time in England because there had to be some way to dispose of a starving mass of people.

Although the system of slavery was the basis of early capitalist development in many ways, it was not suitable for more advanced capitalism. This fact is what led up to the American Civil War, about 260 years later.

This too was not a matter of just simple emotions, not that the people in the North just wanted the slaves to be free, but was based on a hard economic fact, that it became more profitable to use “free” labor than to keep and take care of slaves.

SOURCES:
KEY ISSUES IN THE AFRO-AMERICAN EXPERIENCE, VOL. 1, by Nathan I. Huggins.
SLAVERY, by Eric Williams.

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