Monthly Archives: May 1977

1977.05.01: The Roots of American Slavery (Socialist Worker #2)

Socialist Worker #2
May 1977

In Black and White
The Roots of American Slavery
by Michael Long [Michael Letwin]

When the first Africans were unloaded from the ship in Jamestown, Virginia in 1619, the institution of slavery was brought to North America. Americans have always known slavery existed, but it was the impact of ROOTS which brought the horrible reality of slavery to 80 million Americans.

The question remains why? Why did such a brutal and inhuman system exist? Did it have to do with the inherent racism of Europeans? Or did it have to do with the development of society at the time. Why did people who considered themselves “decent Christians” for a system which degraded, exploited, enslaved, tortured, maimed and murdered millions of Africans.

The answer lies with the development of capitalism in England and in North America. Capitalism, and the foundation of our society, has its “roots” in slavery.

The trade in African slaves began in the 1660’s with the commercial exploration of Africa, Asia and the Western hemisphere. All the European nations — England, France, Spain, Holland, Belgium and Portugal were involved.

By the 1700’s England triumphed as the dominant slave trading nation. By 1763, she was the major political power in North America. England was the ñrst European country to set up permanent colonies.

The problems facing English merchants in setting up colonies was the scarcity of labor. The native population — Indians — could not be made slaves. Instead they were driven off their land, and eventually exterminated. White indentured servants were not numerous enough to make up for the labor scarcity.

Africa provided the solution and it was on the backs of the Black slaves kidnapped from Africa that the wealth of America and its English masters was built. Malcolm X estimated that in the quest of the rising capitalist economy for cheap labor, millions of slaves were brought to the shores of America (other millions dying on the passage).

The cargo of humans, Black gold as the slaves were called, would be unloaded in Annapolis, Baltimore or Charleston, South Carolin; the merchants then loaded their ships with raw materials — lumber, tobacco, pitch and indigo — and sailed back to England where they would load their ships with finished products to be unloaded in Africa and the New World.

The immense profits from this “Triangle Trade” made England the wealthiest commercial nation. These profits were then invested in manufacture and machinery. These profits from slavery helped make England the strongest industrial power.

Capitalism developed as a result of slavery, yet ironically, as capitalism developed, the need for slaves in the capitalist countries declined. In France, slavery was abolished in 1832 but not the profitable slave trade.

When Kunte Kinte was brought to Maryland in 1765, the institution of slavery was not fully entrenched. Yet it was outlawed in the Northwest territory in 1793. A few northern states ended slavery in the 1800’s. A tiny number of slave owners in the South considered getting rid of slavery as well.

Slavery was not abolished because capitalists in the northern states or in England were somehow less racist, or more humanitarian. Capitalism cannot use chattel slaves. It needs a mobile “free” labor force. Futhermore, the productivity of slave labor is very low compared to wage labor. Capitalism requires a highly productive labor force. Slavery as a system would not reap high profits for capitalism. And the capitalist system is based, first and foremost on profit.


The South developed differently from the North. With the invention of the Cotton Gin, cotton became “king” in the South. Cotton, and the slave labor needed to pick and process the cotton, spread rapidly throughout the South as far west as Texas.

The southern planter class became more and more dependent upon cotton, and in turn more and more dependent upon the slave system. African women were brought over in larger numbers after 1830. The larger scale importation of African women came at the same time that Northerners began passing laws curbing the African slave trades. The planter class needed more women for breeding purposes, especially if the supply from Africa was going to be cut off.

Slavery was the foundation for the southern cotton system, and was at the root of all economic, social and political relationships. If slavery was ever going to be abolished then every Southern institution would be destroyed as well.

That is why the southern planter had to do everything in his power to maintain slavery; why Kunte Kinte could not speak his own language, worship his own religion and keep his customs. Why his foot was eventually chopped off. Slaves had to be kept ignorant. That was why it was dangerous for to learn how to read and write.

In order to keep the slaves in submission, families had to be broken up; children, grandparents sold at the whim of the slave owner; rebellious and subservient slaves alike, whipped and tortured at will; thousands of slave women like Kizzy were raped; and hundreds of thousands of others tortured and murdered.


In order to justify slavery, southern planters and northern merchants who brought the slaves from Africa, had to a justification. This became the ideology — or set of ideas — of racism. Since Africans were legally “cargo” “chattel” or “property” the rationale developed that the Africans were not humans. Africans preferred being slaves than free men in “savage Africa.” They were like children, and needed their civilized white masters to care for them.

The white race was superior to the black race; therefore racial purity must always be preserved. However, racial purity only had to do with white women; southern white men sired hundreds and thousands of children of Black women.

Because of the ever present danger that Blacks would revolt against slavery the ideology developed that Blacks were lazy, untrustworthy, and ultimately dangerous — they would “tum” on their benevolent masters.

All these ideas evolved and grew with the expansion of slavery. In turn, racism developed a dynamic of its own. Racism today pervades every aspect of American society and its origins are found in the institution of slavery.

The television show ROOTS ended with the abolition of slavery and the end of the civil war in 1865. Yet, it was the institution of slavery, which began with the development of capitalism, which brought the most horrible poisons of racism to the working class, the wage slaves of a new era.