Slavery has existed in the world since the earliest historical records were written. Some slaves were prisoners of war; others became slaves as punishments for crime or as a result of debts they could not repay. In most ancient civilizations, slaves had rights that were protected by law. Some slaves did agricultural work or household chores, but others held highly respectable positions—private tutors for children of the rich, managers of property, and financial advisors. Joseph, son of Jacob, was a slave in Egypt who managed his master’s property. The Roman philosopher Epictetus was also a slave.
Even before the trans-Atlantic slave trade began, Africans were bought by Muslim traders and were sold in Arabia, India, and China. Even today descendants of African slaves live in China. But the tragedy of the trans-Atlantic slave trade was caused by sugar addiction. Crusaders first encountered cane sugar in western Asia. (Sugar cane is native to the Indonesian islands, but it had been sold and consumed in India, Persia, and Arabia for centuries.) Europeans had some natural sweeteners—honey and fruits—but the pure sweetness of cane sugar captivated European tastes. More than cinnamon, nutmeg, or cloves, the spice called “sugar” was in great demand as Europeans sought Asian spices from the silk roads. Italian investors tried to cultivate sugar cane on Mediterranean islands, but the climate was wrong and the crops failed.
In the 1400s, Portuguese explorers and traders began to look for short cuts in the silk roads, ways to obtain valued items such as gold and spices while bypassing some of the middle steps. (Taxes from governments and profits from merchants heighted the costs of Asian goods in Europe, so naturally western Europeans wanted to create and pursue any shortcuts they could find.) Traveling down the coast of Africa, the Portuguese found African civilizations eager to trade, and among the commodities offered by these Africans were slaves—prisoners captured from nearby tribes during disputes over land and wealth. At the same time, the Portuguese discovered islands off the coast of Africa that were uninhabited and were ideal for cultivating sugar cane. The Portuguese traded for African slaves and used them to grow and harvest sugar cane. When other explorers happened upon the Caribbean islands, they again found land ideal for sugar cane, and slaves purchased in Africa were transported across the ocean to labor in fields from Spanish Florida south to Portuguese Brazil. Slaves were soon introduced into British colonies north of Florida as well.
The plantations and haciendas established by Spain and Portugal in the New World were not capitalist ventures. They belonged to an economic philosophy now called mercantilism. In mercantilism, thinkers assume that the wealth in the world is limited and stagnant—one individual or nation can become richer only as another becomes poorer. Wealth from the New World—precious metals, crops (including sugar, cotton, coffee, rubber, and tobacco), animal furs, and fish—was transported to the Old World to enrich governments in Europe. Capitalists from Great Britain and the Netherlands did engage in the slave trade. Their ships traveled in a triangle: they traded with the Africans, selling European commodities and buying slaves; they sold slaves in the western hemisphere and bought New World wealth; they sold materials from the New World in European ports and gained European commodities. With each sale, they made a profit, much of which was distributed among investors.
But emerging capitalism in Great Britain and the Netherlands was accompanied by an abolition movement, an insistence that all people—even Africans and native Americans—possess human rights and should not be treated as property. The Industrial Revolution, created and funded by capitalism, replaced human labor with machinery, reducing the need to enslave human workers. Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807, followed by the United States the next year. All slavery was abolished in the British Empire in 1833. Compromises in the American government allowed slavery to persist in some states until the Civil War. Worldwide, slavery was not declared illegal in all countries until the 1960s.
Between 1500 and 1800, more Africans were introduced into the western hemisphere than Europeans. Sixteen million Africans (most of them sold by other Africans) were purchased in Africa and put in ships to be taken to the western hemisphere. Twelve million survived the trip and were sold as slaves. The death of four million Africans on those trading ships is one of the shameful facts about the slave trade—human beings were treated as an expendable commodity like any other crop. Treatment of slaves in the New World was a mixed package: some were treated with kindness and respect, but many were abused, tortured, and worked to death. Twenty-first century historians and moralists find it easy to condemn slavery and the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Dealing with the aftermath of those three hundred years is a different kettle of fish. J.