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The trading of slaves had its origins when agricultural societies increasingly needed to defend lands and borders; it proliferated as growing empires expanded their own. Transatlantic slave trade, with its infamous Middle Passage, ensnared roughly 11 million people between 1443 and 1870; historians caution that using only slave-ship records to account for such numbers leaves out millions who perished in forced marches to factories on the African coast.
Slave trades began with the onset of agricultural societies. As hunter-gatherers also became farmers, they settled down at least temporarily, defending their lands from both nomads and other farmers. The ensuing wars yielded prisoners, who then became convenient forced labor for the victors. More wars in an area meant more available slaves, who then could be sold to others in exchange for food, copper, and later money. This exchange was particularly true in Mesopotamia, India after the Aryan migrations, China under the Zhou dynasty (1045–256 BCE), and the Greek city-states. For example, in Sumeria in southern Mesopotamia this labor was used to perform the constant maintenance of irrigation canals as well as to build ziggurat temples. Egypt and Harappa (in the Indus River valley of modern Pakistan) had far fewer slaves until outsiders attacked, and their societies became more warlike than before in response. China and India had fewer slaves than Mesopotamia and Greece. Strong central governments that reserved slavery largely to themselves and that were blessed with more peasant farmers than they needed condemned fewer individuals to being outright chattel (an item of tangible property except real estate and things connected with real property) in eastern Asia.
Empires transmitted both slavery and slave trades. The Mediterranean world witnessed upsurges in the number of people in bondage with the imperial expansion of Athens, of Alexander III of Macedon (Alexander the Great), and then of Rome. Prisoners whose families could not afford or arrange a ransom were quickly sold and resold. Slave trades came to Gaul, in what is now western Europe, and Britain. Thanks to senatorial policy, the center of Mediterranean slave trading moved from the island of Rhodes to the smaller yet more accessible island of Delos to the even more convenient Rome itself. In addition, as the historian Keith R. Bradley has noted, “piracy and kidnapping contributed to Delos’s ability, according to [the Greek geographer] Strabo, to dispose of tens of thousands of slaves in a single day, its volume of traffic being specifically geared toward Roman demand” (Bradley 1989, 22). On a smaller scale, in the Americas slavery and the slave trades blossomed long before Columbus. Mayan city-states enslaved defeated opponents, keeping some of them ultimately as objects to sacrifice to the gods. In the Andean region the Mochica celebrated the actual moment of enslavement during war through exquisite pottery art.
While the Americas remained isolated from intercontinental contacts and thus from long-distance slave trading, Africa became a center of large-scale human trafficking with the domestication of the camel during the first millennium CE and the spread of Islam into the lands south of the Sahara Desert after 800 CE. The trans-Saharan caravan trade mainly exported gold for basic commodities such as salt, but it also spread faith in Allah as well as toting captive women and children for sale as domestics and concubines in Arab caliphates (the offices or dominions of successors of Muhammad as temporal and spiritual heads of Islam). This trans-Saharan slave trade was small in comparison to the later transatlantic one, but it unfortunately accustomed western Africans to the idea of exporting human beings centuries before the Portuguese came to their coasts.
Monotheistic religions intensified and justified slave trades, particularly in Africa and around the boundaries between Christian and Muslim states such as in Iberia (modern-day Spain and Portugal). Muslims, in particular, viewed slavery as a prelude to conversion, but actual conversion did not preclude enslavement. Enslavement was just too profitable and necessary for converts to be allowed to go free. Accordingly, crusades and jihads (holy wars) dehumanized the enemy, making them fit to be treated as disposable property.
When the Roman Empire itself declined in Western Europe after 200 CE, slavery and the slave trades also declined and disappeared there. Feudalism and serfdom emerged eventually to provide cheap and reliable sources of agricultural labor for governing elites. Serfdom supported local subsistence farming, whereas slavery persisted in and around the Levant (countries bordering on the eastern Mediterranean) to support large-scale cultivation for export. What the historian Philip Curtin has called “the plantation complex” (Curtin 1990, ix) began with Arab sugar planters in Mesopotamia using African and local prisoners of war about 800 CE. This complex gradually spread westward to the Levant, then to Cyprus, then to Crete, then to Sicily, then to Atlantic islands such as the Canaries, then to Sao Thome, and then finally to Brazil. Slave trades followed this westward trek, supplying the foreign, coerced workers for lucrative sugar plantations that needed vast numbers of workers to cultivate many acres in order to be profitable. Yet, slave trades also developed from south to north and from west to east. As noted, sub-Saharan Africa supplied Islamic caliphates with concubines and domestics, whether in Cordoba, Jerusalem, Mogadishu, or eventually Delhi. Yet, these slaves were a mere fraction of the global number of slaves. When Europeans thought of slaves before the fall of Constantinople (modern Istanbul, Turkey) in 1453, they usually thought of the Slavic peoples caught in the wars between Muslims, Mongols, and Russians around the Black Sea. In fact, the word slave comes from this medieval association of forced labor with Slavs. More widely, before 1500, the Indian Ocean with its Arab and Muslim merchants had the largest volume of world trade and slave trade; after 1500 the Atlantic Ocean with its European merchants and African collaborators became more and more a center of world trade as well as of slave trade.
The New World
The making of the European “New World” was predicated upon the procurement of coerced labor. Even Columbus realized early on that he would have to generate riches and not just to steal them from Native American cultures. Schemes for a quick and gushing fortune required a lot of drudgery, which nearly all explorers and planters had come to the Americas to avoid. Parasitically, they at first tried to use the Native Americans as their slaves, but the Columbian exchange of diseases decimated that source of labor. Accustomed to “European” diseases because of international trading contacts, enslaved Africans increasingly replaced sick and dying Native Americans, particularly in coastal, tropical, and disease-ridden areas prime for growing sugar and other lucrative crops. This switch to African labor in the Americas took a while, however.
From 1500 until 1650 slave trading was not the main activity along the western African coast that it would become later. The Portuguese, who initiated European contacts with western African kingdoms, were there mainly for the gold and, to a lesser extent, for pepper, ivory, and leopard skins. Elmina Castle in Ghana began as an entrepot (intermediary center of trade and transshipment) for precious metals and other exotic luxuries in the 1480s, but it eventually became a factory for holding slaves for exports. It was taken over by the Dutch in 1637. By 1700 the Swedes, Brandenburgers, Danes, Britons, French, and the Dutch had established similar factories along the western African coast that was formerly devoted to the gold trade. Elmina Castle itself became less significant as rivals such as Cape Coast Castle took away more and more of the business themselves.
The slave trade became the most contested type of mercantilist capitalism whereby governmental monopolies from Europe tried to trade exclusively with African states one on one without any entrepreneurial inference from either side. For example, asientos were contracts by which Spain outsourced the work necessary to keep its American colonies supplied with slaves, particularly young adult men who were thought to be the best suited for arduous field labor by Europeans. Starting in 1518 the Spanish Crown licensed favored companies, usually Portuguese, for a fee to bring in a quota of young adult men. Women (who performed most of the farm work in western Africa), children, and the elderly could be counted only as fractions toward fulfilling the fixed, contracted number. After other European countries besides Spain and Portugal realized that colonies could be viable only with African slavery, they set up their own slave-trading monopolies. The English Parliament commissioned its own Royal African Company for that purpose in 1672 after a venture in the 1660s had failed. Parliament limited participation to merchants from London. Although leading to unprecedented profits for London-based merchants, this policy of limited participation enraged merchants from other ports such as Bristol, who, in turn, lobbied successfully to have the monopoly ended in 1698. The Royal African Company, however, continued to be a major player in the business until it was absorbed into another yet another licensed company in the 1740s. The actual profits from the slave trade were smaller than people thought at the time. A few merchants tripled their investment on the Middle Passage (the voyage of African slaves to the Americas), but that was the talked-about exception rather than the rule. On average the overhead, the constant turnover in personnel, and the unforeseen dangers due to on-board rebellions and bad weather reduced the yield to the standard 10 percent, which was in line with the yields of less exotic ventures. Thus, on their own, the profits from slavery and the slave trade were not enough to make Britain the first industrial nation, but they were enough to add to the demand needed to make it the first full-blown consumer society. At any rate, during the eighteenth century, when this trade was at its height, Britain dominated the export and transfer of enslaved Africans to the Americas. After the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, the British gained the asientos of the Spanish Empire in addition to their own factories and markets. The guinea, a large-denomination British gold coin, was named for the lucrative nature of the slave trade along the Guinea coast.
Yet, even the British, with their maritime superiority, relied heavily on the eager and self-interested participation of African governments and elites out for their own profits. The disintegration of the Songhai Empire in Sudan after 1591 stimulated the further political fragmentation of western Africa into more than three hundred microstates and even more stateless societies, which, in turn, set the stage for numerous territorial and religious wars fueled by the introduction of guns into the area by the Portuguese. Local rulers wanted more guns, particularly after 1650 when the accuracy and durability of guns improved dramatically. In order to get these guns, rulers traded gold initially and later mostly prisoners from neighboring clans and countries. Farther south, one ruler of the Kongo kingdom, Nzinga Mvemba, tried to use the Portuguese against internal opposition and neighboring rivals. He and members of his family even converted to Christianity to cement this alliance. Of course, this fighting within and outside Kongo produced prisoners, stimulating more Portuguese interest and involvement in the country than the ruler had originally wanted. He moved to confront the Portuguese, but it was too late. After the Portuguese had insinuated themselves into Kongolese trade, he could not preclude the long-term effects of civil war, resulting famines, and the slave trade upon his country. The Europeans also needed African help in part because of the disease environment, for which they were not prepared. Most sailors and agents along the western African coast never returned home to enjoy what little income they had gleaned from the slave trade. Because yellow fever and malaria were dangerous to their own European employees, both governments and freelancers preferred African and biracial (of mixed white and black ancestry) contractors who could work at interior trading posts without getting sick.
Overall, the transatlantic slave trade, with its infamous Middle Passage, ensnared roughly 11 million people between 1443 and 1870. Historians continue to debate the exact number of slaves, but the difference in numbers largely comes about because of the question of at what point in bondage historians should start counting. In 1969 Philip Curtin, using slave ship and archival records, published the first well-documented attempt to count how many people were enslaved by the transatlantic slave trade. More recently other scholars have pointed out that if historians use only slave ship records that show how many of the enslaved boarded for the Middle Passage, that leaves out the millions more who perished in forced marches to the coastal factories. The historian Joseph C. Miller has noted that, in reference to the Angolan slave trade, only 64 percent of the people initially detained would actually make it alive to the slave pens of Luanda for embarkation to the New World. However horrific and brutal itself, the Middle Passage was truly only a transition from frequent fatalities along the trails to the ships to even more mortality after slaves were in the Americas, particularly after they were in the death traps of sugar plantations and precious metal mines. Miller estimates that two-thirds of those people seized in Angola during the late eighteenth century would have died by the fourth year of being a slave on a Brazilian plantation.
Slaves became increasingly male, younger, and hailed from more southern locations in Africa by the nineteenth century. As David Eltis and David Richardson have recently concluded, “the demographic characteristics of the coerced migrant flow from Africa changed from one of rough balance between males and females and the presence of some children in the seventeenth century, to one in which males and children predominated by the nineteenth century” (Eltis and Richardson 2003, 55). This relative lack of enslaved women for export spared western and central Africa from complete demographic and economic collapse, but it failed to mitigate the longterm underdevelopment decried by the scholar and activist Walter Rodney. The triangular trade of guns for slaves to produce druglike staples for a world market addicted African kings and elites to European weapons and manufactured goods and thus inhibited the growth and enhancement of local industries outside of slave trading. When the slave ships stopped coming, local leaders scrambled to find appropriate substitutions.
Indeed, after European countries and the United States started to abolish the transatlantic slave trade after 1807 and then slavery itself after 1833, slave trades were again primarily associated with interior Africa, the Islamic world, and the Indian Ocean basin. Although Brazil and Cuba would continue to import slaves long after other plantation societies had ceased to do so, slave trades actually increased most in volume and frequency within Africa after 1800 as jihads proliferated and sellers looked for alternative markets. Most deceptively, a most virulent wave of European imperialism in Africa and Asia during the late nineteenth century was rationalized in part as an effort to stamp out slavery and slave trades. Accordingly, slave trades today are met with disapproval from the global community, with the genocidal wars in the Sudan and its enslavement of captives being the most glaring instance.
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