Slavery and Modernity

"...the slavery of the Americas...was associated with several of those processes which have been held to define modernity: the grown of instrumental rationality, the rise of national sentiment and the nation-state, racialized perceptions of identity, the spread of market relations and wage labor, the development of administrative bureaucracies and modern tax systems, the growing sophistication of commerce and communication, the birth of consumer societies, "action at a distance" and an individualistic sensibility...."

[Robin Blackburn, The Making of New World Slavery, p.4]


It is estimated that some 12 million slaves were transported from Africa to the Americas between 1492 and 1850(1). This "middle passage" was one leg of a hereto unique commercial enterprise that linked Europe, Africa, and the Americans. Initiated by the Portuguese in the 15th century, refined by the Dutch, and finally perfected by French and English merchants as late as in the mid-19th century, this commerce involved the transport of European manufactured goods to Africa for exchange against slaves, the transport of those slaves to the Americas for exchange against the produce of the slave plantations and then the return transport of those cash crops to Europe, making for an immensely profitable "triangular trade."

If from its very inception the exploration of the New World was essentially a private, commercial endeavor, for a long time profits remained illusive(2). The initial commercial objective -- to find shorter trade routes to the Far East-- was quickly replaced by the ambition to exploit the New World's mineral wealth. It was thought that the gold and silver of the Americas would finance Europe's trade in the Far East, where the European demand for textiles and spices far exceeded the East's demand for European produce. State-chartered shareholder companies were set up, modeled on those monopolizing the Far East trade, only with the difference that here it was not so much a matter of doing trade as of directly (and violently) stripping the New World's resources.

The plundering did not last long. For one thing there was far less gold than had been imagined, and for another the indigenous population proved to be less than accommodating. Gradually the cultivation of sugar emerged as a more profitable venture. The Portuguese had been cultivating sugar on islands off the coast of Africa since the 15th century, so that as the first outposts were set up in the New World it was only natural that they tried to grow sugar there too. The Caribbean islands in particular proved to be highly suitable for the cultivation of sugar, and African slaves were used on these plantations from the start; they were found to be strong enough to survive the hardships of the tropics (at least for a few years), and to be far better workers, and far more "docile," than the indigenous population(3).

But the large scale transport of African slaves to the Americas, accompanied by the racialization of slavery (as a moral justification), really began only with the British and French colonization of the New World. Indeed, the consumption of sugar, and later also of tobacco, skyrocketed during the 18th and early 19th century, hand in hand with the industrial transformation of European. Both commodities proved to be particularly well suited to the needs and the harsh urban conditions of the emerging class of wage earners(4). With a seemingly inexhaustible supply of slaves, and with the innovative use of techniques now taken for granted in modern industrial farming, the plantations were able to make these "luxuries" increasingly available and progressively inexpensive . This in turn further stimulated demand, fueling the triangular trade to new heights.

As African rulers became increasingly discerning about the European manufactured goods that they demanded in exchange for slaves, and as plantation owners strove to meet their needs for replacement slaves(5), the Atlantic trade developed into a complex system of industrial interdependency, linked by transportation, dependent on communication, and financed by investment capital -- very much a precursor of today's global economy. Each leg of the triangular trade was closely integrated with the others, often involving the same people. Investors in a cargo of slaves were often owners of plantations, who might also be involved in ship building. Plantation profits might be invested in a factory to produce fabric for trade against slaves in Africa. A ship captain might "retire," using his earnings from the successful transport of slaves to buy a plantation.

Thus, after some three hundred years of effort, the triangular trade not only finally made the colonialization of the Americas into a profitable enterprise, it did so in a way that was to have incalculable significance. For one thing the sugar plantations, though existing primarily in the Caribbean, created a trade base of sufficient importance to sustain the development of even the North American continent. Further, the reinvestment of the plantation profits from the British colonies is considered to have provided the investment capital ("primitive accumulation") which set off the industrial revolution in England. The Triangular Trade is even linked to the French revolution, were French colonial interests are seen as a major force promoting and financing the overthrow of the Monarchy(6).

As wage labor was found to be more cost effective than slave labor in increasingly industrialized economies, the means of human exploitation shifted, but certainly it has not ended. Today the Atlantic world that developed from the slave trade is intricately woven together. Commercial and cultural ties are largely taken for granted, as are the processes of modernity which define our world order. Never-the-less it is important to remember that this modern era, said to be based on liberty and human dignity, has in its genealogy such a trade system, based on the total devaluation of human life.

Mikael Levin


(1)In the first four hundred years of settlement of the New World five times as many African slaves as white Europeans arrived in the Americas. Primarily working on the plantations, but also mining, building fortresses and roads, clearing land, ranching and working as domestic servants, the slave system was largely responsible for most of the early great enterprises of colonization. Yet North America was a relatively marginal recipient of slaves, purchasing less than a half million, compared, for example, to approximately three and a half million in Brazil and three and a half million in the Caribbean. See Philip D. Curtin The Atlantic Slave Trade p.268.

(2)For a discussion of how wealthy merchants and established powers used adventures and small-time entrepeuners to initiate explorations of Africa and of the New World see: John Thornton Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, p. 35ff.

(3)Thomas Hugh The Slave Trade, p.792.

(4)Robin Blackburn discuses how sugar became indispensable in the worker's the diet and why tobacco proved to be far more suitable than, say, cocoa or marijuana. See The Making of New World Slavery, p. 234-235.

(5)Sugar plantation slaves had a life expectance of 7 to 10 years.

(6)This idea was initially advanced by Eric Williams in Capitalism and Slavery, first published in 1944. It is further developed by Robin Blackburn in The Making of New World Slavery, p. 515ff.