How slavery differed in the New World

A Liberal Dose


This week, we are going to see just how the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade was different from the various forms of slavery that existed for thousands of years before and even from the Arab Slave Trade that was taking Africans away from their home continent at the same time.

The Spanish “discovered” the New World, in 1492, and Columbus immediately began enslaving the Native Americans he encountered, paving the way for Spain to start their own sugar plantations in the Caribbean islands. Just two years later, in 1494, the pope divided all undiscovered lands between Spain and Portugal, with Portugal getting Brazil and many territories in Asia, while Spain got to keep the Philippines and the rest of North and South America (a pretty good deal for them, as it turned out).

Within a few decades, a movement arose in Spain protesting the harsh treatment of indigenous people and especially their enslavement. The principal figure in this movement was Bartolomè de las Casas, who as a young man had served as a soldier under Columbus and was repulsed by what he witnessed, and who later entered the priesthood and spent his life fighting for the rights of the people Columbus had called “los Indios.” This led to a ban on enslaving Natives (though they were still terribly mistreated) in Spanish territories. Unfortunately, that led to an increased reliance on the African slave trade, which the Portuguese had already been using heavily.

Spain and Portugal wanted all the African slaves that money could buy (and they were making plenty of money from their new possessions to do so). The demand escalated - there were a LOT of Spanish settlements established in the New World. In particular, though, slave labor was used in the Spanish holdings in the Caribbean (Cuba, Puerto Rico, etc.) and the Portuguese colony of Brazil - places where the incredibly lucrative sugar was grown on plantations. There was a high labor turnover rate - a polite way to say death rate - because the growing season was year-round, meaning that - unlike in places like the English colony of Virginia, which had tobacco plantations - there was no winter lull during which slaves could have lighter duties and recover their strength. Spanish and Portuguese planters - and later English and French ones when those countries took over some Caribbean islands -figured out that it was cheaper to work your slaves to death and then buy more than to invest the money it would take in clothing, food, and healthcare to keep them alive.

The result was that, of the 13 million Africans sold from their homes in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, 11 million were sent to the New World (the rest mostly to Europe to be house servants). Of those 11 million, about 500,000 (or around 5 percent) were sent to the English colonies on the North American mainland. Almost all the rest were sent to South America (mostly Brazil) or the Caribbean, where they would lead short, difficult lives. Meanwhile, the demand for new slaves went through the roof, leading African tribes and kingdoms to engage in perpetual, large scale warfare with one another. Whereas captives had once been a by-product of occasional war, they now became the primary purpose of constant war. This was ultimately due to the demand created by a global capitalist economy (a brand-new thing) and the colonial/imperial forces making it turn. It was like slavery as it existed before had been give a massive dose of steroids and plunged into overdrive. Slaves were no longer just house servants or public labor for the government or limited businesses like shipyards or mines. They were cogs in a massive, global agricultural economy that gobbled up exponentially more and more human chattel. Nor should we delude ourselves that their forced labor was NECESSARY; it was only necessary insofar as being cheaper and producing more profit for owners and investors. 

There had never been anything like it.

-Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.   


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