Academic journal article Annali d'Italianistica

New World Slavery: Redefining the Human

Academic journal article Annali d'Italianistica

New World Slavery: Redefining the Human

Article excerpt

I. Introduction

Debates on racial slavery in the New World highlight the process of consolidation of a racialised, autonomous and rational modern subject defined against its "others." This redefinition of the subject marks the emergence of modernity, whereby an increasingly pervasive notion of self-centredness was to gradually replace the medieval theological imagination, which posited a fundamental similitude of microcosm to macrocosm, linking the terrestrial to the divine. Obeying no grand narrative of progress, the epistemological break between old and new brought about by modernity was incoherent: the medieval and the modern coexisted with each other in the form of a tension between the religious and the secular, as witnessed in the disruptions that the confrontation with alterity in the Americas brought to the conceptual framework, which had prevailed in Europe from Judeo-Christian times to the Renaissance. (1) The very birth of modernity is thus representative of dialectical humanism in that it contains within itself a "counterdiscourse of domination" (Venn, 2000, 148), a self-critical and self-reflexive conscience that questions modernity's totalising impulse in the Americas.

The principal aim of this essay is to recontextualise Columbus's discovery of the New World in circumstances in which the conceptualisation of the "human" was increasingly problematised and redefined on the basis of the notion of dominium, that is, the right to property and self-government. Discussions centring on what constituted "human-ness" implied justifying the legitimacy of slavery as a practice founded on the deprivation of dominium. In effect, between the late fifteenth and early eighteenth centuries, the institution of slavery in the Americas acquired distinctive characteristics, firstly under Iberian metropolitan tutelage and subsequently within the framework of a market-oriented plantation system based on private initiative. The encounter of the Spanish conquistadores with New World inhabitants in 1492 marks the cornerstone of the rupture between the Middle Ages and modernity, issuing in an epoch distinguished by the consolidation of European national and racial consciousness, fostered by moral confrontation with alterity as well as by mechanisms of economic growth. The voracious European demand for New World produce would gradually convert a scholastically dominated, feudalistic world order revolving around the Pope and kings into a bourgeois-centred, entrepreneurial order based on cooperation between States.

This transformation would only be achieved with the take-off of seventeenth-century plantation slavery in the Caribbean and North America, catering to the needs of a new consumer culture on the basis of a regime of intensive exploitation that differed from earlier practices of slavery, not only because of its entirely commercial character, which anticipated some traits of capitalist industrialism, but also its highly racialised ideology. Nourishing itself on networks spread across and beyond the Atlantic, "civil slavery" emerged, in the plantation colonies, as a result of the colonists' emancipation from the metropolis (Blackburn, 1999, 8, 10).

The racial character of New World slavery was thus, according to Robin Blackburn, invented by European entrepreneurs working independently from State authority. Contrary to commonly held views attributing slavery in the Americas to the policies of metropolitan State initiative, based on a divorce between State and civil society, Blackburn argues that "the spontaneous dynamic of civil society is also pregnant with disaster and mayhem" (6). During the period of expansion of "civil slavery," the Atlantic traffic reached its peak, and West European ships, laden with slave cargoes and productive inputs from European manufacturers, sail from trade posts on the African coast to New World plantations, the latter yielding raw materials that would return to Europe by sea. …

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