Why an Atlantic Slave Trade?

By Fergus, Claudius | The Journal of Caribbean History, January 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

Why an Atlantic Slave Trade?


Fergus, Claudius, The Journal of Caribbean History


Introduction

The Atlantic trade in enslaved Africans remains a sensitive subject for several reasons, including issues of race, morality, ethics, identity, underdevelopment and reparations. Europeans defended the trade mainly for its role in providing renewable plantation labour and stimulating economic growth, best manifested in the phenomenal expansion of the mercantile marine. By the eighteenth century, the trade had become the "most advantageous and most abundant source of wealth" to participating European nations;1 its defenders also purported that the trade was indispensable as a nursery for seamen in imperial navies. These considerations do not explain the origins of the trade, but they do help to account for its longevity and resilience against the forces of abolition.

The Atlantic trade in enslaved Africans was not always a Middle-Passage affair. What became the transatlantic trade was a later expression of a slowly evolving commercial and colonizing enterprise within the Eastern Atlantic, the embryo of an Atlantic world order in which slave trading became one of the defining features. The question "Why an Atlantic Slave Trade?" speaks to the entire period of the trade, not its transatlantic dimension alone. In order to account for the origins and persistence of the trade, it is necessary first to account for its Eastern Atlantic expression. The discourse explores the critical role of slavery in this early commercial system as well as the geo-political and ideological underpinnings that made Africa the ideal source of slave labour for four centuries.

For the first six decades, trafficking in enslaved Africans was restricted to a north-south axis, serving the economies of Southern Iberia, the Canary Islands, Madeira, the Cape Verde Islands, Principe, Sao Tomé and the Gold Coast (modern Ghana). Captives were also sent as diplomatic gifts from African rulers to potentates in Europe. The trade in enslaved Africans had already extended through 4,000 miles of coastline by the end of the fifteenth century, encompassing peoples from Senegambia to Angola and increasingly extending its reach into the heartland of the continent. The vast majority of Africans sold into the Atlantic trade originated in lands bordering the coasts and up to some 800 miles inland; a trickle zone extended another 200 miles deeper into the heartland of the continent, with a small percentage originating in Eastern Africa. The four hundred years of slaving activities contributed the largest forced inter-continental labour migration in history.2 Arguably, the region was less systematically disrupted by the transSaharan and Indian Ocean slave trades which, nonetheless, added considerably to the loss of human capital from the recruitment zone.

Explanations for the origins of the trade are seldom satisfactory. According to Patrick Manning, "Slavery caused the slave trade; just as relentlessly as the slave trade brought new slavery."3 To some extent, this tantalizingly simple construction is sound, because it locates colonial slavery in the Americas within a world-slavery system, particularly as it relates to the African-European experience. Although Manning identified the several "pull" factors for African labour in the Americas, he did not actually examine the reasons for slavery. Whatever its rationale in Europe and the Mediterranean, the institution needed a compelling quid pro quo to bridge the gap between Old and New Worlds. The dynamic was the immense profits from mining and plantation agriculture, especially sugar, its signature expression.

Europeans were first introduced to the sugar-slavery nexus during their "Crusades" in Palestine (1095-1291 CE) whence the industry spread to Cyprus, Iberia and the Eastern Atlantic colonies extending from the Azores in the north to Sao Tomé in the south, and on to the Caribbean and Brazil soon after first European contacts. Inexorably, slavery followed the migration of the industry. In explaining the fateful ties that bound slavery to sugar, Philip Curtin argued that slavery gave early plantation owners control over labour that was "rare for medieval agriculture"; accordingly, "No ordinary agricultural population was dense enough to provide such a concentration of manpower, which meant that massive labor migration was always called for whenever the sugar industry was introduced. …

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