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The History Of Slavery


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Slavery has been more the norm than the exception in world history and continues today in various forms.  Among American Indians, ancient Greeks and others, slave owners drew on POWs (Prisoners-of-War), debtors, or criminals.  Romans captured Jewish slaves during the Great Revolt of 66-73 CE and forced them to build their famous Colosseum.  As the Roman Empire expanded, large-scale slave raids became routine, though Roman slavery wasn’t racially based.  Raids continued in the Middle Ages as Ottomans raided southern and Eastern Europe for white slaves, and Arabs expanded into sub-Saharan Africa to trade in Africans’ existing networks.  Western Europeans also traded ethnic Slavs, whom they bought and sold on “slav markets.”  The term is older, though, tracing to the Old French esclave and Medieval Latin sclava.


As Europeans expanded south during the Age of Exploration (Chapter 2), they too tapped the African slave markets.  When Portuguese explorers sailed down Africa’s west coast in the 15th century on their way to Asia, they traded copperware, cloth, horses, guns, wine, and iron tools for gold, ivory, raw copper, Raffia cloth, spices, exotic animals, and enslaved humans.  They nurtured good relations with the victors in African civil wars then traded manufactured goods for POWs, especially in the Kingdom of Kongo and Kingdom of Benin.  African sellers weren’t associating their slave sales with race since people of all ethnicities bought and sold each other.


Portuguese exported the enslaved to work plantations on Atlantic islands like the Azores and Canaries and, if this 1570s painting from Lisbon is any indication, various roles in Portugal.  Before that, they used slaves to grow sugar even closer to Kongo in the Gulf of Guinea, on São Tome and Principe (above).  They exported slaves out of the port of Luanda in Ndongo, just south of Kongo in what’s now Angola.  Portuguese wars against Africans created yet more POWs that were sold into slavery to fuel the Brazilian sugar industry.  When the Dutch arrived to aid Africans militarily against the Portuguese, they were just there to tap the slave market themselves.  The Spanish, English, and French followed suit, shipping the enslaved to the Americas and pirates, too, engaged in human trafficking.  A new type of racially-based plantation slavery emerged in the Americas, as Europeans found it difficult to enslave Indians who knew the American terrain.  It’s this phase in the history of human bondage that concerns us because it connects to colonial America and the United States.


Atlantic Slavery
African tribes captured slaves from enemies, transported them to holding areas or forts on the coast, and sold them to Europeans.  Most slaves came from kingdoms near the western coast of the continent.  Europeans supplied the demand and even armed African tribes to upset the balance of power and increase supply.  European Slave Runners (or slavers) stuffed the human cargo into the holds of their ships on the Middle Passage to America.  The French called the cargo bois d’ébène (ebony wood).  They threw the dead to the sharks (who sometimes followed the boats) and brought the rest on deck from time to time to wash off their waste and vomit and exercise their atrophying muscles.  The less muscle, the less price they’d fetch at auctions, pens (jails), and showrooms in the Americas.  Women sometimes tore off parts of the boat to mutilate their genitals so that the crew would be less likely to rape them.  The crew shuffled the captives so that people from different villages wouldn’t communicate, unable to overcome language barriers.  That lessened the chance of mutiny.


Once slaves arrived in the Americas, they were herded in coffles from ports to depots to plantations.  Traders on horseback armed with whips and guns fastened them together with ropes, handcuffs, or chains, sometimes including neck collars, to avoid individuals separating from the group.  That made water crossings dangerous both for the enslaved and the brokers that insured them.  Thomas Jefferson’s cousin John Randolph, who owned hundreds of slaves but freed them upon his death and gave them farmland, complained of the roads near his plantation “thronged with droves of these wretches and the human carcass-butchers, who drive them on the hoof to market.”  Future U.S. President Andrew Jackson drove coffles as a boy.


Auction houses arranged slaves in order of height from left-to-right, with children on the left and no regard for selling families as a unit.  Buyers had them strip and dance and show their backs; too many scars could be a deal-breaker or lower value, indicating not cruelty from previous owners but rather defiance.  New Orleans had over fifty markets.  Whites could rent short-term slaves on steamboats.  The engraving below shows a slave auction at the St. Louis Hotel in New Orleans made famous by Harriet Beecher Stowe in Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852).  For extra money, buyers could insure themselves against slaves that were rebellious, unproductive, or infertile.  Aside from its sadistic and exploitive cruelty toward its victims, slavery also warped generations of owners, as emphasized by Stowe and mentioned by slaveowner Thomas Jefferson in Notes on the State of Virginia (1781):


Slaves were part of a trade network that included rum, sugar, and other items going back and forth between the Americas (especially the Caribbean and New England), Europe, and Africa known as the Triangular Trade.  The diagram above shows a simplified version of how goods flowed, but the patterns shifted around over the centuries.  Most slaves came to auctions in South America and the Caribbean, where they were sold to owners.


The first arrived in Spanish America in 1501.  From the mid-17th century to the mid-19th century, more Africans came to America than Europeans.  More came to South America than North, but Latin American owners usually bought males only, so there was no natural reproduction.  The black population is higher today in North America because owners there bought females and encouraged families.  Historians estimate that around 12 million enslaved people came to the Americas from Africa, with 2-5 million dying in transit.  Half a million who came to the portion that became the United States became 4 million by the outbreak of the Civil War. Just to put some perspective on those numbers, around 2.5 million free Britons came to colonial North America.  Only 10% of British immigrants were free and came voluntarily; the other 90% were mostly-white indentured servants.


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