The Origins and Nature of New World Slavery
David Brion Davis, the award winning historian of slavery died on April 14, 2019. We honor him with a brief excerpt from Challenging the Boundaries of Slavery, based on his Nathan I Huggins Lecture. Challenging the boundaries of slavery ultimately brought on the Civil War and the unexpected, immediate emancipation of slaves long before it could have been achieved in any other way. This imaginative and fascinating book puts slavery into a new light and underscores anew the desperate human tragedy lying at the very heart of the American story.
There was a tradition extending back to ancient Rome and Greece of reconciling slavery with reason and universal law, and of linking bondage with the expansion of empire. Islamic societies had provided both technical means and moral justiﬁcations for exploiting the tribal divisions and ethnic fragmentation of sub-Saharan Africa, a region in which those who opposed exporting slaves, such as the sixteenth-century kings of Jolof, Benin, and Kongo, had few political resources to counteract what the historian Philip Curtin has called “the economics of theft.” That is to say, there were few states strong enough to prevent opportunistic African kings, warlords, and merchants from proﬁting from the low cost of capturing, transporting, and minimally sustaining a captive who could be sold for highly desired commodities — as opposed to the much higher cost of a family’s raising, feeding, and training a worker who might be able to produce ivory, textiles, coconuts, or some other goods desired by foreigners. Added to this potential source of slaves who were accustomed to tropical climates and to agricultural work, an incipient racism had emerged in regions where black Africans were known only or primarily as drudge slaves. Since black Africans were seen doing the most degrading and dirty tasks, the false but all-too-human syllogism led to the conclusion that they had been created precisely for such work. Finally, the westward drift of sugar cultivation presented the ideal crop for New World development at a time when Western Europe was about to develop internal markets for such other luxury products as eastern spices, tea, coffee, chocolate, and tobacco.
Yet preconditions do not determine the path of historical development. The whole story of New World colonization is haphazard, irrational, and episodic — especially as the Mediterranean patterns of piracy, banditry, plunder, cruelty, and ruthless reprisals were transferred to the Caribbean. In Central America, for example, where the conquistadors were disappointed by the cheapness of tribute in comparison with Mexico, they found some compensation by branding Amerindian slaves on the face and shipping some ﬁfty thousand to Panama, Peru, and the Caribbean. The Portuguese in Brazil relied on Indian slave labor to produce sugar for about a half-century, beginning in the 1530s and 1540s. But it became apparent that African slaves were for cultural reasons far better and more productive workers, in part because most West Africans were accustomed to disciplined and productive labor, while Indians regarded any kind of agriculture as work ﬁt only for women. Indians were also far more susceptible to Old World diseases. Hence Brazilian planters increasingly turned to African slaves, whose purchase price, though much higher than that of Indians, could be equaled by the proﬁts from less than two years of hard labor.
In spite of cultural factors, one could well imagine that Indian slaves, who in the early 1700s made up one-third of the slave labor force in South Carolina, might have become major producers of Caribbean sugar. But in 1500 no one could have predicted the disastrous and appalling effect on Indians of what are called virgin soil epidemics. Of course in the 1300s Europe had suffered from plagues of Asian origin that led to famine in many regions and reduced the total population by at least one-third (in some regions, by ﬁfty percent). A century later, when the Portuguese began exploring the coast of tropical Africa, they suffered mortality rates as high as ﬁfty percent within a few months. Lacking immunity to yellow fever, malaria, and other diseases endemic to tropical Africa, European traders, sailors, soldiers, and missionaries died in incredible numbers until quinine and other prophylactics began to reduce mortality in the mid-nineteenth century. Even the crews of slave ships, having usually spent months at harbors or ports along the African coast, suffered a higher rate of mortality than did the slaves themselves on the trans-Atlantic voyage. This point explains why Europeans spent as little time as possible on the West African coast and could hardly have participated in capturing many slaves even if the well-armed African states had permitted them to do so.
But in actuality, it was the Indian populations of the New World that suffered the most catastrophic losses from disease supplemented by Spanish cruelty. Pre-Columbian America had been isolated from the microbial infections that had swept through Asia, Europe, and much of Africa. The New World environment was thus “virgin soil” for pandemics of smallpox, inﬂuenza, measles, and other contagious diseases. This virgin-soil disease environment suggests that few if any Europeans or Africans had had signiﬁcant contact with Native Americans before 1492. The Taino Indians on Hispaniola, the ﬁrst Spanish New World colony, were virtually exterminated by disease, mass murder, and oppressive labor. Estimates of the island’s pre-Columbian population range from a few hundred thousand to several million; by the 1540s there were fewer than ﬁve hundred survivors. In Central Mexico a population of perhaps ﬁfteen million in 1519 fell to about 1.5 million a century later, and Andean South America suffered a similar disaster. It’s now generally agreed that within a century of Columbus’s ﬁrst voyage, the indigenous population of mainland North and South America had shrunk by about ninety percent, and the Taino of the Caribbean had become almost extinct.
In view of this catastrophe, the worst known in human history, and in view of the Iberians’ largely futile but often sincere efforts to protect and Christianize the surviving Indians, it is clear that the New World could never have been “developed” economically without the importation of an immense labor force from some other continent. After Turkish conquests in the East, Europe could not meet this demand with “Slavic slaves” or even with Western indentured labor, as various experiments would show from sixteenth-century Spain to seventeenth-century England. Europe’s population was not expanding dramatically, European nations no longer enslaved Christian prisoners of war, and most of the Europeans who could be induced to sail westward were interested in obtaining gold or productive land and being freed from the necessity of work. As Cortés put it, he had not come to Mexico to push a plough. Even with the fabulous tales of Aztec and Inca gold, Spain sent far fewer whites to the New World during the sixteenth century than the roughly two hundred ﬁfty thousand African slaves who were shipped to Europe and the Americas in the same period.
The economic historian David Eltis has argued that if economic forces alone had prevailed, Europeans would have revived white slavery, since it would have been cheaper to transport enslaved vagabonds, criminals, and prisoners of war than to sail to Africa and purchase slaves in such a distant region. But this option was negated by whatever cultural forces had brought a sense of unity and freedom to Christians of Western Europe, thus blocking the possibility of any revival of white slavery.
By 1820, in any event, at least ten million African slaves had arrived in the New World, as opposed to a grand total of two million Europeans. And for centuries these Africans performed the most arduous and exhausting work, clearing forests, digging the soil, planting and harvesting the exportable crops that founded economic systems that prospered in ways that eventually attracted untold millions of free immigrants from Europe. Even the non-slave economies of New England and the Middle Atlantic states grew and ﬂourished largely because they supplied the sugar colonies of the West Indies with grain, ﬁsh, lumber, iron tools, shoes, clothes, and other products. And if black slaves provided the basic power that drove the interconnected economies of the entire New World, some of their sacriﬁce is reﬂected in the fact that by 1820 the original two million white immigrants had engendered a total white New World population of some twelve million, roughly twice as great as the surviving black population. That is to say, the ten million or more Africans imported into the New World had left a population of only about six million by 1820 (the African slave trade, even when illegal, continued to supply hundreds of thousands of slaves to Brazil until 1851 and to Cuba until 1867). Thus by 1820, according to the best informed guesses, there were twice as many whites as blacks in the New World even though there had been about ﬁve black African involuntary immigrants for every European who had arrived. When combined with the untold millions of Native Americans who died of disease or oppression within a century of America’s so-called discovery, these changes in demographic boundaries are indeed without parallel.
Although I cannot consider all the salient features of New World slavery here, it’s important to say a few words about its speciﬁcally racial character. First, after many fumbling experiments with Indian slavery and with white indentured and even penal servitude, slavery became indelibly linked throughout the Western Hemisphere with people of African descent. This meant that the dishonor, humiliation, and bestialization that had universally been associated with chattel slavery now became fused with Negritude. The often comic and always degrading stereotypes of the slave — which appear in Roman depictions of Greek and especially Thracian slaves and even in Russian portrayals of serfs who were ethnically indistinguishable from their masters — now merged with the stereotypes of Africans. This linkage, which lies at the heart of white racism, would have disastrous consequences in nineteenth-and twentieth-century South America as well as in the United States.
Second, for complex reasons I can’t begin to discuss here, Latin Americans and even whites in the Caribbean were far more tolerant of racial intermixture than were North Americans. It was only in North America that the extremely arbitrary and artiﬁcial concept of “Negro” — denoting anyone with supposedly visible African ancestry, revealed by hair as well as skin color — took on the stigma of slave heritage. And I should note in this connection that even apart from race, even in twentieth-century Africa, a slave heritage has usually carried a stigma of debasement and shame. But now, fairly gradually, somatic or physical characteristics came to signify a new kind of social and psychological boundary, really an impervious, Berlin-like wall.
My third point grows out of the second and applies mainly to the United States. As Orlando Patterson has shown in his classic comparative studies, slave societies have varied greatly in the restrictions they’ve imposed on manumission. Sometimes the harshest slave systems, such as the one under the Roman Empire, have taken a very liberal stance toward the freeing of meritorious (or aging) slaves. From the American Revolution to about 1820, surprising numbers of slaves were liberated even in the United States South as well as North. Yet one of the truly distinctive features of North American slavery, except for that brief period, was the virtual lack of hope for any change in status. This closing of doors and escape hatches resulted partly from the spectacular long-term increase in the value of slaves, which reﬂected a growing demand and limited supply. The restrictions on manumission also reﬂected the mounting pressures of white racism — the conviction, shared by virtually every national leader from Jefferson to Lincoln, that whites and blacks could never permanently coexist as free and equal citizens. This terrible white consensus brings me to the ﬁnal point: the profound contradiction of a free society that was made possible by black slave labor. Until the late 1700s, none of the slave societies or societies with slaves spread out around the world had committed themselves to the twin ideals of liberty and equality, grounded in a dream or vision of historical progress. And as I’ve tried to suggest, it was the larger Atlantic Slave System, including North America’s trade with the West Indies and the export of Southern rice, tobacco, indigo, and ﬁnally cotton and sugar, that prepared the way for everything America was to become. Thus vital links developed between the proﬁt motive, which led to the dehumanization of African slaves, and a conception of the New World as an environment of liberation, opportunity, and upward mobility.
Racial slavery became an intrinsic and indispensable part of New World settlement from Chile to French Canada — not an accidental or unfortunate shortcoming on the margins of the American experience. From the very beginnings, America was part black, and indebted to the appalling sacriﬁces of millions of individual black men and women who cleared the forests and tilled the soil. Yet even the ardent opponents of slaveholding could seldom if ever acknowledge this basic fact. To balance the soaring aspirations released by the American Revolution and later by evangelical religion, slavery became the dark underside of the American Dream — the great exception to our pretensions of perfection, the single barrier blocking our way to the millennium, the single manifestation of national sin. The tragic result of this formulation was to identify the so-called Negro — and the historically negative connotations of the word are crucial for an understanding of my point — as the Great American Problem.
The road would be clear, everything would be perfect, if it were not for the Negro’s presence. Such assumptions tainted some white and even black abolitionist writing, and lay behind the numerous projects and proposals for deporting or colonizing the black population outside the United States. Hence the victims of the great sin of slavery became, in this ghastly psychological inversion, the embodiment of sin. And for some two hundred years African Americans have struggled against accepting or above all internalizing this prescribed identity, this psychological curse.