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The Labyrinth of Slavery

African Slavery in Latin America and the Caribbean

by Herbert S. Klein
Oxford University Press, 311 pp., $22.95

Mutiny on the ‘Amistad’: The Saga of a Slave Revolt and Its Impact on American Abolition, Law, and Diplomacy

by Howard Jones
Oxford University Press, 271 pp., $19.95

In the Age of Reason, when philosophy celebrated the natural rights of man, there was nothing peculiar about the South’s “peculiar institution,” a term later applied to black slavery in the United States. In the eighteenth century, exports of Africans in the Atlantic slave trade exceeded six million, nearly three times the number shipped out from 1450 to 1700.1 Some 2.7 million of these eighteenth-century slaves were transported by Englishmen or Anglo-Americans, members of the supposedly freest and most progressive societies on earth. Although Brazil and the West Indies were the major markets for African slaves, accounting for 85 percent of the century’s total imports, approximately 16,000 landed in Buenos Aires. In the late eighteenth century there were 89,000 black slaves in Peru and 12,000 in Chile. In New York City the number of black slaves increased so rapidly that by the 1740s they constituted 21 percent of the city’s total population. In King’s County the proportion reached 34 percent. Even in Boston in the 1740s about one fifth of the white families owned slaves.

In French Canada, shortly before the British conquest, there were well over one thousand black slaves, to say nothing of several thousand Indian slaves. Under British rule, the number of Canadian blacks increased considerably, especially following the influx of American loyalists and their slaves during the War of Independence. Black slaves appeared in British Nova Scotia in the 1750s; in 1760 an auction at the Halifax beach advertised “two hogsheads of rum, three of sugar and two well-grown negro girls, aged fourteen and twelve.” 2

Ironically, the only New World colony that barred the importation of slaves was Georgia, whose founders sought a refuge for England’s deserving poor as well as a secure buffer between South Carolina’s menacing black majority and the hostile Spaniards in Florida, who were accused of inciting slave rebellions and encouraging runaways by offering freedom to those who escaped into Spanish territory. By 1749, however, Georgia’s trustees realized that it was impossible to exclude slaves from the colony and agreed to end their fourteen-year experiment with “free soil.”

Why did Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, French, British, and Danish colonists, in settlements extending from the tropics to the more frigid temperate zones, choose a form of labor that many colonists found dangerous if not morally distasteful, and that had long ceased to be indigenous in Western Europe? The very ubiquity of black slavery in the New World suggests the presence of some irresistible and inevitable force, though a temporary one if we are to believe the historians who see the decline and fall of New World slavery as no less irresistible and inevitable. But when we examine the way in which black slavery took root in particular societies, as Herbert S. Klein does in his remarkably concise and informative synthesis of recent scholarship on Latin America and the Caribbean, the process seems haphazard and subject to such random variables as the density of the native Indian population and its mortality from European diseases, the availability of white indentured servants, the supply and cost of black slaves on the African coasts, the crops or precious metals obtainable from a particular region, the state of sugar-mill or mining technology, and access to the expanding consumer markets of Europe.

In the early sixteenth century, for example, the Portuguese showed little interest in colonizing Brazil, which long remained a source for dyewood and a way station for the lucrative East India trade, until Britain and France established their own Brazilian bases. This strategic threat to Portugal’s Asian trade encouraged the Portuguese to develop Pernambuco and Bahia as major sugar-producing economies, modeled on the slave plantation system they had earlier perfected in Madeira and SĂŁo TomĂŠ. But even though Portugal initially dominated the Atlantic slave trade and transported Africans to Brazil and Spanish America as well as to the Atlantic islands, until 1570 most of the Brazilian sugar was grown by Indian slaves. According to Klein, it was not until the first years of the seventeenth century, after tens of thousands of Brazilian Indians had been killed by a smallpox epidemic and after three decades of large slave importations from Africa, that the number of black slaves equaled and then surpassed the number of Indian slaves.

No less fortuitous, it would appear, was the Brazilian sugar industry’s original dependence on Dutch shipping and commercial networks radiating from the great sugar-refining center, Antwerp. After the Spanish and Portuguese crowns united in 1580 and after Holland began winning its long struggle for independence from Spanish rule, the Dutch conquered the Portuguese not only in the Spice Islands of Asia but in the slave-trading stations of Africa and the rich sugar-producing regions of northeastern Brazil. It was Dutch naval and commercial power that opened the Caribbean to British and French colonization and to successful plantation agriculture. In 1619 a Dutch ship unloaded the first blacks known to have arrived in Virginia. The Dutch later supplied capital, slaves, and sugar technology to the British and French colonies from Barbados to Martinique and St. Kitts. When in 1654 the Portuguese finally expelled the Dutch from Brazil, the refugees helped to ensure that the Caribbean would become the world’s major source of sugar.

Klein does not really explain the failure of the much earlier Spanish efforts to cultivate sugar cane in Santo Domingo, Cuba, Jamaica, and other Caribbean colonies. The Spaniards owned black slaves and they knew how to build sugar mills and how to grind, boil, and manufacture sugar and molasses. Yet Spanish colonists did not become major producers of sugar (in Cuba and to a lesser degree in Puerto Rico) until the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. To complicate matters, the British never anticipated that Virginia, Maryland, and even Barbados would become dependent on black slave labor. For plantation agriculture they relied with considerable success on white indentured servants—in the Chesapeake colonies for a period of some seventy years.

Klein offers no theory or thesis to account for the intermittent spread of black slavery through the New World. He takes no note of the fears and prejudices that were often aroused by the unrestricted importation of blacks and that led in the Caribbean to ineffective laws designed to ensure a minimal ratio between blacks and whites. But his book is especially useful in providing a wealth of detail on the African slave trade, the extraordinary adaptability of black slave labor, and the tensions within Afro-American cultures.

Here, for example, are some of the conclusions that may surprise readers unfamiliar with the specialized studies on which Klein has drawn. Asian textiles, followed by bar iron manufactured in Europe, were the leading commodities that Europeans exchanged for African slaves. African traders controlled the supply of slaves and conditions of sale, and were responsible for the preponderance of male slaves sold to Europeans, since for a variety of reasons Africans were reluctant to sell women and “women had a higher price in local internal African markets than men.”

European merchants knew that in the Americas black women performed the heaviest plantation labor and often outnumbered men in the field gangs cultivating sugar, coffee, and cotton. But male slaves monopolized the skilled crafts and trades (except for the work of seamstresses), and in Brazil worked on cattle ranches, whalers, and even as deckhands on slave ships. In Brazil’s first national census, in 1872, slaves made up 19 percent of the nation’s construction workers and 11 percent of the total industrial work force. As Klein and other scholars have demonstrated, black slave labor could be applied successfully to a variety of urban and industrial tasks. Black slavery flourished economically even when mixed with other forms of labor and even after the majority of a nation’s blacks had won their freedom, as in nineteenth-century Brazil.

Although Klein discusses many aspects of slavery from religion and resistance to manumission, he conveys little sense of New World bondage as part of a larger world economy. He makes no effort to clarify or even comment on the historical relationship between slavery and capitalism. As Sidney W. Mintz has recently reminded us, the New World’s slave plantations transformed exotic luxuries, such as tobacco and sugar, into “proletarian necessities.” By 1750 it was said that the poorest English farm laborer’s wife took sugar in her tea. According to Mintz, the consumption of slave-grown sucrose, coffee, cocoa, and other products “was the direct consequence of deep alterations in the lives of working people, which made new forms of foods and eating conceivable and ‘natural,’ like new schedules of work, new sorts of labor, and new conditions of daily life.”3

Klein is by no means the only historian who limits our understanding of the New World slave systems by considering them apart from the emerging free labor societies that consumed their produce and supplied the ships, slaves, investment capital, and manufactured goods that were parts of a larger Atlantic commercial system. For several decades historians have been so intent on exposing the serious errors and weaknesses of Eric Williams’s Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, that they have usually lost sight of Williams’s vision of an interdependent Atlantic economy that was fueled by the labor of African slaves. Since Klein has written a useful survey that will probably be assigned in many college courses, it is unfortunate that his readers will never suspect that Caribbean sugar plantations linked Pennsylvania farmers and New England fishermen with the iron manufacturers of Birmingham and the textile workers of Nantes.

It is clear that Klein hopes his book will evoke comparisons with slavery in the United States, though by treating Latin America and the Caribbean as a single unit he obscures the distinctive and important economic and ideological ties between the Caribbean and North America. Any reader interested in drawing comparisons must also be wary of erroneous or misleading statements. For example, Klein asserts that “in 1787 the United States Congress abolished the slave trade as of 1808.” But in fact the United States Constitution prohibited Congress from ending the slave trade until 1808 and even excluded this provision from constitutional amendment. The French National Assembly did not grant citizenship in 1789 to colonial free blacks and mulattoes; the measure was passed in 1792, after much vacillation, debate, and violence. In 1794 the Assembly did not apprentice the colonial slaves it emancipated, as Klein maintains.

Denmark Vesey’s failed conspiracy to mount a slave insurrection did not coincide in 1831 with Nat Turner’s slave revolt, but occurred nine years earlier. It is not true that positive natural growth rates among the native-born or Creole slaves were achieved “only in those regions where the slave trade died out before the end of slavery.” In Virginia, as Klein surely knows, the slave population reached a high rate of natural growth by the 1730s, at a time of reasonably heavy imports from Africa and forty years before importations ceased.4 While it is true that slave manumission received far more encouragement in Latin America than in North America, Klein presents a misleading picture when he talks of the effective curtailment of the numbers of North American freedmen by the end of the eighteenth century. In actuality, the free black population in the United States increased by 82 percent between 1790 and 1800 and by 72 percent between 1800 and 1810. Until the 1830s, when restrictions against manumission began taking effect, free blacks were the fastest-growing segment of the southern population.

  1. 1

    Paul E. Lovejoy, “The Volume of the Atlantic Slave Trade: A Synthesis,” Journal of African History, Vol. 23, No. 4 (1982), pp. 473–502.

  2. 2

    Robin W. Winks, The Blacks in Canada: A History (Yale University Press, 1971), p. 28.

  3. 3

    Sidney W. Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (Viking, 1985), pp. 180–181.

  4. 4

    Allan Kulikoff, Tobacco and Slaves: The Development of Southern Cultures in the Chesapeake, 1680–1800 (University of North Carolina Press, 1986), pp. 320–324, 358.

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