Where did the slaves come from?

(Post) colonialism and global history

Sebastian Jobs

Prof. Dr. Sebastian Jobs is a historian at the John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies, History Department, at the Free University of Berlin.

The exploitation of people through slavery is closely linked to the history of capitalism, to racism, but also to the resistance to slavery. Slavery is not an invention of European colonialism, but its transatlantic form gave it a fundamentally dehumanizing dimension: an individual and his descendants became a commodity.

They were often used as cotton pickers: slaves brought from Africa to the United States via the transatlantic slave trade. (& copy picture-alliance)

Slavery, serfdom, bondage and forced labor describe the same phenomenon at first glance: the exploitation of unfree labor and, for this purpose, the deprivation of liberty of people. But this supposed historical constant, which can be found in different times and countries, differs depending on the historical and regional context and is not always the same. Slavery in ancient Rome followed different rules than serfdom in imperial China or forced labor in Stalinist Russia. In view of this diverse range of slavery, this article focuses on the colonial type of slavery that is linked to the European discoveries and expansions in the Atlantic and Southeast Asian regions from the 16th to the 20th centuries. This historical constellation produced specific actors, structures and networks through which this capitalization of human bodies is closely linked to the global history of western capitalism, racism, but also the resistance to slavery.

Slavery as a phenomenon of globalization and interdependence

In the wake of the first European explorers and conquerors, who mainly explored the Atlantic coast of Africa in the 15th century, there were mainly Spanish and Portuguese traders who regularly acquired slaves there. Along with the Black Sea region and India, West Africa became a focal region of the global slave trade. However, these traders could not simply abduct people from the continent beyond the coast of Africa. A lack of geographical knowledge and the political power of local tribes and rulers prevented easy access to the inhabitants of the African hinterland. Europeans were dependent on close cooperation with Arab and African middlemen who procured their "goods" from the interior of the continent, collected them in depots on the coast and then sold them to their business partners. This trade focused on the regions of Senegambia (today Senegal and Gambia), the Bay of Benin and above all the west coast of Central Africa (today including Angola). Nonetheless, these bilateral relations never took place on an equal footing; their greater mobility gave the European partners a business advantage, they dominated trade with the supposedly “savages”.

Slavery was not a new phenomenon in Africa, but neither was it a purely economic enterprise. In the Arab and sub-Saharan regions, prisoners of war and convicted criminals in particular were enslaved, sometimes for a limited period of time. These forms of unfree work differed from the European system of property slavery (English chattel slavery), which is associated with the development of Atlantic slavery; Here an individual (and his descendants) passed completely into the property of a slave owner, was considered a commodity, like a farm animal.

European traders transported their human cargo on ships crammed in hundreds below deck to the colonies of North and South America and the Caribbean. The cramped, meager diet, illness and physical violence hit the prisoners hard - according to estimates, the death rate during the crossing was around 15 percent. Some have also referred to slavery as social death, as people are detached from all their social relationships; mostly they had little more than their clothes or small belongings with which they could materially hold on to their former homeland. Since slaves on the ships often came from different regions of Africa, they did not share a common language or cultural background, making it difficult to communicate with one another. And yet this forced middle passage, the transport of slaves to the “New World”, was often the first step towards a new Afro-American culture, solidarity and togetherness that continued in their new environment of the diaspora.

With the new distribution of power in the colonial area of ​​the Atlantic, business was dominated from 1600 mainly by English and Dutch entrepreneurs and it became increasingly lucrative. With an economic boom in the age of mercantile capitalism from the middle of the 17th century, the need for labor also increased in the colonies, as the climatic and natural conditions in the regions made production very profitable, but also extremely expensive. Latin America (especially Brazil), the Caribbean islands (Jamaica, Barbados, Haiti) and the North American mainland colonies offered ideal growing conditions for sugar, tobacco, indigo and rice. In the racist worldview of European traders, African workers were ideal workers because of their supposed physical strength - at the same time, the Europeans justified the enslavement with the supposed intellectual and cultural inferiority of the abductees. In order to make the cultivation of these products efficient and profitable, the plants were mostly grown on large monoculture plantations. Hundreds of slaves grew the plants here and harvested them in several cycles per year. The workers lived in poor conditions on site, while the owners mostly had their plantations controlled by administrators and overseers. A large part of the harvest was exported to Europe and processed there. However, the field of activity of slaves extended beyond pure field work. They were used in households as carriage drivers, craftsmen, cooks and house slaves, among other things.

Of course, the phenomenon of slavery and the slave trade was not limited to the Atlantic area. European trade interests played a central role in the colonization of India and the Far East from the 16th to 19th centuries. In the 18th century the regular trade in slaves from Africa began, who were exploited in English, Dutch and Portuguese colonies for the cultivation of cotton, sugar and spices. In contrast to the Atlantic, Africa in this constellation remained not only the source but also the recipient region of slaves - in the transoceanic exchange, hundreds of thousands of people from the Indian subcontinent were brought to South Africa to work there.

In this sense, the African slave trade as a local phenomenon has been part of a network of global economic and political links that linked at least four continents. When, for example, English traders imported cowrie shells from the Indian Ocean in the 17th century in order to purchase slaves in Africa with the money that was widely available there, who were then shipped to the Americas, the circle came full circle with the import of colonial raw materials to Europe.

Within these diverse global interdependencies, the availability of the new products had a direct influence on the consumption habits of European consumers. Sugar, chocolate or tobacco - products that we take for granted today - were for the first time no longer reserved for an economic elite thanks to the plantation economy, but became accessible to a broader class of consumers. However, the price for these new and cheap consumer goods was paid by the workers on the plantations. On the Caribbean islands or in Brazil, the survival time of slaves was just seven years due to the hard work, the tropical climate and infectious diseases in the 18th century. This dovetailing of the resource-oriented colonial economy and increasing industrialization in Europe continued until the final abolition of slavery in Europe and the USA in the second half of the 19th century. Up until the American Civil War (1861-65), the highly profitable cotton from the plantations in Georgia and Mississippi ended up in the newly emerging textile mills in England, making both entrepreneurs and consumers in Europe, at least indirectly, accomplices in the slave economy of the American South.

What does resistance mean here?

Slaves did not accept their fate as passive objects, but actively helped to shape their living environment. In view of the long-term stability of slavery - especially in North America - the question of resistance or its supposed absence arises. For a long time, research focused primarily on obvious forms of resistance: rebellions and uprisings. In historical analysis, one question almost arises: Why were there so few slave revolts and why were white slave owners at the same time constantly afraid of rebellious slaves? In order to answer this question, it is important to look at the variety of different forms of resistance.

The most famous slave rebellion, inspired by the upheavals of the Paris Revolution, took place in 1791 in the French sugar colony of Saint Domingue (now Haiti). In the perception of the Haitian liberation, the history of the Atlantic ideas and racist stereotypes were closely intertwined. Because contemporaries saw the rebellion on Saint Domingue not as a political revolution, but as an uprising or a bloodbath. Assuming that black slaves were incapable of complex political thinking and action, many whites in the late 19th century did not equate the events of Saint Domingue with the revolutions in the United States and France. While Thomas Jefferson and Maximilien de Robespierre were hailed as revolutionary figures, Toussaint Louverture, one of the leaders of the Haitian freedom struggles, was seen as a violent butcher. As a point of reference and enemy image, Haiti remained alive in the aftermath: slave revolts in the Americas were often discussed against the background of this successful revolution - for example Gabriel's conspiracy in 1800 (in Virginia), the slave revolt in Barbados in 1816 or Nat Turner's uprising in 1831 (in Virginia ).

However, forms of resistance or withdrawal were also diverse beyond violent uprisings. Against the background that slaves represent living capital for their owners and traders, it makes sense to understand suicide and flight as spaces for action and acts of rebellion. Rebellion and uncooperative behavior were, however, uncompromisingly punished with severe corporal punishments up to and including death. The first slave codes of the 17th century (1661 in Barbados or 1712 in South Carolina) were aimed at the physical regulation and punishment of slaves. These attempts to regulate slavery with legislation also testify to an intensive exchange of knowledge between the various colonies, which linked racist ideology with economic interests. Against the background of this harsh criminal regime, it is important to also look at other more frequent rebellious behaviors: For example, refusal to work and sabotage were understood and rated as dangerous behavior and as a sign of a possible rebellion, at least by many whites. The image of dangerous black slaves thus emerged both as a slave practice and as a white imagination. Furthermore, there were always slaves themselves who passed on their knowledge of supposed or actual resistance activities to authorities or their owners and in return received perks or sometimes their own freedom. This kind of “cooperation” reveals the complexity of slavery as a power formation - it could also be collaboration as an act of evading oneself and exploiting the hierarchy for one's own purposes.

End of slavery

Towards the end of the 18th century, efforts began worldwide to first abolish human trafficking and, finally, slavery in general. Ironically, it was the same networks and connections in which the global exchange of goods took place that made widespread criticism of slavery politically possible. In Great Britain, for example, opponents of slavery called consumers and entrepreneurs to account and in 1791 called for a boycott of sugar and rum from the colonies in order to draw attention to the inhumane working conditions. This strategy should prove to be successful in the long term. First, the transatlantic slave trade was banned in the British Empire and the USA in 1807/08 - other states followed in the next few years. This also changed the character of slavery. A domestic market for slaves, a self-sustaining system of slavery that no longer required African imports, emerged in the US South in particular.

In Latin America, the abolition of slavery was closely linked to the independence movements. In Chile, Mexico, Uruguay and Bolivia, slavery ended in the 1820s to 1840s - but in Brazil, whose economy largely depended on the labor of 1.5 million slaves (as of 1872), it did not end until 1888. In the 1820s Years ago organizations, newspapers and publishers were founded around the world that vehemently demanded the abolition of slavery. These movements also acted on a global level. In London in 1840 representatives (all male, because women were unloaded) of abolitionists mainly from Europe and North America met for the World Anti-Slavery Convention to exchange their ideas and coordinate activities. This political pressure caused a change in public opinion in the respective countries, so that between 1833 and 1865 slavery was officially banned in the USA and large parts of Europe and its colonies.

And yet slavery and the slave trade are still particularly noticeable in the former European colonies. The demographic influence of forced migration on these regions is a controversial issue in research. From the beginning of the Atlantic slave trade to the end of the Atlantic slave trade, the traders deported around twelve million people to the Americas. A large part (approx. 38 percent) was brought to the Portuguese colonies - only a little more than 6 percent directly to North America. It is at least indisputable that the majority of the slaves were men of working age. They were withdrawn from the local communities, societies and states and were not available for the development of their home regions. As an echo, slavery still has an impact today, especially beyond Africa: Social disadvantage and racism are still everyday experiences for the descendants of the former slaves.