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How the West Abolished Slavery
By Jim Powell
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2008 Jim Powell
All rights reserved.
Could Slavery Be Abolished?
Abolishing slavery in the West seemed like an impossible dream, because it had been around for thousands of years, hardly anybody had opposed it in all that time, and powerful interest groups—including established churches—supported it. Portugal, Spain, France, Holland and England were all deeply involved with it. The very idea of emancipation was widely viewed as a threat to the social order.
Western slavery began in ancient times, was widespread in Greece and expanded dramatically during the Roman Empire. Historians have estimated that there were as many as three million slaves in Rome—perhaps 35 or 40 percent of the population. Since Roman times, a flourishing slave trade had developed across the Sahara desert, bringing slaves from West Africa to North Africa. This trade commonly involved nomadic desert peoples raiding agricultural settlements. Slaves were used to harvest gum, work in gold mines, and take care for oases in North Africa.
Slavery later declined in northern Europe, but it continued in southern Europe largely because of wars and trade between Christians and Muslims. When the Moors conquered Spain in the eighth century, they reportedly enslaved as many as 30,000 Christians. By the thirteenth century, Christians had reconquered most of Spain and in turn had enslaved thousands of Muslims.
By the fifteenth century, Muslims dominated the African slave trade. After the fall of Constantinople and the eastern Roman Empire in 1453, there was a shortage of European slaves, who had initially come from as far away as Mesopotamia, India, Java and China. There were also Albanian, Greek, Russian and Tartar slaves in European cities.
During the Renaissance, many Europeans either defended slavery or were silent on the subject. Neither Desiderius Erasmus nor Niccolò Machiavelli seems to have written anything about it. Thomas More described his vision of an ideal world in Utopia (1516), with slavery "a suitable station" for those captured in a war. Martin Luther believed slavery was essential for the survival of civilization. There were slaves in Genoa, Venice and Florence when the Italian Renaissance was in its glory and as late as 1606. The French navy had slaves, and there was a slave market in Marseilles. Although slavery was prevalent in Europe, the fifteenth-century shortage led to a surge of slave trading with Africa, and black slaves were brought to Spain and Portugal.
Iberia and the Slave Trade
The Portuguese enlarged the role of Christians in the slave trade. They entered the African slave trade during the fifteenth century and continued to play a major role for more than three centuries.
Despite its small size and the appearance of being a nation of many fishing villages, Portugal was a vibrant maritime nation of capable shipbuilders and mapmakers. They had a vast knowledge of geography and navigation garnered from Middle Eastern and Genoese traders whose ships often foundered on Portugal's coasts. Portuguese explorers were the first to reach many parts of Asia by sea, sailing down the west coast of Africa and around the Cape of Good Hope. While they sought gold and spices, almost every ship returned with some slaves. The sale of slaves helped pay the costs of their lengthy expeditions. Portuguese explorers discovered the Senegal and Gambia rivers, a region where slaves could be easily seized because Africans were unprepared for the Europeans. But as Africans encountered more and more Portuguese, they developed better ways to defend themselves, and the Portuguese had a harder time collecting their human cargo. In 1445, Captain João Fernandes began buying slaves from African kings, and this became the standard European practice. The Portuguese settled along the coast at places convenient for trading. In 1482, the Portuguese built Elmina castle, a trading depot in the Gulf of Guinea, which served as their headquarters in West Africa.
For the most part, the Portuguese purchased slaves who had been captured in African wars. By 1448, some 1,000 African slaves had been brought to Portugal. Portuguese government and religious officials began buying slaves to work on farms, serve in hospitals, build ships, operate ferries, drain marshes and perform myriad other tasks. After the Portuguese secured control of the Canary Islands from Spain, slaves were used to grow sugar cane there and on São Tomé, a 372-square-mile island off the west coast of Africa.
Prompted by the success of the Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama, who had sailed around Africa and discovered the sea route to India from 1497 to 1499, the Portuguese government sponsored a new expedition commanded by Pedro Álvarez Cabral. But the lead ship sailed off course and headed due west. On April 23, 1500, it made landfall in the area now known as Bahia in Brazil. The Portuguese slowly began to explore the area and to build fortified coastal trading posts. Indians were enslaved to cultivate sugar cane and harvest brazilwood, but they didn't seem to work as efficiently as Africans. The Portuguese realized that producing sugar could be a much bigger business than brazilwood and began large-scale cultivation of sugar cane using slaves.
Until about 1570, Indians accounted for about 80 percent of the slave labor, but the Indian population plummeted because of European diseases, such as smallpox, tuberculosis and measles, against which they lacked resistance. Consequently, in the 1530s, the Portuguese began importing African slaves, primarily from Angola (the central African region between the Bengo and Quicombo rivers). Some 2,000 slaves a year were brought into Brazil by 1580. Slaves cultivated sugar cane, raised cattle, worked in mines, did construction and were household servants. The slaves were considered indispensable.
Sugar cane was planted extensively in Brazil's northeast provinces of Bahia and Pernambuco. Dutch ships, with their extensive commercial connections, began distributing Brazil's sugar production in European markets. Brazil reached its economic peak during the mid-seventeenth century, when it had the dominant share of the European sugar market.
In the century and a half that the Portuguese monopolized the Atlantic slave trade, they brought an estimated 18,000 slaves to their Atlantic islands, 75,000 slaves to São Tomé, 75,000 slaves to Spanish America, 50,000 slaves to Brazil, as well as 24,000 slaves to Europe.
As Spanish explorers looked for gold, they tended to claim whatever land they saw or walked on. Naturally, this practice led to conflicts with others, particularly with native populations and the Portuguese. The Portuguese were more interested in exclusive trading rights than territorial claims. They built trading forts where local people could supply something valuable such as gold or slaves, in exchange for European goods.
To resolve escalating disputes between Portugal and Spain about possessions in the western hemisphere, Pope Alexander VI drew a line on a map—270 leagues (about 932 miles) west of the Cape Verde Islands, or 46° 37'. Everything to the west of the line was to be Spain's and everything to the east was Portugal's. This was the basis for the Treaty of Tordesillas, signed in Spain in 1494. The Spanish sometimes ignored it—for example by starting a settlement on the Brazilian coast south of São Paulo—and the French ignored it too.
The Spanish at first bought slaves from the Portuguese and later decided to enter the African slave trade themselves. Portuguese captains, angered at the competition, seized some of the Spanish ships and hanged the crews. One Spanish ship was captured by Africans, and reportedly the crew was eaten. Despite these early setbacks, the Spanish expanded their efforts to establish a position in the slave trade. There was an active slave market in Seville. King Ferdinand had slaves, as did Queen Isabella.
Christopher Columbus was quite familiar with the slave trade, having worked as a sugar buyer for a Genoese bank and having visited a Portuguese fort in Guinea. He began the settlement that became Santo Domingo on the island of Hispaniola, which he had discovered in 1492. The following year, Columbus sent to Spain the first shipment of slaves, natives he had captured from the various Caribbean islands he had visited.
On Hispaniola, Spaniards enslaved the local Arawak Taino Indians, devastating their population by smallpox that the Spanish had brought with them. The Indians got a bit of revenge by giving the Spaniards syphilis. Not long after sugar cane was brought to Hispaniola in 1506, Nicolás de Ovando, governor of Hispaniola, ordered that 40,000 Indian slaves be brought from the Bahamas. They too quickly succumbed to Spanish diseases and cruelty. Bartolomé de las Casas, a Spanish Dominican priest, protested at such savagery and suggested that African slaves be imported instead of the Indians to perform the hard work involved in cultivating sugar cane.
Meanwhile, the earliest shipments of African slaves had begun to arrive in the Caribbean. The Spanish, like the Portuguese, concluded that Indians weren't as productive as Africans, and in 1510 King Ferdinand, hoping to find gold, authorized the shipment of 50 Spanish-born African slaves to Santo Domingo. Although no gold was found there, the conquistador Hernán Cortés found plenty in New Spain (later known as Mexico). He shipped a large quantity of gold back to Spain and started growing sugar, for which he began importing African slaves.
When substantial silver deposits were first discovered at Zacatecas in northern Mexico, it was a region with few Indians who could be exploited. Consequently, African slaves were brought in at the very beginning of development and soon outnumbered the Spaniards. (Expanding mines later attracted Indians who wanted to work, lessening the need for African slaves, and by the early seventeenth century, slaves had little to do with these mining operations.)
With the population of Indian slaves falling rapidly because of harsh treatment and European diseases, Spanish colonists on Hispaniola petitioned the 18-year-old Spanish King and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V for permission to import African slaves. Judge Alonso Zuazo dismissed the king's concerns that having a lot of black slaves might risk a rebellion. "I whipped some," Zuazo explained, "cut off the ears of others and, in consequence, there are no more complaints." On August 18, 1518, the king granted his Flemish courtier Lorenzo de Gorrevod an eight-year license to ship at least 4,000 African slaves to Spanish America.
By the mid-1520s, slaves were operating sugar mills in Jamaica, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Santo Domingo, and gold mines in Cuba. The Catholic church was anxious to have slaves work in gold mines, to help finance the planned cathedral in San Juan, and to perform other tasks. In 1530, the bishop of Santo Domingo appealed to the king for more slaves, saying that Cuba, Puerto Rico and Santo Domingo might not survive without slaves.
That same year, the Genoese merchant Polo de Espindola, based in Málaga, Spain, dispatched his ship Nuestra Señora de Begoña to take some 300 slaves from São Tomé to Hispaniola—without stopping in Portugal as had been standard practice since the beginning of the African slave trade. After this voyage, increasing numbers of slaves were shipped directly from West Africa to the Americas where slave prices were double those in Europe. African slaves were sent across the Atlantic to help the Spanish conquistadors Francisco de Montejo in Yucatan, Diego de Almagro in Chile and Juan Pizarro in Peru. These men, however, didn't introduce slavery to the Americas, because native peoples in Mexico, Peru and elsewhere on the southern continent already had slaves, many of whom had been acquired in wars.
In 1545, the Spanish discovered huge silver deposits at Potosi (now in Bolivia), which required large numbers of slaves to develop. There were Indian slaves, but as happened elsewhere, European diseases decimated Indian populations. The Spanish began to import thousands of Africans, from the area between the Niger and Senegal rivers as well as from the Congo and Angola. Alluvial deposits of gold were discovered in lowlands where there weren't many Indians, and Africans mined almost all of it.
In Peru, slaves worked in vineyards, on sugar plantations and on farms producing a variety of crops; many of these agricultural enterprises were owned by the Jesuits. Slaves were fishermen, too, and slaves served as muleteers, carrying goods through jungles with teams. In cities, slaves were metalworkers, textile workers, hat makers and shoemakers.
In 1595, the Spanish government looked for a way to extract more revenue from the slave trade. The result was the asiento system, which involved granting a monopoly over trade routes to one contractor who would have to pay a flat, more easily monitored fee that was much larger than what individual license holders would pay. The asiento-holder, in turn, sold separate licenses to traders requiring access to those routes. It was in his self-interest to maximize license revenue, as the more he could collect, the more the government might ask him to pay for his asiento. The first asiento-holder was a Spaniard, but the Spanish didn't have much of a fleet to defend the trade routes, and by the seventeenth century, the asiento was awarded to Dutch, French and English contractors.
By 1650 between 250,000 and 300,000 slaves had been imported to Spanish America, mostly for Mexico and Peru. After 1650, there was a rising demand for slaves in Spain's Caribbean colonies, which had been neglected during the precious metals boom.
While the slave trade to Spanish America was growing rapidly, slaves were still being sold in southern Europe. Not surprisingly, there were more slaves in Portugal than anywhere else on the continent. The Portuguese traveled along the rivers and estuaries of West Africa, seizing slaves or trading with Africans who did the dirty work. The Portuguese brought the slaves to slave trading centers such as São Tomé or Santiago (Cape Verde islands), where they were sold to merchants who shipped them to European slaving centers such as Lisbon or Seville—or to one of the American slaving centers such as Santo Domingo, Havana (Cuba), Vera Cruz (Mexico), Cartagena (Colombia) or Portobello (Panama). The European slave trade, however, was dwarfed by the slave trade across the Sahara to the Muslim world.
There were a few isolated voices critical of slavery. The Dominican friar Tomás de Mercado, for instance, provided some graphic descriptions of how slaves were kidnapped in Africa. Father Pedro Brandão, Portuguese bishop in the Cape Verde islands, urged that black slaves be baptized and liberated. In Brazil, Jesuit Father Miguel García refused to take confessions from slave owners. Refreshing though these voices were, they were isolated and had no impact on Spanish or Portuguese support for slavery.
Holland Enters the Transatlantic Slave Trade
Although the Dutch generally didn't want slaves at home, many Dutchmen were eager to sell slaves abroad. Dutch traders sought ivory and gold in West Africa, and gradually they became involved with the slave trade. Dutch slave ships began arriving in the Caribbean in 1606. In 1619, a Dutch merchant reportedly sold 20 African slaves to English settlers in Virginia. This wasn't the first time slaves had been brought into North America—the Spanish had brought slaves when they conquered the area that became Florida and New Mexico.
The Dutch government granted the Dutch West India Company, established in 1621, a trading monopoly both in West Africa and in the Americas. By 1626, after gaining control of land in northeastern Brazil, the company was deeply engaged in the slave trade. The company's soldiers captured several of the most important Portuguese outposts, especially Ft. Elmira. John Maurice, the prince of Nassau-Siegen and governor of Dutch-controlled Brazil, became convinced that neither natives nor whites could handle the rigors of sugar cultivation as well as Africans. "It is not possible to effect anything in Brazil without slaves," he declared. "They cannot be dispensed with upon any occasion whatsoever." By the mid-seventeenth century, the Dutch dominated the seas, and they had established ports in West Africa and the Americas, as well as the East Indies.
The Dutch arranged to supply Spanish American colonies with slaves. Curaçao became a base for the Dutch West India Company, where slaves were brought in its ships and transferred to slave agents or to planters. The Dutch, with their comparatively free financial markets, were in the best position to raise capital needed for the slave trade, even though Spain received huge flows of precious metals from Mexico and Peru. During the second half of the seventeenth century, the Dutch were, after the Portuguese, the second leading slave traders.
Portugal, which had been claimed by Spain's financially troubled Philip II following the death of the Portuguese heir in 1580, regained its independence in 1640 and reasserted its territorial claims in Brazil and Africa. The Dutch were driven out of Brazil in 1654 and Brazil became a Portuguese stronghold until it achieved independence during the nineteenth century.
The Dutch maintained a significant presence in the western hemisphere. They still had trading forts on the north coast of South America and in the Antilles they retained Curaçao. Slaves were shipped to this island from Africa and remained there until ready for illegal shipment to the Spanish, French or English colonies. The Dutch also established slave-based sugar plantations throughout the West Indies. During the 1640s, they turned sleepy Barbados into a respectable sugar producer, and they stimulated slave-based sugar production on St. Kitts, Nevis, Montserrat, Antigua and Guadeloupe.
Altogether, the Dutch are believed to have shipped more than 525,000 African slaves across the Atlantic. Dutch slave trading declined as a consequence of war and commercial competition from the British.
Excerpted from Greatest Emancipations by Jim Powell. Copyright © 2008 Jim Powell. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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