The Genesis of Slavery in North America

Stories that Take You for the Ride of Your Life

23
April, 2015

The Genesis of Slavery in North America

In Eclipse of the Midnight Sun, my hero Finn first meets with Gus and his sister Prudentina on a slave ship named HMS Hope. At the time, slavery was a global business enterprise operated on industrial scale. Today we are familiar with Bermuda triangle, but that’s just a myth. Back in 1750’s the sinister business of human trafficking was very real and it was called The Triangular Trade.

The triangular trade among Great Britain, America, and Africa across the Atlantic Ocean provided the very basis for the development of slavery system in North America. What began as a commercial enterprise by the Portuguese gradually grew into an inhuman practice of slavery that foreign merchants found lucrative. Even many national governments, kings and queens, and their minions among the aristocrats espoused the trade to fill their need for manpower in colonial enterprises. On the positive side, it fostered a three-way cultural communication, though albeit racial slur, and gave rise to a new synthesis in the American horizon.

The Beginning of Trade

The triangular trade owes its origin to the Portuguese, who inked trade pacts with African rulers to pick up gold, dyewood, pepper, and indigo in return for factory goods, arms, and ammunition. Exploration of a huge tract of land and expansion of colonial settlements in the Americas required labor force in large numbers. While the indigenous people continued to remain hostile, the European settlers found it hard to work in a tropical climate. The Portuguese capitulated on it and supplied slaves procured from Africa to the colonies.

Availability of cheap man power in the form of slaves helped in the growth of large-scale plantation activities in sugar, tobacco, and cotton. This, in turn, offered trade voyages carrying slaves to return to Europe with plantation products to both Europe and Africa shaping the course of the three-way commerce between the three continents. As slave trade was the most significant part of this triangular trade, it earned its de facto name Atlantic slave trade.

The Three-Way Trade: Stages

The Portuguese dominated the slave trade until the 1640s. This phase is popularly known as the First Atlantic system. In the 1640s, the Portuguese following their defeat at the hand of the Dutch and dissolution of the Iberian Union, lost the ground, and the British, French, and the Dutch took over the trade, which marked the Second Atlantic System.

Merchant voyages originated from European ports carrying cloth, factory goods, arms, and wine for African rulers. They used to trade these goods for human cargo at slave ports on the west and west-central coast Africa. With America-bound shipments of enslaved people, the European merchants began their second leg of voyage. At the slave trading centers in the West Indies and North America, slaves were unloaded and ships sailed back to Europe carrying salt cod, corn, sugar, tobacco, coffee, and other agricultural products.

Extent and End of Triangular Slave Trade

About 15 million Africans were transported as slaves via the triangular trade between the 15th and 19th centuries. The British and the Portuguese together transported about 70 percent of these unfortunate people. About 10 to 15 percent died on the way to American colonies, and almost 50% died at slave ports because of inhuman conditions and lack of food and medication.

The triangular trade was at its peak during the 17th and 18th centuries, with British ships responsible for carrying 3.1 million of 6 million slaves transported between 1640 and 1807. However, it declined after the British ban on slave trade in 1807 followed by the United States in 1808. Earlier, the U.S. Congress put a ban on ships meant for the trafficking of slaves in 1794 and stringent punishments for people involved in 1800.

Proactive patrolling by the British and U.S. forces off the West African coast in the 1810s broke the backbone of the triangular slave trade. In 1820, the United States declared slave trade as an act of piracy and encouraged death penalty for the same ending the inhuman trafficking using the triangular trade route.

(Image credits: 12 Years a Slave by Steve McQueen. Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps (left) and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup.)


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