Universität Bielefeld

Transatlantic Slave Trade and Slavery

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The Transatlantic slave trade and American slaveries took place between 1440 and 1888, proceeded for more than 400 years and went along with the establishment of chattel slavery (possessing and trading of human beings as movable goods). Both were unprecedented in scale, magnitude and human brutality within the global history of slavery. Furthermore, a new system of forced labor was implemented, based on the racialization and exploitation of Africans and people defined as Black. Their unpaid labor was the basis for highly efficient plantation economies producing and exporting sugar, cotton, coffee and other raw materials for the capitalist world market (Zeuske 2013a). Nearly all Western European colonial powers including Great Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Brandenburg-Prussia were directly invested in the slave trade and slavery or at least provided the legal and political framework in which it and its tremendous profits, mainly for Europeans, became possible. The United Nations therefore today classifies the slave trade and slavery as a crime against humanity (United Nations 2001). The need to redress these crimes as well as the resulting global inequalities is the major purpose of the current Caribbean claims for reparations for slavery championed by the CARICOM Reparations Commission (CARICOM Reparations Commission 2014; Beckles 2013. This Commission is a transregional organization, basically composed of civil society activists from Anglophone Caribbean States which, since 2013, calls upon European governments as successor states of the colonial powers to apologize for the slave trade and slavery and to engage in a process of reparations (CARICOM Reparations Commission 2014). Embracing a multitude of symbolic and material dimensions, reparation claims call for collective investments that would fight the structural inequalities and racial discrimination people of African descent still suffer from today. It further demands facilitating historical and commemorative activities, the establishment of memorial days, memorials and museums that would contribute to decolonizing the history of slavery and its legacies (Rauhut 2018a, 2018b, 2018c).

The Problem with Numbers and Estimates

The extent of the suffering and damage caused by the slave trade and slavery in all its social dimensions is immeasurable. The figures and estimates alone still pose difficulties today. According to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, the most important online accessible socio-historical database, a minimum of 12.5 million Africans were enslaved and then embarked at the shores of West Africa; 40 percent of them were shipped to Brazil, 35 percent were sold to the non-Spanish colonies in the Caribbean and around 20 percent were brought to Spanish colonies in the Caribbean, Central and South America; only 5 percent went to the USA (Eltis and Richardson 2010; Voyages). Recent scholarship questions those estimates as still too low. First, as methodological problems, since the historians of the database mainly focus on English and French sources. They leave aside the Portuguese, Spanish, Catalan, Cuban and Brazilian sources, although Spain, for instance, maintained the longest and richest colonial empire in the Americas based on slavery. After the slave trade was abolished by law (1807-1840), s an extremely high number of enslaved Africans were still smuggled. They reached the American colonies, in particular Cuba, Brazil and the US South mainly by contraband - the exact numbers of this 19th century period of "Hidden Atlantic" will never be known (Zeuske 2013b). Furthermore, Caribbean historians such as Beckles and Shepherd have clarified that the Trans-atlantic Trade in Africans or the Maafa (as they also name it) and slavery were not limited to the embarking of 12.5 million Africans at the coastsand the Atlantic journey itself, The whole process of what Miller as called slaving involves stages such as the capture and enslavement in Africa; the journey to the coast and other points of departure; the storage and package for shipment; the transatlantic crossing; sale, dispersion and adjustment in the Americas. Each stage was marked by horrific violence and it is still unknown how many persons already died in Africa, walking the long routes to the slave forts, how many persons died in the slave ships, and how many died shortly after arriving in the American destinations (Beckles and Shepherd 2007). Alone during the crossing of the Atlantic Ocean from Africa to the Americas (Middle Passage) which took up to 2-3 months, many people died in the overcrowded ships under brutal conditions, many committing suicide, and many thrown overboard whenever the slave traders and ship merchants decided to get rid of their human cargo. The massacre of the Zong ship in 1781 with destination to Jamaica is just one of many devastating examples (Walvin 2011). In addition to all those mostly unknown victims, thousands of persons were killed in the various rebellions against slavery, as well as in mass protests in post-slavery societies across the American continent (Heuman 1994).

Resistance, Abolition and Emancipation

From the very beginning, Africans practiced multiple forms of resistance against slavery and colonial domination, from social organization and religious practices to boycott, sabotage, rebellions and the organized rural and urban uprisings, exemplified by the maroon revolts, to runaway slaves escaping to the mountains (Thompson 2006). Also, Afro-Atlantic religions, such as Brazilian Candomblé, Cuban Santería or Haitian Voodoo, as well as other cultural traditions, are conceived as practices of resistance, as they represent the active maintenance of African traditions which were usually repressed and criminalized under colonial domination (Palmie ed. 2008, Rauhut 2014). A paradigmatic case of resistance represents St. Domingue, a French colony in the Caribbean, where the enslaved people themselves fought a revolution and freed the country from slavery (1791-93), founding the first American independent (non-slavery) republic of Haiti in 1804, also known as the Haitian Revolution. However, Western historical narratives have failed to acknowledge this most successful slave revolt in history. For one, it was a philosophically unthinkable event for contemporaries, but most importantly, the hierarchy of power relations required the "silencing of the past" (Trouillot 1995). The very dynamics of abolitionism itself are still subject to controversies in academic and public debates. The widespread narrative that the British Empire abolished the slave trade and 'freed the Africans' out of moral, religious and humanistic convictions alone is challenged for various reasons. First, it underestimates or even ignores the crucial role of the enslaved themselves, who risked their lives in fighting slavery. Second, the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade through the British Abolition Act of 1807 which was successively signed by other European colonial powers between the years 1815-1840, did not at all result in the end of slavery itself. It did not prevent the slave traders and the planter aristocracy from holding on as long as they could to invest in and maintain the still profitable slavery economies in the Americas. Brazil and Cuba were finally the last countries to abolish slavery in 1888 and 1886, preceded by the US South (1865), the Dutch (1863), the French (1848), the Danish (1847) and the British colonies (1834) in the Caribbean. Third, the enslaved Africans were not granted their freedom, they had to pay for it by multiple forms of forced labor such as apprenticeship, patronage, debt bondage or the convict leasing system across the Americas.

Forced Forms of Labor and Profits after the End of Slavery

The formal and legal end of slavery went along with a transition to more flexible forms of control over labor and resources. The British parliament, for instance, implemented with its 'Emancipation Act' (1833/34) for the British Caribbean colonies a harsh system of unpaid labor, calling it 'apprenticeship', that forced the now formally free people for another period of 4 years (originally designed for 12 years) to remain working on the plantations, very often for the same masters, without being paid (Holt 1992; Wilmot 1984). This model of emancipation, soon adopted in the Danish, Dutch and Spanish colonies, doubly compensated the British slave owners, securing them a maximum of profit even after slavery had ended. In addition to the unpaid labor, they received £20 million in cash from the British Parliament, which was itself composed of members of a social elite who had links to the slavery economy. The slave owners claimed and got this 'price for emancipation' (Draper 2010) for the loss of property, as they considered their slaves human chattel for which they had paid. In contrast, the enslaved persons received their freedom without any sort of compensation for the injuries suffered, without land, without property, without any capital with which to build a new life - these structurally uneven conditions still shape the present social and economic dynamics in Caribbean and other former slave-trading societies and provide grounds for mobilization in favor of reparations (Rauhut forthcoming).

Evidence of these injustices were uncovered by Caribbean scholars a long time ago, however in Europe they became known by a broader public through the online database Legacies of British Slave-ownership that relies foremost on Draper's book The Price of Emancipation: Slave-ownership, Compensation and British Society at the End of Slavery (Draper 2010; Hall et al. 2014; Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership). Draper analyses the compensation records between the years 1834 to 1845 and provides lists of individuals and corporations who benefitted from the slave trade and the plantation economies, including merchants, bankers, clergy, nobles, and Members of Parliament. By focusing on the British absentee owners (who owned enslaved people and plantations in the Caribbean but never lived there), on how much compensation money they got and what they did with that money Draper shows that most of the profit was reinvested in their home country and stimulated a burst of growth of the British economy in the mid-19th century (Draper 2010) He reinforces the thesis of Trinidadian historian Eric Williams, who has shown in his pioneering work on Capitalism and Slavery(1944), that British industrialization was heavily financed (although not exclusively) by capital extracted from the slave trade and slavery, in particular in the Caribbean (Williams 1944). While other elements of Williams' thesis are still debated, this particular aspect has been easily proven for other Western European national developments as well as for the USA (Beckert and Rockman 2016).

The picture of Atlantic slavery needs to be expanded widely beyond the British-anglophone Atlantic. When looking, for instance, at Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Brazil, a period of mass and plantation slavery was established through people smuggling and contraband after 1820. Between 1820 and 1865, another 2-3 million enslaved Africans were brought to the Americas, most of them against the law (Zeuske 2013b). Viewed from the perspective of this iberian Atlantic, the anglocentric narrative of the 19th century as a century of abolitionism needs to be countered: the Hidden Atlantic of the 19th century represented the peak of mass slavery, also called second slavery (Tomich and Zeuske 2008). This phase was based on the exploitation of body and labor resources in highly efficient plantation economies producing and exporting for the world market and stimulating industrial and financial capitalism in Western Europe.

Redressing Slavery in Public Memory

Clearly, slavery was not an exception, an anomaly or an accident of the "civilized" North, but intrinsically connected to the rise of capitalist modernity that was a "slaving-modernity based on the capitalization of human bodies" (Zeuske 2018).

What does this mean in terms of redressing the impact and legacy of slavery today? European public memory and politics still don't recognize the full implications of the interwoven dimensions between slavery, capitalism and modernity - an interrelation that global historians and anthropologists have been emphasizing for a long time (Mintz 1985). Obviously, it is time to redress the often neglected "darker sides of Western modernity" (Mignolo 2011), the transatlantic slave trade and slavery, including questions of accountability for historical injustice done, the recognition of the victims and legacies, and the historical roots of present global inequalities. While this remains on open task in Western academia and international politics, the descendants of the enslaved have always had an explicit approach when calling for reparations for slavery across all the Americas. In different regions and periods, Caribbean and US American activists have continuously been at the forefront of this struggle.

Claudia Rauhut

Please cite as:
Rauhut, Claudia. 2019. "Transatlantic Slave Trade and Slavery." InterAmerican Wiki: Terms - Concepts - Critical Perspectives. www.uni-bielefeld.de/cias/wiki/s_Slave-Trade-and-Slavery.html.


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CARICOM Reparations Commission. 2014. "10-Point Reparation Plan." http://caricomreparations.org/caricom/caricoms-10-point-reparation-plan/.

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Rauhut, Claudia forthcoming. "The Link of a Former British Prime Minister's Ancestor to Caribbean Slavery Economy in the Current Call for Reparations in Jamaica." In Cherishing the Past, Envisioning the Future. Entangled PractisesPractices of Heritage and Utopia in the Americas , eds. Olaf Kaltmeier, Wilfried Raussert, Julia Roth, and Mirko Petersen.

Rauhut, Claudia. 2018a. "Caribbean Activism for Slavery Reparations: an Overview." In Practices of Resistance in the Caribbean: Narratives, Aesthetics, Politics , eds. Wiebke Beushausen, Miriam Brandel, Joseph T. Farquharson, Marius Littschwager, Annika McPherson, and Julia Roth, 137-50. Interamerican Research. New York: Routledge.

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Rauhut, Claudia. 2018c. "Mobilizing Transnational Agency for Slavery Reparations: The Case of Jamaica." Journal of African American History: Special Issue on National and International Perspectives on Movements for Reparations, edited by Nicole Frith, Joyce Hope Scott, and V.P. Franklin , 103, nos. (1-2): 133-162.

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