Domination and resistance in the transatlantic world - Max Schwarz

Max Schwarz on the importance of the transatlantic slave trade in the transition from the provincial feudalism of medieval Europe to the global capitalism of the early modern world.

Nowadays, when we discuss the legacy of modern slavery, the conversation usually revolves around how bizarre, cruel and incomprehensible the whole episode was. It is far too easy and common to place this story outside the dynamics of history and view it simply as great crime, which it certainly was, or an aberration in the otherwise happy pageant of unfolding freedom that is western civilization, which it certainly was not. Western observers have done a good job of turning the history of slavery into a morality tale or a baffling deviation from progress. This is a common and pernicious habit. We can also see it in texts and documentaries that morbidly describe the monstrous evils of Hitler, but fail to explain how a system of domination and death like Nazism could rise in one of the most civilized countries in the world.

It is comfortable to see these histories as mere aberrations, but it does not do justice to the victims. Nor does it help us to understand the world-changing dynamics that wracked Europe, Africa and the Americas from the 1400s to the 1800s. We know slavery was a horribly institution, but what were the processes that brought unfree laborers across thousands of miles of treacherous ocean to produce highly profitable commodity crops in brutally colonized lands?

The truth is that the history of slavery cannot be separated from the world we live in today. It is key to understanding the development of capitalism, imperialism and racism. Furthermore, the transatlantic slave trade was also perhaps the earliest instance of the much-heralded (and much-maligned) process of globalization.

If we view slavery in this light, we can still make strong moral conclusions about it. However, our conclusions will have a deeper resonance than simplistic tales about evil Europeans and their benighted African victims. Crimes happened and many lives were destroyed, there can be no doubt about that. But a closer examination of modern slavery reveals an indictment of a whole social system built on the exploitation of African and European labor for the profits of a few. When we connect this history to our own, it teaches us a bit about why we live the way we do today and how our inequitable social system was born. It also shows the remarkable acts of resistance displayed by these people as they fought, in small ways and big ways, to blunt the weapons of domination being honed in the transatlantic world.

Part I - Worlds Collide

This is the first section of a text that examines the connection between the rise of capitalism, the colonization of the Americas and the birth of modern slavery. This part looks at the encounter between Western Europeans and West Africans in the early modern period.

Part I - Worlds Collide

The period between 1400 and 1800 can be seen in many lights. It was at an age of discovery, a period of expanding colonization, an epoch of unbridled wealth creation and a time of unfettered exploitation of raw materials and human labor. Of the many major episodes of this era, one “is written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire;” namely, the transformation, for untold millions, from customary modes of social reproduction towards the expropriation, degradation and abstraction of human labor within a burgeoning global capitalist system. Across the Atlantic Ocean—from the ports Europe, to the shores of West Africa, to the plantations of the Caribbean, and within the dark hulls of ocean-plowing vessels—a new and bloody epoch was born.

This is the story of the encounter between Europeans, Africans and Native Americans. Over the last five hundred years, tens of millions of people have traversed the Atlantic in search of plunder, profits, wages, land and security. Many millions more were forced upon these barbarous passages as human chattel, while innumerable others were displaced from their lands or killed outright.

But how did this massive movement of people become possible? And why did it happen at this time?

In order for the sustained relations between four continents to occur, certain material and social preconditions had to be met. As we know, the advancements of technological development and centralization of political organization were crucial for colonization. But the people in control of this process also needed powerful structural incentives to expand commercial and political relations across thousands of miles of perilous ocean at astounding cost and extraordinary risk.

To understand this historical process more deeply, we must begin by examining property relations in Europe and Africa. Indeed, the history of modern slavery and colonialism is impossible to grasp without an understanding of what made the burgeoning capital-labor relationship in Europe a unique, and uniquely profitable, system.

For the European peasant, the sea-borne 'shellback', the indentured servant and the African slave, the creation of a transatlantic world heralded neither riches nor freedom, but their tragic opposite: utter misery and absolute domination. Still, as we shall see in subsequent sections, this brutal transition was met with neither resignation nor complaisance. Indeed, for the men and women who sowed the fields, battened the hatches and chopped the cane – those long-accursed “hewers of wood and drawers of water” – resistance took many forms, from the most banal and passive, to the most violent and extreme. At the birth of the modern world there was blood and fire, but also a resounding spirit of fierce defiance.

Europe in Transition

By the Age of Exploration, European powers held a decisive advantage in their means of transportation. This was the chief proximate cause for their mercantile supremacy. But there were deeper causes behind the rise of European power. In the period between 1000 and 1400, the European peninsula went from a laggard in trade, surplus production and political organization, to relative parity with the more advanced regions of the East.

The reasons for these changes abound: from geographical vagaries; to evolving networks of exchange; to the centralization of political authority and new forms of social organization. Situated on the east-west axis of Eurasia, the European peninsula benefited from the exchange of goods, knowledge and cultivatable crops across the landmass. The development of lucrative and steady state-backed exchange—from the Baltic Sea to the English Isles to the coasts of France and the littoral of the Mediterranean—gave rise to a powerful merchant class engaged in advanced forms of trade, finance, organization and transportation. The rise of powerful nation-states across the continent led to interstate competition in the means and methods of warfare and domination. These historical forces gave rise to an unequal balance of power and development among continental regions and facilitated the colonization of large swaths of the globe by Europe in the centuries to come.

Just as importantly, in the late medieval and early modern period, Western Europe was developing a unique system of social property relations. In antagonism with the feudal mode of production that was based on customary dues and tribute, markets in land and markets in labor were becoming the mediating factors of social reproduction. This represented a historical shift from what Ellen Meiksins Wood calls ‘extra-economic’ domination (the direct appropriation of the social surplus by feudal landholders) towards a more abstract economic compulsion and generalized market dependency, ultimately based on private property and the commodification of labor power. This was a novel mode of social reproduction whose momentous rise made Western Europe societies distinct. Importantly, it also became the driving force behind accumulation on an intercontinental–and later, global scale.

The growth of capitalist social relations was a long and uneven historical process. Late-medieval and early-modern England was the arena for of this epochal shift. According to Wood

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There emerged a system of social property relations that increasingly subjected both producers and appropriators to the imperatives of a competitive market. Landlords increasingly sought to subject their tenants to rents determined by market conditions, rather than by custom, and tenants were increasingly obliged to succeed in the market. Both landlords and tenants came to depend on the tenant’s enhanced productivity and competitiveness.

This was in sharp contrast to non-capitalist conditions, where peasants were sheltered from competitive pressures because they had non-market access to land, while lords depended on superior force to extract surpluses from peasants…. The effect of English property relations was to create that kind of market dependence, polarizing the rural population into those who succeeded in competitive conditions, and those who failed to and were driven off the land.

Meanwhile, through legislation and enforcement, the state acted to ensure a steady supply of labor for capital by making certain that the means of subsistence remained in private hands, thus impelling the newly expropriated producers to sell for wages their only possession–their ability to work. For the first time in history, the economy was semi-autonomous from the political sphere. The laws of motion of capitalist accumulation cohering in Europe became the engine for rising productivity and an imperative for the creation of far-flung colonies and the exploitation of land and labor.

The Encounter between Africa and Europe

When direct trade between Europe and Africa began in the fifteenth century, it was, in many respects, a confrontation between distinct forms of social reproduction. Recent scholarship has fully discredited the racial and developmentalist historiography of earlier eras. The region of Western Africa that later supplied the human materiel for the plantations of the New World was not an anarchic, benighted hinterland. In fact, the Gold Coast of Africa had historically supported complex and relatively advanced states that engaged in trade and warfare on a level comparable to Europe and other parts of the world. According to Erik R. Wolf,

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Africa south of the Sahara was not the isolated backward area of European imagination, but an integral part of a web of relations that connected forest cultivators and miners with savanna and desert traders and with the merchants and rulers of the North African settled belt. This web of relations had a warp of gold, “the golden trade of the Moors,” but a weft of exchanges in other products. The trade had direct political consequences. What happened in Nigerian Benin or Hausa Kano had repercussions in Tunis and Rabat. When the Europeans would enter West Africa from the coast, they would be setting foot in a country already dense with towns and settlements, and caught up in networks of exchange that far transcended the narrow enclaves of the European emporia on the coast.

What made Western Africa political economy distinct from that of Western Europe was its social property relations, its kinship-based polities and unique labor regimes. These conditions would persist into the era of encounter. We must compare Europe's political economy with that of Western Africa in order to understand the confrontation between these two economic and social systems.

As described above, the tenant-lord relationship was the dominant class relationship in England and elsewhere. Whereas in Europe the personal appropriation of the social surplus was expanded through the acquisition of arable land (through war, marriage, laws or other means), in West Africa the basis for surplus extraction was primarily taxation and the slave ownership. This political economy of kinship-oriented corporate ownership severely limited individual property rights. Land grants, in the form of large estates, were distributed among the ruling classes to those who would cultivate it, but only for the duration that they were producing upon it. Even the powerful African nobility could not alienate land given to them by the state or pass goods down to their progeny. As John Thornton contends, “Slavery was widespread on Atlantic Africa because slaves were the only form of private, revenue-producing property recognized in African law…. [It] was in many ways the functional equivalent of the landlord-tenant relationship in Europe and was perhaps as widespread.” The private ownership of labor, not the hereditary possession of land, was the primary form of self-reproducing wealth for the West African ruling classes.

African slaves were bound to their African masters, but under reciprocal bonds that mirrored kinship relations. Slaves retained a relative degree of freedom, engaged in diverse labor duties, served as warriors and royal coteries and could often attain manumission. This leads Thornton to contend that on an everyday basis West African slaves were, “treated no differently from peasant laborers,” in Europe at the time. African warfare, predicated on the capture of human labor, was therefore analogous to constant European battles over the acquisition of land. In Africa, ownership of human labor was the basis of wealth and, while certainly abominable to modern notions of liberty, this labor regime was a far cry from the murderous, degrading, racialized system that subsequently arose in the New World.

For the Europeans who traded on the coasts of West Africa a unique opportunity arose. The opening of the New World to European colonization that began in the sixteenth century accelerated in the seventeenth century. Surplus extraction was necessary for colonizers to profit off their newly conquered lands and this required vast reservoirs of human labor. Initially, indentured European workers and captured Native Americans were utilized in the sugar fields, on the coffee plantations and tobacco-producing lands. However, this labor system became increasingly untenable as European workers faced elevated rates of mortality due to tropical disease and Native Americans were wiped out by warfare and worked to death. Fatefully, bonded African labor was called upon to fill the void.

There is an important cultural-legal component to this. What separated semi-free European servants from their African counterparts was their ability to call upon ancient rights won by years of class struggle on the European continent. Africans had no such protections. Due to their lack of hard-won customary rights and their violent insertion into alien lands, African laborers had little defense against the progressive degradation of their status by colonial authorities and plantation owners.

By the 1660’s, laws had been firmly established that made African laborers into chattel slaves with older property laws regarding livestock reconstituted to include human beings, and biblical passages used as spiritual and moral justification. The racialization of New World slavery was born out of the necessities of a nascent capitalist system.

In the era of encounter, Europeans met in West Africa a region whose social relations were predicated on the ownership of one person by another. In the coming centuries, as European powers applied their organizational and technological advantages to scour the globe in search of monopoly over trade and direct control over vast productive regions, the two social systems would compound and compliment each other. The West African elites’ imperative to secure the labor of others for the accumulation of wealth through warfare would meet the European capitalists’ imperative to accumulate land, resources and the profitable production of commodities through domination and exploitation. This dark nexus of European capital, American land and African labor would change the lives of millions through the slow, bloody transformation of social structures, property relations and labor regimes.

By 1700, the material and social preconditions for the construction of the transatlantic world were in place.

Part II will examine the transatlantic trade in depth. It will argue, pace Rediker and Linebaugh, that the slave ship was the mobile crucible for the formation of a disciplined factory system utilizing proletarianized labor and for the production and reproduction of racial domination.

Part II - The people without history: slaves

Max Schwarz continues his examination of the transatlantic slave trade and the rise of capitalism. This section deals with the fate of African slaves and the historical construction of race.

The next two sections will deal with the plight of two classes: the African slave and the proletarian sailor. These groups were created by the colonization of the new world. At the same time, they provided the labor that brought the transatlantic world into existence.

While these classes are mentioned in histories of the colonial period, more often than not they are set to the background. We are gifted with many stories of the heroism of ship captains, the courage of explorers and the riches of colonial landowners, but what of the people who actually labored on those vessels and actually produced the riches of the colonial world?

Too often these peoples are left out of the calculus. As such, they remain a people without history. But their story is integral to understanding the transatlantic world.

Part II - The people without history: slaves

Before we look at the conditions of bonded Africans and how they came to play such an important role in the primitive accumulation of capitalism, we must first examine the transnational class that controlled and benefited from the transatlantic trade in commodities and people: the European merchant capitalist.

Decisive changes were occurring in productive relations on the giant plantations and in the hellish mines of the new world. It is no accident that the modern word for the place where industrial production takes place is plant. This etymology comes directly from the period in question, as the modern manufacturing plant is a shortening of the word plantation. The plantation was a highly-centralized, highly-disciplined industrial processes with a complex division of labor. In this sense, it was a prototype for modern capitalist production. However, unlike the capitalist enterprise of today, the plantation system utilized the reactionary and conservative system of bonded labor.

Fueling productive transitions was the creation of an international market for commodities dominated by the maritime bourgeoisie. This class cemented the ties between new world commodity production, European capital accumulation and the African slave economy. But this class was by no means a progressive force. According to Fox-Genovese and Genovese:

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Merchant capital did play a revolutionary role in the rise of capitalism, but only within limits that must be clearly delineated… [The] contributions of merchant capital to capitalist development, while necessary, occurred only under definite conditions of production and represented the great, if spectacular, exception to its common role through history. On balance… merchant capital proved conservative…. The conservative—indeed the increasingly reactionary—role of merchant capital appeared in especially vicious form in the African slave trade and the slave-plantation systems of the Americas.

The fact is merchant capital was willing to enlist any type of laborer and impose any type of labor regiment in order to profit off the growing trade between continents and the increasing production of lucrative agricultural commodities. Not only did they profit by transporting these goods from place to place, they were often the owners of the plantation itself. Even if they were not directly in charge of production, the merchant capitalist was pressured by an increasingly competitive market to obtain products as cheaply as possible. This market pressure was then put on plantation owners, who ultimately found the highest profits could be made off the backs of slaves. At the same time, those same merchant capitalists were making tidy sums off the procurement, transportation and sale of African slaves.

Over the four hundred years of the slave trade, some twelve-and-a-half-million Africans would be transported to the Americas. Of these, around one-million, eight-hundred-thousand would die during their transportation through Africa, while another one-million, eight-hundred-thousand would die on the course of the voyage across the Atlantic. This trade in human chattel is called the Middle Passage.

What was this enslavement and brutal transit like for West African slaves? And what were its results?

We can get a taste of this experience through the first-person account of Olaudah Equino. Kidnapped from his native village far from the coast of Africa, he was bound and brought to the Bight of Bonny by other Africans to be sold along with dozens of other unfortunates. Previous to his capture he knew no other life than that of his village. The ideas of being 'black' or even being 'African' had no meaning for him or his people. This parochial view shifted as he traversed West Africa. Tribes and groups with whom he felt no former connection would gradually become linguistic and cultural kin as they were all collectively thrust into the alien world of the slave ship. Recognizing themselves as a larger cultural and linguistic group for the first time, this was a form of self-discovery and community building, albeit under hellish circumstances.

Like others, Equino was unsure of his ultimate destination and his ultimate fate under the thrall of these peculiar-looking and violent Europeans. For Africans suffering the Middle Passage, a common myth was that their destiny was to be cannibalized, or killed and ground into dye or oil. This demonstrates their monstrous dislocation from the familiar and the fear that this produced. Over the course of his voyage on the slave ship, Equiano, like other slaves, was forcably torn from his kin, his community and even those fellow travelers he met in the dank, pestilent hulls of the Middle Passage. He was, along with millions of others, “radically individualized as a commodity, a slave.”

Slaves like Equiano would first encounter on the slave ship the brutalized discipline and regimes of terror that regulated plantation life. Various means were used to terrorize and incapacitate the newly enslaved. Shackles were used on all able-bodied men to ensure against revolt. Whips were applied with vigor, especially the cat-o’-nine tails, designed to break the skin and leave bloody wounds and coarse scars. Thumbscrews were brought to bear on recalcitrant slaves. Strict surveillance was applied whenever the slaves were brought on deck for exercise or cleaning. During these times the crewmembers would retreat behind an imposing wooden barricade and train their rifles and cannons on slaves, wary of potential rebels.

Of special note was the use of nature’s own terrors to instill fear into the slaves. The sharks that circled the slave ships off the African coasts would often follow the vessels all the way across the Atlantic and into the Caribbean Sea. Along the way, slaves (and crew-members) were often made to watch the work of these aquatic beasts as they tore apart the dead or dying in a matter of seconds. The sharks would be used to terrorize those who designed to escape by jumping ship and swimming ashore.

In some cases an unfortunate or recalcitrant slave would be lowered slowly into the water to be bitten in half by these giant beasts with the rest of the ship made to witness the hellish results. This terror and violent discipline took place on the ship, but it was a taste of the conditions slaves would face on the mainland. As Rediker notes, “From the time they were first brought aboard the ship, they were socialized into a new order, one designed to objectify, discipline and individualize the laboring body through violence, medical inspection, numbering, chaining, ‘stowing’ belowdecks, and various social routines, from eating and ‘dancing’ to working.” It was an entrée into their new station and training for a life of subordination to the whims of their masters.

On the slave ship, the slaves remained below decks for most of the voyage. Their food was often insufficient and of dubious quality. The shackles that bound them to the hull were constrictive and caused festering wounds around the ankles and wrists. Two slaves were often bound together to restrict movement, which made simple tasks like going to the latrine a laborious task. Dysentery, food poisoning and other digestive diseases, combined with the inevitable sea-sickness attendant to transport, made already cramped and poorly-ventilated quarters a venue for pestilence and death. The squalid and stuffy environment would also lead to fights among the slaves.

These conditions were no accident. In the end, the determinate factor in the slave trade was profitability. The conditions described were coincident with a highly competitive, international trade in human beings. Still, the slave would have to be salable on arrival in the New World. In the last week or so of the Middle Passage, the sailors would take time to clean, feed and heal their human chattel. The slave had to look presentable in the market and their final preparation for sale was a 'value-added' process.

This process had many consequences. Some were intended, like profit making for plantation owners and merchant capitalists, and tax revenue for European states. Others were unintended, like the formation of an African identity and the creation of modern ideas of racial difference. Much of the tremendous profits made off of the slave trade went directly into capital formation in Europe. The resulting wealth and power of European states is inextricable from the sale of slaves and the use of their labor on highly-profitable sugar, tobacco, coffee and dye plantations. And the racialization of slavery created a permanent caste of individuals deemed inferior and backwards by western society. After all, for white settlers (both rich and poor; powerful and powerless) this system of brutalization of forced labor needed an explanation and a justification.

Over the preceding centuries, and even after the abolition of slavery, racial hierarchy became something akin to a fact of nature in the mind of white society. Evidence of the supposed inferiority of black people could be seen all over the world. The birth of capitalism gave rise to the formation of race. And this formation was born and bred first in the slave ship itself, and then further elaborated in the racialized class system built on the plantation system.

This is something that we must remember if we are to do justice to this savage history. It goes without saying that the consequences of the Middle Passage are still frightfully clear down to this day.

Part III will deal with another people without history: the landless European peasant turned proletarian sailor. We shall see that while they were the agents in charge of disciplining and controlling the African population on the slave ship, they were also the victims of dispossession and exploitation at the hands of the nation-state and the transatlantic capitalist class.