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

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,

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.