Part II - The people without history: slaves

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:

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.


Feb 26 2012 22:49

Hey mate, this looks really good and I look forward to reading it. Just thought I should say on a sub editing note that child articles don't need any tags - only the parent book article should have tags. I have edited this article to reflect that. Cheers

Feb 27 2012 05:38

Got it, thanks!