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Slavery: Capitalism’s savage birth

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Bill Jenkins reviews The Making of New World Slavery – from the baroque to the modern 1492 – 1800 by Robin Blackburn, Verso 1997, £25 (hardback)

Robin Blackburn is one of the foremost writers on the barbarism of slavery – the most horrible chapter in the history of capitalism. His latest book deals with the rise of slavery during the three centuries before industrial capitalism emerged.

It provides a wealth of information and many insights into slavery’s development. But it does not unambiguously root slavery as an inevitable result of capitalism’s emergence from feudalism. Instead, Blackburn considers it to be part of the rise of “modernity” and “civil society”, and in the process sees it almost as a “mistake” by the early capitalists.

Blackburn’s method is not consistently Marxist, but a mix of different left, Marxist and bourgeois economic theories. He tends to separate the development of slavery from the rise of capitalism.

In fact, slavery was both crucial to the rise of capitalism and crucial to underpinning the new capitalist ideology of race and nation. Despite this, Blackburn still provides the evidence of how slavery was essential to the newly arising capitalist mode of production, and how racism became the new systematic ideological justification for this development. Marxists can draw on this work to bolster their understanding of the historic role of slavery.

By the 15th century the feudal form of slavery in Western Europe had very nearly died out. Feudalism, which exploited a tied peasantry, had no need for outright slavery. Ancient societies like Greece, Rome and Byzantium had collapsed precisely because the slave basis of production was inefficient and undynamic.

Modern slavery resurfaced as the late feudal absolutist monarchies sought new sources of revenue abroad to bolster their regimes. Portugal, under Henry the Navigator, sponsored expeditions from the 1440s onwards. These colonised the Canary Islands and the Azores, explored the African coast and discovered the Americas. They established plantations with slave labour on the Atlantic islands, used slaves to mine Brazilian silver and they traded in slaves of all colours along the African coast.

Spain quickly joined Portugal as an early colonial power in the Americas. By 1620 Spanish conquistadores had destroyed the Incan empire and South America immediately became a crucial source of revenue for the Spanish monarchy.

The first victims were the native Indians, as the conquest led to a catastrophic decline in the indigenous population through European diseases, the destruction of their traditional mode of production, and the introduction of slavery in agriculture and gold mining.

The South American Indian population collapsed from approximately 50 million in 1500 to about 8 million by 1600. So, from the mid-16th century the Spaniards turned to Africa to supply the slaves for their newly established plantations and silver mines. From 1550 to 1595, some 36,300 slaves were transported from Africa, rising to 268,600 between 1595-1640. These official figures do not include the illegal transport of slaves by English, French, Portuguese and Spanish traders.

But Spanish feudalism proved unable to develop extensive sugar plantations. Blackburn describes how the rigid feudal state could not maintain stable, long-term plantations for commodity production. In contrast, by 1640 the Brazilian sugar trade accounted for 40% of the Portuguese treasury’s income.

The qualitative development of the Brazilian sugar industry transformed the Portuguese trading posts on the African coast. Portuguese traders bought 10,000-15,000 African slaves a year, mainly supplied by African states who in turn received arms and equipment from the Portuguese.

From the 1620s onwards the English and French began to establish colonies in the Americas. In this period the English monarchy licensed colonisation projects, but gave them no material support. So from the outset they were controlled by the new capitalist merchant class. And black slavery was built into the very foundations of the capitalist system.

The spur to the expansion of slavery was the breakdown of so-called “indentured labour”. English emigration rates were exceptionally high during the war-torn 17th century. Between 1610 and 1660 an estimated 170,000 to 225,000 people emigrated to the Americas, many as indentured labourers who were tied to an owner for a period of up to five years.

After that the survivors would receive their liberty and gain access to small landholdings. They served the same function as African slaves, and initially outnumbered them.

In 1638 Barbados had a population of 6,000, including 2,000 indentured servants and just 200 African slaves. But the phenomenal expansion of sugar production meant that indentured servants alone could not provide an adequate labour supply and by 1653 8,000 indentured servants were outnumbered by 20,000 slaves.

The mid-17th century was the critical period in the systematisation of slave plantation society and racism as the ideology to justify it.

English lawmakers, like Sir Edward Coke, justified slavery by the “law of nations”. The clergy added that it was also God’s law. Clergyman R. Wilkinson commented that, “the accursed seed of Ham . . . had for a stampe of their fathers sinne, the colour of hell set upon their faces”, clearly identifying both slavery and innate “evil” with skin colour.

In north American colonies where slavery was not widespread, such as Massachusetts and Rhode Island, there was opposition to slavery and its racial basis. In 1652 the colonists of Rhode Island “decreed that black mankind or white were not to be held for more than ten years in servitude”. In general, however, the opposition to the development of plantation slavery was weak. The declining number of indentured servants after the English Civil War spurred the growth of the slave trade.

The restoration of the English monarchy in 1660 gave a new impetus to capitalist development in Britain and brought the legal codification of colonial slavery. The Virginian Assembly recognised slavery in 1661, and in 1667 the English Parliament passed the “Act to Regulate Negroes on the Plantations”, declaring they should be controlled with the “strictest severity”. That same year the Virginian Assembly decreed that a master who killed a slave was not guilty of murder.

The final element in the consolidation of slave plantation society – and of racism as an ideology – followed, with the incorporation of the poor white, formerly bonded, labourers into the plantation state.

In 1676 Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia involved both freedmen and slaves and convinced the capitalist plantation owners of indentured labour’s destabilising effects on plantation society. The colonial authorities responded by concessions to the freedmen and strengthened the racial barriers between them and the slave population.

Slaves could receive thirty lashes for raising a hand to a Christian. Later acts prohibited the marriage of whites and blacks. Whites responsible for the birth of “mulatto” children would be fined £15. In the last quarter of the century 173,800 slaves were imported. The French colonies mirrored the English experience, albeit on a smaller scale.

Blackburn attempts to summarise these developments in the book’s key chapter, “Racial slavery and the rise of the plantation”. He argues that plantations were founded on the basis of unfree labour, and that slaves replaced indentured servants for economic reasons.

Plantations required a large and concentrated labour force to produce their returns. Free wage labour was expensive or unavailable because settlers could seize Indian land and farm it themselves.

Only in the English colonies, as a result of the development of capitalist relations in English agriculture, did the emigration of peasants provide anything like a sufficient labour force.

But indentured servants became less manageable than slaves, as they could abscond more easily into the free population and demanded more rights of their masters.

The possibility of a joint revolt of servants and slaves, as in Barbados in the 1650s and Virginia in the 1670s, significantly threatened to destabilise the whole of planter society. Racism served to justify slavery, as it separated servants from slaves, tying the former to their white masters.

Notions of freedom did not apply to the black slaves. It made escape more difficult as skin colour became synonymous with slavery and justified the most oppressive treatment.

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