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Atlantic History 6: Debates in the History of Atlantic Slavery
Transcript of Atlantic History 6: Debates in the History of Atlantic Slavery
Debate One: How extensive was the Slave trade?
Debate Two: Were Africans willing participants?
Debate Three: How was slave labor organized?
Debate Four: What was the role of women in Atlantic slavery?
Debate Five: Was Atlantic slavery a modern institution?
Debate Six: What was the relationship between slavery and race?
Debate Seven: Why did Atlantic slavery end?
This debate has both demographic
and clearly political factors.
The highest estimates were made by
the Nation of Islam and other black nationalist
organizations, suggesting that the total numbers
brought across the Atlantic as slaves reached
600 million. This is equivilent to most of the population
of today's Sub-Saharan Africa.
The lowest figures, of 1-2 million, were made by historians
in the 19th and early 20th century who were sympathetic with the
The consensus position is that between 10-15 million
slaves endured the Middle Passage and that 10-20% died
on the voyages. Somewhere around 11 million slaves survived
The largest slave society in the mature Atlantic world was
the U.S. South, with 4 million slaves at its peak.
The demographic debate is more interesting.
Did the slave trade have a negative demographic
impact on Africa, affecting its development?
The slave trade affected the demography of West
Africa and Angola, and some villages were more
negatively impacted than others. Overall, 15 million
people over an entire continent over 300 years
could not have significantly shaped its history.
This is not to say some regions were not depopulated.
For the under-populated Americas, the demographic
impact was huge and positive. Slave labor helped create
the New World empires. In South Carolina, the Caribbean,
and some parts of Brazil we see strong black majorities,
ensuring an African-American culture and identity in
Of course, we are not speaking of the slaves.
Two major interpretations:
1. Walter Rodney: "How Europe Underdeveloped Africa" - Focus on
the European merchants and planters as the cause of the slave trade.
2. Others have pointed out that African states and tribes provided
the slaves and were eager to participate in the Atlantic economy as providers of slave labor.
One of these positions clearly places
Africans as victims and the other
as history makers.
Facts of the Debate
1. African slavery predated the transatlantic slave trade.
2. Arabs controlled an East African slave trade for many centuries.
3. European racial attitudes seem to have played a role in
the targeting of Africa. (See debate 6)
4. African states depended on the wealth created from the
5. Most slaves came from a handful of areas, so most slave
traders would easily have seen their victims as "others." Thus
the idea that "Africans" were victims is imposing European
concepts on Africa.
6. Slave trading states benefited and became stronger than
non-slave trading competitors.
7. The European slave trading powers changed due to competition.
8. Wars in Africa increased after the beginning of the slave trade.
9. When the slave trade declined, some local kings lost power. (But this
could also be due to rising European imperialism in Africa.)
This is less a serious debate than an issue of when and
where we are looking. In places with a black majority, slave
labor was organized differently than in places were enslaved
men and women were a minority. Urban slaves certainly had a different
experience than those in the farms.
The dominant mode of slave labor organization was the plantation.
The Plantation: Philip Curtin
1. Plantation used slave labor.
2. Plantations imported labor from far away.
3. Plantations were large and required labor organization.
4. Plantation owners had legal rights over their labor, making
5. Plantations had specialized production, usually the farming,
harvesting and processing of one crop.
6. Plantations were distant from political oversight and control.
Case of the Sugar Plantations
Life on the plantation was harsh and led so some
1. Coordination of Division of Labor - Plantations was the
center of life for its residents and provided most of its services.
Including some manufacturing and the processing of sugar.
2. White overseers played an important role in day to day discipline
and allocating tasks. Usually poor whites, they stood between the
masters and the numerous slaves.
3. Plantation life was devastating to the slaves' morality
and fertility rates. Families were destroyed or difficult
to establish. Population increase required importing labor.
4. Security was crucial. The whip and the stockade were
commonly used to maintain this discipline.
5. Masters encouraged some degree of subsistence agriculture
alongside the production of sugar to save money. This gave
slaves some degree of autonomy.
6. Few elite whites wanted to stay in the sugar islands for long.
Most dreamed of returning to Europe rich. White camaraderie was
usually limited and the population was overwhelming enslaved.
7. Sexual violence was a regular part of the lives of enslaved women.
Stereotypes of African-American Women
The Atlantic slave system required women. Although
we often see images of plantations as male-only domains
women's labor was crucial to making the system work.
1. European images of African women helped create the concept
of the black race.
2. They provided essential productive labor.
3. They provided essential reproductive labor. Slave status passed
legally through the mother.
Differences in Enslaved Women's Experiences
1. Different styles of resistance
2. Different family life due to children
3. They were seen differently by the masters
4. Different means to achieve autonomy or power
5. They had to face enslaved men's patriarchal views
Two main positions:
1. Slavery if basically a throw back to the feudal age,
shaped by paternalism and characterized by inefficiencies.
Slavery would have died in the face of modernity.
2. Slavery was integral to the emergence of modernity
in the West. Labor was organized like in a factory, slavery
spurred industrialization, racism was a modern way to divided
Position One: Europeans were Racist so they Enslaved Africans
Position Two: Racism was a Consequence of Slavery
1. Early Portuguese Description.
2. Curse of Ham
3. Medieval and Early Modern Images of Africa
1. Europeans enslaved Americans and even
some Europeans before committing fully to Africans.
2. Racial thought was not developed until
the 18th century. (Science)
3. Early American communities were interracial.
4. Law cases show evidence of interracial sex.
5. Ads for run-away slaves show white servants and
black slaves running away together.
There are essentially five ways that historians
go after this question of why slavery ended in the
middle of the 19th century.
Slavery did not End
Part of this is the reminder that slavery ended later
than most people think (1888 in Brazil was the last to
make it illegal and to free all slaves). It is also a reminder that
slavery continues in the world.
However, the form of slavery we have been discussing has
ended across the world.
Grassroots Struggle Ended Slavery
These scholars point out the conflicts between slaves and
masters on the plantation and the efforts of slaves to resist
their captivity. The best evidence of this position is the Haitian
Revolution and the American Civil War.
The Rise of Industrialization made Slavery Irrelevant
This is following up on the idea that slavery is a
premodern institution that would need to be pushed
away with the rise of modern economies.
What it does not account for is that after slavery ended
many economies either rehired slaves to work in simliar
conditions or recruited imported labor from Asia (the so-called
The Enlightenment Ideas Ended Slavery
The Abolitionists were affected by the ideas of the Enlightenment and
used this to fight for freedom. Slavery ended in societies that were
affected by Enlightenment political thought, even if not right away.
This argument ignores the perseverance of slavery 100 years after the Enlightenment and the role of Christianity in the anti-slavery crusade.
The Legal Systems Supporting Slavery Were
These scholars look to law cases that undermined the
legal foundation of slavery and show how slavery was
never a black or white (no pun intended) line, in the
law books at least. Slaves could petition for freedom
in exchange for military service or if they purchased their
slavery. Legal systems strained to defend slavery.
While an interesting window into legal history, no one
would argue that this alone undid slavery.