Slavery in the Atlantic World. Key Definitions and Specifics of the Atlantic Slave Trade

Essay, 2020

33 Pages, Grade: 9.0



1. Slavery in the Atlantic world

2. The role of the Dutch trading empire

3. Brazilian sugar trade

4. French colonial system

5. Slavery of native people on the Americas

6. The impact of the transatlantic slave trade

7. The question and business of slavery

8. Slavery, a sustainable and profitable business?

9. Thesecondslaverycomplex

10. Abolistionistmovements


Universität Pompeu Fabra

Trimestre II, 2021

Esclavitud y el Mundo Atlántico

Roberto Lukács

1. Slavery in the Atlantic world

The term slavery is a broad definition and a wide-ranging concept which is not always being accurately applied. In the emerging colonial area of the 16th and the following centuries up until the 19th century the term had regained new dimensions of definition. A new form of slavery with an economic element on a scale of several centuries had emerged. The Atlantic slavery had reshaped the terminology and is nowadays responsible for the widespread view on the slave trade of the colonial period. Specifically, how do we understand slavery and what are some of the key definitions of it that marked the Atlantic slave trade and made it distinguishable from the other types of slave trade that had existed throughout mankind’s history and periods? One important aspect was that slavery in the form of the Atlantic slave trade was its institutionalized character. It was, even though loosely, a representative body, an institution with norms and traits of certain people with a certain cultural background. In the exemplary essay of David Eltis on “The volume and structure of the transatlantic slave trade: A Reassessment” specific European empires and their trading culture were being more thoroughly researched such as the British, the Spanish, the Portuguese, the Dutch, the French and to some extent the Danish commercial Atlantic trade. Another three key elements of the Atlantic slave trade are the implications of violence, exercised by humans upon other humans, implied physical coercion, the forceful commitment to hard and dirty labor, and implied restrictions in the freedom of mobility. In the words of Michael Zeuske” slavery as an institution was a legal system which allows coercion and violence, meaning the use of the human body as a resourceful human capital and the legal possession of humans over other humans, in order for to exploit his capacity for work and his body”.1

Alone in terminology there exist not just a single concept of “slavery” but different types of slaveries scattered throughout the different periods of mankind’s history. It is possible to talk about a first phase of slavery namely “local slaveries” which occurred singularly in specific regions of the world from 10’000 B.C up until 3’000 B.C such as central America, the middle east, the orient, New Guinea and Peru. But these singular occurrences of slavery activity were nowhere near the institutionalized and elaborated model of the colonial period. They lacked a common form of organizational, were random and limited to their local regions. There were no remnants of commercial trade structures. By referring to the slave trade of the colonial period as “Atlantic” we imply that the trade sector engulfed all three continents namely the European mainland, certain coastal areas of the African continent and docking stations of the new world.

We therefore can speak of a “world history” since its interconnectedness through the commencing transatlantic slave trade began during the years of 1519 - 1522. The first shipment of human slaves that formed part of the transatlantic slave trade occurred on the strait of Magellan.

Upon thorough research one can determine the colonial slave trade period between 1518 and 1867. Meaning that the Atlantic slave trade complex lasted around 350 years and included three continents. About the number of slaves who were transported to the American regions estimated had been made that evolve around 15 Mio. African slaves that were shipped. The beginnings of the slave trade can be dated back to economic and territorial mechanisms of the late medieval period. As part of a pan-European aggressive expansionist scheme, the former medieval states like the British kingdom, the crowns of Spain and Portugal had established policies of aggressive territorial annexations. Exemplary this can be shown through the examples of the kingdoms of Castille and Aragón which were prime motors of the Spanish Reconquista wars. Consequently, the colonization of the new world could be understood as the logical continuation of this expansionist trend of the European powers. In the course of their conquest, they had imposed oppressive laws and directives upon the submitted people. They exercised in most cases a policy of religious and ethnic intolerance towards heterogenous religious and racial groups.

In the beginning of the slave trade there had been barely an institutionalized form of the Atlantic slave trade. The only regions that were somehow economically active were the west and the north of Europe. These localized trading systems were interconnected and went on to form the steppingstones for the emerging transatlantic slave trade from the 16th to the 19th century which experienced a further development upon the rise of the cotton, sugar, café and tobacco complexes. One has to account for these commercial developments of the slave trade by being aware of the power stratification processes that went on in the metropole countries. The slave trade began to establish itself while the respective European monarchs were increasingly tightening their monarchical structures in order to face the rising authority of the hereditary classes such as the nobility and the clerk.

Often slavery was being referred to by classical thinkers such as adam smith, auguste comte or max weber as a backward and antimodem phenomenon of the commercial rise of the European nations. Countering these assumptions are modern historians who included the slave trade as an inherent component of the road to progress and modernization. The economic and maritime hegemony of the European position was majorly possible through the slave trade and enabled them to enter the world market through an economically advantageous position.

The precursor nation of the Atlantic slave trade were the Portuguese who had profited economically from the expulsion of the Jews by the hand of the kingdom of Aragón and Castille and who had been increasingly put under pressure by the expansionist agenda of the neighbouring Spanish crowns of Aragón and Castille. The only means with which to counter these territorial aggressions for Portugal were to form a marine-military alliance with the English and to expand themselves to nearby coastal regions of Africa and island groups. With these first steps the Portuguese had laid the foundation of European marine-colonial expansion and the establishment of the transatlantic slave trade complex.

In the coming centuries of the maritime transatlantic expansion of the European powers over the continent, the shift in the economic and colonial power hegemony began to shift towards the Spanish and then later on in favour of the Dutch and British colonial powers who in their approach towards colonialism had a more financial pragmatic note. Due to their more technical administrative and economic measures in order to ensure colonial hegemony they were able progressively to outperform the Portuguese and Spanish competitors. In this narrative of the colonial history the Dutch played a contributing role.2

2. The role of the Dutch trading empire

In the middle of the sixteenth century the Dutch trading power began to make itself visible. Amsterdam, the capital city of the Netherlands, had developed into the granary of the European colonial trading world with a fixed commercial knot for reimportation and intermediary trading services. There was a high interest to raise the trading volumes of certain products for the European colonial trade and for its connections with the Mediterranean area. Among these trading goods of value was sugar. With the progressive establishment as a trading platform, the commercial-industrial importance grew as well. In 1620 there existed only 25 refineries in the Netherlands. Only thirty years later there existed already over 40 refineries. Due to the extensive Portuguese sugar-complex in the Brazilian lands the demand for the later product was always kept on high levels. For these specific reasons the Dutch interest in the Brazilian sugar complex and the Iberian commercial world steadily grew. The Dutch trading companies ended up launching several maritime operations in order to take over these Iberian slave plantations for their own economic benefits. Mainly private Dutch traders were the prime initiators of the Atlantic enterprises and benefitted from a rising importance and vast upward movements on the social mobility ladder in the Dutch society which was occurring during the 16th and 17th centuries. Their political weight was significantly stronger in the two commercially most active maritime regions of the Netherlands, Holland and Zeeland. There existed a functional commercial network of interests between the private traders and the public state of the Netherlands which worked hand in hand in affairs concerning the colonial trade sector.

The rise of the Dutch era took place between the twelve-year truce with the Hispanic monarchy and the initiation of the Anglo-Dutch wars of the 1650s. While the colonial star over the Portuguese and the Spanish empire slowly began to decline, the rising power of the Dutch company could be traced back to some certain key elements of their trading strategies. From the start the Dutch authorities strived for a political-fiscal stable household and an efficient distribution of the economic resources among the united provinces. In the undertakings of the colonial enterprises the hand of private traders played a strong role. There existed a considerable emphasis on a decentralised commercial structure which allowed greater economic flexibility alongside a decentralised political administration who tried not to interfere unnecessarily. A further significant advantage was that the Dutch republic was able to canalize and align the demands of an imperialistic foreign administration with the efforts of private Dutch traders. Lastly the Dutch state administration made an effort to establish a well and efficiently functioning financial fiscal system whose funds and liquidity consisted of private capital accumulation. These laid the foundations for a successful Atlantic trade operation which enabled the Dutch republic to engage in the colonial trading world

The Dutch Atlantic expansion could be divided in two periods. One larger period took place between 1570 and 1630 which was paralleled by the thirty years war which took place around 1568 and 1648 and another was especially characterised by major military confrontations which happened during 1581 and 1607. Both these periods were characterised by distinctive elements. For one part this expansionist phenomenon was marked by the Dutch ships which were strategically invading Hispanic and Portuguese waters and their economic monopolies, a maritime confrontational occurrence which found its way into the debate on the mare clausum versus mare librum. Furthermore, the Dutch trading company succeeded in establishing direct commercial networks with colonial enclaves within the Spanish dominion and was able to partially promote their economic development. These enclaves were to be found around the tierra firme and areas of new Spain. Additionally, the Dutch merchants established trading alliances with the autochthon people of the Antilles and the peripheral regions of the Caribbean area and other regions which were to be found in the circum-Caribbean area. The first dated arrival of Dutch ships in the Americas was dated back in 1572 whose partially illegal trading establishments of salt, Pearls and tobacco were well suited for the increasing European demands for these goods.

Around the beginning of the 17th century the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie was founded. 1613 a Dutch factory was established on the island of Manhattan which fifty years later was traded to the British for Surinam and other colonial areas in the treaty of Breda. In 1621 the WIC, the west-indische Compagnie was created. The character of the WIC which had been modelled after the VOC, had a pirating one. Robin Blackbum fitting enough described as a new emerging blundering bourgeoisie. Both companies were specifically targeting Portuguese held territories in the equatorial regions of Brazil and the south-east Asia. Originally designed as an organization that was supposed to lead Dutch protestant immigrants into Dutch-held territories of the new World it quickly developed into an interventionalist economic and privateering force that was launching several operations into Brazilian territories, the regions of the Antilles, northern coast lines of Venezuela and the Americas. The VOC and the WIC were both commercial trading organizations with a strong privateering character which did not refrain from capturing enemy vessels and using acquired fortunes in order to finance their territorial expansionist ambitions. On such occasion at the end of the twelve years truce of 1621 the Dutch fleet consisting of 30 galleons of the WIC at that time repeatedly highjacked and captured Spanish vessels. One of these fleet vessels were the ones stationed in La Habana. With the captured vessels and the gold alongside the Dutch trading company reanimated operations into Brazilian territory from 1629-1630. An expeditionary force of 67 vessels carrying a crew of 7’000 men was launched in order to occupy Portuguese held territories in the Brazilian coastline areas.

Around the 1630 the expansionist ambitions of the united provinces had reached new heights. The WIC had conquered Recife and Olinda which basically was the capital of the sugar production and had the biggest capacities for doing it so. It was the capital of Pernambuco and had reached a constant production volume after the pacification of the whole area. Additionally, the Dutch had acquired several islands of the Antilles region which expanded their overseas territories considerably. These territorial and industrial expansions in the early time of the united provinces could be interpreted as the earliest stages of proto capitalism that began at the end of the sixteenth century and matured in the seventeenth century. In the wave of rising Dutch presence in the West indies the port city of Curaçao moved up to become a commercial cardinal point for trading activities throughout the Caribbean islands which included the frequent trading of European goods such as sugar and slaves. It served furthermore as a subsidiary trading centre for Amsterdam in the Caribbean and provided essential infrastructural help for Dutch ships.

Surinam was another key colony of the Dutch trading empire and one that grew in its political power over time. Certain characteristics of this colony ensured its political and economic lasting survival. It was a crown colony of the Dutch trading empire which held significant importance in the economic Caribbean network. With Surinam the Dutch were not trying to establish a new colony but rather primarily a zone for the specific aim of plantation and production. It was a production colonial outpost resulting from intensive capitalization movements that came from the United Provinces. The design of these kind of “production colonies” was such that they were being invested in with massive amounts of capital flows but in return they were able to deliver massive amounts of colonial products. In their functioning and working mechanisms they were extremely depended on the plantation associates and networks in the Netherlands. They served solely for the purpose of production of European goods that were in demand and their follow-up distribution from Amsterdam throughout the European continent.

Contrary to the Hispanic Americas or the Portuguese Brazil the interaction with the native people was marginal conserving large parts of their autonomy. One third of the European layer of plantation owners and traders was of Jewish descendance who got finically involved in the establishment of an efficiently functioning plantation economy in Paramaribo. The aristocratic Dutch plantation class majorly consisted of secondo who were the offspring of public high officials in Amsterdam. Through the economic rise of the Surinam colony a new class of influential plantation nobility emerged which adopted traits of an aristocratic lifestyle without though distancing themselves too much from their merchant origins. In time though the waves of escaped African slaves began build up a threat to the existence of the plantation economy. This new nobility-plantation class feared for their existence in Paramaribo which led to a continuous isolation of the European based class that lived in Surinam from its metropolitan relatives which led to conflicts about prestige, economic privileges and disputes over political power.

In terms of geography Surinam offered great opportunities to support a steadily growing plantation economy with vast areas of land and production zones. There was a concentration of vast amounts of plantations in few hands and most of the imported slaves originated from Angolan shores. But the major problem that proved to be of constant nature was not so much reoccurring revolts of slaves but the escape of major groups of imported slaves into uncultivated areas of the Guianas. Through these waves of escaped slaves and their interaction with the native tribal communities new population groups outside of the plantation areas emerged which came to form considerable representative force which they used in order to negotiate treaties with the aristocratic European plantation class. Respectively the second half of the 18th century was characterised by these skirmishes between the Dutch-European aristocratic plantation class and these lineages of natives and African slaves who fought constant skirmishes which resulted in a lot of negotiating of peace treaties and truce agreements with the aim of maintaining the production flows of the plantations. Eventually, the Surinam economy would be outperformed by rivalling Caribbean colonies such as Cuba and Jamaica and with the constant pressure of violent skirmishes the output performance declined.

In time the efforts of the United Provinces focused more on the Asian holdings and increasingly the West India trading company lost support of the Republic federation. In the end, the WIC had failed in its missions to establish sustainable and lasting colonies in the overseas regions such as the Brazilian coast lines, the Caribbean and regions in North America. Three intensive decades of operations in the Americas and the Caribbean had produced comparatively meagre results territorial wise. Two forts in Africa, some colonies in the Caribbean among which Curasao was the most important one. Following the financial collapse of the WIC a lot of its board directors were imprisoned and put on trial. This Brazilian enterprise coincided with a demographic and economic growth in the United provinces unparalleled until then which made the colonization and populating of Northern American territories, new holland and Brazilian land a challenging task. Nevertheless, the Dutch presence had and essentially sustainable effect on the trading and commerce of Brazilian sugar. They had promoted considerable impulses for its distribution in the west indies. At its height in 1656 a total of 2’000’000 arrobas3 were being carried by a total of 107 ships to Lisbon.4

3. Brazilian sugar trade

The Brazilian sugar was the trade sectors that established the transatlantic market system, and it was the Portuguese sailors who first discovered Brazil and used its resources to satisfy the world economy’s demand for wood and later on for sugar. Even though the Portuguese and the Spanish monarchies were children of absolutism, there were considerable differences in their trading approaches and practices. Spain’s overseas empire was held together by a conglomerate of the monarch, his civil servants, his admirals, soldiers and clerics. All this platoon of royal representatives were commanded from the Escoriai palace, a building with a character of a military headquarter lying near the artificially built capital city of Madrid which was overshadowed by the building’s commanding presence. It had the character of the contemporary rigid rule which characterised the Spaniard’s ruling authority. In contrast to that existed the seafaring Portuguese nation which was likely wise absolutist, but its lifeblood relied heavier on colonial and commercial enterprises for financial survival and used it to shape its relationship with privileged and possessing classes. While Spanish imperialism used to intervene in production circles, Portuguese colonialism organized monopoly profits within the realm of circulation. At the centre of this trading empire lied the great port of Lisbon and the ground floor of the royal palace was commercial office and a counting house. In the colonies there were no ramifying bureaucratic structures which suffocated any form of economic growth, but merchants, traders, planters, peasants and sailors tied to the metropolis by credit, talent and nautical skills. When the Spanish crown took over the Portuguese kingdom, a promise was given to the Cortes of Tomar that the structure of governance and commercial practices would be respected and left intact as long as they created sources of revenue beneficial enough for the Spanish treasure halls who found itself wounded up in European conflicts anyway.

For a long time, Brazilian wood had been the main export good from the Portuguese colony for nearly a decade. This had the effect that only few enclaves were founded and the main population of roughly 3 million native people were left untouched. Commercial activities were sporadic, and the main cultivation of land happened on the coastal regions up until the middle of the 16th century. No valuable minerals were found such as gold or silver. Brazil had position of marginal interest for the colonial authorities and was treated more or less as a backdrop of the Portuguese empire. This changed when the first plantations of sugar were founded. There had already been a couple of plantations with Pernambuco as the leading plantation centre but not to the extent that it would produce a considerable shift of economic power. The governorship of Mem de Sa marked the beginning of the plantation economy in Brazil and with that its rise to a colonial powerhouse. He established the two first sugar mills staffed with a mix of Indian and African labour forces. Several mills and engenhos were set up in the bay region of Rio de Janeiro. While de Sa was governor and presided the take-off of the emerging economic boom, he had no intentions of seizing large parts of the profits in order to enrich himself. Major parts of the sugar production he handed over to young relatives and in the spirit of Francisco de Toledo in Peru he fortified metropolitan rule in the Bay region. While through the Toledano reforms the flow of species to Madrid increased a lot and centralised bureaucratic structures were enforced throughout the viceroyalty of Peru, Mem de Sa allowed the sugar and slave trade to flourish by installing a laissez-faire policy which allowed merchants and traders to manage their businesses independently. Additionally, the Jesuits, who could be counted on as formidable foes of any protestant interlopers, were given generous concessions in order to establish colleges and educational facilities of their own. They also established ranches and mills on the lands that they were given to continuously promote their religious and educational efforts.

Either way the sugar trade had reshaped the economic landscape of the Brazilian colony and its importance within the Portuguese trading network. So naturally the sugar trade attracted wealth and prosperity to the colony. With the wealth larger shipments of slaves came in. for over a century these slaves were imported in order to work on the sugar estates. In 1570 the number of slaves consisted of 3’000 roughly. Over three decades this number was ten folded until the number of slaves reached 12-15’000 by 1600. Compared to that around 30’000 whites were living mainly in Pernambuco and Bahia. By the end of the 15th century Indian workers, even though their enslavement or partial submission to inhuman working conditions was being discouraged by the Spanish royal authorities and the Jesuit’s influence, still outmatched the numbers of African slaves. Over the course of the next 50 years though roughly 200’000 slaves were imported.

Since Portugal had lost much ground in the Pacific trade to the Dutch and the British, the Brazilian sugar commerce together with the African slave trade dominated the Portuguese economy. In the 1640s the sugar imports mounted to 12’400 tons which equalled to £484’000 in Amsterdam. At the same tame around £1’580’000 worth of goods were imported to England of which £84’000 value was sugar. In 1627 the Brazilian sugar trade was worth 3’500’000 cruzados which had generated over one million cruzados to the Portuguese treasury and had contributed to over 40 per cent of the kingdom’s total revenue. The bureaucratic apparatus required to collect these duties was much less ramified than the Spanish imperial administration in the New World, with its thousand salaried corregidores and other officials stationed in hundreds of municipalities. Portugal’s more economical and trading oriented colonial administration allowed the metropolitan treasury authority to farm larger amounts of financial contribution than it was possible for the imperial administration in Madrid. By this time sugar


1 Michael Zeuske, Esclavitud. Una historia de la humanidad, Pamplona, Katakrak, 2018,p. 33

2 David Eltis. The Volume and Structure of the Transatlantic Slave Trade: A Reassessment. The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, Vol. 58, No. 1, New Perspectives on the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Omohundro Institute ofEarly AmericanHistory and Culture. 2001.

3 One arroba equals 14.69 kilogram. Rounded up to 15, two million arrobas squared with 15 would make about 20’000 tons of sugar that were transported to the Portuguese capital.

4 Ana Crespo Solana. América desde otra frontera. La Guyana Holandesa (Surinam): 1680-1795. Consejo superior de sciencias científicas. Madrid. 2006.

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Slavery in the Atlantic World. Key Definitions and Specifics of the Atlantic Slave Trade
University of Pompeu Fabra
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slavery, atlantic, world, definitions, specifics, slave, trade
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Roberto Gregorio Florentin-Sarabia Lukacs (Author), 2020, Slavery in the Atlantic World. Key Definitions and Specifics of the Atlantic Slave Trade, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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