Table of Contents
2. Maximization of Profits vs. A Cultural Framework
3. A Network of Interdependent Elements
4. Cultural Bias, the Symbolism of the Color Black and Religious Influence
5. The Emergence of Scientific Racism
Table of Figures
Mentally the negro is inferior to the white. The remark of F. Manetta, made after a long study of the negro in America, may be taken as generally true of the whole negro race: “the negro children were sharp, intelligent and full of vivacity, but on approaching the adult period a gradual change set in. The intellect seemed to become clouded, animation giving place to a sort of lethargy, briskness yielding to indolence… [T]he arrest or even deterioration in mental development is no doubt very largely due to the fact that after puberty sexual matters take the first place in the negro’s life and thoughts
(The Encyclopædia Britannica 1911)
In 1619 the first shipment of black Africans to British America arrived on the Atlantic coast of Virginia (cf. Morgan 2007: 21). This event marked the starting point for the development of a British large scale New World slave trading system that would eventually result in millions of Africans being deported from their home continent and shipped to the Americas.
Black Africans were taken by force, put on a gruesome voyage over the Atlantic, sold as if they were goods instead of human beings and then put to work on plantations for the rest of their lives, while in all of these stages their deaths and that of many other fellow captives was readily accepted.
From a today’s point of view the described events and happenings appear utterly wrong, completely against any humane understanding, without any empathy for one’s fellow being at all. From this perspective we cannot imagine such things happening in our time. For many of us it will quite probably even be difficult to fathom that people were actually able to engage in such practices less than two hundred years ago. Yet, what has been described in these first few lines are matters of fact, realities that people were capable of and which, in case of the British involvement, proceeded mostly undisputed for over two hundred years, roughly between the years 1600 – 1808 and certainly beyond that under different circumstances.
A question that arises from this discrepancy between the existence of a near unquestioned system of transatlantic slave trade and the incomprehensibility and condemnation of the very same thing less than two centuries later is that of a justification. How was a system justified that caused and accepted the exploitation and deaths of millions of black Africans in the Americas for the maximization of British profits? Within this question, another, closely related aspect is already implied: Why was slavery within this system exclusively limited to black Africans?
These are the two questions that I will focus on throughout the following pages. However, as I am convinced that both questions relate in essence to the same core issue and that research will lead into similar directions, I will not tackle them separately, but as one, in order to arrive at substantial results. A first indication of the direction that research might lead into, has been quoted at the very beginning of this paper with the entry on ‘Negro’ in The Encyclopædia Britannica, published in 1911. It provides a rather striking impression of the extent of perversions that are about to be addressed in the following chapters.
The goal for this paper consists of two parts. For one thing, I will attempt to provide a basis that will help to understand how this system could come into existence in the first place and be maintained for as long as it lasted. This will require pointing out shortcomings of earlier, economically focused models and the introduction of several other influential components. The concept of a network with a multitude of interdependent factors will be the central element for this step as well as a principal theme throughout the whole paper.
Secondly, I will concentrate on three specific aspects that are also part of this network but obtain a special position within it. I will take a closer look at religious motives, the related symbolism of the color black and the emergence of scientific racism, regarding their relevance and impact on the slave trade system and its maintenance. The final and concluding step of this paper will then consist of a last depiction of the network of reasons and explanations for the existence and sustenance of the British involvement in the transatlantic slave trade, visualizing the entanglement of multiple causalities.
It has to be acknowledged in advance that, regarding the scope of this paper, none of the aspects I am going to present can be covered exhaustively but will mostly be described and introduced to an extent that will be sufficient for achieving the mentioned goals. I am very much aware that a rather short paragraph can by no means reflect the complexity of broad concepts such as scientific racism or biblical interpretation, but I am confident that the presented information will provide enough insight into the various fields as will be necessary for the reader to gain a coherent picture of the whole issue.
A further point in need of clarification beforehand is the reference to a specific theoretical framework throughout this paper. Given the necessity to take into consideration a multitude of causalities to gain an understanding of the development and maintenance of the slave trade, it appears to make little sense to limit potential perspectives by referring to only a single framework. For instance, an argumentation based merely on a theory of capitalism may be, with regard to contents, as constrained as a perspective strictly based on a cultural framework, as will subsequently become clear. I will therefore not choose to limit the potential content of this paper by being fixed on a single theoretical framework.
The same problem occurs with determining and settling for a specific timeframe when discussing the issue of slavery and its justification. As this paper deals with the British role in the transatlantic slave trade, the time from the 1670s onwards (cf. Davis 2006: 101), marking the emergence of British dominance of the trade, is obviously of central importance. However, it will become evident that a much broader consideration of time and history is necessary in order to understand the complexity of aspects that have led to the development of the slave trade as it is being discussed in this paper. For example, it’ll become apparent that a look as far back as ancient and medieval times can help to generate some useful insights into the problem and therefore, neither the theoretical framework nor the timeframe can be effectively narrowed down at this point.
2. Maximization of Profits vs. A Cultural Framework
In order to gain access to the discussion of various influential factors to the system of the transatlantic slave trade, a glance at an argumentation constructed by David Eltis may be helpful, as it provides some first insights into this concept. It raises awareness for more than one factor being of influence for the transatlantic slave trade and its development. The relation of two aspects that have played significant parts for the slave trade is brought into focus. First, the rather evident driving force of economic pursuit and capitalist interest and secondly, the often neglected impact of cultural parameters that have contributed to shape the system.
Eltis as well as Davis argue that quite a number of studies dealing with possible explanations for the transatlantic slave trade limit their attention to the pursuit of economic profits, making it appear as if this was indeed the only reason the system developed the way it did (cf. Eltis 2000: 58,62; Davis: 77). In order to prove that this overall impression cannot provide a sufficient explanation, Eltis pictures two scenarios that illustrate how European profits could have been even greater if the according steps had been taken, but in reality were for certain reasons quite probably never even so much as considered.
One of these options would have been the enslavement of Europeans instead of Africans, thus saving the cost-intensive extra journey to Africa and additional expenses for involved slave traders and the capturing, transportation and distribution of slaves (cf. Eltis: 67). To meet the demand of a large workforce in the Americas by using white workers in a much larger quantity, for instance by enslaving convicted felons, captives of war, vagrants and the poor, the despised Irish and Scots, etc., would have offered even better economic prospects than to engage in the slave trade via the African coast. (cf. Eltis: 65-69).
A second alternative to take advantage of economic opportunities could have been the use of women as a workforce.
Prior to the transition of African slaves, plantation produce would have sold for less if Europeans had used female, instead of almost exclusively male, indentured servants in the fields. […] after the switch to slavery, sugar and tobacco would still have been cheaper if Europeans had put African women to work in skilled occupations.
With no gender occupational barriers in place, production costs on the plantation fields and thus profits for plantation owners, involved merchants, etc. could have been much larger and consequently plantation products could have been sold in Europe for less, augmenting the number of potential consumers. (cf. 2000: 210, 275-276)
The scope of this paper does not allow going into the details of the economic mechanisms that would have led to such changes if the mentioned profit-maximizing actions had been taken. What is of central importance is the fact that they were not taken. In all probability, these ideas never even crossed anybody’s mind (cf. Eltis: 280). The reasons for this can only be understood if the undoubted important factor of economic pursuit is placed within a cultural framework that constrained the range of actions and steps Europeans at that time could think of and were willing to take. The functioning of this framework can be conceived in terms of an “insider/outsider-dichotomy” (Eltis: 110), in which Europeans defined themselves as insiders and all non-Europeans as outsiders. As a consequence, Europeans “were unable to include those beyond the oceans in their conception of the social contract” (Eltis: 274), but had the power “to impose their version of that contract on others, which for three centuries meant African slavery.” The underlying variables of this dichotomy can be roughly put into mutually exclusive discriminations such as European vs. non-European, white vs. black, savage vs. civilized, Christian vs. heathen, or even the already mentioned working males vs. not-working females, even though this differentiation clearly did not work on a mere geographical level but mainly on a gender-related cultural one. Eltis claims that the transatlantic slave trade cannot be understood if one overlooks the broad cultural parameters within which the market operated (cf. Eltis: 110), or at least, as was just depicted, it cannot be comprehensive that way without ignoring a certain sense of incompleteness.
The notion of cultural parameters represents a vast field with a multitude of different aspects that have been of influence to the slave trade system and some of these will be central points of interests in the next chapter of this paper, dealing with the concept of a network. It becomes quite evident that one has to envision a much larger variety of reasons and explanations than what seemed to be the case initially. The next chapter will try to create an image of these various factors, cultural and other, and the way they collaborated to help establish the transatlantic slave trade. As a first conclusion, based on the so far presented information, it appears safe to say that
the image of naked predatory capitalism that dominates the current historiography of early European expansion requires some modification. Indeed, a more pecuniary or profit-maximising or ‘capitalist’ attitude would have meant less African slavery (and greater equality for females) in the Americas.
Therefore, awareness of more than just economic motives being responsible for the installment of the transatlantic slave trade is a necessary precondition in order to understand what helped to shape the system as a whole.