Economics Web: How Slave Trade Impacted World

The economics of the slave trade and the resistance to abolition were perpetual processes dependent on commerce. They were reciprocal and slowly evolving processes attached to money and goods, which is outlined in a melody by Declaration of Independence signer Edward Rutledge in the musical 1776. The slave trade forged new worlds and destroyed others with force and determination that was brutal and draining. The incessant demand for profit created detrimentally steep destruction for the laboring individuals involved to which there was little to no deference. Individuals, especially enslaved African laborers and industrial workers, were exploited either through tenuous labor and abuse, or debilitating dependence on luxury goods. The evolving history of the economic slave trade and the resistance to abolition involved its early beginning in Spanish and Portuguese colonies, the Middle Passage with Africans transported as chattel property, the plantation system, and industrial commerce. The economy of slavery was a gnawing process that ensnared people of all levels regardless of race and class, and it impeded progress toward social justice and human morality.

Cacao Laborers on a Portuguese Plantation AAME

Slavery in Atlantic colonies began with Spanish and Portuguese explorers in islands off of coastal Africa in the 1470s. (Mintz 1985, p.48) They were the Canary Islands, and the Spanish used a combination of free and enslaved labor to plant sugar crops. The mixed use of free and enslaved individuals was modeled on Mediterranean plantations of Arab crusaders. (Mintz 1985, p.48) Large plantation constructs of centralized farming were developed in the Caribbean with the encomienda system of enslaving Native Americans. (Martin 2016)

Africans being transported to the sugar and cacao plantations are another crucial factor to the economics of slavery and abolition. Africans valued as chattel property increased after surviving slave raids and Middle Passage voyages. (Coe 2013, p.194) Europeans capitalized on disorganized strife in Africa, and kidnapped or traded Africans who were seen as a cheap and accessible form of labor. 10-15 million Africans were transported as slaves to the Americas between 1500-1900 mostly to the Caribbean sugar plantations.

Sugar Plantation in Caribbean Antigua

The slave trade was an enterprise that established many individuals and colonies. It was a pioneering endeavor filled with risks. Plantations in the West Indies established by British colonists were created from family investments for younger sons who did not inherit property with primogeniture. (Mintz 1985, p.168) A democratic pooling of professionals such as lawyers and tailors also funded slavers. (Mintz 1985, p.157) While the Atlantic slave trade started with Spanish in Hispaniola in 1515 the English brought to greater heights having conquered more territory and populations than any other European power. (Martin 2016)

Sugar and cacao plantations were set up as central production plants. In addition to the central manor, land was cleared to plant the crops, which required great amounts of manpower. Cacao mills and boiling houses were used to process the sugar crops. African slaves worked 18-hour shifts processing the crops to keep the storehouses and mills operating 24 hours. (Mintz 1985, p.163) Field laborers cut and planted sugar cane in organized pacts or gangs and were driven by a driver who punished them through beatings and other brutal tortures. Estimates are over fifty thousand enslaved Africans were used to produce 20,000 tons of sugar. (Martin 2016)

Enslaved cutting sugar cane and overseer driver

Owners of sugar plantations held substantial amounts of power. They held Parliamentary offices, and influenced British policy including imposing taxes on sugar and rum for the British navy. (Mintz 1985, p. 161)Sugar planters were influential in the triangular trade of the Colonial Era, where sugar and rum were sold for firearms in Europe for African chattel, which was then transported to the Americas. The planter class was a staunch opponent of abolition and fiercely protected their profits. Abolitionists in turn became opponents of slavery lobbying for lower prices of sugar, and exposing inhumanities and crimes in the slave trade. (Mintz 1985, p.164)

British journalists and spokesman overcame difficulties and obstacles exposing the slave trade in cacao growing regions of Sao Tome and Angola in Portuguese Africa. The investigation led by Henry Nevinson in 1905 happened because of allegations that the British chocolate company Cadbury was using slave-grown cacao grown in Portuguese

Sao Tome
Geographical Map of Sao Tome

. (Higgs 2012, p.134) Nevinson exposed graphic details of Africans being enslaved under contract systems where they were forced on death marches where the remains of those to ill to continue were hacked with their skeletons and hair fragments rotting in handmade shackles. Other hardships raised were how abolition affiliated groups such as religious officials were powerless in ending the illegal Portuguese slave trade, and how government were influenced by commercial interests from cacao planters.

The elaborate history behind the economics of the transatlantic slave trade and pushback with abolition is filled with reciprocal and continual input. The dependence on profit created little opportunities for reforming social injustices. Plantations operated on exorbitant amounts of labor and resources which outweighed the profits. Profit from the slave trade created a saliency that tolerated abuses and injustices, and placed an imbalanced amount of authority in a minority’s hands. Commerce could have been improved and more sustainable without the injustices and revenue of the slave trade.


Coe, Sopie & Michael D. 2013. The True History of Chocolate. 3 ed. New York Thames & Hudson.

Higgs, Catherine. 2012. “Cadbury, Burt and Portuguese Africa.” In, 133-158. Athens: Ohio University Press.

Martin, Carla D. 2016. Sugar and Cacao.” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. In AAAS E 119, edited by Harvard Extension School: Harvard Extension School.

Mintz, Sidney W. 1985. Sweetness and Power New York: Penguin Book.

Editing done by Rashaud J. Hannah March 11, 2016


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