Christopher Columbus did not set out to find the new world for the sense of adventure. He did not even know the Americas existed. Columbus set out to find a faster route to India and the East. He set out for economic gain just like the conquistadors and colonists that followed. One of the greatest sources of economic gain found in the New World for conquistadores and colonists was the cash crop. Cacao and sugar were grown in Central and South America. Tobacco, indigo, and cotton were grown in North America. The challenge for Europeans became how to make cash crops as profitable as possible. The answer came in the form of cheap and ultimately slave labor.
The Spanish in Mexico and Latin America used the encomienda system to establish Spanish rights to native lands and labor. Under the encomienda system, the Spanish Crown gave grants to Spanish colonists stating that said colonist had the right to claim land and demand tribute from indigenous people of that land. Under this system, indigenous people labored extensively to harvest cacao, which was used as currency, for tribute to the Spanish made the Spanish incredibly wealthy and destroyed the indigenous population. Extreme exploitation, culminated with European disease, devastated the ingenious population of Central and South America. In before the arrival of the Spanish, there were an estimated seven million indigenous people in Mexico. In the decades following the arrival of the Spanish, the population was less than ten percent of the original population. (Kepecs and Alexander 52) To supplement rapidly declining populations of indigenous people used as a labor force, the Spanish imported African slaves.
Documentary about African Slaves in Mexico and Peru: https://youtu.be/JIzHIRCBtdE
In North America, English colonists established a system of indentured servitude since indigenous peoples of of North America could not be sourced for cheap labor. European indentured servants, who were granted passage across the Atlantic in exchange for years of servitude to the land owner, often had the agreed years of servitude extended beyond the terms of the original contract on the basis of medical care, food costs, clothing purchases, or property damage or loss. (Fields 102) For the property owner, the goal of extending the term of servitude was to get as much labor for the price of passage of the servant as possible. Additionally, indentured servants were often promised and not delivered land at the end of their term of service or were given undesirable land on the frontier which was prone to attack from indigenous peoples and far from urbanized areas and markets. However, exploitation of Europeans was limited due to centuries old social and political terms between elite and poor Europeans and still cheaper sources of labor were sought. (Fields 102) Therefore, North American landowners pursued African slaves as a source of labor since European landowners and Africans had no long standing social and political history to bar the exploitation of African slave labor. (Fields 103) Purchasing already enslaved Africans from Portuguese traders was a far easier and more profitable endeavor than attempting to enslave Europeans.
Justifications for exploitation and slavery became a social necessity for profiteering land owners and slave traders. The encomienda system explicitly stated that in exchange for Christianization and protection, indigenous people would pay tribute to Spanish settlers. Much in the same way the Spanish justified exploitation of the indigenous Mesoamericans by arguing that they were Christianizing the natives, slave traders and slave owners in North America justified that by making these people slaves, they were saving these people’s souls. As time went on, the justification shifted to race and supposed racial inferiority of non-whites. This shift in justification was sorely needed in North America, where the United States of America was establishing itself as a free country. (Fields 101) Free countries with open slavery need to maintain a clear justification for said slavery or the claim of being a free country would come under question. (Fields 101)
Presently, few countries in Central and South America retain evidence of their past of African slavery. (Fiehrer 39) The most notable exception is Brazil, which still struggles with race and identity today. Despite being hailed by some scholars as a post racial society, also referred to as a racial democracy, Brazil still struggles with racial issues. The Brazilian magazine Veja describes that, “One hundred years after abolition, there are in Brazil two distinct citizenships – the white and the black.” The massage goes on to detail that, “The black man, when he is born, has a thirty percent less chance of completing five years of age. As he grows up, his chances of leaving school before learning to read are double [those of whites]. When he dies, he ends a life whose expectancy is 50 years. If he were white, he would have a life expectancy of 63 years.” (Sheriff 6) Black Brazilians earn 40 to 45 percent of what white Brazilians earn. (Bonilla-Silva 40) In Brazil, the term “black” does not exclude people of indigenous descent who were also exploited by profiteering Europeans. As a Brazilian woman, Neusa, describes, “‘these things [additional terms for race] do not exist. One is white, or one is black. But people feel so humiliated to be negro. The negro was a slave. The negro suffered. The negro was treated like an animal. All that. But here [Brazil], it is truly correct to say that one is white or one is black. No one can be anything else.’” There are two distinct groups in Brazil as there are throughout the story of cash crops and slavery: The white Europeans who enslaved and the “negro” Africans and indigenous people who were enslaved.
The divide between white Europeans and non-whites exists in the United States as it does in Brazil. Wealth, and the socioeconomic advantages of being born into the family with wealth even if said wealth is never directly inherited, is the defining reason that whites have more economic success to this day.
European slave owners, made rich off the labor of African slaves on lands stolen from indigenous people, were able to build immense wealth not only for themselves, but their families, communities, and countries. (Mintz 157) The effect of this great European wealth born from the unpaid labor of Africans and indigenous people was that white Americans have had greater accumulation of wealth and great means to further accumulate wealth through access to academic and economic resources. Meanwhile, African and indigenous slaves were so far detached from the wealth born from their land and their backs that generational poverty, created by the institution of slavery for the purpose of maximum profits of the European planter, still lingers today in racial mixed societies that abolished slavery years ago.
Brazil and the United States are examples of long term effects of the cash crop boom, the exploitation of labor to make cash crops profitable, and the racial ideologies established to justify such exploitation. Disproportionate wealth, prison populations, and landlessness seen today are after effects of trade and slave policies centuries ago.
Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. Shades of Difference. Standford: Stanford University Press, n.d.
Fiehrer. “Slaves and Freedmen in Colonial Central America: Rediscovering a Forgotten Black Past.” The Journal of African American History (1979).
Fields, Barbara Jeanne. “Slavery, Race and Ideology in the United States of America.” (n.d.).
Kepecs, Susan and Rani Alexander. The Postclassic to Spanish-era Transition in Mesoamerica: Archaeological Perspectives. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2005.
Mintz, Sydney W. Sweetness and Power. London: Penguin Group, 1985.
Mexico & Peru: The Black Grandma in the Closet. Dir. Ricardo Pollack. Perf. Henry Louis Gates. 2011.
Sheriff, Robin. Dreaming Equality. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2001.