When Americans think “slavery” they most likely picture the one below, a middle school taught history of blacks on southern plantations underneath the blazing sun picking cotton for hours a day with little pay or none.
The symbolic image of a whip for lashings might also come to mind, or the political divisiveness caused by the institution necessitating a Civil War that still lingers in the air today. Maybe they remember a bit more than average and can recall tobacco as the first American “cash crop”, or can picture the simplistic, triangular slave trade as the united states imported bodies from Africa and exported goods to Europe. All these thoughts and perceptions however, stem from the misconception of slavery being uniquely held to North America with some involvement from the British, and negates the truth of slavery preceding colonization into the new world of the Americas with the United States’ component having only a minimal impact. This is important as one must first understand slavery and the slave trade in the new world at it’s conception to fully grasp the context of slavery in the United States. To do this, one must see sugar as the crop that financed the origins of the slave trade, and not the cotton or tobacco crops of North America. Once you do this, you realize that the simple triangular slave trade, is not so simple, and looks more like the one seen below.
To examine why and how sugar came to be the crop that altered afro-american relationships forever, one must look no further than the West Indies and South America. At one point or another, small island countries such as Haiti, Cuba, and Jamaica were major financial supporters of their European owners. Just as an example, in the late 1700s, Haitian sugar provided nearly half the value of french trade, and exported about half of the world’s sugar production.. In their paper, Sweet Diversity: Colonial Goods and the Rise of European Living Standards after 1492, Hersh and Voth explain the demand:
“As the price of sugar declined, consumption spread to the lower classes. It was frequently used as a substitute for a protein source, consumed in the absence of meat when and where meat was too expensive. Though the simple carbohydrates from sugar do not have all the nutritional qualities of a protein source, its consumption offered calories at a time where energy availability may have severely constrained labor input (Fogel 1994). In addition, sugar was used to add sweetness and calories to food and drink, especially to tea or coffee, or added in liquid or powdered form to a whole range of foods … Sugar was also used in medicines. Combining caffeinated drinks with sugar was a European innovation, as was the adding of milk (Goodman 1995). Sweetened tea became popular amongst all classes in England. Tea and sugar (or coffee and sugar) were therefore complementary goods. For the poor, a cup of sugary tea could reduce feelings of hunger, and give energy for a short time. Tea could serve as a substitute for a hot meal, especially where heating fuel was in scarce supply (Mintz 1985).”
By this point sugar production was the result of nearly 200 years of entrepreneurial advancements to take advantage of the high demand in Europe (I use the term “advancement” loosely and only related to the increase in sugar production, regardless of the morals surrounding them). Some of the advancements made were notable, a steam engine to better crush and separate the sucrose from the sugar cane, seen below, or a locomotive to move sugar cane from far out fields on the plantation.
Other “advancements” were more logistical, such as methodical record keeping and note taking. Perhaps the most important, although, had to be the development of the coordinating to transport free labor across the atlantic and putting them to work on sugar plantations.
Over the years, the usage of black slaves necessitated the desensitizing of their owners surrounding their quality of life. As told by slavery museum in Liverpool:
“Inside the plantation works, the conditions were often worse, especially the heat of the boiling house. Additionally, the hours were long, especially at harvest time. The death rate on the plantations was high, a result of overwork, poor nutrition and work conditions, brutality and disease. Many plantation owners preferred to import new slaves rather than providing the means and conditions for the survival of their existing slaves.”
This desensitivity lead way to racism, which only further perpetuated the horrible treatment of slaves in the Americas. As explained by Dr. William Hardy of the Open University, “The long-term economic exploitation of millions of black slaves was to have a profound effect on the New World’s history. Most fundamentally, it produced deep social divides between the rich white and poor black communities, the consequences of which still haunt American societies now, many years after emancipation.”
It’s hard to argue that sugar production would become as lucrative as it was, when it was, without the use of free labor, so it’s easy to see how the exploitation of Africans directly led to wealth growth in European nations who participated. However, not only did Europeans exploit the use of labor from Africa, they exploited the use of land from much of the Americas. By exporting virtually everything those colonies created back to the mother-country, the countries who were producing the most lucrative crops on the planet never saw a share of the wealth created. This relative economic stagnation could explain why many countries which were once occupied by European ones, today remain rather poor and play catch up to the rest of the world.
Hardy, William. “Riches & Misery: The Consequences Of The Atlantic Slave Trade.”OpenLearn, The Open University, 25 Feb. 2014, http://www.open.edu/openlearn/history-the-arts/history/riches-misery-the-consequences-the-atlantic-slave-trade#.
Hersh, Jonathan, and Hans-Joachim Voth. “Sweet Diversity: Colonial Goods and the Rise of European Living Standards after 1492.” SSRN Electronic Journal, 2009, p. 9., doi:10.2139/ssrn.1402322.
“Slavery in the Caribbean.” National Museums Liverpool, http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/ism/slavery/archaeology/caribbean/.