World History 2 76 - 5.4.3 The Economics of Slavery

Those who reached their final destination faced an existence as hellish as they had experienced on the Middle Passage. The labor to which they were put was backbreaking and never ending. Most of the crops grown by enslaved Africans in the Americas were labor intensive. At that time, tobacco seeds had to be planted by hand and the seedlings transplanted in the fields. At harvest time, workers stripped tobacco leaves from the plant, hung them to dry, and packed them in large barrels that they then rolled to the coast or a riverbank to be taken on board ship and transported to Europe (Figure 5.22).

A drawing of a plantation is shown. A large white house with an orange roof is in the back middle with trees shown in the background. Large wooden structures with roofs and back walls are drawn on both sides of the image. People are in the open structures sawing wood, grinding items, and working on other various tasks. The men are dressed in pants that go to their knees and no shirts. The women wear short cloths and head dressings. A fire is shown in the foreground with a pot and small structure above it, with a person tending the fire. Two people are squatting in the middle placing items on round structures.
Figure 5.22 This 1670 illustration from Virginia shows enslaved Africans at work on a tobacco plantation. In the open shed on the left, tobacco leaves are being hung to dry. (credit: “Tobacco cultivation (Virginia, ca. 1670)” by Unknown/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Rice cultivation also required the transplanting of seedlings by hand. Enslaved people first cleared the undergrowth from swampland, built earthen dikes, and then flooded the cleared land with water. As they worked in the swampy waters, they were exposed to snakes and mosquitos carrying malaria and yellow fever.

Sugar, the most valuable crop grown by enslaved people, also required the most labor, and sugar plantations often contained hundreds of workers. With the exception of the very youngest and the very oldest, all of them toiled all day as part of large work gangs. The labor was grueling and dangerous. Sugar cane was densely planted, and undergrowth in the fields could hide snakes that bit workers. After fertilizing and weeding the cane, workers harvested it by cutting it close to the ground with machetes and then chopping it into smaller pieces to make it easier to remove from the fields. Machetes wielded in tired workers’ sweaty hands often slashed legs and feet. Workers might bleed to death or die when wounds became infected. People who worked too slowly were beaten.

Laborers then transported the cut cane to a mill to be crushed by heavy rollers that often caught and mangled workers’ hands. This had to be done very quickly, within twenty-four hours of cutting the cane, because the sap evaporated quickly. The workers boiled the crushed cane to extract a liquid that was clarified and crystalized into sugar, a process that required hours of standing next to roaring fires where workers were often scalded. To maximize profits, planters rotated production, so while sugar cane was growing in one field, it was being harvested in another. Because sugar cane rapidly depleted nutrients in the soil, laborers frequently also had to clear land for new fields. In addition to growing and processing sugar cane, enslaved people had to tend to the plantations’ buildings and livestock and cut the wood needed to cook the cane sap.

Slaveholders spent little money on food for the enslaved people, so laborers spent additional time tending their own gardens, fishing, and foraging for wild foods. To give them energy and dull their pain, slaveholders often gave them shots of rum, a plentiful beverage on a sugar plantation.

Link to Learning

Visit the National Museums Liverpool site to learn more about slavery in the Caribbean and how archaeologists have learned about this institution.

Beyond the Book

Contrasting Images of Slavery

Few European painters created images of slavery. François-Auguste Biard of France and Agostino Brunias, who was born in Rome and lived on the Caribbean island of Dominica, were exceptions. The first painting that follows, by Brunias, shows women at the market (Figure 5.23). The women in the center wearing white may be free women of color, a favorite subject of this artist.

This painting shows two women in long white elaborate dresses and ornate hats. They walk through a group of dark-skinned women in simpler dresses and head dressings. The lighting of the painting is centered on the two women in the center, and most of the other people in the painting look at them. One of the women points at some linens on a table while talking with the other woman. A group of women in plain white- and solid-colored dresses and a man in a large hat without a shirt are sitting and squatting in the bottom right corner over green leaves on the ground. A woman behind them nurses a child. The left corner of the painting shows men in waistcloths and no shirts sitting on the ground listening to a standing man who is almost naked except for a small loincloth, hat, and ornate scarf. Behind him there is a lady sitting behind a table dressed in a white dress, gloves and hat holding a parasol over her head. In the background there are people walking, talking, and dancing. Buildings, water, mountains, and trees can be seen in the background.
Figure 5.23 This painting by Agostino Brunias, A Linen Market with a Linen-stall and Vegetable Seller in the West Indies, was made about 1780 and depicts women at an outdoor market. (credit: “A Linen Market with a Linen-stall and Vegetable Seller in the West Indie” by Yale Center for British Art/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

The second image, by Biard, was made approximately fifty years later, shortly before slavery was abolished (for the second time) in the French colonies (Figure 5.24).

At the center of this painting two men in loose shirts and pants kneel next to a black man who lies on his back with no shirt and covered with a blanket from the waist down. Four men in African cultural head dressings and arm bands stand behind, holding spears and looking concerned at the man lying down. In the left center a man brands a female who is wearing a cloth over her lower body. Above them on the left, people are whipped and loaded onto ships. A white man in pants and a hat stands in the forefront. In the lower right, a man in long colorful robes and a pointy hat with a feather at the top sits smoking a long pipe. Behind him, a white man in a suit, tie and hat reclines on a chair with a book in front of him. Behind him a naked woman with a red scarf on her head watches the scene in the middle. Behind her a black man with a necklace around his neck looks away. Other men and women are in the background as well as water, ships, and mountains.
Figure 5.24 This 1840 painting, The Slave Trade by François-Auguste Biard, is set in a slave market on the coast of West Africa. (credit: “The Slave Trade (Slaves on the West Coast of Africa)” by National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, gift, 1933/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)
  • How do these paintings differ in subject matter and style?
  • Brunias has been described as depicting slavery in a romantic way. Where do you see evidence of this in the painting shown here?
  • What details in Biard’s painting might make viewers support abolition?

Infectious disease, overwork, poor diet, and injuries claimed large numbers of lives. Because infant mortality among enslaved people in the Caribbean was rampant, the enslaved population was not self-reproducing, and slaveholders had to buy more people each year to maintain their labor force. Prices were high. A healthy young adult might cost as much as an average European could earn in a year’s worth of labor. In 1684, planters in Santo Domingo (the Dominican Republic) paid six thousand pounds of sugar per enslaved African. Some 2,500 to 3,000 new captives were required each year. This differed substantially from the English North American mainland colonies where, because the work of growing and processing tobacco was less physically grueling, enslaved people did not die in such high numbers, and the population was able to grow through reproduction.

Despite the conditions in which they lived, enslaved people in the Americas managed to retain their dignity and humanity. Couples married and produced children, some of whom survived. They formed new kin networks, calling fellow laborers “brother” and “aunt” to replace the relatives from whom they had been taken. They created new religions with elements of various African practices and Christian elements learned from their enslavers. They combined foods brought from Africa with local ingredients to create new cuisines that reminded them of home. The influence of Africa persisted in the music, dance, and stories they created. Enslaved people also resisted the slaveholders’ efforts to exploit them in numerous ways. They damaged tools, sabotaged machinery, and set fire to cane fields and barns full of sugar awaiting export to Europe. They ran away; in the mountains of Jamaica, runaways formed communities and lived in hiding. On several occasions, enslaved people rose up in armed rebellion, killing the slaveholders and overseers.

Largely unmoved by the misery of enslaved Africans, Europeans possessed an insatiable appetite for sugar that only grew as time passed. In 1650, planters in Barbados alone shipped about five thousand tons of sugar to England. Fifty years later, that amount had doubled. As the demand for sugar grew, so did the demand for enslaved laborers. Between 1450 and 1600, approximately 2,500 enslaved Africans a year were purchased by Europeans; in the sixteenth century, most of these people were sent to Hispaniola, Cuba, Brazil, and Venezuela. Beginning in the seventeenth century, however, as England, France, the Netherlands, and Denmark established sugar plantations in the Caribbean, the number of enslaved Africans brought to the Americas rose to some 18,680 per year (Figure 5.25). In the eighteenth century, by which time thousands of sugar mills dotted the coast of Brazil and the Caribbean islands, 61,330 people traversed the Middle Passage each year. Forty-two percent were sent to labor in the Caribbean and 38 percent to Brazil. The British colonies of the North American mainland claimed only 4 to 5 percent of the total.

A bar chart titled “Enslaved Africans taken on board slave ships in West Africa” shows the following data: years 1501 to 1525: 702; years 1526 to 1550: 22,768; years 1551 to 1575: 46,130; years 1576 to 1600: 206,528; years 1601 to 1625: 223,934; years 1626 to 1650: 160,274; years 1651 to 1675: 169,362; years 1676 to 1700: 446,634.
Figure 5.25 As the European demand for sugar increased, so too did the demand for enslaved laborers in Brazil and the Caribbean, which together would account for approximately 80 percent of enslaved Africans brought to the Americas at the turn of the eighteenth century. (data source: Slave Voyages; attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

The trade in both sugar and enslaved people sustained numerous industries and employed thousands of people, creating great wealth for some. Shipbuilders, ship captains, and sailors found employment, as did dock workers, freight drivers, customs agents, and workers in sugar refineries. Bakers, pastry cooks, candy makers, and grocers all indirectly made money from sugar. People who made the barrels that held sugar and the other products produced by enslaved people—tobacco, rice, and indigo—profited, as did those who supplied inexpensive clothing, shoes, and foodstuffs like salted fish for enslaved people. Banks and insurance companies earned enormous sums as well, and those who owned large sugar plantations often invested their profits in other industries, built magnificent mansions, or bought luxury goods.

Such wealth was easily transformed into political power. Sugar planters in Britain successfully lobbied Parliament to protect their interests, and many planters went into politics, holding seats in the House of Commons and, by using their wealth to purchase titles and estates, the House of Lords. It was thanks to the sugar lobby in Parliament that the British navy began to give its sailors a daily ration of grog, a mixture of rum, sugar, and lime juice, increasing the profits of British sugar planters even more.

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The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax