The Slave Trade in Africa

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  • 0:02 Prior to Plantations & Mining
  • 1:57 Economics of Slavery
  • 3:02 Atlantic Exchange
  • 3:54 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

The enslavement of Africans for work in American fields remains one of the darkest spots on the colonial period. This lesson explains how it evolved in the earliest days of the colonial period.

Prior to Plantations and Mining

Upon the arrival of Europeans in the New World and the establishment of the first colonies there, the need for African slaves was simply not apparent. For starters, the impressive amounts of wealth from the Aztec and Inca conquests convinced many Spaniards that the key to rule in the New World was conquering, not necessarily harvesting. Once those empires had disappeared, the viewpoint obviously changed, but natives would still play a role. The Spanish, the first Europeans to really build a substantial empire in the region, saw millions of natives as a source of free labor to work in mines and plantations. After all, they were already acclimated to the climate and were considered by racist observers at the time to be a more timid option. However, the natives died off quickly from exposure to Eurasian diseases, leaving a devastated workforce.

To the north, some years later, the English had a similar concern in their sugar and tobacco colonies, albeit with a twist. This time, the natives were far from docile. After all, as much as we may romanticize the story of John Smith and Pocahontas, the fact is that Jamestown was right in the middle of the largest Native American state north of Mexico. Likewise, the colonists in the first sugar islands in the Lesser Antilles faced natives who were ferocious in battle. The immediate solution for the English was to import more Europeans as indentured servants, people who would work for a period of time to pay off their debts incurred by travelling to the New World, and would then receive a land grant to start their own farms. But this practice had its disadvantages. First of all, many of the indentured servants died before their term was up, meaning there weren't that many volunteers. Second, if a servant did survive, then he was given land and became a competitor of the original farmers.

Economics of Slavery

African slaves offered a solution. They were used to Eurasian pathogens, since, like the Europeans, they themselves had been exposed to them from an early age. Additionally, they were exposed to many tropical diseases that killed off so many Europeans. However, it wasn't simple biological resistance that made the Africans a tempting choice for the Europeans. Instead, it was sheer economics. An indentured servant would be a competitor within a decade. An African slave would still be an African slave in a decade. Also, a slave from Africa was cheaper than a European, and due to racist ideas at the time, many felt that the slave could be pressed harder into more demanding work quotas. That said, slaves were still a massive investment, which meant that the largest producers were the only ones who could afford them. However, once that investment was made, the sheer increase in productivity would crowd less wealthy planters out of business. With less competition, long-term prices could rise, perpetuating the system.

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