The Sugar Revolution

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Sugar Revolution:

The Slave Trade Develops From: Braving the New World, Milestones in Black American History. By the time colonial America started buying and selling captured Africans, black slavery had become an institution in the Spanish and Portuguese colonies in South America and the Caribbean islands. And before slavery reached the New World at all, it had been developing and expanding for centuries. As early as the 9th century, the Arabs of northern Africa were shipping thousands of blacks each year from the fertile lands south of the Sahara desert to the slave markets of the Middle East. Some 500 years later, when Europeans began exploring the world, they, too, entered the market of human souls; using captured blacks, they set out to exploit the newly discovered lands on the far side of the Atlantic. During these centuries, as the slave trade grew and spread, whites came to regard blacks as somehow less than human, a view that seemed to justify their enslavement. In adopting slavery, colonial Americans tapped into this well-established system of slaveholding practices and attitudes. They took advantage of an institution that, to many whites at the time, seemed effective, natural, and morally acceptable. Thus, to understand how and why slavery took firm root in America, it is essential first to understand how the exploitation of African blacks became so systematic, widespread, and accepted in both the Old and New Worlds. Before the 9th century, the institution of slavery was widespread but not associated with specific races or ethnic groups. Most slaves were war captives; in Europe as in Africa, the victors of a conflict routinely enslaved their defeated opponents. Whites enslaved whites; blacks enslaved blacks. A slave was expected to do the bidding of his or her master because the act of conquest had established the master’s superior strength. Thus, the prevailing view was that slaves, regardless of skin color and ethnicity, were persons of lesser strength and legal status. This view began to change, however, in the years following the creation of a vast Muslim empire in the 7th and 8th centuries. Adhering to the religious doctrines of the prophet Muhammad, Muslim Arab armies conquered lands from the Persian Gulf in the Middle East, across northern Africa, and into what is now southern Spain. The Arabs built a high culture that included large cities, magnificent palaces, complex political systems and laws, and centers of learning that produced fine literature and scientific knowledge. As the Muslim empire expanded, it came into contact with the less advanced black cultures south of the Sahara. The Arabs looked on these cultures as inferior to their own. More important, they began to correlate this perceived inferiority with difference in skin color, deciding that because the blacks had a less advanced type of culture, they must be less advanced as a race. Thus, when they sought slave laborers— Islamic law forbade Muslims to enslave one another— they looked toward black Africa. A lucrative slave trade grew rapidly as Arab slavers captured blacks in both eastern and western Africa and exported them to the Middle East and other Arab lands. As historian John B. Boles explains in his study of slavery, Black Southerners, Black slaves were increasingly forced into … back-breaking labor in the salt and copper mines of North Africa and the sugarcane plantations of Egypt and southern Iraq. Blackness now came to be synonymous with slavery as the original Arabic word for slave, abd, evolved to mean simply a black man. A substantial market for African slaves outside Africa … had arisen, and concurrently the African had acquired the image of the natural slave. Both developments were to prove significant for initial European encounters with Africa and subsequently for the New World slave systems. Ironically, blacks participated in the Arab trade in black slaves. This self -contradictory situation started toward the end of the 11th century, when the Islamic faith began to spread beyond the Arab lands’ southern borders and into sub-Saharan Africa. In 1086, for example, King Umme June of the West African nation of Kanem-Bornu converted to Islam. June began to establish close ties with Arab states to the north, even encouraging his people to make pilgrimages to the city of Mecca, Islam’s spiritual capital. A later Kanemite king, Idris Alooma, made the pilgrimage himself and set up hostels in Mecca for black pilgrims. He also built mosques (Muslim houses of worship) in Kanem and instituted Muslim social and moral reforms, including strict laws against adultery and obscenity. As Muslims, the Kanemites were safe from enslavement by the Arab Muslims to the north. Indeed, Kanem became so closely tied to the Arabs that its residents readily supplied Arab slavers with black captives, prisoners of war taken in Kanem’s raids on its non-Muslim southern neighbors. Although the captives were of the same race, the Kanemites viewed them as inferior because they were not Muslims. Thus Kanem, under Idris Alooma and other leaders, became part of the trans-Saharan slave pipeline that carried countless thousands of native Africans to servitude in strange, faraway lands. For a few hundred years the black slave trade remained for the most part an exclusively Arab enterprise. In Europe slavery was not as widespread as in Arab lands, mainly because of the European feudal system. Feudal lords, usually well-to-do landowners, relied for labor on their serfs, tenant farmers who worked the land in exchange for the lords’ protection. The relatively few slaves were still war captives whose status was defined by such factors as nationality or religion rather than race. For instance, Christians commonly enslaved Muslims and vice versa. Such captives more than filled Europe’s limited needs for slave labor. Eventually, however, the decline of feudalism and new and vigorous economic growth in many parts of Europe stimulated a desire for increased slave labor. In the 14th century the prosperous Italian kingdom of Genoa became the first European state to recognize the potential of the black slave trade. After studying the Arabs’ profitable sugarcane markets, Genoese merchants became eager to establish sugarcane plantations on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. An important key to the Arabs’ success appeared to be their large-scale use of relatively cheap black slaves. Following the Arabs’ lead, the Genoese began importing large numbers of blacks, within a few decades creating a thriving sugar industry that greatly expanded the European sugar market. In the process, the idea that blacks were inferior and natural slaves transferred itself to Europe. The Portuguese, who soon became maritime and economic rivals of the Genoese, now began to seek their own share of the lucrative sugar market. In the early 1400s Portuguese navigators outfitted their ships with the triangular lanteen sail, an innovation borrowed from the Arabs. This new technology made the ships maneuverable in winds blowing from any direction, allowing the Portuguese to master the complex wind patterns of the islands and coasts of western Africa. The Muslims called these coasts Bilad Ghana, or “land of wealth,” because many of the area’s natives traded both ivory and gold. Careless pronunciation by European sailors soon twisted Bilad Ghana into “Guinea,” the name that western Africa would bear for centuries to come. Soon after Portugal mastered African waters, Portuguese slavers began raiding Guinea and taking black captives. At first the slavers brought most of these slaves back to Portugal, where they became laborers on sugar plantations as well as household servants and other kinds of workers. In the mid-1400s Gomez de Azurara, who worked for the Portuguese royal court, wrote his Chronicle of the Discovery and Conquest of Guinea, in which he described the first Africans brought to Portugal. According to Azurara, They never more tried to fly [flee], but rather in time forgot all about their own country. They were very loyal and obedient servants, without malice.… After they began to use clothing they were for the most part very fond of display, so that they took great delight in robes of showy colors, and such was their love of finery that they picked up the rags that fell from the coats of other people of the country and sewed them on their own crude garments, taking great pleasure in these, as though it were matter of some greater Perfection. The Portuguese branch of the slave trade continued to expand. In the 1450s Portuguese investors set up large Genoese-style sugarcane plantations on Madeira and the Canary Islands, located off the coast of northwestern Africa. At first the slave workforce consisted primarily of native islanders and Muslim war captives. But when these prisoners declined in numbers due to disease and other factors, the planters began importing black slaves, some directly from Africa and others who had already been “broken in” on plantations in Portugal. Shortly before 1500 Portugal opened a huge sugarcane industry on Sao Thomé, an island on the equator about 200 miles off the African coast. Because of the large number of slaves used and massive amounts of sugar produced, the Sao Thomé venture constituted the height of the European-African slave system. The island’s industry was also significant in that it used almost exclusively slaves imported directly from the West African coast. Sao Thomé’s design, operation, and slave system became the chief model for the Caribbean plantations that would soon follow. The Spanish organized the first of these New World sugarcane industries on the island of Hispaniola, east of Cuba, and began importing African slaves in 1502. At first black slavery grew slowly in the area, largely because the Spanish plantations were not immediately successful. Their early failure to prosper resulted from the Spaniards’ shifting of their resources and energies into exploiting the gold and other treasures reportedly possessed by the natives of Central America. Also, Spanish planters initially felt it was more economical to enslave these natives than to import blacks from across the ocean. Because of limited Spanish sugar production, later in the century the enterprising Portuguese managed to capture the New World sugar market. Portugal built a large-scale sugarcane industry in Brazil, which by 1600 was known as the world’s “sugar bowl.” As in the past, the Portuguese system relied heavily on black slaves imported directly from Africa. In the first few decades of the 17th century the sugar industry, which had been growing slowly but steadily for centuries, suddenly exploded in size, scope, and profitability. And the black slave trade, which supplied the labor that was the backbone of this industry, grew in corresponding measure. One reason for this “sugar revolution” was that rising populations and standards of living in Europe increased demands for the substance. In turn, the huge mass production that ensued made sugar more affordable and stimulated demand still further. The Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch all vied for shares of the exploding sugar market. And England and France, whose New World economic interests had previously been confined largely to the North American mainland, also rushed to acquire pieces of the market. The English established their first sugar colony on Barbados in 1627. Various European nations followed suit on other Caribbean islands, including Jamaica, St. Croix, Guadeloupe, and San Domingo. The vast wealth produced by the plantations on these “sugar islands” helped finance the worldwide empires that England and other European powers built in the following century. All this economic growth was made possible by the use of mass black slave labor. The number of African slaves imported into the sugar islands was staggering. By 1643, only 16 years after first colonizing Barbados, the English had already imported some 6,000 blacks; by 1667 that number had grown to 40,000, nearly twice the number of whites on the island. Other Caribbean islands also imported and exploited large numbers of blacks. On Jamaica, for example, the slave population grew from only a few hundred in 1655 to nearly 211,000 in 1787. Of the estimated total of 12 million Africans brought in chains to the New World between 1450 and 1870, fully half went to the sugar islands and at least another 25 percent to Portuguese sugar plantations in Brazil. The English colonies on the American mainland were the last New World settlements to take advantage of the well-established African slave trade. Even after they began importing slaves, these colonies did so much more slowly and on a far smaller scale than did the sugar island colonies. “It was in the backwash of this dynamic Caribbean sugar boom,” John Boles points out, “that slavery developed on the North American mainland.” As late as 1615, when Spain and Portugal were regularly exploiting Africans in all their New World colonies, the North American colonies, partly because their climate was not amenable to growing sugar, had no black slaves at all. Then, in 1619, as scholar J. Saunders Redding describes it in his book They Came in Chains, a ship made a fateful landing at Jamestown in the English colony of Virginia: Sails furled, flag drooping at her rounded stern, she rode the tide in from the sea. She was a strange ship, indeed.… Whether she was a trader, privateer, or man-of-war no one knows.… She came, she traded, and shortly afterwards was gone. Probably no ship in modem history has carried a more portentous freight. Her cargo? Twenty slaves.

Text Citation: Nardo, Don. “Sugar Revolution: The Slave Trade Develops.” Braving the New World, Milestones in Black American History. New York: Chelsea House Publishing, 1995. (Updated 2006.) African-American History Online. Facts On File, Inc. ItemID=WE01&iPin=milestones010&SingleRecord=True (accessed February 22, 2011). How to Cite Return to Top Record URL: ItemID=WE01&iPin=milestones010&SingleRecord=True


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