The Rise of Slavery and the Atlantic System

Christina Proenza-Coles
Assistant Professor Atlantic World/African Diaspora
Virginia State University

NEH Petersburg Workshop I
May 25, 2007

Donald Wright, in The World and Very Small Place in Africa (the first reading for this workshop), refers to Janet Abu Lughod’s work.  Abu Lughod’s book Before European Hegemony argues that the rise of Europe as the dominant power in the early modern period was neither natural nor inevitable but rather contingent on a multitude of historical factors and the civilizations that preceded it. 

The Rise of the Atlantic system then was not inevitable, and today I want to talk about the systems that led up to and paved the way for its existence.  As Wright put it: Portugal’s Prince Henry did not single-handedly bring about a revolution in ship building and ocean navigation.  It was a long process of trial and error and an international effort.  And as Thornton said, there were a number of technical and geographical factors that combined to make Europeans the most likely people to explore the Atlantic and develop its commerce, commerce that came to depend on a slave system unprecedented in human history in terms of it scale—a system which would invent the concept of race.  I’ll start at the very beginning:

Slavery began with the dawn of human civilization in Iraq around 3000 BC.  As soon as we humans came together in cities for the first time in ancient Mesopotamia we instituted slavery—and it had nothing to do with race.  In earliest Mesopotamia, ancient Sumer, as much as 50% of the population was enslaved.  About a quarter of the population of ancient Athens was enslaved and for ancient Roman society that percentage was considerably higher.  All of these societies were involved in long distance trade that included Africa as well as the East, however, not quite on the scale of world system. 

We see the beginnings of a world economic system with the spread of Islam in the seventh and eighth centuries.  In a few centuries Islam spread quickly from West Africa to Southern Europe to East India, connecting these areas into a web of international trade as well as shared ideology and civilization. Baghdad served as the intellectual and cultural center of this international Islamic universe until it was sacked by the Mongols in 1245.  Abu Lughod has argued that during height of the Mongolian empire between 1250 and 1350, when Mongols controlled the largest contiguous empire in history, from the Pacific to the Danube, an economic world system was in operation that connected Asia, Europe, and Africa, an economic complex economic and cultural network in which the Middle East, was the fulcrum and during which time Asian civilizations, far more advanced than Europe at this time, had the hegemonic advantage. 

The way Abu Lughod sees it, this point in time (1250-1350) was a turning point in world history in which the balance of East and West could have tipped in either direction.  The first European to describe China, Marco Polo, found Mongol-controlled Chinese cities far more populous, wealthy, and technologically sophisticated than anything in Europe— China had running water, heating systems, mass produced books, and gunpowder. 

Several factors brought the burgeoning thirteenth century world system to and end—the pandemic of the Bubonic plaque (initially spread by Mongol horsemen), the end of the Mongol empire, and ultimately, the mysterious folding of the Chinese navy in the 15th century—which left Asian waters wide open once the Portuguese figured out how to get around the Cape of Good Hope).  The balance tipped in favor of Europe.

As Wright put it, before 1000 AD Europe was not a core in any economic network.  During the ancient period it was part of the flourishing Roman Empire of course, but Rome’s fall left Europe in the political and economic vacuum known as the dark ages.  Europe was reborn at the end of the Middle Ages in part thanks to Islamic civilization.  In a very literal way, Arab traders introduced to Europe a type of Indian wheat that helped to swell Europe’s food production, and thus it population, and thus helped to revive towns, cities, and trade.  

Islamic civilization had preserved, synthesized, and built upon the arts and sciences of the ancient Greeks, Iranians, and Indians, and spread science, medicine, technology from East to West.  Not only did the Islamic scholars preserve the classical Greek texts that underpinned the European Renaissance, they also spread the technology of paper making and book making from China to Europe. 

The Crusades helped to introduce several consumer items to Europe when returning Crusaders brought spices home with them.  And the Italian port cities were well connected to world trade via Muslim traders. 

Not only did this help to set Western Europe on its course of expansion by stimulating Western Europeans’ desire a) to establish their own trade networks with the East and b) to Christianize outlying lands in order stop the spread of Islam.  Among the spices that Europeans got from the trade was sugar, which in the fourteenth century was considered a spice and used sparingly for food preservation and sometimes medicine by the elite.  (The first appearance of sugar in English cookbooks in was in the late fourteenth century-- treated as a spice.)  Sugar, or what some have called the “sugar revolution” of course, will, 300 hundred years later, be the single most import element of the growth of the Atlantic World.

In the meantime, back in fourteenth century Europe, according to John Thornton, you’ve got some of the best boat building R&D in world for functionalist reasons.  Look at Africa, a huge land mass with lots of rivers and an ancient trade route over the Sahara that has linked West Africa’s gold to the outside world since Roman times.  Winds and currents off the coast of West Africa made it easy head south down the coast but impossible for African, Arabic, and European craft to return north.  Africans thus specialized in riverine craft not boats for the open sea. 

Geographically speaking, Europe is a little peninsula sticking out of Asia, surrounded by seas.  And when the grain trade along Europe’s Atlantic coast began to link ship building techniques from the Mediterranean (which learned a lot from the Islamic world about shipbuilding and about China’s invention of the compass) with those of the ship builders from Europe’s North and Baltic seas you had unprecedented R&D for shipbuilding. 

Europe’s geography also may have played role in motivation for expansion, with limited land and resources, Europeans looked outside for trade and market opportunities.  But this road too was long and winding—this expansion began with what Thornton called “accidental voyages of discovery” and short-range maritime exploration along the West African coast.

You could say that the Atlantic world began when Malocello, a merchant from Genoa came across the Canary Islands in 1312.  The Canaries and the other Atlantic Islands off the coast of Northwest Africa, were the first site of Iberian trading and slave raiding in the Atlantic (only the Canaries were inhabited—for the record, the Vikings had raided the British Isles for slaves a few centuries earlier) as well as the first site of Iberian colonization and the start of the Atlantic sugar plantation system.  The island also proved to be the key that allowed Europeans to unlock the puzzle of wind and current that had prevented easy sailing for that return trip from West Africa.

The Canaries were filled with natural products for commodification like timber, honey, hides, dyestuffs and the Portuguese and Spanish raided the islands for people whom they sold as slaves in Mediterranean markets. In 1402 Castile sponsored the first permanent colonization of the Canaries with Norman colonists.  In the following century the Canary Islands produced sugar, wine, sheep and cattle products.  Because the islands were a source of profit for Europeans, much attention was devoted to their navigation, shipping south of the Straights of Gibraltar increased, and raiding and commercial activity expanded further south.  The Canaries served as a crucial base for the development of additional European raiding and trading operations along the African coast as well as for the colonization of uninhabited Atlantic Islands to the west.

In the fifteenth century Madeira and the Canaries soon began to export large quantities of wheat, cultivated by Canarians pressed into service as well as dependent laborers from Europe, to consumers in Portugal and Africa.  Madeira also produced wine; however, the cultivation of sugar would be its most lucrative venture.  Preceding production in the New World, Portuguese and Northern Italians developed a sugar plantation complex in the Atlantic Islands where a non-reproducing slave labor force from Africa produced massive quantities of sugar for export.

The cultivation of sugar originated in Southwest Asia during the ancient period and gradually spread westward to Persia.  In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Arabs brought sugar cultivation to the Mediterranean where the first plantation system emerged.  Mediterranean shippers imported bond laborers from southern Russia (Slavs from whom the word slave derives), the eastern Mediterranean and North Africa to produce sugar for a European market.  By the fourteenth century, Cyprus produced large quantities of sugar with the labor of Syrian and Arab slaves and the plantation system, based on coerced labor, large land units, and long-range commerce moved still west, to Sicily.

It was Sicilian sugar plantation that served as a model for the Iberian colonies in the Atlantic Islands where climate and soil were favorable and nearby African sources provided coerced labor.  In 1420 Portugal’s Prince Henry sent to Sicily for cane plantings and sugar technicians.  The desire for cane field workers fundamentally altered the nature of Portuguese slavery from domestic servitude to plantation labor.

By the 1460s, Madeira was the largest producer of sugar in the Western world.

The Atlantic Islands were a model and launching ground for New World sugar cultivation based on African slavery and the plantation system.

Their successful exploitation prompted European explorers to seek additional islands further west in the Atlantic Ocean.  It was the prospect of finding new Atlantic islands as well as the aspiration of reaching India that inspired Christopher Columbus’ voyage of 1492.  Columbus had trained in the Madeira sugar trade as a young man and brought his experience to the New World on his second voyage of 1493 when he introduced sugar cane plantings to the Caribbean. 

In the following centuries, the immense profits of sugar plantation in the Americas prompted the expansion of the uniquely modern form of slavery vastly different from its pre-modern predecessors.  This form of slavery was on a newly massive scale in terms of production and consumption—it would indeed help to foster the advent of capitalism and would ultimately invent the concept of race for its justification.

As we saw in Wright’s reading, the first Europeans in West Africa did not overwhelm locals with force but rather established commercial ties through diplomatic relations. (Europeans had learned about gunpowder weapons thanks again to Islamic civilization, it was the Ottomans, who first combined Chinese gunpowder and European metallurgy to create effective weapons.) 

West African societies had long relied on a system of domestic and imperial slavery, that, like most pre-modern slave systems provided a certain amount of social flexibility and mobility. 
Prisoners of war, enemies of the state, were fair game for trade.

In the 1660s, when England sent the East India companies to India where tea was grown and the Portuguese Catherine de Braganza arrived to the English throne with a taste for drinking the stuff, tea (along with African coffee and American chocolate) joined sugar as an elite consumer item. 

In the early 1700s a shift was underway where sugar went from a ceremonial item and an upper-class status display to a daily food item and necessity for a new industrial working class. Sugar became the first item of mass consumption. 

Sidney Mintz has shown how Caribbean slavery and English industrialization were causally and functionally related to one another.  As English men, women, and children were pulled out of the countryside where they could produce and prepare their own food, and whole families were introduced to the industrial schedule of factory life, sugar, especially hot tea with sugar, became the world’s first fast food. 

For sugar to become the world’s first mass produced product, it needed a mass of wage-earning consumers.

The Spanish used native American slaves to mine for gold and silver and the English used European indentured servants to grow tobacco, but sugar cultivation (perfected by the Dutch in Brazil, who taught it to the Caribbean)—was extremely, absurdly profitable with African slaves.  

Hence, the forced labor of Europeans and Native Americans, while it did continue until the end the eighteenth century, became a little trickle amidst a massive demographic shift that flooded the Americas with the modern African Diaspora.