Slavery as a feature of the human condition was transformed from a pre-modern to a chattel state by the demand for sugar. This transformation took place from roughly AD 800 to 1600, and was characterized by the rise of market economics and the expansion of economic empire into the Atlantic world.
Slavery has existed in various forms since the beginning of humanity. Traditionally, slavery has been related to kinship; those who were not part of the village social structure of extended families were made to do the unpleasant tasks of cleaning and hauling wood and water. Such individuals may have been captured in battle or rejected from their villages and wandered into another village and kinship system where they had no protection from their own kin. It is important to note that these individuals could conceivably rise in the village society. If they married into a family and/or proved their loyalty, they could shed their mudsill status. Also, if they married into the village kinship group, their children would not be slaves; an arrangement very different than the form of slavery that was to come.
The original source of slaves for Europe was the Slavic region of eastern Europe, which is where the term “slave” comes from. In Africa, village headmen began recognizing the value of commodifying these unprotected individuals, and took to trading them primarily toward the east, across the Sahara or toward the Horn of Africa. The primary demand was for harem slaves among the sheiks of Arabia and elsewhere in the Near East beginning around the 8th or 9th centuries A.D. The primary human commodities in demand were young women and boys.
The rise of a new economic system in the Mediterranean and the usurpation of islands and coastal lands in Africa and the Levant by younger sons of European nobles forced a change in this commerce. Instead of trading down the Silk Road for sugar, these “planters” endeavored to grow sugar in these lands utilizing the forced labor of Slavic peoples. Slavs were not acclimated to the semi-tropical environment and tended to die in fairly short order. The demand for strong young men who could work long days in the heat caused these planters to turn to the African slave trade that had been in existence for some time at this point (ca. 1300).
This was at the height of European feudalism. This type of social system was held together by “fealty”: the swearing of allegiance by individuals to their social superiors. This allegiance, combined with mutual protection interests, was how feudalism in most of Europe worked. With the rise of market economics, along with profound events such as the spread of the Black Plague, this feudal system became compromised. Individuals who were without title or landed wealth began to acquire wealth through their modest investments. These people represented a new class, known as the “bourgeoisie,” and they were to greatly impact the course of events in Europe. Their impact on feudalism created what many historians of this period call “Bastard Feudalism,” the beginning of the end of the old order.
The rise of agricultural slave labor in the Mediterranean was a part of both the rise of the bourgeoisie and bastard feudalism. The Plantation Complex was one of the primary means by which one could acquire incredible sums of wealth. Wealth bought power, and these nouveau riche and newly independent began to use this wealth and power to change the old system to their advantage.
The feudal part of the Plantation Complex was centered on the “planter,” or master of the enterprise. Unlike his northern European counterpart, no fealty was involved in the operation; the planter owned everything outright. He owned the land, the slaves, and the products that the slaves produced, usually referred to as “staple crops.” Sugar, indigo root, and later rice, tobacco, and hemp were among the fundamental staple crops in this system. This nearly absolute right to the land – what is known today as private property – was called “Allodial Rights.” Allodial rights grew in scope side-by-side with the growth of the bourgeois class. And this was the capitalistic side of the Plantation Complex. The land, the slaves, the staple crops, were all owned by the planter. Significantly, the offspring of the slaves were considered slaves as well, even if the planter was a parent.
Generally, the planter could treat the slave any way he saw fit without fear of reprisal from the law. This type of slavery is known as “Chattel” slavery; the resemblance to the word “cattle” is no accident. Slaves were livestock, to be sure — commodified human beings who had no rights. For instance, insurance companies such as Lloyd’s of London would insure human cargoes coming from Africa against an “Act of God,” but not against, say, smallpox, dysentery, or starvation. Therefore, if disease broke out in the stinking hold of the slave ship, or if supplies ran low, it was common for the ship’s captain to chain slaves together and throw them overboard. In port he would claim they were lost in a storm and the insurance company would pay. Sharks followed the ships on the “Middle Passage” across the Atlantic — the route from Africa to the New World — knowing easy meals were likely forthcoming.
The Slave Trade, Multi-Generational Wealth, and Under-Development
Incredible amounts of wealth were made from both sugar and slaves. The Royal Africa Company and the Dutch East India Company were just two of many companies who became rich from this commerce. Some historians have argued that the wealth produced in the Plantation Complex by slaves and the trade in their bodies and labor financed the Industrial Revolution, and there is strong evidence to support the claim. Others argue that the demand for slaves “under-developed” Africa and slave labor kept the Caribbean and South America from developing faster than they have.
In any case, it is certain that the legacy of slavery is with us today regardless of those who try to deny it. The issue of reparations — making restitution to the descendants of the slaves for the slaves’ unpaid labor — is a case in point. There are families that have both enjoyed multi-generational extravagance and families that have remained in impoverished ghettos as a result of this legacy. Volatile issues of race and class still seethe beneath the surface of this topic. It is unlikely to change soon.