The American Revolution Reconsidered: Part Nineteen: England and the Slave Trade
The first thing to say is that the Spanish and Portuguese were the first Europeans to import African slaves into the New World --- Latin America and the Caribbean. They came to rely on African slaves as the indigenous labor supply faltered, primarily due to their lack of immunity to European-bred diseases (1).
There was another complication with the Spaniards' use of indigenous labor. Frequently, the conquistadors on the ground, would go way too far and drive the natives way too hard. This was against the express desire of the crown back in Spain. The crown did not want the natives enslaved, because the former saw the latter as their subjects, whom it was their duty to protect and see converted to Catholicism (2).
The Turn to African Slaves
Spanish law held that it was only appropriate to enslave prisoners of war. Therefore, the capture of slaves was only legitimate in the midst of war. Where there is no war, slaves could not be legally and legitimately taken (3).
In the year 711, North African Muslims called the Moors, invaded and conquered the Iberian peninsula. They went on to hold most or part of it until 1492 (4).
There are three big things to say about this, the period of 711 to 1492.
A. This period covers and overlaps with the entire period of the Crusades (1095-1291) (5), which was a clash of civilizations super war between the Christian and Muslim powers, for control over sacred space.
B. Shortly after 1492, the crown would launch the Spanish Inquisition, which was a project designed to make sure that the "conversos," the Jews who had converted to Catholicism, were keeping their noses clean, as it were, by refraining from "Judaizing": publicly professing Catholicism, while secretly practicing Judaism behind closed doors (6). It was a project to forge national Spanish unity (7).
C. The 711 conquest and subjugation of the Iberian peninsula was an Arab and Muslim project. However, black-skinned African warriors (many of them, no doubt converted Muslims) surely accompanied, and, perhaps even played a prominent role in the enterprise.
If this point is true, then the Spanish and Portuguese activity of capturing Africans, and taking them to the New World to enslave them, becomes comprehensible as acts of military revenge, if you will. If the Iberians chose to see themselves in the light of pursuing a retreating foe, then this would have served to ground their African slave trade, in a technical sense, on a "war" footing. Are you following me?
In this case, then, the Iberians' sale and enslavement of Africans might have been justifiable under Spanish law pertaining to the allowable treatment of prisoners of war. I'm going to call this possibility the ADMINISTRATIVE CONTINUATION OF THE RECONQUISTA.
Now then, national leaders might prolong a war, on paper, far beyond the time the actual shooting has stopped. And they might do this for one reason or another.
For example, World War One went from 1914-1918, during the White House term of President Woodrow Wilson. However, it was President Warren G. Harding who declared World War One legally over on November 4, 1921, retroactive to July 2, 1921 (8).
What was the reason for this? When Britain cancelled its monthly food orders in January 1919, panic spread throughout the U.S. farming sector. They feared that a disastrous price collapse was imminent. The then head of the U.S. Food Administration, Herbert Hoover, warned President Woodrow Wilson that the surplus simply could not be absorbed domestically, and that, therefore, something had to be done (9).
The problem was that, after the war, the Wilson administration wanted to provide Europe with relief and reconstruction loans; but Congress would not allocate the funds. Wilson got around that by behaving as though the war were still going on. He issued a series of loans, starting in March 1918. These loan acts contained within them the provision that the legal ending of the war was to be determined by the President of the United States (10).
Now then, I hope that this example, at least, begins to make the concept of an on-paper, continued Iberian Reconquista against Africans, more of a possibility to you. I have come across a tiny particle of evidence to suggest that the African slave trade was more than a mere matter of business for the Spaniards.
The English dipped a toe into the African slave trade in the 1560s. John Hawkins made three voyages to Africa, the islands, and home. The first two trips were very successful, but the third met catastrophe at San Juan de Ulua. The Spanish attacked his ships, took most of them, and turned the captured seamen over to the Spanish Inquisition (11).
This response seems like a gross overreaction, to me, if the African slave trade had just been a matter of straight business to the Iberians. It is as if the Spaniards felt that they had the unique right to punish the Africans; and that they did not appreciate unconcerned interlopers infringing upon their right of vendetta.
And yet Spain felt perfectly at liberty to sell that right to anyone they pleased (12).
In any case, in 1672 England chartered the Royal African Company, which held the monopoly on the African slave trade for a decade. A growing number of independent traders in England bitterly fought the RAC's monopoly privileges. In 1698 the Royal African Company lost its monopoly; and in 1731 the RAC gave up the slave trade entirely, to focus on dealing in ivory and gold dust (13).
The Dutch were defeated by the British and the French in the late seventeenth century; and this had the effect of enhancing England's position in Africa. The damage sustained by the French in the War of Spanish Succession, resulted in England securing the exclusive right to carry slaves to the Spanish colonies in the New World (14).
I know what you're thinking: If England had indeed abolished slavery in 1550 and if some of the settlers on the North American mainland knew it at the time --- as I argued in part 18 --- why would England get involved in the slave trade?
1. Nothing has ever been written in stone that bound human beings to consistency of behavior. As you all well know, we are creatures filled to the brim with paradox and contradiction.
2. Nation-states are not, and have never been, moral actors in the world.
3. If you squint and look sideways at the matter, from the point of view of England: Why shouldn't Britain and British slave traders profit from fueling the "vendetta" of the Spanish and Portuguese against the Africans, for the Moorish invasion and conquest of the peninsula from 711-1492?
During the Seven Years War (1756-1763) England --- that is to say, English traders --- took more than ten thousand slaves into Cuba and about forty thousand into Guadalupe. By 1788 two-thirds of all slaves trafficked by English traders to the New World, were sold to foreign colonies. Planters in the English colonies objected to their competitors in the New World being provided with slaves by British traders (15).
This objection, on the part of the settlers in the English colonies, suggests that they felt betrayed by British slave traders, who would not deal exclusively with themselves. That is to say, the settlers in the English colonies would have preferred that British slave traders exclusively sold slaves to their settlements. That is to say, to the British slave trades, the activity seems to have been a neutral matter of business alone; to the English settlers, it seems to have been something else.
This sense of betrayal, felt by the English settlers, seems to be the kind of outrage usually reserved for the duplicitous arms dealer, who sells weapons to both sides in a war.
As for the North American mainland, the institution of slavery never really got a foothold in the Middle Colonies. These areas were developing a commercial economy supplemented with subsistence agriculture, which did not call for the large-scale use of slave labor. Many of the slaves who were cleared through New York and Pennsylvania ports, were later sent into the southern colonies (16).
Even where there were big farming enterprises, there seemed to be no desire for slaves. The Dutch, Swedes, and Germans seemed to prefer doing the work themselves; and there were those who had moral scruples against using slaves (17).
However, those of you who've been following this series, know that the previous statement about the Dutch, anyway, is misleading. We know that when the Dutch operated the New Netherlands colony (later New York under the British), they did use enslaved African labor under the auspices of the Dutch West India Company. It was a gentler, more flexible system of bondage --- but bondage it was --- known as half freedom (18).
The Dutch system was, perhaps, not initially recognized by scholars as slavery because it had several details which differed markedly from the English approach.
For example, under the Dutch system, Africans could pay a yearly tax and live independently of their masters. However, they were required to labor for the company when called upon. Those who married, lived with and supported their own families; but their children also owed their labor, for life, to the company. If freed, blacks in New Netherland could safely and legally own property, pursue trades, and even intermarry with whites (19).
In any case, as far as New England is concerned, their primary interest in Africans had always been in the slave trade, though some slaves were introduced into Massachusetts and Connecticut. By the middle of the seventeenth century, the founders of Rhode Island were using blacks to help establish the colony (20).
In the first half of the eighteenth century, New England slave traders thrived. In Boston, Salem, Providence, and New London, outgoing ships would be loaded with rum, fish, and dairy products. Incoming ships would bring molasses, sugar, and Africans. All the way down to the War of Independence, the African slave trade was vital to the economic life of New England (21).
We still have a lot more to do. You see, in part 20 I am going to, shall we say, complicate everything I have written here.
But let me leave you with some basic takeways.
1. I won't say that England was completely innocent of bringing slavery to the North American mainland --- nobody is ever really completely innocent of anything... but the enslavement of Africans was not something that was largely imposed upon the North American settlers by England.
2. As I mentioned before, in part eighteen, England outlawed actual slavery (but not indentured servitude) in 1550; and there was some evidence to suggests that some of the "American" colonists knew that.
3. England itself had no need of slavery because it had excess labor. It could not ship its "excess" people out of the country fast enough, and far enough afield. Those of you who have been following this series, know that it is due to the severing of land rights for millions of people, due to the predatory enclosure movement, the privatization of the commonly-held lands.
4. The Spanish and Portuguese seem to have been the first Europeans to take Africans to the New World as slaves. I speculated that these may have been actions classifiable as military revenge, for the fact that the Moors had invaded, conquered, and held much of the Iberian peninsula for about eight centuries.
5. You will recall that I labeled that theoretical idea the administrative continuance of Reconquista.
6. England seems to have taken the Spanish and Portuguese example, that it was appropriate to enslave Africans. If you want to, you could consult another essay I wrote --- The Devil's Cut: The Mystery of Race and Intelligence in the United States of America --- where I detail why it was that the English, specifically, were prepared to accept the dehumanization of Africans.
7. You will recall that whether the slave trade was in the hands of the English government as the Royal African Company, or in the hands of private traders after the RAC lost its monopoly and later got out of the business altogether --- the settlers in the English colonies were complaining in the late eighteenth century, that the British slave traders were serving foreign colonies as well as themselves, in supplying them with slaves.
8. By 1788, two-thirds of the slaves being sold by English traders, were going to foreign colonies, as we have seen.
9. Here's what I'm trying to say: It appears, here, as though the English settlers --- especially those on the North American mainland --- want to have African slaves more than England and English traders want to actually sell Africans to them.
Okay, we'll leave it there for now.
Thank you for reading.
1. Franklin, John Hope & Moss, Jr., Alfred A. From Slavery To Freedom: A History Of Negro Americans. Alfred A. Knopf, 1988. (paperback). 29; Fernandez-Armesto, Felipe. Our America: A Hispanic History Of The United States. W.W. Norton & Company, 2014. 7-8, 16-18, 22
2. Fernandez-Armesto, Felipe. Our America: A Hispanic History Of The United States. W.W. Norton & Company, 2014. 7
3. ibid, 7
4. Moors (2015, June 11). Retrieved June 11, 2015. (Wikipedia).
5. Crusades (2015, June 2). Retrieved June 11, 2015. (Wikipedia).
6. Perez, J. & Lloyd, J. (2004). The Spanish Inquisition. Yale University Press. 21
7. ibid, 1
8. Hudson, Michael. SuperImperialism: The Economic Strategy of American Empire. Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1972. 11-12
11. Jordan, Winthrop D. White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro 1550-1812. University of North Carolina Press, 1968. 58
12. Franklin, John Hope & Moss, Jr., Alfred A. From Slavery To Freedom: A History Of Negro Americans. Alfred A Knopf, 1988. (paperback). 33, 47
13. ibid, 34
16. ibid, 60-61
17. ibid, 61
18. Horton, James Oliver & Horton, Lois E. Slavery And The Making Of America. Oxford University Press, 2005. 34
20. Franklin, John Hope & Moss, Jr., Alfred A. From Slavery To Freedom. 61
21. ibid, 62
More by this Author
This is a commentary of the Cuban Revolution of January 1, 1959.
We're going to address a question: Why did some blacks fight on the side of the Revolution and others fight for the British?
- 0On the Occasion of the Death of Fidel Castro at Ninety: The Cuban Revolution in Historical and Sociological Perspective
What I want to try to do is to help us achieve clarity on just exactly what the Cuban Revolution of January 1, 1959 was all about.
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