Getting slaves to market

The Slave Ship:

A Human History

Saltwater Slavery:

A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora

THE RISE of capitalism in Europe, the consequent improvements in overseas transport, and the rise of the New World plantation form the pillars around which arose the most vicious slave system in human history, quite unlike its ancient antecedents. Recent books by Marcus Rediker and Stephanie E. Smallwood shed light on the processes of the capture of Africans and their transport to the New World, a horrific journey called the “Middle Passage” because it formed the middle link in a “triangular trade” between Europe, Africa, and the Americas.

Rediker points out that “enslavement began in the interior of Africa with separation from family, land, and place.” The forced march to the coast could be as short as a week and as long as several months. Slave traders referred to the journey as a “path,” or as Rediker describes it, “a reliable route for the movement of labor power out of Africa into the global economy.” For almost all captives, save a few who might return as sailors, the passage out of Africa would be permanent.

Rediker’s book, The Slave Ship, shows the centrality of the Atlantic slave trade to the development of capitalism as a world system. In addition, Stephanie B. Smallwood’s Saltwater Slavery goes beyond traditional interpretations of the infamous Middle Passage. She illustrates in detail how limited our understanding of the slave trade and the Middle Passage is if viewed exclusively through numbers, even if numerically unspeakable. In meticulous detail, she traces the ugly process by which African captives were transformed into commodities.

European slave trading began in the fifteenth century following Portuguese infiltration of West African coastal trading networks. At this time, the Portuguese were not interested in extracting slave labor so much as they sought gold to help finance their overseas trade in Asia. Smallwood focuses her study on the Gold Coast, a roughly 500-mile stretch that today includes eastern Ivory Coast and most of Ghana. “From the beginning,” she writes, “slavery and slave trading played crucial roles in the Afro-European commerce that developed in the Gold Coast. Indeed, from 1475 to 1540, more than 12,000 people passed through its coastal ports as human commodities.”

Importantly, however, this initial slave trade was not based on exports but imports. “Gold-bearing African merchants traveling to the coast from upland forest territories required large retinues of porters to transport the bulky European goods they purchased.” The Portuguese were engaged in picking up African laborers sold into slavery elsewhere along the coast and trading them alongside textiles and metals. But a transformation was on the horizon as New World commerce and its voracious demand for labor developed over the first half of the sixteenth century.

Some societies in West and West-Central Africa constituted “big, class-based states that controlled extensive territory, lucrative trade, and mass armies.” Most, however, were smaller, stateless societies, or larger, and internally stratified to an extent. Slavery, in various forms, was an ancient institution in Africa, usually most prominent within larger African societies. Millions of slaves, for instance, “[f]rom the seventh century to the nineteenth…were carried northward in the trans-Saharan trade organized by Arab merchants in North Africa and their Islamic allies. These slaves were traded in highly developed commercial markets.” Slavery among West African groups was primarily the result of war captivity. But, as Smallwood illustrates, the history behind this is more complex than the simplistic “they sold their own people into slavery” argument. “The growing market for human beings” in the process of development “gave casualties of war—captives made vulnerable by war’s destabilization—an unaccustomed commercial value.” During the seventeenth century, wars and the growing number of captives “reflected larger historical processes accompanying the region’s economic integration into the global current of Atlantic commerce.” The rise of larger states up and down West Africa, including the Gold Coast, accompanies the region’s transformation into a primary exporter of slaves.

Political centralization had been developing before Portuguese people arrival on the Gold Coast, but the introduction of firearms especially provided an important and forceful means of state building. “The reasons it was not possible to load ships at the Gold Coast before the second half of the seventeenth century,” Smallwood writes, “were, on the one hand, the enormous local demand for labor and, on the other hand, the absence of states or other institutions with sufficient political power to enslave people on such a massive and sustained scale.” Those larger states that grew in power and size along the West African coast did so in part because of their proximity to trade with Europeans and the consequent access to military technology hitherto unknown.

As Atlantic commerce developed along the coast, and inland societies grew in might by conquering neighbors, the number of captives sent to the coast increased. Those coastal regions harboring large-scale European activity would over time develop into the largest slave dealing networks. Europeans, starting with the Portuguese in 1482, built fortified slave pens that spanned the 4,000-mile Atlantic coast from Senegambia down to Angola.

The Portuguese had not introduced slave trading to Africa, but through commerce they helped initiate a dramatic and abrupt shift in the scale of slave trading, “putting thousands into circulation annually as commodities in coastal Africa.” The new trade networks institutionalized markets for people—and practices for treating people as commodities—that had been tenuous at best, and in certain places nonexistent, before Portuguese intervention. Purchasing “in large numbers” and dealing in “multitudes” of captives transformed the very nature of captivity.

It was a grotesque process, with African and European profiteers on both sides of the Atlantic. Competition along the coast among the British, Dutch, French, Portuguese, and other powers helped make the trade highly profitable for coastal merchants as New World colonial empires yearned for labor. By the second half of the seventeenth century, the British North American and West Indian colonies were major exporters of tobacco, rice, indigo and, most importantly, sugar. Brazil was the first leading sugar exporter and eventually added gold and diamonds to its commercial base. Later, the French Caribbean—Saint Domingue, Guadeloupe, and Martinique—became highly competitive sugar exporters as well.

The first and largest colonial empire, Spain, also imported African slaves for some of its mining and other enterprises, particularly after disease and hellish labor conditions laid waste to populations of indigenous Americans. It was British, French, and Brazilian sugar plantations, however, that swallowed up African slaves in enormous numbers. Life expectancy was a few years, if that, for those lucky enough to survive the Atlantic crossing, hence the need for a continual restocking of labor power so wealthy Europeans could sweeten their tea or coffee.

Smallwood focuses much of her attention on Cape Coast Castle, the hub of British slaving on the Gold Coast. But the picture revealed could be replicated for any of the European coastal “barracoons”—horrendous prisons for captives waiting at the shore to be sold. Many captives languishing inside these stifling prison walls died of disease and starvation before making it onboard a ship.

“A floating dungeon” 
Rediker picks up the story aboard ship: “Shackled and trapped in the bowels of a slaver, unable to go home again, the captives would now have no choice but to live in the struggle, a fierce, many-sided, never-ending fight to survive, to live, of necessity, ina new way.”

Rediker details the rise of shipping technology that would help shape a new world order. Readers may be familiar with how railroads stimulated the rise of industry. Rediker demonstrates the importance of the sailing vessel to the early rise of capitalism and its transformation of human relations between Europeans, Africans, and the peoples of the New World.

The ship was thus central to a profound, interrelated set of economic changes essential to the rise of capitalism: the seizure of new lands, the expropriation of millions of people and their redeployment in growing market-oriented sectors of the economy; the mining of gold and silver, the cultivating of tobacco and sugar; the concomitant rise of long-distance commerce; and finally a planned accumulation of wealth and capital beyond anything the world had ever witnessed. Slowly, fitfully, unevenly, but with undoubted power, a world market and an international capitalist system emerged. Each phase of the process, from exploration to settlement to production to trade and the construction of a new economic order, required massive fleets of ships and their capacity to transport both expropriated laborers and the new commodities.

The rise of European shipping paired perfectly with another important economic development: the New World plantation, an enterprise that developed in the Mediterranean but which helped shape the generalization of market relations in Europe and the Americas. The slave ship was more than a technological innovation in overseas expansion and increased merchant profit margins. It was an advanced ocean-going war machine; it was also, as Stephanie Smallwood puts it, a “floating marketplace” for business and trade of all kinds. “It was also a factory and a prison, and in this combination lay its genius and its horror.” The barracoons and fortresses lining the West African coast, where captives labored under European supervision, were thus connected with the factories floating offshore—the slave ships.

Again, Rediker beautifully illustrates the social relations on board this enterprise:

The ship was a factory in the original meaning of the term, but it was also a factory in the modern sense. The eighteenth-century deep-sea sailing ship was a historic workplace, where merchant capitalists assembled and enclosed large numbers of propertyless workers and used foremen (captains and mates) to organize, indeed synchronize, their cooperation. The sailors employed mechanical equipment in concert, under harsh discipline and close supervision, all in exchange for a money wage earned in an international labor market.

For their wages, sailors engaged in an important sector of commodity production: African slaves. Rediker’s book is packed with short stories, historical examples, and anecdotes of the actors involved in this exceedingly brutal business, from the array of ships themselves, to European merchants, ship captains, sailors, African merchants, captives—and sharks.

The grisliest aspect of human commodification was the Middle Passage. According to Smallwood,

[T]he operative unit of the slave ship was not the individual captive person, but rather the aggregate that formed the “complete” human cargo. Slaves became, for the purpose of transatlantic shipment, mere physical units that could be arranged and molded at will—whether folded together spoonlike in rows or flattened side by side in a plane. Because human beings were treated as inanimate objects, the number of bodies stowed aboard a ship was limited only by the physical dimensions and configuration of those bodies.

It is difficult today for anybody to capture mentally the conditions of a slave ship from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries, and the fact that conditions improved somewhat by the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries did little to alter the terror of life and death on board a slave ship. The actual numbers cited by Rediker are appalling enough: Over the 400 years of the slave trade, 12.4 million people were shipped across the Atlantic into the killing fields of plantation slavery, 1.8 million of them perishing en route, “their bodies cast overboard to the sharks that followed the ships.” He is quick to point out that even these abhorrent statistics do not illustrate the full scope of it. Perhaps 15 percent (a conservative estimate), or another 1.8 million people, died in Africa on their way to the coast and imprisoned in the coastal barracoons and factories. Yet another 15 percent or more, depending on the region, died in their first year of labor in the Americas. “From stage to stage—expropriation in Africa, the Middle Passage, initial exploitation in America—roughly 5 million men, women, and children died.” Nevertheless, there were fortunes to be made.

Sailors themselves had nearly as high a death rate as the enslaved. “Violent command applied almost as much to the rough crews of the slavers as to the hundreds of captives they shipped,” writes Rediker. “Discipline was often brutal, and many a sailor was lashed to fatality.”

Class struggle between captains and the crew was an ongoing feature of the slave ship. But most important was the war waged by captain and crew against the enslaved. By itself, the hull of a slave ship, a nauseating cesspool of sweat, blood, urine, and excrement, was a terrifying biological war zone. Many inevitably succumbed to disease. Whipping, rape, and torture were common features of an American-bound voyage. “The instruments in the task,” writes Rediker, “were masks, chairs, and tackle, the cat-o’-nine-tails, thumbscrews, the speculum oris, cutlasses, pistols, swivel guns, and sharks. The ship itself was in many respects a diabolical machine, one big tool of torture.”

Take the case of the ship named Zong, where, as Rediker comments, “work” constituted outright murder. The Zong held a cargo of 470 captives en route to Jamaica. Disease hit the ship hard not long after leaving the coast, killing sixty captives and seventeen crew members. The captain decided that “if the slaves died a natural death, it would be the loss of the owners of the ship; but if they were thrown alive into the sea, it would be the loss of the underwriters,” or those who had insured the voyage (emphasis in original). Thus 132 captives, over a period of a few days, were tied together and thrown overboard. Ten slaves committed the “dishonorable” act of drowning themselves without the help of the crew. The ship owner later tried to collect insurance on his lost “investment.”

Many are familiar with the passage in Capital where Marx writes “capital comes [into the world] dripping from head to foot from every pore with blood and dirt.” These two books capture the latter in detail—and expose how Europe’s initial accumulation of capital was built on a conveyor belt that transformed humans into commodities.


Issue #62

November 2008

Crisis of Capitalism

Issue contents

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