Caribbean Project: Review: Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World

David Brion Davis, "Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of New World Slavery"

New World

In Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of New World Slavery, David Brion Davis sets the American South within the international context of the transatlantic slave trade and the rise and fall of other New World slave societies.

In 1770 on the eve of the American Revolution, African slavery was perfectly legal and stretched from the Canadian Maritime provinces to Argentina and back up the Pacific coast from Chile to Mexico.

By 1888, slavery had been abolished in every country in the Western hemisphere and left behind in its wake a legacy of millions of free negroes who had been deliberately turned loose from captivity by European and American abolitionists.

Inhuman Bondage is a sweeping attempt to explain how and why Europeans created these slave societies in the New World as well as how and why they systematically destroyed them over the course of the nineteenth century.

The Right Ingredients

As I understand the argument that Davis makes in this book, the rise of New World slavery was a perfect storm, or a coming together of a number of cultural and economic factors that evolved into an extremely profitable positive feedback loop:

(1) The Greco-Roman Heritage – In terms of the Western cultural inheritance, Ancient Greece and Rome were full blown slave societies, and “anti-slavery” was virtually unknown in Antiquity where the Romans had no inhibitions about forcing their slaves to fight to the death in the premodern version of the Superbowl.

The Greeks and Romans commonly enslaved “barbarians” for their labor needs: fellow Mediterranean peoples, northern peoples like the Celts, Germans, and Scythians, Jews and other Semites in the Near East, Berbers in North Africa, even a handful of sub-Saharan Africans, although the negro never had much of a real presence in the Greco-Roman world.

More importantly, Greek philosophers like Aristotle had argued that some men were born “natural slaves.” Plato had also argued that the majority of people have “bronze souls” or “iron souls.” This type of thinking would have a major intellectual impact on Western Europeans after Aristotle and Plato were rehabilitated during the High Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

(2) Christianity – The LORD, an even higher authority than Plato or Aristotle, makes it plainly clear on numerous occasions in the Holy Bible that slavery is justified.

For starters, He advises the Israelites to take slaves from among the numerous alien peoples in their midst. He doesn’t abolish slavery either in the Ten Commandments. And there is that thought provoking line from Noah in Genesis 9:25, “And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.”

In the New Testament, Jesus never once condemns slavery, and his disciples Peter and Paul both positively affirm slavery and instruct slaves to obey their masters. St. Augustine later explained that this world has been corrupted by Original Sin and that slavery was a product of the Fall and that slaves should obey their masters in this world and focus on achieving their own eternal salvation in Heaven.

Like the Greeks and Romans, the Roman Catholic Church wasn’t a great bastion of anti-slavery either.

(3) The Arab Legacy – The Arabs greatly contributed to the rise of New World slavery in a number of ways.

It was the Arabs who brought sugarcane from the Persian Gulf to Iberia and Sicily where Europeans were first exposed to sugar. It was the Arabs who created the first sugarcane plantations in these areas. It was also the Arabs who first enslaved negroes en masse to work on their sugarcane plantations. The first negro slave revolt was in Basra in present day Iraq in 869-883 AD.

The Arabs also seem to have pioneered racial theories about black people. The Zanj were often described as being naturally submissive, grossly inferior, and among the dumbest people in the world. Significantly, they seem to have passed on their racial attitudes to the Spanish and the Portuguese during al-Andalus.

(4) The Jewish Contribution – It seems that the Arabs were the first to connect the Curse of Ham, in which Canaan was damned by Noah to be “the servant of servants” unto his brethren, with the particular idea that Canaan had been transformed into the first negro.

What’s more, it seems that the Arabs got this idea from the Jews, who somewhere in their various Talmudic scribblings and commentaries during the Middle Ages came up with the theological innovation of Canaan-as-negro. Somehow this idea was passed along to the Spanish and Portuguese and from them to other Europeans where it would later become the most popular defense of slavery in the Old South.

(5) Capitalism – In the Late Middle Ages/Early Modern Era, the Germans and Italians pioneered capitalism, and after the Crusaders were kicked out of Palestine, the Venetians invested their capital in creating sugar plantations in Sicily and Crete to cater to the expanding European market.

(6) Color Prejudice – Even before the Portuguese first encountered the negro when they discovered Guinea, “blackness” in Europe had always been associated with darkness, with the Devil, with the filthy laboring classes, so there were already prejudices against blackness and in favor of whiteness in Medieval Europe, particularly in England.

(7) The Ottoman Triumph – In 1453, Constantinople fell to the Ottomans and the Turks began their push into the Balkans – this cut the Italian slave traders off from their White slave markets along the the Black Sea. The English word “slave” is derived from Slav, but after the fall of Constantinople, the Slavic slaves would flow to Turkey and the Middle East instead of to Western Europe.

(8) The Columbian Exchange – As everyone knows, Columbus’s discovery of the New World in 1492 unleashed the most destructive virgin soil pandemic in world history, in which an estimated 90 percent of the Indian population of the Americas succumbed to European and African diseases.

This quickly created a severe labor shortage in the New World. In the mid-sixteenth century, the Spanish banned the enslavement of Indians and turned to importing African slaves to work in their mines and on their sugar plantations in Hispanolia and the Greater Antilles.

(9) African Complicity – Arguably, the most important ingredient in the rise of New World slavery was the willingness of Africans to capture and sell millions of other Africans into slavery in exchange for European manufactured goods.

From Senegal to Angola, slavery was legal throughout sub-Saharan Africa, and millions of Africans had already been sold into slavery to the Arabs – either across the Sahara desert, or through ports in East Africa – by the time the Portuguese arrived there in the fifteenth century.

The European slave ships that arrived off the coast of West Africa and Central Africa were basically a flotilla of ABC liquor stores, pawn shops, gun shows, and dollar stores selling the Early Modern equivalent of bling and must have Nike Air Yeezy IIs. Their eager African business partners were the equivalent of the entrepreneurs you might find standing on the corner in a place like Bankhead Courts in Atlanta.

(10) Primates – Finally, it is probably significant that Europeans first encountered primates like monkeys, chimpanzees, and gorillas in West Africa and Central Africa, and this led to considerable speculation about the racial origins of Africans, and this undoubtedly made it easier to see negroes as being closer to animals and more suited to slavery than Europeans.

All of this crystallized at the right time to become New World slavery: the profit motive, an overabundance of land, an inexhaustible supply of cheap African slave labor, an insatiable demand for cheap labor after the decimation of the Indians, the capital intensive sugar plantation, the lack of any other source of cheap labor, color prejudice, racial stereotypes and racial theories about blacks, and a cultural heritage derived from Greco-Roman Antiquity and Christianity that positively affirmed slavery.

The Rise of New World Slavery, 1570 to 1776

We’ve already spent a considerable amount of time discussing the rise and spread of the plantation complex: the emergence of the prototype in Madeira, the Canary Islands, Principe, and São Tomé in the Eastern Atlantic off the coast of Africa, how the sugar plantation crossed the Atlantic and established a foothold in northeastern Brazil, and how Sephardic Jews who were driven out of Brazil played a decisive role in bringing it to English Barbados, which became the first “slave society” in the Americas, and the model for the spread of slavery through the British and French Caribbean.

Plantation slavery spread from Brazil and the Caribbean to the Guianas in northern South America and to North America in four areas: the Northern states, the Chesapeake, the Deep South (which was settled by colonists from Barbados), and Spanish Florida and French Louisiana. African slaves were also imported to Mexico, Central America, Peru, Gran Columbia, and Argentina.

Of the estimated 11 million Africans that were brought to the New World, 480,000 (a mere 5 percent of the total) went to British North America, 200,000 went to Mexico, 24,000 went to Central America, 545,000 went to Spanish America, but 3.6 million went to Brazil and another 4.53 million went to the Caribbean and the Guianas.

The Caribbean was the geographic center of New World slavery. It was also sharply divided between rival European mercantalist empires: the Spanish (Cuba and Puerto Rico), the French (Saint-Domingue, French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Martinique, St. Lucia), Britain (Bahamas, Jamaica, Barbados, St. Kitts/Nevis, Montserrat, Antigua, Trinidad, St. Vincent, Dominica, Grenada), the Dutch (Curaçao, St. Eustatius, Suriname, Berbice, Essequibo, Demerara), and the Danes (Danish Virgin Islands).

The Europeans each had their own slice of the “Golden Circle.” Far from being part of the “Third World,” the Caribbean was once the richest region in the Americas thanks to sugar and slavery, and was considered vastly more important by the European imperial powers than their North American colonies. The Dutch gave up New York for Suriname. The French gave up Canada to keep Guadeloupe and Martinique. The British even abandoned Philadelphia during the American Revolution to invade St. Lucia and to defend Jamaica.

As we have already seen, Barbados was the cultural hearth of the Deep South: racialism, slavery, white supremacy, the plantation system, and the slave code, not to mention other key aspects of our culture (including “whiteness” itself), were brought from Barbados to South Carolina, which was spawned as a supply colony for the British West Indies in 1670.

South Carolina, originally a marginal colony in the wider scheme of things (440,000 slaves were brought to all of British North America, as opposed to over 1 million to Saint-Domingue alone), would itself later go on to spawn what was by far the largest of all the slave states in the New World, the Confederate States of America, where by 1861 the original 480,000 slaves had grown to nearly 4 million slaves spread across the Cotton Kingdom from Virginia to Texas.

Although 95 percent of the slaves brought to the New World went to the Caribbean and Latin America, the slave population in the sugar colonies (with the exception of Barbados, and then only much later in the nineteenth century) wasn’t self sustaining and could only be maintained by constant fresh reinforcements from Africa. The American South was extremely unusual in that it was really the only place in the Americas where the negro thrived in his new environment.

The Fall of New World Slavery, 1776 to 1888

How did all of this come undone in a little over a century?

Modern economic historians have refuted the myth that African slavery was a backward, dying, feudal institution that was unable to compete with “free labor.” On the contrary, it turns out that slavery was more profitable and efficient than “free labor,” and that the plantation complex was much more like modern agribusiness than its “free labor” counterpart.

Slavery was thriving in Saint-Domingue when the Haitian Revolution exploded in 1791. It was thriving in Jamaica and the British West Indies when the slave trade was outlawed in 1807. It was thriving the American South – slaves prices had never been higher, and planters had never been wealthier – when slavery was destroyed during the War Between the States. Finally, slavery was thriving in Cuba and Brazil when it was abolished there in 1886 and 1888.

David Brion Davis is convinced that the demise of New World slavery is attributable to a moral revolution that swept the Western world in the late eighteenth/early nineteenth century which created secular and religious versions of humanitarianism that were ultimately incompatible with slavery – before 1650, there was really never had been such thing as “anti-slavery,” or opposition to slavery on the basis of principle, and before 1750, there was no language of “natural rights” which could be mobilized to attack slavery.

The American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the Haitian Revolution – the whole so-called “Age of Revolution,” which lasted from approximately 1775 to 1848 – is what really destroyed New World slavery, not any inexorable economic decline. It polarized Europeans along ideological lines and fatally committed them to either Poison #1. utopian religious delusions or Poison #2. highminded abstract principles of liberty and equality which were extremely corrosive to slavery.

To name just a few examples, slavery was abolished in the American North during and shortly after the American Revolution, it was destroyed in Saint-Domingue by the Jacobins during the French Revolution who then imposed abolition on all the other French colonies, it was abolished in Britain after the Reform Act of 1832 expanded the electorate, in France and Denmark during the 1848 Revolutions, in the United States by religious and ideological inspired maniacs in 1865, and even in Cuba following the “Glorious Revolution” in Spain in 1868.

Great Britain was unquestionably the animating force (and British abolitionists were clearly inspired by Evangelical Christainity) behind the worldwide antislavery movement and destroyed its own colonies in three successive waves: the abolition of the slave trade in 1808, gradual emancipation from 1834 to 1838, and free trade in 1846. It was Britain which used its hegemony after the Napoleonic Wars to bully France, Spain, Portugal, and Brazil into abolishing the slave trade.

This was an early form of a moralizing hegemon imposing its bad ideas on the world. The whole Occident is suffering tremendously from BRA’s bad ideas in the 21st century.

Aftermath

These destructive new ideas decisively shaped the world that emerged in the aftermath of the abolition of slavery.

The “free labor” system was applied everywhere in the former slave states. “Liberty” was applied to negroes everywhere. In some cases, “democracy” and “equality” and “civil rights” were applied to negroes in the colonies, and in the most extreme case, which would be Haiti, white supremacy and imperialism were completely overthrown, and there was a fatal land redistribution to the Black Undertow which immediately brought civilization to a crashing end and created the Haiti we are all familiar with today.

It doesn’t matter that these terrible secular and religious humanitarian ideas never worked in practice and produced the social and economic calamity which we have labeled the Black Undertow that endures to the present day. The strength of a fantasy ideology or a religious delusion is that it is impervious to experience. It is irrefutable.

In a nutshell, that’s why the world is such a fucked up place today, and this book points us toward how it all got started.

RobRoySimmons
Guest

Yes we are one large religous cult, no doubt about that. And to this point most of the cultists willingly joined, first because it truly made them feel good about themselves, secondly the dissenters were horribly treated (see how this works).

But as like the JJ cult the wheels are coming loose and bad vibes can be felt. So now we are more terror than “love”, and this terror is inflicted by the “racist” label.

So if you know someone you care about remove the superstitous dread of “racist” from them you actually perform an exorcism of sort.

Robert in Arabia
Guest

Great article. HT to the first commentator.

John
Guest

The US developed an irrational hostility to European empires and sought their disolution after ww1 and got that disolution after ww2.

Where does that fit in?

313Chris
Guest

If I’m not mistaken, the Zanj revolt resulted from huge numbers of black slaves concentrated and laboring in the harsh conditions of Iraq’s salt marshes.

History screams loud and clear, that any time you introduce an adequate number of blacks, as in, more than one, into civilization, violence and tragedy is inevitable.

PalmettoPatriot
Guest

Truly fascinating history. I like this summary you have done, HW, of the rise and fall of slavery and civilisation in the Caribbean.

m
Guest

…before 1750, there was no language of “natural rights” which could be mobilized to attack slavery.

This is obviously incorrect. Leviathan, published in 1651, sets out the foundation of liberalism, and natural right. Hobbes discussed the autonomous man’s “right of nature” which was natural in the sense that it was prior to civil society, held by all men (who were equal), and was the foundation upon that which civil society was built.

Fr. John+
Guest

HW- absolutely fascinating and high intellectual tone in this article, until the last sentence. Then the whole thing comes down to one four letter word, which amazingly, utterly sums up the entire preceding 47 paragraphs. Hysterical.

But then, we are talking about Blacks, so gutter language is appropriate when referring to the ‘boyz in da ‘hood.’ It’s all they understand, as they daily grope themselves in public, and behave like monkeys on parade, when they’re not raping, stealing, doing drugs, or killing Whites.

m
Guest
One point–the author is probably speaking of a more popular formulation of the language of right, in which case the point could be well taken. What is interesting is that from Hobbes’ original constructions through the mid 18th C., about a hundred years lapsed. So, historically, one can get a feel for how long it takes ideas to germinate and spread. As ideas spread, they change. By the time a more modern liberal strain developed, Hobbes was, for Locke, “justly decried.” Today, and perhaps with our electronic media, we may not have to wait another several generations before saner ideas… Read more »
Lynda
Guest
Like poverty, its close relative, slavery is a condition that has existed since the origin of sin. The universal ‘given’ of the Bible is that the aion or age of the world is perishing in sin. Another universal ‘given’ acknowledged by the Bible is that Satan is the ruler of this age. It is slavery to sin which places mankind under the rule of Satan. The political assertion of the will to power against God’s law in the Ten Commandments, whether collectively or individually, always characterizes Satan’s reign. The Apostle John puts it like this: “We know that we are… Read more »
A/G
Guest

This is the most interesting website of 2012.

Fr. John+
Guest
Oh, Lynda. get over it. After reading about sodomite priests, Liberal Catholics siding with illegals, massive lying and bank theft in Italy, and the utter lack of ANY morality in Rome- just in the last decade alone, you have the ovaries to come here and pontificate that the papal pretensions top the Biblical record, when it comes to giving ‘ontological status’ to the Nigger? What do you think, when the very Roman curia you admire, thinks ‘It’s about time we had a Black pope’? That they are misguided in this? Rather, they have been DECREEING this SATANIA, as only the… Read more »
John
Guest

Between enslaving everyone and then turning around and manumitting all the slaves the English are accordingly hated by everyone. You can’t win with sone people can you?

PalmettoPatriot
Guest

John, my family was originally Flemish cloth makers who were invited to England in the 1300s by the King. They lived in Kent until the 1620s when they relocated to North America. England and the English was good to my family.

Rudel
Guest
“Leviathan, published in 1651, sets out the foundation of liberalism, and natural right. Hobbes discussed the autonomous man’s “right of nature” which was natural in the sense that it was prior to civil society, held by all men (who were equal), and was the foundation upon that which civil society was built.” No, he said they were equal in their misery under anarchy, a state of “war of all against all”: “In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain, and consequently, not culture of the earth, no navigation, nor the use of commodities… Read more »
Silver
Guest

Modern economic historians have refuted the myth that African slavery was a backward, dying, feudal institution that was unable to compete with “free labor.” On the contrary, it turns out that slavery was more profitable and efficient than “free labor,” and that the plantation complex was much more like modern agribusiness than its “free labor” counterpart.

Why is “free labor” in sneer quotes?

Silver
Guest
I’m not questioning its efficiency (though I’d note there is a lot more to assessing an economy than merely its efficiency). I’m just curious why you keep referring to “free labor.” Are you simply sneering at it as inferior or don’t you believe the concept has any validity? You made some grossly inaccurate statements during that podcast, by the way. The recording wasn’t the clearest, but I think you said that the “whole region” from Maryland to Brazil had never really recovered from the demise of slavery. That’s simply daft. Every single country in the Caribbean is wealthier today (typically… Read more »
m
Guest
@Rudel: There are two issues–the empirical and the metaphysical. What you are writing of is secondary. Primarily, for Hobbes, equality flowed from the “right of nature.” This right was equal for all pre-civil men, and was not an empirical fact about strength, or misery, but a metaphysical one. Again, it was the right that was equal. From a previous post I am unsure you understand the philosophical meaning of metaphysical. By metaphysical I mean it was the logical ground for which the covenant became both possible and subsequently binding. Prior to the covenant, each man, equal in right, had to… Read more »
m
Guest
What I wrote in response to Rudel was early in the AM, and as such it may not have been as organized a statement as it could have been. I just want to make it clear, so that anyone who is interested understands both what Rudel is talking about, and what I am pointing out. Most people will not be interested, and should probably not read further. Rudel is correct that Hobbes wrote about a general physical (meaning material) equality of men in nature- that is, on average most men are equal in attributes such as strength, intelligence, their susceptibility… Read more »
Rudel
Guest
“From a previous post I am unsure you understand the philosophical meaning of metaphysical.” That’s because by definition “meta” physics doesn’t exist. Both Hobbes and David Hume clearly understood this although (Hobbes especially) had to address this subject obliquely and/or posthumously publish their thoughts on the matter, for fear of life and limb from the religious authorities of their day. Neither was a believer in human equality as an abstract good nor as proven or inherent in mankind by any observable natural law of nature. Hobbes insisted that people must give up their sovereign rights irrevocably to the State in… Read more »
m
Guest
Rudel: I would never confuse the issue. However, it is not confusion to point to the similarities, and differences between Hobbes and the later thinkers. The point made in the article, and the point I keep coming back to, is that there was indeed a philosophical basis for “a language of natural rights” earlier than posited. As far as Hobbes being “oblique” about his views, he was actually quite upfront about them, which is one reason he was sometimes in trouble. Locke himself, probably disingenuously, refused to mention the former’s name in his writings, which had to be a political… Read more »
Rudel
Guest
“there is in fact a metaphysical materialist school. All I can ask is that you read on it a little further.” I’ve read plenty of it, thank you very much, and I see no reason to go off into the metaphysical weeds discussing solipsistic nonsense like “ontology” and “qualia” used by obfuscating sophists in order to justify a chair in philosophy at some university. There is a good reason that Hume is rightfully considered the “last” philosopher among the enlightened. We logically can’t know with certainty about much (mathematics and logic are both essentially self referential circular argument systems) and… Read more »
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