Saturday, May 27, 2006

Slavery in the Americas

In the Americas, slavery played an important role in the economic development of Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, Peru, nearly all of the West Indies, Venezuela, and the United States. Slaves planted and harvested cash crops and worked in the construction of buildings and roads, along with performing domestic duties.

On the Spanish colony of Hispaniola, Native Americans were quickly enslaved; after their population dropped sharply, importation of African slaves began, with the first arriving in 1503.

In 1619, 20 Africans were dropped off by a Dutch trader at Jamestown, Virginia. Slavery did not legally exist in the colony at the time, and the Africans were treated as indentured servants, gaining their freedom after a fixed period of time. In 1654, John Casor, a black man, become the first legally-recognized slave in the area to become the United States. Casor was owned by one of the original indentured servants, a black colonist named Anthony Johnson. Slavery became formally codified in the English colonies in the second half of the 17th century.

The cotton, tobacco, and sugar cane harvested by slaves became important exports for Brazil, the United States and Caribbean island countries. The money generated by this trade was mostly used to support the subsistence of the slaves and expand the lifestyle of the slaveowners.

The importation of slaves into the United States was banned in 1808, by which time about 300,000 had been imported. Subsequent slaves were nearly all born in the United States. By 1800, slavery was abolished in most of the Northern states and many believed it would be soon in the South also. However, following invention of the cotton gin (in 1793), cotton became the main cash crop of the South and slave labor became the backbone of the Southern oligarchy and its plantation lifestyle. Slavery in the United States also had important political implications. During the westward expansion of the United States during the early and mid-1800s, many Northerners, thoroughly detesting the institution of slavery, tried to prevent its expansion into new territories and new states entering the Union. Attempts by the North to exclude slavery from these lands angered the South and helped lead to the American Civil War in 1861.

The adoption of slavery carried many effects. Slaves provided a relatively cheap source of labor. Having originated in tropical West Africa, it was widely believed that African slaves would be effective workers, being accustomed to hot climates and to the infectious diseases prevalent in the tropics. Millions were imported to the Southern United States, Brazil, Peru, and the Caribbean colonies. To hire non-slave labor would have been more expensive, as the early experience of using English indentured servants in the United States demonstrated. But while Africans may have carried some resistance to tropical diseases, they had no such immunity to the numerous European diseases that spread through the New World: smallpox, chicken pox, cholera, whooping cough and other diseases continually ravaged slave populations.

While the treatment of slaves varied in time and location, it is usually apparent that in those cases where slaves were treated better, they were more likely to be productive, trained and efficacious, perhaps taking pride in their work. Harsh treatment had the opposite reaction, reducing morale, lowering productivity, and required higher levels of supervision, but importantly also removing all incentive for slave workers to work harder than necessary to get by. Absentee ownership, particularly in Brazil and the Caribbean islands often caused the overseers to literally work the slaves to death. They had little or no incentive to take care of another person's human property.

To many, toil can be a source of inspiration if free to realize some of the benefits. In the short term, some parts of United States society did benefit by solving a short-term lack of plantation laborers. But slavery was often counter productive for a larger segment of the society. After abolition, many former slave owners found productive ways to survive and contribute to society without the necessity of using slave labor. A comparative look at U.S. economic growth during the periods of slavery and after would demonstrate as much.

A further effect of slavery was to relatively denigrate, in some areas of the United States, the value of manual labor itself. Hard physical work became something people did if they were forced to do it, rather than a necessary part of self-improvement and advancement. It created an idle slave-owning self-proclaimed "aristocracy" who, while asset rich, were income poor and lazy. Slavery was not a cost free enterprise, slaves were seldom paid a wage, but the owners were responsible for feeding, housing, clothing, providing simple medical care, and (in some rare cases) education for all of the slaves' lives from birth to death. If a slave was not treated reasonably, he would only do the minimum work necessary.

Slavery was a source of fear, suspicion and hatred between slave masters and slaves. Occasionally these feelings escalated into uprisings resulting in the destruction of property, murder, rape, incarceration, or desertion. These conflicts also increased the cost of business and judicial intervention to maintain the balance between society and an economy based on slavery.