The Influence of Racism and Economics
On the Atlantic Slave Trade
Zachary A. Carter
A.P. World History
The Atlantic Slave Trade was the exchange of Africans for manufactured goods and raw materials across the Atlantic Ocean. This trade, also known as Triangular Trade, was established and facilitated by Europe. It consisted of the selling of African slaves to the European colonies in the Americas and the Caribbean. The research in this paper will explore whether the origin and expansion of the Atlantic Slave Trade was solely a response to the demand for labor by European colonizers or if it was a response driven by racism. There was an enormous need for a larger labor force to develop the colonies in the areas of agriculture and mining. This was important for the economic future of the Americas and Europe. African people were also an easy target for enslavement because Europeans viewed other ethnic groups as inferior, especially black people.
The trade benefitted the Europeans, the African slave traders, and the colonists in the Americas. The Europeans wanted cotton, tobacco, rum, molasses, and sugar from the colonies. They were able to barter for Africans and then trade them to the colonists for these commodities. The African slave traders received European goods such as textiles, alcohol, horses, and guns in return. Africans were often enslaved in their own country because of their status. According to Jennifer Scott (1998), if a person had committed a crime, were prisoners of war, or had a debt that was unpaid, then they could become a slave. It was these people that the traders sold to the Europeans. The colonists wanted slaves because they needed a strong labor force to grow cotton, rice, tobacco, sugar, and other crops. Mining of gold and silver was also hard and tedious work. The use of slaves was cheap and allowed the colonists to produce a greater quantity of their products.
According to Eric Williams (1970), “The reason [‘for negro slavery’] was
economic, not racial; it had to do not with the color of the laborer, but the cheapness of the labor.” However, Claudius Fergus explains that Williams’ reference was limited to the New World. It excluded prior enslavement of Africans by Europeans in Sicily, Spain, Portugal, and the Eastern Atlantic Islands. Fergus (2008) suggested that from the very beginning of the trade, the fabricators of European conscience had evoked racist theology and philosophy to moralize the trade by correlating “Negro” or “Ethiopian” with sin and slavery. Fergus goes on to say, that in order to enslave African peoples, it was necessary to dehumanize them and demonize them.
Howard Zinn (2009) argued that racism towards the African people began before the slave trade’s beginning in 1600. Before Africans were associated with the slave trade, the color black was literally and symbolically distasteful to Europeans. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, before 1600, it was defined as: “Deeply stained with dirt; soiled, dirty, foul. Having dark or deadly purposes, malignant. Foul, iniquitous, atrocious, horribly wicked, etc.” And in Elizabethan poetry, the color white was often used to symbolize beauty and peace. Fergus agreed with Zinn in that racism towards the Africans began before the slave trade. Fergus conveys the story of the destruction of the island Philae and the shrine of Isis, a black goddess venerated around the Mediterranean world, by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian in 540 CE. Fergus (2008) stated, “the destruction of Philae climaxed the growing trend in the early Christian era to dehumanize, denigrate, and demote black Africans to a servile category.”
Christianity and the Catholic Church played an ample role in the Atlantic Slave Trade because it promoted and preached racism. David Meager (2007) suggested that the
Christians thought they had the right as God’s chosen people to enslave ‘inferior’ nations. Robert Dabney (1853)...
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