Racism emerged in the sixteenth and
seventeenth century. Europeans were (and had for some time) enslaving people
both from Africa and from the New World. The history of racism in the western
world is broadly associated with slavery as the early form of colonialism and
it was in that context that something called “race” was created, which
essentially meant that certain people who were defined as non-Europeans found
themselves ruled and governed by Europeans.

the Americas in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, race was a fact of
life. And the concept of racism was something that came out of that interaction
out of necessity. People were not simply inventing notions of racism out of
whole cloth and then seeking places to implement them. In a sense, white
people, black people, and indigenous Americans worked out their ideas of race
in close proximity with each other. Ultimately, the English did not become
slave traders and slavers because they were inherently racist. They became
racist because they used slaves for huge profits in the Americas and they
devised a set of attitudes toward people of color in order to justify what they
did in the name of money. The real engine behind the transatlantic slave trade was

            Africans were items of trade, things
which were bought and sold and bequeathed and inherited by the wealthiest
echelons of European society. Once this system of buying and selling people was
established, both in the metropole where slave ships disembarked and on the
plantations where they eventually landed full of human cargo, and when the
practice was established as a basis for expanding British wealth, it was easy
for those in power to argue that Africans were somehow inferior to Europeans and
were naturally suited to be slaves.1

            The earliest evidence we have of
visitors to Barbados discussing African slaves is located in Richard Ligon’s True and Exact History, and in Father Antoine Biet’s Visit to Barbados in
1654, which was edited and translated by Jerome S. Handler.2 In his visit to Barbados,
Father Biet described the punishment handed down from one particular overseer:
“He had in irons one of these poor Negroes who had stolen a pig. Every day, his
hands in irons, the overseer had him whipped by the other Negroes until he was
all covered with blood. The overseer, after having treated him thus for seven
or eight days, cut off one of his ears, had it roasted, and forced him to eat
it.” Mercifully, Father Biet intervened before the overseer could cut off and
roast his nose and his other ear.3 Father Biet acted on
behalf of a man who was a “creature for whom Jesus Christ shed his blood…it is
inhuman to treat them with so much harshness.”4

            There was certainly no lack of
Christian sympathy towards the enslaved Africans on Barbados. In particular,
the Quaker population of the island heartily welcomed African slaves into their
churches. Sadly, their Christian behavior (behavior which actually reflected
that of Jesus Christ) was soon regulated out of Barbadian society by “An act to
prevent the people called Quakers from bringing negroes to their meetings,
passed 19th April 1676.”5 The idea of African slaves
worshiping side by side with white people simply did not fit with the English’s
gradual adoption of race-based slavery.

            Richard Ligon is a study in
contradictions. The quote at the open of this paper seems to indicate a certain
understanding of human nature, namely, that skin color or country of origin do
not determine one’s innate goodness or badness. However, at other times in his
narrative, he was oblivious to the suffering of the Africans and makes some
rather ludicrous statements regarding their satisfaction with their situation.
“Their lodging at night a board, with nothing under, nor anything on top of
them. They are happy people, whom so little contents. Very good servants, if
they be not spoiled by the English.”6 He also asserts that the
white indentured servants had it worse than the African slaves, a repugnant
notion by our modern understanding. “The slaves and their posterity, being
subject to their Masters for ever, are kept and preserved with greater care
than the servants who are theirs but for five years, according to the law of
the island. So that for the time, the servants have worser lives, for they are
put to very hard labor, ill lodging, and their diet very slight.” But the white
servants were not enslaved for their entire lives, and their children were not
born into chattel slavery. In any case, Ligon’s is still the most extensive
primary source on the early years of the sugar/slave industry on Barbados, and
will doubtless continue to be useful to historians of the Atlantic world, the
transatlantic slave trade, the Caribbean, and early economic history, among
other fields.

            There is a debate around the
racializing of slavery. According to Edward Rugemer, “The process of
racializing slavery began here Barbados, though it remained incomplete. The
council excluded Europeans from the group who could be bound for life, but they
did not yet assume that all Africans or Indians who arrived would be slaves.
The next generation of Englishmen in Barbados would embrace a racialized
slavery-African slavery.”7 In other words, and in
agreement with Susan Amussen, the idea of racialized slavery had to be learned
by the English. In Caribbean Exchanges,
Amussen states that owning people was not a natural trait of the English and
that slave-trading was adopted by mimicking the Spanish-ever the evil rivals
that they were. She goes on to assert that some ideas of racist thinking
regarding Africans was based on English views of the Irish. However, Amussen
rightly points out that, despite their extreme cruelty toward the Irish, the
English never enslaved them.8While slavery had existed
in England since it was called Britannia, the color of a person’s skin was not
a reason (or justification) for their enslavement, and the concept of
racialized slavery was a gradual historical process.

Transatlantic Slave Trade

            Slavery is as old as civilization itself. But the numbers
involved in the Atlantic slave trade are truly staggering. From 1500 to 1880
CE, somewhere between ten and twelve million African slaves were forcibly moved
from Africa to the Americas and approximately fifteen percent of those people
who were taken died during the journey.9 Those who did not die
became property, bought and sold like any commodity. Where Africans came from
and went to changed over time, but in all forty-eight percent of slaves went to
the Caribbean and forty-one percent went to Brazil. Relatively few slaves were
imported to the mainland colonies of North America, approximately five percent
of the total.10
It is also worth noting that by the time Europeans started importing Africans
into the Americas, Europe had a long history of trading slaves. The first real
European slave trade began after the fourth Crusade in 1204. Italians merchants
imported thousands of Armenians, Circassian,and Georgian slaves to Italy. Most
of these slaves were women who worked as household servants, but many worked
processing sugar, a crop that African slaves later cultivated in the Caribbean.11 It is an unfortunate fact
of the transatlantic slave trade that the major crops fueling slavery were
sugar, coffee, and tobacco, none of which are necessary to sustain human life.
In a way, slavery was a very early by-product of a consumer culture that
revolved around the purchase of goods that bring pleasure, but not sustenance.

            One of the biggest misconceptions about slavery is that
Europeans somehow captured Africans, put them in chains, packed them into boats
and then took them to the Americas. While the slaves were certainly chained and
packed away to the Americas, Africans were living in all kinds of
conglomerations, from small villages to city-states to empires and they were
much too powerful for the Europeans to just conquer. And, in fact, Europeans
obtained African slaves by trading for them. Because trade was a two-way
proposition, this meant that Africans were captured by other Africans and then
traded to Europeans in exchange for goods, usually metal tools or fine textiles
or guns. For those Africans, slaves were a form of property, and a very
valuable one at that. In many places, slaves were one of the only sources of
private wealth because land was usually owned by the state.12 This speaks to a very
important point about understanding the tragedy of slavery. To understand the
institution, we must understand the economics of it. We have to see slaves both
as they were, as human beings, and as they were viewed: as an economic
commodity. Once the slave ships arrived in the Americas, the surviving slaves
were sold in a market very similar to the way cattle was sold. After purchase,
slave owners would often brand their new possession on the cheeks, again, just
as they would have done with livestock. The lives of slaves were dominated by
labor and terror, but mostly labor.

            Slaves did all types of work, from housework to skilled
crafts work, and some even worked as sailors, but the vast majority of them
worked as agricultural laborers. In the Caribbean and Brazil, most of them
planted, harvested, and processed sugar, working ten months out of the year,
from dawn until dusk. Perhaps the worst part of sugar plantation work was
fertilizing the sugar cane. This required slaves to carry eighty-pound baskets
of manure on their heads, up and down the hilly terrain.13 When it came time to
harvest and process the sugar cane, speed was incredibly important because once
cut, sugar sap can turn sour within a day. This meant that slaves would often
work forty-eight hours straight during harvest time, working without sleep in
the sweltering sugar press houses where the cane was crushed in hand rollers
and then boiled. Slaves often caught their hands in the rollers, and their overseers
kept hatchets on hand for amputations. Given these appalling conditions, it is
little wonder that the average life expectancy for a slave working on a sugar
plantation in Brazil in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was
twenty-three years.14

            Conditions were slightly better in the English sugar
colonies like Barbados, and in the mainland colonies of North America, living
and working conditions were better still. The conditions on the mainland were
so (relatively) much better, in fact, that slave populations began increasing
naturally, meaning that more slaves were being born than were dying. This was
its own kind of evil because it meant that slave owners were calculating that
if they kept their slaves healthy enough, they would reproduce and then the
slave owners could steal and sell their children, or put the children to work
on their plantations.15 This explains why even
though the percentage of slaves imported from Africa to the North American
mainland was relatively small, slaves and other people of African descent came
to make a significant portion of the population in what became the United
States. The brutality of working conditions in Brazil, on the other hand, meant
that slaves were never able to increase their population naturally, hence the
continued need to import slaves into Brazil until slavery ended there in 1888.16 In fact, Brazil was the
last holdout in the ghastly business of slavery in the New World.

            Atlantic slavery was different and more horrifying than
slavery had ever been in the Old World’s past, because it was chattel slavery,
a term that historians use to indicate that the slaves were moveable property.
Ultimately then, what makes slavery slavery is that slaves are dehumanized. The
Latin word that gave us ‘chattel’ also gave us ‘cattle’.17

many ways, Atlantic slavery drew from previous models of slavery and seemed to
incorporate all of the worst aspects of the dreadful institution. To understand
this, it is important to look at some previous models of slavery. The Greeks
were among the first to consider otherness as a characteristic of slaves. Most
Greek slaves were Barbarians and their inability to speak Greek kept them from
talking back to their masters, and also indicated their slave status.18 The Greeks popularized
the idea that slaves should be traded from far away, but the Romans took it to
another level. Slaves made up approximately thirty percent of the total Roman
population, similar to the percentage of slaves in America at slavery’s height.
The Romans also invented the plantation, using mass numbers of slaves to work
the land on giant farms called latifundia.
The Judeo-Christian world also contributed as well, and the bible was widely
used to justify slavery, in particular the enslavement of Africans because of
the passage in Genesis which gave birth to the Hamitic myth: namely, that Noah
cursed his son Ham to be the lowest of slaves, and extended that curse to all
of Ham’s descendants.19 This encapsulates the two
ideas that were vital to Atlantic slavery: one) that slavery can be a
hereditary status passed down through generations, and two) that slavery is the
result of human sin. Both ideas serve as powerful justifications for holding an
entire race in bondage.

were even more contributors to the ideas that led to Atlantic slavery. For
instance, Muslim Arabs were the first to import large number of Bantu speaking
Africans to their territory as slaves. The Muslims called these Bantu peoples
Zanj and they were a distinct and despised group, distinguished from other
North Africans by the color of their skin.20 It is no small
coincidence that the Spanish and the Portuguese were the Europeans with the
closest ties to the Muslim world because there were Muslims living on the
Iberian Peninsula until 1492. Therefore, it stands to reason that the Iberians
were the first to adopt these racist attitudes towards black people. And as the
first colonizers of the Americas and the dominant importers of slaves, the
Portuguese and the Spanish helped define the attitudes that characterized
Atlantic slavery, beliefs they had inherited from a complicated nexus of all
the slave holders who came before them.

short, Atlantic slavery was a monstrous tragedy, but it was a tragedy in which
the whole world participated, and it was the culmination of millennia of
imagining the other as inherently lesser.21 While it is tempting to
put the blame for the transatlantic slave trade on one particular group, but to
blame one group is to exonerate all the others, and by extension, ourselves.
The truth that we must grapple with is that a vast array of our ancestors,
including those we think of as ours, whoever they may be, believed that it was
possible for their fellow human beings to be mere property.

Role of the Mainland Colonies

sugar production first in Barbados, and then in the other Caribbean English
colonies, were vitally important to the economies of the mainland colonies. As
the Barbadian sugar planters slowly adopted a monoculture, the island grew
wealthy and had the resources to buy the commodities they needed from the
mainland colonies. These islands were zones of consumption. The islands
consumed people, first and foremost. Sugar production was an incredibly
dangerous business. The milling process in particular was absolutely brutal.
Laborers were moving heavy equipment and fingers, hands, and arms were often
casualties in this process. People became overwhelmed by the heat of the
boiling houses. Severe burns from the vast quantities of boiling sugar liquid
were common.22
Food was the second largest need for the sugar islands’ huge slave population
who were barely growing enough to feed themselves. This was where the mainland
colonies came into play. The east coast of North America, by and large, developed
as a support system for these Caribbean islands because in places like Barbados
and Jamaica there were thousands upon thousands of people who had to be fed and
clothed. So, to support these populations and to keep the lucrative sugar
production running, other investment opportunities arose on the mainland to
support the monocultural islands. Timber from New England was necessary to
construct the sugar mills and to keep the sugar kettles boiling. Dried fish
from the same region served as nourishment for the inhabitants of the Caribbean
colonies, both slave or free. South Carolina developed almost entirely as a
support colony for Barbados, producing goods which were needed on the island.23 Most every colony in
North America engaged to some extent as reinforcement in the Caribbean. And sugar was so valuable that it was a more efficient
decision for the planters to produce nothing but sugar and use some of the
proceeds to buy food and supplies from North American colonies. This colonial
system was intertwined so that what happened in one colony invariably affected
the others. The economic success of England’s colonies in the New World were
irrevocably linked.


was one of the central motors of the slave trade in the Americas. More than
half of the roughly eleven million Africans brought to the Americas during the
seventeenth century were sent to those colonies that were heavily invested in
growing and refining sugar. The combination of the location and climate of
Barbados made it the perfect place for this industry to begin in the English
Atlantic colonies. The duality of indentured servants receiving their freedom
and the efforts of those who wished to curtail emigration from the metropole
made the import of millions of Africans an evil necessity. While notions of
racial inferiority certainly helped ease the conscience of many who profited
from the sugar industry, the English were not inherently racist, and the
economic success of England was the driving force behind the adoption of
slavery. Sugar was an enormous business and without the manufacture of this
commodity, without its development, and without the Caribbean islands, especially
Barbados, the economies and character of the mainland colonies would have been
markedly different.

1Adam Hochschild, Bury the Chains: Prophets, Slaves,
and Rebels in the First Human Rights Crusade (Boston: Houghton Mifflin,
2004), 133-135.

2Antoine Biet,
“Father Antoine Biet’s Visit to Barbados in 1654,” ed. Jerome S.
Handler, Journal
of the Barbados Museum and Historical Society 32 (May 1967).

3Biet, 67.

4Biet, 68.

5Complaint and Request of the People
Called Quakers to the Lords of Trade and Plantations, April 19, 1676, Calendar of State Papers, Colonial Series,
1675-1676, 426: 977. I.

6Ligon, 94.

7Edward B. Rugemer,
“The Development of Mastery and Race in the Comprehensive Slave Codes of
the Greater Caribbean during the Seventeenth Century,” The William and Mary Quarterly 70, no. 3
(2013): 433.

8Amussen, 10.

9Hochschild, 32-33.

10Hochschild, 79.

11Abbott, 298-300.

12Hochshild, 15-16.

13Sidney W.
Mintz, Sweetness
and Power (New York, NY: Penguin, 1986), 35-37.

14 Mintz,, 53.

15Abbott, 137-138.

16Abbott, 140.

17Hochschild, 79-82.

18Edward W.
Said, Orientalism (New York:
Vintage Books, 2004), 52.

19Multiple Authors, The Holy Bible: Containing the Old
and New Testaments; Translated out of the Original Tongues and with the Former
Translations Diligently Compared and Revised (New York: American Bible
Society, 1986), Genesis 9:20-27.

20Rugemer, 435-436.

21Said, 108.

22Jerome S. Handler,
“Plantation Slavery on Barbados, West Indies,” Archaeology 32, no. 4 (July
01, 1979): 48.

23D. W. Meinig, The Shaping of America: A Geographical
Perspective on 500 Years of History, vol. 1, Atlantic America, 1492-1800 (New Haven, CT: Yale
University Press, 1986), 173-175.

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