Throughout history, slavery was always a brutal, violent and coercive system of forced labor, but plantation slavery in the Americas was the harshest version of all, particularly in the sugar-producing areas of Brazil and the West Indies. Over 90% of African slaves were sent to these areas and the death rate was so high that the African slave trade continued to supply them illegally into the 19th Century even though it had been officially abolished. Aristocratic elites of large landowners dominated all slave societies, which tended to be politically authoritarian in nature. Slavery was also a profitable and expanding institution at the time it was abolished, particularly as the industrialization of Western Europe and the Northern U.S. increased demands for cotton, sugar, coffee and other products produced by slave labor. Slavery was never abolished anywhere because it had ceased to be profitable, but only by pressures from abolitionists and rebellions and resistance from the slaves themselves.
1) What are the main components of what some historians call the south Atlantic system (slavery system)? What purposes did the system serve and what features were common to all the colonies of the different European powers?
Slavery in the Southern United States persisted until 1865 and in Brazil and Cuba until the 1880s, where it was essential for the production of cotton, sugar, coffee and other cash crops that had a high demand on the world market. It was always a system of extreme violence, particularly on the large sugar plantations of Brazil and the West Indies, where over 90% of African slaves were transported from the 16th to the 19th Centuries. Perhaps as many as 40 million Africans were brought to the Americas from the 16th to 19th Centuries, but the exact statistics will never be known. It continued to exist as long as it was profitable and the masters “enjoyed a monopoly on violence, backed by the power of the state” (Berlin, 2003, p. 3). Slavery was “an integral part ofculture and society” in Cuba, Brazil and the Deep South, where slaves were a majority of the population or close to it by the mid-19th Century (Bergad, 2007, p. xii). Only in Haiti was it actually abolished by an internal rebellion of the slaves themselves, which occurred in 1791-1804 and was inspired by the ideals of the French Revolution, but large slave rebellions also shook the system in Brazil, Cuba, Jamaica and other areas where slaves outnumbered whites. Significantly, such major revolts never occurred in the U.S., which only abolished slavery after four years of civil war in 1861-65. Even after it was abolished, however, the legacy of slavery has meant poverty, repression and racial discrimination and segregation for the descendants of Africans brought to the Americas.
Slavery and the slave trade were very profitable forms of commerce, and were only abolished through political pressure. In fact, they were expanding rapidly in the Southern U.S., Brazil and Cuba even after Britain and France brought them to an end in their colonies. Britain, for example, abolished the slave trade in 1807 and slavery in the West Indies in 1830, while France did so in 1848. In Cuba, Brazil and even the U.S., increasing resistance on the part of the slaves and their abolitionist allies also led to increased conflict, but as an institution it was never ended anywhere because it had ceased to earn large amounts of money for the aristocratic elites (Berlin, p. 12). For this reason, in the American South and Brazil “there was little inclination on the part of slaveholders or political elites to end this barbaric system of human exploitation” and every incentive to continue it as long as possible, particularly since the prices of slaves and slave products were increasing in the 18th and 19th Centuries (Bergad, p, xii). Slavery actually grew in Cuba and Brazil in the 1830s and 1840s as it was abolished almost everywhere else in the West Indies and south America, and in reality its abolition elsewhere caused it to thrive in areas where it was still permitted.
2) Compare and contrast the development of slavery in the United States and Brazil. What are the most important similarities and differences between these two slave societies?
In contrast to the U.S., though, where the slave population grew mostly by natural increase after 1808, the extreme harshness of Brazilian plantation slavery led to a high death rate and a continued need for more African replacements. Despite the fact that it was illegal, U.S. merchants and shipbuilders were the leaders in the final phase of the Atlantic slave trade, which was more profitable than any other commercial activity. As in the Southern U.S. slavery was a profitable and expanding system, not a dying one, and constantly in search of new frontiers. By the 1850s, the Republican Party had been formed on the principle that it would be allowed to expand no further, and this was sufficient to provoke the South to secede in 1860 after the election of Abraham Lincoln. Southern planters sought to acquire Cuba, Central America and the Amazon region of Brazil and add them to the Union as slave states. William Lloyd Garrison, the leading Northern abolitionist, was correct in 1854 when he stated that the leaders of the South imagined a great slave empire throughout the Americas (Horne, 2007, p. 4). In Brazil and the Southern U.S., particularly the cotton states of the Deep South and the northern, sugar-producing regions of Brazil, slavery was at “the center of economic production” rather than the margins (Berlin, p. 9). Indeed, small farmers and wage laborers were marginalized and forced to migrate to other regions, including the frontiers, where they became very hostile to slavery and to blacks in general. Had it not been for abolitionist pressures in the northern and western U.S. or the southern and western regions of Brazil, slavery would have continued in both countries much longer than it did.
On the other hand, the northern U.S. states were already moving to abolish slavery in the 1770s and 1780s, either immediately of gradually, although it lingered in New York and New Jersey into the 1830s. Nevertheless, even their most openly antislavery delegates at the Convention, including Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin, avoided any mention of using the powers of the new federal government against it. That would have ended the Union before it even began (Van Cleve, 2010, p. 109). In return for agreeing to the commerce clause of the Constitution, the Southern planters received the three-fifths clause, that allowed them to count their slaves as 60% of a white person and gave them that many more seats in the House of Representatives had the federal formula been restricted to the voting (i.e. white) population alone. In addition, Congress was forbidden to close the African slave trade until 1808 and the Northern states were bound by the fugitive slave clause to return any escaped ‘persons bound to service’ to their owners (Van Cleve, p. 114).
Bergad, L.W. (2007). The Comparative Histories of Slavery in Brazil, Cuba, and the United States. Cambridge University Press.
Berlin, I. (2003). Generations of Slavery: A History of African-American Slaves. Harvard University Press.
Brinkley, A. (2012). American History: A Survey, 14th Edition. McGraw-Hill.
Foner, E. (1995). Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War. Oxford University Press.
Horne, G. (2007). The Deepest South: The United States, Brazil, and the African Slave Trade. New York University Press.
Van Cleve, G. W. (2010). A Slaveholders’ Union: Slavery, Politics, and the Constitution in the Early American Republic. University of Chicago Press.