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The Philosophical and Institutional Foundations of Slavery

Institutional existing systems of slavery

Philosophical ideologies and theories that justified African slavery


Cateau and Campbell

1. Enslavement as a mode of labour organization was not peculiar to the African, Caribbean or the
C17th to C19th
2. From as early as Greek civilization enslavement was the major mode of labour acquisition and
organization. This was further expanded by the Romans. The point to be noted is that even
though qualitatively their systems of slavery differed from what came to exist in the Caribbean,
certain features of Caribbean African slavery had already been germinated slaves were
exposed to harsh treatment, they were prized as valuable possessions, they were used in both
private and public spheres, and manuals were written on how to maintain them.
3. Origin Germans enslaved Slavs what was originally a nationality came to denote a social
4. With the spread of Islam, the spread of slavery occurred. The Arabs enslaved the peoples of
North Africa for use in their households

Beckles and Shepherd

5. Slavery and the trade in slaves also existed in Africa in the states of Ghana, Mali and Songhai
(Beckles and Shepherd)
6. The region of Central Africa also became a main source for supplies of enslaved Africans by
the mid-C15th. This was mainly because of the existence of many states like Congo that
engaged in on-going political and military conflict that produced large numbers of prisoners
who were sold as enslaved persons. In this way by the end of the C16th, the Portuguese had
established and expanded a major slave-trading network in the Angola area
7. In the C14th, White chattel slavery rapidly declined as a labour system, and was not practices
widely after this in Europe. More and more people though that persons outside their family,
race, religion and nation could be enslaved
8. The Portuguese and the Spanish traded in African slaves during the C15th.

Note: Qualitatively slavery was different from slavery that developed on the Caribbean sugar
plantations. One persons right to another persons labour was seen as different from one persons
right to own another person as property

What then accounted for this difference?

The conditions that existed in the Caribbean that warranted a slave labour population.
- there was the need for a supply of labour that was tied in some way to the unit of production
that is using some system of production
- underdeveloped terrain and the availability of land called for a total labour system
- under such conditions it was felt that free labour could not be relied upon for long since such
labourers would withdraw their labour as they eventually acquired land
- a labour system therefore was needed in which the actual labourer and not just his/her labour
was controlled


Why Africans?

Cateau and Cambell speak about

- prevailing sentiments of the time

- such a trade had provided labour across the Mediterranean and in Brazil
- developments in ship building and navigation made this possible

Beckles and Shepherd argue that

- Europeans said that West Africans were different in physical appearance, dressed differently,
possessed unfamiliar cultural characteristics, were black skinned and were therefore a
backward and inferior race. They used racial and ethnic differences as the basis of prejudicial

Note also religious justification for African slavery

Other historians also argue

- the traditional sources of slaves, the Slavs, had been converted and there werent anymore
- African slaves were already in use on the Iberian Peninsula
- Proximity of Africa to Portugal and Spain
- Existing trade links with Africa
- Superior strength of Africans (debatable)
- Africans were already accustomed to large scale agriculture
- Racism

The question therefore arises was it race or economics that led to the institution of African slavery in
the Caribbean?

Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery

Williams perspective is one of economic determinism in which the economic base is seen as more
important than existing ideology

In the first chapter he develops the thesis that racism came out of slavery and that racism did not
determine slavery. Slavery was just one of the solutions to the ongoing problem of labour. The colour
of the labourer did not matter but the cost of the labourer and African labour was in abundance and so

He argues that slavery is profitable when certain conditions exist and all of these conditions existed in
the Caribbean see above where cost of production is less, where the unit is larger, where
knowledge required is simple and routine, where labour is scarce

Cecil Gutzmore

The issue of racism must be examined because pre-Modern Europe was not a racism free zone

Only non-white groups were subject to slavery Africans and Amerindians. In the interim whites were
brought as indentured labourers. The reason serfdom was implemented in Europe was because it was
deemed wrong to enslave fellow humans.

He argues that Williams was so taken up with pinpointing a unicausal factor that he focused on the
economic while largely ignoring the social climate at the time.

Racism was a justification for slavery but out of slavery emerged an extreme and powerful form of
racism since in the Caribbean slavery took on a form and elaboration in context as it did not take on

What he does point out though is that despite the existence of this social factor, economics was the
determining factor since systems were put in place to maintain this system despite its inhumane nature
as long as it was profitable to do so. Systems were inversely put in place to destroy the system only
when it became unprofitable.

Compromise racism was economically driven, it existed before African slavery in the Caribbean but
the form racism took on in the Caribbean was determined by the economic demands of the plantation

Gordon Lewis, Pro-Slavery Ideology Caribbean Slavery in the Atlantic World

- proposes that the implementation of African slavery was beneficent in intension since it was
propagated to ameliorate the conditions of the Indians (debatable)
- he says that though Las Casas supported and even suggested African slavery, this option was
already available and so we cannot accredit the introduction of African slavery in the
Caribbean to this man as influential as he was.
- Economics was a determining factor but so was the existence of a colour continuum. The
Africans were phenotypically further away from the European prototype than the Amerindians.
- Also the fact that the Africans seemed to outlive the Indians under the pressures of the demand
for manual labour
- Slavery will save Africans from the paganism of Africa (but does this justify the cruelty of the
- The ideology that Europe possessed the natural right to arbitrary rule over non-European
peoples, and that it was the obligation of the new subject peoples, again by natural law, to work
for their new masters
- The Indians show no real appreciation for their wealth since they store it up in rooms and not
put to use. Likewise, the Africans if not forced to labour would just waste their time and their
potential (based on Christian Medieval conviction that man must work by the sweat of his
brow and the capitalist view that natural resources must not be allowed to lie idle, but must be
rationally exploited for the purpose of accumulating wealth)