An ancient evil abolished.
No topic in American history is more enduringly controversial than slavery. It sits at the heart of every indictment of America and our founding principles. It is central to battles over critical race theory, the removal of monuments, and the renaming of places and institutions. It is invoked in debates over policing and welfare.
For the New York Times’ 1619 Project, slavery is foundational to American identity. Its beginning is our “true founding.” We should “reframe our understanding of U.S. history by considering 1619 as our country’s origin point.” Slavery is “the seed of so much of what has made us unique” and should sit at “the center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are as a country.” Yet this claim lacks the global perspective we need to examine what is actually uniquely American. Where did American slavery come from? How did it differ from other systems of bondage and forced labor?
Slavery was a human crime of which Americans were one part. It proliferated for millennia before slaves are first known to have been sold in Virginia, in 1619. It persisted long after it was abolished in the United States in 1865. It was practiced by people far from our shores without American influence. People were enslaved in virtually every society from which American slaves were descended. Few of the world’s major civilizations have been innocent of it.
In the story of world slavery, Americans loom much larger in the history of abolition than in the history of enslavement. Seymour Drescher, one of the great historians of slavery, summarizes the landscape in 1775:
Personal bondage was the prevailing form of labor in most of the world. Personal freedom, not slavery, was the peculiar institution. In 1772, Arthur Young estimated that only 33 million of the world’s 775 million inhabitants could be called free. Adam Smith offered a similarly somber ratio to his students and prophesied that slavery was unlikely to disappear for ages, if ever.
Slavery and its close cousin, serfdom, were the lot of a vast proportion of the human race, beginning in ancient times and continuing for over 1,300 years after the fall of Rome in the fifth century a.d. Slavery’s origins cannot be located; it predates history, and in many parts of the world it appears as early as there are historical records. It appears in Genesis, Exodus, and the Code of Hammurabi. It was pervasive in classical Athens and Sparta and in republican and imperial Rome. Under Augustus Caesar, a third of the population of Italy were slaves. Aristotle defended slavery as the natural order of humanity — among non-Greeks. Few other ancient writers even considered the morality of slavery.
Long before Columbus, slavery was practiced in ancient Egypt, Babylon, and Assyria, in the Byzantine Empire, in Kievan Russia, in the Aztec and Mayan empires, and throughout the Islamic world. The Spanish conquistadors found slaves numerous in Central America in the 1520s. Some societies used captives for worse purposes, such as human sacrifice.
Slavery had a long, varied history in Asia. China had many slaves into the 20th century; its last dynasty banned slavery only in 1909. A million peasants were conscripted in a.d. 607 to extend the Great Wall; half of them died in the process. In India, multiple systems of bondage predated the British conquest. The subcontinent may have held as many as 8 or 9 million slaves at the dawn of the 17th century. In Korea, chattel slavery peaked at around 30 percent of the population by the 15th century and was not abolished until 1894. In Thailand, slavery was not outlawed until 1868; a common practice was men selling their wives and children to pay gambling debts. Slavery persisted even longer in Cambodia, Burma, and Malaya.
The South Pacific also had major slave-raiding societies. The most notorious was the Sulu sultanate, between Borneo and the Philippines, which captured 200,000 to 300,000 people between 1770 and 1870. Slave-raiding ended only when the United States occupied the Sulu capital in 1898.
Northwestern Europe’s history presents a distinct contrast. European slavery fragmented after Rome fell, as slaves cannot be held in large numbers without coercive government power. The Latin servus became “serf.” While slavery evolved into feudal serfdom elsewhere — in Eastern Europe, China, and India — Western Europe north of the Alps saw slavery and serfdom die out by the twelfth century, replaced by free peasantry. Labor scarcity after the Black Death ended the feudal order, and free labor ushered in modernity. As The Cambridge Economic History of Europe summarized, “to custom succeeded competition, to status contract.”
When King Louis X of France decreed his country to be free soil in 1315, he was confirming the facts on the ground. In England, France, and the Netherlands, legal doctrines rejected slavery, but only after bonded labor had ended. None of those doctrines would restrict slavery in these nations’ overseas colonies, or the maritime slave trade before 1800. Nor did they restrict the use of galley slaves, who were exploited by France until galleys became obsolete in the 18th century.
Ironically, the early death of slavery in northwestern Europe would make it harder on the slaves in North America. Slave systems elsewhere were somewhat mitigated by custom. In some African societies, slavery ended after three generations. Islamic slaves could work on their own time for wages to buy their freedom (this was encouraged by the Koran). Sales of household slaves were discouraged. But northwestern Europe had neither law nor custom of its own regarding slavery. Then, in the twelfth century, Italian scholars rediscovered Roman law, helping shape the law of medieval Europe. When confronted anew with slaves, classically educated Western Europeans reached for the harsh, ancient law of Rome. So, eventually, did the American South.
In the millennium between the fall of Rome and the voyage of Columbus, the chief experience of slavery in Europe came from contact with the Islamic world. No Muslim society existed without slavery before the mid 19th century, and polities closer to Islam’s borders retained slavery well into early modern times. Slavery was still pervasive in parts of Italy during the Renaissance, and it persisted into the 17th century.
The same was true in Portugal and Spain, which led the way across the Atlantic, to Africa, and to India. While slavery died out north of the Pyrenees, Iberia was the frontier between Christendom and Islam for centuries. In the religious wars between the eighth and 15th centuries, Muslims enslaved captured Christians, and Christians enslaved captured Muslims. Slavery was a living institution in Iberia in the 15th century, when it was already long dead in England and France.
Well into the 17th century, the enslavement of Africans in the New World seemed a sideshow compared with the enslavement of Europeans in Muslim lands. Into the 1640s, there were more European slaves arriving in North Africa than African slaves arriving in the Americas, and far more British slaves held in Africa than African slaves held in British colonies. Slave-raiding corsairs roamed across the Mediterranean and beyond, ranging as far north as Ireland and as far west as Brazil. Between 1500 and 1680, 4 million slaves — 3 million Europeans and a million sub-Saharan Africans — were imported to North Africa, where they were vital to the economy, as compared with 1.5 million Africans taken across the Atlantic.
The term “slave” evolved from “Slav,” reflecting the massive slave trade out of Russia and other Slavic lands into the Ottoman Empire and southern Europe. Russians rivaled Africans as victims of slave-raiding from the ninth through the 18th centuries. In the 16th century, slaves exported from Russia, Ukraine, and the Balkans exceeded the Atlantic slave trade. Only after around 1650 did more slaves cross the Atlantic than the Black Sea. The slave trade from Africa into the Ottoman Empire expanded once the rising power of Russia in the 17th century gradually cut off the supply of slaves from the Caucasus.
Europeans did not invent the African slave trade; they found it already in progress and made it their own. Slavery and slave-trading had deep roots in Africa. No records show how far back they go, but the Saharan slave trade dates to at least a.d. 800. Slaves were trekked overland to North Africa, and some were then resold to the Ottoman Empire or into Italy. That went on for six centuries before the Portuguese, the first heralds of direct European trade, arrived and found slave systems already in existence. Africans were willing to sell other Africans, so the Portuguese bought them. In 1444, half a century before Columbus, the first African slave market opened in Lagos, Portugal.
Few Africans were ever captured by Europeans or Arabs; virtually all of the nearly 25 million Africans sold into slavery down through the centuries were taken and sold by fellow Africans. So were the unknown millions of Africans enslaved within Africa. Europeans, partly as a legacy of Rome and Christianity, developed social taboos against selling fellow Europeans into slavery. Africans had no such consciousness of a common continental or religious identity. Most slaves were captives from war or slave raids outside of the raider’s own nation, tribe, or community. Just as in most slave societies, slaves taken in Africa were others, not brothers.
Slavery existed throughout most of precolonial Africa. Many African societies depended upon slave labor. Traditional African societies did not recognize land ownership, so wealth and power were stored and measured in human capital, including slaves. In many parts of Africa, slaves were a unit of currency: Taxes were paid in slaves, and the price of a horse or a pair of boots might be quoted as a quantity of slaves. Perhaps 10 percent of the entire continent were slaves, and as high as 75 percent in some places by the mid 19th century.
West Africa accounted for 60 percent of the Atlantic slave trade. The capture, trade, and ownership of slaves was endemic in the region by the 15th century. In 1700, there were as many slaves in West Africa as in the Americas. By the 1850s, with slavery expanding in West Africa and contracting in the Americas, that was true again. The massive Sokoto caliphate alone held a quarter to half of its population in slavery, many of them on plantations producing cotton and dye. By the late 19th century, there were at least 2.5 million slaves in Sokoto, and 2 million more elsewhere in West Africa.
Europeans, for their part, were not innocent of enslaving indigenous peoples before they began dealing with Africa. The precursor to the slave trade was the Spanish conquest of the Canary Islands and enslavement of its black natives, beginning in the early 15th century. For nearly a century before the first English colonies, the Spanish and the Portuguese spread slavery across the Western Hemisphere. At first, as in the Canaries, they tried enslaving the indigenous people. High death rates from disease provoked both practical and moral objections. The Spanish Dominican priest Bartolomé de las Casas protested, but with the result — which he later bitterly regretted — that Africans were imported instead.
The first African slaves in the modern United States arrived in 1526 in the Spanish colony of San Miguel de Gualdape, on the Atlantic coast of modern Georgia near Savannah, nearly a century before 1619. There were African slaves in the first permanent European settlement, in St. Augustine, Fla., in 1565. The Dutch introduced slavery in New Amsterdam in 1626; it was firmly rooted when the colony was ceded to England in 1664 and renamed “New York.”
The English colonies began in Jamestown in 1607 and Plymouth in 1620. John Smith, the dominant figure in Jamestown, was himself an escaped former Turkish slave. The first known African slaves arrived in Virginia in 1619, a year before the Mayflower’s voyage. They were treated as surplus cargo on an English privateer, sailing under a Dutch letter of marque, that had raided them from a Portuguese slave ship and bartered them for provisions.
Given the entrenchment of slavery in the New World and its long pedigree in the Old, the happenstance arrival of the first slaves twelve years into the first English colony’s existence was not even the most significant historical development of 1619 in Virginia. That distinction goes to the founding of the first elected legislature in the Western Hemisphere. Spanish and Portuguese colonies had slavery; what they did not have was democratic self-government. A century and a half after the death of American slavery, the Virginia General Assembly is still with us, and so is American democracy.
The scale of the human toll of the African slave trade staggers the mind. Statistics capture only the shadow of all that suffering, and imprecisely at that. Virtually every nation in the Western Hemisphere was implicated. So were the maritime powers of Western Europe: The British, who entered the Atlantic slave trade in 1562, were the largest carriers, followed by the Portuguese, French, Dutch, Danish, Spanish, and Swedish. American ships participated as well.
The enslavement of sub-Saharan Africans was not mainly the doing of Americans. Approximately 463,000 Africans were imported to the colonial or independent United States. That’s about 4 percent of the Africans who survived the harrowing Middle Passage across the Atlantic. Everyone’s share of the guilt is higher than that, proportionately, when you consider that some 2 million people died in the Middle Passage. Moreover, who knows how many more were killed in slave raids back in Africa?
The Atlantic slave trade is the most easily enumerated of the various African slave trades, but the counting is still imprecise. About 12 million people were enslaved in the Atlantic trade between 1492 and the sailing of the last slave ship to Cuba in 1867. Just over half were enslaved in the 18th century. The Atlantic trade peaked between 1775 and 1800, until it began to decline because of the new moral movement against it.
From 1500 to 1850, 80 percent of migrants across the Atlantic were enslaved Africans. But the early English colonies were a conspicuous exception: Two-thirds of their migrants between 1607 and 1650 were Europeans, whose population boomed. Even as the slave trade grew, the American colonies never looked like the Caribbean, where nearly all the people and labor had been imported in chains from Africa. What made America demographically, economically, and politically unique was not slaves or indigenous people — who were found everywhere in the hemisphere — but a large, Westernized population of free farmers and laborers.
On the eve of the Haitian revolution in 1792, there were 1.1 million slaves in the Caribbean, compared with 694,280 slaves in the United States. The Caribbean islands, along with the Caribbean coast, took 47.8 percent of the Atlantic slave trade. Another 40 percent went to Brazil, and half a million (around 4 percent) to Spanish South America. The Caribbean islands and Brazil were each the destination for over eight times as many enslaved Africans as the United States.
The Atlantic slave trade, however, was less than 60 percent of the slave trade out of Africa, and perhaps closer to half. Europeans had little to do with the rest. Africans were enslaved and sold for twelve centuries into the Islamic lands of North Africa, Arabia, Persia, and the Ottoman Empire. Through the 16th century, Islamic areas were the chief recipients of African slaves — 72 percent in that century. The Saharan slave trade may have taken as many as 6 million people away from their African homes. In the Egyptian cotton boom of the 1860s, even small farmers used black African slaves. Perhaps another 4 million were sent over the Indian Ocean and across the Red Sea. Over a million people were enslaved in these trades in the 19th century, and hundreds of thousands after 1900. About 15,000 to 20,000 slaves a year were traded through Zanzibar just between 1859 and 1872.
While Europeans and their descendants in the Americas did not invent slavery or slave-trading in Africa, they industrialized it in scale and made it vastly more profitable and cruel. The price of a slave tripled between 1685 and 1703 with the explosion of sugar production in the Caribbean. Europeans spread the slave trade to areas, such as Angola, that had never been reached by previous slave traders. Depopulation was visible in Angola by the 1680s. To this day, Africa’s Atlantic coast from Cameroon to Namibia is sparsely populated relative to its coastal neighbors to the north and south.
Once the Atlantic trade spread, its profitable demand for slaves distorted the politics of West and Central Africa. Entire African states arose to prey on their neighbors and export slaves for profit. The relentless warfare drove small farmers to seek refuge in fortified cities. Slave raids among neighbors made for a world of unpredictable violence, insecurity, and migration.
Many African states became more centralized and militarized in the 18th-century-mirroring trends in Europe, but accelerated by the ceaseless war for captives. Slave-raiding and transportation were capital-intensive, so they were dominated by elites whose power grew with the revenue from the trade. It was safer to be an enslaver than a slave. African slave-raiding nations earned hard currency and weapons, and with a limited manufacturing base, African kings depended upon European trade to get firearms. That meant selling more slaves, to remain predator rather than prey.
While African slavery was spreading west, north, and east, another vast empire of enslavement was growing in Russia. The first Russian state was founded in 882 by slave-raiding Swedish Vikings. Russia was the only nation with its own central-government office in charge of slavery. Slavery ended in Russia by the 16th century, only to be dramatically reimposed later in the century with a system of serfdom that was barely distinguishable from slavery.
The new bondage of Russian peasants, formalized in law by 1649, coincided with the rise of the first czar, Ivan the Terrible, and the subordination of the Russian nobility. A similar, though less dramatic, “second serfdom” arose in the same period across much of the rest of eastern Europe. Unusually, Russian serfdom was perpetrated not against outsiders but against the Russian people. As in the Western Hemisphere, the economic impetus was cheap land coupled with scarce labor.
Russian serfs were better off than American slaves, but not by much. A serf could be flogged without consequence and had few legal rights; his or her lord controlled everything, including whom the serf could marry, what property (if any) the serf could hold, and what justice the serf could seek in the manor’s own courts. Bound to the land, serfs could still be sold off it and away from their families to as far away as Siberia — or worse, conscripted into the army. Serf soldiers faced staggering mortality rates and would not see their wives or villages again for decades, if they survived. Female house serfs were powerless against lecherous masters. By the time serfdom — the last system of servitude in Europe — was abolished in Russia in 1861, there were 23 million serfs, nearly three times as many people in bondage as in the entire Western Hemisphere. About 45 percent of the male population of Russia in 1858 were serfs.
With the arguable exception of Britons, Americans played a larger and earlier role in anti-slavery than people anywhere else in the world. Before the American founding, most anti-slavery actions were defensive or limited: Leaders fought the enslavement of their own people. Religions such as Christianity and Islam denounced the enslavement of the faithful. Periodic philosophical critiques had little practical influence.
American Quakers led the way in bringing anti-slavery to life. In the 1770s, they took a dramatic step: purging from the church anyone who owned or traded in slaves. Americans were the first to organize anti-slavery religious and political movements, the first to ban slavery in a written constitution (in Vermont in 1777), the first to pass abolitionist legislation (in Quaker-influenced Pennsylvania in 1780), and the first to confine slavery’s spread by national legislation (in the Northwest Ordinance in 1787). Eight of the first 14 states banned slavery — some immediately, some by a gradual process — between 1777 and 1804. No such movement arose in Africa, Asia, or the Ottoman Empire. Britain’s first anti-slavery society, with British Quakers as its backbone, was founded in the 1780s at the urging of American Quakers. Canada followed in the 1790s, led by a British officer who had served in the American Revolution. Haiti followed after 1792.
With the exception of a brief interlude in revolutionary France, Europe banned slavery in its colonies long after the northern United States did. Britain passed colonial abolition in 1833, Sweden in 1847, France and Denmark in 1848, the Netherlands (the last in Europe) in 1863. Latin America often emancipated slaves as a by-product of civil wars, freeing them in order to use them as soldiers, avoid or foment uprisings, or curry favor with European opinion. Uruguay banned slavery in 1842, and Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Argentina, Venezuela, and Peru all banned slavery between 1851 and 1855.
Only Americans and Haitians fought a war to abolish slavery, and unlike the combatants in Haiti’s slave revolution, the great majority of those who fought and died in America’s Civil War had no personal stake in ending slavery. At the time of the Civil War, 61 percent of Americans lived in states with no slaves. Free white men from those states did most of the fighting and dying for the Union, especially over the war’s first three years.
While Founding-era Americans had no say in inheriting slavery and much to say and do against it, Americans between 1775 and 1865 were by no means innocent of perpetuating slavery in their own country, influencing its expansion, and helping it to survive around the world. By the 1850s, the American South, Brazil, and Cuba were the only major slave systems left in the Western Hemisphere, with smaller exceptions in Puerto Rico and Dutch-controlled Suriname. American slaves were, by then, about half of the slaves in the hemisphere, and America jealously resisted British efforts to squelch the slave trade by searching American-flagged ships. Around 40 percent of the 10 million slaves in American history were alive when the Civil War broke out; 82 percent were born or imported in the 19th century. Only a wrenching struggle freed them.
Systems of slavery, serfdom, and other forms of forced labor differed in many ways. The fundamental moral objection to bonded labor — its denial of human liberty and dignity — applies to every such system. Distinctions are matters of degree. American slavery had nine distinctive features. Other slaveholding societies shared some of these; none shared all.
First, slavery was racial. All American slaves were black Africans or their descendants. In 1860, 89 percent of all black Americans were enslaved. Most slave societies enslaved out-groups: foreigners, infidels, prisoners of war. But they varied in how race or ethnicity mattered. Slavery in the Roman and Ottoman empires was not primarily racial. Slaves in Korea and serfs in Russia were of the dominant ethnic group. Slavery in North Africa was racial; in West Africa, it was ethnic and religious. The fusion of slavery and racism was a by-product of the lack of an English tradition for slavery: Only very visibly foreign people were outsiders enough to be contemplated as slaves.
The laws that enforced slavery extended burdens on free black people as well. South Carolina imprisoned any free black sailor who set foot on shore — even British subjects. Over time, racial slavery gave rise to increasingly elaborate theories of pseudoscience, bad history, and worse theology to justify the subjugation of black slaves. Many of those theories persisted long after the last chains were broken.
In Latin America, the color line was never as strict. Free black and “mulatto” citizens outnumbered slaves at least two to one everywhere but Brazil and Cuba, where they were 40 percent of the population. The explorer Richard Burton observed in 1867 that in Brazil, “all men . . . who are not black, are white,” unlike “the United States where all men who are not unmixed white are black.”
Second, slaves were chattel. This was a deliberate legal fiction. American law acknowledged that slaves were fellow human beings. The original 1787 Constitution pointedly refers to them as “persons” rather than “slaves” or “property.” Southern law even theorized that slaves and masters had certain reciprocal duties — although in practice, a slave’s duties were compelled by force, while almost none of a slaveowner’s duties were enforceable.
For every legal purpose that mattered, however, slaves were as much items of property as were horses or dogs. They could be sold without their consent, and in most cases, abused or killed without consequence. This was not true of all slave systems. Low-caste laborers in India, for example, had no rights to speak of, but were tied to the land and could not be sold away from it. In Catholic countries, the church provided some protection for the treatment of slaves, although in practice this was often uneven at best.
Third, slavery was inheritable. Our slave system did not simply subjugate captives in war; it put chains on their children, starting with Virginia statutes passed in 1661–62. Over the next 203 years, successive generations were born into slavery. Six million died without ever tasting freedom. The American South was more rigid in its opposition to manumission of slaves than any other New World slave society. Manumissions offered hope and escape for slaves, but societies with high levels of manumission also had high demand for fresh slaves, driving ever more war for enslavement.
Fourth, America’s slave population was self-sustaining. Most New World and Islamic slave systems required a steady infusion of imported slaves. Most in Africa required continual slave-raiding. But from an early stage, American slaves had enough children to replace and even expand their population naturally. This was a larger factor by far than the slave trade in the growth of American slavery from 463,000 imported captives by the early 19th century to 4 million slaves in 1860.
The natural growth rate of the slave population took off in the mid 18th century and equaled the growth rate of the white population by the beginning of the 19th century. It was double the rate of England’s population growth. America’s slave population grew by 30.4 percent in the 1820s alone, a decade after the end of the slave trade. This was the fastest rate of natural growth of any slave population in world history. By contrast, while the number of slaves imported illegally after 1807 is unknown, modern estimates suggest that it was probably fewer than 10,000.
Two-thirds of the Atlantic trade was male. Caribbean slavery imported a massive imbalance of male slaves, many of whom died of tropical diseases and overwork. The same problems plagued African slaves in the Mediterranean. Nearly half of all slaves in the British Caribbean died within three years. Jamaica imported 750,000 slaves between 1600 and 1808, yet had a slave population of only 350,000 in 1808. Brazil, too, imported three male for every two female slaves. Arab, Indian, and Chinese slave-owners, by contrast, tended to buy fewer male slaves and keep household slaves with little chance to form families. Two-thirds of Islamic slave purchases from Africa were female. African slave-buyers typically preferred to buy women or children.
American slaves, however, had an approximate gender balance, more often were in proximity to each other, and lived in the same temperate climate enjoyed by free Americans. The life expectancy for an American slave by the 1850s was comparable to that of a Frenchman.
While many slave women bore children unwillingly, due either to sexual predation by masters or to forced unions with male slaves, that is not the whole story. Black Americans made the inherently hopeful choice — encouraged by Christian faith — to have families and children even under the worst of conditions. Slave marriages and families were a strong institution despite as many as a fifth of slave marriages’ being broken up by sales.
Fifth, American slaves were a large minority. At the outbreak of the Civil War, slaves were 39 percent of the population of the Confederacy, but a majority of the population only in South Carolina (57 percent) and Mississippi (55 percent). This distinguished American slavery from societies in which slaves were a comparatively tiny fraction of the population, but also from Caribbean societies where the enslaved were over 90 percent of the people, many of them working the plantations of absentee owners. As a result, white and black Southerners were never distant from each other.
Because the elements of racial, chattel, inheritable, and self-sustaining slavery were combined, American slavery did something nearly unique in slave societies: It created a people where none had been before: a people uniquely American and uniquely grounded in slavery, with a culture of their own and an accompanying loss of historical memory of having been many separate peoples in their ancestral lands. Brazilian slaves, by contrast, remained in constant contact with a steadier stream of new arrivals from Africa, keeping fresh the African elements of their culture.
Moreover, a century of anti-miscegenation laws and social disapproval of “race-mixing” reinforced the visibly separate status of black Americans to a greater degree than in Brazil or Cuba. Yet, unlike black members of many Caribbean societies, black Americans could not wield the political power of a numerical supermajority. Slave heritage is still a marker of class status in other societies, as is true in much of West Africa. But no descendants of slaves anywhere else have quite the same sense of themselves as a distinct people made by slavery. That identity, as much as anything, is why America retains a unique memory of the institution.
Sixth, after the Revolution, slavery was exceptional. In much of the world, there was no such thing as a free citizen; all were subjects of a king or emperor, with no legal rights against arbitrary power. To live as a slave in such a society was to live in a poorer and more vulnerable condition, but when the slave’s master had neither rights nor liberty, it was easier for everyone to accept slavery as part of the natural hierarchy of things.
From 1776 into the 1850s, the United States was the world’s only democratic, republican, liberal, constitutional state. Between the 1620s and 1820s, many white Americans — typically Scottish, Irish, and German immigrants — lived for a time in the bondage of indentured servitude. Young people served bonded apprenticeships. Full civic participation was limited to landed men. As each of these barriers to free republican equality fell away, black slavery stuck out ever more conspicuously alongside white liberty. Slaves felt more unfree among the world’s freest people.
Seventh, American slavery was commercial. American slaves, unlike many in the Old World until the mid 19th century, were mostly engaged in growing crops for commercial export. By the 1850s, three-quarters of the world’s cotton supply was grown by American slaves. The concentration of slaves in commercial farming accelerated over time: Two-thirds of U.S. slaves lived on cotton plantations in 1860, compared with one in ten in 1800. Commercial plantations were even more dominant in Brazil and the Caribbean. In Jamaica, for example, 95.7 percent of all slaves lived on properties with six or more slaves.
Slaves in other systems served quite different purposes: Women were purchased as concubines or brides, and male slaves served as eunuchs, soldiers, even generals and ministers of state. The medieval Mamluk sultans of Egypt were a class of slave rulers; “mamluk” is Arabic for an enslaved person. Until they developed plantation systems in the 19th century, most Islamic societies used slaves in service, not production.
A slaveholder’s stake in slaves as commercial property created an incentive to keep them alive, healthy, and reproducing. This could, at times, restrain mistreatment, especially when replacement slaves were difficult or expensive to purchase. A fuller economic picture, however, considers the counterincentives: the impetus to maximize profits, the terrorizing of slaves into obedience, the costs of supporting elderly slaves past their working lives, and the desire to ensure the birth of more slave children than enslaved mothers wanted.
Consider the mortality rates on Atlantic slave ships. In 1700, the death rate for Africans on a typical voyage was a ghastly 20 percent. By the last quarter of the century, reductions in overcrowding and the carrying of more food and water reduced that rate to around 5 percent — a dramatic improvement driven almost entirely by the slavers’ economic interest in keeping slaves alive and reducing shipboard revolts. The death rate for the crews was often the same as for the captives. But 5 percent was still a terrible toll for a six-week voyage carrying healthy young adults; it was about five times the rate for troop transports and convict ships. The death of one enslaved person out of 20 on every voyage was a cost the slave traders were willing to bear rather than improve conditions.
Moreover, economic analysis takes us only so far. Man is not a purely economic animal. The drive to sexually exploit slaves, or to satisfy urges of domination and control by cruelty — these are common features of human nature, and a legal system that gave them free rein had predictably brutal results. The greater the proportion of slaves in the population, the worse the moral effects were on the master class.
Eighth, from the 1790s through the 1850s, American slavery was migrating. Slavery, seen as a relic in 1787, found new vistas with the 1793 invention of the cotton gin, the settlement of Alabama and Mississippi, the Louisiana Purchase, and the annexation of Texas. In practice, the expansion of slave agriculture, combined with the end of the external slave trade, produced a “Second Middle Passage” from the Atlantic coast to the Mississippi Valley. America could not avoid its inheritance; it chose, however, to let the cancer grow.
In 1780, almost half of the black population of the United States lived in Virginia. Slavery was in gradual decline for decades in Maryland and Virginia, but with the expansion of the country south and west, an estimated one in five slaves in the Chesapeake were moved or sold to Kentucky or points south of Virginia between 1810 and 1819 alone. The ability to sell surplus slaves on the interstate market gave Chesapeake slaveholders a continuing and lucrative stake in slavery’s expansion and enforcement. Many of them became, for lack of a better word, breeders of enslaved men and women for sale. Ten percent of Chesapeake slaves were sold away in their teens, another 10 percent in their twenties. From 1810 to 1860, 100,000 slaves per decade were sold or relocated to the interior. As happened in Brazil, the sale of slaves in interstate commerce boomed after the external slave trade ended.
Ninth, American slavery ended abruptly. The United States in the 1860s was, aside from the French colonies, the only major slave society in the Western Hemisphere to immediately emancipate its slaves without first attempting some intermediate step (Russia did the same for its serfs). Emancipation in Jamaica and the British Caribbean in 1834 required a period of compelled apprenticeship, with freed slaves required to spend as much as three-quarters of their time working for their former masters. Brazil tried the same in 1871. So did some of the northern states, such as New York and New Jersey. “Free womb” laws, emancipating those born after a specified date, were the norm in Spanish America. Apprenticeship systems failed everywhere they were tried. Yet nations such as Thailand chose gradual emancipation after seeing the American and Russian experiences as cautionary tales: The former ended in Jim Crow, the latter, eventually, in Communist revolution.
Neither the end of the Atlantic slave trade nor the end of American slavery was the end of slavery — or the end of the enslavement of Africans. Slavery grew in much of Africa after the 1850s, until it was ended by European colonization. The British brought the slave trade in Zanzibar to an end in 1897. The slave trade from East Africa grew explosively, ending only in the 20th century. Europeans, even after 1865, were not always on the anti-slavery side, most egregiously in the case of the Belgian Congo between 1885 and 1908. In the inland north of Nigeria — the old lands of the Sokoto Caliphate — slavery was not abolished until 1936. In Mauritania, the government banned slavery by law only in 1981, and 10 to 20 percent of the country remains enslaved. New, modern systems of slavery arose, from the Nazi camps to the Gulag to Xinjiang.
America’s legacy of slavery matters because we are Americans and because slavery’s descendants carry a unique communal memory. That legacy should, however, be remembered as part of the long shadow of an ancient, massive evil, from which the light of American principles led the way out.