Race as a principle to determine class status, based on economic needs

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Economic Causes and Social Effects of the African Slave Trade, 1550-1800

A European need for relevancy in an increasingly global economy led to exploration and a subsequent boom in the African slave trade. The cause was an increased need for cash crops such as tobacco and cotton in order to fulfill the European principle of mercantilism. The subsequent effect was a marked social change in both the Americas and Africa, with race becoming a new method of determining class and social status.

European colonization of the Americas was founded on the premise of mercantilism, in which colonies gave more to the host country than the host country gave to them. In the Americas, this relationship was perpetuated by the cultivation, sale and use of cash crops. To fund and facilitate a growing cash crop trade in the Caribbean and Latin American colonies, African slaves were imported from Africa to facilitate farming. Through the Atlantic System, slaves were brought by boat to the Caribbean. Subsequently, they were either sold to American plantation owners to work tobacco and cotton fields or set to work in Caribbean sugar plantations.

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With the introduction of African slaves into the American genetic pool, new social classes developed and new systems of determining social status came into being. As Africans mixed with native peoples and the Europeans, the Spanish castas developed. Portuguese interests in the region were contingent on huge amounts of manpower and African slaves offered the clear path to greatest efficiency. The Portuguese had an abundance of African slaves, to a point where there were more Africans than Portuguese and thus interbreeding was all but assured. Mulattos were the offspring of Portuguese colonists and Africans. An interesting contrast to this is the Spanish, who had a greater propensity to have offspring with the indigenous populace rather than the African populace, the indigenous labor force being much more than the African. Their term for intra-race offspring was Mestizos, referring specifically to an indigenous-Spanish mix. The North Americas functioned differently, preferring to classify Africans as black and colonists as white with no in between. Intra-race offspring were black, a system called the “one drop rule”, where one drop of African blood made you black. Regardless of the term, this created a previously unseen hierarchy; one based on race rather than power or land ownership. Pure European colonists were inherently considered purer and above the African and indigenous races.

As African slaves and their offspring integrated into American society, Africa experienced a major social upheaval. Realize African slavery was nothing new to Africa; tribes had been taking and using slaves for a long time. However, when the Portuguese brought about the slave trade as a means for trade and profit, Africa responded agreeably. Chieftains became kings, capturing and selling slaves for guns and utilizing guns for conquest. On the Gold Coast, the Asanti traded huge volumes of slaves with the Dutch at Elmina. Portuguese efforts to use Central Africa failed but their conquest of the Swahili Coast resulted in the deaths of many Africans by way of slave proxy war. The conquest of the Swahili Coast ingrained the plantation system into that region of Africa, the retreat of the Portuguese simply changing the Swahili from slaves to the subjugators of Zimbabwe. In North Africa, Middle East empires perpetuated slavery by justification of slaves as necessary for Islam.

In the end, the conclusion is clear; both economic and social situations all around the world experienced a marked shift in their paradigm with the advent of commercial slavery. To accurately see how much the world changes, simply look to the past. Slavery was greatest before the early modern era in Roman times. Slaves were valued as property and treated as such. This is in stark contrast to the Early Modern slavery, where slaves were quite literally treated like animals. As is often observed in history, the path conducive to fulfillment of man’s basic desires is the one taken, regardless of its morality.


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