This Day. 400th Anniversary of US slavery

Four hundred years ago, a Portuguese ship named the São João Bautista traveled across the Atlantic Ocean carrying a load of captive Africans from Angola, in southwestern Africa, to the “New World.” Seized by two English pirate ships, the captive Africans ended up in the British colony of Virginia, founded just 12 years earlier, the first permanent English settlement in North America established by the Virginia Company of London in 1671. Only twenty survived the journey. Jamestown, Virginia soon became one of the main areas for the arrival of enslaved Africans. The sale of the 20 Africans to the owners of tobacco fields began the Atlantic slave trade on which the United States was built.

Slavery was only officially abolished in the US in 1865 at the end of the Civil War but its legacy has lived on in Jim Crow, segregation, disenfranchisement of African-Americans, and institutionalized racism. The murders committed by US law enforcement are only the latest manifestation. In fact, police forces in the US began as “slave patrols,” whose job was to round up slaves who had escaped their masters.

Commencing in the early 1600s, the Triangular Trade on the Atlantic Ocean – human merchandise, raw materials and manufactured goods – was a trade that changes in form and shape over time but whose substance was consistent. Labour, in the form of kidnapped Africans, was transported, through the Middle Passage, to the colonial Americas. There, those slaves, along with the local indigenous peoples in Latin American and South America under the auspices of Spain in lieu of England produced the sugar, molasses, rum, cotton, rice, silver, gold, tobacco, tar and timber which were taken to England. In England, these goods were traded for textiles, guns, iron, alcohol and other manufactured goods, which were taken to Africa in exchange for slaves. This triangle generated tremendous profits and led to capitalist development and consolidation of national states in Europe.

The British free trade in human flesh was driven by monopoly companies established by royal charter – the Guinea Company, the Royal Adventurers into Africa and the Royal Africa Company, all based in London. Every monarch and their family from Elizabeth Tudor onwards were financiers and beneficiaries of this trade in human flesh. So too were many of London’s lord mayors, sheriffs and aldermen. Banking and insurance, the genesis of the fortunes of the Barclays and Barings, was based on slavery, as was the development of Lloyds and the Bank of England. By the 18th century Britain was the world’s leading trafficker. About half of all enslaved Africans are transported in British ships. Eighty per cent of Britain’s income was connected with these activities. It was for this purpose that the West India docks in London were constructed. It was also the financial centre of the trade and the economies it supported in the Americas, including the colonies in Canada.

The greatest number of slaves originated from western Africa, especially the Congo-Angola region. By 1870, when the commerce ends, some 15 million African men, women and children had been uprooted from their homes and taken to the Americas. The number who died enroute is an estimated 40 million people.

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Filed under Africa, History, United States

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