| The Nation wrote:|
How Slavery Made the Modern World
Slavery was the flywheel on which America’s market revolution turned—not just in the United States, but in all of the Americas.
February 24, 2014
A nineteenth-century bilboes for an adult, typically found on slave ships. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com.
Many in the United States were outraged by the remarks of
conservative evangelical preacher Pat Robertson, who blamed Haiti’s
catastrophic 2010 earthquake on Haitians for selling their souls to
Satan. Bodies were still being pulled from the rubble—as many as 300,000
died—when Robertson went on TV and gave
his viewing audience a little history lesson: the Haitians had been
“under the heel of the French” but they “got together and swore a pact
to the devil. They said, ‘We will serve you if you will get us free from
the French.’ True story. And so, the devil said, ‘OK, it’s a deal.’”
A supremely callous example of right-wing idiocy? Absolutely. Yet in
his own kooky way, Robertson was also onto something. Haitians did, in
fact, swear a pact with the devil for their freedom. Only Beelzebub
arrived smelling not of sulfur, but of Parisian cologne.
Haitian slaves began to throw off the “heel of the French” in 1791,
when they rose up and, after bitter years of fighting, eventually
declared themselves free. Their French masters, however, refused to
accept Haitian independence. The island, after all, had been an
extremely profitable sugar producer, and so Paris offered Haiti a
choice: compensate slave owners for lost property—their slaves (that is,
themselves)—or face its imperial wrath. The fledgling nation was forced
to finance this payout with usurious loans from French banks. As late
as 1940, 80 percent of the government budget was still going to service this debt.
In the on-again, off-again debate that has taken place in the United
States over the years about paying reparations for slavery, opponents of
the idea insist that there is no precedent for such a proposal. But
there is. It’s just that what was being paid was reparations-in-reverse,
which has a venerable pedigree. After the War of 1812 between Great
Britain and the US, London reimbursed Southern planters more than a
million dollars for having encouraged their slaves to run away in
wartime. Within the United Kingdom, the British government also paid
a small fortune to British slave owners, including the ancestors of
Britain’s current Prime Minister, David Cameron, to compensate for
abolition (which Adam Hochschild calculated in his 2005 book Bury the Chains to be “an amount equal to roughly 40 percent of the national budget then, and to about $2.2 billion today”).
Advocates of reparations—made to the descendants of enslaved peoples, not to
their owners—tend to calculate the amount due based on the negative
impact of slavery. They want to redress either unpaid wages during the
slave period or injustices that took place after formal abolition
(including debt servitude and exclusion from the benefits extended to
the white working class by the New Deal). According to one estimate,
for instance, 222,505,049 hours of forced labor were performed by
slaves between 1619 and 1865, when slavery was ended. Compounded at
interest and calculated in today’s currency, this adds up to trillions
But back pay is, in reality, the least of it. The modern world owes its very existence to slavery.
Voyage of the Blind
Consider, for example, the way the advancement of medical knowledge was paid for with the lives of slaves.
The death rate on the trans-Atlantic voyage to the New World was
staggeringly high. Slave ships, however, were more than floating tombs.
They were floating laboratories, offering researchers a chance to
examine the course of diseases in fairly controlled, quarantined
environments. Doctors and medical researchers could take advantage of
high mortality rates to identify a bewildering number of symptoms,
classify them into diseases and hypothesize about their causes.
Corps of doctors tended to slave ports up and down the Atlantic
seaboard. Some of them were committed to relieving suffering; others
were simply looking for ways to make the slave system more profitable.
In either case, they identified
types of fevers, learned how to decrease mortality and increase
fertility, experimented with how much water was needed for optimum
numbers of slaves to survive on a diet of salted fish and beef jerky,
and identified the best ratio of caloric intake to labor hours.
Priceless epidemiological information on a range of diseases—malaria,
smallpox, yellow fever, dysentery, typhoid, cholera, and so on—was
gleaned from the bodies of the dying and the dead.
When slaves couldn’t be kept alive, their autopsied bodies still
provided useful information. Of course, as the writer Harriet Washington
has demonstrated in her stunning Medical Apartheid, such
experimentation continued long after slavery ended: in the 1940s, one
doctor said that the “future of the Negro lies more in the research
laboratory than in the schools.” As late as the 1960s, another
researcher, reminiscing in a speech given at Tulane Medical School, said
that it was “cheaper to use Brotha Mans than cats because they were
everywhere and cheap experimental animals.”
Medical knowledge slowly filtered out of the slave industry into
broader communities, since slavers made no proprietary claims on the
techniques or data that came from treating their slaves. For instance,
an epidemic of blindness that broke out in 1819 on the French slaver Rôdeur,
which had sailed from Bonny Island in the Niger Delta with about
seventy-two slaves on board, helped eye doctors identify the causes,
patterns and symptoms of what is today known as trachoma.
The disease first appeared on the Rôdeur not long after it
set sail, initially in the hold among the slaves and then on deck. In
the end, it blinded all the voyagers except one member of the crew.
According to a passenger’s account, sightless sailors worked under the
direction of that single man “like machines” tied to the captain with a
thick rope. “We were blind—stone blind, drifting like a wreck upon the
ocean,” he recalled. Some of the sailors went mad and tried to drink
themselves to death. Others retired to their hammocks, immobilized. Each
“lived in a little dark world of his own, peopled by shadows and
phantasms. We did not see the ship, nor the heavens, nor the sea, nor
the faces of our comrades.”
But they could still hear the cries of the blinded slaves in the hold.
This went on for ten days, through storms and calms, until the voyagers heard the sound of another ship. The Spanish slaver San León had drifted alongside the Rôdeur.
But the entire crew and all the slaves of that ship, too, had been
blinded. When the sailors of each vessel realized this “horrible
coincidence,” they fell into a silence “like that of death.” Eventually,
the San León drifted away and was never heard from again.
The Rôdeur’s one seeing mate managed to pilot the ship to
Guadeloupe, an island in the Caribbean. By now, a few of the crew,
including the captain, had regained some of their vision. But
thirty-nine of the Africans hadn’t. So before entering the harbor the
captain decided to drown them, tying weights to their legs and throwing
them overboard. The ship was insured and their loss would be covered:
the practice of insuring slaves and slave ships meant that slavers
weighed the benefits of a dead slave versus living labor and acted
Events on the Rôdeur caught the attention of Sébastien
Guillié, chief of medicine at Paris’s Royal Institute for Blind Youth.
He wrote up his findings—which included a discussion of the disease’s
symptoms, the manner in which it spread, and best treatment options—and
published them in Bibliothèque Ophtalmologique, which was then cited in other medical journals as well as in an 1846 US textbook, A Manual of the Diseases of the Eye.
Slaves spurred forward medicine in other ways, too. Africans, for
instance, were the primary victims of smallpox in the New World and were
also indispensable to its eradication. In the early 1800s, Spain
ordered that all its American subjects be vaccinated against the
disease, but didn’t provide enough money to carry out such an ambitious
campaign. So doctors turned to the one institution that already reached
across the far-flung Spanish Empire: slavery. They transported the live
smallpox vaccine in the arms of Africans being moved along slave routes
as cargo from one city to another to be sold: doctors chose one slave
from a consignment, made a small incision in his or her arm, and
inserted the vaccine (a mixture of lymph and pus containing the cowpox
virus). A few days after the slaves set out on their journey, pustules
would appear in the arm where the incision had been made, providing the
material to perform the procedure on yet another slave in the lot—and
then another and another until the consignment reached its destination.
Thus the smallpox vaccine was disseminated through Spanish America,
saving countless lives.
Slavery’s Great Schism
In 1945, Allied troops marched into the first of the Nazi death
camps. What they saw inside, many have remarked, forced a radical break
in the West’s moral imagination. The Nazi genocide of Jews, one scholar
has written, is history’s “black hole,” swallowing up all the theological, ethical and philosophical certainties that had earlier existed.
Yet before there was the Holocaust, there was slavery, an institution
that also transformed the West’s collective consciousness, as I’ve
tried to show in my new book, The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World.
Take, for example, the case of the Joaquín, a Portuguese
frigate that left Mozambique in late 1803 with 301 enslaved East
Africans. Nearly six months later, when a port surgeon opened the ship’s
hatch in Montevideo, Uruguay, he was sickened by what he saw: only
thirty-one bone-thin survivors in a foul, bare room, otherwise empty
save for hundreds of unused shackles.
City officials convened a commission of inquiry to explain the deaths
of the other 270 slaves, calling on the expertise of five surgeons—two
British doctors, a Spaniard, a Swiss Italian and one from the United
States. The doctors testified that before boarding the Joaquín,
the captives would have felt extreme anguish, having already been
forced to survive on roots and bugs until arriving on the African coast
emaciated and with their stomachs distended. Then, once on the ocean,
crowded into a dark hold with no ventilation, they would have had
nothing to do other than listen to the cries of their companions and the
clanking of their chains. Many would have gone mad trying to make sense
of their situation, trying to ponder “the imponderable.” The surgeons
decided that the East Africans had died from dehydration and chronic
diarrhea, aggravated by the physical and psychological hardships of
slavery—from, that is, what they called “nostalgia,” “melancholia,” and “cisma,” a Spanish word that loosely means brooding or mourning.
The collective opinion of the five surgeons—who represented the state
of medical knowledge in the US, Great Britain, and Spain—reveals the
way slavery helped in what might be called the disenchanting of
medicine. In it you can see how doctors dealing with the slave trade
began taking concepts like melancholia out of the hands of priests,
poets, and philosophers and giving them actual medical meaning.
Prior to the arrival of the Joaquín in Montevideo, for
instance, the Royal Spanish Academy was still associating melancholia
with actual nighttime demon possession. Cisma literally meant
schism, a theological concept Spaniards used to refer to the spiritual
split personality of fallen man. The doctors investigating the Joaquín,
however, used these concepts in a decidedly secular, matter-of-fact
manner and in ways that unmistakably affirmed the humanity of slaves. To
diagnose enslaved Africans as suffering from nostalgia and melancholia
was to acknowledge that they had selves that could be lost, inner lives
that could suffer schism or alienation, and pasts over which they could
Two decades after the incident involving the Joaquín, the
Spanish medical profession no longer thought melancholia to be caused by
an incubus, but considered it a type of delirium, often related to
seasickness. Medical dictionaries would later describe the condition in
terms similar to those used by critics of the Middle Passage—as caused
by rancid food, too close contact, extreme weather, and above all the
“isolation” and “uniform and monotonous life” one experiences at sea. As
to nostalgia, one Spanish dictionary came to define it as “a violent
desire compelling those taken out of their country to return home.”
It was as if each time a doctor threw back a slave hatch to reveal
the human-made horrors below, it became a little bit more difficult to
blame mental illness on demons.
In the case of the Joaquín, however, the doctors didn’t
extend the logic of their own reasoning to the slave trade and condemn
it. Instead, they focused on the hardships of the Middle Passage as a
technical concern. “It is in the interests of commerce and humanity,”
said the Connecticut-born, Edinburgh-educated John Redhead, “to get
slaves off their ships as soon as possible.”
Follow the Money
Slavery transformed other fields of knowledge as well. For instance,
centuries of buying and selling human beings, of shipping them across
oceans and continents, of defending, excoriating, or trying reform the
practice, revolutionized both Christianity and secular law, giving rise to what we think of as modern human rights law.
In the realm of economics, the importance of slaves went well beyond
the wealth generated from their uncompensated labor. Slavery was the
flywheel on which America’s market revolution turned—not just in the
United States, but in all of the Americas.
Starting in the 1770s, Spain began to deregulate the slave trade,
hoping to establish what merchants, not mincing any words, called a
“free trade in blacks.” Decades before slavery exploded in the United
States (following the War of 1812 with Great Britain), the slave
population increased dramatically in Spanish America. Enslaved Africans
and African Americans slaughtered cattle and sheared wool on the pampas
of Argentina, spun cotton and wove clothing in textile workshops in
Mexico City, and planted coffee in the mountains outside Bogotá. They
fermented grapes for wine at the foot of the Andes and boiled Peruvian
sugar to make candy. In Guayaquil, Ecuador, enslaved shipwrights built
cargo vessels that were used for carrying more slaves from Africa to
Montevideo. Throughout the thriving cities of mainland Spanish America,
slaves worked, often for wages, as laborers, bakers, brick makers,
liverymen, cobblers, carpenters, tanners, smiths, rag pickers, cooks,
It wasn’t just their labor that spurred the commercialization of society. The driving
of more and more slaves inland and across the continent, the opening up
of new slave routes and the expansion of old ones, tied hinterland
markets together and created local circuits of finance and trade.
Enslaved peoples were investments (purchased and then rented out as
laborers), credit (used to secure loans), property, commodities, and
capital, making them an odd mix of abstract and concrete value.
Collateral for loans and items for speculation, slaves were also objects
of nostalgia, mementos of a fading aristocratic world even as they
served as the coin for the creation of a new commercialized one.
Slaves literally made money: working in Lima’s mint, they trampled
quicksilver into ore with their bare feet, pressing toxic mercury into
their bloodstream in order to amalgamate the silver used for coins. And
they were money—at least in a way. It wasn’t that the value of
individual slaves was standardized in relation to currency, but that
slaves were quite literally the standard. When appraisers calculated the
value of any given hacienda, or estate, slaves usually
accounted for over half of its worth; they were, that is, much more
valuable than inanimate capital goods like tools and millworks.
In the United States, scholars have demonstrated
that profit wasn’t made just from Southerners selling the cotton that
slaves picked or the cane they cut. Slavery was central to the
establishment of the industries that today dominate the US economy:
finance, insurance, and real estate. And historian Caitlan Rosenthal has
how Caribbean slave plantations helped pioneer “accounting and
management tools, including depreciation and standardized efficiency
metrics, to manage their land and their slaves”—techniques that were
then used in northern factories.
Slavery, as the historian Lorenzo Green argued
half a century ago, “formed the very basis of the economic life of New
England: about it revolved, and on it depended, most of her other
industries.” Fathers grew wealthy building slave ships or selling fish,
clothing, and shoes to slave islands in the Caribbean; when they died,
they left their money to sons who “built factories, chartered banks,
incorporated canal and railroad enterprises, invested in government
securities, and speculated in new financial instruments.” In due course,
they donated to build libraries, lecture halls, botanical gardens, and
universities, as Craig Steven Wilder has revealed in his new book, Ebony and Ivy.
In Great Britain, historians have demonstrated
how the “reparations” paid to slave-owning families “fuelled industry
and the development of merchant banks and marine insurance, and how it
was used to build country houses and to amass art collections.”
Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!
Follow the money, as the saying goes, and you don’t even have to move
very far along the financial trail to begin to see the wealth and
knowledge amassed through slavery. To this day, it remains all around
us, in our museums, courts, places of learning and worship, and doctors’
offices. Even the tony clothier, Brooks Brothers (founded in New York
in 1818), got its start selling coarse slave clothing to Southern plantations. It now describes itself as an “institution that has shaped the American style of dress.”
Fever Dreams and the Bleached Bones of the Dead
In the United States, the reparations debate faded away with the 2008
election of Barack Obama—except as an idea that continues to haunt the
fever dreams of the right-wing imagination. A significant part of the
backlash against the president is driven by the fantasy that he is
presiding over a radical redistribution of wealth—think
of all those free cell phones that the Drudge Report says he’s handing
out to African-Americans!—part of a stealth plan to carry out
reparations by any means possible.
“What they don’t know,” said
Rush Limbaugh shortly after Obama’s inauguration, “is that Obama’s
entire economic program is reparations.” The conservative National Legal
Policy Center recently raised the specter of “slavery reparations
courts”—Black Jacobin tribunals presided over by the likes of Jesse
Jackson, Louis Farrakhan, Al Sharpton and Russell Simmons and empowered
to levy a $50,000 tax on every white “man, woman, and child in this
country.” It’s time to rescue the discussion of reparations from the
swamp of talk radio and the comment sections of the conservative
The idea that slavery made the modern world is not new, though it
seems that every generation has to rediscover that truth anew. Almost a
century ago, in 1915, W.E.B Du Bois wrote,
“Raphael painted, Luther preached, Corneille wrote, and Milton sung;
and through it all, for four hundred years, the dark captives wound to
the sea amid the bleaching bones of the dead; for four hundred years the
sharks followed the scurrying ships; for four hundred years America was
strewn with the living and dying millions of a transplanted race; for
four hundred years Ethiopia stretched forth her hands unto God.”
How would we calculate the value of what we today would call the
intellectual property—in medicine and other fields—generated by
slavery’s suffering? I’m not sure. But a revival of efforts to do so
would be a step toward reckoning with slavery’s true legacy: our modern