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Slavery as an Economic Challenge

Info: 2638 words (11 pages) Essay
Published: 8th Feb 2020 in History

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Abstract summary

One of the most important events in the human society was the discovery of the new world.  European powers gained access to massive amounts of resources of the new world in the form of land, minerals, and other resources. Importantly, it led to the migration of millions of Europeans to the new lands, leading to the emergence of new and powerful nations such as the United States. The riches of the new land provided resources and riches that catapulted European nations into world powers. However, the dark side of the discovery is that it led to the emergence of institutional slavery (Anderson and Metzger 395). The demand for labor in the Americans and the Caribbean was overwhelming and the only source of labor were slaves captured mostly from West Africa. Colonial governments of England, Spain, Portugal, France, and others gave settlers huge land holdings to cultivate plantation crops such as sugar, tobacco, cotton, and rice, which had huge and ready market in Europe. The problem, however, was shortage of laborer. Plantation owners, therefore, invested significant amount of resources into the importation or purchase slaves in auctions in America. As the power of these plantation owners increased, they bitterly opposed efforts to ban the practice because the economy of regions such as American south depended on slave labor (Anderson and Metzger 395). It was battle for money, power, and control of slaves. The fight for control manifested in other areas such as brutal treatment of the slaves and rebellions. Hundreds of rebellions occurred, but the most successful occurred in Haiti because it led to total overthrowing the system of slavery. Because of those rebellions, the living conditions of slaves in plantations improved somewhat. A few laws were passed with respect to slavery and how they could conduct themselves. Overall, the history of slavery was essentially a battle for money, power, and control, and the contest continued until the slavery was outlawed by the British and banned in America after the civil war.

New land and the need for slaves

After England established colonies in America, settlers were given huge land grants to grow crops such as tobacco, cotton, and sugar cane. The products from the three crops were in huge demand in Europe. Over time, the economy of American south came to depend on the cash crops as the economic engine. The problem, however, is that the crop economy required a huge amount of labor and the settlers could not provide it (Barzel 100). The local people, or Native Americans, could not provide it as well. They were generally weak and prone to European diseases. Moreover, as natives, they could easily escape enslavement. The labor, therefore, had to come from somewhere else and that place turned out to Africa.  The demand for labor in America fueled slavery. 

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The slave economy was prosperous. American south was so prosperous at the start of the civil war that it would have ranked the fourth richest in the world.  The foundation of the prosperity was slavery and the free labor provided by slaves in the production of the tobacco, sugar cane, and cotton.  Also, at the time of the civil war, the south produced more than three-quarters of the cotton in the world. Consequently, most of the people involved in the trade were millionaires or very rich.

The slave economy in the south started right from the establishment of the earliest colonies.  When English colonists arrived in the south, the region was a wilderness. Huge herds of mammals, such as the Bison, roamed freely in the land. To convert wilderness into a thriving agricultural enterprises, the colonists needed a massive amount of labor, which indentured servants provided. These workers were poor, unemployed laborers in Europe who had migrated into America in search of a better life (Eltis 17). However, when they arrived in America, things were not as good as they had hoped. To survive, they needed work, which landowners provided but the only compensation was food, shelter, and some form of education.  Back in Europe, things started to change in Britain at around 1690s. Agrarian revolution and the burgeoning industrial revolution started to create jobs so the flow of laborers from Europe into the new world started to decline.  To fill the labor gap, enslavement of Africans was the only alternative.

Another driving force for slavery was increased demand for sugar, cotton clothes, and tobacco in Europe as the continent became richer. Also, in tandem with the growth in demand, settler colonies expanded and more land brought into production. In fact, farmers increased production of additional goods such as rice, so the wealthy owners of these plantations turned to slaves sourced mostly from West Africa (Hornbeck and Naidu 980). Initially, the cost of a slave in auctions was five to ten dollars but as the demand for labor increased, the cost of an able-bodied slave ranged from $1,200 to $1,500. Another notable feature of the southern economy was the growing reliance on slave became so complete that landowners ignored the moral issues the trade raised.

Battle for money, power, and control of slaves

One of the enduring questions when studying the history of slavery is why the system lasted for so long despite its brutality and inhumanity.  Perhaps the reason for the longevity is the relationship between the slaves and the slave owners. The relationship was marked by fear on both sides. Landowners feared slaves and to keep them in check, they employed brutality and cruelty.  The plantation owners were justified in fearing slaves because revolts during the middle passage were common. It is estimated that there were around 500 revolts on ships crossing the Atlantic to America. Considering that slaves crossed the sea when shackled, it demonstrated a determination among slaves to attain freedom regardless of the condition (Whatley and Gillezeau 575).  The mismatch in population between slaves and free landowners and whites only exacerbated the situation. The vulnerability expressed itself in the form of paranoia and violent reaction. Slave owners reacted violently to perceived encroachment on their powers through severe beating and executions. Violence was, therefore, the main tool for maintaining power over slaves.

The profits from the trade also helped maintain the trade. During agrarian and industrial revolution, the British sought to use slave trade to subsidize the capital investments used in the economic transformation witnessed during the period. For instance, Liverpool and Bristol, which emerged as important centers of slave trade, attracted huge population and it relied on cheap goods produced by slave labor.  The inexpensive goods were also sold at high-profit margins. The profitability of the trade even in far-flung places such as Britain makes it impossible to eliminate the trade.

The biggest beneficiaries of the slave trade were the plantation owners themselves and so they staked everything on the institution. The wealth of these influential people, power, and prestige relied on the success of the slave-labor powered enterprises.  During the abolition campaign, opponents of slavery had to contend with the power and influence of the plantation owners.  Abolition started to gain pace when those involved in trade were earning even more profits. As such, they have big motivation to oppose any attempt to kill an institution that provided with riches and influence.  Moreover, slave owners had invested heavily in acquiring slaves. During the antebellum period, the cost of one slave ranged somewhere between $1,000 to $1,200. In today’s money, the cost is equivalent to the price of a mid-range automobile.  With such an investment, they were willing to do anything to protect their money or to avoid losses.

Rebellion and after

As previously indicated, slave owners treated slaves brutally. A small infraction on the part of the slave often led to severe punishments including beatings and hangings. The result of such unjust treatment was rebellions that occurred regularly. In places like Jamaica, there were 28 rebellions between the time of establishment of slavery and its abolishment.  The most successful rebellion occurred in St. Dominique in 1791 and it achieved the final goal of the eradication of the slavery. The rebellion alarmed all slave-owning countries mostly because St. Dominique had a prosperous and plantation economy that relied on slave labor.  The main exports from the island were cotton, sugar, and indigo, among other commodities with a huge demand in Europe.  It demonstrated the risk involved in the trade considering that two thousands whites were massacred in the rebellion.  In Jamaica, the Maroons continued to threaten the island and its economy to the extent that the governor ordered around 600 of them sent to Sierra Leone.  The slaves, therefore, had power and when they used it, the consequences were often serious.

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The success of Haiti rebellion inspired other rebellions in the slave-owning country albeit none was as successful. One of the biggest rebellions was the Bursa rebellion in Barbados that lasted for four days. In the United States, the most serious rebellion was nipped in the bud before it could happen. Denmark Vessey planned the rebellion that was to involve 9000 slaves but an informer reported to the authorities before it could happen (Oconnell 730).  The organizers were captured and sentenced to death but the report of the rebellion caused panic among the slave owners and the general free population.

The largest rebellion in colonial America was the Stono Rebellion. The location of the rebellion was near the Stono River in South Carolina.  The group of 20 slaves first attacked a firearm shop and took guns. They then forced more rebels to join them. As they marched down the main road, they attacked and killed whites while burning properties and singing liberation songs. After traveling for ten miles, the militia attacked and scattered them.

The main lessons that slave owners learned from rebellion was that mistreated slaves were likely to rebel. Consequently, with time, plantation owners learned to the treat their slaves well with a modicum amount of respect.  The conditions under which slaves operated on improved considerably because plantation owners realized that a rebellion would mean losing everything including their lives.  The Stono Rebellion led to the passage of the 1740 Negro Act, which prohibited the importation of slaves directly from Africa (Behrendt 45). Also, militia were required to patrol regularly to prevent slaves from gathering and planning a rebellion.  An inquiry into the causes of the rebellion found that treating slaves harshly contributed to the rebellion. The view was reinforced by the fact that during the rebellion, the rebels spared the life of one slave owner who treated his slaves kindly. The new law introduced fines for slave owners who treated their slaves too harshly.  The downside of the rebellion is that it made lives harder for slaves. They could not gather, grow their own food, and learn to read or write or work for money. In other words, the law disallowed any form of activity that would empower them.

The impact

The European settlement of America created conditions for slavery. However, settlement per se was not the main driver but the economic realities in the Europe. As Europe underwent through agrarian and industrial revolution, population in cities increased, so the demand for goods and services increased as well. The new city dwellers worked in factories such as textile factories, tobacco-processing plants, among other industries that emerged during the period. These workers had the money to spend on sugar, cigarettes, and cotton clothes. To fill the demand for these products, a significant amount of labor was needed in the colonies, hence the emergence of the slave dependent economies in places such as American south. The conditions demanded an expansion of the trade, which is what happened, but at great human cost. Slaves suffered greatly and frequent rebellions produced massive losses for slave owners as well. For economies in Europe and investors in the trade, the institution of slavery subsidized the nascent industries, allowing them to grow from the profits of trade, which were later invested in emerging industries, driving the economies further into prosperity. The whole situation could perhaps have been avoided if settlers used paid labor instead of slave labor. However, it is evident that economic realities were the driver of slavery. The demand for goods increased and yet labor was in short supply.  As the world industrialized and agricultural production was mechanized, slavery as an institution died slowly and voices against its abolition increased. In the end, the forces of modernity, irrelevance of human labor in the world of machines, and moral repugnance of the practice won the day.


In conclusion, it is evident that slavery existed because it made economic sense. On one hand, there was land and other factors of production and, on the other hand, a ready and massive market was available for sugar and other goods.  The only missing thing in the equation was labor hence the reason slavery emerged in the new world. All the players in the slave industry gained enormous wealth and influence, making it hard to abolish the economy. It took a civil war to ban it in America. Slave rebellion also made the slavery risky for landowners. In the end, it became obvious that the slave economy was not sustainable. Luckily, developments in the inventions of new machines make it possible to ban the morally repugnant institution.

Works Cited

  • Anderson, Carl B., and Scott Alan Metzger. “Slavery, the Civil War Era, and African American Representation in U.S. History: An Analysis of Four States Academic Standards.” Theory & Research in Social Education, vol. 39, no. 3, 2011, pp. 393–415., doi:10.1080/00933104.2011.10473460.
  • Barzel, Yoram. “An Economic Analysis of Slavery.” The Journal of Law and Economics, vol. 20, no. 1, 1977, pp. 87–110., doi:10.1086/466893.
  • Behrendt, Stephen D. “The Transatlantic Slave Trade.” Oxford Handbooks Online, 2012, doi:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199227990.013.0012.
  • Eltis, David. “The Volume and Structure of the Transatlantic Slave Trade: A Reassessment.” The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 58, no. 1, 2001, p. 17., doi:10.2307/2674417.
  • Hornbeck, Richard, and Suresh Naidu. “When the Levee Breaks: Black Migration and Economic Development in the American South.” American Economic Review, vol. 104, no. 3, 2014, pp. 963–990., doi:10.1257/aer.104.3.963.
  • Oconnell, H. A. “The Impact of Slavery on Racial Inequality in Poverty in the Contemporary U.S. South.” Social Forces, vol. 90, no. 3, Jan. 2012, pp. 713–734., doi:10.1093/sf/sor021.
  • Whatley, Warren, and Rob Gillezeau. “The Impact of the Transatlantic Slave Trade on Ethnic Stratification in Africa.” American Economic Review, vol. 101, no. 3, 2011, pp. 571–576., doi:10.1257/aer.101.3.571.


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