Why did the colonial powers develop a need for African Slavery? The European colonial power's reliance and use of the African slave trade has become notorious for the vast scale of its commercial operation that relied on inhumane and destructive principles. 1 In it we see societies at the apparent height of civilised progress devise a highly brutal system of human trade. Why colonial powers developed a need for African slavery is an analysis of colonialism, wealth, Africa and a consideration of the ideology of institutions that could obstruct or promote it.
The ascendancy of economic and political freedoms, specifically those geared to capitalism, would fuel the development of desire for African slaves with the ideological blessing of both Church and State. An examination of first British and then Iberian colonies in the seventeenth century proves an excellent analysis for why a colonial power developed a need for slavery. Initially demand for workers in the New World was satisfied by white 'servants' and preferential demand was given to them over non-whites for their civility and common language; both crucial if their employers were to gain maximum productivity from them.
While blacks first arrived in Virginia in 1619 they enjoyed the same legal status as any white servant due to a lack of legislation to even define them as slaves. After their term of service ended they were free men as no indefinite or hereditary law existed to chattel them any further. The 1660s saw definite changes to this and the beginnings of a gulf between blacks and whites. The very preference for white servants would extend differing attitudes towards Africans to point of establishing laws in favour of better treatment for whites. The desperate need for new colonists was not helped by rumours of indefinite servitude of whites.
Legislation was brought in to promote the image that they would have a future by limited their service to a maximum of six years. The other side of the legal coin was a demotion of black rights. A Maryland law of 1663 decreed: "All Negroes or other slaves within the province and all Negroes and other slaves to be hereafter imported into the province shall serve durante vita; and all children born of any Negro or other slave shall be slaves as their fathers were for the term of their lives. "3 From this the legislative floodgates were opened to suppress further ambiguities or rights blacks had in the New World.
In the American colonies of the 17th century one sees an entirely new economy of large scale agricultural production for pure profit beginning, unrestricted and unchecked by traditional British institutions. Both Church and Crown were in retreat in their power to limit personal success and mobility, especially across the Atlantic. For the first time it became possible for wealth to be created by those with no hereditary status. Land was both cheap and plentiful and capital costs low, all that remained was a satisfaction of the demand for cheap labour.
Precipitating the 1660s wave of legislation concerning African slaves was economic strife in the emerging global economy. Tobacco prices slumped through over production while distribution channels were narrowed and costs driven up by the Navigation Acts of 1660 and 1661. A fall in profit margins in any business causes its management to reduce expenditure. Labour was the obvious target, demand and supply of slaves soared while legislation facilitated an easy procurement. 4 By the late seventeenth century it became unthinkable due to the economic absurdity to establish a plantation using white servants let alone wage labourers.
The guarantee of a slave's labour for life and that of their offspring would have profound effects on developing a need for slavery. The disadvantage of black's need of education and training compared to white's ability to an immediate service was abolished for a master now had the luxury of time to do this. A second generation of native-born English speaking blacks had reached a workable age and had been prepared throughout childhood for work on the plantation. Further legislation in 1667 and 1671 was passed to remove any bearing conversion to Christianity might have on a slave's status.
A drive for greater efficiency and profitability resulted in the law supporting the serving of an almost unchecked level physical discipline on any slave. By reducing slaves to personal property and a commodity good the colonial power's need for them was raised another level due to the ease of acquisition and the rising profits of use. 6 They became intrinsic to the very fabric of international trade and British economy. Juxtaposed with Britain was the already institutionalised existence of slavery in Spain and Portugal. Laws and customs with many cultural and traditional links to the classical era had existed for centuries.
Thus the arrival of African slaves in the fifteenth century to Iberia would be aided by existing legal and social frameworks. Despite this legal 'head-start' over the British colonies Spain remained distinctly 'medieval' and hardly favourable to wide scale African slave use. Stability was still guaranteed by a state and church alliance, the former stood out in its monarch's economic power and the latter in its control of free-thinking religion. The king's reluctance to promoting the slave trade only gave way in the wake of growing economic need for them.
The Spanish Church, with its position as moral leader of society, took a contradictory but proactive role in slavery by morally condemning it while awkwardly accepting its inevitability as a labour system. Germain Fromageau, a doctor of the Sorbonne, stated in 1698 that "one can neither, in the surety of conscience, buy nor sell Negroes, because in such commerce there is injustice. "7 Unfortunately, like Walter Raleigh in England, he was an isolated voice for his time. Had the Church condemned slavery as immoral it would have condemned itself by announcing Christendom's overseas dominions to be in sin.
The Church by choosing the lesser of two evils could at least oversee the workings of the system. None the less the ideology of the Western Church as a whole to African slaves would fuel the need for them further. Its wider role in granting the system legitimacy cannot be under-estimated. How the very option of African slaves to become desirable or a need is in part answered by a discussion of western theology. For many colonists in the New World would develop a need for slavery with the blessing of The Bible, itself a pro-slavery work.
At no point in the Old or New Testament is slavery stated as immoral, in many instances it is supported: Paul's order to the converted slave Philemom to return to his master Onesimus is one of a multitude of examples. 8 The Church Council of Gangra in Asia Minor enshrined in law a slave's Christian obligation to accept the authority of their masters as they accepted the authority of God. The Council decreed in 340 A. D: "If anyone, on the pretext of religion teaches another man's slave to despise his master, and to withdraw from his service, and not to serve his with good will and respect, let him be anathema.
" Sixty years later Augustine would reinforce the protection of the institution of slavery. Rome's association with slavery was thus validated and the philosophy of accepting one's position promoted by canonising both of the above. Pope Gregory I gave papal sanction to racial discrimination in 600A. D: "a hidden dispensation of providence [produced] a hierarchy of merit and rulership as a result of sin, different classes of men have been produced, and that these differentiated classes are ordained by divine justice.
" The twelfth and thirteenth century crusades saw Roman conceptions of who may be enslaved swelled by the inclusion of those captured during war, imprisoned, sold in destitution and those born of slaves. Initially this made no distinction to those who were Christian but the Church would threaten those caught enslaving their own with excommunication. On the eve of the colonisation of the New World Pope Alexander VI in 1493 gave Spain and Portugal, "full and free permission to invade, search out, capture and subjugate the Saracens and pagans and any other unbelievers and enemies of Christ wherever they may be…
and reduce their persons into perpetual slavery. " From before the fall of Rome we see the Church accepting the existence of slavery into its constitution and while not extending it directly at least sanctioning others God-given right to do so. The Church, while supported existing rights of those within slave or serf systems, never led or gave religious blessing to any attempt to achieve liberty. Nor would they attempt to erode the universal conviction that institutional slavery was acceptable.
Religious justification and foundations were laid for the Colonial powers to develop their need for African Slaves and extend it with no moral inhibitions dictated from above by Church or State. Indeed, State adoption across Western Europe of much of Roman law in, and prior to, the fifteenth century meant they absorbed a legal code that intrinsically accepted slaves within its framework. Ideology was systematically making the use of forced labour socially acceptable or even desirable given circumstance.