Slavery and colonialism as capitalism in combined and unevendevelopment

Charles Brown CharlesB at
Wed Oct 25 09:34:09 MDT 2000

The following if from_The Colonial Era : A History of the American People_ by Herbert
Aptheker (1959 International), also subtitled , " A Marxist Interpretation."

_Europe, Africa and America_

In the first and second stages of the history of capitalism, outstanding features of
its development were the land enclosure movement which , with other devices, resulted
in dispersing tens of thousands of peasants; the ravishing of Africa, and the
enslavement of much of its population; the plundering of America and the enslavement
( in certain cases, as in present Haiti, the fairly complete annihilation) of the
original inhabitants, and the colonizing of the Western hemisphere for more sustained
and systematic exploitation; lastly, the subjugation of Asia with varying degrees of
success, but with very high returns in terms of riches and power.

These developments were inter-related; the first three have the closest connection to
the beginnings of American history. Let us briefly examine certain aspects of the

The capitalist revolution was marked by the swift accumulation of fluid capital. To
enhance the rate of profit derived from such accumulations and to develop the markets
for the products of rising capitalist economy, overseas enterprises took on special
consequence. While in those countries where the break from feudalism was least
complete - as in Spain and Portugal - such colonial efforts were made directly under
the sponsorship and control of the Crown, in other areas, as in England and Holland ,
such efforts were made via mixed forms and with varying sponsorship. Thus, in England,
there developed Royal colonies, where the direct impact of the Crown ws present;
Proprietary colonies , where some individual had been granted economic and political
rights by the Crown; and Chartered colonies, where joint-stock companies had been
granted these rights by the Crown. In the latter, the greatest degree of separation
frm monarchical control tended to appear.

In the joint-stock companies, groups of merchants and manufacturers invested varying
amounts of capital and shared in the ownership They evolved from the 15th century
Society of Merchant Adventurers, itself reflecting the transition form feudalism to
capitalism. This Society was more local in its ventures and represented a
significantly lower amount of capitalization but it did serve as the harbinger of the
joint-stock companies.

Such companies first appeared in order to exploit commercial possibilities in
northeastern Europe ( as the Muscovy company), or the Near East (as the Levant
Cmpany), or in Africa ( as the Royal African Trading Company). From these it was but a
step, given the opening up of the New World, to the formation of joint-stock companies
( often with identical personnel) for the penetration and exploitation of America.
these companies, as the LOndon Company and the Plymouth Company (taking their names
from their home bases), armed with charters from the King, proceeded to clonize their
properties with the purpose of profiting therefrom.

The process whereby feudalism ws destroyed resulted in the driving from the soil of
thousands of serfs and tenants. This uprooting created fierce poverty, widespread
unemployment, and wholesale vagbondage. These in turn produced serious social tension
ans great danger for the rich and their state.

Capitalism'e development, however, not only produced this "excess" and dangerous
population at home; it also opened up new worlds across the seas. In those new worlds
- and in the 16th Century, especially in America - were to be found enormous resources
and tremendous land surfaces. But with the enormous resources and great land areas,
particularly in the northern part of America where England was to concentrate its
efforts, there existed a very sparse population, and therefore an insufficient labor
supply. Though the resources of that northern hemisphere were believed to be
stupendous, tehy would remain potential so long as the creator of all value, labor
power, was not available.

Hence, these two concomitants of the transition from feudalism to capitalism naturally
complemented each other, as contemporaries pointed out. Sir Humphrey Gilbert, for
example, half brother of Sir Walter Raleigh,and a leading soldier and explorer, wrote
in 1574:

" We might inhabit some part of these Countryes ( in the New World) and settle there
such needy people of our country which now trouble the commonwealth and through want
here at home are enforced to commit outrageous offenses, whereby they are dayly
consumed by the gallows"

The Spanish Minister to Engalnd reported in 1611 to his Monarch, who was watching
English activities with jealous and apprehensive eyes:  "their principal reason for
colonizing these parts is to give an outlet to so many idle, wretched people, and thus
to prevent to dangers that might be feared of them." Thirteen years later the London
Company declared its colonial objective to be: "The removing of the surcharge of
necessitous people, the matter or fuel of dangerous insurrections, and thereby leaving
the greater plenty to sustain those remaining within the Land" . These contemporary
statements omitted other imporant considerations, but they were pointing to one of
great moment.

The interpenetration of these historical processes may be illustrated further. Thus,
the actual conquest of much of the New World by the Spanish and Portuguese resulted in
the flooding of Europe with gold and silver, and the making of extraordinary profits
by merchants, who hence derived a capital fund from which they might the more easily
venture in additional overseas and colonial investments. Moreover, the increment of
enormous profits by merchant families led many of them to invest their excess in
textile, leather, wool and metal manufacturing; this, in turn, intensified the shift
from a feudal to a capitalist economy and the resulting demand for overseas markets to
absorb the products of industry.

But while the steep rise in prices which accompanied this process helped shoot profits
sky-high, it deepened the already impoverished state of the masses, for the real
earnings of the poor steadily declined. One set of figures will indicate what was
happening: In England, prices rose about 250 per cent from 1501 to 1650, but wages
lagged so far behind, that real earnings in 1700 were no more than 50 per cent what
they had been in 1500.

No wonder John Winthrop, first Governor of the Massachusetts Baycolony, in explaining
the migration from England, said, " this land grows weary of her inhabitants"; and
that Queen Elizabeth, after journeying through her realm, cried out, "There are
paupers everywhere !"

>From the beginning, then, the English colonies served as safety valves for the high
>social pressures built up by the exploitation and oppression in European states, and
>this continued well into the  twentieth century, England, Scotland, Ireland, France,
>Germany, Italy, Greece, Sweden, Poland, Russia, and other lands, were the source from
>whence for centuries millions of working people went West - bringing with them their
>skills, their strength, and their aspirations.

_Slavery and Capitalism_

In point of time, the first area outside of Europe to attract the benign eye of
acquisitive merchants, the righteous sigh of pious missionaries and the consecrated
sword of gracious sovereigns was the land-mass nearest to it, and around which one
needs to go to reach the fabled riches of Asia - that is Africa.

The military subjagation of Africa in modern times, and the enslavement of sections of
its population, was begun by Portugal in the middle of the 15th century; in the
ensuing years Spain, Engalnd , France, and Holland joined in the lucrative undertaking.

The beginning of the modern African slave trade preceded Columbus' voyage to the
Western World by half a century.It started with Europeans invading the West African
coast and seizing its inhabitants, in a rather crude and unorganized fashion, for sale
on the European Market, especially, in the first years, in Portugal and Spain.

The earliest extant record of a slave-catching expedition is that kept by Azurara,
leader of a Prtuguese venture in1446. It is typical of hundreds that were to follow
inthe generations to come,...

(follows a quote from Azurara on his men murdering and kidnapping an entire African

As this quotation indicates, in this business   the brutality was rivaled only by the
sanctimoniousness. Thus, two of the ships used by Good Queen Bess' favorite naval
hero, Sir John Hawkins, in his slve-trading business were called John the Baptist and

This process of rapine and carnage - next to war-making the most profitable of all
business endeavors marking the era of capitalism - lasted for over four hundred years;
for ferocity it has no peer in all the awful annals of human oppression. and as a
central feature of the process of primitive accumulation of capital, it is a basic
component of the history of capitalism, and American capitalism in particular.

For the first fifty years, this slave-trading business supplied labor for plantations
in southern Portugal, for Spanish mines, and for domestic service in those countries
and in France and England. then, with the discovery of the two continents in America
whose greatest need was for strong labor familiar to the ways of mining and
agriculture, the special function of Africa as a great source for much of that labor
was established....

>From the lack of an indigenous and exploitable population arose the necessity for the
>mass importation of labor, particularly needed in large numbers in a plantation
>economy such as was to be establihed in the favorable climate and terrain found in
>the zone from present day Florida to Maryland. A plantation economy, rather than
>agriculture by numerous freeholders, was of special interest to the rulers of
>England, because it provided the best means for control of a large labor force needed
>to produce raw materials missing from the home country.

Such an economy required a numerous, impoverished and relatively unfree labor supply.
The home country, and other areas of Europe would supply an important part of that
population, especially in the form of indentured servants ( of whom more later). But
the population of Europe was needed in its largest proportion in Europe; to denude the
home continent would be to kill the goose in one wild scramble to gather the golden
eggs. Moreover, hundreds of thousands would be needed in the enormous area norht of
Maryland, where the crops and the form of the economy were to be different...

(follows several paragraphs as to why it was not possible to kidnap and enslave people
from Central and South America, and Asia as efficiently as from Africa)

...In the slave trade business fabulous profits, doubling and quintupling original
investments in one or two voyages, were made by the rich of all Europe and , later, by
the merchants of the New World, especially those of New England. Ports like Bristol
and Liverpool, Peth Amboy and Newport flourished, to a considerable degree, on the
basis of the slave trade. In this sense, the enslavement of the African continent was
of basic importance in the development of world capitalism, as Africa's intensified
exploitation, beginning with the late 19th century, has been of basic consequence in
the strength of world imperialism. Indicative of the meaning of this business in money
terms is the fact that the value of the over 300,000 slaves hauled in 878 Liverpool
shops from 1783 to 1793 was more than 15 million pounds - and that is but one port,
for one decade. ...

( paragraphs of the impacts on Africans and Africans in human terms "enslaved and
killed 65 to 75 million people from the 15th through the 19th centuries")

But , of course, the heart of Africa's contribution to the development of European
capitalism and of the American coloniies - and of American capitalism- does not lie
inthe slave _trade_, profitable as it was. It lies rather in slavery, in the unpaid
and force labor of millions of Negroes for over   two centuries....Under these
conditions (naked enslavement), exploitation reached its most intense form, and these
millions of workers produced profits running into the multi-billions from the cotton,
sugar, rice, tobacco, hemp, gold, coal, and lumber their labor created. All this is
quite beside the value Negro slavery repesented to the rulers of the country in terms
of hamstringing the labor movement and bulwarking reaction generally.

The matter is complex, however, for in terms of the fullest development of capitalism,
slavery became a central obstacle; but in terms of the economic conquest of this
continent, and of the early accumulation of capital, the enslavement of the Negro
people was organic to the appearance and rise of American capitalism.

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