Slave Labor and Civilization Unit

SlaveLabor and Civilization


As far as labor is concerned, there are two main opposing systems,free labor and slave labor. The free labor system is what the modernworld is accustomed to today. It involves laborers offering theirservices willingly to employers for a wager. The slave labor systemon the other hand involves being forced to provide labor while theemployer takes care of the laborer as his or her own property. Thus,the main difference between the two systems is that in the slavelabor system, the laborer does not have the freedom to render orwithdraw his services while in the free labor system, the laborer hasthe freedom to render or withdraw his services. These two systemshave attracted much discussion and comparison as this paper expoundson some of the main points of debates.

Most importantly, the issue of profitability among the two systemshas been widely addressed. On one hand, there are arguments insupport or against free labor. From an economic perspective, AdamSmith, one of the greatest economists of all times, opposed slavelabor. He argued that if a man had no hope for property, he wouldobviously work badly and thus be less effective compared to a freeman. In the case of European colonization of the American states,slaves were acquired at minimal costs and were provided with minimalbasic needs in exchange for their labor services. In addition, theoff springs of slaves automatically belonged to the slave ownerthereby ensuring a constant supply of labor to the plantations. Thus,given that there was no hope of freedom as a reward for working hard,it was expected that the slaves would cheat, steal and even sabotagework at the plantations at the slightest opportunity. To ward offsuch tendencies, flogging and severe punishments were meted to theslaves, which further contributed to low motivation (Henrichsen2012).

On the contrary, some plantations owners took the alternative routeand treated slaves well in order to motivate them. In fact, someplantation owners in the southern states of America were friendly tothe slaves and even opted to promise freedom to hardworking slaves inorder to motivate them and increase efficiency. Thus, slavery tothese plantation owners was “generally a highly profitableinvestment which yielded rates of return that compared favorably withthe most outstanding investment opportunities in manufacturing”(cited in Leiman 2011 p. 110). As a matter of fact, for the majorityof the plantations relying on slave labor, the system was 35% moreeffective than plantations dependent on family labor (ibid).

The slaves were mainly sourced from West Africa regions at little orno cost. The attractiveness of the African slaves over other slavesfrom elsewhere was based on the proximity of Africa and moreimportantly West Africa to Europe. The slaves were sourced fromAfrica by ships enroute to America. The slaves were forcefullycaptured from their native homes in Africa or acquired on the cheapfrom local chiefs and tribal leaders in exchange for simple giftssuch as mirrors and textile (Klein, 2010). This also ensured that themerchant ships were loaded all the times in the triangulartransatlantic trade thus maximizing profits. Slaves from othercolonies of the British colonies such as Asia were located too farway to make good business of transporting them over the longdistance. Again, the indentured slaves from England and the rest ofEurope were sold at almost a similar price to African slaves.However, the indentured slaves would only serve for a limited periodof time whilst the African slaves were acquired for their lifetime(Thomas, 1997).

Eric William (2015), a Marxist historian, attributed the slave tradeto the industrial revolution in the UK and other western countries.He believed that the plantations both in the Americas, West Indiesand other Caribbean countries contributed significant to theaccumulation of wealth, thus capitalism, and also provided rawmaterials to the emerging industries thus jumpstarting the industrialrevolution. Blackbourn (1998) provides some critical figures tosupport Williams’ claims indicating that new world slavery tripledprofits between 1770 and 1800 thereby contributing between 20 and 50percent of the funds of fixed capital formation in the region.

On a larger scale, Williams (2015) argued that the slave tradeenabled the development of seaports. He argues that slave labor wasvery critical in in increasing production and increasing the marketsize in the American colonies. Therefore, with expansion ofplantations and population in the American colonies, trade volumeincreased. This necessitated the creation of additional ports inEngland to handle high trade volume. Although London was the maintrading center, other cities that were directly influenced by slavetrade were Portsmouth, Liverpool and Manchester.

Ironically, the slave trade emerged out of efforts of ‘bringinglight (civilization) into darkness (savagery)’. Africa,symbolically nicknamed the Dark Continent, was perceived to be indire need to be brought at par with the rest of the world. The restof the world was significantly more advanced with cottage industriesalready established in Europe and ship building offering theEuropeans the motivation and means of exploring new landsrespectively. Upon discovering Africa, Europeans encountered thenative Africa’s who largely living traditional lifestyles suchhunting and gathering and practicing their traditional cultures andreligion. Immediately, the Europeans judged the traditional Africancultures and way of living as a primitive and thus planned oncivilizing them or giving them a new culture akin to the westernculture (Corad 2010).

This process is what Conradfamously called “bringing light to the darkness”. The processinvolved introduction of new ways of doing things and a new culture.At first, Europeans first ventured into West Africa. These westernAfricans, like many other African cultures, had their own slavesystem. Dominant empires in the region such as the Ghana Empire, theMali Empire, and the Songhai Empire had their own slave systemslargely powered by gold trade in the region. Some of these slaveswere sold to North African kingdoms in Egypt and Morocco. Therefore,slave trade was nothing new to the West Africans with the only changebeing the destination. Ideally, slavery among Africans was only wellestablished where there were kingdoms and strong rules. Like in thecase of East Africa, only Ethiopia had a strong political structureheaded by an emperor hence supported slavery. Other regions inTanzania and Kenya were new to slavery as there were no strongpolitical structures to support slavery. However, the people oftensuffered incursions from their northern neighbors in Ethiopia whowould raid the south for slaves in modern-day Somalia and northernKenya. The early 19thcentury would usher the horn of Africa region to European slaverythrough the coming of explorers, missionaries and colonialists(Klein, 2010).

Christianity as a religion,through many missionaries, was first to be introduced followed bywestern education. To ensure that the new introductions were acceptedby the natives, gifts such as textiles were used to entice the localcommunity leaders who in turn acted as ambassadors of themissionaries. The other process was introduction of new crops. Soon,what followed were colonial rulers who established administrativejurisdiction in these new lands. These colonialists would leadexpeditions into the interiors to capture slaves either with orwithout the help of local leaders. The slaves would be chained bytheir ankles and necks as has been demonstrated by many historicalbooks before being loaded into ships destined to the Americas(Hinrichsen, 2012).Many of these slaves died on the way to Americas while some werethrown overboard to calm the spirits of the seas wherever themerchant ships faced severe storms.

Elsewhere in India, there wasa strong cultural and social stratification of the people thatpermitted slavery even before the arrival of European colonialists.Great interethnic rivalries and religious animosity between Muslimsand Hindus fueled slavery in the pre-colonization era. The Muslimslargely enslaved the Hindus whom they termed as non-believers. Theslaves were employed to work in the pottery industry, farming andeven textile manufacturing. The Muslims in the region thereforelaunched many waves on attacks in Hindu territories and captured manymen and women to be traded as slaves. Again some of the lite Hindusand Muslims also enslaved individuals or their children as paymentsof debts to peasant farmers who looked upon the rich to finance theirpeasant activities (Blackbourn, 1998).

The arrival of the Dutch andPortuguese colonialists in the region only offered a new mix ofAfrican slaves. The presence of some strong Islamic rules in theIndian region implied that the colonialists could benefit mostly fromthe land and not slaves. Indian slaves were minimally used as thecost of the Asian slaves was relatively higher compared to slavesobtained from southern Africa region including Madagascar. For thefew Asian slaves that the Dutch colonialists employed, they werelargely sourced from Arakan/Bengal, Malabar, Coromandel, andIndonesia as at that time, they had minimal Islamic influence(Blackbourn, 1998).

Thus it is clear to see thatcolonialism, which was expected to light up Africa and otheruncivilized regions, was a step backwards. Some colonialistsfacilitated slave traded and thus the regions were robbed of theirproductive workforce who were transported to in new lands. The comingof colonialists also introduced new cultures, new diseases and ingeneral established the social, political, and cultural structuresexisting among the natives. In the end, the regions were left wakenedand open to domination by the colonial powers. The colonizationprocess which started as trade and Christian missionary work has alsobeen blamed for racism by some scholar who argue that colonialism andslavery, depicted people of color and second level humans unlike thecase of indentured slaves (Hinrichsen, 2012).

In summation, the discussionabove makes it clear that slavery was a step backwards in theprogress of humanity. Despite the fact that practice has beenaccredited with jumpstarting the industrial revolution debates on theefficacy of free labor versus slave labor show that even by usingfree labor, the industrial revolution would have taken place. Infact, based on Adam Smith’s view, slave labor system might have infact slowed the industrial evolution given that the economicsbelieved that slave labor was less effective. Again, the darkness ofslave labor gave way to colonization, which has been blamed forracism and even the poor economic development of Africa, which haslagged behind of centuries.


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Leiman, M. (2011).The political economy of racism. New York:

Thomas, H. (1997). The slave trade: the history of the Atlantic slave trade 1440-1870New

York: Picador,

Williams, E. (2015).Capitalism and slavery. New York: