How far was the Atlantic slave trade motivated by economics?
Towards the end of the 18th century, the Atlantic slave trade had grown to achieve significant momentum. Since the first cohort of slaves were brought to the colonized James Town in 1619, the number of slaves shipped to America increased exponentially from roughly 36,000 a year to 80,000 from the early 18th century to 1780s. As a result up to 11 million African slaves arrived in the Americas with only about 6% of these being imported to British North America. The use of slaves to carry out arduous labour was not unusual as it had been widely used by the Roman Empire for economic reasons in the time prior to the 16h century. But to what extent was economic factors the deciding factor to ship African slaves to the Americas? The leading theory that economics motivated the Atlantic slave trade was proposed by Eric Williams in his book “Capitalism and Slavery”.
Not long since it was colonized in 1607, James Town was primarily used to grow tobacco. Realising the substantial profits that could be made by selling tobacco, colonists soon began searching for more labour to work in the increasing number of plantations. Until 1619, indentured servants were the primary source of labour, being contracted to an employer to provide work for a fixed number of years and in exchange receive room, lodging and freedom dues after their term had expired. However, numerous problems with indentured servitude soon began to arise. With the growing demand for labour came increasing costs of hiring an indentured servant. Additionally, the plantation of sugar and tobacco was no easy task leading to indentured servants facing extremely hard work. With detestable working conditions, shortened life expectancy and severe punishments for escape attempts, the number of willing indentured servants (not indentured criminals or children sold to become indentured servants) remained relatively low and unable to support the growing number of plantations.
Soon after the alternative to indentured servants was introduced by the Dutch traders, colonist leapt upon the chance to buy the relatively cheap African slaves that could serve indefinitely (as opposed to having a fixed contract). Thus the Atlantic triangular trade that operated through the 16th to 19th century was formed. In exchange for textiles and manufactured goods from Europe, African warlords would provide slaves that would then be shipped to Americas to aid in the production of cash crops such as sugar, tobacco and cotton. This triangular trade proved to be extremely lucrative business. Being able to transport large volumes of slaves at a given time, the cost per unit of each slave could be reduced and sold at a cheaper rate. In turn, slaves sold to plantation owners could generate up to 300 per cent profit depending on how long they survive. Such profits could be achieved as the initial cost of purchasing the slaves was much less than having to pay individual salaries to labourers. As Eric Jones explains it, “"It had to do not with the colour of the labourer, but the cheapness of the labour".
However, if this this was the case then why would the colonists buy slaves imported across the Atlantic when they could alternatively enslave the indigenous population? There are several reasons as to why the Native Americans made a poor choice of slaves. Though in fact historians estimate that tens of thousands of Native Americans were enslaved, there is a wide belief that Africans made better albeit more expensive slaves (thus why less favoured in some plantations). Arguments as to why they make better slaves are largely genetic and include the fact that while Native Indians were susceptible to European diseases. Paired with the arduous labour of plantation life, many succumbed to disease not long after arriving at the plantation. In contrast, on the aggregate African slaves were well built for rigorous plantation work and possessed superior immunity to European diseases thus making them a more viable option to be used on plantations. To reinforce this point, prior to being enslaved, majority of the Native Americans were simple hunter-gatherers unlike Africans (who were much closer to Europe) who were capable and knowledgeable of growing crops. Furthermore, having originated from the Americas themselves, it was observed that many attempted escape had they not been transported far from their home territory. Even though punishment for attempted escape was steep, knowledge of the land encouraged Native Americans to attempt escape. Had it not been for the higher costs of buying African slaves, it was almost certain that plantation owners would opt to use Africans over the Native Americans as they could provide better labour suited for plantation work due to having a superior skill set, disease resistance and physical capability.
A different school of thought was provided by David Eltis who asserts that the slave trade was influenced by cultural parameters. It was not unusual for Africans to enslave other Africans outside their particular ethnic group. Slavery, having existed and practiced in Africa for numerous made it somewhat easier to subjugate African slaves due the continent being less unified than Europe which at this time viewed themselves as a single cultural group. Thus conceptions on slavery meant that fellow “insiders” could not be enslaved. Contrasting this were Africans who were quite open to the idea of selling one another as slaves. In fact, to accommodate the growing demand of slaves by European traders, the number of wars and kidnappings increased in Africa.
Another argument put forward by Eltis suggested that plantation owners did not pursue profit maximization and instead conformed to gender roles existing in Europe at the time. Noticing a gender bias where plantation owners preferred to have a large number of male slaves despite female slaves having been involved in numerous economic activities prior to enslavement. Eltis notes that eventually the Europeans later would accommodate the skillset of female slaves to allow “a wider economic role for women -- as long as they were of African extraction". Additionally, female slaves were not allowed to pursue professions of craftsmanship and artisans only instead being allowed to specialize in activities such as cooking or sewing.
In conclusion, it can be said that the Atlantic slave trade was heavily but not entirely influenced by economics. Plantation owners could see and eventually did take advantage of the robust stature and easily available African slaves who would granted plantation owners a high return on investment. Yet, evidence also suggests that the plantation owners also conformed to gender roles and also showed reluctance at enslaving "fellow" Europeans. Whether this is due to the owners feeling empathy to their kind or because it was expensive to hire Europeans due to their lack of availability, it is undeniable that female slaves were not given roles that were traditionally done by men despite being capable. For these reasons, we can say that the plantation owners were driven by economics in their decision to buy African slaves but economics was not an absolute force in their business model.