The plantation system was developed hundreds of years earlier by the Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch to supply Europe with massive quantities of sugar. Those three countries forcibly transported more slaves to the Americas than the United States, many long before 1619, and the long fight for freedom began almost immediately. Why then do progressives insist America is solely to blame?
Nikole Hannah-Jones’s 1619 Project infamously declared that the true founding of the United States should be dated in 1619 instead of 1776 when the first African slaves arrived on American shores. In this conception, slavery is a uniquely American institution, an evil all our own whose shadow persists to this day in everything from punching a time clock at work to getting caught in a traffic jam, but what if that were far from the real story? What if slavery was present in America long before and the future Founders of the United States had absolutely nothing to do with it? The truth, as ever, is far more complicated than usually presented. The first African slaves didn’t arrive in 1619, nor were they brought by the English. It was the Spanish, the Portuguese, and the Dutch that instituted slavery in North and South America, and they brought slaves from Africa in extraordinary large numbers, some 650,000 between 1550 and 1650 to work rapidly expanding sugar plantations in Mexico and Brazil. The slaves were so numerous they outnumbered Europeans in the New World by two to one before America was even founded.
This isn’t the beginning of the tragic story, either. The plantation model of slavery that would ultimately be adopted in the United States two centuries later was perfected well before 1500 to satisfy Europe’s craving for sugar. Sugar itself, technically sucrose from the sugarcane plant, was introduced to Europeans in significant quantities around 1096 during the First Crusade. Though sugar had been cultivated for 10,000 years before then, it thrives primarily in tropical environments and doesn’t grow in Europe proper. It wasn’t native to the Middle East either, but some innovative residents of what would become Iran, Iraq, Syria, Israel, and Lebanon figured out how to engineer irrigation sufficient for the plant to thrive. The Crusaders encountered it there en masse for the first time and quickly looked for a means to produce more, thus plantations were born.
Even then, the Europeans were inspired by Muslim operations they had seized during the Crusades. Proto Plantations in Cyprus, Crete, Sicily, Majorca, and Southern Spain took advantage of the fact that farmers always grew more sugar than they needed personally and could always sell the excess sugar for profit. The only limiting factors were land and labor. When the area around the Mediterranean was tapped out, Europeans looked to islands in the Atlantic ocean off the coast of Africa, the Azores, the Cape Verde Islands, and the Canary Islands. Madeira, for example, was first settled in 1420, but in the 1440’s Portugal realized the climate was ideal for sugarcane with production increasing more than a thousand fold between 1472 and 1493. Business was booming, but prices were falling. The answer was to produce more sugar and that required more labor. The sugar growers on Madeira turned to slavery.
Slavery itself had a history in Portugal and the Iberian Peninsula in general, but nothing like what would develop in the quest to produce ever larger quantities of sugar. Previously, slaves had been from Slavic countries, hence the origin of the word, or captured Muslims that would perform household chores for the wealthy, functioning as status symbols and servants. No one today would call the system humane or benevolent, but slaves could earn money, buy time back from their owners, or their own freedom entirely. The first slaves in Madeira arrived in small groups of three or four, and most weren’t from the Gulf of Guinea that would ultimately feed the United States demand for slavery four hundred years later. The earliest slaves were a mixed lot, some from the Canary Islands, some from Northwest Africa, and some Jews and Muslims from Portugal itself. Overtime, they were replaced primarily by west-central Africans, enslaved on the earliest plantations, what the historian Alberto Viera, an expert on the these islands, describes as slavery’s “social, political, and economic starting point.”
There was far more cruelty to come, however, starting with two additional islands, also controlled by Portugal, St. Thomas and Principe, both off the coast of Guinea. At first, the Portugese tried to follow the same model as Madeira, given the islands’ similar geography and climate, albeit with more massive numbers of slaves including 2,000 Jewish children. They couldn’t possibly have known it at the time, but, unlike Madeira, these new islands were home to two species of mosquito that carried malaria and yellow fever, ultimately decimating the initial European settlements. Over six years, 1,400 of the children died, along with countless others. Alas, this didn’t stop the Portuguese and then the Dutch from trying: The need for sugar overcame all human concerns. At various points, the Dutch lost 80% of their settlers over just four months on nearby Principe island, then 1,200 settlers in just two weeks on St. Thomas. Those of African heritage, however, had a much stronger immunity to these lethal diseases by a strange quirk of genetics, and they survived in much larger numbers. By 1600, there were only 200 Europeans left on St. Thomas with slaves outnumbering their masters by more than one hundred to one. The Dutch had a saying at the time, “In St. Thomas, there’s a door to come in, but there’s no door to go out.” Official reports in 1785 claimed there were only four Europeans on the entire island.
Incredibly, sugar production continued to flourish despite this massive loss of life. Given the small European population, St. Thomas was divided into a few dozen large plantations, staffed by a handful of overseers and several hundred slaves. The overseers lived in the big house and the slaves in huts or shacks, many in chains, brutal sights that would become all too familiar as the plantation system spread to the new world, first in South America, then in North America. Brazil came first, following and ultimately outpacing the models established in Madeira and St. Thomas. The rapidly expanding Portuguese colony lead the world in sugar production by the 1570’s, powered by the massive importation of slaves. This insatiable desire was fulfilled by the Africans themselves for the African continent had a long history of slavery similar to the Iberian peninsula. In fact, slaves were one of the few, if not the only, private property Africans could own that generated revenue. Unlike Europe, land in western Africa was owned entirely by the government, whether a king, a tribe, or some other sovereign. This made people a key unit of commerce, something that could be amassed, sold, and taxed.
The unfortunate slaves themselves became so as a sentence for a crime, failure to repay a debt, at times selling themselves, or by being captured in the frequent wars between budding nations and tribes. In the 17th century, West Africa was divided into some sixty different states, making it easy for rival nations to raid across the border and acquire what to them was more valuable property. Before the rise of the sugar trade, African slaves normally worked as servants and soldiers, or doing construction on houses, roads, and other infrastructure. Slaves also served an almost ornamental purpose for their owner, a sign of prestige if even the old and infirm were well dressed at a public function, but everything changed once their masters realized Europeans were willing to purchase them for valuable goods. These Europeans hungry for labor plugged into an existing market and grew it, quickly and brutally. The African slave owners, just as hungry for wealth and power, were all too eager to meet this new demand, rapidly expanding the list of crimes with slavery as a punishment, raising large armies to raid neighboring settlements, and ultimately trading them for guns and other goods. In some cases, they actively sought out Europeans to sell them recently captured slaves. For example, raiders from what was called the Asante empire arrived unsolicited at a Dutch fort in Ghana in April 1732, demanding guns in return for their slave captives. The Dutch ended up trading for some 220,000 slaves by 1820, shipping them around the world.
Throughout, almost every aspect of the atrocious process was supported and managed by Africans. They brought the slaves to port, loaded them on ships, even supplied and crewed the ships themselves. The Europeans can be seen as their customer in this formulation, and the sellers went to great lengths to meet their needs, especially when broad swaths of Africa remained riddled with the malaria and yellow fever that was deadly to outsiders. The continued shipment outside their home countries had another tragic consequence, however. Previously, slaves were either fallen members of communities or members of neighboring tribes. Either way, they were “known” quantities to the slave owner, real people with real histories and families, but once they got put on a ship and sent half a world away they were completely dispossessed. Assuming they survived the crossing, they would arrive at some unknown port, unknown themselves, simply an asset (actually referred to as “pieces in the ledger), their humanity stripped away, contributing to yet another level of cruelty.
Despite this, the long fight for freedom began almost immediately after the slaves arrived. Centuries before the Underground Railroad in the United States, slaves in South America fled their plantations and started their own communities, some ultimately winning their freedom. In northeast Brazil, Calabar is a prime example, a fugitive city known as a “quilombo.” Calabar occupied a ridge on the other side of one of the largest slave ports in Brazil, but due to the geography was invisible to the slavers. At its peak, some 20,000 former slaves and other inhabitants, largely dispossessed Europeans and Native Americans, occupied the city. Another quilombo, Liberdade was located just a few miles away, and today boasts a population of 600,000, the largest African-American community in the Western Hemisphere. Even in the future United States, quilombos existed, the largest in Florida. Overall, it’s estimated that tens or even hundreds of thousands of slaves escaped their bondage and settled in these fugitive communities. In some cases, many more than is widely reported or realized, these communities ultimately won recognition as free cities and states, often after decades of resistance and bloody struggles against their former masters. Spain recognized them in Ecuador, Columbia, Panama, and Mexico. The Dutch in Suriname. The French in Haiti. In the United States, the ex-slaves in the everglades were the first time the government officially freed a slave population before the Emancipation Proclamation.
Of course, none of this excuses or justifies the atrocities that would ultimately be committed by the English and then the United States. It does, however, reveal that history is a lot more complicated then often depicted and demonstrates that slavery wasn’t a uniquely American institution or moral stain. Rather, the English and then the United States expanded cruelly inhuman models that had been in place for centuries, used globally by the Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, and the African nations themselves. By comparison, the British and the United States transported less slaves than those countries, some 600,000, only about 5% of the total taken from Africa. The plantation and the horrors that flow from it wasn’t an American invention, nor was it even invented on North or South American shores, or even first used for tobacco and cotton. Sugar and the universal human sweet tooth was the original impetus to institutionalize the practice, hundreds of years before the United States was founded.
Ultimately, this prompts the question: Why are Nikole Hannah-Jones and others exclusively interested in American slavery, effectively blaming the United States for a blot shared by the entire world? Why is no one clamoring for reparations against the Spanish, Portuguese, or Dutch, or smearing them as irredeemably racist? As I have suggested, the battle they are fighting isn’t about the past, tragic as it was, at all. It is instead an attempt to smear the United States in the present, marring it with an irredeemable stain, to enact their progressive plans for the future. The persistent, stubborn belief that America is an exceptional country, founded on fundamental freedom remains an obstacle to the progressive agenda and must be excised. Therefore, we should be held uniquely accountable for the sins of the entire world, regardless of who else has sinned or at what scale.