Growing the Economy
By Dr. Asantewaa Oppong Wadie
Presented by Omni-U Virtual University
Dr. Asantewaa Oppong Wadie
An excerpt from: "Slavery and Capitalism," a lecture previously delivered by the author.*
Almost no one, when looking at the shining cities of Europe and the Americas, readily thinks of the European-African "slave" era. The opulence of these cities can collectively draw us into the soft and easy lie that European-Americans have always had one of the highest standards of living in the world, and possibly always should have this living standard regardless of the cost to others. However, the truth of the matter is the exact opposite. Europe and the countries of the Americas gained a significant portion of their nascent wealth from the enslavement of African people.
European nations with major involvement in the European-African enslavement era include:
Once the lands were seized from the Indigenous Peoples, aka, "native Americans", all countries in the "Americas" -from Canada to Argentina and all the Caribbean islands- utilized the enslavement of African people to create wealth for their "American" territory and their European colonial masters.
In 1492, Europe was largely just stumbling out of the human misery of its Middle Ages. Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain defeated the last of the Moorish kings and took full control of Spain. It was from this royal couple, that Christopher Columbus sought sponsorship for his voyage to “India.” Within 10 years of Christopher Columbus' landing in the Caribbean, there was full-fledged slavery on the island that today we call Haiti.
It is a mistake to think that the Europe of the late 1400s and early 1500s, was anywhere near as "polished" as it is today. The creation of paved roads and other fineries happened concurrently with Europe’s involvement with slavery and colonialism. In 1944, the Afro-Trinidadian scholar, Eric Williams, published a first-of-its-kind book, "Slavery and Capitalism." In it, he made a direct connection between slavery in the British Empire and the advent of the Industrial revolution. Williams argues that up to fifty percent (50%) of the British income, during that era, comes from the enslavement of Africans. As expected, Williams’ work was profoundly attacked by mainstream scholars who argued that, perhaps, slavery only contributed seven (7%) of British income during that era. Today, scholars are increasingly affirming Eric Williams’ early stance and extending Williams' findings to the swath of all Western European nations that participated in slavery. It is Williams’ contention that it was not until European elites amassed great surpluses of capital from enslavement, that they even began to consider the abolition of slavery. In every case, slavery was quickly followed by the installation of a capitalist economy. That was the next natural step in a society where many had the capital to invest.
We would all do well to remember that the British government enslaved African-Americans from 1619 to 1776 – a period of 157 years. The United States enslaved African-Americans from 1776 to1865- a period of 89 years. All the forced labor performed by Africans in Colonial America enriched the imperial government of England. The British royal family and the British elected government must be held accountable.
When the United States- newly freed from its colonial master- had a chance to decide whether it would continue the legacy of slavery, the rulers of the nation chose to continue and expand slavery. In fact, the United States evolved a particular type of slavery that was held in place by crippling brutality. Partially because of the Europeans' willingness to ruthlessly drive the Indigenous Peoples, aka, "Native Americans," off of their ancestral lands, more and more land became steadily available to these new Settlers. In the era after the Revolutionary War, American citizens rushed to take control of the lower southeast. On the new expansive plantations, a system of barbaric, supervised, labor extraction would prove extremely lucrative for enslavers. In fact, for many European-American families, this was the era in which they would gain the capital that was needed for their participation in a capitalist economy. Considering that the pilgrims and other similar persons fleeing religious persecution, came to colonial America with very little money and few skills, we have to ask how Americans managed to build one of the highest standards of living in the world. Having literally resorted to cannibalism in the winter of 1609 to save themselves from certain death by starvation, Americans made their initial wealth by exploiting the labor of Africans in the commodity production of Indigo, rice, tobacco, sugar, and cotton. None of the aforementioned crops were items that Europeans had the agricultural skills to produce on a small scale, let alone on a massive, exportable scale. Thus, when we seek to reckon with the amount of capital garnered from the enslavement of Africans in the United States, their intellectual capital- particularly in the field of agricultural production- must be taken into account.
Alan Singer, author of the book, "New York and Slavery: Time to Teach the Truth," makes,
perhaps, the handiest and most concise statement regarding the wealth garnered from slavery. He says:
“On the eve of the Civil War, the economic value of slaves in the United States was three(3) billion dollars in 1860 currency [roughly one hundred five(105) billion dollars today, more than the combined value of all the factories, railroads, and banks in the country. Much of the North’s economic prosperity derived from what Abraham Lincoln, in his second inaugural address called, ‘the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil.”
Matthew Desmond, writing for the New York Times "1619 Project," concurs with Alan Singer. He writes:
“By the eve of the Civil War, the Mississippi Valley was home to more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in the United States. Cotton grown and picked by enslaved workers was the nation’s most valuable export. The combined value of enslaved people exceeded that of all the railroads and factories in the nation. New Orleans boasted a denser concentration of banking capital than New York City.”
In times past, I have, as a teacher of history, made the mistake of following U.S. history books in stating that the cotton gin broke the bottleneck of cotton production in the United States. Edward E. Baptist, author of "The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism," says that the cotton gin theory is only a fraction of the truth. After all, the cotton gin cannot plant the cotton seed, tend the cotton crop, or, most important, harvest the cotton crop. The cotton gin is a post-production tool only. When cotton was booming, it was because enslaved humans were beaten senselessly to work harder and faster in a system that black people dubbed “the pushing system.” Please do fret if you have never heard the term “pushing system.” It is virtually spoken about by no one. In 1801, the average enslaved person picked 28 pounds of cotton per day. Conceivably, by 1846, the exact same persons are picking 341 pounds of cotton per day. What accounts for that giant jump in production? The answer is - violence. Cotton labor camps perfected a system of controlling the amount of food, controlling the pace of work, and measuring each sack of cotton every night. If one picked less today than they had picked yesterday, they were mercilessly beaten until their back was like jelly. The fear of the lash drove the enslaved to work as if they were possessed by demons. Edward Baptist reveals that enslaved persons, in the cotton-growing south, had to teach themselves to use both hands independent of each other, each as a dominant hand. The enslaved often speedily picked from two different rows to meet the quota set for them in the ledger books of the plantation managers. The penalty was so nightmarish and severe that the human capacity to work more than quadrupled in the years leading up to the Civil War.
Of course, American businessmen boasted that they had scientifically enhanced cotton seed. This, they said, was the reason for the increase in their production. However, when other countries imported American cotton seeds, they were still not able to reach the production threshold set by the United States. That is because it was never the seeds. It was always the sting of the bullwhip that made the difference. Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman put it this way, “torture is the aptest explanation” for the massive increase in production. And make no mistake, the “Lords of the Lash” in the cotton-growing South were directly connected to the Northern “Lords of the Loom” who open industrialized textile factories to process all the cotton belched out of the South.
Bob Marley, whose enslaved ancestors produced sugar for the British empire, sings the following: “Now it is not the rain that waters the cane crop, it is the sweat from man’s brow and substance from his spine.” Marley captures in a single phrase the point of this paper. Money gained from such an inhumane, savage system cannot be considered just money. The money that built American capitalism is really human substance,.- human blood-colored green- and the ghost of human lives truncated and extinguished by incomprehensible greed and unprecedented savagery. Perhaps that is why American wealth, and the race to gain it, often leads to chronic depression and anxiety.
*Delivered in June of 2022 to the Financial Department of Charles Schwab
Eric Williams. Slavery and Capitalism
Alan Singer New York and Slavery: Time to Teach the Truth
Edward E. Baptist. The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism
Walter E. Rodney. How Europe Underdeveloped Africa
John Henrik Clarke. Christopher Columbus and the African Holocaust
Kiarri T.H. Cheatwood. The Race: Matters Concerning Pan Afrikan History, Culture and Genocide.
Nikole Hannah-Jones. The 1619 Project
Dr. Margaret Taylor Goss Burroughs. "What Shall I Tell My Children Who Are Black?...."