Slavery fundamental to development of Atlantic region

by Stephen Joseph Scott
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“Slavery is associated … with the emergence of several of the most profoundly cherished
ideals and beliefs in the Western tradition.” – Orlando Patterson.
The subjugation and forced enslavement of Black bodies seized from the continent of
Africa had been fundamental to the expansion and growth of the Atlantic domain since the
early sixteenth century. In fact, African enslavement had been a mainstay throughout the
Spanish Atlantic world for more than a generation prior to English colonization in the
Americas. Seeing the Spanish not only as rivals for land, wealth and resources, the English
(not having yet invented their own legalized system of slavery) could also view them as a
model concurrent with their French equivalents.
Thus, by the seventeenth century, the English had to create and/or erect the administrative
and legal arrangements necessary to manage and control what was for them a new labour
institution of power and governance. This essay will engage with and examine the
intricacies and nuances that undergirded the legalized and culturalized formulations of
dominance, suppression and supremacy over African slave labour through the mechanisms
of social control woven within European thought – race, law, class, religion and revolt –
immorally and hypocritically counterbalanced by both arbitrary freedoms for the few and
strict coercion for the multitudes, alluded to by the Orlando Patterson quote above.
Barbados, as esteemed Yale history professor Edward Rugemer asserts, was the codified
starting point for racialized slavery in the Atlantic world. The development of racializing
enslavement originated hither, but it remained incomplete. As early as 1636, the Barbados
Council “excluded Europeans from the group who could be bound for life” but, as
Rugemer specifies, “…they did not yet assume that all Africans or Indians who arrived
would be slaves”.
However, the ancient Aristotelian concept of “the natural slave” was certainly well-known
by British upper classes of the day as being anyone compelled into “forced labour for life”
vs. what was then a novel British formulation of “contracted indentured servitude”.
In July 1636, Barbados’ Governor Henry Hawley and his Council initiated perpetual
slavery by proclaiming that “Negroes and Indians, who came here to be sold, should serve
for life…” Hence, Black Africans and Indigenous peoples were formally and
authoritatively deemed “natural slaves”.
Consequently, at this initial juncture in the island’s socioeconomic development, and
thenceforth, “Barbadians [clearly] made distinctions between those who served for life and
those who worked under a contract.”
Sir Hilary Beckles (well-known Barbadian historian) underscores the fact that “sugar
production” combined with the legally sanctioned concept of “unfree labour” were, in
reality, the two sinister and compelling forces behind Barbadian planters’ avarice and
wealth accumulation. In fact, the succeeding generations of Englishmen in Barbados
favoured themselves with certain freedoms per property and ownership that would
embrace a racialized African enslavement, and a system of coercive order and violence that
suited their rapacious needs.
History never runs in a straight-line. If we take a closer look at reputable historical texts
such as (seventeenth-century English author) Richard Ligon’s A True & Exact History of
the Island of Barbados (first published in 1657), we find innate elements that capture the

imagination and move against a traditional narrative. From Ligon’s on-the-ground
perspective, having lived on the island of Barbados (from 1647 to 1650), he believed that
temporary European contracted servitude was treated worse than Negro slaves who
happened to be in subjugation for life.
Ligon held that “servants were treated worse than the slaves”. As a matter of fact, he
delineated their poor nourishment and insufficient lodging (in detail) and outlined the
viciousness of their overseers who would, as he stated, “beat a servant with a cane about
the head ’til the blood ran freely”.
In contrast to Ligon’s assessment, one cannot help but be stunned by the wanton
intimidation and legalized measures of violence enacted within “An Act for the Better
Ordering and Governing of Negroes” (Barbados 1661), included in the larger work of Acts
Passed in the Island of Barbados (from 1643 to 1762), published in 1764 and edited by
Richard Hall Esq., representative in the General Assembly for the Parish of St. Michael’s,
These texts reveal the gruesome and dreadful particulars of the then African slave’s
everyday lived experience.
The Acts mentioned provide the horrid and graphic details that challenge Ligon’s assertion
stated above. Race and religion are key elements woven throughout the law that not only
defined Africans as “heathenish and brutish”, but also clearly delineated all White
Europeans (owners and servants alike) as “Christians”, which endowed them with certain
divinely indorsed legal privileges – unmistakably demarcating skin-colour as the dividing
line of natural God-given rights, freedoms and protections.
For example, in Clause II of the Barbados Act of 1661, the elite White “men of letters”
who authored the proclamation openly delineated the punishments and threats, thereof,
legally sanctioned upon Negro men (and women alike) if they were to enact “violence to
any Christian [including White servants] by striking or the like”. Said slave shall be
“severely whipped”, his or her “nose shall be slit” and finally, he or she shall be “burned in
the face”. Beyond that, they described Africans as “an uncertain dangerous pride of people
… to whom we may extend the legislative power [of punishment given us by Law] for the
benefit and good of this plantation”.
As they concluded, “property rights” and “ownership privileges” imbued within English
law, originating from the Magna Carta of 1215, authorized an elite justification of such
malicious violence toward Africans specifically. And, as Rugemer points out: “Slavery was
essential, profitable to those invested in it, and fundamentally at war with the humanity of
the people enslaved”.
War is by no means an exaggeration. If we look at the progression of legal mechanisms
enumerated in Richard Hall’s work, we find an evolution of ownership, coercion and
control largely instituted by, not only the ravenous want of financial reward on behalf of
the English governing class of the island, but also an innate fear of Africans as a people
and the possibility or threat of their insurrection.
For further illustration, Hall affirmed that the first official law implemented proclaiming
Africans as not only chattel, but also as non-persons considered objects of ownership –
took place as early as 1668 in “An Act declaring the Negro slaves of this Island, to be Real
Estates,” to be displaced, utilized, traded and controlled under a strict system of rule.
This stringent system of control, and the governing class fear it stimulated, led to an even
more severe lock-down in “An Act for the encouragement of all Negroes and Slaves that

shall discover any Conspiracy,” passed in 1692.
Used as an overt force of intimidation, this Act was implemented to discourage, supplant
or suppress any notion of insurrection on behalf of all Africans and to stamp-out any and
all risks of “Rebellion, Massacre, Assassination and Destruction.”
Those that write the rules control the game. Even prior to 1691, the White ruling class
eminently dreaded the possibility of rebellion by African slaves thus harshly treated and
controlled throughout the island. In fact, by1661, they had already doubled down on their
intimidation tactics, woven within legislative dictates, by instituting martial law (that
being, the replacement of civilian government by military rule). As revealed in Clause 17
of the Barbados Act of 1661, which distinctly stated, “if any Negro shall make Insurrection
or rise in rebellion … proceed by Martial Law against the Actors … and punish [them] by
death or other pain as their Crimes shall deserve.”
Furthermore, the legislators specified within the law not only the punishments to be meted
out, for the above stated crime of insurrection, but also the benefits to be had. Specifically,
a sanctioning by law which they had introduced per the loss of their property (said slaves)
to be incurred by the public as a whole: “It is further enacted and ordained that the loss of
Negroes so executed shall be borne by the public.”
They (the owner class) provided themselves with remuneratory safeguards and protections
(outlined in Clause 18) – an indemnification backed by a self-serving tax strategy, which
fell heavily upon the lower-class tenants of the island: “When the present Treasury is not
sufficient to satisfy the loss (of said property), a public Levy [is] to be presently made upon
the Inhabitants for reparation of the same.” This clearly demonstrated the power, influence,
freedoms and duties possessed by a minority of English elite, propelled by a structure of
primitive accumulation.
In response to the lingering possibility of a slave revolt on the island of Barbados in 1676,
the Assembly added draconian amendments to the 1661 “Act for the Better ordering and
Governing of Negroes”. In said amendments, racialized difference and abhorrent
essentialist qualities were openly demarcated as a tool of division and control that clearly
placed the Negro slave at the bottom of the so called “civilized social order” – even in the
eyes of poor indentured Whites. The Assembly’s reasoning was justified within the
preamble to the 1676 amendments, which noted that the 1661 act “hath not sufficiently
proved to restrain them [African slaves] from those wicked and barbarous actions their
natures are inclined to … [such as] thefts and insolencies.”
Hence, as Susan Dwyer Amussen confirms, any form of larceny or assault committed by a
slave was proclaimed a capital offense as outlined in the original Act. Beyond that, any
enslaved individual “who remained a fugitive for more than a year” stood to be summarily
executed when apprehended.
In a tactical move by the governing class, the coercive purpose behind the law was to
increase the threat of punishments for slaves’ wrongdoings in the hope that deterring minor
offenses would thwart greater ones such as mutiny or revolt.
Island authorities and planters relied on a similar blend of terror and coercion to force the
increasing slave population into brutal compliance. Again, as alluded to by the Orlando
Patterson quote at the outset of this essay, Western values authorized violence within the
law that necessitated the brutal relationship between masters and slaves.
Sugar, when it came to the possession and enslavement of Black bodies, was a complex
and fundamental ingredient within the development of a system of perpetual slavery

essential to the economic progress of the island of Barbados and beyond. A small number
of planters commenced experimenting with sugar as early as the1640s, and, at the same
time, London brokers who were already ensconced in transatlantic trade founded a
commercial slave venture (The Royal African Company) to the island of Barbados straight
from Africa. The numbers prove that English capital accumulation stood at the heart of the
ruthless capture and enslavement of Black Africans.
“By 1643 there were 6,400 Africans on the island, about one-fourth of a population of at
least 25,000, and by 1650 the European population had grown to about 30,000 while the
number of Africans had increased to 12,800.”
Estimates reveal that sugar, by the 1660s, had elevated the population of the island of
Barbados to a majority Black slave society – which is reflective, as discussed above,
within a series of punitive Acts adjudicated on the island throughout the seventeenth
century and the palpable numerical fears Africans instilled.
The data above, extracted from The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, corroborate a
direct association between the increased importation of forced African slave labour and the
export of the island’s most profitable crop, as made evident by David Eltis’ “New
Estimates of Exports from Barbados…1665-1701.” The figures show a 154 per cent
increase of disembarked Africans from 1688 to 1701, which directly corresponds to a 166
per cent upsurge in the estimated values of total sugar products exported from Barbados in
the same period.
From early on, the menace of punishment, coercion and revolt were always present on the
island of Barbados, but as Jennifer Morgan outlines, with the development of sugar
manufacture and the increase in the African population, things got worse.
Stemming from Oliver Cromwell’s re-conquest of Ireland in 1641, thousands of Irish were
sent to Barbados as political prisoners and servants to labour alongside African slaves. The
harsh treatments condoned within the Acts mentioned earlier in this essay, underpinned by
the severity of early sugar production, led to a forceful pushback “against violent
overseers”, from both Black and White servitude alike.
French voyager Beauchamp Plantagenet, visiting the island in 1648, observed a world
where he described, “rich men [as] having sugar mills” and many hundreds Rebell Negro
slaves [absconded] in the woods”.
Based on the stringent laws passed by an assembly of rich men, as early as 1652, Ligon
reported, large numbers of indentured White servants conspired to “cut the throats of their
masters” and ran away to “make themselves not only ‘freemen’ but Masters of the Island”,
and many of the servants involved in that conspiracy were swiftly executed. Ligon
continued, with a more sympathetic tone of validation, stating that, “the root cause [of
insurrection] grew from their sufferings” and the inability of some “to endure such
slavery”. As a result, “several Irish servants and Negroes [were] out in rebellion.”
Indentured servants, as Hilary Beckles affirms, like their African counterparts, were
“treated as chattel”, and both groups steadfastly struggled against those conditions.
Barbados was the birthplace of the concept of race in a class-gripped Atlantic world.
Ultimately, as a response to the dangers invoked by all amalgamation of labour both Black
and White, assemblies and their strategically “racialized edicts of division”, beginning in
seventeenth century Barbados, spread throughout the Caribbean and beyond, including the
early formed North American colonies, later planted firmly in South Carolina. In fact, by
1664, the newly established governor of the island of Jamaica, Sir Thomas Modyford (an

acolyte of Oliver Cromwell himself), together with other “land hungry” Barbadian elite,
passed scarcely modified forms of both the Servant Act and the Slave Act of Barbados,
maintaining a race-based “declaration of war” on what they defined as “outlying Spanish
As Rugemer makes clear, Modyford, as “an agent for the newly formed … Royal African
Company in 1663”, motivated by self-interest and profit, “brought with him to the new
colony [of Jamaica] an intimate understanding of the effort to establish racial slavery”.
As an example, by the time of Jamaica’s Servant Act of 1681, the assembly introduced,
codified and adopted a somewhat new word, White, in place of the longtime signifier of
“Christian” – a change that elucidates the sustained efforts by the elite English of the
Caribbean to clearly racialize, demarcate and justify the enslavement of Black bodies in a
class-tiered system of domination.
In conclusion, the rules put in place by the ruling class of Barbados and Jamaica
unmistakably delineated their powers over a mass of human beings, in perpetual vassalage,
defined as slaves. As argued, the foundations of racialized slavery that developed
throughout the latter part of the seventeenth century, in Barbados and Jamaica, mutually
and codependently, progressed toward a self-authorized legal system that was grounded in
the “protection of property” and the privileges of the planter-elite well into and throughout
the eighteenth century.
This essay’s objective was to reveal the fact that constructs of race based on formulations
of superiority were sown and birthed in the ruthless Atlantic Slave Trade and its dynamic
Sugar Revolution. The elements of law, class, race, religion and revolt, mentioned within
this study, work cumulatively to expose why racialized enslavement occurred and who
most benefited from it.
In regard to matters of universal rights of humanity, including all creeds and races, when it
comes to the relationship between possessors and the possessed, rulers and the ruled, the
history of slavery teaches us that, “all human phenomena virtually require that oppression
breed resistance, that exploitation be met by fight-back that compels the oppressor to
acknowledge the humanity of the oppressed.”
In the end, fighting fire with fire was the last and only resort left for the enslaved peoples
of a darker hue in and throughout the Atlantic world and the saga of that struggle endures
to this very day.

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