Slavery and the origins of racism

Feiyi Zhang argues that racism is a modern phenomenon, a product of capitalism and the trans-Atlantic slave trade

Racism is a fundamental feature of today’s world, whether in Tony Abbott’s Operation Sovereign Borders keeping out asylum seekers, or his fearmongering that stereotypes all Muslims as terrorists. Abbott’s shocking comments dismissing life in remote Aboriginal communities as a “lifestyle choice” to justify closures is another example.

When racism is pushed so viciously from the top of society, and seemingly accepted by many people, it can seem like it is inevitable and will never disappear.

But racism as we know it today did not exist only a few hundred years ago, prior to the rise of capitalism and the modern slave trade.

Racism means discrimination against a group of people because of perceived innate characteristics. While racism is often associated with physical features like skin colour, it can also involve supposedly innate characteristics or stereotypes such as laziness, lack of intelligence or greediness.

This is clear in the case of anti-Semitism or racism towards Irish people, both as physically white as other Europeans.

Prior to the modern slave trade and the origins of the capitalist system there was simply no conception of racial inferiority or prejudice as we know it today—even in the forms of slavery that existed for thousands of years.

Classical Greek and Roman societies were based on slave labour. Slavery could result from being captured as part of the spoils of war or where a whole city or tribe had been enslaved. Most slaves in ancient Greece and Rome were white in today’s understanding.

The Ancient Greeks and Romans did consider some peoples inferior. But this was not because of race. They had another standard—civilised and barbarian. Some barbarians had white skin and there were also blacks considered civilised.

Encounters in the ancient world between Europeans and black Africans did not produce an upsurge of racism towards Africans. Classicist Frank Snowden found substantial evidence of integration of black Africans into the ancient Mediterranean empires and Black-white intermarriage. There were no institutional barriers or social pressures against black-white unions.

As academic Ellen Wood observes, “In Ancient Greece and Rome, despite the almost universal acceptance of slavery, the idea of natural inequalities between human beings never caught on.”

A racial justification for slavery was never considered necessary because of the already strictly hierarchical order in Ancient Greek and Roman societies.

The social order was maintained by what Marx called “extra-economic force”—direct physical violence. Slaves subject to the clearly brutal control of a master who could beat, torture, rape or kill them. But slavery was merely one of a spectrum of unequal relationships, requiring no special explanation.

The economic and political origins of Black Slavery

The Atlantic slave trade involved horrendous brutality. About 13 per cent of the 12 million Africans taken on the voyage from Africa to the plantation economies of the Caribbean and North America died before they arrived. Once there slaves worked 18 hours a day, subject to torture and denied basic rights.

Not withstanding the horrible conditions African slaves endured it is critical to understand, as Eric Williams argues in his book Capitalism and Slavery that, “Slavery was not born of racism: rather racism was the consequence of slavery”.

For most of the 1600s, plantation owners in the British colonies in North America relied predominantly on white indentured servants, who agreed to work for a particular master for three to five years, in exchange for passage from Europe. Others were prisoners or even kidnapped from the streets of Liverpool or Manchester and put on ships to the New World. Initially they worked alongside African slaves.

But colonial leaders became increasingly frustrated with white labour. They had to continually worry about recruiting new servants as their terms expired, and former servants set up their own farms.

Blacks could be kept as slaves for life, and once the direct import of African slaves to the North American colonies began in large numbers, they became cheaper to purchase than indentured labour.

Instead of importing African slaves, the plantation owners could have converted white indentured servants into slaves for life.

But Barbara Fields argues that this was impossible given the balance of forces between exploiters and exploited in England. The 1600s were a time of revolution and civil war in England, when ideas of individual freedoms were challenging old hierarchies based on royalty.

Fields argues it would have been: “a dangerous undertaking considering that the servants were well-armed, that they outnumbered their masters, and that the Indians could easily take advantage of the inevitably resulting warfare among the enemy.

“Moreover, the enslavement of already arrived migrants, once news of it reached England would have threatened the sources of future immigration. Even the greediest and most short-sighted profiteer could foresee disaster in any such policy.”

The shift towards reliance on African slavery was also tied to related concerns about a slave uprising.

Indeed there were a series of uprisings in the New World, the largest being Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676.

Several hundred farmers, servants and slaves initiated a protest to press the colonial government to seize Indian land for distribution. Planter Nathaniel Bacon helped organise an army of whites and Blacks that forced the governor to flee and held out for eight months before the Crown managed to defeat it.

This alliance struck fear in the hearts of the Colonial Government and was a turning point. After the rebellion ended, planters moved towards full-scale racial slavery, while offering concessions to white freeman like the vote.

The majority of the 20,000 African slaves brought to the North American colonies in the 1600s came in the 24 years after Bacon’s Rebellion.

The formation of racist ideology

Slavery in the colonies helped produce a boom in the 18th century that provided a launching pad for the industrial revolution in Europe.

Slavery provided one of the chief sources for the initial capital accumulation that helped propel capitalism forward in Europe and North America. Throughout the 1700s there was a “triangular trade” between the colonies, European mother countries and the Western African coast.

Ships to Africa took slaves which were then carried to American colonies, then loaded slave-produced products to be sold in Europe, and returned to Africa to continue the circuit again.

Racist ideology began to develop among the plantation owners, who profited enormously from slavery.

After bringing in African slaves in large numbers to cultivate cash crops, the planters moved to develop the institutions and ideas that would entrench Black slavery.

The slave owners tried a number of justifications, including Noah’s curse on Ham from the Bible. They argued that Black people were descended from Ham and thus born to serve. In the end they preferred the idea that Black people were a different and inferior species.

Laws and ideas to uphold the subhuman status of Black people, the ideology of racism and white supremacy, emerged fully over the next generation.

In 1680 the author Morgan Godwyn could comment that the slave owners were not confident in the correctness of their ideas about Black inferiority, and express shock at the notion. But by 1774 when the plantation owner Edward Long published his History of Jamaica he was willing to proudly assert that Africans were subhuman.

Ideas of an inherent inferiority of African slaves fed into the racialisation of Indigenous peoples across the world, being exterminated by European powers in wars of conquest. When the British colonised Australia in 1788 they brought with them an ideology of racial superiority which justified outright genocide to gain control of the land.

By this period the most influential thinkers of the day had taken up these racist ideas, such as David Hume and Thomas Jefferson (who wrote the Declaration of Independence during the American Revolution in 1776).

The permanent slavery of Blacks required special justification, given the declarations of universal equal rights associated with the American revolution and the rise of capitalism.

For example, the American Declaration of Independence of 1776 proclaims, “That all men are created, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. And the Great French Revolution of 1789 was waged under the banner of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.

The bourgeoisie desired freedom primarily in the end of the fixed social order of feudalism where birth, not talent or ambition, was the basis of wealth.

And while forced coercion was the basis of ancient slave societies and the feudal order, under capitalism even the exploited class of wage workers is nominally “free”.

The labourer is, Marx says, “free in a double sense, free from the old relations of client-ship, bondage and servitude, and secondly free of all belongings and possessions, and of every objective, material form, free of all property.”

The lack of freedom of American slaves had become a glaring anomaly.

Capitalism, despite its ideology of freedom, benefited enormously during a critical phase in its development from colonial slavery. The “triangular” relationship continued well into the Industrial revolution.

Racist ideology survived the abolition of slavery between 1834 and 1865 in Britain and America and received further theoretical elaboration in the shape of the pseudo-scientific biology of races which drew on a vulgarised version of Darwin’s theory of natural selection.

This reflected the interests of a handful of European colonial powers who saw it was in their interests as the white “races” to govern the world.

Racism persists today because it continues to benefit our rulers to scapegoat and divide people, and reinforces nationalism.

Understanding that racism is a very recent creation and not something that is part of human nature means we can fight to eventually get rid of it.


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