New World Slave Systems

Human Destruction Through Driven Economy

But Why?

There are many aspects of historical slavery that would make for an important informational brochure, but to start at the beginning, at the commencement of the economy fueled by slave labor will give perhaps the fullest picture for the reader. That is what is important here, to understand the slave’s participation and use in the budding market, to understand the impetus that increased the importation of slaves from the Dark Continent, and the inevitable damning results. I put forward that these new slave systems were created largely due to both the lack of other options and the increased profitability that became evident with increased usage.

Prequel to the Caribbean

The foundations of future slave systems in the new world largely began a century before anyone set foot in the New World. Africa was a continent slavery was already in use among the many tribes, so it was a concept that many were familiar with, however there were major differences when comparing this inborn slavery and the future European variety that would infect the new colonies. To the Africans, at least to many of them, a slave could fill several roles in society. They could be captured in battle, but raids among other tribes and villages were more common as women and children were often valued more. Slaves of these African tribes often were absorbed by the new tribe in time, whereas those traded north often to Islamic nations, remained in bondage. Among the tribes many slaves could own property and become members of the tribe given the right circumstances. Being a slave was more a social designation than a condemnation for lack of humanity. As a slave in many of these tribes, the situation could be improved upon, including having children or becoming manumitted to a more respectable social state. With the beginnings of regular travel and trade to Africa in the 1400’s by the Portuguese, followed by the Dutch, Spanish and English, there came recognition of the seemingly inexhaustible resources, both human and material. Prior to the development of colonies in the new world and the economy of cash crops, the Portuguese became well versed in the trafficking of slaves from parts of Africa to other parts as well as Europe.

The Caribbean

This familiarity allowed a smooth transition when labor demands began from the New World. As the European nations began to vie for control over the islands in the Caribbean and establishing sugar growing operations the first forced laborers were the natives who already inhabited the area. These Atlantic islands quickly began producing sugar cane as they were ideal growing conditions for this cash crop. By the beginning of the 16th century numerous smaller islands, such as Madeira, Sáo Tome and the Canary Islands were producing large amounts of labor intensive sugar. With the ever increasing popularity of this product, the importation of slaves began to increase as well. While there were many slaves among the islands themselves, there were also a great many free peoples of color. The United States is the only location of slavery we will discuss that did not have a high percentage of free peoples of color. In the Caribbean, especially later on after the slave importation habit had developed, a great deal of land was improved and the tonnage of exportable sugar increased consistently. Coffee was also introduced selectively to islands such as Cuba and Puerto Rico where it added to the already extensive demand for slaves, despite being a less labor intensive crop. This model of more slaves on more land became a new industrial production model for mass production of sugar cane and other cash crops that would be transplanted to South America and to some extent, the United States.

Spanish America

The slave system that developed in Mexico was very different when compared to such plantation style slavery like that of the Atlantic Islands. The encomienda system did not necessarily designate the natives as slaves, though in all but name they were. There also slaves imported from the Caribbean as well as directly from Africa, but the demand for slaves in Mexico was much lower than in areas where intensive cash crop labor kept requirements high. The largest requirement for slaves in Spanish controlled America were for the silver mines. However, as mentioned above, the encomienda system induced the Native population (what remained after disease and abuse) to become totally dependent upon the new society created by the Spanish.

Portuguese America, Specifically Brazil

Originally considered a materially poor area, Brazil turned out to be an absolute gem for the Portuguese, though less so for the massive quantities of slaves they imported. Though it was contested by the Dutch, it largely remained in Portuguese hands and control. There was of course the traditional growing slavery that led to eventually plantations of massive proportions, but there were also oddities when it came to the slave system. Because there was such interest in Gold and Diamonds by the controlling country, and there was relatively little pressure they could exert with so few troops spread over so much area, many slaves were able to work nearly independently from their masters and even purchase their freedom through hard work and a little luck. There was also a significant portion of slaves who could be considered skilled in a trade and were able to work their way free, after appropriate compensation to their masters of course. Compared to the United States where people of color were the minority, the majority of those in Brazil and the surrounding area were of color, including a great many who were free. In fact the free population continued to outdistance the slave population despite the increasing importation of slaves from Africa. When looking at the general overview of the roughly twelve million slaves moved from Africa to the New World, over four million went to Brazil. In comparison, less than three hundred thousand went to the United States directly from Africa. Along with the increased rates of manumission in Brazil, there was also a large number of runaways who were able to much more easily blend into free communities. This slave system was not sustainable, unlike the one in the United States, and the proportion of slaves to those free continued to decline, especially after importation of new slaves was outlawed.

The United States

The slave system in the United States had fundamental differences that separated it emphatically from those represented among the Atlantic Islands or South America. Almost from the founding of the thirteen colonies, there was dissent to the enslavement of man. The puritans, largely in the northeastern United States believed it was a crime yet had little to no power to prevent it from occurring, especially in Virginia and Maryland. As slavery developed in these southern (relatively) colonies, it was used in the growing and harvesting of an abundance of crops, including tobacco, grains and cotton. Do not make the mistake in assuming that this means it did not occur in the northern colonies as well, slaves were used on many farms and in the undertaking of many forms of unpleasant labor. The large plantations that people typically think of when concerning the slavery of the United States did not actually occur until roughly the late18th century. Slaves were used on a large scale and were spread throughout the colonies, with very few slaves ever being free or having the opportunity to buy their freedom. This led to the unique situation among slave using nations where almost the entire population of African Americans were enslaved. Slaves in the United States slave system, admittedly a brutal system, had access by and large to greater food and nutrition. Because slave importation on the scale of that encountered in Brazil and among the Atlantic Islands never occurred in the United States, the increase in slaves arose from natural reproduction. This was a phenomenon nearly unique to the United States. Though it should be noted that populations of free African Americans in places such as Brazil were able to sustain their numbers as well as increase them by positive birthrate.

Due to the nearly complete lack of free African Americans in the United States, this slave system helped develop a mentality concerning the less than human capacity of those enslaved, which in turn became a damnation of any and all black souls as animals and beasts good only for burden. When viewing the slave system in Brazil where the manumission rate was high and the free population large, or among islands such as Haiti where African Americans outnumbered whites nine to one and there also existed many free peoples of color, it is clear to see that it would be impossible to deny the individual human nature to all those that a person did not have control over, let alone those that one did have control over. In other words, apparent humanity lay closer to the surface in these other slave systems. Slaves one day had the hope of being free, had the understanding of what it meant to own oneself, whereas in the United States slave system, no such opportunity afforded itself. At the very best an American slave could hope to have a family that wouldn’t be torn from his grasp, or perhaps hope for a better work assignment. There was a certain flexibility extended to slaves, especially as larger plantations developed that allowed freedom in some areas, but to a limited capacity, such as freedom to worship, or to marry, or on a holiday they may be allowed to drink to excess. As Olaudah Equiano put it, the masters had the ability to make freedom seem un-wantable, to make it seem as though it was a burden rather than a boon.

In The End...

While there were varieties of slave systems that developed in the New World, inevitably they were different colors of the same rainbow, although certain slave systems did result in altered social adaption, e.g. the slave system of the United States. Hopefully you found this small brochure entertaining if not enlightening.


David Davis, Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006)

Stanley Engerman, Slavery: Emancipation & Freedom (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2007)

Herbert Klein and Ben Vinson III, African Slavery in Latin American and the Caribbean (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007)

Laird Bergdad, The Comparative Histories of SLavery in Brazil, Cuba, and the United States (New York: Campbridge University Press, 2007)

Olaudah Equiano, Equiano's Travels (Long Grove: Waveland Press, 1996)

Stuart Schwartz, All Can Be Saved: Religious Tolerance and Salvation int he Iberian Atlantic World (London: Yale University Press, 2008)

James Sanders, The Vanguard of the Atlantic World: Creating Modernity, Nation, and Democracy in Nineteenth-Century Latin America (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2014)