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The Atlantic Slave Trade in Two Minutes

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 16, 2020

For Slate’s 2015 podcast series The History of American Slavery, Andrew Kahn created an interactive visualization of the 20,000+ voyages that made up the Atlantic slave trade that lasted 315 years. A video of the interactive map is embedded above.

As we discussed in Episode 2 of Slate’s History of American Slavery Academy, relative to the entire slave trade, North America was a bit player. From the trade’s beginning in the 16th century to its conclusion in the 19th, slave merchants brought the vast majority of enslaved Africans to two places: the Caribbean and Brazil. Of the more than 10 million enslaved Africans to eventually reach the Western Hemisphere, just 388,747 — less than 4 percent of the total — came to North America. This was dwarfed by the 1.3 million brought to Spanish Central America, the 4 million brought to British, French, Dutch, and Danish holdings in the Caribbean, and the 4.8 million brought to Brazil.

Roughly 400,000 enslaved Africans were brought to the United States before the practice was banned in 1808. The ban was mostly (but not entirely) enforced and yet in 1860, the population of enslaved persons was almost 4 million in the South. That’s because the 1808 ban, according to Ned & Constance Sublette’s book The American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave-Breeding Industry, was a form of trade protectionism that protected the forced breeding of enslaved peoples by American slaveowners. From a review of the book:

In fact, most American slaves were not kidnapped on another continent. Though over 12.7 million Africans were forced onto ships to the Western hemisphere, estimates only have 400,000-500,000 landing in present-day America. How then to account for the four million black slaves who were tilling fields in 1860? “The South,” the Sublettes write, “did not only produce tobacco, rice, sugar, and cotton as commodities for sale; it produced people.” Slavers called slave-breeding “natural increase,” but there was nothing natural about producing slaves; it took scientific management. Thomas Jefferson bragged to George Washington that the birth of black children was increasing Virginia’s capital stock by four percent annually.

Here is how the American slave-breeding industry worked, according to the Sublettes: Some states (most importantly Virginia) produced slaves as their main domestic crop. The price of slaves was anchored by industry in other states that consumed slaves in the production of rice and sugar, and constant territorial expansion. As long as the slave power continued to grow, breeders could literally bank on future demand and increasing prices. That made slaves not just a commodity, but the closest thing to money that white breeders had. It’s hard to quantify just how valuable people were as commodities, but the Sublettes try to convey it: By a conservative estimate, in 1860 the total value of American slaves was $4 billion, far more than the gold and silver then circulating nationally ($228.3 million, “most of it in the North,” the authors add), total currency ($435.4 million), and even the value of the South’s total farmland ($1.92 billion). Slaves were, to slavers, worth more than everything else they could imagine combined.

You can read more about the economics of slavery in this post from 2016, including how American banks sold bonds that used enslaved persons as collateral to international investors. (via open culture)