HIST2F90: Money & Power in the Atlantic World

The Practice of Slavery

Warning: in this week's lesson we'll be reading about and viewing acts of violence and human degradation. It is, frankly, awful to read, but important if we are to understand the legacies of slavery in modern society.  

This week's big question:

How was slavery supported and maintained in the 18th and 19th centuries?

Learning outcomes:

At the end of this week you should:



The people you see at the top of the page were slaves awaiting sale in Virginia in 1861. It's a remarkable painting that manages at once to capture both their dignity as human beings as well as their vulnerability as slaves who are about to be sold, perhaps as the artist Eyre Crowe clearly suggests torn apart from their families. The man below is Thomas Staniforth; you'll read more about him in Jane Longmore's article this week. He was a merchant, ship-builder and slave-trader in Liverpool England in the second half of the 18th-century. He's not famous, and he certainly wasn't especially handsome, but he was rich, building one of the finest homes in the city when it was second only to London in wealth, a second estate in the country, heading the city's mercantile association, and eventually becoming the Mayor. He never met any of the people in our banner image; in fact, he never travelled to a slave colony, or even left England. But his company's vessels made eighty-three journeys to Africa and then the Caribbean, transporting about 30,000 Africans to the West Indies. It's estimated that approximately 2600 of them died before reaching the West Indies and that those who made it would live an average of only seven more years. He never raised a whip, or tore a child from its mother's arms, but he condemned thousands to a cruel fate. And he would die rich and respected, a pillar of the community, one commemorated as a pillar of Liverpool's commercial golden age.  

Last term we saw how the slave trade operated and saw some of the economic practices that drove the trade. By the middle of the 18th century, slave economies, especially sugar but also indigo, cotton, rice, chocolate, and coffee had become not just profitable side economies but major drivers of wealth and capital formation, particularly in Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, and Holland. As we'll see in our next few weeks, however, increasing numbers of people were coming to view slavery as morally unacceptable. Many saw that aside from the human indignity of enslaving another human being, slavery was almost entirely predicated in violence.Violence lay at the heart of slavery's practices, its ability to continue. While this violence led to its harshest criticisms, it also explains why it was able to sustain itself: only with fear of extreme punishments - whipping, branding, beating, death - would human beings work under forced inhuman conditions. When we were looking for primary sources for this lesson, this passage from a 1740 history of Jamaica struck us because of the extraordinary violence it described.

They have indeed here [in Jamaica] the severest ways of punishing. No Country exceeds them in a barbarous Treatment of Slaves, or in the cruel Methods by which they put them to Death: A rebellious Negro, or he that twice strikes a white Man, is condemned to the Flames; he is carried to the Place of Execution, and chained flat on his Belly, his Arms and Legs extended; then Fire is set to his Feet, and so he is burnt gradually up: Others they starve to Death, with a Loaf hanging before their Mouths: Perhaps, indeed, such Severities may in some sort be excused, when we consider the State of the Country, and how impossible it would be to live amidst such Numbers of Slaves, without watching their Conduct with the greaten Strictness, and punishing their Faults with the utmost Severity.

Charles Leslie, A new history of Jamaica (London, J. Hodges, 1740), pp.40-1.

In the end, we didn't choose this document, mostly because the book rambles and digresses, making it difficult to find a nice compact section for students to read. The passage, however, stayed with us, though less for the exceptional level of violence and more for the banality with which it was treated. Though Leslie was clearly struck by the "barbarous treatment", he just as quickly moved on, noting that such severity "may be excused" because, after all, there were so many slaves.

Many people point to such passages and say, see, that's just the way it was back then. We disagree. And as we'll see later in our week on abolition, slavery was not generally accepted "back then" (whenever that was!). As early as the 1720s, people in Britain, France, and elsewhere were mobilizing against slavery. In the 1780s a major push for the abolition of the trade almost passed in the British Parliament, and in 1793 the new Revolutionary government of France made slavery illegal. But what this passage does point to is an extraordinary willingness on the part of some people, even people who acknowledged the cruelty, to accept it as somehow acceptable. If there is a simple way to understand why slavery was allowed to continue so long this passage points to a simple failure of human empathy, of not being able to see another human being's suffering. Of the capacity of money and power to blind people to barbaric practices.  

Violence was the most important tool for the masters in disciplining their workforce. And it was extreme violence: cropping ears, branding, whipping, gibbetting and other forms of painful and barbaric executions. But violence could be two side-sided. The white population of slave-based societies lived in constant fear of slave rebellions. There were many, like the Christmas Rebellion pictured here in Jamaica in 1831, though few succeeded. Fewer still succeeded for a long period of time (we'll see the first large-scale and successful rebellion when we get to the Haitian Revolution in a few weeks). These rebellions, and the fears they engendered, were driven by the huge disparities in populations. In Jamaica in 1830, for example, only 8 per cent of the population was white; another 1 per cent were free Blacks [Maroons]; and thus over 90 per cent of the population were enslaved. This brings into sharp relief how much force was required to prevent rebellions. For whites in these societies, it certainly brought into sharp relief how quickly and forcefully retribution might come. 

In addition to violence, we might also consider the strict organizing features that governed early modern societies. Our lessons have introduced us to rigid social divisions across socio-economic, dynastic, religious, and racial lines.  We might also extend divisions of labour as an extension to these divisions. Consider how the division of labour across the lines of both gender and race might not only be mapped onto the layout of an individual plantation as depicted in the image below, or in the Buff Bay list of enslaved women's occupations. How might they reinforce not only the ideas of violence that we have introduced in this lesson, but also the perceived ideas of European civility that served to justify the practice of slavery?

Several times this year a number of you have commented on the limits inherent in our sources, particularly for pre-literate peoples. For most enslaved Africans and Indigenous peoples, the sources we have left to us are predominantly those of the colonizers, not the colonized. Marissa Fuentes tackles the difficulty of "seeing" enslaved people, especially individuals, in the historical record. How do we see what the archive seems designed to hide? Jane Longmore, on the other hands, takes us to England and one the outcomes of slave-produced wealth in the home and businesses of a Liverpool family, the Staniworths, Both pieces offer us a challenge: they ask us to think differently about not only how historians have selected which evidence to present, but also how archives can distort what is available historians to see. We know, and it's well documented, that Staniforth made his fortune in the slave trade. Yet this British website on the Staniforth family doesn't even mention this. What does that suggest about public understandings of our broader history?


Read/listen to the secondary sources first, then ...

1. Marissa Fuentes asks us to think not just about the past, but about history - that is, not just about things that happened in the past, but about how historians write that as a story. Historians have only so much evidence to work with. They are limited by what makes it into archives, and then from that body of material the historian then selects what we receive as history. What does Jane's story tell us about the lives of enslaved people? How do archives shape what we can know? Closely related to these questions, consider how Boon's experience in the archives might provide us with a window into how historians work with this evidence, and the ethical discomfort that it elicits? 

2. Longmore's essay on the Stanifore family illustrates well the gentler, English end of the slave trade - the end where we don't see the violence and the barbarity - just the results of the profits. Can we see where else in this essay the slave trade affects the lives of Britons? Thinking back to our earlier weeks' lesson, can we see how the profits of slavery were showing up in English society? Can we imagine beyond the Staniforths themselves and imagine slavery's effects in the community in which they lived? Does this essay make you think about how manifestations of slavery may still exist in our own day-to-day world?

3. Two of your primary documents relate to Saint-Domingue (modern-day Haiti). We'll be examining the Haitian Revolution in a few weeks; this week on that topic all you need to know is that a revolution occurred and that it hadn't yet started. British writer Bryan Edwards describes governance and the condition of the enslaved in Saint-Domingue. How does he explain the maintenance of slavery in that French colony? He was a British writer, and in places shows a bit of chauvinism. Can we see him as a reliable source? Can we infer who was his audience? He's writing at the height of a major campaign to end the slave trade. Can we infer his position on the trade? 

4. Though shocking to modern eyes, the Buff Bay List of occupations is a simple inventory of property - it is a clear example of how slavery de-humanized people [not unlike the Probate Inventory of the Pollards from two weeks ago]. This list, as well as the bill of sale of Dinah, reduced people to items of property. Fuentes offers us a way to bring back something of these people's humanity; she's also very careful not to re-victimize them by continuing to treat them as de-humanized, an important reminder to us of the ethical practice of history. Can we recreate histories of Dinah and the Buff Bay women? 

5. Finally, this excerpt from William Beckford's 1788 "Remarks" offers us a sense of how those whose interests were in preserving the trade in enslaved peoples sought to represent their practices. Note that Beckford's book is one of the two texts assigned for your first short assignment. 

Primary Sources

Our documents this week are not long, but require some slow reading and careful thinking. Often the documents we offer you illustrate quite different dimensions of a topic, but this week's link together quite closely. Dig into each document, but look for connections too. What can these documents tell us about the practices of slavery? What can these documents tell us about individual enslaved people?What can these documents tell us about the lives of enslaved women?
Secondary sources

Jane Longmore, "Portrait of a Slave-Trading Family: The Staniforth of Liverpool", in Kate Donington, Ryan Hanley, and Jessica Moody, eds., Britain's History and Memory of Transatlantic Slavery: Local Nuances of a "National Sin" (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2016), 


Podcast: Marisa Fuentes, “Colonial Port Cities and Slavery”, Ben Franklin's World Podcast, Episode 173. 

Supplementary Readings

Katharine Gerbner, “Christian Slavery”, Ben Franklin's World Podcast, Episode 206. 


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