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Transatlantic Trade and the Global Economy

Grades 9-12 | Historical Analysis | Source-Based

Source Lexile®: 1180L-1250L

Learning Standards




Prompt: By the 16th century, exploration and colonization of the Americas was well underway. The economic theory of mercantilism motivated the expansion of trade between African, Caribbean, and European regions, as well as the newly-founded colonies in North America. Reciprocal trade routes developed among these regions, and for centuries they continued exchanges of cash crops, manufactured goods, and slaves.


Read the following sources about the Columbian Exchange and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Write an essay in which you make a claim about how the world economy and global labor systems were impacted by the production of sugar and tobacco plantations in the Americas. Use logic and evidence from multiple sources to support your position and address opposing viewpoints.



Source 1

How Slavery Helped Build a World Economy (Secondary Source)

Howard Dodson

February 3, 2003


"Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!"

—Patrick Henry, Speech in the Virginia Convention, March, 1775.


African peoples were captured and transported to the Americas to work. Most European colonial economies in the Americas from the 16th through the 19th century were dependent on enslaved African labor for their survival.


According to European colonial officials, the abundant land they had "discovered" in the Americas was useless without sufficient labor to exploit it. Slavery systems of labor exploitation were preferred, but neither European nor Native American sources proved adequate to the task.


The trans-Saharan slave trade had long supplied enslaved African labor to work on sugar plantations in the Mediterranean alongside white slaves from Russia and the Balkans. This same trade also sent as many as 10,000 slaves a year to serve owners in North Africa, the Middle East, and the Iberian Peninsula.


Having proved themselves competent workers in Europe and on nascent sugar plantations on the Madeira and Canary Islands off the coast of Africa, enslaved Africans became the labor force of choice in the Western Hemisphere—so much so that they became the overwhelming majority of the colonial populations of the Americas.


Of the 6.5 million immigrants who survived the crossing of the Atlantic and settled in the Western Hemisphere between 1492 and 1776, only 1 million were Europeans. The remaining 5.5 million were African. An average of 80 percent of these enslaved Africans—men, women, and children—were employed, mostly as field-workers. Women as well as children worked in some capacity. Only very young children (under six), the elderly, the sick, and the infirm escaped the day-to-day work routine.


More than half of the enslaved African captives in the Americas were employed on sugar plantations. Sugar developed into the leading slave-produced commodity in the Americas.


During the 16th and 17th centuries, Brazil dominated the production of sugarcane. One of the earliest large-scale manufacturing industries was established to convert the juice from the sugarcane into sugar, molasses, and eventually rum, the alcoholic beverage of choice of the triangular trade.


Ironically, the profits made from the sale of these goods in Europe, as well as the trade in these commodities in Africa, were used to purchase more slaves.


During the 18th century, Saint Domingue (Haiti) surpassed Brazil as the leading sugar-producing colony. The number of slaves brought to the tiny island of Haiti equaled more than twice the number imported into the United States. The vast majority came during the 18th century to work in the expanding sugar plantation economy.


The Haitian Revolution abolished slavery there and led to the establishment of the first black republic in the Americas. It also ended Haiti's dominance of world sugar production.


Cuba assumed this position during the 19th century, and even after slavery was abolished there in 1886, sugar remained the foundation of its economy and its primary export commodity throughout the 20th century. Sugar was also produced by slave labor in the other Caribbean islands as well as in Louisiana in the United States.


During the colonial period in the United States, tobacco was the dominant slave-produced commodity. Concentrated in Virginia and Maryland, tobacco plantations utilized the largest percentage of enslaved Africans imported into the United States prior to the American Revolution.


Rice and indigo plantations in South Carolina also employed enslaved African labor.


The American Revolution cost Virginia and Maryland their principal European tobacco markets, and for a brief period of time after the Revolution, the future of slavery in the United States was in jeopardy. Most of the northern states abolished it, and even Virginia debated abolition in the Virginia Assembly.


The invention of the cotton gin in 1793 gave slavery a new life in the United States. Between 1800 and 1860, slave-produced cotton expanded from South Carolina and Georgia to newly colonized lands west of the Mississippi. This shift of the slave economy from the upper South (Virginia and Maryland) to the lower South was accompanied by a comparable shift of the enslaved African population to the lower South and West.


After the abolition of the slave trade in 1808, the principal source of the expansion of slavery into the lower South was the domestic slave trade from the upper South. By 1850, 1.8 million of the 2.5 million enslaved Africans employed in agriculture in the United States were working on cotton plantations.


The vast majority of enslaved Africans employed in plantation agriculture were field hands. Even on plantations, however, they worked in other capacities. Some were domestics and worked as butlers, waiters, maids, seamstresses, and launderers. Others were assigned as carriage drivers, hostlers, and stable boys. Artisans—carpenters, stonemasons, blacksmiths, millers, coopers, spinners, and weavers—were also employed as part of plantation labor forces.


Enslaved Africans also worked in urban areas. Upward of ten percent of the enslaved African population in the United States lived in cities. Charleston, Richmond, Savannah, Mobile, New York, Philadelphia, and New Orleans all had sizable slave populations. In the southern cities they totaled approximately a third of the population.


The range of slave occupations in cities was vast. Domestic servants dominated, but there were carpenters, fishermen, coopers, draymen, sailors, masons, bricklayers, blacksmiths, bakers, tailors, peddlers, painters, and porters. Although most worked directly for their owners, others were hired out to work as skilled laborers on plantations, on public works projects, and in industrial enterprises. A small percentage hired themselves out and paid their owners a percentage of their earnings.


Each plantation economy was part of a larger national and international political economy. The cotton plantation economy, for instance, is generally seen as part of the regional economy of the American South. By the 1830s, "cotton was king" indeed in the South. It was also king in the United States, which was competing for economic leadership in the global political economy. Plantation-grown cotton was the foundation of the antebellum southern economy.


But the American financial and shipping industries were also dependent on slave-produced cotton. So was the British textile industry. Cotton was not shipped directly to Europe from the South. Rather, it was shipped to New York and then transshipped to England and other centers of cotton manufacturing in the United States and Europe.


As the cotton plantation economy expanded throughout the southern region, banks and financial houses in New York supplied the loan capital and/or investment capital to purchase land and slaves.


Recruited as an inexpensive source of labor, enslaved Africans in the United States also became important economic and political capital in the American political economy. Enslaved Africans were legally a form of property—a commodity. Individually and collectively, they were frequently used as collateral in all kinds of business transactions. They were also traded for other kinds of goods and services.


The value of the investments slaveholders held in their slaves was often used to secure loans to purchase additional land or slaves. Slaves were also used to pay off outstanding debts. When calculating the value of estates, the estimated value of each slave was included. This became the source of tax revenue for local and state governments. Taxes were also levied on slave transactions.


Politically, the U.S. Constitution incorporated a feature that made enslaved Africans political capital—to the benefit of southern states. The so-called three-fifths compromise allowed the southern states to count their slaves as three-fifths of a person for purposes of calculating states' representation in the U.S. Congress. Thus the balance of power between slaveholding and non-slaveholding states turned, in part, on the three-fifths presence of enslaved Africans in the census.


Slaveholders were taxed on the same three-fifths principle, and no taxes paid on slaves supported the national treasury. In sum, the slavery system in the United States was a national system that touched the very core of its economic and political life.

Excerpted from Jubilee: the Emergence of African-American Culture by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.




Source 2

Early Globalization and the Slave Trade (Secondary Source)

Robert Harms

Friday, May 9, 2003


The role that international trade has played in developing a globally integrated economy is well-known. Along with growth and prosperity, it has brought suffering and exploitation. However, nothing comes close to the brutality and inhuman suffering that was inflicted on human beings for such a long period as the slave trade. The misery of the African slaves formed a vital link in the trading system that connected the continents and formed the backbone of the global network of commerce.


Contrary to the popular image, the triangular slave trade that linked Europe, Africa, and the New World was not a closed circuit. Rather, it formed an essential bridge between Europe's New World trade and its Asia trade. As such, it was a crucial element in the development of the global economy in the 18th century. A brief look at the international commerce of France will illustrate this point.


In the 18th century, France carried on two types of trade with its New World colonies. One was the direct trade by which France sent wheat, wine, metal objects, and building materials to the New World in exchange for sugar, and, to a lesser degree, cotton, cocoa, tobacco, rocou, and coffee. The other was the triangular slave trade, which the French referred to as the "circuit" trade. French ships loaded with trade goods sailed to Africa, where the goods were exchanged for slaves. The slaves were then taken to France's New World colonies, where they were exchanged for sugar and other plantation products. Both types of trade were conducted largely by barter: ships left France carrying a small fortune in goods, but almost no money.


There was one basic economic fact -- little noticed by historians -- that provides the key to the relationship between the direct trade and the circuit trade. When a French ship arrived in the New World with a load of slaves to be bartered for sugar, the value of the slaves equaled about twice as much sugar as the ship could carry back to France. For that reason, the most common form of slave contract called for fifty percent of the sugar to be delivered immediately and the remainder to be delivered a year later. The second delivery carried no interest penalty, and so the slave sellers were in effect giving the buyers an interest-free loan.


The major problem was how to get the remaining fifty percent of the sugar back to France. The solution was provided by the direct traders. Ships coming to the New World directly from France carried products that were of relatively low value in relation to their bulk. The amount of sugar that could be obtained in exchange often filled only a third to a half of their cargo holds. The excess space was used to carry sugar back to France for slave traders. Over the years a symbiotic relationship developed between the direct traders and the circuit traders. The income from hauling sugar for slave traders provided the margin that made direct voyages profitable, and the direct traders provided a means by which the slave traders could recover the remainder of their sugar.


This relationship was destroyed in 1722 when the French Company of the Indies banned all private traders from the slave trade. This act not only affected the private slave traders, but also the direct traders because the company would not pay them to carry the excess sugar. The mayor of Nantes responded angrily: "Two major bankruptcies have just been declared in Nantes, and we greatly fear that there will be more. The returns from our colonies have shown a loss ever since the Company of the Indies began to enforce its monopoly… the colonies will fall along with the trade of our cities."


The move jeopardized the company as well. Because it operated as a closed economic circuit, it had no way of retrieving the excess sugar. Sometimes, in desperation, the company actually sent empty ships to the Caribbean to bring back sugar, but this practice was too inefficient to be sustained. It was estimated that the company recovered only about a third of the money it invested annually in the slave trade. Because the company's board of directors could not figure out a way to maintain its monopolistic practices and still conduct the slave trade at a profit, it voted in 1725 to abandon its monopoly and open up the slave trade to private traders. The symbiotic relationship between the slave trade and the direct New World trade was quickly restored.


If the slave trade was intimately intertwined with Europe's New World trade, it was equally embroiled in the Asia trade. When the slave ship Diligent left France for the West African coast in 1731, over half its cargo consisted of cowry shells and various types of Indian textiles. The cowry shells, which served as the major currency along the West African coast, came from the Maldive Islands, near India. Company of the Indies ships returning from India and China would stop in the Maldive Islands and purchase cowry shells, which they used as packing material to cushion crates of porcelain and other goods much as we would use Styrofoam popcorn today. The cowries also served as ballast to keep the ship steady. Because the porcelain, tea, spices, and textiles of Asia were of higher value than the European trade goods that the ships brought from France, returning ships had a great deal of empty space in their holds that was filled with cowry shells. Once back in France, the cowries were removed and repacked in barrels to be shipped to West Africa.


Slave traders were aware that their financial success depended upon carrying trade goods that were in demand in Africa. Since cowry shells were the major currency on the West African coast, they were always in demand. Textiles, however, were more risky because fashions along the West African coast could change from year to year. Traders thus carried a variety of European and Indian textiles in order to spread out the risk. The Diligent, for example, carried several types of Indian textiles: limancas (a fine striped cloth from the Coromandel Coast), salempouri blue (a cotton cloth of varying quality), and "Indian cloth" (a general term for printed calicoes, cottons, and chintzes).


The demise of the French East India Company in 1706 (it was later resurrected as the Company of the Indies) caused a problem for French slave traders. It was impossible for them to remain competitive in the slave trade without ready access to cowry shells and Indian textiles. So vital was the Asian trade to the slave trade that a consortium of merchants raised over a million livres to start a company to replace the defunct French East India Company. In requesting authorization from the French Council of Commerce, the merchants cited the difficulties they were having in obtaining the products of Asia that were vital for the slave trade. The slave trade could not function successfully, they argued, unless they had direct access to cowry shells and Indian textiles.


The government denied the merchants' request and instead formed the Company of the Indies, which was given a monopoly over both the Asia trade and the slave trade. The integration of France's Asia trade with the slave trade was now complete. Ships returning from Asia unloaded their textiles and cowry shells at the company port of Lorient on the Brittany Coast of France, and the goods were immediately reloaded onto company slave ships bound for Africa. The Asia trade supplied necessary trade goods for the slave ships, and the slave ships provided a steady market for the Asian products. The only flaw in the company's system was that it failed to integrate itself into the direct trade with the New World. That flaw proved fatal.


After the Company of the Indies abandoned its monopoly on the slave trade in 1725, a new system emerged that endured for decades. The company brought Indian textiles and cowry shells to its home port in Lorient, where it sold them to private slave traders who exchanged them for slaves in Africa. The slaves were then carried to the New World and exchanged for sugar. Roughly half of that sugar was carried back to France on slave ships, and the other half was carried by direct traders. The triangular slave trade, the Asia trade, and the direct trade to the New World formed an integrated system. No segment of it could survive without the others. It is a tragic irony that the archaic institution of slavery played such a crucial role in the 18th century development of the modern world economy.




Source 3

Triangular Trade Route Map (Secondary Source)











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