Colonialism and the expansion of empires

Servants, hard labour and slaves

by Dr Alan Rice

'I have often been awakened at the dawn of day by the most heart-rending shrieks of an own aunt of mine, whom (my master) used to tie up to a joist, and whip upon her naked back till she was literally covered with blood... I remember the first time I ever witnessed this horrible exhibition... It was the first of a long series of such outrages, of which I was doomed to be a witness and a participant... It was the blood-stained gate, the entrance to the hell of slavery...'

Frederick Douglass, 1845

 Labour supply and indenture

When the European powers wanted to get wealthy by exploiting the land of the Americas they had a problem. They were unable to use the people who had always lived there (the indigenous population) because the Europeans had killed most of them through warfare and the diseases brought with them from Europe. So instead they used people taken from their own continent. These people were taken under a contract that bound them to work for the plantation masters for many years on very low wages. Such workers were called indentured labourers. Such labourers included Scottish and Irish prisoners from the Civil War period of the 1640s and 1650s who were sent essentially as enslaved workers to Barbados.

However, indentured labour was considered inefficient. Even though it was cheap, relative to enslaved labour it was expensive. Some argued the European indentured labourers were not suited to the tropical conditions of the Americas, though this was unlikely.

Enslaved Africans

Indentured labourers were rapidly replaced by enslaved Africans. This meant a forced transportation of people on a unknown scale before or since. The movement of Africans to the Americas dwarfed European migration to the Americas, making the African the typical migrant before 1820. Over 8.5 million Africans (compared to 2.5 million Europeans) crossed the Atlantic in this period. Most were put to work in the sugar fields of the Caribbean and Brazil. There, horrendous conditions meant whole populations of enslaved Africans died and had to be replaced every decade.

Enslaved Africans not only worked in plantation fields, but also as domestic servants and in trades that supported the plantation. Their various tasks and skills meant their owners valued them differently. On an Antiguan plantation in 1782, Prince, a boiler in the sugar factory, was valued at £150, Toby, a carter and field worker, at £130 and field hands such as Robin or Stepney, at £90 and £85 respectively. Even 'ruptured' slaves had their price: Jacob at £25 and the pensioned off Jupiter at £6.

Inhumane conditions

Those who defended the slave plantation economy described how owners had to feed, clothe and shelter their enslaved workers and how this made them better off than labourers in the factories in Europe since the factory workers' very small wages hardly kept them in food and clothes and shelter.

However, narratives written by the enslaved themselves told a completely different story. They showed how food and clothing were inadequate on the plantation, particularly for the old and the infirm and violence was widespread. Both free and enslaved labourers from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century were often subject to extreme disciplinary punishments that exemplify the brutality of early capitalism. This is best illustrated on the slaving ships themselves where punishment irons and whippings were used on the sailors as well as the enslaved Africans and in early factories in Britain where long hours and physical abuse mimicked the harsh conditions on the plantations.

Asian indentured labour

When Britain brought slavery to an end in the Caribbean in 1838, they ironically returned to the system of indentured labour to work the plantations. This time they used an Asian workforce. By the end of the First World War Britain had transported over 1.5 million Asian workers to plantations. Working conditions were hardly better than under a slave regime.

Unfortunately, even in the modern age, slave like conditions continue for many people – such as the bonded workers in South Asian textile mills and African cocoa plantations. Some of these workers ‘bonds' or debts to their bosses mean they effectively work for no pay whatsoever.

'(In Brazil) purchasing slaves was much the cheapest method of keeping up their numbers; for... the mother of a bred slave was taken from the field labour for three years, which labour was of more value than the cost of a prime slave or New Negro.'

George Young 1790