Some notes from chapter 1, ‘The Origin of Negro Slavery’ of the book ‘Capitalism and Slavery’ by Eric Williams.

– The notion that slavery was caused by racism is incorrect. Slavery was caused by economic conditions, and it was slavery that caused racism, not the other way round.

– The economic conditions that caused slavery had to do with colonisation. Britain, France, Spain and Portugal (countries that had been at war with each-other on and off for centuries) were in a race to take over territory in the Americas – not only because they wanted the wealth that the new territories would bring, but also because if they didn’t take over a particular territory their enemies would get it instead.

– Some of the European powers attempted to divide up the Americas between them through negotiated treaties, but this didn’t work. The treaties were ignored and colonisation was a free-for-all; if you could occupy a territory, set up a colony, and defend it against your enemies, then that territory was yours.

– In the early days of colonisation black slaves worked alongside enslaved Native Americans, Chinese coolies, and white indentured labourers. The black slaves were not particularly looked down on more than any of these other unfree labourers; if anything it was the Irish who were particularly despised.

– The British knew that slavery was wrong, but they thought it was justified by the greater good of building up the British Empire. They believed that they were spreading civilization and Christianity around the world. They also believed in mercantilism, an economic doctrine which held that increased economic activity would bring a better life for all.

– Economic development of the colonies in the Americas was based on agriculture. Landowners preferred free workers to slaves, even though they had to pay them, because free workers would use their own creativity and ingenuity to get the job done as efficiently as possible, whereas slaves did the minimum work they could get away with, had to be constantly supervised, and would run away if they got the chance.

– However there was a chronic shortage of workers, even though new colonists were being continuously sent from Great Britain. The labour shortage was exacerbated by the fact that workers often decided that they would prefer to set up a self-sufficient family farm of their own rather than working for wages on someone else’s land. Since there was abundant land available, they could simply travel to the frontier and select a piece of land they liked. In a world where land was readily available it was hard to find and keep free workers, so the only labour force left was those who wore chains and could not escape.

– From the point of view of the British, a large part of the purpose of the colonies was to grow the economy by producing expensive crops such as sugar for export. According to their mercantilist thinking, self-sufficient family farms were worthless, since they contributed little to the economy, and only profit-focused operations growing crops for export – plantations – were of value. Therefore the colonial authorities did all they could to encourage plantations.

– As time went on more and more slaves were sought, and the new slaves were black people stolen from Africa, because they were seen as better workers, they were the cheapest, and through the trans-Atlantic slave trade there was a seemingly limitless supply. Slavery came to be associated exclusively with blackness. Whites told themselves that blacks were inferior in order to justify slavery to themselves, and racism was born.

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