Where did American slavery come from?

Sweeping questions like that rarely yield clear answers, least of all from nuance-loving historians like me. In my classes, I point carefully to Classical, Christian, and Islamic precedents for human bondage, as well as to the many examples of enslavement in early modern England and the well-known tale of the first Africans brought to Virginia in 1619. Debates rage over which of these factors mattered most in the shaping of New World slavery and race relations. When it comes to the origins of large-scale plantation slavery in the British colonies, however, a one-word consensus has emerged: Barbados.

In the 1640s, English planters on this tiny island in the southeastern Caribbean began to produce sugar. In 1661, they wrote a new set of laws for the “Negros” who toiled in the cane fields and boiling houses. This racial code spread to Jamaica and South Carolina while Barbadian planters and overseers took the cruel secrets of slaving around the Americas. “In short, the slavery that dominated antebellum America had its roots, not in the Chesapeake,” writes Simon P. Newman, “but in Barbados.”

But if slave plantations in British America came from Barbados, then where did slave plantations in Barbados come from? Here the picture is not as clear. According to specialists of the island, both British and Dutch investors enabled its move to sugar—and thus to slavery. English planters may have also brought the requisite knowledge from Brazil, then under Dutch control, to Barbados. Newer research stresses the leading role of London merchants in the mid-1600s as well as the wide acceptance of slavery across the Anglophone world at that time.

With all this focus on Anglo-Dutch actors, it is easy to forget that the Portuguese were the first Europeans to charge into the Atlantic during the mid-1400s, bearing Papal authorization to enslave Muslims, pagans, and other “enemies of Christ.” They built the early sugar plantations from Madeira to Cape Verde and down the African coast to São Tomé and Principe. Sometime after landing on Brazil in 1500 they also described an island whose mossy trees looked like bearded men, or Barbados.

Historians of Latin America know all about Portugal’s dominance over the South Atlantic slave network that once stretched from Angola to Brazil, as well as the sugar economy that eventually moved from the eastern Atlantic to the Caribbean. But the details of transmission remain mysterious, in part because we historians of the British Americas don’t talk enough with our Latin Americanist colleagues. We also tend to ignore political events back on the Iberian peninsula, especially in little Portugal. And yet those events help to explain how Barbados became ground zero for British-American slavery.

During the long reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603), England was poised to follow Portugal’s footsteps as an Atlantic slaving power. London had an ancient alliance with Lisbon and dozens of English merchants already lived on the Portuguese sugar islands. But after a disastrous invasion of Morocco in 1578, Portugal fell under the control of the Spanish Hapsburgs. English pirates were soon attacking Portuguese as well as Spanish targets, while Lisbon applied Spain’s strict trade policies across its own empire.

Those policies remained even after James I made peace with Spain in 1604. Without special permission or licença, no foreign national could trade at Cape Verde or São Tomé, nor in Angola or the Gulf of Guinea. Small-scale trade between English ships and the Portuguese islands continued, but the big business of human trafficking remained in Iberian hands.

Take the year 1627, when British settlement in Barbados began. According to the Slave Voyages database, 24 slave ships came to the Americas that year. All of them had filled their holds at Portuguese-controlled parts of Africa for delivery in the Iberian colonies. The Nossa Senhora da Guía, for one, sailed from Lisbon to Cape Verde, where it purchased 371 men, women, and children from eager-to-sell planters who could no longer compete with Brazilian sugar. The ship unloaded 296 people at Cartagena. The other 75 must have died during the Middle Passage, their bodies thrown to the sharks.

Locked out of Atlantic slaving, English colonists stole small numbers of black slaves from Iberian ships or bought them from Dutch privateers. They also enslaved natives. According to one of the first accounts from Barbados in 1627, about 40 “slaves of negeres and Indyenes” labored alongside 60 “christyanes.” The Indians in question came from the South American coast; native captives from Puritan New England and other islands later joined them. In 1636 the island’s rulers made clear that all non-white, non-Christian captives were bound for life. Yet their proportion of the Barbados workforce almost certainly dropped during the colony’s first decade as British servants poured in, raising tobacco (with little success) and cotton (with somewhat more).

Then in 1640, the Portuguese rose up and crowned the Duke of Bragança as King João IV, the rightful sovereign of a free kingdom. Celebrations did not last. Devastated by crop failures at home and Dutch attacks abroad, Portugal also had to fight off its powerful neighbor, which refused to recognize its independence. Of course, Portugal also lost its status as the main supplier of slaves to Spanish America. Desperate for cash and allies, João IV signed a free-trade treaty with the hated Dutch in 1641.

English merchants wanted the same privileges, resulting in a 1642 treaty that opened all the “lands, forts, castles, ports, and coasts of Africa, Guinea, etc. the island of São Tomé and in all the other islands comprehended therein” to their vessels. As if to distinguish this trade from the petty barter of the last several decades, the treaty empowered Englishmen to “carry merchandise, and loads or carriages upon wagons, horses, or in ships” from Portuguese lands to “any other places whatsoever.” It also called for future trade agreements with Brazil.

These two treaties changed everything, and fast. In 1641, control of the South Atlantic slave trade shifted from the Portuguese to the Dutch, who took slaves from both Angola (by conquest) and São Tomé (by treaty). After a single voyage to Barbados that year, English slave traders emerged in force from 1644 to 1646, sending at least 29 ships across the Atlantic. They loaded at mainland forts like Calabar and Ardra and also at São Tomé and other sugar islands. Barbados was the obvious destination.

At least one Dutch slave vessel also landed on the island during this period, and English planters may well have visited Dutch-occupied Brazil to learn about sugar. Yet it was the Portuguese—and the people they enslaved—who knew the punishing rhythms and intricate secrets of sugar production, from the right moment to cut the cane to the exact dimensions of the rolling mills and boiling houses. As the Brazilian planter Gaspar Dias Ferreira wrote in 1645, “both the Negroes and the sugars have to pass through the hands of the Portuguese” before the sweet, addictive powder could be rendered.

In any case, it was not enough to know how to grow sugar in abstract terms. An enterprising planter required dozens of slaves to work the fields, a team of skilled artisans to build and maintain the machinery, and a large stock of animals to make it move. Where else could an English ship acquire such cargo, besides the Portuguese colonies and slave stations? Indeed, the exportation of horses from England was restricted once the civil war broke out in 1642. For their part, the Dutch briefly had control of both Angola and Brazil, and thus no need to build up a new sugar industry on a foreign colony.

All the clues point to a sustained transfer of sugar-producing labor and capital from Portuguese slave depots to Barbados, by means of English ships that could once again trade legally with their old ally.

Consider the 1647 voyage of Richard Ligon, an English royalist fleeing Oliver Cromwell and the Roundheads. Before the crossing, his ship called on the Cape Verde archipelago, “where we were to trade for Negros, Horses, and Cattle” for sale in the Caribbean. They “carried away” fifty heads of cattle and eight horses before heading on to Barbados, where one plantation already had nearly 100 black slaves and dozens of draft animals.

By the time the island’s assembly passed the 1661 slave code, Barbados was a British version of São Tomé or Cape Verde, the far western end of a totalitarian archipelago whose grim history reaches back to Portuguese crusaders.

J.M. Opal is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of History and Classical Studies at McGill University. His new project is Most Noble Island: Three Ages of Barbados in the Early Americas.

Related posts

How Slavery Shaped America’s Oldest And Most Elite Colleges


Dred Scott v. Sandford

joe bodego

Bridget “Biddy” Mason


Martin Luther King Jr Gallery

joe bodego