The Foundations of Slavery

The discovery and exploration of the Americas in the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by European powers not only destroyed the strength of native populations, but triggered intense competition and warfare among European monarchs. Spain, Portugal, France, the Netherlands and England competed violently for control of the rich resources of the New World. Monarchs and merchants were engaged in a brutal world war to create empires in the two continents and to build their own wealth and power at home and throughout the world. Exotic commodities requiring intensive labor were in great demand in Europe and Asia creating lucrative markets and great fortunes for those engaged in trade.

From the mining of gold and silver in Peru and Brazil to the development of sugar plantations in the Caribbean Islands and tobacco fields in the Chesapeake, the pressure grew for labor to work the mines and cultivate the land. At first it was hoped that the Natives in North and South America would provide that needed labor, but it soon became evident that they were dying by the thousands as they became infected by Europeans carrying diseases for which they had no immunity. These diseases spread along the native's trade networks bringing disease and death to Indians throughout North and South America. Desperate to extract the treasures of the two continents, Europeans then looked to West Africa for their supply of labor.

Following the earlier examples of plantation slavery with the use of African slave labor on the sugar plantations of the Madeira and Canary Islands off the coast of West Africa, Europeans began to import African slaves into the Americas. The European development of the African slave trade eventually forced some 12 million men, women and children into Atlantic slavery.

Africans were taken by force from their families and communities by African slave traders or captured in wars, and then forced to march to the coast where they were held in "slave castles" until European slave ships arrived to transport them across the Atlantic. European merchants traded with African merchants to secure the slaves they wanted. Captured Africans then were forced to endure the horrific conditions of the Middle Passage to begin their lives, if they survived, as slaves working in the mines or the fields of the New World. The European powers as a consequence enriched themselves in land and treasure as the commodities of the New World were traded for great profits.

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