Happy 500th Birthday to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade

I find it rather amusing hearing white supremacists like Richard Spencer or David Duke or Jason Kessler talk about how the United States is a white nation and belongs to their people. On occasion, you’ll hear of them saying something to the effect of wanting to kick out all People of Color as part of their dream of a whites only nation. Richard Spencer, for instance, has talked about “peaceful ethnic cleansing” as a way to rid the country of people they find undesirable (i.e. those of us with more melanin than most white folks).  He claims it can be done peacefully, but the smarmy asshole isn’t fooling anyone, because you can’t reasonably expect roughly 41% of the population to be cool about uprooting their lives and going to some other country on some other continent all because a racist hatemonger thinks the country is only for white people. But even if it were possible to peacefully kick people out of this country, there would be a fairly immediate problem: the loss of nearly 41% of the population.  The idea of white supremacists proudly celebrating their success only to see it undercut by the loss of millions of people in all industries brings a very satisfying smile to my face. Along with that smile comes a good chuckle when I think of how this will no longer be the case:

Foreign-born residents not only expanded the U.S. high-tech workforce but helped start new businesses that have generated billions in revenue and hired tens of thousands of workers. Foreign-born entrepreneurs helped start one-fourth of all new U.S. engineering and technology business established between 1995 and 2005, including Google and eBay. In high-tech Silicon Valley, California, more than one-half of business start-ups over that period involved a foreign-born scientist or engineer; one-fourth included an Indian or Chinese immigrant.

Among those companies that are already established, the loss of much of their foreign-born workforce would hurt. Badly. Come to think of it, the U.S. military would take a hit as well, since they actively recruit from communities of color.  Of course, my amusement ends when I think about the number of people who would suffer.  It’s likely the U.S. economy would take a nosedive, with everything from agriculture to the service industry to jobs in STEM fields being hard hit. Not to mention the emotional toll on those white people who were friends or loved ones of the forcibly relocated POC. Ultimately, I am not convinced that forcibly relocating all People of Color is feasible.

To be honest, even if it were, I don’t think there would be sufficient support. Yes, the United States is still a country with white folks in control of the wheel, brakes, accelerator, and even the turn signal (the latter can be seen in the 2016 election when the majority of the population was unsuccessful in preventing the nation from driving off a cliff). Yes, the interests of non-whites are only paid lip-service to (and only at convenient times), And yes, there are far too many racial extremists in this country. Despite all of that, and despite the fact that implicit and explicit racial bias is prevalent in white people of all backgrounds, I do not believe most of the white people in the United States want a whites only nation. Heck, even if a Richard Spencer and Pat Robertson ticket won the presidency in 2020, I don’t think any ethnic cleansing–peaceful or otherwise–would receive widespread support.

There is only one hope for those longing for a whites-only nation. It’s a long shot, and one that’s going to take a few steps, a lot more blood, and someone with Reed Richards, Tony Stark, Victor Von Doom level intellect. That last part is essential, because they’ll need a time machine to travel back to the year 1518 to prevent the events that led to the true birth of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade:

To the best of my knowledge, the origin of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade is not taught in USAmerican public schools. Hell, it’s an uphill battle trying to get history books to cover the Civil War honestly, to cover the Reconstruction era in much detail, or really, discuss any of the unsavory parts of United States history with the details they deserve. Covering historical events pivotal to the foundation and development of this country prior to its formation–especially events that portray Europeans in a horrible light–probably won’t make it into history books anytime soon.

Now, to be clear, the trafficking of enslaved Africans to the Americas did not literally begin in 1518. The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade is widely believed to have begun with the 1441 voyage to West Africa by young Portuguese ship captain Antam Gonçalvez (though the slaves he brought to his prince were not slaves in the sense that we think of today; for instance, they were allowed to negotiate the terms of their release). Modern understanding of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, however, is typically viewed as starting in Africa and ending in the Americas with no stop over. Prior to 1518 though:

Direct slave traffic from Africa was not initially permitted for the same reasons that colonists were repeatedly forbidden from bringing enslaved Muslims and moriscos to the Americas: the Spanish Crown worried that captives from sub-Saharan Africa might introduce non-Christian religious practices to Amerindian populations.

That being the case, one wonders what changes occurred that led to the lifting of the prohibition on direct slave traffic from Africa to the Americas.  If you consider what is widely known about the arrival of Christopher Columbus to the Americas, you can get a good idea of the answer. I’m not talking about the sanitized version of Columbus still taught in public schools across the country, but the version that is historically accurate. Like other European invaders (including his crew) Columbus was a brutal man, a human trafficker, a rapist, a sadist, and for all that it was unintentional on his part, a disease bringer:

In most of the Caribbean, even before the mid-sixteenth century, it was evident that Spanish colonization based on the mass forced labor of Amerindians was not a viable option. In addition to the demands of Spanish colonists, Old World diseases such as smallpox, measles, chicken pox, and typhus decimated native populations, and reduced workforces to unsustainable levels. Vocal advocates of reform, most notably Bartolomé de las Casas, persuaded many in Spain that the abuses suffered by Amerindians at the hands of Spanish colonists were unacceptable on moral and religious grounds. Worried by the catastrophic decline of native American populations, and faced with growing opposition to Spanish mistreatment of Amerindians, Emperor Charles V passed a series of laws in the 1540s known collectively as the “New Laws of the Indies for the Good Treatment and Preservation of the Indians,” or just the “New Laws.” Among the first royal decrees issued in 1542 was the abolition of Amerindian slavery. Furthermore, Amerindians were no longer required to work without pay, and Spanish colonists’ children could no longer inherit encomiendas. These changes were met with heavy resistance from colonists in Mexico and Peru, where some colonists possessed vast encomiendas resembling small kingdoms and because of their complaints, some of the New Laws were only partially enforced in these colonies, and some traditional practices were partially reinstated. But in the Spanish Caribbean, Amerindians’ rapidly declining populations led Spanish colonists to look elsewhere for laborers long before the 1540s.

The decimation of the Amerindian population combined with increasing demand for laborers in the colonies led Europeans to view Africa as a new source for slaves:

As Hispaniola’s once vibrant native population plummeted from 60,000 in 1508 to less than 20,000 ten years later, it became clear that colonists had to import laborers in order to sustain the colony’s gold placer mines and its nascent sugar industry. Echoing Ovando, Spanish colonists and administrators clamored for permission to import African slaves. In 1516 even Bartolome de Las Casas, the same Dominican friar who fought tirelessly for the rights of Amerindians, proposed replacing native labor with African slaves, whom he believed were better suited for harsh physical labor.

It’s curious (in a way) seeing how far back stereotypes of Black people go. “African slaves were better suited for harsh physical labor” is the same as saying that Black people are stronger, tougher, more resilient. Those characteristics remind me so much of the Brute, one of the numerous racial caricatures (I prefer to call them racial slurs, because they were denigrative epithets) of Blacks created during the days of slavery. Other such racial slurs included the Picaninny, the Golliwog, the Sambo, the Nat, the Jezebel, the Sapphire, the Coon, the Mammy, the Tom, and of course, the most widely known, N*gg*r. With the exception of the N-word, each of those racial slurs served as shorthand epithets used by white people to denigrate Blacks for behaving in so-called undesirable, uncivilized, or uncultured ways. From lazy and shiftless to sexually promiscuous and insatiable to animalistic and savage, these dehumanizing slurs denigrated African slaves by casting them as sub-humans who needed to be controlled by white men lest they succumb to their inner, natural desires and harm themselves of others (whereas the N-word was an all purpose umbrella slur that meant its victim possessed all the negative traits associated with each of the other anti-Black slurs).  With the exception of the N-word, most of these racial slurs have fallen out of use. The character traits that white people claimed had defined these slurs however, are still used to dehumanize and stereotype African-Americans and justify malicious or barbaric acts against us (in 2014, then Officer Darren Wilson of the Ferguson, Missouri PD gave sworn testimony that his execution of 18 year old Michael Brown, Jr was because he feared for his life. The one-man judge, jury, and executioner characterized the teen as having so much strength he was difficult to handle, that he was like a demon, that he had an intense aggressive face, all characteristics used by racist whites more than 100 years prior to justify the need to enslave Blacks, and later, the reasons they needed to be lynched. But I digress. Check out the Jim Crow Museum for more–and in some cases, gruesome–details about these racial slurs and other aspects of slavery and Jim Crow)

1518 is viewed as the true beginning of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade because that was the year when the prohibition on slave trafficking directly from Africa to the Americas was lifted:

Exactly five centuries ago – on 18 August 1518 (28 August 1518, if they had been using our modern Gregorian calendar) – the King of Spain, Charles I, issued a charter authorising the transportation of slaves direct from Africa to the Americas. Up until that point (since at least 1510), African slaves had usually been transported to Spain or Portugal and had then been transhipped to the Caribbean.

Charles’s decision to create a direct, more economically viable Africa to America slave trade fundamentally changed the nature and scale of this terrible human trafficking industry. Over the subsequent 350 years, at least 10.7 million black Africans were transported between the two continents. A further 1.8 million died en route.

To get an idea of the scale of the slave trade, as well as current estimates of the number of humans trafficked out of Africa, take a look at this map:

Volume and Direction of the Transatlantic Slave Trade from All African to All American Regions
Based on work done by scholars at www.slavevoyages.org, this is a summary map of the numerous paths taken by African slaves from embarkation to disembarkation. Each path also includes an estimate of the number of slaves transported along that route. The map was co-edited by Professor David Eltis of Emory University and Professor David Richardson of The University of Hull.

 

From the year it began to the reasons it began to the sheer number of slaves trafficked from Africa, there are many things I was wholly unaware of regarding the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. The map above highlights something else I knew nothing of:  only a small percentage of enslaved Africans were brought to what eventually became the United States. I had no idea that the slave trade was this extensive, nor that the majority of African slaves were brought to South America, with Brazil receiving the greatest number.

This month’s quincentenary is of a tragic event that caused untold suffering and still today leaves a legacy of poverty, racism, inequality and elite wealth across four continents. But it also quite literally changed the world and still geopolitically, socially, economically and culturally continues to shape it even today – and yet the anniversary has been almost completely ignored.

It’s almost mind-blowing to consider that one of the root causes of the slave trade was increased demand for sugar among Europeans. That such a small thing (in our eyes today) could lead to a massive event of near global proportions is almost inconceivable. And that’s just the slave trade itself. The impact of it, the mark it left on millions of people, dozens of countries, and 4 continents is staggering. As is knowing that the multi-continental legacy of racism, elite wealth, poverty, and inequality that cause massive social, political, and economic problems in so many countries today can be directly traced back to the slave trade. It’s difficult to conceive.

While somewhat less difficult to conceive of, the fallout of that legacy here in the United States still leaves me a bit stupefied. From discussions about why white people can’t use the N-word (shouldn’t is more accurate, as plenty of them literally do use it, which means they can) to the modern version of Jim Crow (aka white folks calling the police on Black people engaged in mundane activities), from the racialized nature of mass incarceration to the racial inequities of our criminal justice system, from the dearth of Black politicians, billionaires, or Fortune 500 CEOs to the use of excessive police force against Black motorists, from the continued need for Affirmative Action policies in colleges and universities to diversity and inclusivity efforts in Hollywood and beyond, from far-Right extremists and Nazis marching in the streets to First Amendment debates that fail to account for the psychological harm of hate speech, from the limitations in tracking African-American ancestry to the assimilation of Black culture into the mainstream to So Much, Much, More, one wonders when, or even if the legacy of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade might ever end. Or if it even can.

Though deep and more than a little unsettling, that thought reminds me that I began this post musing about the ways white supremacists could turn the United States into a white-ethno state, devoid of all People of Color. They could try, as I mentioned, to create some sort of large scale forced migration program for of all PoC. But not only is that not very practical, I am confident it would receive insufficient public support. I suppose they could also try to begin the race war that so many of their ilk engage in fantasies over (while others like Dylan Roof, attempt to start), but there again, I don’t see enough support among white people for a second Civil War to occur, and certainly not one with (presumably) whites on one side and POC on the other. However, even if I’m wrong about forcible deportation of all POC or a second Civil War, the problems with the former are extensive, and would likely lead to a massive economic downturn, if not a total crash. As for the latter, that  would see extensive bloodshed and I would think, a collapse of society. I jokingly said their main hope is to acquire a time machine and venture back to 1518 to prevent the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade from beginning.

Heh heh heh. But then if they prevent Africans from being enslaved and brought to the Americas to be exploited, who will build the foundations of this country? At the rate Europeans were going, the Indigenous peoples of the Americas would have been eradicated before long, necessitating a massive influx of laborers to be exploited. If not Africans, then whom? And if they don’t get anyone, then so much of the foundation of the United States, provided as it was through the forced labor of enslaved Africans and Indigenous people, would radically different than it was. Without slave labor to pick cotton, the Southern economy would not have exploded, and the United States would not have entered the world stage in the 19th Century. Without slave labor to exploit, white Southerners would not have grown rich nor would they have been able to amass the wealth to pass down to future generations. Without that wealth passed down, there would be no “old money” for wealthy white people to come from and the pervasive income inequality of today might not exist at all. There would be so many differences, big and small.

Now, I know that even if time travel were actually possible and events were changed, things would not happen as I speculated above. You couldn’t prevent the development of such a pivotal, large scale transformative event like the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and just expect historical events would happen a little differently.  Such a fundamental change to history would result in a world that no one can truly imagine (though it tickles me funny to imagine some African nation, having never been touched by European invaders, becoming more technologically advanced than other nations on Earth, ala Wakanda).  it certainly wouldn’t result in a version of the United States bearing any similarity to the country we live in today. Hell, for all we know, there wouldn’t even be a United States. It might be some undefined region or nation filled with a thriving Indigenous population in the hundreds of millions.  Not quite the world that street walking, Anti-Semitic, racist Nazis would like to have.

Looked at from a certain angle, there actually doesn’t appear to be much hope for those who wish for a white ethno-state. Obviously, they can’t go back in time and change things for their benefit (and keep everything else the same). Civil War and forced de-migration of PoC, while theoretically possible, aren’t likely on the scale they’d like (plus, where exactly are they going to send Indigenous people to? They’re the only people who actually have a right to say this is their land). So what does that leave them? Not much, though one option is to reject their beliefs in the superiority of the white race, embrace their fellow humans of all colors, and build a country where all of us can live, work, and thrive together.

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Yeah, I don’t think see that happening at all. Their best bet is probably just to go build an enclave somewhere in the mountains or out at sea, where they and their all white friends and family can remain until they die.

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Happy 500th Birthday to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade
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