When Americans think about slavery, we think about the Civil War, cotton plantations in Georgia, and the legacy that those centuries of bondage left in the United States. But we forget that, 200 years ago, the institution in various forms extended throughout the world: hundreds of millions of Chinese and Indian peasants were in debt bondage to landowners, indigenous slavery was widespread in Africa, and most people in Russia were serfs.
No slaves suffered more, however, than those who were force-marched to the African coast and, if they survived, transported in the packed, suffocating holds of sailing vessels across the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean. Here, too, we forget that it was not just to the United States that these ships brought their human cargo. Far greater numbers of captive Africans in chains were shipped to the West Indies and to Latin America, especially Brazil. There, and in the Caribbean, the tropical climate and its diseases made field labor particularly harsh and the death rate especially high. At one time or another, however, slaves could be found almost everywhere in the Americas where Europeans had settled, from Quebec to Chile.
Slavery was the cornerstone of the modern world in more ways than we can imagine today. The structure of banking, insurance, and credit that underlies international commerce, for instance, has its origins, at least in part, in the “triangle trade”: slaves being transported from Africa to the Americas; slave-cultivated products like cotton and sugar traveling from the Americas to Europe; and trading goods meant to buy yet more slaves moving from Europe to Africa. Because a voyage on any leg of that triangle might last months and risked shipwreck, bankers, merchants, and ship owners wanted systems that both guaranteed payment for losses and protected their investments.
Historian Greg Grandin is the author of remarkable — and highly readable — books like National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize finalist Fordlandia and his most recent work, The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World. Today, he vividly suggests just how the bodies of slaves became something on which our world was built, zeroing in on one connection that we seldom think about — the development of modern medicine.
- The Bleached Bones of the Dead
What the Modern World Owes Slavery (It’s More Than Back Wages)
Greg Grandin • February 23, 2014 • 3,200 Words