Slavery – the foundation of US capitalism

In 1860, enslaved Africans were the largest single asset in the United States.



Slavery – the foundation of US capitalism

Commemoration ceremonies commemorate the first slaves in the USA 400 years ago. But even this story is glossed over. Slavery began earlier. Their traces in economy and politics reach until today.

August 21, 2019 (taz – the daily newspaper) – On August 20, 1619, a white colonist in Virginia bought more than 20 people from a ship that had docked at the place called Point Comfort. They had been kidnapped in the kingdom of Ndongo, now Angola. On the high seas, English pirates had stolen them from a Portuguese slave ship. In Point Comfort, the sellers stocked up with food before setting sail again with the “White Lion” after the transaction.

400 years later, the US sees the day as the beginning of slavery in North America. Historians, civil rights activists and politicians have organized commemorative events. And next weekend, a release of butterflies is planned at the scene where the crime against humanity is said to have started.

But historically things were more complicated. True, the transaction actually took place in Point Comfort. But it was by no means the beginning of slavery in North America. It had already spread over the continent at that time. European colonists had enslaved Native Americans. Spanish and Portuguese ships have already deported people from Africa to the Caribbean. And in Florida and South Carolina today, Spaniards had already landed with enslaved Africans. A Spanish expedition to South Carolina ended in November 1526 – almost a century before Point Comfort – with a slave rebellion.

The gaps and inaccuracies surrounding the beginnings of slavery in today’s US are no exception. When it comes to this dark chapter of US history, the state of affairs is vague, in the best case, half-truth and often wrong. The gray areas range from the private to the public.

While white Americans celebrate their European origins, the systematic destruction of identity and ancestry is still affecting the descendants of slaves. They were deprived of control over their own lives, banned from their own language, religion, food and music. To this day, many of them bear the surname of the slave owners. It has only been possible for a few years now to use genetic tests and genealogy to recapture parts of their destroyed family histories.

Even public education dared only cautiously to approach slavery. The museums of African American history and slavery are still in their infancy.

The USA also finds it difficult to describe the influence of slavery on the economy and politics. Officially, slavery was a problem of the southern states – as if only a small part of the country had participated and profited.


In 1860, five years before the end of the civil war, slaves were the largest single asset in the United States. Their value exceeded that of all manufactories and train companies combined. The four million people forced into forced labor in 1860 worked mainly in the southern states on cotton, tobacco and sugar cane plantations, as well as occasionally in railway construction. But it was on their shoulders and with their work that the wealth that shaped the country emerged.

There were no big companies that were not involved in the business. The New York insurance companies sold policies to slave owners who wanted to protect their “property”. Banks across the US accepted slaves as “collateral” for loans and continued to sell them when their clients were insolvent. And also universities speculated with slaves. For example, the Jesuit Georgetown University in the United States sold a total of 272 people to Louisiana in 1838 to pay off debts. All ports along the east coast organized transatlantic trade in raw materials, almost 100 percent of which were produced by slaves.

Slavery laid the foundation for US capitalism. Its brutality in dealing with people has shaped the country’s entrepreneurial culture. At the same time, it has left lasting traces in the political institutions of the USA.

For example, slave owners from Virginia, who were in person “founding fathers” of the United States, wrote in the constitution that the Southern states were given more seats in the House of Representatives and thus in the electoral college electing the president. In 1787, they created the “three-fifths compromise”, which states that three out of five slaves would be counted as persons in censuses that otherwise only considered whites. Thus, the states with many slaves had a high population and could then get more seats in the House of Representatives.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, this made sure that the slave-holders in Congress could not be out-voted by the northerners. In the 20th century, the electors’ electoral college system often led presidents to come to the White House, even though they did not have a majority of votes – including George W. Bush and, most recently, Donald Trump.

Slavery is also associated with the beginnings of the second amendment, which provides largely uncontrolled access to firearms. The amendment was made in 1791, when slaves in neighboring Haiti successfully rebelled against France. Fearing riots and fleeing their “possessions”, plantation owners in the US then organized militia called “slave patrols”. The second amendment gave constitutional status to the militia’s right to arm.

Slavery lasted until 1865 and the USA lived with it longer than without it. The civil war was followed by only a brief period of optimism. And then a relapse into more than half a century of repression in the name of state segregation.

Only in the 50s and 60s did the black civil rights movement gain new rights. But its work is far from complete. This can be seen, among other things, in the prisons, in the police violence, and in the poverty, which disproportionately affects African Americans, and in the ideology of the white supremacy, which has been strengthened again with the current US president.

The USA is still light years away from the post-racial society that journalists proclaimed in 2008 after the election of Barack Obama as the first Black President.

By Dorothea Hahn

Description of source: taz, the daily newspaper, is a daily newspaper in Berlin, Germany. Also included are local and regional news from North Rhine-Westphalia, Ruhr and Cologne. Country of origin: Germany
© 2019 taz, the daily newspaper

Comments are closed.