The colonization of the New World involved everyone—Europeans, Native Americans, and Africans. The interactions between these different continents and peoples contributed to the creation of what historians now call the Atlantic World. Everyone brought in their own assumptions, worldviews, and ideas. In the process, these groups contributed to the creation of societies in the New World that Christopher Columbus and other early explorers would not have anticipated.
The Spanish, French, Dutch, and English empires that competed to establish footholds in the Americas were driven by political and religious impulses as well as by desires for economic gain. Yet, in order to extract wealth from the New World, Europeans needed to find or establish valuable commodities in the region and, more importantly, organize labor to produce these products.
By the mid-seventeenth century, the geopolitical map of the Americas would become a patchwork of imperial designs and ambitions as the Spanish, Dutch, French, and English reinforced their claims to parts of the land. The economic influence behind much of these efforts was known as mercantilism.
Mercantilism rested on two key assumptions. First, European monarchs and their supporters believed that the world comprised of competing nations rather than of competing individuals. Second, they assumed that there existed only a fixed amount of wealth in the world and that it was impossible for economic activity to create more wealth. In order to survive and prosper, monarchs believed that their nations needed to acquire more colonies and natural resources. Therefore, mercantilism influenced empire-building projects across the New World, with European powers vying with each other to gain their own economic footholds in the Americas.
According to mercantilism, the ideal condition of a nation was to be self-sufficient. A central government would manage the economy. Colonies could produce raw materials and commodities. Then, ships transported these materials and commodities across the Atlantic for consumption in Europe.
EXAMPLEGold and silver mined in central Mexico would go only to Spain, sugarcane from Brazil would go only to Portugal, and tobacco grown in Virginia would go only to England.
Trade within a mercantilist economy and, therefore, the creation of wealth for Europe, depended upon the idea that each colony (and the peoples within them) played a specific role. In particular, European colonists, indigenous peoples, and laborers trafficked across the Atlantic bore the burden of producing valuable commodities for the benefit of distant European nations.
Beginning by the middle of the sixteenth century, African labor comprised among the most valuable commodities within the Atlantic World. Europeans viewed Africans as non-Christians, which they used as a justification for enslavement. Denied control over their lives and valued only for their labor, African slaves endured horrendous conditions while crossing the Atlantic Ocean and working on plantations to produce cash crops, such as sugar and tobacco, for European markets.
The Portuguese led the way in the evolving transport of slaves across the Atlantic. They encouraged African rulers to go to war with each other and capture slaves on their behalf. These slaves, most of whom were captured in the interior by other Africans, were sold to Europeans on terms agreed to by African sellers. In return for gold, ivory, and slaves, African slave merchants received European guns, horses, iron and copper, glass, rum, textiles, and other goods. Slave “factories” on the west coast of Africa, such as Elmina Castle in Ghana, served as holding pens for slaves brought from Africa’s interior. In time, other European powers, most notably the Dutch and the English, built upon the Portuguese model by conquering these slave factories (the Dutch seized Elmina Castle by 1637, for instance) or by constructing similar outposts on the coast of West Africa.
By the second half of the seventeenth century, the transport of slaves to the Americas accelerated and the English became the primary player in the slave trade. By 1660, Charles II created the Royal African Company, and its sole purpose was to trade in slaves and African goods. Charles’s brother, James II, led the company before ascending the throne himself. Under both these kings, the Royal African Company enjoyed a monopoly to transport slaves to English colonies in the Americas.
Between 1672 and 1713, the company bought 125,000 captives on the African coast, losing 20 percent of them to death on the Middle Passage, the journey from the African coast to the Americas.
Once sold to traders, all slaves sent to America endured the hellish Middle Passage, the transatlantic crossing, which took one to two months. An astonishing number, some four million human beings, were transported to the Caribbean via the Middle Passage between 1501 and 1830.
At every opportunity, Africans resisted enslavement, and their resistance was met with violence. Indeed, physical, mental, and sexual violence formed a key strategy among European slaveholders in their effort to assert mastery and impose their will. Africans who survived such violence and the brutality of the Middle Passage usually arrived in the West Indies, often in Barbados. From there, they were transported to the mainland English colonies on company ships. While merchants in London, Bristol, and Liverpool lined their pockets, Africans trafficked by the company endured a nightmare of misery, privation, and dislocation.
Slave traders associated with the Portuguese, Dutch, or English sold African slaves in colonies throughout the Americas, particularly in South America and the Caribbean.
Here, sugar was a primary export. Thousands of African slaves found themselves growing, harvesting, and processing sugar cane in an arduous routine of physical labor. Slaves had to cut the long cane stalks by hand and then bring them to a mill, where the cane juice was extracted. They boiled the extracted cane juice down to a brown, crystalline sugar, which then had to be cured in special curing houses to have the molasses drained from it. The result was refined sugar, while the leftover molasses could be distilled into rum. Every step was labor-intensive and often dangerous.
The use of African slaves in the Caribbean Islands for the commodities such as sugar contributed to an economic relationship that historians have traditionally called the Triangular Trade system. Slavers originating from European nations such as England and Portugal invested in the purchasing of slaves along the African slave coast. These slaves would be brought to the New World, where they labored on plantations and processed raw goods such as sugar cane into more refined commodities, the production of which was for the sole benefit of the mother country. These commodities would then be shipped to consumers throughout Europe or undergo another refining process, where the capital and goods gained from these transactions would ultimately go back into the purchasing of new slaves. It was a vicious, triangular system of exploitation, profit, and violence.
Mercantilism, the African slave trade, and the general rise in commodity exchanges, such as those associated with sugar, also contributed to a number of cultural and intellectual relationships that, when combined with the economic connections of the Triangular Trade, contributed to the emergence of an Atlantic World. Similar to the Triangular Trade system, the Atlantic World refers to the rapid increase in trade, the exchange of slaves, and the rise of new forms of consumerism that contributed to a growing Atlantic marketplace.
Such exchanges allowed colonists in the New World to maintain connections with their respective mother countries and still consider themselves as European while they produced valuable commodities, such as sugar. Another important result of these interactions was the creation of a system in which Europeans considered African slaves as commodities rather than as human beings. Slave traders and plantation owners viewed slaves in terms of profitability and the potential economic yield that they represented.
This tutorial curated and/or authored by Matthew Pearce, Ph.D
Source: Image of Triangular Trade, CC, http://bit.ly/2ikYINV, Image of slave ship poster, PD, http://bit.ly/2i1IfRm, Derived from Openstax tutorial “New Worlds in the Americas: Labor, Commerce, and the Columbian Exchange” http://bit.ly/2iRg3lq, Edited and Added to for Bervity and Fluidity, Derived from Openstax tutorial “An Empire of Slavery and the Consumer Revolution” http://bit.ly/2iRpeCd Some sections edited for brevity., Derived from Openstax tutorial “The Impact of Colonization” http://bit.ly/2i1V9hV. Edited for brevity.