Historian and author Edward E. Baptist explains how slavery helped the USA go from a “colonial economy to the second biggest industrial power in the world.” Baptist argues that slavery, particularly the cotton slavery that existed from the end of the 18th century to the beginning of the Civil War, was a thoroughly modern business, one that was continuously changing to maximize profits.
Four hundred years, and counting, since African labour started powering the world’s economic powerhouse.
Digging through historical records, Baptist affirms that to grow the cotton that would clothe the world and fuel global industrialization, thousands of young enslaved men (particularly Africans) treated as property, were transported from Maryland and Virginia hundreds of miles south, and forcibly retrained to become America’s most efficient labourers. As they were pushed into the expanding territories of Mississippi and Louisiana, sold and bid on at auctions, and resettled onto forced labor camps, they were given a task: to plant and pick thousands of pounds of cotton.
The Year 2019 marked 400 years since the 1619 arrival of enslaved Africans to the colony of Virginia, and not much mention, let alone tribute paid, of the Ebony peoples of Africa on whose backs America’s economic empire was built.
Relying on photographs and records from the Library of Congress, Baptist asserts that the bodies of the enslaved served as America’s largest financial asset, and they were forced to maintain America’s most exported commodity. In 60 years, from 1801 to 1862, the amount of cotton picked daily by an enslaved person increased 400 percent.
The profits from cotton propelled the US into a position as one of the leading economies in the world, and made the South its most prosperous region. The ownership of enslaved people increased wealth for Southern planters so much that by the dawn of the Civil War, the Mississippi River Valley had more millionaires per capita than any other region.
In the words of Edward Baptist: “As overseers and plantation owners managed a forced-labor system aimed at maximizing efficiency, they interacted with a network of bankers and accountants, and took out lines of credit and mortgages, all to manage America’s empire of cotton. An entire industry, America’s first big business, revolved around slavery.”
“The slavery economy of the US South is deeply tied financially to the North, to Britain, to the point that we can say that people who were buying financial products in these other places were in effect owning slaves, and were extracting money from the labor of enslaved people,” says Edward E. Baptist, a historian at Cornell University and the author of The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.
Baptist reminded everyone that slavery was everywhere as at 1776. At the time of the Declaration of Independence, slavery was legal in every one of the newly created 13 states (former British colonies) of America. In a sense, therefore, slavery was much like capital; the more slaves a nation could control, the wealthier it could become.
With the market opening created by the industrialization programme in Britain, slave owners began to shift the slaves in the South and West into what would become the new cotton territories of the South.