The Emergence of the Atlantic Slave System

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Although we may not initially think of slavery as ‘modern’, the Atlantic slave trade and slave labour have been intimately connected with the emergence of the modern global economy. The trade was driven, overwhelmingly, by skyrocketing demand for new consumer goods, ‘luxuries’ which quickly became staples in Europe, European colonies, and their trading partners around the globe. This in turn fuelled a revolution in consumption patterns and economies, especially in Britain and the Netherlands. The conquest and colonisation of the Americas by the Spanish, Portuguese, and Northern European countries led to experimentation with new cash crops that could bring wealth to the ‘mother countries’. Many of these cash crops, most notably sugar, were highly labour intensive. The decimation of local populations, which had little immunity to Eurasian diseases, alongside difficulties controlling local workers or European indentured labour, led to a demand for African labourers. These conditions led to the reinvention of chattel slavery as a commercialised and racialised labour system, in which New World plantations were able to achieve industrial levels of production by intensively overworking African slave labourers.