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American Slavery in Comparative Perspective Previous Next
Digital History ID 460


Only about 6 percent of the slaves imported in Africa ended up in what is now the United States. The overwhelming majority went to Brazil or the West Indies, where they labored on plantations producing sugar, tobacco, coffee, and other subtropic products. Of the 10 to 15 million Africans who survived the voyage to the New World, over one-third landed in Brazil and between 60 and 70 percent ended up in Brazil or the sugar colonies of the Caribbean. Yet by 1860, approximately two-thirds of all New World slaves lived in the American South.

How did American slavery compare and contrast with slavery in Latin America and the Caribbean? Was it more repressive or was it more benign? For a long time it was widely assumed that southern slavery was harsher and crueler than slavery in Latin America, where the Catholic church insisted that slaves had a right to marry, to seek relief from a cruel master, and to purchase their freedom. In contrast to the American South, it was pointed out, there were no legal bar in Latin America to educating or freeing slaves; moreover, Spanish and Portuguese colonists were thought to be less tainted by racial prejudice than North Americans and Latin American slavery was believed to be less subject to the pressures of a competitive capitalist economy.

This contrast between a supposedly kinder, gentler system of Latin American slavery and a harsher system of North American slavery appears to be grossly overdrawn. In practice, neither the Catholic Church nor the courts offered much protection to Latin American slaves. Cruel punishments were not unknown, such as tying slaves down and flogging them for nine to thirteen consecutive days. Slaveowners in Latin America, like those in the American South, frequently sold slaves apart. Access to freedom was greater in Latin America, but in many cases masters freed sick, elderly, crippled, or simply unneeded slaves in order to relieve themselves of financial responsibilities.

In certain respects, Latin American slavery may have been even harsher than North American slavery. Death rates among slaves in the Caribbean were one-third higher than in the South and suicide appears to have been much more common. Sometimes Latin American slaves were forced to wear iron masks to keep them from eating dirt or drinking liquor. Unlike slaves in the South, West Indian slaves were expected to produce their own food in their "free time," and care for the elderly and the infirm.

For all the similarities between slavery in the American South and in Latin America, there were a number of crucial differences. Perhaps the most obvious were demographic. The slave population in Brazil and the West Indies had a low proportion of female slaves, a tiny slave birth rate, and a high proportion of recent arrivals from Africa. In striking contrast, southern slaves had an equal sex ratio, a high birthrate, and a predominantly American-born population.

By the mid-nineteenth century, U.S. slaves were much further removed from Africa than those in the Caribbean. While a majority of early 19th century slaves in the British Caribbean and Brazil were born in Africa, in 1850 most U.S. slaves were third-, fourth-, or fifth-generation Americans. In addition, by the nineteenth century there were relatively few African born slaves, which made it more difficult to maintain African practices in an unmodified form.

Slavery in the United States was especially distinctive in the ability of the slave population to increase its numbers by natural reproduction. In the Caribbean, Dutch Guiana and Brazil, the slave death rate was so high and the birth rate so low that slaves could not sustain their population without imports from Africa. Rates of natural decrease ran as high as 5 percent a year. While the death rate of U.S. slaves was as high as that in Jamaica, the birth rate was 80 percent higher. The average number of children born to an early 19th century Southern slave woman was 9.2--twice as many as in the West Indies.

Slaves in the United States and the West Indies made up sharply differing proportions of the total population. In the West Indies, slaves constituted 80 to 90 percent of the population, while in the South only about a third of the population was slaves. Plantation size also differed widely. In the Caribbean, slaves were held on much larger units, with many plantations holding as many as 500 slaves. In the American South, in contrast, only one slaveowner held as many as a thousand slaves, and just 125 had over 250 slaves. Half of all slaves in the United States worked on units of twenty or fewer slaves; three-quarters had fewer than fifty.

These demographic differences had important social implications. Slaves in the American South had much more contact with whites than did West Indian slaves. In the U.S. South, the population was 40 percent black and the typical plantation had between 20 and 50 slaves. In the West Indies, the population was typically between 80 and 90 percent black and plantations usually had between 150 and 250 slaves.

In the American South, slave owners lived on their plantations and slaves dealt with their owners regularly. Most planters placed plantation management, supply purchasing, and supervision in the hands of black drivers and foremen, and at least two-thirds of all slaves worked under the supervision of black drivers. In contrast, absentee ownership was far more common in the West Indies, where planters relied heavily on paid managers and relied on a distinct class of free blacks and mulattoes to serve as intermediaries with the slave population.

Standards of diet, housing, and medicine in the South may have exceeded those in the Caribbean, but southern masters also interfered more frequently in their personal lives. In the South, masters provided slaves with food, housing, and clothing; in the Caribbean, in contrast, slaves had to raise their own food in their spare time.

Another important difference between Latin America and the United States involved the very concept of race. In Spanish and Portuguese America, an intricate system of racial classification emerged. Compared with the British and French, the Spanish and Portuguese were much more tolerant of racial mixing, an attitude encouraged by a shortage of European women, and recognized a wide range of racial gradations, including black, mestizo, quadroon, and octoroon.

The American South, in contrast, adopted a two-category system of racial categorization in which any person with a black mother was automatically considered to be black. It has been said, half-facetiously, that Southerners are color blind, in the sense that individuals, despite their racial composition, are considered to be either white or black, while Latin Americans recognized degrees of blackness and whiteness.

A final difference between slavery in the United States and elsewhere in the Americas was that only in the South did slavery depend on the loyalty of non-slaveholding whites. In the South, three-quarters of white families owned no slaves. The key to maintaining their loyalty ultimately depended on appeals to racism.

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