- Slavery, Commodification, and Capitalism
Slavery was a system of labor in which slaves were valued for their ability to produce commodities for sale. As Ira Berlin and Philip D. Morgan put it succinctly: “Slaves worked. When, where, and especially how they worked determined, in large measure, the course of their lives.”1 But slaves also were themselves commodities, valued for the price they could bring on the slave market. The three books under review focus on slaves as commodities; in the process, their authors join a growing number of scholars who see slavery as thoroughly capitalistic and challenge the idea of the slave South as backward, pre- or non-capitalist, and fundamentally distinct from the “free-labor” North. All three are excellent studies that emphasize the centrality of buying and selling human beings to slavery and the slave experience. They will not put an end, however, to the ongoing debate among historians over the relationship between slavery and capitalism.
The transatlantic slave trade has received a good deal of scholarly attention in recent years,2 but one feature of this trade—the intercolonial trade in slaves already in the New World—has been largely ignored. This is the subject of Gregory E. O’Malley’s fine first book, Final Passages. Focusing, as the subtitle indicates, on the British colonies, O’Malley tells an important story of what often followed the middle passage, as Africans experienced a second—shorter—journey across the water and a second sale as well. Setting forth this process in a thematic introduction followed by eight clearly presented chronological [End Page 217] chapters based on his own database of more than 7,600 voyages, O’Malley finds that about one-quarter of Africans imported to British America experienced this re-sale, which served to compound the traumatic impact of the middle passage, as captives relived the fear of what was to become of them and as families that had managed to remain together so far were often torn apart. Summarizing the commodification of slaves who were “bought, sorted, moved, and sold wherever they would be most valued” (p. 218), O’Malley reminds us that “one must reckon not only with the labor value of the enslaved toiling on American plantations but also with their commodity value in the Atlantic marketplace” (p. 348).
O’Malley tells this depressing story in largely dispassionate but often heart-wrenching detail, along the way making pertinent generalizations and conclusions. A few of the many nuggets the reader encounters are the following: 1) About 4 percent of reshipped slaves died in their second voyage, versus perhaps 12 percent in the middle passage; but given that the intercolonial trips were usually of much shorter duration than the transatlantic ones, the mortality rate (per day or month) was actually higher on these second voyages. 2) Buyers in smaller, more remote markets were especially dependent on re-exports from both the Caribbean and mainland colonies with established sources of supply; North Carolina, for example, received most of its slaves from South Carolina and Virginia, but relatively few directly from Africa. 3) Although planters in the British colonies opposed the practice, British merchants eagerly grasped at the opportunity to re-export slaves to Spanish and French colonies; as O’Malley puts it, “it made little sense to provide workers to one’s rivals, but it made perfect sense to sell commodities to rivals at inflated prices” (p. 348). 4) Unlike antebellum slaves taken to the western United States, most of those sent to the American backcountry during the second half of the eighteenth century were Africans.
Above all, O’Malley emphasizes the re-export business as...