It is a common fact that of all races, the most widely traded slaves are Africans. For the most part, these Africans were shipped across continents to serve in the homes of Europe or to labor in the mines and plantations in the Americas
Spanish and Portuguese colonizers were the first ones to promote African slavery in the Americas in the 1500’s. Historical readers must have wondered why these colonizers had preferred Africans as slaves than the native Indians. Widely held views would be that by virtue of their color the Europeans treated them as such. But such racist perception was adopted much later.
The purpose of this paper is to discuss the reasons why Africans were selected as slaves. Historical research and accounts showed that Africans were selected as slaves mainly because they were more accustomed to hard agrarian labor, more resistant to diseases, the European colonizers forbade the enslavement of Indian slavery and African slavery trading existed.
II. Accustomed to Hard Labor
Upon colonizing the Americas Europeans, particularly Portuguese and Spanish, acquire large tracts of land that they used for sugar and cotton plantation or for mining of silver and gold. Moreover, this type of activity required much working in the soil, a task which the aristocratic colonizers considered degrading. Moreover, colonized Indians of the Americas also labored to cultivate the ground and build houses for their colonizers. These forced hard labors, however, had exhausted the Indians so that ultimately many of them died (“The Enslaved” 2006).
Indians were replaced by African slaves. Africans were supposed to be accustomed to heavy field work in a tropical climate, while Indians were not. African slaves eventually provided most of the heavy labor for plantations throughout tropical and semitropical America (Perry 358).
III. More resistant to European diseases
Although forced labor and conquest killed many Indians, the Indian’s worst enemy was the Old World diseases brought to the Americas from Europe, Asia and Africa. In the span of a generation, smallpox, measles, flu and the common cold killed hundreds of thousands. In fact, the Arawaks of the Caribbean islands were wiped out altogether. In some areas of the Mexican mainland, the population fell to about a third of what it had been before the Europeans arrived. It was several generations before the Indian population began to grow again ( Perry 358).
The tragic deaths of so many Indians caused a severe labor shortage in the Spanish colonies. Since they came from the Old World, the African slaves were more resistant to the diseases that have newly confronted the natives.
IV. European colonizers forbade the enslavement of the Indians
To do the hard work on the plantation and mines, the settlers used the Indian peasants. But because the native Indians had been converted to Christianity, the Spanish rulers issued policies designed to protect them. Indians could not be bought or sold as slaves, and colonists had to grant a royal license to use Indian labor. The plantation owners turned to Africa, therefore, for their labor supply (Perry 357). Spain justified its African slave importation on the grounds that blacks (unlike the Indians in the Americas) were not Christians and were already been enslaved in Africa. Being sent to America would not change their status as slaves but in the Church’s view, would give them the chance to convert to Christianity (Perry 358).
V. Existence of African slave trading
In Africa, as in the rest of the world, slavery had been common since ancient times. War captives, criminals, debtors, or the very poor were likely to become slaves. Along with gold, ivory and other exports small members of slaves were commonly traded in Africa. Safe slave trade routes were already established by the 15th century. In the western Sudan captives taken in warfare might be enslaved and sent forth across the Sahara (Perry 283). Along the east coast, slaves used to transport ivory from the interior might then be sold to Arabia or India. This early trade in slaves was generally limited to people who, for one reason or another, were already slaves in their own land. However, with increasing demand for slaves in the Americas, Africans in the interior were deliberately captured for slave trading. Different African kingdoms waged wars against each other for the purpose of capturing slaves to sell (Perry 283).
Unlike other nations who put up a fight against colonialism or foreign subjugation, African leaders participated in the slave trading of their own people. The main reason was that according to Thornton in his scholarly essay entitled African Political Ethics and the Slave Trade , all the 14th century African rulers led societies that recognized an institution of slavery. They embraced the philosophy that an individual could exercise rights over another person and that these rights could be alienated to any other person by sale. This explains why African leaders did not actively resist the sale of people as slaves although they complained of the horrible way Europeans treated the African slaves (Thornton 2008).
Several factors had led to the choice of Africans as slaves. First, they were accustomed to hard labor meaning that they just do not readily die of physical exhaustion. Second, they were more resistant to Old World diseases which had come to plague the New World (the Americas). Third, due to extensive missionary work many native Indians become Christians so that the Christian Spanish rulers had no choice but to prohibit their enslavement. Africans were not Christians, so they replaced the role left vacant by the Christianized Indians. And lastly, it was easy to acquire African slaves because of the slave trading being practiced by the African rulers.