Stone Pigs

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Our Slaves Were Better than Your Slaves!

Posted By Alan Partis on April 23, 2011

A few nights ago I watched a PBS documentary about American Founding Father, Thomas Jefferson.  I was attracted to this story because I’m generally a pretty big fan of Tom’s, but this particular production narrowly focused on the institute of slavery in America at the time and particularly, obviously, on Mr. Jefferson’s involvement and written statements on the topic.  Much was made of the apparent contradictions between his stated beliefs in freedom and equality for all men while, at the same time, enslaving others and even going so far as to state that he felt the Africans were intellectually inferior and could not survive in America on their own.  It was not a completely unfair assessment of our 3rd President, but also not the most flattering one either.

One statement in particular during the film really caught my attention, however, and caused me to think: during the period from 1619 (when the first African slaves were brought to our shores at the Jamestown Colony in what is now Virginia) to 1750, a total of 10 million Africans were brought to the Western World (by some accounts a total of 20 million were actually taken from Africa, but only half survived the transatlantic journey), 400,000 of which came to the American colonies.  That translates to just 4% of the surviving enslaved Africans that came to America.  Where did the other 96% of the survivors go?

Research shows that a vast majority were taken by the Portuguese to Brazil (35% of the total) and the Caribbean islands (another 30%).  Most of the rest went to various Spanish colonies.  This contradicts the image of what I have always been taught to think and it serves to raise even more questions in my mind.

It seems that most of the long term anger and resentment about African slavery is focused on The United States.  Is there any supporting evidence that slavery was so much worse here than anywhere else for that 4% unfortunate enough to work here?  The evidence does not support this premise.  The death rate and life expectancy for slaves in Brazil and the Caribbean was much worse than in America.

Did slavery go on longer in America?  No.  Slavery in Brazil predates slavery of Africans in America and was not officially abolished until a couple decades after Abraham Lincoln issued his "Emancipation Proclamation."  In fact, it is widely known that as many as 50,000 people in Brazil are still held in slavery even to this day!

Did we get the cream of the crop of African slaves?  It’s been postulated that much of America’s prosperity can be explained by the shameless exploitation of cheap/free African labor.  But, if slavery was necessarily a big part of the explanation for our prosperity (the southern Colonies quickly became one of the wealthiest "countries" in the World), why didn’t Brazil or any of the other resource-rich locations with MUCH greater slave populations match our levels of prosperity and wealth production?

Our slaves must have been awesome!

Clearly, the answer to the question about the source of American prosperity lies not so much in the exploitation of slave labor, but instead in something else that differentiates America from Brazil (and other countries): we had Thomas Jefferson and they didn’t.


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