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73-476 AMERICAN ECONOMIC HISTORY: TOPIC 6
X. The Economics of Slavery
Sugar and Slavery
Distribution of Slaves in 1825 (From Fogel, p.30)
Cotton and American Slavery
% Total Imported Slaves Distribution in %
16th - 19th Centuries Slaves in 1825
U.S. 6 36
Brazil 38 31
British Caribbean 17 15
Spanish America 17 11
French Caribbean 17 4
Others 6 2
The table implies that, relative to other slave importing countries/colonies,
slavery in the U.S. was not as harsh.
For example, more Slaves were imported into Haiti, Cuba, and Jamaica
than to the U.S.
The difference is primarily due to Sugar -- almost 70% of all imported slaves
into the Western Hemisphere were sent to the various sugar colonies and the
working conditions in the sugar colonies were very harse.
Europeans became familar with sugar as a result of the Crusades (Sugar Cane
was grown in Palestine).
The Europeans first cultivated sugar cane in Cyprus, Crete, and Sicily
using White slave labor during the 12th to 15th Centuries. It was in these
colonies that Europeans developed the institutional apparatus they later used
in the Caribbean.
The increasing demand for sugar led the Spanish and Portugese to islands
off the African coast where they began to cultivate sugar cane using African
By 1600 focus shifted to the New World and Brazil was temporarily the
leading supplier of sugar.
Spanish and Portugese monopolized sugar production until 17th Century
when the British, French, and Dutch moved into the Caribbean and established
sugar colonies (Haiti, French; Barbados and Jamaica, English; etc.).
Sugar was not an important product in the South. What made slavery so
profitable was the invention of the Cotton Gin by Eli Whitney in 1793.
Time On the Cross
The Cotton Gin was a simple device that, in effect, worked like a "comb".
The Cotton was forced through the comb which allowed the cotton fibers to pass
through but not the seeds. The Cotton Gin instantly lowered the labor costs of
growing cotton and resulted in huge efficiencies.
By 1860, 90% of Slaves were engaged in the production of Cotton.
The publication of Time on the Cross in 1974 changed forever our understanding
of the economics of Slavery.
The Cotton Production System
Fogel and Engerman's work touched off a huge controversy at the time. However,
their work has stood the test of time and has been largely confirmed by subsequent
Was Slavery Profitable? Yes. The return on an investment
in slaves was as much as other available investments
Would Slavery Have Died out of its own Accord? No. The
tides of history were clearly running against slavery but it would have been
many years before it was replaced in the South.
Was the Southern Economy Stagnant? No. The "Old South" was
growing slower than the Northeast, but the "New South" -- LA, TX, MS, AR -- was
growing very rapidly.
By 1860 Cotton exports were $192m or four times U.S. Government revenues
The Physical Treatment of Slaves (Time on the Cross)
England imported about 80% of its Cotton from the South and about 1.5m
people were employed in English textile mills.
86% of the Cotton was grown on farms of 100 or more acres.
By 1860 Slavery was the Cotton system.
The expansion of the Cotton-based Slavery system into the Southwest accounts
for much of the potency of the Territorial Issue.
What Made the Cotton System so efficient:
Speed-up and Specialization of Slave Labor -- Example: A Planting Gang
consisted of 5 men (sometimes some women were used) who went through the field
in single file. The first man -- plowman -- ridged up the unbroken earth;
the second man -- harrower -- broke up the clods; the third man --
driller -- created holes for the cotton seeds; the fourth man -- dropper --
planted the seeds; and the fifth man -- raker -- covered up the holes.
Drivers roamed the fields making sure that the work pace was brisk.
Labor Specialization was also by age. Elderly women were used to care for
children and the sick, as seamstresses, etc. Elderly men were used to care for
livestock, as gardners, and servants.
This Labor specialization shows up in auction price records. The price of
male slaves was still positive even at age 70. (Fig. 11, Fogel)
Self Sufficiency of Plantations -- Some land was used for growing corn and
wheat. Corn was planted in Feb./March and Cotton in April. Corn could be left
in the field until after the Cotton was picked. During the winter labor was
used to repair roads, maintenance, etc.
Diet: The typical slave was well fed. The core diet was corn, pork, and
potatoes (mostly sweet). Average daily diet was about 1.1 times free northern
males in energy content and exceeded 1964 recommended levels of chief
nutrients. Height records of adults show near normal stature. Adult slaves
were taller in stature than workers in many European countries.
Richard Steckel's Research on Shipping Manifests
Housing: 5.2 Slaves per House (Cabin) on large plantations. In northern
cities, it was 5.3 persons per house/living quarters.
The family unit was encouraged.
Clothing: coarse but durable cloth.
By universal agreement, the importing of slaves into the U.S. was to end
by 1808 (written into the Constitution). A law passed in 1807 to enforce the
import ban required all vessels in the coastal trade to keep detailed records
of all slaves brought aboard ship.
Financing The Cotton System
Steckel found that the records clearly showed widespread malnourishment
of children 6 years and younger. They were unusually short with distended bellies
-- the classic signs of malnutrition.
Steckel's findings seemed to be inconsistent with those of Fogel and
Engerman. Why were the adults treated so well yet the children were malnouished?
The explanation appears to be ignorance, not design. Children were weaned
early so that the mothers could be put back to work. After weaning, children
were typically fed porridge which did not provide them with enough protein.
However, around the age of 6 children were put into "children's gangs" to do
light work and began eating out of the same pot that the adults ate from. Consequently,
they began to gain weight and by the time they were teenagers they were of near
As a consequence, child mortality was high and it is highly probable that
this produced mental retardation in many slaves.
In addition, the fertility of slave women was very high. The population
growth rate was close to that of Whites but slave women lost about 1/2 of their
children through miscarriage or in early infancy.
Financing the movement of Cotton before the Civil War was a major
undertaking -- much like financing the movement of OPEC oil in today's world.
British Factors (agents), working for a variety of banks, financial houses,
and importing firms were located at nearly every major production center and port
in the South. They paid for the Cotton in cash on the spot using sterling Bills
These bills of exchange were then sold to importers (mostly Northern)
who used them to finance imports.
XI. Why Was Slavery Concentrated in the South?
Human populations through natural selection develop either immunity or a high
tolerance for the diseases prevalent in their environment. This tolerance shows
itself in the immune system through the number of Class I and II glycoproteins
(part of the defenses of the immune system, the more the better). European
populations have around 37 Class I glycoproteins, sub-saharan Africans around
40, East Asians about 34, but only 17 among some North American Indians and only
10 among some South American Indians.
In the "Old World" of Europe, the prevalent ("cold weather") diseases were smallpox,
influenza, pleurisy, whooping cough, and measles. (Measles, influenza, and
chicken pox are all zoonotic diseases -- that is, they crossed over to
humans from animals.)
Europeans brought their diseases with them to the "New World". By 1516
"Cold Weather" diseases -- influenza, pleurisy, whooping cough, measles -- had
killed most of the indigenous population of the Caribbean, Meso-America, and
Andean Civilizations, and after 1516 Smallpox killed most of the rest.
In Africa the prevalent ("warm weather") diseases were smallpox, malaria,
yellow fever, dengue fever, hookworm, and schistosomiasis (flatworm).
Marlaria, yellow fever, and dengue fever are spread by the ubiquitous mosquito and
schistosomiasis by snails.
The Western Hemisphere was largely disease free. This was due to the fact
that the original human inhabitants migrated during the Ice Ages over the Bering
Land Bridge. They were relatively free of disease because
they traveled in small groups and they had no domesticated animals so that they had
no zoonotic diseases.
Europeans began bringing African Slaves to the Caribbean to work in the sugar
colonies. The Africans brought their "warm weather" diseases with them. Mosquitoes
transmitted malaria and yellow fever from the Africans, who were largely immune
but carriers of the diseases, to the Europeans.
The propensity for Europeans to get sick from malaria at the height of the
agricultural season and greatly weakened by hookworm infection year around,
resulted in African slave labor replacing White Indentured
Servitude in the Chesapeake region as it had earlier in the Caribbean.
In the Northern British Colonies the death rate of Africans was 87% higher
during "Cold Weather" disease epidemics. These death rate differences were
enough to make it more profitable to use European indentured servants rather
than African slaves in the New England and Mid-Atlantic colonies.
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