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Costs of the first European expansion (16th-18th centuries)

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The first European expansion took place between the 16th and 18th centuries. After America, we will discuss the slave trade.

At each stage, a region belongs and is colonized by Europe with its own characteristic. The colonial expansion has a cost, in America and particularly on the Atlantic network. Europe as a hotbed of colonisation will become involved in the colonial exploitation of America and Africa in the slave trade. We are going to consider the price and who has to pay for colonisation.

America and the Pacific are quite similar. Colonization will have a very high human cost in both America and the Pacific. In the specialized literature, from the 1960s onwards, diseases were introduced, that is to say, a microbial shock.

In the modern era before industrialisation, before Europe had technical superiority, before Europeans had efficient and deadly armaments, before rapid transport and communication networks were set up, before Europe developed medical parades against certain tropical diseases, we are in a world where colonising Europe had very few resources at its disposal.

We have a disproportion between the small resources available to Europeans, the extremely small number of Europeans, for example, the Spaniards manage to get their hands on great civilisations, on areas of America which are relatively populated with few men; and a disproportion between the number of players, the resources available to them and the result achieved, which is that the Europeans manage to get their hands on vast entities quickly.

The microbial shock comes at this point, the diseases that are imported by Europeans will wreak such havoc that, if this factor were not introduced, this disproportionality would be incomprehensible.

Europe's first expansion causes 45 to 50 million people to disappear in the Americas. In a century and a half, and if we consider the same situation in the Pacific, the populations of the Pacific, in one century, drop from 1.5 - 2 million at the beginning to 0.3 million at the end of the century chosen. In both the Americas and the Pacific, this represents a collapse of 80 to 90 per cent of the human population.

Colonization is making way for colonization, these lands, America and the Pacific are known to be sparsely populated, but disease will offer European immigrants who over time increase in number very vast lands cleared of their original numbers.

It must be considered that when the first Europeans arrive in the Americas and Oceania there are no deadly epidemics waiting for them, on the other hand, when the first colonizers go to Asia and Africa, they are subjected to diseases against which Europeans have no immune defences.

This is a cost that has been evaluated, and the figures are changing with regard to human numbers in these two regions. We can also evaluate the cost induced by the Atlantic slave trade, which is a by-product of the colonization of America. Abundant literature exists to evaluate the cost, i.e., what are the human losses induced by the trade.

Destruction of America and invention of the "New World"[edit | edit source]

It is sometimes said that America is an invention of Europe, but if we consider the conquest of America, a contrast appears between the means available and the exorbitant cost paid by the indigenous populations.

We have the elements of an answer that allow us to try to see which are the factors or the factor that weighs the most in the balance.

Several generations of historians have been intrigued to know how a handful of men managed to conquer and annihilate great Amerindian empires that we will say are densely populated; these are areas - the Mexican plateau and the Andean region - that stand out from America.

America as a whole has a very low population density except for pockets of population. It is here that the question arises as to how a small group of soldiers with rudimentary weaponry manages to bring down large state entities.

17th-century painting representing the Noche Triste.

To get an idea of the modesty of the means used, Cortes' expedition launched from Cuba on 21 April 1519, only 11 ships landed on the Mexican coast, about 500 soldiers, about fifteen horses, ten cannons, a dozen harquebuses and about thirty crossbows; on 13 August 1521 Mexico City, two years later, the capital of the Aztec civilization was reduced to a heap of smoking cities.

At the beginning of the 16th century, Mexico City was one of the largest cities in the world.

  • 'How do you explain this sudden and rapid collapse?

Le Clézio lives part of the year in Mexico and has written a Mexican dream book where this author wonders: « the Spaniards are destitute, isolated on a container they do not know, walking towards danger and the Indians are millions masters of the land and water sure of their strength [...] normally the disposition of the forces and such that the conquerors should not survive more than a few hours on this earth »[7].

It is a world unknown by the conquistadors, but which very quickly reaches its ends.

Woe to the lonely[edit | edit source]

Carte pole de puissance dans le monde au XVIeme.png

The explanation for the tragic obliteration of civilizations and Amerindian populations lies essentially in their long and almost complete isolation. Complete isolation is also in the case of the Pacific. There we have two regions, two continents of the planet that for millennia lived in isolation.

As far as America is concerned, it is estimated that America was settled through the Bering Strait and that the first inhabitants came from Asia. Thirty or forty thousand years ago, there was no Bering Strait that allowed migrants to pass from Asia to America. That was because of the ice age, which allowed the passage of migratory waves.

From a certain point on, the ice retreated around the 8th millennium BC. From then on, from the moment America broke away, apart from possible maritime contacts prior to the end of the 16th century, such as the hypothesis of voyages made by Vikings, America found itself isolated from the rest of the world for 9 to 10 thousand years.

It happened to know at the moment when the Amerindian civilizations were discovered and/or discovered very little time; they fade away in a very short time and from there probably comes the fascination we have for these civilizations.

« They have the mystery of civilizations which in the autarky of a continent cut off from all the others of the world, hatched out of the shelter of European eyes and vanished at the moment of contact »[8]. Il a quelque chose de précipité et de dramatique.

Isolation must interest us for another thing, which is the level of economic and technical development achieved.

It is obvious that a continent that for 9 to 10 thousand years closed in isolation and without the possibility for millennia, this isolation will make the economies and societies of pre-Columbian America stand out for certain characteristics that can be explained by isolation. These pre-Columbian entities have the particularity of having surprising advances in some areas and shortcomings in others. There is a kind of imperfection, it lacks coherence.

  • What are the poles of excellence of these civilizations? Urban planning and food agriculture.

In the pre-Columbian civilizations, especially the Aztecs and Incas, we find large cities that are better organized than the average European city. In pre-industrial societies, when you have large cities you have to supply them with food.

The other pole of excellence, which is food-producing agriculture, is the mastery of maize cultivation, i.e. these entities produce cereal surpluses that make it possible to feed the numerically large urban populations.

Mexico City, at the beginning of the 16th century, was one of the great cities of the world; in 1500 Mexico City and its island districts had 300,000 inhabitants; it is such a concentration of population that reflects the economic capacity of these civilizations to produce large cereal surpluses, in this case, but, whose Amerindian peasants, after millennia of experimentation, are doing agricultural wonders. The yield of maize is higher than the cereals grown in Europe at the same time, but there are shortcomings.

The Amerindian peoples excel in both these registers by using a limited range of techniques, the techniques used appear to be very rudimentary which is the other side of the coin: no ploughs, no use of the wheel or draught animals or beasts of burden except in Peru with the llama, no iron tools, the other metals gold, silver, etc. are worked for decorative arts, no writing if not something similar to it in Mexico, no currency. Agricultural surpluses are obtained by a particular social organization.

The Aztec and Inca empires are also huge machineries that maintain a policy of great works by imposing drudgery and making millions of subjects work compulsorily. Isolation will be fatal to these societies when they collide with Europeans.

Literature from one era to another has sought to make one explanatory factor appear more important than another.

The first factor is that the Spaniards in this unknown world would never have been able to find their way or have the resources to achieve their ends if they had not succeeded in forging alliances with populations subjected to the Aztec and Inca yokes, empires which in their time, before the arrival of the Spaniards, conquered and subjugated populations, these populations would have allied themselves with the Spaniards and turned against the dominators.

« The alliances that the conquistadors forged with these populations brought them the resources, but above all the knowledge of the environment without which they could not win. This is an important first response element » ; Le Clézio.

The second element has fallen into disuse, this factor is outdated nowadays, but it still has a power of explanation. The isolation of the Amerindian populations makes it difficult for a short period of time to identify the conquerors.

For example, in Asia, when Europeans arrive in the Indian subcontinent like Vasco de Gama, we have already seen Europeans, but above all Europeans join other merchants who come from other parts of the world, the Europeans at the bottom are melted into a group that we would today call "expatriates".

In Apocalyto, those chasing Mel Gibson and the fugitive are shown by the camera without seeing what's behind them and after turning around they see boats with Spaniards. It is the idea of hesitation that is important.

The third factor is that the event takes time to be understood and integrated. According to Octavio Paz, winner of the noble prize for literature in 1980, who spoke about this episode: « notwithstanding the political genius of Cortes, gently dismiss this explanation because Cortes has a very great ability to forge alliances with the people, neither the enemies of Moctezuma, nor the technical superiority of the Spaniards, nor the defection of his vassals and allies of the Emperor and the Aztec empire would have been enough to ruin the empire if he had felt a failure, an inner hesitation that made him waver and fall ».

Meeting place of Moctezuma and Hernán Cortés.

The emperor Moctezuma whom Cortes meets hesitates, it is a failure which can be explained by the difficulty of identification which itself comes from the isolation. This failure will be fatal.

Indians affected by smallpox (Florence Codex).

Diseases are imported by the conquistadors, who obviously did not know it; they are infectious diseases in very large numbers such as smallpox, influenza, diphtheria, typhus, tuberculosis, etc.

What is also considered is that diseases facilitate conquests, diseases kill many more Amerindians in their beds than die on the battlefield, these germs undermine the resistance of the Indians by decimating the natives and their chiefs, by undermining the morale of the survivors. After having facilitated the conquest, these lethal microbes from Eurasia will eliminate by tens of millions the inhabitants of the New World who lack immune defences because of their long isolation.

Among the explanations that are not entirely satisfactory is the number of domesticated gregarious animals. These domesticated gregarious animals in the Eurasian world are sheep, goats, cows, pigs which are raised in large herds in the immediate vicinity of humans; we have in Europe and Asia a large number of such animals, just think of the Christmas crib.

It is these animals and their neighbourhood which allows, because they are sources of pathogenic microbes for humans, it is the neighbourhood of Eurasian humans of domesticated animals that allows us to understand that these populations of Eurasia have developed immune defences, yet such gregarious domestic animals there are very few in America.

The rare domesticated species in the New World are turkeys, dogs, guinea pigs, but they do not become sources of pathogenic microbes for humans because they are neither raised in large herds nor in the immediate vicinity of humans.

  • What is the route taken by diseases?

We can follow it, first from the first contact zone, the West Indies, which is devastated, the entire indigenous population of the West Indies disappears to the last, and then these diseases move on to Central and South America and affect North America, where they spread as a result of military expeditions and expeditions launched from American and Spanish settlements in the Caribbean and Mexico.

North America: The Land of the White Man[edit | edit source]

These diseases wreaked havoc in North America in the 16th century among the indigenous populations of the south-eastern and even south-western parts of what is now the United States. It should be remembered that the colonization of North America is late, a century later than Mexico and the Andes, but the diseases precede the actual colonization in this case.

In North America, it seems that it is the most populated, urbanized, and organized Indian societies that are affected by disease. These societies are destructured, defragmented, affected in their demographic foundations and thus these imported pathogens prepare the ground for the colonization of European settlements at the beginning of the 17th century.

Other factors such as low population density combine with the fact that disease is taking a clear place. Diseases in North America affect a part of the New World characterized by an extreme dispersal of people over an immense area of land.

  • How many are there? How many natives are there? How large were the native populations before they met the Europeans?

Table 4 provides an overview of the situation. Today, estimates range from 2 to 7 million in 1500.

Sources : Voir B. Etemad., Crimes et réparations. L’Occident face à son passé colonial, André Versaille éditeur, Bruxelles, 2008, p. 92.

The result will always be the same depending on the estimates, in the end we are dealing with the North American continent at very low population densities of less than 1 inhabitant per square kilometre.

This will be followed by elements that will make us understand why and how in North and Pacific America the colonization of European settlement was possible.

Other elements that will help us understand why this type of settlement was chosen and taken to its logical extreme.

The North Indian tribes do not form a homogeneous entity, there is no empire like what we find on the Mexican plateau or in the Andes; a large part of these tribes are not composed of farmers, we are dealing with populations that do not cultivate the priority land, in other words there is no competitor to the settlers who want to settle on the land because they do not have a rival that has for centuries and millennia developed cultivation methods.

These special aspects combined with the absence of precious metals to plunder and the impossibility in this part of America of establishing a slave plantation system based on tropical cash crops facilitate European agricultural settlement.

The driving force behind colonization in this type of settlement is the possession and appropriation of land.

Where even before the arrival of the first settlers, such as the Pilgrim Fathers who arrived around 1620 in present-day Massachusetts, where the arrival of these settlers was not prepared by disease, the precondition for European settlement was the seizure of land carried out as part of a policy of repression and, if necessary, extermination of the indigenous populations.

They are not farmers, there are very few of them, the level of technical and economic development of these societies is low, diseases have decimated them and if necessary they are pushed back and exterminated in order to appropriate the land. The descendants of these early colonists are still there. The European population of the United States is growing very rapidly.

Through disease, social organizations, economic activities, the colonization of a settlement is greatly facilitated. This does not mean that the populations did not resist and that there was no war. When there was, it was repression, extermination; the Amerindians today constitute no more than 1% of the human population present in this part of the world.

A part of the colonized world is the same picture as in the Pacific, a part of this colonized world will receive an important European immigration especially from the first third of the 19th century and we estimate the number of Europeans who emigrate from the old continent to cross the Atlantic and reach the Americas between the beginning of the colonization in the 1940s and 1950s: over four and a half centuries, we will have to consider the history of Europe without the possibility of sending from the beginning of the 16th to the beginning of the 20th century 50 to 60 million people on the other side of the Atlantic.

A measure of demographic attrition[edit | edit source]

Returning to North America and more specifically to the United States, by the 1840s there were virtually no Indians east of the Mississippi where the white population began to feel cramped. From then on, repression and wars began.

The native peoples are now seen as an obstacle to the settlement of Europeans to the west. Around 1900, the indigenous population of North America reached its peak with about 400,000 people, or about 10% of the original population.

There is always in the history of colonisation a moment in time that involves significant European immigration, a moment that can also be determined for Australia and New Zealand or for Argentina, Uruguay or Chile, a moment when the demographic balance of power shifts in favour of European populations and this is irreversible.

Around 1900, in North America, the indigenous population of origin is reaching a plateau, and this indigenous population of origin is totally downgraded and marginalized by the European population of the United States and Canada, which around 1900 numbered some 60 million people. Before the meeting, from 2 to 7 million people were represented, at the end of the 19th century there were 60 million "allogeneic" people, i.e. people who did not originate from America. From a measure of demographic effacement, we can move on to the entire American continent.

Sources : Voir B. Etemad., Crimes et réparations. L’Occident face à son passé colonial, André Versaille éditeur, Bruxelles, 2008, p. 92.

Even if it is difficult today to determine what the starting level is, i.e. the demographic size of America around 1500, we are able to evaluate the collapse, i.e. the loss in 1500 as a percentage of the starting population, whatever that population may be.

These numbers are between 50 and 60 million; in the space of 150 years the population of the American continent falls from 5 to 6 million, i.e. a fall of around 90% in relative terms.

It would be necessary to refine the table a little because some regions manage to recover, but others do not.

In Central America, implying Mexico, the demographic dropout is followed fairly quickly by phases of recovery. On the other hand, in the Andes, the depopulation process lasts throughout the colonial period, but the high plateaus, i.e. the regions at high altitudes, are spared.

In Central America there is an ability for populations that are decimated to recover because the population densities are higher here than in other areas, in other words, where we have initially low population densities, microbial attack does not allow recovery.

The areas that are most affected, that is to say, where the original population disappears, are the tropical areas of South America, which are depopulating rapidly and completely, as in the Caribbean, albeit a century later.

In North America, the demographic recovery of the Indians is very slow and takes place in the 20th century. We must qualify the microbial factor on which we have spent a lot of time; these regional variations allow us to say that there is the impact of the conquest, indeed the microbial shock, but there are also the effects induced by colonisation.

Colonization has completely disrupted Amerindian economies, societies and cultures; in fact, America has been reshaped by the European colonizer. In this "invented" America, the pre-Columbian past is only a shadow today.

We must also remember that it is a place where Western civilization has taken root, a place where that civilization is being renewed.

Another thing that Europe commits for having colonised this part of the world is 26 million square kilometres, America has been satisfying for more than three centuries the need for European land in cramped conditions on the old continent ; in this first territorial expansion, Europe expands on the side of the Western Hemisphere by an area equivalent to 5.5 times that of Europe without Russia, probably making 45 to 50 million of the first inhabitants of the New World disappear, and on the other side sending nearly 60 million emigrants from the beginning of the 20th century until the 1950s.

Afterwards, there will be no more opportunities to do that. It is an opportunity that was seized at one point and is not going to happen again. We must continue to put the microbial shock into perspective, not to pretend that there has been no impact of its own, but to give what historians over the last twenty years or so have been adding to complete the explanation.

There was destruction because there was social destructuring because there were other effects induced by colonization, a disorganization of food production, it is epidemic diseases that have such destructuring and disorganizing effects in turn this destructuring and this disorganization causes a drop in fertility, an increase in mortality to which are added wars, slavery, acculturation, forced displacements, land despoilment, displacement to less fertile land.

All this also has devastating effects, there are the devastating effects directly exerted by pathogenic germs and there are the induced effects.

Human cost induced by the slave trade[edit | edit source]

The "numbers game"[edit | edit source]

Whoever wants to assess the cost of the slave trade must begin by estimating the number of African captives forcibly shipped across the Atlantic. This starts from the first third of the fourteenth century, the slave trade began before the Atlantic slave trade to Madeira, the Cape Verde Islands, the Canary Islands, Sao Tome and Principe, but also to Europe and the Iberian Peninsula.

From the 1530s and about the last third of the nineteenth century, when a clandestine trade was organized, we must be careful to assess the human cost of determining the number and scale of the phenomenon: this is what the Anglo-Saxons call the "numbers game", i.e. an exercise in identifying the trade.

Today, historians agree on the magnitude of the phenomenon.

Sources: Voir B. Etemad, Crimes et réparations. L’Occident face à son passé colonial, André Versaille éditeur, Bruxelles, 2008, p. 136.

This table highlights figures that assess the magnitude of the Atlantic trade.

One might be interested to know how and what sources historians have used to arrive at such results; there are two types of sources and rather than introducing discrepancies in the estimates will that the authors who used them agree, there is a consensus today on the phenomenon.

The first type of sources are port registers, customs records of censuses, and inward sources. Another type of source covers departure and crossing, i.e. the archives of the slave fleets where the "cargo" and its destinations are recorded.

This table also shows an evaluation of the mortality of captives during the crossing.

Of all the studies we have today on mortality, whatever the century of the crossing of people from one point to another across the oceans, no mortality is as high as the Atlantic trade. So we can calculate a percentage loss during the crossing. This is one aspect of the cost, of the number of people on board, about 15% disappear.

Before the Atlantic trade there were so-called "Muslim" trades, there were networks, captives transported not to America across the Atlantic, but to the "Muslim world", the Mediterranean rim, the Indian peninsula and beyond to India and the Indonesian archipelago. There are other trades besides the Atlantic trade, but the Atlantic trade is directly related to the colonization of America.

The last line of the table shows convergent figures for departures, it is the total for the whole period from the beginning of the 16th century to the last third of the 19th century. The total number of captives embarked alive - it should be noted that these are captives embarked alive - is 11.5 million.

Some authors have proceeded by taking the number of captives arriving in the Americas alive; the difference between the total number of departures and arrivals corresponds to the mortality rate; there is a convergence, since the mortality rate for the three centuries covered by the table is around 13% to 14%.

This table makes it possible at a glance to grasp a very diverse picture; on one page we have something that has involved several continents, millions of human beings. This table shows that the apogee of the Atlantic trade was in the 18th century.

However, this is only part of the picture, this is only part of a trade, the slave trade, which was called a "circulating" trade. Basically, the slave trade is a journey, there are several phases in opposition to a trade of direct righteousness. From Bordeaux, wine is exported to the West Indies on ships that go directly to the Caribbean across the Atlantic, this is the trade of righteousness.

Mortality during the different phases of the Atlantic trade[edit | edit source]

Slave trader at Goree.

The circulating trade is built according to different phases. This table shows only one phase, which is the crossing phase.

We can see through these figures the total number of captives shipped across the Atlantic and the number arriving alive in the American import zones. This phase appears in the penultimate line, which is where there are losses, the mortality rate in one of the five phases of the slave trade circuit.

At the end of the eighteenth century, the apogee of the slave trade saw at the same time the emergence of abolitionist movements to combat the slave trade, the slave trade, but also the slavery system.

These abolitionists were the first to denounce the slave trade, targeting a phase which was that of the crossing. However, there are four others that we need to consider if we want to assess the cost of the slave trade, all the phases must be taken into account.

In order to make things easier, we consider that there are phases that precede embarkation and those that follow it.

There are three phases that precede embarkation. The first phase is the capture, which is done through military expeditions, and therefore mortality occurs during the first phase.

Carte la traite négrière atlantique.png

This map allows you to see which milking sites are available. As the trade develops, we go from the northwest towards Gambia to Angola; we have a process that goes down, we have the names of the trafficking sites each time and we will go down more and more towards the south and also we will go inland, we will look for captives no further inland.

The second phase consists of transporting the captives from the interior to the ports and the third phase is the storage phase, which will last for a long time. Before embarkation there are phases during which the death phase.

Typical "stowage" plan of an English slave ship.

The fourth phase is the crossing and the last and fifth are the acclimatization phase, that is to say the adaptation of the captives converted into slaves when they arrive in the New World, adaptation to a new climate and environment and of course to the working conditions in the American plantations.

Mortality induced by the Atlantic slave trade will be denounced very early on in Europe and especially in the British Isles from the second half of the 18th century.

The abolitionists will put the spotlight on the crossing phase because they choose to target. When one is fighting against something that is considered unjust, the strategy is to target an objective in order to gain efficiency and achieve the result. Abolitionists will put the spotlight on the crossing phase because they are fighting and denouncing the mortality on the crossing; their favourite targets are European transport companies that "savagely treat negroes during the crossing".

It is therefore the crossing that is stigmatized, but also the acclimatization phase where there are significant losses. The first years in America are years when there is a high mortality rate. In other words, the first abolitionists, who were British, were going to focus their attention on the two phases during which the African captives were in European hands.

In doing so, they leave in contrast the three initial phases before embarkation in the shadows: capture, transit within Africa, and transit which includes transport to the coasts and waiting before being traded and shipped.

This approach allows abolitionists to highlight the responsibility of European slave traders against which carriers are called upon to fight. If we consider the evolution of captive mortality during the Atlantic crossing, we can see that it is tending to decrease.

Between the end of the 16th and the beginning of the 17th century, the mortality rate was around 20%, falling to less than 10% at the end of the 18th century; it will rise again in the context of the so-called clandestine trade, which accentuates the precariousness of slave shipments.

The abolition of the slave trade dates from about the first third of the 19th century. In the 18th century, Great Britain was the first slave nation in Europe. It was in 1807 that the British Parliament decided to abolish the slave trade. In 1815 at the Congress of Vienna, all European countries decided to abolish the slave trade, which was included in the Final Act of the Congress of 1815.

The mortality rate, whether we consider it at the beginning of the process, in the middle, or a fortiori during the last phase of the clandestine trade, the averages appear in table 5, for oceanic transport these are rates never reached either before or after, whatever the number of people moved in space.

In order to understand why death strikes at this point here during the crossing, a few words must be said about what precedes it and which shows or reveals that the human cargo before it is even embarked is already vulnerable.

So we have the third phase, which is waiting close to the coast.

Research in the West, first in North America and then in Western Europe, began to take off extraordinarily quickly in the 1960s. It was a phenomenon that academics are well aware of: a multiplication of books, very lively debates, the creation of specialized journals, but also university chairs, at a certain point in time professionally it paid to get into research on the Atlantic trade.

Today, we have a literature on which we can disappear because it is an avalanche that falls on us.

On line exists today and one can consult the huge database where each expedition of European nations can be found with all the details: where the ship departed from, the date of departure, what the cargo is made of, the duration of the crossing, the name of the captain, the name of the investors, the number of sailors, how many sailors die, how many captives die, etc. We have tens of millions of pieces of data that we've collected, and it's from that database that we're able to put forward what we're trying to summarize.

  • 'Why does this third phase that we could call storage last so long and to what extent does this phase contribute to increasing the vulnerability of captives that are then taken on board?

This phase is going to last because we have to enter into negotiations where captives, human cargo, human merchandise is exchanged for inert goods.

The trade is a barter and the modalities of exchange put white slave traders on one side and black brokers on the other. Trades between these trading partners consist of establishing a basic value called the unit of trade. It takes time to establish this unit, and once there is an agreement between the two parties, then we know what to advance as a product in order to obtain a captive, which is the trading unit. This product is called an "assortment", the purchase of a captive is made by a certain quantity of textiles, metals, weapons, alcohol, tobacco.

The captives are thus bartered in small batches, on average half a dozen per day, and taking into account the navigation time between each trading site and each time taking into account the duration of the trade, a slave ship takes between 3 and 7 months to complete its human load. During this phase, which lasts several months, we have the first people on board, which increases the anxiety, bringing it to its height.

  • 'What were the first historians interested in and why are we, from a certain point on, going to put the spotlight on the phases that precede embarkation following the example of the British abolitionists?

The issue at stake is to know during which phase mortality is greatest, and contrary to what the abolitionists thought, it is not during the last two phases, but during the three phases before boarding.

There is mortality; the question is what are the factors that explain this high mortality. First of all, there is overcrowding, space is tight, a slave has on average 0.4 square metres. Crowding promotes the spread of disease.

The second factor is the length of the crossing, the longer it is, the more death can strike. Basically, the death rate varies according to the length of the crossing. The crossing is about one month from Africa to Brazil and two months from the west coast, the Caribbean and North America.

Today, historians focus on explanations of epidemics and diseases induced by the pathological environment of departure. Diseases do occur, but there are conditions that basically favour mortality by disease: overcrowding on the one hand and the duration of the crossing on the other.

The British abolitionists are militants, there is a certain amount of political calculation because they have to be able to convince parliamentarians with forceful arguments because, in the end, the law to abolish trafficking will be passed by parliament, the abolitionists will raise awareness in British public opinion and in the political world by making a point of denouncing from the outset, at the same time as they denounce the mortality of black captives, the trafficking circuit as being the tomb of the Europeans who engage in it, that is to say the crew members.

We therefore see activists going to slave ports such as Liverpool, Bristol and London to gather information from seafarers during "sociological" interviews conducted in these ports. The abolitionist campaign will also consist of denouncing the high mortality rate of crew members. At the end of the day, it is a huge waste.

When one compares the mortality of crews with that of captives, one realises, if one goes to work quickly, that the mortality of the crew during the slave voyage is higher than the mortality of the captives during the crossing. This comparison does not, however, hold, it is an illustration of the numerical indications that we have and which lead us to this apparently paradoxical result.

These illustrations are a series of slave expeditions launched from Liverpool. From 1780 to 1807, in 27 years there were 1,568 slave expeditions launched from Liverpool, the mortality of these crews exceeded 18% as against 13 to 15% for slaves.

There is a difference: the sailors die before arriving on the African coasts, they die on the coasts, during the crossing, in the Americas and even on the way back to the home port.

In short, sailors die mostly on the coasts. For expeditions launched from Liverpool, crew mortality is 60% higher on the coasts than during the Atlantic crossing.

We know that sailors spend four times more time on the African coast than during the crossing. For them, the few months they spend in Africa are the deadliest stage of the slave trade because the sailors are immersed in a pathological environment because they contract fevers that are yellow fever and a variety of malaria against which these European crew members have no acquired immunity. In other words, taking into account the time spent on board by the crewmen in the slave trade, an expedition is equivalent to about a year on the ship, and taking into account the time spent by the captives on board an average of two months, so the mortality of Europeans becomes lower during the crossing than that of African captives.

We have given the presentation a lively character and made history in an evocative way, what has been said so far, and it is the British abolitionists who are concerned, is valid for the first campaigns against the slave trade at the beginning of the first third of the 19th century. Until the years 1820 - 1830, there were revolutionary and Napoleonic wars between the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century. This relatively long phase ended with the Congress of Vienna in 1815.

From 1815 until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, it was the 19th century. Historians are interested in the political situation in Europe and point out a fact that must be remembered and that from the Congress of Vienna in 1815 until the outbreak of the First World War the old continent lived in a situation of relative peace.

Other historians, those who focus on the economic dimension, will stress the fact that after the Congress of Vienna in 1815 we have another situation which appears and which is new and unprecedented in Europe, on the European and international scene we have for the first time an entity which is emerging as the leading commercial, maritime, military, economic and financial power. Today, the leading power is the United States, and it is from the 1950s onwards that something is being put in place to make the United States appear as the leading power.

After 1815, Great Britain became aware of its power. At the beginning of the 19th century, Great Britain put on the clothes of first world power because it was the first to carry out its industrial revolution, to industrialize, to widen the gap.

Continental Europe was going to want, in the context of the race for development, the awareness on the European continent that compared to the British Isles, we are lagging behind; the idea of one country being ahead and the other lagging behind, and therefore of development gaps, appeared. Because in addition to being the world's leading economic power, Great Britain became abolitionist from 1807 onwards.

There is an extraordinary reversal of the situation, after being the first slave nation in Europe, Great Britain converted to abolitionism and, as a great power, it will want to impose it on others in the same way that the United States has had fierce protectionism throughout its history. After the Second World War, it converted to free trade and will want to convert it to others.

As soon as Great Britain converted to abolitionism, it organized, set up an international system of repression of the slave trade. After the abolition of the slave trade, Great Britain was the first to abolish slavery in its colonies in 1833.

This is something that will change, in other words, the spotlight that was put on the last two phases will, from the 18th century onwards, be put on the first three.

At the time when Britain was playing policeman, off the African coast there were British surveillance ships boarding slave ships. This system of repression was going to prove very disappointing: it was very inefficient, the clandestine trade continued and it was very expensive.

The emergence and rise of the clandestine trade aggravated the conditions under which captives were transported, resulting in a rise in the mortality rate against which abolitionists had fought for so long. It is in the face of this situation that the attention of abolitionists will shift to the supply areas in Africa.

For the British abolitionists, they will first convert to something that can be started at that time and remind them of what could be started during the Second World War, which was called development.

Basically, the British abolitionists would say from the 18th century onwards that there was a much better way to combat the slave trade, which was to launch development programs. For the abolitionists, the slave trade would reduce Africa to "a land of misery, anarchy and misfortune, the solution to the problem of the slave trade and slavery is to be found on the black continent and the abolitionists will advocate agricultural development, particularly in order to stop the production of captives at the source". Instead of going to the Americas to find sugar and cotton, they could be grown in Africa for the European market, crops in which free African workers would be engaged, which would help to divert African slavers and brokers from something that will be described as now illegitimate.

From the 1840s - 1850s onwards, there was talk of a legitimate trade to emphasise that there was an illegitimate one. The trade in men and illegal trade, on the other hand, to embark on economic reconversion programmes is envisaged by the abolitionists.

The champion of abolitionism is Thomas Boxton. He brought the project of abolishing slavery to parliament in the British colonial possessions to a successful conclusion. The entire British abolitionist movement was inspired by the revival movement. What will happen, Boxton wrote a book translated into French in 1839, is that the emphasis is now on the preceding phases.

  • How do things go before boarding?

The first phase is that of capture, from a certain point on it is the stage of "mass production", to reach this stage it is necessary to organize military expeditions, capture is wars, more than three quarters of the captives sold to Europeans come from raids and military expeditions organized almost exclusively by African expedients.

The balance must be struck and an attempt made to offload the burden of some by involving the intervention of others.

These phases that precede embarkation also lead to losses, and these losses are significant because several months elapse between capture and embarkation on the European slave ships. There are armed conflicts is the steep, long walks to the coast and then the waiting and storage of the captives. In the Atlantic trade in the 18th century most future slaves wait six to twelve months before being loaded on board between the time of capture and the time they board the slave ships.

  • Now, according to Boxton, the question is for a captive actually shipped to the Americas, how many dead in Africa before?

For the first time, we are going to look at the entire slave journey as a whole, embracing all five phases.

In the middle of the 19th century, "the evaluations lead to the following result, the lapidary formula being for an embarked slave, "a negro sacrificed", in other words losses of 50% between capture and sale to the Europeans".

  • It's an estimate, but are there any recent evaluations?

Not many, but they do exist, there was an attempt at a global estimate in the early 1990s. The cost induced by the slave trade if we consider all the phases of the journey is very important, the number of deaths during capture, transport to the coast, the waiting which is the so-called storage phase in the ports of embarkation, the crossing and the acclimatization phase would represent 70% of the enslaved workforce.

If we stick to the African phase alone, 40% of the slaves would disappear between capture and sale to Europeans. A range of 40-50% losses before embarkation should be kept in mind.

The bases for such an evaluation are fragile, but this is what historians consider to be a probable order of magnitude.

Today, we have a totally different perspective from that of the first abolitionists of the 18th century. This work has multiplied since the 1960s, revealing that the mortality attributable to trafficking operations within Africa is far higher than that during the crossing.

Assessment[edit | edit source]

Three and a half centuries of trafficking to the Americas during which the mortality of captives on board is estimated at 12 to 13%.

Such a rate means that nearly 1.5 million black men, women and children are thrown into the Atlantic Ocean.

  • How do you estimate the losses among the men of the crew?

We are in the process in this summary section of trying to look at the loss of life in the Atlantic trade. The only way is indirectly.

From the beginning of the 16th century to the end and the last third of the 19th century, the number of captives embarked alive from the African coasts is 11.5 million according to Table 5. We know the approximate number of captives and sailors per ton, which is a measure of the size of the vessels; the ratio is 1 sailor for every 7.5 captives embarked.

Assuming an average crew mortality of 16 to 18% not during the crossing but during the slave voyage, out of the 1.5 million European seamen, between 240000 and 270000 die, approximately 250000 European crew members die mainly from disease and secondarily from malnutrition.

Losses inside Africa before embarkation are 40% to 50% between capture and sale to European slave traders. If it is 40% to 50%, then for every 11 million captives actually embarked, there are between 8 and 11 million deaths in Africa. Table 5 gives the number of captives taken on board alive. If the three phases that precede embarkation are of the order of 40% to 50% of the captives, then for 11.5 million captives actually taken on board, between 8 and 12 million deaths must be counted in Africa.

The last phase, known as acclimatization, what we know about African demography in the Americas must be recalled here, namely the difficulty or even short-term inability of the servile populations to renew themselves naturally. The non-renewal of African populations is due above all to the imbalance between the sexes within them rather than to excess mortality during the acclimatization phase.

It goes without saying that American planters favour the recruitment of new male staff to start work immediately, for reasons of profitability. As a rule, one woman for every two men is taken on board in the Atlantic trade.

In the specialized literature, things are presented with figures that reveal that the survival and reproduction rate is very different whether one looks at the African or European community in the Americas. This is a way of highlighting the fact that for Africans the mortality rate is very high in the acclimatization rate.

Around 1820, about two centuries after the Europeans started leaving for the Americas, it is practically the same for Africans. Around 1820, there were about 10 million Africans who left by force, compared to about 2 million European emigrants who left voluntarily. As the migration and survival rates are different for these two groups, the European population for Europeans is 12 million, but given their level of survival, there are 12 million Africans, while the Africans who are 10 million to leave are half as many as the Europeans, 6 million.

We can therefore see who bears the cost.

Three points need to be made:

  1. The first is that the Europeans after the Arab-Muslims wanted the slave trade and imposed it on Africa, but this trade could not take place on a large scale without local intermediaries, without the help of African powers.
  2. The second remark is that the slave trade in the history of sub-Saharan Africa is only one factor of change among others, Africa in the era of the slave trade bears very little resemblance to America, which was annihilated and reshaped by Europe. Why is this? The beginning of the slave trade had more effect on the rhythms of evolution of African systems than it did on the structures. The slave trade organized by the Europeans was grafted onto structures that were not modified.
  3. The third remark is that the slave trade and commerce is a founding crime, a crime at the origin of new societies, new cultures, new identities, what we call the diaspora.

Annexes[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Etemad Bouda - SSP UNIL
  2. Bouda Etemad (auteur de Empires illusoires) - Babelio
  3. Publications de Bouda Etemad | Cairn.info
  4. Bouda Etemad | Armand Colin
  5. Bouda Etemad - Data BNF
  6. Bouda Etemad - BiblioMonde
  7. J. M. G. Le Cltzio, Le Réve mexicain ou la pensée interrompue, Gallimard, Paris, 1988, p. 26.
  8. C. Duverger, La Méso-Amérique. L’art préhistorique du Mexique et de l’Amérique centrale, Paris, Flammarion, 1999, p. 9.