Sep 2, 2019
Four hundred years ago in 1619, the first African slaves were brought to Virginia. For the next 246 years, enslaved people lived through a nightmare of torture, rape, and dehumanization. These enslaved people did the work to make this a rich country, in both the North and the South.
They cleared forests and swamps in the South to make room for farms, and built homes, tools, wagons, and everything else needed for the plantation economy. Most of all, they grew the crops that made this country rich.
Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina developed as colonies based on the production of tobacco. Most people did not grow tobacco – but tobacco was the main commodity these colonies sold abroad. It’s what made their rich people rich, and it is what allowed the colonies to import the necessary items they could not make themselves. From 1619 on, that tobacco was increasingly grown by enslaved people brought from Africa, and their descendants.
Sugar was the most valuable product grown by slaves in the early years. Not very much sugar was produced in this country, but South Carolina and Georgia grew rich in their early years by growing rice to feed the slaves who were growing sugar cane on islands in the Caribbean like Jamaica. Not only did slaves grow the rice, they had brought the knowledge of how to do so with them from Africa.
The industrial revolution started in England in the late 1700s and accelerated through the 1800s. It was based on producing cloth made from cotton. This cotton was grown by enslaved people in the Southern states of the U.S.
Slave children were ripped from their mothers in the old slave states and sold south, to work on cotton plantations in Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas. The Virginia and Maryland slave owners got even richer from selling human beings. The cotton plantation owners got rich from the cotton enslaved people grew.
Northerners got rich off slavery too. They operated slave ships. Their banking system loaned money to the plantation economy, and made interest. They sold insurance on slaves – not life insurance, for people’s loved ones, but insurance for a person’s “owner” to get paid if that person died!
On top of that, for this country’s first 80 years, the federal government was largely funded by tariffs on foreign trade, driven by trade in goods slaves produced.
Slavery was the beating heart of U.S. capitalist development in its first centuries.
But there is another side of the story. Enslaved people fought back in many ways, ultimately playing a big role in overthrowing slavery. They helped turn the Civil War into a revolution, when almost 200,000 black people fought for the North. This tradition of fighting back remains a great resource for the working class when we fight to overthrow this capitalist system that was born out of slavery.