Racism and the Slave Trade
To justify the slave trade its supporters dehumanised the African race, used as slaves, hence they were called "Black cattle". This led to Africans being thought of as an inferior race, the consequences of which can still be seen in acts of racism today.
Initially the colonial settlers did not distinguish between work that should be done by whites, blacks or Indians. Labour was not demarcated by racial divides. The sugar plantation and the arrival of large numbers of African slaves into the colonies soon changed that however, work came to be divided on racial grounds: only blacks should undertake certain work. Slaves in the Americas were unlike slaves in most previous slave societies, for they were characterised by colour. They were black slaves. In the process, it came to be assumed, in the mind of slave owners (later in the conventions of local society, subsequently in law and legal systems), that slave work could only be done by black people. Conversely, here was work which white people should not undertake. The slave plantations of the Americas brought into being a new language and mentality of race which was utterly unique and which was to survive the death of slavery itself. Racism had been born.
Perhaps the most important claim of the abolition movement on behalf of the slave was the simple question: 'Am I not a man and a brother?' The simplicity of that assertion disguises a fundamental issue. Atlantic slavery had hinged on the denial of this claim. The Atlantic slave trade was the beginning of a process which denied humanity to its millions of victims.
The slave became a non-person: a chattel, a thing, an object to be bequeathed and inherited, sold and bought. Moreover the slave was black; a person transmuted into a object of loathing by white society. All slave societies devised complex legal and social conventions for maintaining the separation, the uniqueness of blacks, by limiting their access to the law, to property, to certain relationships with white people. At times, whites went to bizarre lengths to maintain these racial hierarchies (and to ensure that whites remained on top). The end results were legal codes and local conventions which secured black humanity a permanent and inherited place at the bottom of the social heap. Nor was this simply a matter of legal practice. whites everywhere across the Americas internalised this hierarchy, believing in and living out as daily reality the racialism of slavery.
Even the oft-repeated abolitionist phrase 'Am I not a man and a brother?' failed to dislodge the widespread allegiance to this racialised view of mankind. In the short term, however, the millions of ex-slaves who secured their freedom in the Americas in the 19th century were heirs to to an intellectual and political worldview which consigned them, at best, to the bottom of local society; at worst, it cast them beyond the pale of humanity completely. It was a process made worse, in the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, by the emergence of new social and natural sciences which devised racial categories of mankind to the great disadvantage of blacks, and indeed other races, everywhere. A consequence of this was the development of the Atlantean theory (the concept of a superior race descended from the civilisation supposedly responsible for building the lost city of Atlantis and other wonders of the ancient world) which fed the minds of the Nazis and gave reason to the horrors of the Holocaust.
Slavery was thus the critical force in the racialising of the western world in the years after the European invasions of the Americas. the legacy of those ideas lived on - and continues - long after slavery in the Americas itself had ended. Hence what seems at first glance to be a relatively simple historical story - the slave trade - forms the core of a complex historical process whose ramifications continue to reverberate throughout the modern world. The slave trade has to be, one of the most significant historical forces in the shaping of the Atlantic world.