“They can exercise control and make lots of money, but it doesn’t necessarily equate with liberation. Most of us are pretty intoxicated with money and with making money and I really feel strongly that even with Beyoncé, even with all her talent, her looks and everything, people wouldn’t be so into her if it wasn’t that she’s also so rich. And the fact that she’s young and so, so, so wealthy so, so, soon, is as seductive as the booty, if not more so. There’s a lot of booties out there that are glamorous, but not connected to the fantasies of wealth — and we equate wealth so much with freedom.”—bell hooks, American author, feminist, and social activist, speaking on the concept of sexual freedom at the forum “Whose Booty Is This?” at the New School in New York
Slavery transformed other fields of knowledge as well. For instance, centuries of buying and selling human beings, of shipping them across oceans and continents, of defending, excoriating, or trying reform the practice, revolutionized both Christianity and secular law, giving rise to what we think of as modern human rights law.
In the realm of economics, the importance of slaves went well beyond the wealth generated from their uncompensated labor. Slavery was the flywheel on which America’s market revolution turned — not just in the United States, but in all of the Americas.
Starting in the 1770s, Spain began to deregulate the slave trade, hoping to establish what merchants, not mincing any words, called a “free trade in blacks.” Decades before slavery exploded in the United States (following the War of 1812 with Great Britain), the slave population increased dramatically in Spanish America. Enslaved Africans and African Americans slaughtered cattle and sheared wool on the pampas of Argentina, spun cotton and wove clothing in textile workshops in Mexico City, and planted coffee in the mountains outside Bogotá. They fermented grapes for wine at the foot of the Andes and boiled Peruvian sugar to make candy. In Guayaquil, Ecuador, enslaved shipwrights built cargo vessels that were used for carrying more slaves from Africa to Montevideo. Throughout the thriving cities of mainland Spanish America, slaves worked, often for wages, as laborers, bakers, brick makers, liverymen, cobblers, carpenters, tanners, smiths, rag pickers, cooks, and servants.
It wasn’t just their labor that spurred the commercialization of society. The driving of more and more slaves inland and across the continent, the opening up of new slave routes and the expansion of old ones, tied hinterland markets together and created local circuits of finance and trade. Enslaved peoples were investments (purchased and then rented out as laborers), credit (used to secure loans), property, commodities, and capital, making them an odd mix of abstract and concrete value. Collateral for loans and items for speculation, slaves were also objects of nostalgia, mementos of a fading aristocratic world even as they served as the coin for the creation of a new commercialized one.
Slaves literally made money: working in Lima’s mint, they trampled quicksilver into ore with their bare feet, pressing toxic mercury into their bloodstream in order to amalgamate the silver used for coins. And they were money — at least in a way. It wasn’t that the value of individual slaves was standardized in relation to currency, but that slaves were quite literally the standard. When appraisers calculated the value of any given hacienda, or estate, slaves usually accounted for over half of its worth; they were, that is, much more valuable than inanimate capital goods like tools and millworks.
In the United States, scholars have demonstrated that profit wasn’t made just from southerners selling the cotton that slaves picked or the cane they cut. Slavery was central to the establishment of the industries that today dominate the U.S. economy: finance, insurance, and real estate. And historian Caitlan Rosenthal has shown how Caribbean slave plantations helped pioneer “accounting and management tools, including depreciation and standardized efficiency metrics, to manage their land and their slaves” — techniques that were then used in northern factories.