Historical Context: American Slavery in Comparative Perspective

Of the ten to sixteen million Africans who survived the voyage to the New World, more than one-third landed in Brazil and between 60 and 70 percent ended up in Brazil or the sugar colonies of the Caribbean. Only 6 percent arrived in what is now the United States. Yet by 1860, approximately two-thirds of all enslaved men, women, and children in the Western Hemisphere lived in the American South.

Slavery in Latin America

For a long time it was widely assumed that southern slavery was harsher than slavery in Latin America, where the Catholic Church insisted that enslaved people had a right to marry, to seek relief from a cruel master, and to purchase their freedom. Spanish and Portuguese colonists were thought to be less tainted by racial prejudice than North Americans, and Latin American slavery was believed to be less subject to the pressures of a competitive capitalist economy.

In practice, neither the Church nor the courts offered much protection to Latin American slaves. Access to freedom was greater in Latin America, but in many cases masters freed sick, elderly, crippled, or simply unneeded slaves in order to relieve themselves of financial responsibilities.

Death rates among slaves in the Caribbean were one-third higher than in the South, and suicide appears to have been much more common. Unlike enslaved people in the South, West Indian slaves were expected to produce their own food in their “free time,” and care for the elderly and the infirm.

Demographic Differences

The largest difference between slavery in the South and in Latin America was demographic. The enslaved population in Brazil and the West Indies had a lower proportion of women, a much lower birthrate, and a higher proportion of recent arrivals from Africa. In striking contrast, the enslaved population in the South had an equal sex ratio, a high birthrate, and a predominantly American-born population.

Slavery in the United States was especially distinctive in the ability of the population to increase its numbers by natural reproduction. In the Caribbean, Dutch Guiana, and Brazil, the death rate was so high and the birthrate so low that the enslaved population had to be maintained through the slave trade from Africa. The average number of children born to an early nineteenth-century southern enslaved woman was 9.2—twice as many as in the West Indies.

Proportions of the Population Enslaved

In the West Indies, 80 to 90 percent of the population was enslaved, while in the South only about a third of the population was enslaved. Plantation size also differed widely. In the Caribbean, many plantations held 150 or more enslaved people. In the American South, in contrast, only one slaveholder held as many as a thousand people in slavery, and just 125 had more than 250. Half of all enslaved people in the United States worked on units of twenty or fewer enslaved laborers; three-quarters had fewer than fifty.

Labor Management on Plantations

These demographic differences had important social implications. In the American South, slaveholders lived on their plantations and enslaved people dealt with their owners regularly. Most planters placed plantation management, supply purchasing, and supervision in the hands of Black drivers and foremen, and at least two-thirds of all enslaved people worked under the supervision of Black drivers. Absentee ownership was far more common in the West Indies, where planters relied heavily on paid managers and on a distinct class of free Blacks to serve as intermediaries with the enslaved population.

Concepts of Race

Another important difference between Latin America and the United States involved concepts of race. In Spanish and Portuguese America, an intricate system of racial classification emerged. Compared with the British and French, the Spanish and Portuguese were much more tolerant of racial mixing—an attitude encouraged by a shortage of European women—and recognized a wide range of racial gradations, including Black, mestizo, quadroon, and octoroon. The American South, in contrast, adopted a two-category system of race in which any person with a Black mother was automatically considered to be Black.