The Political Economy of Canada’s Role in the Atlantic Slave Triangle

Upper Canada Gazette, July 4, 1793.

I think it is crucial to remember the role of both Upper Canada and British North America in the Atlantic Slave Triangle, one of history’s most hyper-exploitative economies. The following paper is based on a series of lectures delivered by Political Science Professor Greg Albo of York University:

History typically does not record colonial Canada as one of the notorious slaving areas of the world. And while Canada never developed a slave mode of production in the vein of the southern United States, it did participate in the Atlantic Slave Triangle through its relationship with the slaving power Britain and its proximity to slave plantations in the United States. I contend that Canada’s participation in the Atlantic Slave Triangle via Great Britain and the southern United States assisted in pushing it toward the centre of the world economy. I also argue that while Canada did not utilize slavery to the extent that the United States and Britain did, other forms of unfree labour dominated the Canadian economy during the same period. This analysis will explore the history of the slave mode of production, examine the dynamics and geography of the Atlantic Slave Triangle, explore the various forms of unfree labour used in Canada and finally examine its place in Britain’s economic control, known as Pax Britannia I.

To fully understand the Atlantic Slave Triangle, it would be helpful to first examine the slave mode of production, as an economic agenda. Increasing demand by the European elite for luxury goods — especially sugar — in the 1500s resulted in a struggle to control commodity production and pushed the West toward the slave mode of production. The slave mode of production relied on hyper-exploited and racialized labour — that is, free and typically forcibly removed from Africa — to produce commodities sold in Europe at higher prices.[1] A slave produced both necessary and surplus product. The slave was owned as chattel, in the same vein as a master would own a cow and was considered part of the means of production. A master claimed the surplus commodity produced by slaves for sale in the market. The master was not a capitalist per se but a merchant given power by mercantilism via the European state system.[2] There were some differences in the execution of the slave mode of production but the British, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and Americans all employed it at one time or another. Slavery, as practiced by the West as early as the mid-1400s by the Venetians, differed from slavery in the classical era, which generally emerged from war and was non-racial.[3] The slave mode of production was explored between 1450 and 1650 and was generalized by Spain and Portugal, becoming the predominant economic system used throughout the world for 300 years (until the 1880s)[4] Through the 1500s, the trade in slaves reached such a volume that capture expeditions were no longer adequate to fill demand. The Portuguese were the first to develop commercialized relations with African kingdoms and began to specialize in slavery in the New World.[5] The Spanish initially attempted to force First Nations people into slavery. However, their agenda resulted in First Nations societies being wiped out or marginalized.[6] The English, meanwhile, originally intended to enslave the Irish but moved systematically to enslaving Africans, copying what the Dutch had done before, in order to displace the Dutch in the world economy.[7]

The Atlantic Slave Triangle itself was a trading network that typically involved the forcible movement of slaves from Africa to the southern United States, Caribbean and Latin America, where staple commodities would be produced and destined for (northern) European ports. The triangle would be completed with the movement of commodities such as guns and rum to Africa.[8] The Atlantic Slave Triangle left Africa deliberately underdeveloped, distorted and its leadership decapitated, while centralizing the world economy in northern Europe, specifically in Britain, France and the United Provinces (the Netherlands).[9] All powerful European nations were implicated in the slave trade.[10] The slave triangle also pooled wealth in Europe, enhancing the purchasing power of Europeans.[11] Meanwhile, due to increased European colonial activity, many Asian economies were forced to cross a European military trade blockade. Asia, which had previously enjoyed a high rate of profitable trade with Europe, was disrupted and frozen by the Atlantic Slave Triangle. While it would be inaccurate to explicitly claim that slavery led to capitalism or vice versa, capitalism did intensify slavery, especially in the period between 1601 and 1810.[12] Between 1500 and 1900, approximately 18 million Africans were forced into the slave trade. Of that 18 million, 67% (12 million) were forced into the Atlantic economy. The mortality rate during the passage by boat to America was 10-15%.[13] Canada, which moved staple commodities such as fish, fur, timber and grains to Britain, was on the periphery of the Atlantic Slave Trade by virtue of its relationship with the United Kingdom.

While what is now Canada did not develop a slave mode of production, there was slavery on the lands and it was implicated in the Atlantic Slave Triangle.[14] Slaving of First Nations people began in the 1500s by the Portuguese. As early as 1628, there were slaves in New France who were subject to governance under the French Code Noir. During the age of the Atlantic Slave Triangle, there were an estimated 4,200 slaves in Canada — 50% were of African descent and 50% were First Nations people.[15] In Anglo Canada, the legal foundation for slavery was found in British law. Slaves could be found on the docks in Halifax and a large number of slaves entered into Upper Canada with the United Empire Loyalists after the American War of Independence. Slavery was a part of life for the Upper Canada elite. Several of the governors of Upper Canada were slave-owners.[16]

Upper Canada Gazette, August 19, 1795

That slavery did not become a mode of production in Canada is significant. Other forms of unfree labour came to dominate the Canadian economy, specifically indentured servitude, convict labour and the wide-spread use of contract labour, specifically that which employed Asian and South Asian workers and eventually Italians when anti-Asian legislation was passed.[17] Across the Americas, but especially in Canada, indentured labour was employed and many indentured servants in Canada were Irish and Scottish.[18] The movement to abolish slavery, which had presences in the United Kingdom and the United States by the turn of the 1800s, initially did little to reduce dependence on other forms of unfree labour. In the later half of the 19th Century, as indentured labour rates began to fall, many such workers were Chinese, Punjabi and southern Italian — all of whom enjoyed only limited rights.[19] Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807 and slavery ended in 1837 across the Empire — including in Canada.[20] France abolished slavery in 1815[21] and the United States in 1865. Slavery would continue in some areas of South America (Brazil) and the Caribbean until the late 19th Century.

Meanwhile, colonial Canada did have a place in the trading scheme of the British slave trade between 1650 and the 1850s — a period known as Pax Britannia I. Slavery enabled Britain to become an economic player. It also helped push Canada and the northern United States into the centre of the world economy.[22] Canada and the northeastern American colonies developed an economic culture of exporting agricultural commodities. Through its production of staples such as fish, grain and other foodstuffs, Canada specifically participated in the slave triangle directly by feeding people enslaved in the southern American colonies, the Caribbean and Latin America. Its contribution as a colony of Britain to the development of wealth in that nation, also indirectly contributed to the pooling of capital that could be used to protect and enhance Britain’s global economic agenda — especially after the United States achieved independence.

Canada’s role in the Atlantic Slave Triangle was peripheral but not inconsequential. By feeding slaves with its foodstuff staples, Canadian colonies ensured that the slaves could continue to be forced to be part of the means of production in the southern United States, the Caribbean and Latin America. Canada’s role as a reliable colonial outpost for British economic dominance, especially after the independence of the United States, meanwhile, also arguably lengthened Pax Brittania I. While colonial Canada never did develop a slave mode of production, it nevertheless played a noteworthy role in the normalization of unfree labour through the widespread use of indentured servitude, contract labour and other forms of exploitative economic and social relations.

[1] Greg Albo, November 18, 2013.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Greg Albo, November 11, 2013.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Albo, November 18, 2013.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Greg Albo, November 18, 2013.

[14] Greg Albo, November 11, 2013.

[15] Albo, November 18, 2013.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Albo, November 11, 2013.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Albo, November 18, 2013.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.


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