How Slavery in America Became Chattel Slavery

Slavery is an awful part of America’s history. It’s an institution that was debated upon quite heavily up until it was abolished. When slavery is brought up nowadays it’s usually talked about in only a moral stance, which is understandable. However, there is a part of slavery that holds an important place in the history of capitalism. In Julia Ott’s essay “Slaves: The Capital that Made Capitalism” she brings to light the fact that a “single economic system encompassed both the plantation and the factory”. Slavery was, in fact, the very beginnings of capitalism itself.

I think one of the most interesting parts of Ott’s essay is the idea of America having chattel slavery. Slavery certainly isn’t something that America started, there has been much slavery throughout history. However, slavery in America differs from the slavery the world used to know. American slavery is chattel slavery, meaning slaves viewed as actual property. Slaves were treated as property wasn’t a surprising discovery to me, that seemed common knowledge. What was surprising was the fact that not all slavery was like this, it was an American thing. What is even more surprising is what Ott points out in her essay that chattel slavery wasn’t always a thing in America either.

In fact, African American slaves weren’t treated differently from indentured servant when they were first brought over to America. It wasn’t until Bacon’s rebellion that a separation between slaves and indentured servants was created. After the rebellion, planter elites began writing laws and encouraging people that there is an inferiority to those with dark skin. This is amazing to think about because it always assumed that slaves were always treated as inferior due to their race. However, race never really mattered until there needed to be a divide between the races at the bottom of the social ladder.

I find this really interesting because perhaps this suggests that class was more diving than race. Slaves and indentured servants were at the bottom of the totem pole and this united them. It united them so much so that they revolted together. Too bad they couldn’t stay united due to race now being pushed as a dividing factor. It would have been interesting to see how differently history would have played out if they could have kept their unification despite the social pressure of racial inferiority. However, it’s very apparent that throughout history, that race is something that divides people and it almost can’t be helped because people always fear the other.

Out of that divide came chattel slavery. Now slaves were property and treated as awfully. Ott’s states that “under racialized chattel slavery, master-enslavers possessed the right to torture and maim, the right to kill, the right to rape, the right to alienate, and the right to own offspring”. Although this isn’t new information about slavery, it’s still horrifying to hear. This is obviously something that is wrong and it’s hard to understand why slavery continued to go on when it is so awful. However, when you take into consideration the economic benefits slavery brought in, it makes sense. People wouldn’t be able to enjoy their nice cups of coffee or bars of chocolate without slaves working in the fields that produced those luxury commodities. This is the dark side of capitalism, where people are willing to look the other way in the face of atrocities if it means economic prosperity.

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