Enslaved black Bermudians were the New World’s “early adventure capitalists” as commerce began to displace feudalism.
The contradictory experiences of slaves during the 17th and 18th centuries were discussed during a seminar by Bermudian historian Dr. Clarence Maxwell yesterday.
The talk to more than 70 people at Royal Bermuda Yacht Club, was given to celebrate Black History Month and organized by Business Bermuda.
Dr. Maxwell, a graduate of the Berkeley Institute, was registrar and director of historical research at the Bermuda Maritime Museum from 1999-2005.
He is now assistant professor of history at Millersville University, Pennsylvania and specializes in Latin American and Caribbean history.
He spoke about how the African diaspora influenced trade.
Within the first decade of Bermuda’s colonization, slaves were developing commercial networks — their entrepreneurial nature at odds with their role as enslaved people.
African slaves began to arrive in Bermuda from 1619. As the diaspora spread through the Caribbean, Dr. Maxwell said the region’s maritime commercial revolution was powered through trading activities of these enslaved merchants.
Both men and women were involved, selling goods to sailors from the shore or sailing to other island communities.
In 1623 an Act “to restrayne the insolencies of the Negroes” was passed in Bermuda, preventing blacks from engaging in business activities without permission from their masters.
Dr. Maxwell said: “The owners of property were realizing slaves were actually working on the tobacco farms and selling tobacco to the ships.
“The law aimed to prevent this type of activity from happening.”
Although there were gentleman’s agreements between masters and slaves, a slave owner could say property was his and confiscate it. As the relationship was undefined, it was therefore “unstable”.
Dr. Maxwell said: “Eventually it breaks down and this helps to explain why some of these conflicts (between master and slave) occur.”
The slave as merchant was a contradiction of the system.
Dr. Maxwell said slaves were often accused of stealing but possessions such as silverware were often the result of trading and smuggling.
The diaspora of African peoples brought various skill sets to the Americas, for the colonization of tropical and sub-tropical destinations. These included agriculture and fishing, mining, salt production, boat building and commerce.
Dr. Maxwell said: “Most important and relevant to us is commerce. There was a huge diversity of people and skills to pull from to establish a maritime trading system.
“This system was very successful. Enslaved capitalists were bringing goods on ships and selling them for a huge profit.
“Trading was not something that was learned, it was a system of understanding.”
Women in the Caribbean and South America became roadside vendors, following their heritage.
Dr. Maxell said: “The wives would be responsible for market systems and the husbands would be responsible for trading goods.”
Describing the slaves as “early adventure capitalists”, Dr. Maxwell said that activity across the region “internationalized black trading”.
He added: “The contact enabled them to trade with various people and to hide their profits in various parts of the world.
“By the 1680s there were a large number involved in commerce throughout the Caribbean.
“Extensive black maritime commercial trading continued through the 18th century, specifically after 1720.”
Dr. Maxwell said Bermudian slave Mary Prince wrote about selling yams, coffee and other provisions to sailors.
Women like her were often called higglers or wharf negroes.
Dr. Maxwell said: “Much of the slaves’ economy was built on these provisioning grounds.
“The blacks who sold goods to ships sold them to the Somers Island Company ship.”
Dr. Maxwell said maritime commerce by blacks and whites in Bermuda picked up after 1680.
He added: “The 18th century was the best time for commerce for all races.”