colonial system



Colonial glory contributed to the Lusitanian economic and intellectual backwardness, as it also happened in Spain.

During the sixteenth century, in Europe, the exploitation of overseas colonies provided enormous enrichment opportunities for the most dynamic and ambitious portion of the commercial bourgeoisie. The first objective of the Iberian colonizers was to obtain precious metals, meeting the needs of monarchies to finance their expenses, increasing since they became territorial monarchies: the organization of royal armies, to submit to the feudal nobility and to wage continuous wars for supremacy in Europe , entailed huge monetary outlays.

To cover these needs, Spain received from its American colonies, in the period between 1503 and 1660, 181.133 kg of gold and 16.886.815 kg of silver. From 1560 on, the “American impact” on the European economy began to be sensitive and important, until then America did not attract the attention of the European population.

Between 1531 and 1570 American silver accounted for between 85% and 97% of the metal imported into Europe,[I] at times when “money became more important to a rapidly growing number of people, at the same time that cash became desperately scarce. There was an enormous growth of the European economy, with rapid population growth, emergence of new industries, intensification of land use and growth of internal and external trade. All these activities required money; from the purchase of bread and clothing to the payment of taxes and royal pensions, coins were needed in ever-increasing quantities”.[ii] The value of gold was eleven times that of silver of equal weight; its monetary value remained higher than that of silver until 1570.

Pierre Chaunu calculated between 85 and 90 tons (90 million kg.), in silver value, the production of precious metals in colonial America from 1500 to 1800, that is, the equivalent of between 80% and 85% of world production in the same period. At the end of his reign (and of his life), “Charles V left his empire in Europe restored. He had Spain, Italy, half of Germany and the Netherlands under his or his brother Ferdinand's control. The Empire of the Indies, although nobody used that expression, was in practice under Spanish direction.

Some of its parts were economically prosperous, especially after the use of a mercury amalgam that facilitated the mining of silver. Zacatecas and Potosí were major silver producing sources. In 1558, the Spanish Antilles produced 60 arrobas of sugar a year, which were exported to Seville”.[iii] Although deployed in the production of other genres, such as sugar, colonization based on gold exploration continued to be the motto of American occupation by European powers. Through it, the colonial system facilitated, through metallic shipments, the bases for European commercial and industrial development. The production of surplus value became, in Marx's brief definition, “the last and only end of humanity” when colonial plunder financed the commercial boom of Europe, not only of the circumstantially hegemonic colonial powers in interoceanic trade.

Spain, which was not industrialized but was a colonizer, was soon unable to satisfy the demand for products coming from its colonial territories, which began to be met through purchases by the Iberian metropolis (which maintained its American colonial monopoly) in other European countries. Colonies of merchants, especially Genoese, settled in Seville, the main Spanish port for the Americas, with this objective, as well as in Portugal.

Commercial expansion, external colonization, slavery and capital accumulation were integrated, for the first time, in an articulated complex, with a European center: “Mercantile production, therefore, and here reappears the deep link that links colonial expansion with European economic development in the of commercial capitalism: the overseas expansion resulted from the effort to overcome the obstacles that the European mercantile economy encountered in order to maintain its pace of growth. The colonial economies, which resulted in the overseas expansion, ended up configuring, seen globally in the context of the world economy, specialized productive sectors, framed in the great trade routes and in the expanding consumer markets. In this sense, it means expansion of the market economy, responding to the needs of capitalism in formation”.[iv]

Europe, however, received American gold and silver, but did not retain these metals: “A good part of the silver that arrived in Lisbon and Seville quickly went to London or Amsterdam, but did not stay there for long. He passed through them and went on to his final destination, the place that Europeans called the 'grave of European money': China. China was the global destination for European silver for two reasons. Silver's power to buy gold in Asian economies was greater than in Europe. If twelve units of silver were needed to buy a unit of gold in Europe, the same amount could be bought for six or fewer units in China.

Silver from Europe bought twice as much [goods] in China… The second reason China was the destination was that European merchants had little else to sell in the Chinese market. With the exception of firearms, European products could not compete in quality and cost with Chinese manufactures. European manufactures offered little beyond novelty. Silver was the only commodity capable of competing with the native product, as silver production was small there”.[v]

In order to overcome its status as a buying region, dependent on flows of American metal, Europe would have to sell cheaper, and this could only be achieved by revolutionizing its production bases. The commercial and financial revolution had to include, for this, the sphere of production. The “capitalist revolution”, for this basic reason, happened first in Europe. There was a situation where “the pressure of increasing demand challenged producers to provide opportunities for division of labor and specialization, which stimulated the improvement of organization and methods of production in industry and commerce”.[vi]

The “internal” causes of this fact are linked to the peculiarity of Modern Europe, which was to have constituted and placed itself at the center of a worldwide commercial network. European international trade became the mainspring of industrial transformation, until it became the driving force behind that trade.

The State was placed and put itself at the service of this transformation in some countries, in the first place in England and Holland. Western Europe had been generating a capitalist milieu for at least two centuries: (i) European traders and merchants came to be seen as the main manufacturers and traders in the world, also detaining the confidence and reciprocity of rulers regarding the maintenance of the economy in its States; (ii) The existence of an expanding market for its products, with India, Africa, North America and South America, increasingly integrated into the European economic expansion; (iii) The continued growth of its population, which offered an ever-increasing market for manufactured goods, as well as an adequate reserve of free labor to be hired.

During the first colonial period, it was the Iberian powers that concentrated on the exploration of the “new lands”. The initial wealth of the Spanish empire in America, based on looting, would have been short-lived if, from 1530 onwards, the conquistadors had not found veins of silver in the colonies: thus, “they were transformed, wanting it or not, from bandits in miners”.[vii]

Europe's need for precious metals was determined by its low productivity, especially agricultural, compared to the East, productivity whose increase was the first necessary step to guarantee the food of all members of society and, subsequently, to propitiate the existence of many people fed by agricultural surpluses and employed in administrative, military, priestly, commercial, artisanal and industrial activities. It was based on these sometimes pressing needs that the economy and society of the Ibero-American colonial system was initially developed.

In the Portuguese case, the policy allowed a “Poor Crown, but ambitious in its undertakings (and which) sought support from vassals, linking them to the meshes of power structures and the bureaucracy of the patrimonial State”,[viii] build a colonial empire. These vassals were the settlers, who assumed, on their own, the risks of the colonial enterprise, receiving advantages and privileges ,.

It was in this way that European expansion shaped the “Old Colonial System” of the mercantilist era, initially centered on the Iberian powers. In the XNUMXth century, with the Spanish victory in Lepanto and the entry of Felipe II in Lisbon, the geopolitical movement was defined. The first “world empire” in history had its capital in Madrid and its ports in Lisbon and Seville, over the Atlantic and with its back to the Mediterranean.

Pierre Vilar insisted not only on the compulsory character, based on violence, of the accumulation of money (precious metals) coming from America, but also on its central role in the commercial revolution: “Gold (from the Americas) has always been obtained: (1) by forced looting and looting; (2) through simple exchange and without an authentic economic market; (3) by looking for nuggets in gold sands. The arrival, first in Lisbon, then in Seville, of African gold and later of American gold was the beginning of an attraction, of a commercial vivification, and of a rise in prices fomenting the initiative. Why is gold necessary for international trade? Because, even though all transactions are carried out through book-entry compensation, at a given moment there is a balance that the beneficiary country insists on charging in internationally valid currency”.[ix]

The Iberian expansion, making an unprecedented amount of money available, provoked an explosion in commercial demand in Europe. To meet it, Asian production doubled, but prices tripled. Asia's world trade (subordinated to Europe's purchases) thus increased sixfold (monetarily) in just half a century. Silver had always passed from Europe to Asia, where its purchasing power was much greater. First through Venice and Genoa, after 1497 through Lisbon. In the XNUMXth century, not even Spain, and even less Portugal, had the possibility of monetizing such commercial traffic.

The Iberian powers had, so to speak, taken a step beyond their legs. But, at the time, they ignored this fact and tried, by all means, to solve the problem, finding their own future tomb in the solution. When Vasco da Gama arrived in India, the local merchants laughed at the European products he offered for commercial exchange, and suggested that he offer gold instead of these “goods”. That gold finally came from America. Europe depended for centuries on American gold and silver to pay for its essential imports from Asia, which from 1600 began to be carried out through Amsterdam and London, not counting the use of land borders.

In the XNUMXth century, the Iberian conquerors were lulled with the promise of wealth and enormous material gains derived from these monetary needs. Because of this, the conquest of America was swift and extremely violent. Conquistadors intended immediate gains; the Spanish Crown was eager to reap the fruits of the conquest, but played a relatively small role in organizing it. The expansion of the Spanish empire was largely the work of small bands of armed adventurers, operating privately.

Conquistador bands were licensed by the Crown, but were recruited and financed by private individuals, individually or in partnership. Leaders were generally drawn from the lowest strata of the aristocracy, and were eager to acquire the manorial lifestyle to which they believed they deserved. The needs of the State that authorized them, and in whose name they acted, could not, however, simply be forgotten, but combined with the needs of their executors.

For this reason, the Iberian colonization of America was based and focused on cities, which functioned as an organizing center for looting or metal extraction, and as political centers for territorial occupation. Whenever an expedition conquered a territory, its leader's first action was to found a city. Spanish and Portuguese colonizers also aspired to an opulent and ostentatious lifestyle: the urban core became fundamental. All of today's Latin American republics have important cities that date back more than 400 years and to a founding by a conqueror.

The gold and silver found became an important factor in the consolidation of urban settlements. Mines needed workers, and growing colonial cities needed supplies. The Iberians established their own farms for this. Native American populations were seen as sources of labor for both mining and agriculture. Large groups of Indians were distributed among the main settlers to be "Christianized" and "civilized".

Colonizers ruled directly in the colonies for a short time; then the European crowns took control of the new empire, imposing institutions on the conquered territories. Spanish and Portuguese governors, bureaucrats and treasury officials took their places in the emerging structure of the new imperial government of the colonies; conquerors were pushed aside but rewarded with titles or lands.

The Church assumed a central position, acquiring large landholdings and enormous power. The exploitation of silver and gold expanded after 1550. For two hundred years fleets made annual round trips to a small number of authorized ports. The main centers of the Spanish empire in America after 1580 were the capitals of the viceroyalties of Mexico and Lima: “The economic history of Spanish America in the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries can be written from the point of view of Mexico and Lima”,[X] the other areas of colonization being reduced to a subordinate or secondary role.

The viceroyalty of Lima extended across all of Spanish South America except for the coast of Venezuela (only in the XNUMXth century were two more viceroyalties created in this area). Under these economic conditions, in Ibero-American colonial societies, the most exploited social groups in colonial society were the Indians and black slaves concentrated in Mexico, the Caribbean, the coast of Peru and Brazil. The middle layer of colonial society consisted primarily of mestizos. The upper classes were predominantly Spanish or Portuguese. These divisions were, however, more of class than of race. A mestizo with enough money could formally become “Spanish” or “Portuguese”. The American land available to the colonizers was more abundant and extensive than in any previous historical undertaking of conquest or territorial occupation, it was appropriated in the form of latifundia.

In a situation of labor shortages, due to the demographic catastrophe, the latifundio was inseparably linked to the various forms of forced labor. The enslavement of black people was the formula found by European colonizers to take advantage of the extensive lands discovered. In the tropical belt, the large monoculture and slaveholding properties became the basis of the economy, which revolved around the export of tropical products to the metropolises, from which, in turn, came the manufactured products necessary for the life of the colony. On cotton farms, in the english colonies, in the mills and sugarcane plantations of the Antilles and Brazil, the slave represented the main workforce. The slave system was, since the beginning of colonization, linked to large-scale farming: “Slavery and large-scale farming constituted in many areas the basis on which the colonial system was built, which lasted for more than three centuries”.[xi] In fact, almost four centuries.

In the case of the future Brazil, the American lands received and occupied by Portugal seemed to lack precious metals and indigenous cultures developed enough to provide sufficient labor, as indeed happened in some important areas in Spanish America. The problem for the Portuguese Crown consisted of finding the type of exploration that would contribute to finance the expenses resulting from the possession of such extensive and distant lands. Special factors gave rise to the establishment based on sugar production: mastery of its production technique, learned from the Italians and which had already been used in the Azores; rupture of the European sugar trade monopoly, held until then by Venice in collaboration with the Dutch, which opened the North Atlantic markets to the Portuguese. The enslavement of the indigenous allowed the establishment of the first mills. The “lord of the mill”, authority above all others, did not accept orders, not even from God's representatives. He was therefore identified with the feudal lord.

Acquired greater profitability by explorations, indigenous labor was replaced by the work of black Africans. The sugar plantation, using slave labor, formed the basis of the colonization of Northeast Brazil, reaching its peak at the end of the XNUMXth century and the beginning of the following. Sugar stood out as the most important product and regulator of other colonial agricultural crops; black slave labor was the basis of this economic expansion. The colonist was the one who promoted “mercantile devastation and the desire to return to the kingdom, to display the glories of opulence”.[xii] And there would be no limits to his performance. The spaces destined for subsistence farming by slaves were reduced as the demand for sugar in European markets increased. The productive space was regulated according to the economic needs of the moment, with the least concern being the guarantee of survival conditions for the Indian or the black slave.

In the simple and blunt formulation of Alberto Passos Guimarães: “Under the sign of violence against the native populations, whose birthright to land ownership was never respected, much less exercised, the latifundium was born and developed in Brazil. From this stigma of illegitimacy, which is his original sin, he would never redeem himself”.[xiii] With colonization based on the production or extraction of primary goods for export, the foundations of Brazilian latifundia were laid.

When Dom João III, king of Portugal, systematically divided the Portuguese colonial territory in America into large estates called captaincies, there were already captains appointed to them. What was done then was to demarcate the land, assign or declare to them the respective rights and duties that the colonists had to pay the king and the grantees, with the sum of the powers conferred by the Portuguese Crown authorizing them to issue charters, a kind of contract by virtue of which the sesmeiros or settlers became perpetual tributaries of the Crown and its grantees or captains-more.

The land divided into lordships, within the state lordship, this was the general outline of the administrative system in the first phase of Brazil's colonial history. The public and private spheres were intertwined: there was a confused relationship between the State and individuals. The Crown transferred public tasks to individuals: the administration of territories and collection of taxes and, on the other hand, people who carried out administrative tasks, directly or indirectly linked to the State, used them for their own benefit. A senior official who intended to return to the metropolis enriched would only have problems if he tampered with the Crown's money or if he clashed with the most important fractions of settlers.[xiv] The Portuguese Crown made use of private initiative, and relied on it to develop its colonial project, but always under its control: it used private human and financial resources to achieve its colonization projects, without incurring any burden, although ceding, in exchange, from this support, lands, offices, incomes and titles of nobility.[xv]

The Crown only acted directly when the situation demanded it or when the benefits were clear in advance. At the beginning of the colonization process, the Crown reserved the pau brasil for itself, even if it leased its exploration and ceded the exploration and extraction of metals, still unknown, keeping to itself the possibility of charging the fifth. The general government of the colony was created at a time when indigenous resistance threatened the continuity of the Portuguese presence from São Vicente to Pernambuco. In this way, the relationship was established between the Crown, mediated or not by its representatives in the colony – grantees, general governors – and the settlers.

The Crown used private initiative and resources, and the colonists sought rewards for their services, the “honors and favors”, frequent in colonial documents.[xvi] The Crown made wide use of this policy of concessions in exchange for services: a particular project approved by the Crown always contained promises of honors and favors. The king himself encouraged such a policy by requesting information about the settlers and also directing the governors to inform the settlers of the Crown's satisfaction or not with the services provided.[xvii]

In the American area of ​​Spanish colonization, two centuries after the beginning of the colonizing enterprise, its basic elements were: (a) A series of mining enclaves in Mexico and Peru; (b) Agriculture and livestock areas located on the periphery of mining enclaves and aimed at supplying foodstuffs and raw materials; (c) A commercial system planned to allow the flow of silver and gold to the metropolis, which, in possession of this wealth, would acquire the articles produced in western Europe, drained through the Iberian ports to the American colonies.[xviii]

The colonial glory, however, contributed to the Lusitanian economic and intellectual backwardness, as it also happened in Spain. Peninsular colonialism set up a system of looting and exploiting the colonies, and strengthening the commercial sector of the metropolitan bourgeoisie, to the detriment of its industrial sector. The peninsular kingdoms, from centers of world power, became economic colonies of the most industrially developed European countries, which would be the decisive factor in the delay of their capitalist development.

With these bases, can the Iberian conquest and colonialism be considered a capitalist enterprise? According to a French author, “the entries e cavalcades European militaries [in America] are manifestly close to capitalism. They are medieval-type 'bands' in the form of limited associations, or even joint-stock companies”.[xx] These undertakings, however, favored the establishment of an economic system based on slave and compulsory labor, not wage labor.

Going over the fact, André Gunder Frank elaborated a proposal of interpretation according to which the European colonizing enterprise would have been, not only a central element of primitive capitalist accumulation, but itself an enterprise of a capitalist nature, creating a “colonial capitalism” in the American colonies.[xx] The proposal had antecedents in several Latin American authors: the Brazilian historian Caio Prado Jr, or the Argentine Sergio Bagú also supported it, long before Gunder Frank.

Colonial production, mostly focused on the expanding world market, was the basis for supporting this thesis, added to the dissolution of feudal relations and the development of mercantile capitalism in progress in the metropolises. But this does not mean that capitalism was already flourishing in the Iberian kingdoms. Defining the colonial enterprise as “capitalist” and the society emerging from it as “colonial capitalism” means not only not taking this assumption into account, but above all making a tabula rasa of the system of slavery and forced labor on which European looting and colonization was based. of America.

Colonization, on the other hand, was not homogeneous, not even from an economic point of view.[xxx] The Argentine Milcíades Peña summarized the arguments in defense of the capitalist character of the colonial enterprise: “Of course, this is not industrial capitalism. It is a capitalism of factory, colonial capitalism which, unlike feudalism, does not produce on a small scale and above all for local consumption, but on a large scale, using large masses of workers, and with an eye on the market; generally the world market or, if not, the local market structured around the establishments that produce for export. These are decisively capitalist characteristics, although not of industrial capitalism, which is characterized by the free wage”.

According to the same author: “[It is affirmed] that colonial society produced for the market, but that [even so] the relations of production from which the commodity sprouted (the relations between workers and owners of the means of production) were feudal , since they were based on the personal subjection of the worker. The error of this criterion lies in the fact that serfdom was not the dominant regime in the colony… In the Spanish colonies, slavery in the form of bastard wages predominated,[xxiii] the legal enslavement of the Negroes and the free wage being of minor importance.”[xxiii] That American slavery was a form similar to wage-earning is a bold thesis, to say the least, which the author has not demonstrated.[xxv] For Argentine historian Sergio Bagú, a pioneer in the defense of “colonial capitalism” in Ibero-American America, “the colonial labor regime resembled capitalism much more than feudalism”.[xxiv] The problem with this analysis was precisely its justification based on “similarities”.

The slave was exploited from a purely economic perspective: he had to generate profits and produce as much as he could. Would that be enough to define this production as capitalist? It is necessary to take into account that “most of the most active economic operators in America were Spanish, not criollos, more faithful to Spain than to the country in which they lived more or less provisionally. Few were those who could be defined as bourgeois: although they practiced international trade activities, the export goods they traded were produced by other social groups, through modes and relations of production that can be defined as you like – slave, feudal, servile. – but certainly not as capitalists. The groups of international traders, hastily defined as 'bourgeois', were not interested in modifying a situation that, at the level of production, provided them with colossal gains in international markets”.[xxv]

Colonial production certainly had a commercial objective and a worldwide target, but it was based on compulsory labor relations, including colonial slavery. It was a hybrid or transitional form, like that existing in the ancient Italian city-states, although with a much longer temporality. The dominance of commercial capital characterized a previous phase to settled and dominant capitalism: the autonomous development of commercial capital is inversely proportional to the development of capitalist production. The controversy was far from limited to these views.

Other authors maintained that: “When the metropolis decided to launch itself into the colonial enterprise, it had no political alternative but to transplant to America the dominant mode of production overseas”, that is, feudalism, with the peculiarity that “since it was impossible to count on the serf of the land, colonial feudalism had to regress to slavery”.[xxviii] Helio Jaguaribe coined the expression “extemporaneous feudalism” to refer to the phenomenon. Now, unlike feudal lords, who extract a surplus from the population subject to their control to use it in the same region, the main objective of the Spaniard or Portuguese who undertook the conquest or received the entrust it was to extract a surplus that could be transferred to Europe, not the basis for a self-sufficient economy, a “colonial feudalism”.

Ernesto Laclau criticized Gunder Frank's "capitalist" thesis for focusing primarily on the circulation of goods (incurring in "circulationism"), ignoring or putting the question of social relations in a secondary plane, that is, forgetting that capitalism is, before the more, a mode of production.[xxviii] The criticism of the thesis of “colonial capitalism” was thus synthesized by Theotonio dos Santos: “Commercial capitalism is not enough to generate a capitalist mode of production (which) only exists under the domination of industrial capital, which separates production between capital and free labor… Commercial capital is a pre-capitalist impediment to the development of capitalism, despite the fact that this same capital created, dialectically, the conditions for the emergence of capitalism through world trade. It is false to conclude that, due to the dominance of the Latin American economy by commercial and financial capital in colonial times, a capitalist mode of production existed in Latin America. It would be very difficult to demonstrate that the slave mode of production was capitalist”.[xxix]

Capitalist society is characterized by salaried work: the worker is economically coerced to sell his labor power to the capitalist; this was not the predominant social relationship in the colony. Nor was it a feudal society, where servitude to the “lord” prevailed and production was primarily aimed at satisfying the needs of the manor: in America, the forced labor of indigenous peoples or African slaves was aimed at large-scale production. for the world market. Without making explicit reference to these criticisms, Gunder Frank answered them on the basis of the following premise: “Although the production of exchange values ​​is at the center of capital accumulation, the realization of capital through the exchange of use and exchange values in the process of circulation is also an essential part of the process of capitalist production and accumulation”.[xxx]

On this basis, Gunder Frank opposed those who argued that the relations of production were “internal”, therefore determining, while the relations of exchange or circulation were external, “superficial”, therefore irrelevant to the definition of capitalist accumulation. Reference to the author's critics is made only in a footnote, "the present author has often been criticized as narodnik, 'circulationist'”. Dismissing them, Gunder Frank rejected what he saw as their central defect: “Capitalism and the transition to capitalism, and the determinants of their development, are confined to certain centers of economic activity, leaving most of the world for a long time to outside the capitalist system, presenting only, at best, some exchange relations with the centers of capitalist accumulation, relations that would be 'external' to capitalist production relations”.[xxxii] The fragmentation of a system that was already, at least tendentially, unique, would constitute an error and arbitrariness.

Opposed to the disjunctive proposals was “colonial slavery”, a concept coined by Jacob Gorender:[xxxi] this pioneering and original author maintained the existence of peculiar economic traits susceptible of characterizing a colonial slave mode of production:[xxxii] (a) Specialization in the production of commercial goods destined for the world market; (b) Teamwork under unified command; (c) The combination of agricultural cultivation and product processing in the same establishment; (d) The quantitative and qualitative division of labor. In modern (colonial) slavery, “the slave is for life and his social condition is transmitted to his children.

In Roman law and in the slave regimes that were inspired by it, the hereditary transmission of the servile condition occurred through the maternal line”. Mário Maestri listed what, for Gorender, would be “the tendential laws of this dominant mode of production in the old Brazilian social formation, the unique basis of the country's transition towards capitalist production: the 'law of monetary income'; the 'initial inversion of the acquisition of the enslaved worker'; the 'rigidity of enslaved labor'; the 'correlation between the mercantile economy and the natural economy' on the slave plantation; and the law of the 'enslaved population'”.

Em Slavery Rehabilitated,[xxxv] Gorender criticized the “neopatriarchal current” of reinterpretation of slavery, characterized by the “objectification and absolute autonomy of enslaved workers; the negation of the captive's opposition to his exploitation and the transformation of slavery, to his own advantage, through accommodation and negotiation with the exploiters; the exceptional conditions of existence of the captives – little work, a lot of food, rare punishment; the law of slaveholders as a guarantee of the world of enslaved people; the general existence of stable enslaved families; the benignity of the slave trade; the transmutation of the captive into a peasant, still under the yoke of the enslaver; the indetermination of internal phenomena by external processes and exploitation by economic structure; the scarce social mobility of the captive; the non-class character of slave revolts”.[xxxiv]

A characteristic of modern slave production, for Gorender, was the establishment of manorial exploitation, whose worker did not have any autonomy over the length of service or over the means of production, unlike the feudal organization, in which production was based on family units. , owners of the means of production, autonomous and stable, constituting the basis of the productive system. The economic organization of the production of commercial goods aimed to serve the market and not provide for immediate consumption by producers. Unlike other work processes, in colonial slavery, intensive surveillance aimed at increasing production and preventing slave escapes, in view of the loss of days not worked by the runaway slave and the costs of search and capture. The owner provided subsistence and productivity tended to be low; she only increased with the whip on her back, which required prolonged vigilance, with due costs.

The mechanization of production, encompassing the cultivation of plants and the transformation of raw materials, that is, large-scale production, gave rise, within the framework of slavery, to the technical improvement of agricultural and processing activities, “which involved notable complexity in terms of sugar mills, from grinding to successive cooking, purification, purging, crystallization, clarification, drying, pressing and boxing”, a characteristic feature of the social division of labor in colonial slavery.[xxxiv]

Would these characteristics be enough to define a differentiated mode of production, or would we be facing a hybrid, transitional form? This is what other authors maintain: “Analyzing the more general picture of the period and taking into account that its fundamental trait was the inauguration of a mercantile economy of worldwide geographic dimensions, we find configurations sui generis and irreducible to both feudalism and capitalism. It is a period of primitive accumulation of capital, when the mercantile economy gained space and spread, however, production was not governed by capital as a social relationship, but only as wealth accumulated in the mercantile circuit”.[xxxviii]

The hybridity of different modes of production (slavery, serfdom, independent work or small mercantile production, wage labor) was the characteristic of American colonial regimes. However, in the most productive colonies for the metropolis, those whose production was destined directly for the world market, that is, those that gave their meaning and historical function to the colonial system, the dominant work regime, on which production was based , was slavery.

Pires and Da Costa suggested another category of analysis: “Slave-mercantile capital is characterized by being a producer of goods and an extractor of surplus value, but it does so by setting in motion captive labor. The production of goods – exportable or not – in slave-owning Brazil would result, therefore, from the action of this form of capital, which would dominate, in addition to the productive sphere itself, the internal circulation. However, slave-mercantile capital had an important peculiarity: it did not guarantee its own reproduction over time. This occurred because its area of ​​activity was restricted to the colony's internal plan, being isolated from the external plan, which it needed to carry out exportable production and obtain labor. To get in touch with the international economy, he needed the mediation of commercial capital, which acted as an interface between the colony and foreign markets. Commercial capital, in addition to performing this function, would also have been responsible for establishing the colonial enterprise, through the settlement and enhancement of the lands of the New World. After completing this initial task, however, slave-mercantile capital was progressively developed within the colony”.[xxxviii]

Certainly, as Sánchez Albornoz and Moreno argued, “in mines and cattle ranches, the slave, being an expensive commodity, had its use restricted to the profitability of his work. The Negro, sometimes a symbol of status for his master, when employed in domestic tasks, was first and foremost a capital good; its importation was governed by trade rules and conjunctural stimuli”.[xxxix] The relative dominance of merchant capital in the colonial enterprise meant that capital had not yet decisively penetrated the sphere of production. In the last century, especially, all these debates were closely associated with polemics within the Latin American left about the “character of the revolution”, national and anti-imperialist or proletarian and socialist, in today's era; but ended up becoming relatively independent of those.

The main objective of the Spaniard or Portuguese who undertook the conquest and received the entrust or imported slaves, was to extract a surplus that could be transferred to Europe. The parasitic character of the colonial system lacked the characteristics that historically supported feudalism or capitalism in Europe. Slave labor in the Americas was directly related to the consolidation of the commercial infrastructure needed for export.

There would, therefore, be a rigid separation between masters and slaves, which implied rules of conduct and respect, under penalty of punishment: the black was the property of his master, and he did whatever he wanted with him. Black people became the main productive element and worker in colonial America because the colonist had no interest in working (he wanted to show off wealth and titles of nobility) and also because the Indians, good hunters, fishermen and extractivists, did not adapt or resist the methodical work that the great farming required. The African slave thus constituted a productive need in the colony, from the point of view of the colonizers.

Although the Americas were the “Jewels in the Crowns”, Iberian colonial expansion also reached Asia. In 1513 the Portuguese arrived in China and in 1543, using the route opened at the end of the previous century by Bartolomeu Dias, Portuguese ships, on a commercial trip to China, arrived, thanks to a diversion caused by a storm, in Japan, where they found “ the best of the peoples hitherto discovered, and certainly we shall find no better among the infidels. They are of pleasant trade; generally good, lack malice, and feel proud of their honour, which they esteem more than anything else.” The Jesuit missionary Francisco Xavier arrived in the great archipelago of the Far East in 1549, opening an important commercial contact. On the back of it, hundreds of thousands of Japanese subjects converted to Christianity. The Portuguese (called by Japanese authorities the “barbarians of the South”) found an opportunity to act as Europe's main intermediaries in Asian trade.[xl]

The installation of the Portuguese in Nagasaki (Japan) took place in 1570, at the same time that the Spaniard Miguel López de Legazpi began the Spanish colonization of the Philippine Islands, followed soon after by the foundation of Manila. In Japan, the Portuguese “hit the jackpot with regard to the spice trade; in 1571, the (Portuguese) State established permanent facilities in the port of Nagasaki, administered by the Jesuits, to exploit it. At first, the crown granted, on merit in the service, licenses to travel from India not only to Japan, but also to Macao, as a gift to Portuguese officials or officials.

Portugal was quick to appreciate the potential of the Japan-China trade in silver and silk, and scrambled to extract the maximum advantage… An estimated 200 ducats would return a single round trip, more than half of what Portugal had paid to the Spain to permanently relinquish its claims to the Spice Islands”.[xi] The Portuguese Crown began to regulate trade with Japan by selling the annual “captaincy” to Japan to the highest bidder, granting exclusive trade rights to a single ship to carry out the activity.

This trade continued with some interruptions until 1638, when it was banned because Portuguese ships were smuggling Catholic priests into Japan. Portuguese trade was increasingly facing competition from Chinese smugglers, Spanish ships from Manila, the Dutch from 1609 onwards, and the English from 1613 onwards. The Dutch first arrived in Japan in 1600, engaged in piracy and to naval combat to weaken the Portuguese and Spanish, becoming the only westerners to gain access to Japan from the small enclave of Dejima after 1638 and for the next two centuries.

In 1614, the anti-Christian decree of the Shogun of Tokugawa closed the country to European influences and contacts, which lasted for two and a half centuries: “The comparison between the scarce role obtained by the Portuguese in China and Japan, in relation to the successes obtained in the Indian Ocean, reveals to us one of the reasons for this success. Both in India and further to the West, the Portuguese took advantage of the multiplicity of political systems existing there, which interacted with each other, and used the spaces left empty by local adversaries engaged in continuous conflicts”.[xliii]

In their overseas expeditions, the Portuguese rarely advanced far beyond the coasts, but they came to control twenty thousand kilometers of coastline on three continents. It seemed that the Iberian powers, masters of the world, would collide for world power in the Asian theater. The “Iberian Union” avoided this: it governed the peninsula from 1580 to 1640, as a result of the dynastic union between the monarchies of Portugal and Spain after the war of Portuguese succession, which began in 1578, when the Portuguese Empire was at its peak. The predation of Portuguese trading posts in the East by the Dutch, English and French, and their intrusion into the Atlantic slave trade, undermined the lucrative Portuguese monopoly in the oceanic spice trade and slave trade, beginning a long decline of the Portuguese empire.

During the union with Spain, however, Portugal benefited from Spanish military power to keep Brazil under its rule and prevent Dutch trade, but events led the Portuguese metropolis to a state of growing economic dependence on its colonies, the India and then Brazil. The Iberian Union resulted in control by the unified peninsular kingdoms of a world-wide extension: Portugal dominated the African and Asian coasts around the Indian Ocean; Castile, the Pacific Ocean and the coasts of Central and South America, while both shared the Atlantic space. The joining of the two crowns deprived Portugal of an independent foreign policy, and conflicts against Spain's enemies. The war between the Portuguese and the Dutch led to their invasions in Ceylon and, in South America, in Salvador, in 1624, and in Olinda and Recife in 1630.

Without autonomy or strength to defend its overseas possessions in the face of the Dutch offensive, the Portuguese kingdom lost much of its former strategic advantage. In the metropolis, the new situation, which also affected the internal situation of the kingdom, culminated in a revolution led by the Portuguese nobility and high bourgeoisie in December 1640. The subsequent “Portuguese Restoration War” against Philip IV of Spain concluded with the end of the Union Iberia and at the beginning of a new Portuguese dynasty. But Portugal's old international position was not recovered, although the country's independence was restored under the Bragança dynasty.[xiii] The decline of the “first global empire” marked the end of a first historical phase of capital accumulation. Others would come, surpassing it, but maintaining its slaveholding base.

*Osvaldo Coggiola He is a professor at the Department of History at USP. Author, among other books, of Marxist economic theory: an introduction (boitempo).


[I] Earl J. Hamilton.The Flowering of Capitalism. Madrid, Alianza Universidad, 1984.

[ii] Geoffrey Parker. The emergence of modern finance in Europe. In: Carlo M. Cipolla (ed.). Economic History of Europe. Siglos XVI and XVII. Barcelona, ​​Ariel, 1981.

[iii] Hugh Thomas. El Imperio Español de Carlos V. Buenos Aires, Planeta, 2011.

[iv] Fernando Novais. Structure and Dynamics of the Colonial System (XNUMXth-XNUMXth centuries). Sao Paulo, Hucitec, 2018.

[v] Timothy Brook. Vermeer's Hat. The 2012th century and the beginning of the globalized world. Rio de Janeiro, Record, XNUMX..

[vi] Ralph Davis. Atlantic Europe. From the discoveries to industrialization. Mexico, Siglo XXI, 1989.

[vii] Carlo M. Cipolla. Conquistadors, Pirates, Mercaderes. Mexico, Fund for Economic Culture, 2001.

[viii] Florestan Fernandes. Closed circuit. Sao Paulo, Hucitec, 1977.

[ix] Pierre Vilar. Gold and Currency in History1450-1920. Rio de Janeiro, Peace and Land, 1981.

[X] Ralph Davis. Atlantic Europe, cit.

[xi] Emilia Viotti da Costa. From Senzala to Colonia. Sao Paulo, Difel, 1966.

[xii] Raymundo Faoro. The Owners of Power. Porto Alegre, Globo, Volume 1, 1976.

[xiii] Alberto Passos Guimaraes. Four Centuries of Latifundia. Rio de Janeiro, Peace and Land, 1989.

[xiv] Evaldo Cabral de Mello. The Fronde of Mozambos. São Paulo, Companhia das Letras, 1995.

[xv] Part of the property confiscated from the Jesuits in the XNUMXth century was used as a favor to the settlers. Ciro FS Cardoso. Economy and Society in Peripheral Colonial Areas. French Guiana and Pará (1750-1817). Rio de Janeiro, Graal, 1984.

[xvi] Rodrigo Ricupero. “Honors and favors”: the relations between settlers and the crown and its representatives (1530-1630). In: Osvaldo Coggiola (org.). History and Economics: Issues. Sao Paulo, Humanitas, 2002.

[xvii] Robert Simonsen. Economic History of Brazil. Sao Paulo, Company. National Publisher, 1978.

[xviii] Stanley and Barbara Stein. Latin America's Colonial Heritage. Rio de Janeiro, Peace and Land, 1976.

[xx] Jean Meyer. Les Capitalismes. Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 1981.

[xx] Andre Gunder Frank. Capitalism and Underdevelopment in Latin America. New York, Monthly Review Press, 1967.

[xxx] Carlos S. Assadourian et al. Modes of Production in Latin America. Córdoba, Past and Present, 1973.

[xxiii] bastard, the term used by Peña, lacks an exact translation into Portuguese.

[xxiii] Peña militias. Before May. Social forms of Spanish transplantation to the New World. Buenos Aires, Cards, 1973.

[xxv] The “gain slave (or black)”, who received a monetary sum determined by his work, obligatorily passed on (withholding a percentage) to his master, is a much later phenomenon, and marks a transition towards salaried work. In late colonial Brazil and in the Brazilian Empire, there were slaves forced by their masters to carry out some kind of work in the streets, taking home a previously stipulated sum of money. It was common for this type of slave to be able to form a savings account, which he used to buy his freedom, paying the master for his manumission. Although existing since the XNUMXth century in urban areas, during the Empire the practice was more controlled by the State, which granted licenses to slave owners for their use (Luiz Carlos Soares. Urban Slavery in Nineteenth Century in Rio de Janeiro. Doctoral Thesis, London, University of London, 1988).

[xxiv] Sergio Bagu. The Colonial Society. Buenos Aires, Emecé, 1950.

[xxv] Ruggiero Roman. Le Rivoluzioni Borghesi. Milan, Fratelli Fabbri, 1973.

[xxviii] Alberto Passos Guimaraes. Four Centuries of Latifundia. Rio de Janeiro, Peace and Land, 1989.

[xxviii] André Gunder Frank, Rodolfo Puiggrós and Ernesto Laclau. Latin America: Feudalism or Capitalism? Buenos Aires, Oveja Negra, 1972.

[xxix] Theotonio dos Santos. Colonial capitalism according to AG Frank. Monthly Review nº 56, Santiago de Chile, November 1968.

[xxx] “Circulation is, in itself, a moment of production, since capital only becomes capital through circulation” (Karl Marx. Fundamental Elements for the Criticism of the Political Economy [Grundrisse]. Mexico, Siglo XXI, 1987 [1865].

[xxxii] Andre Gunder Frank. World Accumulation 1492-1789. Rio de Janeiro, Zahar, 1977.

[xxxi] Gorender “sought to classify the colony's internal production relations and find the dominant mode of production… He valued the emphasis on the export structure that had permanently characterized the Brazilian economy since the beginning of colonization. But he denied the idea that our country could be explained by the analysis of its commercial structure, that is, in the scope of the distribution and circulation of goods, whose dynamic center was exogenous to the colony... Without denying our dependence and the importance of the slave trade, gave importance to the colonial internal market and sought to describe the internal relations of production… It opposed those who wanted to 'rehabilitate slavery', rescuing the conciliatory subjectivity of the dominated, when it came to accentuating the collective and anti-systemic subjectivity of the quilombolas” (Lincoln Secco. Jacob. Gorender. the earth is round, São Paulo, March 6, 2023).

[xxxii] For Roberto Amaral: “The main scientific contribution of Jacob Gorender is revealed in the study of our formation, in overcoming the disjunctive of feudalism versus capitalism in the interpretation of the economic model of Colonial-Empire Brazil, a model that, in its death throes, reaches the republic serenely attached to farming and extractivism, still as an agro-export economy (through) the identification of an entirely new and specific mode of production, colonial slavery, with which it advances over the previous formulations of Alberto Passos Guimarães (feudalism), Nelson Werneck Sodré (slave mode of production, according to the parameters of classical slavery) and Caio Prado Jr., who distinguishes, in his seminal work, the already capitalist character of the Brazilian colonial process. It departs from Roberto Simonsen, who saw the cycles of export products as periods or economic systems and identified in them the export structure of the national economy... in time and space. From this determinism, colonial slavery would have emerged as a mode of production of new characteristics, previously unknown in human history” (Roberto Amaral. In the centenary of Jacob Gorender. CartaCapital. São Paulo, January 27, 2023).

[xxxv] Jacob Gorender. Slavery Rehabilitated. São Paulo, Popular Expression / Perseu Abramo Foundation, 2016.

[xxxiv] Mario Maestri. Centenary of the birth of Jacob Gorender. the earth is round, São Paulo, March 8, 2023.

[xxxiv] Jacob Gorender. Colonial Slavery. Sao Paulo, Attica, 1994.

[xxxviii] Vera Lucia A. Ferlini. Land, Work and Power. São Paulo, Brasiliense, 1988.

[xxxviii] Julio Manuel Pires and Iraci del Nero da Costa. Slave-Mercantile Capital and Slavery in the Americas. São Paulo, EDUC, 2010.

[xxxix] Nicolás Sánchez Albornoz and José Luis Moreno. The Poblacion of Latin America. Historic grove. Buenos Aires, Paidos, 1968.

[xl] Xavier de Castro. La Découverte du Japon par les Européens (1543-1551). Paris, Chandeigne, 2013.

[xi] William J. Benstein. An Extraordinary Change. How trade revolutionized the world. Rio de Janeiro, Elsevier, 2009.

[xliii] Wolfgang Reinhard. Storia dell'Espansione Europea. Naples, Guida Editori, 1987.

[xiii] John H. Elliot. Imperial Spain 1469-1716. New York, Penguin Books, 2002; António Henrique R. de Oliveira Marques. History of Portugal. From empire to corporate state. New York, Columbia University Press, 1972.

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