Yellow Bananas, Green Bananas

Podcasts have brought incredible value and learning into my life, and few podcasters can surpass Dan Carlin in value, both as entertainment and knowledge gained. Carlin offers a podcast called Hardcore History that is not for the TikTok crowd. There are no guests, just him talking and the narrative can go on for hours. He reads quotes from books and other sources, but mostly, the show is him taking very deep dives on subjects as broad as the Japanese Empire to Charlemagne, to the one I listened to recently about the Atlantic slave trade. What follows here is a summary of the subject covered by Carlin. The issue of slavery in the Americas is never resolved, and Carlin offers some very interesting takes and tales from the long and painful era.

Initially, Carlin frames the discussion from the perspective of Christopher Columbus, who, as the head of an expedition, was kind of like a startup CEO who needed funding for his new venture. He went to the Spanish monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, and claimed he could get to the trading routes in the east faster by sailing west, and he was willing to stake his life on it. His pitch was well received and so he received his funding. What Columbus was looking for was the ‘yellow bananas’ trade, which are the benefits that can be had quickly.

And so, in 1492, Columbus sailed west, and as far as he was concerned, his bet paid off. When he reached land, he thought he was in India, and he named the passive inhabitants Indians. He found the yellow bananas in the form of gold which could be taken from the ears and necks of the natives. His reports to the monarchs were full, however, of the promise of green bananas, which were benefits that would take some time to cultivate. What Columbus wanted was more money to do more exploring, and he got it, but he was not alone for long. The tale of his explorations spread and soon there were more Spanish and Portuguese in the area, finding riches and conquering the natives by force.

The early depredations of the Spanish and Portuguese were bad enough, but the real existential disaster for the natives was just getting started. The Europeans brought viruses to the natives for which they had no immunity. In short order, the native populations began to fall. Natives hundreds of miles away that had never seen or heard of the Spanish or the Europeans on horseback, grew sick and whole villages and communities began to die off and depopulate. What percentage of the native populations of North, Central, and South American continents died from these plagues is unknown.  The toll, however, was heavy. In some places, the dead made up 50% of the total population. In others, it was 90%, and in others, 100% of the native population died.

The spread of European pathogens is a tale of human disaster for the ages, up there with the Holocaust and the Plague. Carlin notes that it wouldn’t have mattered if Columbus had been a beneficent and caring explorer with the utmost respect for the natives; they would have died anyway. And even if the Aztecs had figured out ocean going travel first, and went to Europe, the results would have been the same. As soon as the first Asians crossed the Bering Strait and separated themselves from the bulk of humanity, the die was cast. They would meet again, and the natives would be unprepared.

This plague kicked off the next phase of New World development. Carlin notes what others, including myself in my book, The Educated Citizen’s Guide to Essential American History, have noted which is that the viruses necessitated slavery.

The yellow bananas were the gold the Spanish could take from the natives, which they did. But the green bananas were in the masses of agricultural products that were in the New World and could be grown and exported to Europe. Sugar was unknown in Europe, and once the Europeans tasted it, they wanted more. These bananas would be bright yellow when they crossed the ocean. With the natives dead, dying, or fleeing since they had made the connection between the Europeans and death, the Spanish needed a new source of labor.

Africa was in the Old World, so the Africans had immunity and they knew large scale agriculture. The African populations knew warfare and they knew about the horse. They were a perfect replacement labor force for the new European agribusiness.

They were also available in large numbers. Sub-Saharan Africa, so called ‘Black Africa’ had a long history of capturing rivals and selling them into slavery. Slavery itself was ubiquitous in the world, and the term slavery descends from the Latin word ‘slav’ and comes from the long period when Muslims would sell captured slaves from Eastern Europe. These same slave holding societies brought in masses of slaves from black Africa. When the Spanish and Portuguese need slaves for the New World, they found a ready market in the slave traders in Africa, and the flow of men, women and children in chains was limitless. If there is any ‘original sin’ of the Atlantic slave trade, it starts here, with the sellers.

The slaves from Africa were often men taken in battle, but just as often, they came from conquered people as they had for as thousands of years. These captives would be forced to march to the coast, and sold, where they would collect in coastal prisons or be held on the slaving ships for weeks while the ships filled up. First person narratives of the ‘middle passage’ experience are as horrific as can be imagined. Hundreds of humans would be packed into the holds of ships, each with a space no bigger than a coffin. These ships were noted for their stench, and the dead or dying were cast overboard with no ceremony.

Here, Carlin notes how the sheer number of slaves caused peril for their captors. The slaves outnumbered the Europeans in all the places they were brought in mass, and so the Europeans rightfully feared them. For example, 400 slaves would be packed on a ship with a crew of 20. For the ones that survived the trip, their new life was spent around other slaves. On one plantation Carlin details, there were 5 white family members surrounded by 200 slaves. This family did not sleep easily at night. Terror and punishment were the only way to keep control of such a large and threatening mass of people and the punishments were swift and severe. Many fell under the lash, and there are hundreds of first-person accounts of slaves whipped so severely that they died.

These slaves, however, had no way home, and in time, they adjusted to their new life, and they worked ceaselessly. The green bananas were being converted to yellow bananas and sent back to Europe in mass, or ‘at scale’ as we might say now, and so the market for slave labor began to pull in ever larger groups from black Africa. All over the Americas, slaves were producing sugar, cotton, tobacco, and other primary inputs. Slavery was part of a large and highly successful economic system that every European power wanted a part of, and it carried on for hundreds of years because it worked.

Two things began to change the system over time.

First, as slavery entered its third decade, there were slaves born in the Americas who had no memory of Africa. These children were, of course, also slaves and the property of the slave owners, but they also lived near the white society, and they began to absorb the speech, manners, and religion of the Europeans. They became Christians.

Meanwhile, both Christianity and the values of the Enlightenment began to change the European attitude towards slavery. The green bananas had long since been developed, and the European derived native populations of the New World became as removed from the world of Columbus as the slaves were removed from black Africa. Both guilt and fear began to creep into the attitude towards the slaves. This all occurred within the context of American born Europeans coming to resent the depredations and values of the monarchs back in Europe. As these white populations began to think about their rights as individuals, they came face to face with their own behavior towards the slaves.

No one in the New World observed and lived the dichotomy of seeking freedom while owning slaves more so than Thomas Jefferson. Carlin reads section of Jefferson’s notes and correspondence, which includes this astonishing passage:

“The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. Our children see this and learn to imitate it; for man is an imitative animal. From his cradle to his grave, he is learning to do what he sees others do. If a parent could find no motive either in his philanthropy or his self-love, for restraining the intemperance of passion towards his slave, it should always be a sufficient one that his child is present. But generally, it is not sufficient. The parent storms, the child looks on, catches the lineaments of wrath, puts on the same airs in the circle of smaller slaves, gives a loose to the worst of passions, and thus nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny, cannot but be stamped by it with odious peculiarities. The man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals undepraved by such circumstances.”

Jefferson knew that slavery was wrong and perpetrated by the example it set for children. Regarding those same children he writes:

“This is so true, that of the proprietors of slaves a very small proportion indeed are ever seen to labor. And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever: that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation, is among possible events: that it may become probable by supernatural interference! The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest.”

By the time Jefferson was writing these remarkable passages, slavery had existed in the New World for hundreds of years, and there were millions of people who were of mixed ancestry. It was in this period that the whole concept of race was invented, and so a vocabulary had to be created to describe human beings who were of mixed race. A person with one black parent and one white parent was a ‘mulatto.’ There were designations defining other percentages and this was important since rights were delegated by these percentages.

The many conflicts this system engendered was again exemplified by none other than the man who wrote “all men are created equal,” Thomas Jefferson. After his wife died, Jefferson fathered six children with Sally Hemmings, a woman who was a part of his slave holding estate. Hemmings was Thomas Jefferson’s wife’s half-sister. She was ¼ black and therefore classified a quadroon. She had long chestnut hair, and was the product of a system of intermingling that Thomas Jefferson’s father had engaged in. This was a part of the system at the time, and Jefferson knew it was rotten. He thought, and wrote, that a just God was going to balance the ledger one day.

Jefferson’s fears about what slavery might become was manifested in the French colony of Saint-Dominque, now known as Haiti. In the same way that the French Revolution was a far bloodier affair than the American Revolution, the French experience with slavery also came to a bloody and counter-genocidal end on the Caribbean Island that had known slavery for hundreds of years. Carlin details how the French were divested of slavery, starting in Saint-Domingue, and notes that the spasm of violence there was specifically racial in character. Once the former slaves took over, they assumed all the rights the French Revolution claimed it held dear for humanity, and when it became clear that the white French didn’t intend to extend the same rights to the former slaves, their leadership executed the white population in masse and declared full independence. Carlin’s summary of this period is as riveting as it is revolting, but it was no less violent than the American Civil War. It was, however, more gruesome and sparred no one. Whole towns of white French were slaughtered and their bodies put on display. This further hardened the attitude of the white slave holders in the United States. Saint-Domingue was a cautionary tale about freeing slaves or giving them the hope of equal rights.

The end of slavery and the Atlantic slave trade came at a high price to all. What began in Saint-Domingue in 1791 began in 1861 in the United States. The American Civil War cost 650,000 lives at least and ended four bloody years later in 1865. By 1890, 100 years after Saint-Domingue, nearly every European founded nation in the New World had outlawed chattel slavery, but of course, it wasn’t over. It’s never over.

As William Faulkner, writing in Mississippi at the height of the Jim Crow era, stated, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Dan Carlin

The whole show can be heard here

You can read my book of American history by going to my Amazon author webpage here, or click the cover below.