Excerpt from The Black Count by Tom Reiss, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Black Count

Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo

By Tom Reiss

The Black Count

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The Spanish established a colony on the eastern side of Hispaniola and named it Santo Domingo; eventually, the colony would extend over the eastern two-thirds of the island, roughly corresponding to the modern-day Dominican Republic. (The native inhabitants called the entire island by another name: Hayti.) The Spanish brought artisans from the Canary Islands, off the coast of West Africa, to build the elaborate on-site technology needed for sugar production—presses, boilers, mills—and then brought the most essential ingredient of all: African slaves.

Slavery, of course, had existed since antiquity. The Greek city-states had created democracy among a small elite by enslaving almost everybody else, in some cases up to a third of the population. Aristotle believed democracy could exist only because of slavery, which gave citizens the leisure for higher pursuits. (Modern versions of this argument held that American democracy was born of the slave society of rural Virginia, because slavery gave men like Washington and Jefferson the free time to better themselves and to participate in representative government.) In Greece and Rome, slavery was the fate of prisoners of war and barbarians, anyone not lucky enough to have been born Greek or Roman. When ancient slaves managed to buy their freedom or that of their children, they would assimilate into the free population, with no permanent mark on their descendants. Though ubiquitous in the ancient world, slavery was not based on any sense of "race."

There was an ethnic connotation in the etymology of the word "slave," which first appeared in the eighth century AD: the word was a corruption of "Slav," since at the time nearly all slaves imported into Europe were ethnic Slavs. The Slavs were late converts to Christianity, and their pagan status made them vulnerable. "Slav markets" were established across Europe, from Dublin to Marseilles, where the people being bought and sold were as fair-skinned as those buying and selling them.

The rise of Islam led to a vast expansion of slavery, as conquering Arab armies pulled any and every group of "unbelievers" into bondage. Arab slave traders captured whites from the north via sea raids on European shipping, and blacks from the south via land raids or barter with the sub-Saharan kingdoms. Justified by religious faith, the Muslim slave trade was a huge trans-national business. Over time it focused more and more on black Africans. Yet there was still no fixed biological marker for bondage.

The European sugar trade changed this forever. As thousands of blacks were bought and sold out of Africa to harvest sugar, for the first time in history a biologically marked group of human beings came to be considered destined for slavery, created by the white landowners' God for a life of permanent chattel servitude.

The Portuguese had first taken blacks to Madeira to cut sugarcane because the island was off the coast of North Africa and the Muslim traders there happened to deal in African slaves. When they sailed down the Guinea Coast, the Portuguese found the black African kingdoms were willing to supply them with slaves directly: the Africans did not consider they were selling their racial brothers to the whites. They did not think in racial terms at all but only of different tribes and kingdoms. Before, they had sold their captives to other black Africans or to Arabs. Now they sold them to whites. (The African kingdoms and empires themselves kept millions of slaves.) As time went on, Africans would learn of the horrors awaiting black slaves in the American colonies, not to mention on the passage over, yet they continued to export ever greater quantities of bois d'ébène—"ebony wood," as the French called their cargo. There was no mercy or morality involved. It was strictly business.

Spain laid the foundations of this great wealth and evil in the Americas, then quickly became distracted and forgot about it. After introducing the plants, the technology, and the slaves into Santo Domingo, the Spanish dropped the sugar business in favor of hunting for gold and silver. They moved on to Mexico and South America in search of the precious metals, leaving the island to languish for nearly two centuries, until the French began to harness its true potential.

Excerpted from The Black Count by Tom Reiss. Copyright © 2012 by Tom Reiss. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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