The United States of America boasts of commercial and financial prestige in the form of Wall Street in New York City. “Wall Street” is a ubiquitous name in the financial world. However, little is told about how the Wall Street is directly steeped in the history of slavery and the slave trade. The history of Wall Street and the history of slavery are intricately linked. Most of America’s economy was rooted deeply in slavery and the slave trade.
The Wall Street was premised on labour that Black people were forced to supply through slavery. In the present day, the Wall Street is the ultimate bulwark of capitalist interests in the Western world. The Wall Street symbolizes the economic superiority possessed by the United States. The same economic superiority is wielded to perpetuate inequality across the world. The Wall Street has become a new model for a neoliberal society that upholds the forces of a free market as sacred. The illusory celebration of Wall Street is misguided, especially when one considers the slavery origins of the financial district. The continuous accumulation of private capital is sanitized through Wall Street, as well as other financial districts across the world.
New York first started as a Dutch settlement and it was called New Amsterdam. It was in the Dutch colonial province called New Netherland for much of the 17th century. During this time, the Dutch West India Company brutally exploited slave labour through Black people who had been taken there in 1627. The Dutch settlers used violence to force off local people from their land. This dispossession was to be guarded against through the construction of a wall – a wall that would ward off the local people from trying to access their land which had been stolen by the Dutch settlers.
Governor Petrus Stuyvesant ordered a wall to be built on the Northern boundary so that the Native Americans would not be an intrusion to the interests of the Dutch. The wall could also have been built to keep off the British from conquering the Dutch. The wall was made predominantly from big wooden planks and it reached 10 feet high (about 3 metres). The wall, in its origins, served the purposes of protecting white economic interests and white supremacy. Dutch and British settlers were heavily dependent on slave labour to set up their farms and build new towns that would eventually become the United States.
The Northern border was protected but the Southern border was left vulnerable. The British fully utilized this opening in 1664. They sailed into the harbour from the South and conquered the Dutch settlers. They seized the colony and it was renamed New York. With the British now in control of this strategic location, they removed the wall in 1699. However, despite the wall being removed, there was a path that traversed alongside the wall before its removal and that path retained its name – it was called Wall Street. Throughout the 1700s, the economy of New York was buoyed by slavery and the slave trade. The commodification of the Black person as a slave worth a certain fixed value became the basis of New York’s economic prosperity. It was not New York alone, but several other cities. The trading of slaves gave birth to the foundations of modern American cities and finances.
To facilitate this economic boom, Wall Street became the centre of commerce in the United States. It was one of the busiest trading areas in New York City. It coursed the width of Manhattan between the East River and the Hudson. When the British took over from the Dutch, they ensured that slavery continued. In 1665, a law legalizing slavery was passed and in 1682 slave masters were given the power of life and death over their subjects. The Royal African Company was responsible for the procurement of slaves. A slave code had to be adopted, as well as regulating the buying and selling of slaves. The establishment of a slave market for the sale and rental of slaves in New York City was viewed as an unrivaled necessity. The trading of slaves became huge such that it was important and unavoidable to establish a slave market in order to facilitate this trade in a more orderly way that was beneficial to white private property.
To normalize the trading of fellow human beings, the city officials established a slave market on Wall Street. The accumulation of private capital is legitimized by the laws of the day that give legal effect to the rules supporting the accumulation of private property. In 1711, a law establishing Wall Street as the official slave market of New York City was passed by the New York City Common Council. The law made it clear that slaves should be hired at the Market House on Wall Street. Thus, Wall Street became the go-to-place where slaveowners could hire out their enslaved by the day or week. Market House was located “at the end of Wall Street by the East River and was also where grains were sold, which led to it being known as the meal market.” The slave market operated from 1711 to 1762.
The trading of securities (tradable financial assets) was recorded in New York, 1792. Those who traded securities would do so at a buttonwood tree located at the foot of Wall Street. The trading of securities continued after the slave market had been taken down. It ultimately led to the formation of the New York Stock Exchange. The trading of slaves had supported all this financial infrastructure at that time. Several financial institutions in the United States owe their existential origins to slavery. Some of the well-known financial institutions that benefitted immensely from slavery include Lehman Brothers (which went bankrupt in 2008), J.P. Morgan Chase (the largest back in America), Wachovia Bank of North Carolina, Aetna Insurance, Bank of America and the Royal Bank of Scotland.
Banks such as J.P Morgan Chases’s predecessor banks made loans to slave owners and accepted the enslaved as security. When the slave owners defaulted on their payments, the banks would take over the ownership of the slaves. American banks also accepted money from the slave owners and counted enslaved people as assets when assessing a person’s wealth. The economy of the United States was reliant on slave labour for it to flourish with an astonishing pace. Plantation owners would turn to capital markets in London in order to raise capital so that they would acquire boats, goods, and ultimately people. In the 19th century, banks in the United States sold securities that helped fund the expansion of slave-run plantations.
Insurance companies were active during the times of slavery. The risk that came with forcibly transporting human beings from Africa to the United States was enormous. This meant that insurance policies were purchased on a large scale. These policies would protect and mitigate against the risk of a boat sinking, and the risks of losing individual slaves once they made it to America. The big insurance companies in the United States such as New York Life, AIG, and Aetna have their roots in slavery. They sold policies that insured slave owners would be compensated if the slaves they owned were injured or killed. The value of a slave as an asset was held in high regard by the white capitalists.
Slavery was a feature of the American economy even though such narratives may not be amplified enough especially in the education system. Wall Street came into existence because of slave labour, and along that street was established a slave market that legitimized the ownership of slaves. The economy of the United States was dependent on the ownership of slave labor as banks and insurance companies anchored the trading of slaves.