This article argues that an infrastructural analysis of the early Portuguese slave trade permits a detailed account of the emergence of what Cedric Robinson called “racial capitalism.” The early Portuguese slave ship is one of the clearest examples of how an infrastructure of accumulation accelerated the racialization of capitalism. As denounced by the 1684 Portuguese Law on Tonnage, the holds of the early slave ships created spatial regimes that regularly killed captives through asphyxiation, a unique form of death resulting from the reduction of human life to capital. If enslavement was defined by this spatial regime of suffocation, the early slave trade extended the grounds for racialization through extensive networks of credit and debt. This financial system established the parameters of enslavement and freedom, bridging shipboard and terrestrial social relations. Early slave ships included Black sailors, known as grumetes. A term that became adopted throughout the first region of the Portuguese slave trade in Africa, grumete referred to African wage laborers who worked with Luso‐African traders. As wages were likely paid in credit that could only be cashed out by participating in the sale of humans, the freedom of the grumetes was constrained by the system of credit that financed the early trade. The infrastructure of the early slave trade was thus the nexus and conduit between interconnected financial modes, commodified life and debt, that together account for the racialization of the early Atlantic world.

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