Slavery in the Colonies

Slavery had virtually disappeared in Western Europe by the 1500s and it looked to be dying where it existed. Only Spain and Portugal still practiced slavery and in a turn of irony, these were the two countries that led the colonizing effort in the Americas, almost ensuring that slavery would be transported from Europe to the New World.

Africa, taken from D. O. Dapper, Description de l'Afrique . . . Traduite du Flamand  Library of Congress

Africa, taken from D. O. Dapper, Description de l'Afrique . . . Traduite du Flamand Library of Congress

African Roots

West Africa included many cultures, all of whom spoke different languages, but all Africans shared a few commonalities.  African societies developed agricultural communities based on crops like rice, millet, sorghum, root crops, and various vegetables, using the same slash and burn techniques practiced by Native Americans across the Atlantic, and they herded animals for meat.  Conglomerates of extended families, African communities were matrilineal-that is-structured along the female kinship line, with property passing down through women, not men. Similar to American Indians, most Africans believed that spirits existed throughout nature and that humans possessed a spiritual connection to the environment.  Africans also believed that dead ancestors routinely interfered with the daily life of the living.

From the sixth century to the eleventh, Ghana proved the pinnacle of West African society. Ghanaian rulers built elaborate trading towns and trained skilled craftsman.  The city served as the starting point for extensive caravan trading with Arab peoples living in North Africa and the Middle East.  Ghana became a dominant African power based on superior pottery and household crafts, iron tools, trade in salt and cod, a clear social structure, and the building of great armies. When Ghana fell to invading Muslims in the eleventh century, it was replaced by Songhai, which prospered until the fifteenth century.   Timbuktu, Songhai’s religious and commercial center, brought together travelers and traders from across the African and the Mediterranean world.  When Columbus sailed toward the Caribbean in 1492, Songhai was enjoying its greatest prosperity.

African Slavery in Spanish and Portuguese Colonies

Did you know...

Between the 1500s and the 1800s, about 10 million Africans were captured and carried to the New World. It is estimated that about 1.5 million died en route. Most of these slaves were bound for Central and South America. Only 400,000 Africans were sent to the British colonies in North America.

After 1400, when the Portuguese turned to West Africa to enslave its people for its sugar plantations in the Azores Islands, they found slavery well entrenched. Muslim traders and powerful coastal African kingdoms held Africans in bondage and sold them as chattel to remote places throughout Africa and the Mediterranean. On the heels of Portuguese exploration, traders extended their reach into Africa, took control of the slave trade, and as a result this source of enslaved human labor expanded sugar production in the Madeira Islands, the Canary Islands, and the Azores throughout the fifteenth century. The slavery that the Portuguese practiced on these islands was different than the slavery that prevailed in Africa.  In Africa, slavery was not necessarily heritable or permanent. It was not based on race, but rather war or tribal conflict. The Portuguese, as did all Europeans, changed the practice of African slavery dramatically. Click on the follow map to learn more about the slave trade.

Following Columbus and the subsequent Spanish conquest of the West Indies and South America, civilizations that had existed apart for centuries came into contact. Tragically,  the Europeans created a New World based on slavery. The depopulation of American Indians encouraged the Portuguese and Spaniards to use the already familiar system of African slavery to meet their labor needs. Between 1500 and 1620, Europeans brought at least half a million slaves to the New World from Africa, an enslavement based on race.

Slavery in Colonial North America

capturing Africans; L'Illustration (Paris), Vol. 14, 1849, p. 136

Capturing Africans; L'Illustration (Paris), Vol. 14, 1849, p. 136

The origins of a slave-based society in North America lie in the West Indies. In the early seventeenth century, tobacco, the first cash crop in North America, had yet to embrace slavery, but slavery had developed a strong foothold in England’s most southern colonial holdings in the Caribbean.  Between 1624 and 1641, the English had settled seventeen islands and, while some of these settlements died, others became economic powerhouses, most notably Barbados, St. Kitts, Antigua, Nevis, and Montserrat. These West Indian islands survived on sugar, which they grew in great abundance and shipped back to England. The production of sugar for export was backbreaking work, and planters who originally relied on servants soon turned to African slaves whom they purchased from Dutch traders.  By 1660, the West Indies populations had more enslaved Africans than whites, and a series of slave codes severely limited the rights of slaves.  For example, laws in the West Indies required that slaves be held in bondage for life.  At least half of all children born into slavery in the West Indies died before the age of five, and slaves imported directly from Africa rarely lived more than ten years.

Slavery first came to the North American colonies in 1619 when John Rolfe of Jamestown purchased black laborers from a Dutch trader.  Soon Caribbean and African blacks began trickling into the colony.  The blacks who came to the Chesapeake, both from the Caribbean and West Africa, did so under ambiguous circumstances.

The word slave was not yet applied to black laborers, as it was in the West Indies.  There were no slave codes, and courts were unsure how to treat blacks who sued whites in court.  Skin color had, throughout the first decades of the existence of slavery in the colonies, yet to determine slave status.  But this ambiguity changed slowly between 1640 and 1680 due to several factors.

Web Field Trip

sale of slaves

Sale of slaves

Explore slavery through images.  

Indentured servants became less reliable and a more expensive source of labor, making slaves more attractive as an investment. The internal market in England improved dramatically during this time and, as a result, laborers who once took their chances by migrating to America were now able to find jobs at home.

The increasing number of slaves in the North American colonies like Virginia encouraged white settlers to think about imposing a slave code and for an example of a code, the colonials turned to the West Indies. The Caribbean provided a model of how to create a permanent supply of human labor that involved institutionalizing slavery by disallowing slaves to own guns, make contracts for their own labor, or travel without permission. The Chesapeake colonies added to these laws, known as slave codes, by stipulating that Christianity did not qualify a slave for manumission, and, most importantly, defining slaves as “chattel” or property. Unlike slavery in Africa, blacks in the Chesapeake were enslaved for life.

tight packing of slavesTight packing of slaves

The Growth of Slavery in the Southern Colonies

Slavery became the heart of southern colonial society and the economy at the turn of  the 18th century. When the Dutch monopoly on the slave trade ended in 1690, British merchants began carrying thousands of slaves from Africa and the Caribbean to the southern colonies to work in the tobacco fields.  The English and French forced an astounding six million Africans into slavery. Most went to the West Indies and Brazil, but large numbers did go to the Chesapeake region, perhaps as many as 100,000 in the 1700s. As slaves were imported, and as they increased naturally, the southern colonies evolved from a society with slaves to a slave society.

marching enslaved across Africa

Marching enslaved across Africa

As tobacco markets grew stronger after 1730 and England signed contracts with France to sell the French as much tobacco as they demanded, the southern colonies growing tobacco increased production to take advantage of the rising prices. In order to preserve and expand their labor system, planters chose not to work their slaves as brutally as masters did in the West Indies.

Slave masters in the southern colonies paid attention to their slaves’ health, clothing, and food supply. Not so much from a sense of humanity, but because the masters wanted the slaves to form families and reproduce. This would lessen demand for expensive imported slaves. As a result by the 1750s, American-born slaves outnumbered African slaves in the North American colonies.

Slavery and Race

In addition to economic incentives, racial tensions further solidified the state of slavery in the North American colonies.  Specifically, Bacon’s Rebellion pushed the colonials of Virginia and Maryland to use slaves over white indentured servants.  In 1676, Virginia’s Governor, William Berkley, grew angry with poor whites on the frontier for raiding Indian settlements.  Berkeley wanted to maintain cordial relations with the natives who were selling him deer skins and furs, which he was then exporting to Europe. Frontier settlers, who wanted permission to enslave Indians, fought back by joining with Nathaniel Bacon, a wealthy Englishman who felt he was unjustly being excluded from the Chesapeake political elite.

taking Africans; Hermann von Wissman, My Second Journey through Equatorial Africa from the Congo to the Zambesi in the years 1886 and 1887. Translated from the German (London, 1891), facing p. 186

Taking Africans; Hermann von Wissman, My Second Journey through Equatorial Africa from the Congo to the Zambesi in the years 1886 and 1887. Translated from the German (London, 1891), facing p. 186

These poor planters rode into Jamestown with Bacon and burned it to the ground.  When Bacon became ill, the revolt dissolved and his group of ragtag farmers dispersed, but the rebellion had a lasting impact on the Chesapeake’s labor supply, hastening the end of the use of indentured servants in favor of slaves. The reasoning was that Bacon’s Rebellion occurred as a result of class tension between poor and elite whites.  These ruling southerners believed that the presence of a racially-based group of laborers who lacked freedom (slaves) would defuse class tension by instilling even the poorest whites with a sense of racial superiority.  When slave codes followed upon the heels of Bacon’s Rebellion, they accomplished just this, and led to a racism that united whites of all classes.

Did you know?

Did a deep-rooted color prejudice lead to slavery, or did the existence of slavery produce the prejudice? Slavery evolved out of an economic need to control labor, but did color determine who would be enslaved or at least provide a crucial rationalization for enslaving Africans?

Between 1700 and 1770, about 270,000 African enslaved were brought to North America where they found themselves on the bottom rung of the social ladder. In the Carolinas, planters searching for a staple crop along the lines of sugar and tobacco found it in rice, which was a staple of West Africa.  Carolina planters, with the help of their West African slaves, built enormous rice plantations in the swampy low country.  Ironically, slaves from West Africa taught masters how to grow the crop, which required a good deal of expertise. So as English planters developed the region’s economy around this staple crop, slaves provided not only the labor, but the knowledge behind the crop’s success.  The rice economy soon overshadowed all other pursuits.  A successful rice-based economy meant more slaves.  Within a few years Carolina was a bustling colony of rice planters who were importing thousands of slaves from the Caribbean and West Africa.

chains used to hold enslaved Africans

Chains used to hold enslaved Africans

Carolina became a place where the pursuit of profit though rice dominated life, so much so that in 1719, the King of England took over Carolina, made it a royal colony, and split the region in two: South Carolina—where all the rice was produced—and North Carolina where tobacco farming dominated.  As a handful of rice planters became the richest men in America, the proportion of slaves in the Carolina lowcountry population rose to eighty percent.  Like the Chesapeake, South Carolina became a slave society.  But the Carolinas evolved in the eighteenth century to look more like the West Indies than the Chesapeake. Like West Indies planters, Carolina planters chose to leave their fields and slaves in the hands of overseers and live in town.  Most rice planters had extravagant townhouses built along the English model in Charles Town. The Carolina planters also put less time and money toward keeping slaves healthy, and they depended on Africa rather than natural increase to replenish slave supplies.  They made, like the West Indian planters, unheard-of wealth.

the heart of Africa

The heart of Africa

Slavery in the Northern Colonies

Slavery did not supply the labor force in the northern colonies, but there were slaves in the North.  By the 1740s, Philadelphia was 9 percent slave; New York 18 percent.  In total, there were more than 15,000 slaves in New England.  There were obvious differences between slavery in the North and South.  Most slaves in the North lived in cities and worked in homes or shops.  Few families owned more than a handful of slaves. This differed dramatically with slavery on the plantations. Urban slaves had more opportunities to become literate, learn a skill, and hire-out for wages on occasion. They also had more of a chance to plan revolts. Slave revolts were foiled in New York in 1712 and 1741.  Leaders at both of these aborted revolts intended to burn the cities down, free all the slaves, and then flee to the countryside.  Although plans like these were made by slaves on southern plantations, it was the urban slaves, who were literate and held greater skills, who came the closest to carrying out well-organized, successful slave revolts.