Slavery in the colonial United States
The origins of slavery in the colonial United States (1600–1776) are complex and there are several theories that have been proposed to explain the trade. It was largely tied to European colonies' need for labor, especially plantation agricultural labor in their Caribbean sugar colonies operated by Great Britain, France, Spain, and the Dutch Republic.
Most slaves who were brought or kidnapped to the Thirteen British colonies which later became the Eastern seaboard of the United States were imported from the Caribbean, not directly from Africa. They arrived in the Caribbean predominantly as a result of the Atlantic slave trade. Although slavery of indigenous peoples also occurred in the North American colonies, by comparison of scale it was less important. Slave status for Africans usually became hereditary.
- 1 Background
- 2 The first enslaved Africans
- 3 The development of slavery in 17th-century America
- 4 The Atlantic slave trade to North America
- 5 Gender and slavery
- 6 Indentured servitude
- 7 Enslavement of Native Americans
- 8 Slave rebellions
- 9 East Indian slaves
- 10 The beginning of the anti-slavery movement
- 11 See also
- 12 Notes
- 13 Further reading
- 14 External links
While they knew about Spanish and Portuguese slave trading, the British did not conceive of using slave labor in the Americas until the 17th century. British travelers were fascinated by the dark-skinned people they found in West Africa, and sought to create mythologies that situated these new human beings in their view of the cosmos.
The first Africans to arrive in England came voluntarily with John Lok (an ancestor of the famous philosopher John Locke) in 1555. Lok intended to teach them English in order to facilitate trading of material goods. This model gave way to a slave trade initiated by John Hawkins, who captured 300 Africans and sold them to the Spanish. Blacks in England were subordinate but did not have the legal status of chattel slaves.
In 1607, England established Jamestown as its first permanent colony on the North American continent. Tobacco became the chief crop of the colony, due to the efforts of John Rolfe in 1611. Once it became clear that tobacco was going to drive the Jamestown colony, more labor was needed. The British aristocracy needed to find a labor force to work on its plantations in the Americas. The major possibilities were indentured servants from Britain, Native Americans, and West Africans. During this time, off the North American mainland, Barbados became an English Colony in 1624 and the Caribbean's Jamaica in 1655. These and other Caribbean colonies became the center of wealth and the focus of the slave trade for the growing English empire.
Towards indigenous Americans, the English entertained two lines of thought simultaneously. Because these people were lighter skinned, they were seen as more European and therefore as candidates for civilization. At the same time, because they were occupying the land desired by the colonial powers, they were from the beginning, targets of a potential military attack.
At first, indentured servants were used as the needed labor. These servants provided up to seven years of service in exchange for having their trip to Jamestown paid for by someone in Jamestown. Once the seven years was over, the indentured servant was free to live in Jamestown as a regular citizen. However, colonists began to see indentured servants as too costly, and in 1619, Dutch traders brought the first African slaves to Jamestown, who nonetheless were in North America at first generally treated as indentured servants.
The first enslaved Africans
Until the early 18th century, enslaved Africans were difficult to acquire in the colonies that became the United States, as most were sold in the West Indies. One of the first major establishments of African slavery in these colonies occurred with the founding of Charles Town and the Province of Carolina in 1670. The colony was founded mainly by planters from the overpopulated British sugar island colony of Barbados, who brought relatively large numbers of African slaves from that island.
For several decades it was difficult to acquire African slaves north of the Caribbean. To meet agricultural labor needs, colonists practiced Indian slavery for some time. The Carolinians transformed the Indian slave trade during the late 17th and early 18th centuries by treating slaves as a trade commodity to be exported, mainly to the West Indies. Alan Gallay estimates that between 1670 and 1715, between 24,000 and 51,000 captive Native Americans were exported from South Carolina—much more than the number of Africans imported to the colonies of the future United States during the same period.
The first Africans to be brought to British North America landed in Virginia in 1619. They arrived on a Dutch ship that had captured them from the Spanish. These approximately 20 individuals appear to have been treated as indentured servants, and a significant number of enslaved Africans even won their freedom through fulfilling a work contract or for converting to Christianity. Some successful free people of color, such as Anthony Johnson, acquired slaves or indentured servants themselves. To many historians, notably Edmund Morgan, this evidence suggests that racial attitudes were much more flexible in 17th century Virginia than they would later become. A 1625 census recorded 23 Africans in Virginia. In 1649 there were 300, and in 1690 there were 950.
Slaves, African and indigenous, were a smaller part of the New England economy and a smaller fraction of the population, but they were present. The Puritans codified slavery in 1641. The Massachusetts royal colony passed the Body of Liberties, which prohibited slavery in many instances, but did allow three legal bases of slavery. Slaves could be held if they were captives of war, if they sold themselves into slavery or were purchased from elsewhere, or if they were sentenced to slavery by the governing authority. The Body of Liberties used the word "strangers" to refer to people bought and sold as slaves. Colonists came to equate this term with Native Americans and Africans.
New York and New Jersey
The Dutch West India Company introduced slavery in 1625 with the importation of eleven enslaved blacks who worked as farmers, fur traders, and builders to New Amsterdam (present day New York City), capital of the nascent province of New Netherland, which later expanded across the North River (Hudson River) to Bergen (in today's New Jersey). Later slaves were held privately by the settlers to the area. Although enslaved, the Africans had a few basic rights and families were usually kept intact. Admitted to the Dutch Reformed Church and married by its ministers, their children could be baptized. Slaves could testify in court, sign legal documents, and bring civil actions against whites. Some were permitted to work after hours earning wages equal to those paid to white workers. When the colony fell to the English in the 1660s, the company freed all its slaves, establishing early on a nucleus of free negros. The English continued to import slaves to support the work needed. Enslaved Africans performed a wide variety of skilled and unskilled jobs, mostly in the burgeoning port city and surrounding agricultural areas. In 1703 more than 42% of New York City's households held slaves, a percentage higher than in the cities of Boston and Philadelphia, and second only to Charleston in the South.
Midwest, Mississippi River, and Louisiana
The French introduced legalized slavery into their colonies in New France near the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River. After the port of New Orleans, to the south, was founded in 1718, more African slaves were imported to the Illinois Country for use as agricultural or mining laborers. By the mid-eighteenth century, slaves accounted for as many as a third of the population in that area. Slavery existed in colonial Louisiana continuously during the French (1699 – 1763, and 1800 – 1803) and Spanish (1763 – 1800) periods of government. The first people enslaved by the French were Native Americans. Africans were brought to the area in the early 18th century, as part of efforts to develop the colony.
Implemented in colonial Louisiana in 1724, Louis XIV of France's Code Noir regulated the slave trade and the institution of slavery in the French colonies. It gave Louisiana a very different pattern of slavery compared to the rest of the United States. As written, the Code Noir gave some rights to slaves, including the right to marry. Although it authorized and codified cruel corporal punishment against slaves under certain conditions, it forbade slave owners to torture them or to separate married couples (or to separate young children from their mothers). It also required the owners to instruct slaves in the Catholic faith, implying that Africans were human beings endowed with a soul, an idea that had not been acknowledged until then.
The Code Noir also forbade interracial marriages, but interracial relationships were formed in New Orleans society. The mulattoes became an intermediate social caste between the whites and the blacks, while in the English colonies the mulattoes and blacks were considered equal and discriminated against equally.
The development of slavery in 17th-century America
The barriers of slavery hardened in the Second half of the 17th century, and imported Africans' prospects grew increasingly dim. By 1640, the Virginia courts had sentenced at least one black servant, John Punch, to slavery. In 1656 Elizabeth Key won a suit for freedom based on her father's status as a free Englishman, and his having baptized her as Christian in the Church of England. In 1662 the Virginia House of Burgesses passed a law with the doctrine of partus, stating that any child born in the colony would follow the status of its mother, bond or free. This was an overturn of a longheld principle of English Common Law, whereby a child's status followed that of the father. It enabled slaveholders and other white men to hide the mixed-race children born of their rape of slave women and removed their responsibility to acknowledge, support, or emancipate the children.
During the second half of the 17th century, the British economy improved and the supply of British indentured servants declined, as poor Britons had better economic opportunities at home. At the same time, Bacon's Rebellion of 1676 led planters to worry about the prospective dangers of creating a large class of restless, landless, and relatively poor white men (most of them former indentured servants). Wealthy Virginia and Maryland planters began to buy slaves in preference to indentured servants during the 1660s and 1670s, and poorer planters followed suit by c.1700. (Slaves cost more than servants, so initially only the wealthy could invest in slaves.) The first British colonists in Carolina introduced African slavery into the colony in 1670, the year the colony was founded, and Charleston ultimately became the busiest slave port in North America. Slavery spread from the South Carolina Lowcountry first to Georgia, then across the Deep South as Virginia's influence had crossed the Appalachians to Kentucky and Tennessee. Northerners also purchased slaves, though on a much smaller scale. Enslaved people outnumbered free whites in South Carolina from the early 1700s to the Civil War. An authoritarian political culture evolved to prevent slave rebellion and justify white slave holding. Northern slaves typically dwelled in towns, rather than on plantations as in the South, and worked as artisans and artisans' assistants, sailors and longshoremen, and domestic servants.
In 1672, King Charles II rechartered the Royal African Company (it had initially been set up in 1660), as an English monopoly for the African slave and commodities trade—thereafter in 1698, by statute, the English parliament opened the trade to all English subjects. The slave trade to the mid-Atlantic colonies increased substantially in the 1680s, and by 1710 the African population in Virginia had increased to 23,100 (42% of total); Maryland contained 8,000 Africans (23% of total). In the early 18th century, England passed Spain and Portugal to become the world's leading slave-trader.
The North American royal colonies not only imported Africans but also captured Native Americans, impressing them into slavery. Many Native Americans were shipped as slaves to the Caribbean. Many of these slaves from the British colonies were able to escape by heading south, to the Spanish colony of Florida. There they were given their freedom, if they declared their allegiance to the King of Spain and accepted the Catholic Church. In 1739 Fort Mose was established by African American freedmen and became the northern defense post for St. Augustine. In 1740, English forces attacked and destroyed the fort, which was rebuilt in 1752. Because Fort Mose became a haven for escaped slaves from the English colonies to the north, it is considered a precursor site of the Underground Railroad.
Curiously, chattel slavery developed in British North America before the legal apparatus that supported slavery did. During the late 17th century and early 18th century, harsh new slave codes limited the rights of African slaves and cut off their avenues to freedom. The first full-scale slave code in British North America was South Carolina's (1696), which was modeled on the colonial Barbados slave code of 1661 and was updated and expanded regularly throughout the 18th century.
A 1691 Virginia law prohibited slaveholders from emancipating slaves unless they paid for the freedmen's transportation out of Virginia. Virginia criminalized interracial marriage in 1691, and subsequent laws abolished blacks' rights to vote, hold office, and bear arms. Virginia's House of Burgesses established the basic legal framework for slavery in 1705.
The Atlantic slave trade to North America
Only a fraction of the enslaved Africans brought to the New World ended up in British North America — perhaps 5-7%. The vast majority of slaves transported across the Atlantic Ocean were sent to the Caribbean sugar colonies, Brazil, or Spanish America. Throughout the Americas, but especially in the Caribbean, tropical disease took a large toll on their population and required large numbers of replacements. Many Africans had a limited natural immunity to yellow fever and malaria; but malnutrition, poor housing, inadequate clothing allowances, and overwork contributed to a high mortality rate.
In British North America the slave population rapidly increased via the birth rate, whereas in the Caribbean colonies they did not. The lack of proper nourishment, being suppressed sexually, and poor health are possible reasons. Of the small numbers of babies born to slaves in the Caribbean, only about 1/4 survived the miserable conditions on sugar plantations.
It was not only the major colonial powers of Western Europe such as France, England, Spain, Portugal, and the Netherlands that were involved. Other countries, including Sweden and Denmark, participated in the trans-Atlantic slave trade though on a much more limited scale.
Gender and slavery
"Depending upon their age and gender, slaves were assigned a particular task, or tasks, that had to be completed during the course of the day." In certain settings, men would participate in the hard labor, such as working on the farm, while women would generally work in the household. They would "be sent out on errands, but in most cases their jobs required that they spend much of their time within their owner's household." These gender distinctions were mainly applied in the Northern colonies and on larger plantations. In Southern colonies and smaller farms, however, women and men typically engaged in the same roles, both working in the tobacco crop fields for example.
Although slave women and men in some areas performed the same type of day-to-day work, "[t]he female slave...was faced with the prospect of being forced into sexual relationships for the purpose of reproduction." This reproduction would either be forced between one African slave and another, or between the slave woman and the owner. Slave owners saw slave women in terms of prospective fertility. That way, the number of slaves on a plantation could multiply without having to purchase another African. Unlike the patriarchal society of white Anglo-American colonists, "slave families" were more matriarchal in practice. "Masters believed that slave mothers, like white women, had a natural bond with their children that therefore it was their responsibility-more so than that of slave fathers-to care for their offspring." Therefore, women had the extra responsibility, on top of their other day-to-day work, to take care of children. Men, in turn, were often separated from their families. "At the same time that slaveholders promoted a strong bond between slave mother and their children, they denied to slave fathers their paternal rights of ownership and authority..." Biological families were often separated by sale.
Some historians, notably Edmund Morgan, have suggested that indentured servitude provided a model for slavery in 17th-century Virginia. In practice, indentured servants were teenagers in England whose father sold their labor voluntarily for a period of time (typically four to seven years), in return for free passage to the colonies, room and board and clothes, and training in an occupation. After that they received cash, clothing, tools, and/or land, and became ordinary settlers.
Enslavement of Native Americans
Pre-contact indigenous peoples in the American southeast had practiced a form of slavery on people captured during warfare. Larger societies structured as chiefdoms kept slaves as unpaid field laborers, while in band societies the ownership of enslaved captives attested to their captor's military prowess. Some war captives were also subjected to ritualized torture and execution. Alan Gallay and other historians emphasize differences between Native American enslavement of war captives and the European slave trading system, into which numerous native peoples were integrated. In North America, among the indigenous people, slavery was more a 'rite of passage' or system of assimilating outside individuals into groups rather than a property or ownership right. Richard White, in The Middle Ground elucidates the complex social relationships between American Indian groups and the early empires, including 'slave' culture and scalping. Robbie Ethridge states, "Let there be no doubt…that the commercial trade in Indian slaves was not a continuation and adaptation of pre-existing captivity patterns. It was a new kind of slaving, requiring a new kind of occupational specialty…organized militaristic slavers." One example of this militaristic slaving can be seen in Nathaniel Bacon's actions in Virginia during the late 1670s. In June 1676, the Virginia assembly granted Bacon and his men what equated to a slave-hunting license by providing that any enemy Indians caught were to be slaves for life. They also provided soldiers who had captured Indians with the right to "reteyne and keepe all such Indian slaves or other Indian goods as they either have taken or hereafter shall take." By this order, the assembly had made a public decision to enslave Indians. In the years to follow, other laws resulted in Indians being grouped with other non-Christian servants who had imported to the colonies (Negro slaves) as slaves for life.
Puritan New England, Virginia, Spanish Florida, and the Carolina colonies engaged large-scale enslavement of Native Americans, often through the use of Indian proxies to wage war and acquire the slaves. In New England, slave raiding accompanied the Pequot War and King Philip's War, but declined after the latter war ended in 1676. Enslaved Indians were in Jamestown from the early years of the settlement, but large-scale cooperation between English slavers and the Westo and Occaneechi peoples, whom they armed with guns, did not begin until the 1640s. These groups conducted enslaving raids in what is now Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, and possible Alabama. The Carolina slave trade, which included both trading and direct raids by colonists, was the largest among the British colonies in North America, estimated at 24,000 to 51,000 Indians by Gallay.
Historian Ulrich Phillips argues that Africans were inculcated as slaves and the best answer to the labor shortage in the New World because American Indian slaves were more familiar with the environment, and would often successfully escape into the wilderness that African slaves had much more difficulty surviving in. Also, early colonial America depended heavily on the sugar trade, which led to malaria, a disease the Africans were far less susceptible to than Native American slaves.
Colonial slave rebellions before 1776, or before 1801 for Louisiana include:
- San Miguel de Gualdape (1526)
- Gloucester County, Virginia Revolt (1663)
- New York Slave Revolt of 1712
- Samba Rebellion (1731)
- Stono Rebellion (1739)
- New York Slave Insurrection of 1741
- 1791 Mina conspiracy
- Pointe Coupée conspiracy (1794)
East Indian slaves
Until recently, the only known racial groups in the colonies were Native Americans, the African slaves and the white colonists. Recent research, however, has shown that small numbers of East Indians were brought over to the colonies as enslaved laborers, as both India and the colonies were under British control. The Virginia Gazette of Aug. 4, 1768, describes one young "East Indian" as "a well made fellow, about 5 feet 4 inches high" who had "a thin visage, a very sly look, and a remarkable set of fine white teeth." Another is identified as "an East India negro man" who speaks French and English. Most of the Indian slaves were already converted to Christianity, were fluent in English, and took western names. Their original names and homes will never be known, and they have since merged with the black community. Today, descendants of these Indian slaves have a very small percent of DNA from their Asiatic ancestors, as most of their ancestry is African.
The beginning of the anti-slavery movement
African and African American slaves expressed their opposition to slavery through armed uprisings such as the Stono Rebellion (1739) and the New York Slave Insurrection of 1741, through malingering and tool-breaking, and most commonly, by running away, either for short periods or permanently. Until the Revolutionary era, almost no white American colonists spoke out against slavery. Even the Quakers generally tolerated slaveholding (and slave-trading) until the mid-18th century, although they emerged as vocal opponents of slavery in the Revolutionary era.
In 1688, four German Quakers in Germantown, a town outside Philadelphia, wrote a petition against the use of slaves by the English colonists in the nearby countryside. They presented the petition to their local Quaker Meeting, and the Meeting was sympathetic, but could not decide what the appropriate response should be. The Meeting passed the petition up the chain of authority to Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, where it continued to be ignored and was archived and forgotten for 150 years. In 1844 the petition was rediscovered and became a focus of the burgeoning abolitionist movement. It was the first public American document of its kind to protest slavery. It was also one of the first public declarations of universal human rights. Thus although the petition itself was forgotten, the idea that every human has equal rights was discussed in Philadelphia Quaker society over the next century. Slavery was officially sanctioned by Philadelphia Yearly Meeting in 1776. Following the Revolution, the northern states all abolished slavery, with New Jersey acting last in 1804, although some of these laws merely reclassified slaves as indentured servants effectively maintaining slavery by another name. These state jurisdictions enacted the first abolition laws in the entire "New World". By 1808 all states (except South Carolina) had banned the international buying or selling of slaves. Acting on the advice of President Thomas Jefferson, who denounced the international trade as "violations of human rights which have been so long continued on the unoffending inhabitants of Africa, in which the morality, the reputation, and the best interests of our country have long been eager to proscribe" in 1807 Congress banned the international slave trade. However, the domestic slave trade continued.
- Colonial history of the United States
- Free negro
- Grand Model for the Province of Carolina
- History of slavery in Connecticut
- History of slavery in Georgia
- History of slavery in Maryland
- History of slavery in Massachusetts
- History of slavery in New Jersey
- History of slavery in New York
- History of slavery in Pennsylvania
- History of slavery in Rhode Island
- History of slavery in Virginia
- Indentured servitude in the Americas
- Slave Trade Act
- Slavery among Native Americans in the United States
- Slavery at common law
- Slavery in the British and French Caribbean
- Slavery in the Spanish New World colonies
- numbers from: Ira Berlin, Generations of Captivity: A History of African-American Slaves (2003).
- Oxford Journals
- Los Angeles Times
- Wood, Origins of American Slavery (1997), p. 21. "Yet those in high places who advocated the overseas expansion of England did not propose that West Africans could, should, or would be enslaved by the English in the Americas. Indeed, West Africans scarcely figured at all in the sixteenth-century English agenda for the New World."
- Wood, Origins of American Slavery (1997), p. 23. "More than anything else it was the blackness of West Africans that at once fascinated and repelled English commentators. The negative connotations that the English had long attached to the color black were to deeply prejudice their assessment of West Africans."
- Wood, Origins of American Slavery (1997), p. 26. "It seems that these men were the first West Africans to set foot in England, and their arrival marked the beginning of a black British population. The men in question had come to England willingly. Lok's sole motive was to facilitate English trading links with West Africa. He intended that these five men should be taught English, and something about English commercial practices, and then returned home to act as intermediaries between the English and their prospective West African trading partners."
- Wood, Origins of American Slavery (1997), p. 27.
- Wood, Origins of American Slavery (1997), p. 28.
- New York Times
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- "British Involvement in the Transatlantic Slave Trade". The Abolition Project. E2BN - East of England Broadband Network and MLA East of England. 2009. Retrieved 28 June 2014.
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- Rodney Stark, "For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-hunts, and the End of Slavery", p.322  Note that the hardcover edition has a typographical error stating "31.2 percent"; it is corrected to 13.2 in the paperback edition. The 13.2% value is confirmed with 1830 census data.
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- Alan Taylor, American Colonies (New York: Viking, 2001), p. 213.
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- Wood, Origins of American Slavery (1997), p. 92. "In 1705, almost exactly a century after the first colonists had set foot in Jamestown, the House of Burgesses codified and systematized Virginia's laws of slavery. These laws would be modified and added to over the next century and a half, but the essential legal framework within which the institution of slavery would subsequently operate had been put in place."
- Wood, Betty (January 1, 2005). Slavery in Colonial America. Rowman and Littlefield. p. 33.
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- Gallay, Alan. (2002) The Indian Slave Trade: The Rise of the English Empire in the American South 1670–1717. Yale University Press: New York. ISBN 0-300-10193-7, pg. 29
- Gallay, Alan. (2002) The Indian Slave Trade: The Rise of the English Empire in the American South 1670–1717. Yale University Press: New York. ISBN 0-300-10193-7, p. 187–90.
- "Europeans did not introduce slavery or the notion of slaves as labourers to the American South but instead were responsible for stimulating a vast trade in humans as commodities." (p. 29) "In Native American societies, ownership of individuals was more a matter of status for the owner and a statement of debasement and "otherness" for the slave than it was a means to obtain economic rewards from unfree labor. … The slave trade was an entirely new enterprise for most people of all three culture groups [Native American, European, and African]." (p. 8) Gallay, Alan. (2002) The Indian Slave Trade: The Rise of the English Empire in the American South 1670–1717. Yale University Press: New York. ISBN 0-300-10193-7, pg. 29
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- Ethridge, From Chicaza to Chickasaw (2010), pp. 97–98.
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- Ethridge, From Chicaza to Chickasaw (2010), p. 65.
- Figures cited in Ethridge, From Chicaza to Chickasaw (2010), p. 237.
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