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Slavery in Colonial America

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Slavery in Colonial America

This article is about slavery in the Colonial era. For slavery after the United States were formed, see Slavery in the United States.

The origins of slavery in the colonial United States[1] 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 England, France, Spain and the Netherlands.

Most slaves that went to the Thirteen Colonies that became the United States were imported from the Caribbean, not directly from Africa. Although slavery of indigenous peoples also occurred, by comparison it grew less important. Thereafter, slave status for Africans usually became hereditary. [2][3]


Although they knew about Spanish and Portuguese slave trading, the British did not conceive of using slave labor in the Americas until the 17th century.[4] 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.[5]

The first Africans to arrive in England came voluntarily with John Locke, who intended to teach them English in order to facilitate trading.[6] This model gave way to a slave trade initiated by John Hawkins, who captured 300 Africans and sold them to the Spanish.[7] Blacks in England were subordinate but did not have the legal status of chattel slaves.[8]

In 1607, English settlers established Jamestown as the first permanent English colony in the New World.[9] 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.[10]

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 campaign.[11]

At first, indentured servants were used as the needed labor.[12] 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 servant as too costly, and in 1619, Dutch traders brought the first African slaves to Jamestown.[13]

The first enslaved Africans in US territory

San Miguel de Gualdape

The first enslaved Africans arrived in what is now the United States as part of the San Miguel de Gualdape colony (most likely located in the Winyah Bay area of present-day South Carolina), founded by Spanish explorer Lucas Vásquez de Ayllón in 1526. On October 18, 1526, Ayllón died and the colony was almost immediately disrupted by a fight over leadership, during which the slaves revolted and fled the colony to seek refuge among local Native Americans.[14] Many of the colonists died shortly afterwards of an epidemic, and the colony was abandoned, leaving the escaped enslaved Africans behind in what is now South Carolina. In addition to being the first instance of enslaved Africans in the United States, San Miguel de Guadalpe was also the first documented slave rebellion on North American soil.

Distribution of slaves (1519–1867)[15]
Destination Percentage
Portuguese America 38.5%
British America (minus North America) 18.4%
Spanish Empire 17.5%
French Americas 13.6%
British North America 6.45%
English Americas 3.25%
Dutch West Indies 2.0%
Danish West Indies 0.3%

In 1565, the colony of Saint Augustine in Florida, founded by Pedro Menéndez de Avilés became the first permanent European settlement in North America, and included an unknown number of free and enslaved Africans that were part of this colonial expedition.


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 South Carolina in 1670. The colony was founded mainly by planters from the overpopulated sugar island colony of Barbados, who brought relatively large numbers of African slaves from that island.[16]

For several decades it was still difficult to acquire enslaved Africans north of the Caribbean. To meet labor needs, colonists had 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 Indian slaves 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.[17]


The first Africans to be brought to English North America landed in Virginia in 1619. These 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.[18] 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 subsequently become.[19] A 1625 census recorded 23 Africans in Virginia. In 1649 there were 300, and in 1690 there were 950.[20] These included a Black landowner named Anthony Johnson.

New England

Slaves, African and indigenous, were a smaller part of the New England economy and a smaller fraction of the population, but they were present.[21] The Puritans codified slavery in 1641.[22]

Midwest, Mississippi River, and New Orleans

The French introduced legalized slavery into their colonies in the Illinois Country. 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 laborers. By the mid-eighteenth century, slaves accounted for as high as a third of the population.[23]

The development of slavery in 17th-century America

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,[24] 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.[25][26] 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, the company freed all its slaves, establishing early on a nucleus of free negros.[24]

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.[27] 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 slavery spread rapidly throughout the Southern colonies. Northerners also purchased slaves, though on a much smaller scale. Northern slaves typically dwelled in towns and worked as artisans and artisans' assistants, sailors and longshoremen, and domestic servants.

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).[28]

English colonists 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.[29]

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 Barbados slave code of 1661 and was updated and expanded regularly throughout the 18th century.[30]

A 1691 Virginia law prohibited slaveholders from emancipating slaves unless they paid for the freedmen's transportation out of Virginia.[31] Virginia criminalized interracial marriage in 1691,[32] and subsequent laws abolished blacks' rights to vote, hold office, and bear arms.[31] Virginia's House of Burgesses established the basic legal framework for slavery in 1705.[33]

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%. The vast majority of slaves shipped across the Atlantic 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 and inadequate clothing allowances, and overwork contributed to a high mortality rate.

In British North America the slave population rapidly increased themselves, where in the Caribbean they did not. The lack of proper nourishment, being depressed sexually, and poor health are possible reasons. Of the small numbers of babies born to slaves in the Caribbean, only about 1/4 survived miserable conditions on a sugar plantation.

It was not only the major colonial powers in Europe such as France, Spain, England, the Netherlands or Portugal that were involved in the transatlantic person trade. Small countries, such as Sweden or Denmark, tried to get into this lucrative business. For more information about this, see The Swedish slave trade.

Indentured servitude

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.[34] Some war captives were also subjected to ritualized torture and execution.[35] 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.[36] 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.[37] 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."[38]

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.[39] The Carolina slave trade, which included both trading and direct raids by colonists,[40] was the largest among the British colonies in North America,[41] estimated at 24,000 to 51,000 Indians by Gallay.[42]

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.[43]

The rise of the anti-slavery movement

African and African American slaves expressed their opposition to slavery through armed uprisings such as the Stono Rebellion 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, 4 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. 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.[44]

The French colony of St. Domingue abolished slavery in the massive slave uprising that accompanied the Haitian Revolution; emancipation was officially proclaimed in 1793. Haiti was the first government in the Americas to abolish slavery, and the Haitian Revolution inspired some copycat movements in North America, notably Gabriel's Rebellion of 1800, which failed. Slavery proved to be a key contributing issue to the American Civil War (1861–1865) and the United States finally abolished slavery by the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in 1865.

Critics of slavery as an economic institution argued that the practice was inherently inefficient and unprofitable in the long run. A popular myth suggests that slavery in the South would have died out even without a Civil War due to its inability to maintain lasting economic gains. Southern abolitionists reasoned that slaves did not have the necessary personal incentive needed to propel productivity in the farming sector. Studies have since shown that slavery was indeed a highly efficient mode of production for particular crops like sugar and cotton. A plantation's gang system made use of an effective division of labor wherein slaves worked on tasks that suited their physical capabilities in an organizational setting not unlike that of a factory.

See also



Further reading

  • Aptheker, Herbert. American Negro Slave Revolts.New York: International Publishers, 1963.
  • Berlin, Ira. Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1998.
  • Genovese, Eugene D. Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. New York: Pantheon, 1974.
  • Gutman, Herbert G. The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750–1925. New York: Pantheon, 1976.
  • Huggins, Nathan. Black Odyssey: The African-American Ordeal in Slavery. New York: Pantheon, 1990.
  • Jewett, Clayton E. and John O. Allen; Slavery in the South: A State-By-State History (Greenwood Press, 2004)
  • Levine, Lawrence W. Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.
  • Morgan, Edmund S. American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia. New York: Norton, 1975.
  • Olwell, Robert. Masters, Slaves, & Subjects: The Culture of Power in the South Carolina Low Country, 1740–1790 (1998).
  • Schwalm, Leslie A. A Hard Fight for We: Women's Transition from Slavery to Freedom in South Carolina. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997.
  • White, Deborah Gray. Ar'n't I a Woman? Female Slaves in the Plantation South. New York: Norton, 1985.
  • Williams, Eric, Capitalism and Slavery. 4th edition, 1975.
  • Wood, Betty. Slavery in Colonial America, 1619-1776 (2005)
  • Wood, Betty. Slavery In Colonial Georgia, 1730-1775 (2007)
  • Wood, Peter H. Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion (1974).

External links

  • Immigrant Servants Database
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