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The origins of slavery in the colonial United States are complex and there are several theories that have been proposed to explain the trade.

The first African slaves

The first African slaves arrived in present day United States as part of the San Miguel de Gualdape colony (most likely located in the Winyah Baymarker area of present-day South Carolinamarker), founded by Spanish explorer Lucas Vásquez de Ayllón in 1526. The ill-fated 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. De'Ayllón and many of the colonists died shortly afterwards of an epidemic, and the colony was abandoned, leaving the escaped slaves behind on North American soil. In 1565, the colony of Saint Augustine in Florida became the first permanent European settlement in North America, and included an unknown number of African slaves.

Until the early 1700s, African slaves 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 Townmarker and South Carolina in 1670. The colony was founded mainly by planters from the overpopulated sugar island colony of Barbadosmarker, who brought relatively large numbers of African slaves from that island. For several decades it was still difficult to acquire African slaves north of the Caribbeanmarker. To meet labor needs, colonists had practiced Indian slavery for some time. The Carolinians transformed the Indian slave trade during the late 1600s and early 1700s 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.

The first Africans to be brought to English North America landed in Virginiamarker in 1619. These individuals appear to have been treated as indentured servants, and a significant number of African slaves 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 subsequently become.

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. 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.

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. For example, 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. 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.

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 Caribbeanmarker sugar colonies, Brazilmarker, 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 Francemarker, Spainmarker, Englandmarker, the Netherlandsmarker or Portugalmarker that were involved in the transatlantic person trade. Small countries, such as Swedenmarker or Denmarkmarker, tried to get into this lucrative business. For more information about this, see The Swedish slave trade.

Example of slave treatment: Back deeply scarred from whipping


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 Religious Society of Friends (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 Philadelphiamarker, 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 Meetingmarker, 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, and from the discussion of abolition the topic of human rights became formalized in the Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution and later the Gettysburg Address.

Following the Revolution, some of the newly independent U.S. states began to write constitutions that eliminated slavery, though the new federal Constitution barred Congress from prohibiting the slave trade until 1808. By that time most states had already banned slavery within their borders, and in 1808 Congress banned the slave trade. However, the domestic slave trade continued.

After the War of 1812, the U.S. made a claim that slaves were property and demanded that Britainmarker return or pay compensation for them. The Treaty of Ghent, which ended the war, provided that all "Slaves or other private property" would be returned to the original side, and that both parties would endeavors to end the slave trade, as it "is irreconcilable with the principles of humanity and Justice." In the Treaty of 1818, Britain and the U.S. agreed to refer differences over a U.S. claim arising from the Treaty of Ghent (dealing with slaves that were in British territory or on British naval vessels when the treaty was signed) to "some Friendly Sovereign or State to be named for that purpose.".

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 American government 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.

Indentured servitude

Some historians, notably Edmund Morgan, have suggested that indentured servitude provided a model for slavery in 17th-century Virginiamarker. In theory, indentured servants sold their labor voluntarily for a period of years (typically four to seven), after which they would be freed with "freedom dues" of cash, clothing, tools, and/or land. In practice, indentured servitude could be like slavery and was often a violent system; some Englishmen and Englishwomen (felons and those who were kidnapped) were compelled to become indentured servants, and in the early 17th century, many indentured servants did not live long enough to be freed. The principal significance of indentured servitude, Morgan argues, is that it accustomed 17th century Virginia planters to use physical violence (including beating and rape) to compel workers to work. This set a precedent for the violence of African chattel slavery, which the British colonies first adopted on a large scale in the 1660s and 1670s.

Slavery among Native American tribes

Another view on early colonial slavery is that of historian Alan Gallay. His book on the Native American slave trade describes the flourishing trade during the 1600s in Virginia, South Carolina, and elsewhere in America. Indigenous tribes had practiced a form of slavery since prehistoric times, sometimes for the purpose of ritualized torture and sacrifice, and sometimes for assimilating other tribes. The way in which the Native Americans treated war captives was witnessed and eventually emulated by European colonists, especially the practice of scalping.

This view is considered inaccurate by many modern historians because of the nature of Native American slavery. 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' gives a clear explanation of the complex social relationships between American Indian groups and the early empires, including 'slave' culture and scalping.

Another valuable explanation of the use of African slaves as opposed to Native Americans comes from an unlikely source. Ulrich Phillips argues that black people made better slaves for several reasons, and were therefore the best answer to the labor shortage in the New World. American Indian slaves were familiar with the environment, and would often successfully escape into the wilderness. Black slaves had much more difficulty surviving in the different climate once they escaped, the awareness of which may have acted as a psychological barrier to such attempts. Also, early colonial America depended heavily on the sugar trade, which lead to malaria, a disease the Africans were far less susceptible to than native slaves. Black people also easily stood out. Phillips also suggested that there was something inherently valuable for slavery in the African race in America. These racist beliefs have long been abandoned, but some historians still value his economic arguments which suggest that the choice was made more for efficiency.

Fernand Braudel on American slavery

Fernand Braudel has written:
Such hardships are not to be laid at the door simply of the planters, the mine-owners, the moneylending merchants of the Consulado in Mexico City or elsewhere, the harsh officials of the Spanish crown, the sugar- and tobacco-dealers, the slave-traders, or the grasping captains of trading vessels.... they were essentially middlemen, agents for other people.... In reality the root of the evil lay back across the Atlantic, in Madrid, Seville, Cadiz, Lisbon, Bordeaux, Nantes or Genoa, without question in Bristol, and in later years Liverpool, London and Amsterdam. (Braudel, 1984, p. 393).


Braudel quotes Karl Marx: ""The veiled slavery of the wage-workers in Europe needed, for its pedestal, slavery pure and simple in the New World."

See also



Notes

  1. Gallay, Alan. (2002) The Indian Slave Trade: The Rise of the English Empire in the American South 1670-171. Yale University Press: New York. ISBN 0-300-10193-7, pg. 299
  2. Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (New York: Norton, 1975), pp.154-157.
  3. Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (New York: Norton, 1975), pp.327-328.
  4. Alan Taylor, American Colonies (New York: Viking, 2001), p. 156.
  5. America Past and Present Online - The Laws of Virginia (1662, 1691, 1705)
  6. Alan Taylor, American Colonies (New York: Viking, 2001), p. 213.
  7. Gallay, Alan. (2002) The Indian Slave Trade: The Rise of the English Empire in the American South 1670-171. Yale University Press: New York. ISBN 0-300-10193-7, pg. 29
  8. White, Richard. (1991) The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521424607
  9. Phillips, Ulrich. American Negro Slavery Echo Library (2006) paperback edition, ISBN 978-1406832082


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.
  • Donglin, Yi Origin of American Slavery
  • Braudel, Fernand, The Perspective of the World, vol. III of Civilization and Capitalism 1984 (in French 1979).
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.


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