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Colonial Slavery Essay

While there are many misconceptions about this time period in American history, some of the most egregious surround the institution of slavery in the mainland colonies of British North America. It is common to read back into colonial times an understanding of slavery that is based on conditions that existed just prior to the Civil War. It is also important to understand slavery as an historical institution that changed over time and differed from place to place. To that end, one of the most common misconceptions is that slavery was a uniquely or distinctively Southern institution prior to the American Revolution.

Slavery in Pre-Revolution America

In the 13 mainland colonies of British North America, slavery was not the peculiar institution of the South. This development would occur after the American Revolution and during the first decades of the 19th century. Although slaves had been sold in the American colonies since at least 1619, slave labor did not come to represent a significant proportion of the labor force in any part of North America until the last quarter of the 17th century. After that time, the numbers of slaves grew exponentially. By 1776, African Americans comprised about 20% of the entire population in the 13 mainland colonies.

The North American mainland was a relatively minor destination in the global slave-trading network.

This figure, however, masks important regional differences. It is important to remember that the North American mainland was a relatively minor destination in the global slave-trading network. Less than 4% of all African slaves were sent to North America. The vast majority of enslaved people ended up in sugar-producing regions of Brazil and the West Indies. On the mainland British colonies, the demand for labor varied by region. In contrast to the middle and New England colonies, the Southern colonies chose to export labor-intensive crops: tobacco in Chesapeake (Virginia and Maryland) and rice and indigo in South Carolina, which were believed to be very profitable.

Large vs. Small Plantations

By the time of the American Revolution, slaves comprised about 60% of South Carolina's total population and 40% of Virginia's. While most enslaved people in the Chesapeake labored on small farms, many of those in South Carolina lived on large plantations with a large number of slaves. By 1750, one third of all low-country South Carolina slaves lived on units with 50 or more slaves. Ironically, those who lived on larger plantations were often allowed to complete their tasks for the day and then spend the rest of their time as they liked, free from white supervision. Those on smaller farms, however, often found themselves working side-by-side with their white masters, hired white laborers, and only a small number of slaves. As a result, they faced more scrutiny from whites, were expected to labor for the entire day, and had fewer opportunities to interact with other enslaved African Americans.

Slaves in the Urban North

Although the largest percentages of slaves were found in the South, slavery did exist in the middle and Northern colonies. The overall percentage of slaves in New England was only 2-3%, but in cities such as Boston and Newport, 20-25% percent of the population consisted of enslaved laborers. Other large cities, such as Philadelphia and New York, also supported significant enslaved populations. Although enslaved people in cities and towns were not needed as agricultural workers, they were employed in a variety of other capacities: domestic servants, artisans, craftsmen, sailors, dock workers, laundresses, and coachmen. Particularly in urban areas, owners often hired out their skilled enslaved workers and collected their wages. Others were used as household servants and demonstrated high social status. Whatever the case, slaves were considered property that could be bought and sold. Slaves thus constituted a portion of the owners' overall wealth. Although Southern slaveholders had a deeper investment in slaves than Northerners, many Northerners, too, had significant portions of their wealth tied up in their ownership of enslaved people.

Revolution Rhetoric and Redefining Slavery

Once colonists started protesting against their own enslavement, it was hard to deny the fundamental contradiction that slavery established.

The widespread ownership of slaves had significant implications. During the battles with Britain during the 1760s and 1770s, American Patriots argued that taxing the colonies without their consent reduced the colonists to the status of slaves. Since individuals in all the colonies owned slaves, this rhetoric had enormous emotional resonance throughout the colonies and helped turn the colonists against the mother county. Moreover, once colonists started protesting against their own enslavement, it was hard to deny the fundamental contradiction that slavery established: enslavement for black people and freedom for white people. Awareness of this contradiction forced white Americans to look at slavery in a new light. If Americans chose to continue to enslave black people, they would have to devise new arguments to justify slavery. It was at this time that arguments about blacks' inherent racial inferiority emerged to rationalize the institution.

This divergence in approach . . . was arguably the fork in the road that ultimately led the country to the sectional divisions that culminated in the . . . Civil War.

Nonetheless, during and immediately after the American Revolution, many individuals in both the North and the South took their revolutionary ideals seriously and concluded that slavery was unjust. They freed, or manumitted, their slaves. Yet each state decided for itself how to handle the issue. Northern states passed laws, or enacted judicial rulings, that either eliminated slavery immediately or put slavery on the road to gradual extinction. The story was different in the South. Because Southern states had a much deeper economic investment in slavery, they resisted any efforts to eliminate slavery within their boundaries. Although some (but not all) of the Southern states allowed individual owners to manumit their slaves if they chose, no Southern state passed legislation that ended slavery completely, either immediately or gradually. This divergence in approach was significant, as it began the time during which slavery would disappear from the North and become uniquely associated with the South. This moment was arguably the fork in the road that ultimately led the country to the sectional divisions that culminated in the coming of the Civil War.

Slavery played an important role in the development of the American colonies.  It was introduced to the colonies in 1619, and spanned until the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. The trading of slaves in America in the seventeenth century was a large industry. Slaves were captured from their homes in Africa, shipped to America under extremely poor conditions, and then sold to the highest bidder, put to work, and forced to live with the new conditions of America. There was no mercy for the slaves and their families as they were captured from their homes and forced onto slave ships. Most of the Africans who were captured lived in small villages in West Africa. A typical village takeover would occur early in the morning. An enemy tribe would raid the village, and then burn the huts to the ground.  Most of the people who were taken by surprise were killed or captured; few escaped. The captured Africans were now on their way to the slave ships. “Bound together two by two with heavy wooden yokes fastened around their necks, a long line of black men and women plodded down a well-worn path through the dense forest.  Most of the men were burdened with huge elephants’ tusks.  Others, and many of the women too, bore baskets or bales of food. Little boys and girls trudged along beside their parents, eyes wide in fear and wonder”  (McCague, 14). After they were marched often hundreds of miles, it was time for them to be shipped off to sea, so that they could be sold as cheap labor to help harvest the new world. But before they were shipped off, they had to pass through a slave-trading station. The slave trade, which was first controlled by Portugal, was now controlled by other European nations. In the late 1600’s, Spain, Holland, England, France and Denmark were all sending ships to West Africa.  The slave trade was becoming big business (Goodman, 7). Selection of the slaves by the traders was a painstaking process. Ships from England would pull up on the coast of Africa, and the captains would set off towards the coast on small ships.  “If the slave trader was a black chief, there always had to be a certain amount of palaver, or talk, before getting down to business.  As a rule, the chief would expect some presents, or dash” (Stampp, 26).  Once the palaver was over, the slaves had to be inspected.  The captain of the ship usually had a doctor who would check the condition of the slaves.  They would carefully examine the slaves, looking in their mouths, poking at their bodies, and making them jump around.  This was done so that the doctor could see how physically fit the slaves were.  If the slaves were not of the doctor’s standards, they were either killed or kept to see if another ship would take them. In the 1600’s, the journey across the Atlantic for the African slaves was a horrible one.  It was extremely disease-ridden, and many slaves did not survive the journey.  The people were simply thrown into the bottom of the ship and had to survive the best they could.  Often, many slaves had to wait in the bottom of the ship while they were still docked at the harbor, so that the traders could gather up more and more slaves.  There were usually 220 to 250 slaves in each ship.  Then they had to stay down there for the long trip across the Atlantic Ocean to the New World. “Women and children were allowed to roam at large, but the men were attached by leg irons to chains that ran along the ship’s bulwarks.  After a breakfast of rice or cornmeal or yams, with perhaps a scrap of meat thrown in, and a little water, there came the ceremony of “dancing the slaves” -a compulsory form of exercise designed, it was said, for the captive’s physical and mental well being”(Howard, 23). Even though there was ventilation, the air in the crowded hold area quickly grew foul and stinking. Fierce tropical heat also added to the misery of the slaves.  Seasickness was also a problem. Conditions on the ships improved as the slave trade continued, but thousands of Africans still lost their lives on the journey to the new world. When slaves would try to rebel on the ship, they were immediately killed and thrown overboard. Some slaves preferred death over slavery.  Watching their chance while on deck, they often jumped overboard to drown themselves (Davis, 67).       Africans were brought to America to work.

“They worked the cotton plantations of Mississippi and in the tobacco fields of Virginia, in Alabama’s rich black belt, in Louisiana’s sugar parishes, and in the disease-ridden rice swamps of Georgia and South Carolina”(Buckmaster, 153).  Most slaves were worked extremely hard, because they had the job of cultivating the crops on the plantations.  It began before daybreak and lasted until dark, five and sometimes six days a week. “An Alabama man said ‘Sunup to sundown was for field Negroes.’  Men and women alike were roused at four or five a.m., generally by the blowing of a horn or the ringing of a bell” (Goodman, 18). By daybreak, the slaves were already working under the control of Negro drivers and white overseers. They plowed, hoed, picked, and performed the labors appropriate to the season of whatever they were harvesting. For example, during the harvest season on a sugar plantation, slaves were worked sixteen to eighteen hours a day, seven days a week.  That is longer hours than convicts were permitted to work in several of the Southern states (DuBois, 35). This was not only limited to sugar. Cotton and tobacco workers had the same harsh hours in the hot southern sun.

Even children were put to work on the plantations. “By the age of six or seven, children were ready to do odd jobs around the plantation-picking up trash in the yard, raking leaves, tending a garden patch, minding babies, carrying water to the fields.  By the age of ten, they were likely to be in the fields themselves, classed as “quarter hands”  (McCague, 35).

Often there were health problems among the slaves in early America.  “The combination of hard, sometimes exhausting toil and inferior diet, scanty clothing and unsanitary housing led, predictably, to health problems”  (Goodman, 31). This caused a problem for slave owners, because they wanted the most efficiency out of their slaves as possible. In some places doctors were called in to treat blacks as well as whites. The slave trade played an important role in the growth of the American colonies.  Without the trading of slaves in the seventeenth century, American plantations would not have prospered into the export empire that they were.

Works Cited

Buckmaster, Henrietta.  Let My People Go.  Boston:  Beacon Press, 1941.  Davis, David Brion.  Slavery and Human Progress.  New York:  Oxford University Press, 1984.  DuBois, William Edward Burghardt.  The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the    United States of America.  New York:  Schocken Books, 1969.  Goodman, Walter.  Black Bondage: the Life of Slaves in the South.  New York:  Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969.  Howard, Richard.  Black Cargo.  New York:  G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1972.  McCague, James.  The Long Bondage 1441-1815.  Illinois:  Garrard Publishing       Company, 1972.  Stampp, Kenneth M.  The Peculiar Institution.  New York:  Borzoi Books, 1982.

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