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Growth Od Slavery In The American Colonies

Growth Od Slavery In The American Colonies

Historically, slavery has appeared in many forms. Slaves have served in capacities as diverse as concubines, warriors, servants, craftsmen, tutors, and victims of ritual sacrifice. In the Americas, however, slavery emerged as a system of forced labour designed to facilitate the building of new economies. The use of African slave labour assumed different roles depending on the natural and economic conditions that varied between colonial regions.

Slavery was a social institution defined by law and custom as the most absolute involuntary form of human servitude. The definitive characteristics of slaves are as follows: their labour or services were obtained through force; their physical beings were regarded as the property of another person, their owner; and they were entirely subject to their owner's will. Since the earliest times, slaves have been legally defined as chattel. Therefore, they could be bought, sold, traded, given as a gift, or pledged for a debt by their owner, usually without any recourse to personal or legal objection or restraint.

With the development of the plantation system in the southern colonies in the latter half of the 17th century, the number of Africans imported as agricultural slave labourers increased significantly. Generally, slaves were used as domestics and in trade in the northern colonies; in the Middle Atlantic colonies, they were used more in agriculture; and in the southern colonies, where plantation agriculture was the primary occupation, most slaves were used to work the plantations. All the colonies in their early stages shared a common dependence upon the exploitation of subject people to achieve a measure of prosperity. The purpose of this paper is to explore the emergence and growth of slavery in North America. Specifically, I will examine how the occupations, working conditions and status of slaves evolved in various colonies from their arrival in 1619, through the American Revolution, to the new republic. As slavery evolved differently in the thirteen colonies, the colonial areas I will focus on are the Chesapeake region, the north, the Carolina’s and Georgia, followed by Louisiana.

The concept of slaves and slavery in England had died out after the eleventh century. Therefore it is believed that English immigrants to the Caribbean gained the idea of enslavement from the Spaniards. The Spaniards had adopted slavery after Columbus’s voyage in 1492. This decision was influenced by the fact that Native Americans, whom Spaniards had attempted to enslave at first, were seen as unsuitable for the harsh labour. With the acceptance of slavery in the British Caribbean, it was of no surprise that British establishers in Jamestown did not condemn the practice.

In 1619 a ship arrived in Jamestown, and sold twenty “Negroes” it had brought over from Africa as part of its cargo. Bound labour was common in all the colonies because of the intense labour shortage. Many settlers earned their passage to the New World, and that of their families, by indenturing themselves for a term of years, usually seven, after which they would be free. Some of the early Africans were treated as indentured servants, because there are records of free blacks in the Chesapeake area in the 1650s. During this period, however, the white colonists determined that blacks would be slaves for the term of their lives, and their children would be slaves as well.

As previously noted, Africans were brought to America to replace a dwindling European labour force and soon became an important part of the economy of the Chesapeake region beginning in 1619. Initially, they were treated as indentured servants and freed after a term of service. Many black servants, however, began to lose the same rights afforded to their white counterparts. Tobacco was the Chesapeake’s regional crop. It had dominated the Chesapeake agriculture since 1618. Tobacco was a profitable crop, but its profits did not come close to those of the sugarcane. Tobacco, like sugar required a large amount of labour. As a result, ample numbers of immigrants traveled to the Chesapeake eager to work. Plunging tobacco market from the mid-1680s to 1715 forced farmers to diversify their crops, shifting to grain, hemp and flax and raising greater numbers of domestic animals. Virginia, for example, experienced a drastic growth in slave population as enslaved Africans replaced indentured servants.

Whipping, branding and other inhumane treatment was not uncommon. One Virginian slave, named Emanuel, was convicted of trying to escape in July, 1640, and was condemned to thirty stripes, with the letter "R" for "runaway" branded on his cheek and "work in a shackle one year or more as his master shall see cause." This was an abject slave, subject to the court's definition of him as merchantable and movable property, and to his master's virtual whim. Indeed, the general assembly of Virginia in 1662 passed an act, which directly and consciously invoked Justinian Code whereby a child born of a slave mother was also held to be a slave, regardless of its father's legal status.

The status of blacks in America quickly changed. By the 1660s, court decisions made it nearly impossible for blacks to be viewed as anything other than property and the institution of slavery took root in the new colonies. As economic conditions in European countries improved during the seventeenth century, white indentured servitude gradually disappeared from the colonial landscape. As a result, planters, who needed dependable labour, gradually began to restrict the activities of African servants.

Although documents existed, stating obvious discrimination against races, the people of Chesapeake sold blacks as servants that would one day become free as opposed to slaves. Throughout the next 20 years, much evidence pointed towards the fact that many blacks were being treated as slaves and their children were being inherited like property. During the middle years of the seventeenth century elite tobacco planters increasingly assumed the right to do as they pleased with their African workers. That assumption was legally sanctioned in 1669. By the 1640s Virginia forbade Africans, free or indentured, to carry firearms, and by the 1660s interracial marriages between white women and African American males were referred to as the "disgrace of our nation. Slave codes, such as the ban against African American legal testimony, participation in commercial activities, public gatherings, unauthorized travel, and legal marriage, soon followed.

By 1705, strict legal codes were brought about and various standards were enacted. In this year, the Virginia General Assembly declared:

All servants imported and brought into the Country. . . who were not Christians in their native Country. . . shall be accounted and be slaves. All Negro, mulatto and Indian slaves within this dominion. . . shall be held to be real estate. If any slave resists his master. . . correcting such slave, and shall happen to be killed in such correction. . . the master shall be free of all punishment. . . as if such accident never happened.

Thus, 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. It had taken the English in Virginia the best part of one hundred years to finalize their construction of a legal status quite unknown in the Common Law of England, to declare unequivocally that Africans were a form of property; that they were, and henceforth would remain, “strangers” and “outsiders” who would be required to live out their lives according to an entirely different set of laws from those that governed people of European birth and ancestry. By 1710, a racially based system of chattel slavery was firmly fixed. This area had been transformed from a slaveholding society into a slave society.

As a result of the Constitutional Compromise of 1787, the importation of slaves ended by 1808. Despite the fact that the newly ratified Constitution treated slaves as property, not all states supported the institution of slavery. "Free states," which did not support slavery, bordered the northern portions of the Bay region, while "slave states" encompassed the southern portions of the Chesapeake. "Border states" which allowed slavery but were allied with the free states, further highlighted the political differences within the Chesapeake Bay region. As a result of these ideological differences, the region became a focal point for the national controversy surrounding slavery. Enacted by the U.S. Congress in 1793, the Fugitive Slave Law further complicated the divisions between free, slave, and border states. The law permitted the capture and return of escaped slaves who had taken residence in the Northern free states. As a result, this new law left the Chesapeake Bay region in the unique position of spanning free, border, and slave states. This specific combination of geography and politics would make the Bay region the center of great turmoil throughout the next century.

While slavery was primarily a southern institution, fifteen percent of slaves lived in the North. When English merchants became involved in the slave trade, Quakers-particularly George Fox were horrified at seeing the mistreatment of the slaves. He suggested that owners treat slaves better and at the same time, release them after a certain number of years. In 1688 the Quakers made their first public statement against the slave trade. Throughout the first half of the 18th century Quakers, both in England and in the colonies condemned slavery. They campaigned against it, and slowly changed people’s minds and convinced them that slavery was inhumane.

For nearly two hundred years, however, the North maintained a slave regime more varied and complex than that the “peculiar institution of the South”. Unlike the South, which used slaves primarily for agricultural labour, the North trained and diversified its slave force to meet the needs of a more complex economy. From the seventeenth century onward, Africans could be found in virtually every field of Northern economic life. Many of the Africans worked in the cities. They were used by many wealthy members of that society for jobs around the house and also for skilled labour. The Africans who managed to achieve this position were often working as "ship builders, lumber mill operators, iron forgers, rope makers, carpenters and printer's assistants". They also worked as tailors, shoemakers, coopers, blacksmiths, bakers, weavers and goldsmiths. In technical skill and versatility they spanned the whole range of free labour.

The work, ideas, and industry of slavery helped to shape some of the biggest cities in the world, at the time. The amount of money brought in by the slave trade, the completion of menial tasks, and the hard work of skilled labourers all contributed to the formation of the urban areas in the Northern colonies.

Though slavery was important to the development of the Northern cities, it was not essential to their continued success. After many of the areas had established themselves as successful urban centers, the amount of slaves began to decrease. These Northern colonies would be the first to outlaw slavery and stop their reliance on slave labour.

For most of the seventeenth century, black slaves in the north had an equivocal legal status somewhere between indentured servitude and absolute bondage. Frequently, they were referred to as servants rather that as slaves, and in some cases freedom was granted after a limited period of service. What most clearly separated them from white servants was that the latter had contracts defining the terms of their bondage. A slave had only those rights allowed by his master or granted by the law. The distinction meant that in everyday practice, there were no limits on how far a master might go in exploiting black labour. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, legislation had created an elaborate network of racial segregation in every Northern colony

Despite the generally regional character of slavery, Northern racism paralleled Southern slavery. The United States, originally populated by a slow trickle of colonizers, experienced a huge jump in immigration, especially to the north, in the early nineteenth century. Many of these people had faced class-based discrimination in their native lands. In the United States, however, they found their rights rapidly expanding because they were part of an elevated category called "white." During Andrew Jackson’s administration, dubbed "The Age of the Common Man," working class white men gained new rights, such as the right to vote, that were not accorded persons of other races. As time passed and racial stratification became entrenched, poor whites considered themselves superior to Africans and Native Americans by virtue of skin color. Because notions of their own superiority were at stake, many northerners, perhaps ambivalent to slavery, supported the idea of white supremacy. Antislavery did not mean pro-African American.

Africans faced discrimination in many forms. Segregation was rampant, and Africans were blocked from schools, public transportation, employment, churches, and neighborhoods. In the immediate post-Revolutionary era, northern free Africans had some rights of citizenship such as enfranchisement and jury service. Soon after the turn of the century, as civic privileges were being expanded for white men, African Americans began to lose these same rights. New Jersey, for example, took away the African vote in 1807.

Prior to the American Revolution, slavery existed in all the colonies. The ideals of the Revolution and the limited profitability of slavery in the North resulted in its abandonment in northern states during the last quarter of the 18th century.

During the colonial era many North American slaves lived in the Carolina/Georgia low country, growing tobacco, rice, indigo, and cotton on lowland plantations.

Until 1680, about one half of the inhabitants of Southern Carolina came from Barbados, from where they brought slaves. The first colonists depended mainly on raising cattle. The use of slaves was discouraged in cattle farming, due to the fact that it required only a small labour force and provided slaves with ample opportunities to flee. Life in North Carolina was much like South Carolina. Self-sufficient white families predominated, due to the fact that their crops did not produce enough profit to warrant maintaining many slaves.

These colonies also searched for a profitable crop similar to tobacco and sugar. Around the early 1690’s, they found rice, a crop that was introduced by the early Africans. Rice was similar to sugar since it also required capital for its necessary dams, dikes, and especially slaves. Rice planters found it almost impossible to get indentured servants to work in rice plantations, as the servants were incapable of working under such inhuman conditions. The rice paddies were humid and swarming with mosquitoes. Rice planters decided to import a large labour force of slaves. The African slaves had already cultivated rice in Africa, so they had more experience than their masters. The slaves were also immune to malaria, which could be transmitted by mosquitoes along the rice plantations. As a result, rice production was a success, and the demand for slaves generally increased.

It was a technological advance, however, directly tied to the economic output of slaveholding states, that made human bondage a permanent fixture across much of the nation. The cotton gin, invented by Eli Whitney in 1794, permitted growth of a variety of cotton that thrived in almost every part of the South. Bonded African Americans were still needed to pick the cotton, only now Whitney’s gin allowed the quick separation of cotton fiber from seeds. As cotton production increased exponentially, plantations expanded all over the South and ever increasing numbers of bonded African Americans were required. With the invention of the cotton gin, the South depended on both cotton and slavery for economic security.

As the colony grew, a need for skilled labourers to build more houses and buildings for businesses developed. Slave labour became central to the economy of Georgia as they became porters, domestics, joiners and coopers. This in turn forced the lawmakers to allow slaves to be trained in a skill and to use slave labour elsewhere besides in the cotton and rice fields.

Life on the plantations was difficult and no consideration was given to the cultural traditions of blacks. In the slave market men were separated from their wives, and frequently children were taken from their mothers. Family and tribal links were thus almost immediately cut. Overseers were harsh as a matter of general practice, and brutality was common. Punishment was meted out at the absolute discretion of the owner or the owner's agent. Slaves could own no property unless sanctioned by a slave master, and rape of a female slave was not considered a crime except as it represented trespassing on another's property. Slaves could not present evidence in court against whites. Housing, food, and clothing were of poor quality and seldom exceeded what was considered minimally necessary to maintain the desired level of work. Owners reinforced submissive behavior not so much by positive rewards as by severe punishment of those who did not conform. In most of the South, it was illegal to teach a black to read or write.

Carolina authorities developed laws to keep the African population under control. Whipping, branding, dismembering, castrating, or killing a slave were legal under many circumstances. Freedom of movement, to assemble at a funeral, to earn money, even learning to read and write, became outlawed.

During the colony’s first 16 years, Georgia stood alone as a province where only free men could legally live and work. It wasn’t until 1749 that the trustees for Georgia permitted the legal introduction of slaves into the colony. Leaders of the time proposed that the colony could not prosper unless slave labour was allowed to work Georgia farms. They also suggested certain restrictive regulations for the institution of slavery in the colony. The requirements included that slaves should be permitted to attend church on Sunday. Further they decreed that no work was to be required of the slaves on Sunday, the Lords Day. These requirements were used as the laws governing slaves for six years until a new slave code was adopted when the first Colonial General Assembly met in Savannah on January 7, 1755. Of course, the first General Assembly consisted entirely of white males. No one of that period would have entertained the thought that a black woman or man would ever have a voice in deciding the laws.

As African slaves became an increasingly important element in the English colonies in America, particularly in the South, where they were fundamental to the economy and society, the laws affecting them were modified. By the time of the American Revolution, they were no longer indentured servants but slaves in the fullest sense of the term, and laws defining their legal, political, and social status with respect to their owners were well defined. After the American Revolution, the necessity for slavery increased in the South, with the continuing demand for cheap labour by the tobacco growers and cotton farmers of the Southern states.

The first African slaves in Louisiana were captured as plunder by the French army during the Spanish War of Succession in 1710. The years 1717-1721 saw the first importation of African slaves to Louisiana, when eight boatloads brought 2,000 Africans to the colony. The death rate among these was nearly as high as it had been for Indians facing the perils of European diseases. Scurvy, dysentery, respiratory and intestinal flues claimed about half of them within a few years of their abduction.

Slaves were mainly imported to sustain the many different types of agriculture in the early settlement of Louisiana. Slavery was an accepted institution in Louisiana from the time of the first settlements. The first people brought to Louisiana, for the purpose of forced labour, were indentured servants.

The main crops being grown in Louisiana were indigo and tobacco. From 1753 until 1794 different experiments were conducted to produce sugar in Louisiana. Many derided this idea, but finally Jean Etienne de Bore discovered a way to granulate sugar while simultaneously transforming Louisiana into one of the most profitable and industrious colonies. It was this discovery that elevated slavery in Louisiana to a new plateau.

Bore’s discovery is associated with the rise of slavery throughout the later part of the Eighteenth century. At the time of Bore’s discovery there was no significant crop with worthwhile profits being manufactured in Louisiana. When Bore had success in granulating sugar word traveled quickly and planters near New Orleans soon had sugar plantations in operation. The demand for sugar increased and thereby forcing farmers to increase their demand for more slaves to be imported into the United States, specifically into Louisiana.

The Code Noir of 1724 was the first legal document that specified the laws regarding slavery in Louisiana. This Code was written as a way to instruct French colonies how to handle slaves and slave trade. The Code Noir was mostly modeled after Roman law; however, it was in many cases stricter. Unlike slaves under Roman law, those in French colonial Louisiana were unable to petition to be sold away from a cruel master or mistress. They were also unable to claim the right of self-purchase.

When Spain gained control of Louisiana in 1763, slave laws became more lenient. One example of Spanish leniency in Louisiana was the right of the slave to self-purchase. This freedom allowed slaves to be appraised and gave them the opportunity to know their value with the option to buy their freedom.

In conclusion, the idea of slavery was gained from Spanish conquistadors that had, at the beginning, enslaved Indians. African kings themselves, who saw it profitable to sell their own people, established the concept of the slave trade. Slowly but surely, they established a dominating slave trade route that exported slaves to different parts of the world, including America.

Slavery spread quickly in the American colonies. The first African slaves arrived in mainland North America in late August of 1619. These twenty slaves soon grew into a significant population that evolved throughout colonial America. At first the legal status of Africans in America was poorly defined, and some, like European indentured servants, managed to become free after several years of service. From the 1660s, however, the colonies began enacting laws that defined and regulated slave relations. Central to these laws was the provision that black slaves, and the children of slave women, would serve for life. This premise, combined with the natural population growth among the slaves, meant that slavery could survive and grow.

The transatlantic slave trade produced one of the largest forced migrations in history. The slave trade from Africa is said to have uprooted as many as 20 million people from their homes and brought them to the Americas. Slavery had existed as a human institution for centuries, but the slaves were usually captives taken in war or members of the lowest class in a society. The black African slave trade, by contrast, was a major economic enterprise. It made the traders rich and brought an abundant labour supply to the American Colonies.

The principle by which persons of African ancestry were considered the personal property of others prevailed in North America for more than two-thirds of the three and a half centuries since the first Africans arrived there. The influence of slavery increased even though the English colonies won independence and articulated national ideals directly in opposition to slavery. In spite of numerous ideological conflicts, however, the slavery system was maintained in the United States until 1865, and widespread anti-black attitudes nurtured by slavery continued thereafter.

MacLeod, Duncan J. Slavery, Race and the American Revolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1974.
McMannus, Edgar J. Black Bondage in the North. New York: Syracuse University Press, 1973.
Nardo, Don. Braving The New World. New York: Chelsea, 1995.
Norton, Mary Beth et al. A People and a Nation, a History of the United States. 6th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001.
Phillips, U.B. American Negro Slavery. Gloucester: Appleton-Centruy-Crofts, Inc., 1959.
Ransford, Oliver. The Slave Trade. London: Cox & Wyman Ltd., 1971.
Wood, Betty. The Origins of American Slavery. New York: Hill and Wang, 1997.

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