Blacks in Colonial America

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By: Jon K. Thornton Footsteps, 15215865, Jan/Feb2006, Vol. 8, Issue 1

Blacks in Colonial America

Transatlantic – Across the Atlantic Ocean
The Portuguese pioneered the transatlantic slave trade in the mid-1500s. They bought captives on the West African coast from African merchants and from African rulers and their agents. The Portuguese then transported these captives to their colony of Brazil in South America, and, after signing agreements with Spain, to the Spanish colonies in the Americas. Some of these Africans had been enslaved in Africa as the result of wars between African states or civil wars between African rulers. Others had been captured by bandits and outlaws and sold illegally to Portuguese merchants. In a few cases, African courts had condemned them to slavery for crimes they, or sometimes members of their families, had committed.

Neither English nor Dutch merchants bought slaves in Africa in the 1500s. Merchants of both nations did visit and trade with African states from the 1550s onward, but purchased only gold, cloth, ivory, and other African products. In one or two rare cases, they captured Africans when they raided the coast. For the most part, they obtained slaves by attacking Portuguese ships that were carrying the Africans to Spanish America. They then resold the captured Africans to the English and Dutch colonies in South America, the Caribbean, and North America. Only in the late 1630s did the Dutch and English begin buying slaves in Africa for their colonies in America. To do so, they used the same techniques as the Portuguese.

slave trade routes.jpg

Initially, the English slave trade was directed to Barbados in the Caribbean; the Dutch trade, to Brazil and then to colonies in South America.

The first slaves to be brought directly from Africa to North America came to New Amsterdam (present-day New York City) in 1653. Many of these slaves were promptly sold to the English colonists in the Chesapeake Bay area (present-day Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware).

Figure Slave Trade Routes in Colonial America
The direct slave trade to North America was slow to develop. At first, only Dutch ships brought slaves. However, after the English took control of the Dutch colony of New York in 1664, most new slaves came from the Caribbean islands rather than from Africa. English merchants started buying slaves again from Africa after 1700.

At first, the English and Dutch did not have a code of laws for slave-owners. They held some slaves for life, others they released after a period of years. Many of the first Africans in America came from Angola on the west-central coast of Africa, and some of them were Christians.

Figure Slave Quarters - Colonial America
Toward the end of the 1660s, the number of slaves brought to America greatly increased. They came mostly from West Africa and were less likely to be Christian. As a result, ideas about slavery began to change, and the belief that the condition of slavery was lifelong and inheritable gradually became fixed in law after 1660. By the 1720s, it had also become law that children born of free mothers by slave fathers had to remain slaves.

slave quarters.jpg

The early slaves in the Chesapeake Bay area worked largely in tobacco fields and were often housed together or mixed with indentured servants from Europe. In Dutch New Amsterdam, however, many lived in a small village and worked in municipal (city) construction as well as agriculture. After 1670, African slaves and their descendants throughout the Americas tended to be housed separately from other servants or workers. They lived in "quarters" that resembled villages, consisting of a few houses, where they developed their own distinctive lifestyle. Only those slaves who performed personal service or lived in towns and cities (mostly in the Northern colonies) might live intermixed with other servants of different origins.

Life for all Africans working in America was hard, and, for the earliest to arrive, it was also short. The high death rate made it difficult for families and communities to form. But by the 1730s, the descendants of the earliest slaves were living longer, and families began to form. Soon, African American slaves were reproducing their own numbers, and, as a result, the importation of Africans declined.

The Chesapeake Bay region more or less stopped importing slaves from Africa in the 1770s, as did most of the urban areas in the North. Newer colonies, such as South Carolina, which began large-scale importation of Africans only in the 1720s, and French Louisiana (also starting its imports in the 1720s), continued to import Africans, either to replace those who had died or to expand the growing economy of slavery. Most of the Africans brought to North America after 1770 went to South Carolina or to the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, especially Louisiana, as settlers took this land from American Indians.

Figure Slaves Dancing to Banjo Music
Africans arriving in North America during the period of the slave trade brought skills and beliefs from their homeland. Many already knew how to cultivate tobacco and rice, two of the more important cash crops in Colonial America. Some were Christians, and some Muslims. Many, however, came from other religious traditions and their religious ideas — the belief that their dead ancestors played a role in shaping their lives, for example — influenced the way African Americans viewed life. Other religious and medical practices from Africa shaped the lives not just of slaves but also of all Americans. slaves dance to banjo.jpg

Two of the strongest cultural influences of Africa in America were music and dance. Rhythmic African musical styles, as well as a few musical instruments (notably the banjo), were imported from Africa, and soon African Americans were mixing several African musical traditions with those of Europe. The styles they created became one of the hallmarks of American culture.


  1. Write what you think each of the following words mean, and write down EXACT QUOTES from the text that show how the meaning is hinted at.

    1. Condemned

    2. Obtained

    3. Descendants

    4. Cultivate

  1. Give two supporting details (EXACT QUOTES from the text) that go with this main idea in the 8th paragraph: “After 1670, African slaves and their descendants throughout the Americas tended to be housed separately from other servants or workers.”



  1. Cite the single main idea that ties these two supporting details from the 5th paragraph together (EXACT QUOTE from the text):

    1. At first, only Dutch ships brought slaves.

    2. However, after the English took control of the Dutch colony of New York in 1664, most new slaves came from the Caribbean islands rather than from Africa..

Main Idea:

  1. According to the text, how did codes and laws for English and Dutch slave owners develop? Support your answer with 2 examples (DIRECT QUOTES) from the text.

  1. What additional information do the three images give you about the text? Support your answer with 2 examples (DIRECT QUOTES) from the text.

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