Exploration and Settlement



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American History: Exploration and Settlement

Lesson Seven: Triangular Trade


As large farms and plantations were established in Virginia, the planters needed a large labor force to plant and harvest tobacco (a cash crop). At first, the English attempted to enslave Native Americans. However, this created tensions with the neighboring tribes. Also, Native Americans knew the land so well they were able to easily escape. Diseases were another problem for Native Americans and caused their population to decline – it even wiped some tribes out completely.

Indentured servants were brought from England and had a significant impact on the colonies. Settlers continued to need workers to help in planting and harvesting cash crops, such as tobacco. Poor people from England who had lost their land needed work, while some others simply desired a better or changed life in a different place. The settlers and indentured servants signed a contract in which they agreed that the servant would work for the land owners for a certain number of years in exchange for food, clothing, shelter, and most importantly, passage to the New World. The land owners were also able to secure more land because they paid the passage of the indentured servant. This is called the headright system.

Often, the landowner did not live up to the contract and abused or mistreated the indentured servant. The servant hoped that once their time of indenture was over they would have an opportunity to own their own land. Once they were free, many moved to the backcountry of the colonies in order to claim land and begin a new life.

Eventually, the number of potential indentured servants was no longer enough to fill the need for fieldworkers. The colonists turned to using slave labor from Africa. Slaves were brought to North America through the triangular trade. Trade routes did followed patterns depending on the demand of exporting and importing goods. The routes were taken between the North American colonies, Europe, Africa, and West Indies.

For example, on one route, sugar was purchased in the West Indies and transported to New England to be made into rum. The rum was then shipped to Africa to be exchanged for slaves. The slaves were taken to the West Indies and sold or exchanged for sugar cane. The sugar was taken back to New England to produce more rum and the cycle continued. Cash crops grown in the English colonies such as rice, tobacco, and indigo, were sold in Europe in exchange for manufactured goods that could not be produced in the colonies.

The part of the slave’s journey aboard the ship between Africa and the American colonies is known as the “Middle Passage.” Africans were kidnapped by other tribes in Africa and were marched from the interior of Africa to the coast of West Africa, then to the slave ships where they were traded or sold to the ship’s captain. The captain would fill up the cargo’s hold with the captives.

If they survived this leg of the journey, they had to endure the most horrible part- the Middle Passage which means much more than just one part of a journey. It is a reference to the inhumane conditions aboard the ships. Since the slave trade was conducted for profit, the captains of the slave ships tried to deliver a maximum number of slaves for minimum cost. Africans were imprisoned as cargo in a stifling space below the ship’s deck. They received little food or exercise while aboard the slave ship. Many slaves did not survive the Middle Passage.

Slaves were brought in from Africa mainly through the port of Charleston to do fieldwork. A child born to a mother in slavery would become a slave. However, if a mother’s freedom was purchased, her children would also become free as their status followed their mother’s linage. They had a profound impact on the economy and culture of the colonies. Africans brought with them their own culture, skills, and languages. Africans were very knowledgeable about raising livestock and the farming techniques needed to grow and harvest rice in the colonies. This made the rice plantations of South Carolina very profitable. Without African skills and labor, the economy of the Southern Colonies would not have developed these cash crops.

Africans also impacted the cooking styles of the South, and consequently later the United States, because they often prepared meals for themselves and the slave owners. They introduced more variety in preparation than stewing and spit-roasting. They added greens and other vegetables to the plantation owners’ meat and starch diets, which improved the health of the colonists.

Since Africans came from different tribal groups and spoke no English when arriving in the colonies, some developed distinctive dialects such as Gullah. Gullah was a spoken language of Africans that developed in the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia.



Other customs such as music and making sea grass baskets were important to the slaves’ extension of their previous culture into the New World. White slave owners began to feel threatened by this growing population of slaves and decided to implement slave codes to regulate the behavior of slaves in the colonies. Some slaves in the north were able to work additional jobs in order to purchase their freedom. Many free Africans found work in the north as artisans and apprentices. Later, some slaves would fight in the American Revolution in hopes of receiving freedom in return for their sacrifice.


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