Chapter 4: Slavery and Empire, 1441–1770 Chapter Review AMERICAN COMMUNITIES Rebellion in Stono, South Carolina In 1739 a group of twenty slaves killed a storekeeper, armed themselves and began a march toward Spanish Florida where the governor had promised all slaves their freedom. Along the way they gathered scores of other slaves, killed twenty-three whites, plundered and destroyed plantations, and instilled fear throughout the land. The response was just as swift, as a band of whites encircled the slaves while they rested in a field, killed two dozen and cut off their heads as a warning to future runaways. The colony’s Indian allies hunted down the remaining fugitives over the following weeks and killed them as well. The failed rebellion led to tighter control over slaves, laws that endorsed harsher control, and a legacy of fear. But for blacks, the Rebellion was a sign of both their desperation and the success of their community building in the slave-based society.
THE BEGINNINGS OF AFRICAN SLAVERY Slavery has a long history and its practice in Europe and elsewhere was not unknown. By the fifteenth century it had been practiced in the Mediterranean using Slavs, Muslims, and Africans. While use of Slavs and Christians as slaves was outlawed, the Africans and Muslims were still permitted. It was the Portuguese who, wanting the trade goods of Africa, began peddling in the slave trade (previously controlled by the Moors) in 1441. They quickly set up a system where Africans would catch captives for the market, march them to the coast, and there trade them for European goods. Soon the Portuguese were shipping over a thousand slaves a year to their sugar plantations in the Madeira islands off the coast of Africa.
a. Sugar and Slavery
Sugar plantations had their origins in the Mediterranean islands. Columbus quickly established similar plantations in Hispaniola and the Portuguese based nearly their entire colonial Brazilian economy on the planting and harvesting of sugar. As sugar was transformed from a luxury item into a staple of daily European life the demand for the sweetener expanded significantly. The colonial powers were quick to respond, but lacking a sufficient indigenous labor force, they needed to import the labor of Africans to effect such growth. The English and French both had created substantial and lucrative sugar plantations by the end of the 1600s, making slavery one of the centerpieces of their colonial economic empires as well.
b. West Africans
The vast majority of slaves taken to the Americas came from the established farming societies, communities, and kingdoms of West Africa. The Wolofs, Mandingos, Hausas, Ashantis, Yorubas, Ibos, Sekes, Bakongos, and Mbundus peoples were all part of the trade in people between European slavers and some of the lesser states and kingdoms of the region who sold slaves to acquire European goods and consolidate their own power. West Africans had long practiced their own system of slavery in their societies, but it was neither hereditary nor based on excessive force and exploited labor. Slaves were treated as members of the community and had almost all the rights and privileges as those who were free.
THE AFRICAN SLAVE TRADE Slavery lasted throughout the Americas from the late fifteenth century until the 1870s. It was the largest forced migration of any peoples in the history of the world. Slaves outnumbered European migrants by a six to one ratio.
a. The Demography of the Slave Trade
Over four centuries, between 10 and 12 million slaves were imported. The peak period was between 1701 and 1810 when nearly 76% of all slaves arrived. More than half went to the Caribbean; one-third went to Brazil; a tenth went to Spanish America. Five percent, nearly 600,000 individuals went to British North America. Men outnumbered women, two to one; the majority of slaves were between fifteen and thirty; and nearly every ethnic group in West Africa was accounted for in the population.
b. A Global Enterprise
All European nations participated, to some degree, in the slave trade. The Portuguese and Dutch vied for dominance and control over the trade. The English, at first, chartered a monopoly, The Royal African Company, and entered into the trade in 1672. But by 1698 it was open to competition and slave exports grew exponentially. The trade in slaves was conducted at a series of African coastal forts and commercial outposts. Most British and American colonial traders, as independent merchants, used the smaller outposts, with the cooperation of the local chiefs. In the colonies the New England merchant trades grew most dominant in the trade and Newport, Rhode Island became the center of slave shipping as nearly 100,000 slaves came through its harbors in the eighteenth century.
c. The Shock of Enslavement
The violent business of slave capture was left to Africans who roamed into the interior on military missions or swiftly raided enemy villages to take captives. They marched them to the coast where permanent trading centers had been established by Europeans, who often intermarried into the local community to cement their trading ties through kinship. Many times these unions resulted in new, mixed communities, which themselves controlled the slave trade over the centuries. The slaves were put into pens (barracoons), split apart from families and ethnic groups to lessen the chances of resistance. They were carefully screened and those selected for transport were branded. The treatment of the slaves to this point was no better than treatment given to animals, often leading many to conclude that they were to be killed and eaten.
Once the slaves were boarded onto the ships they began the long “middle passage” of transport to the Americas. Slaves were packed into shelves no more than two and a half feet high, chained, and packed in side-by-side. Some captains practiced “tight-packing” where they crammed as many people in as possible, hoping for a quick voyage and that enough would survive to offset the inevitable number of deaths. The voyage itself could be as quick as three weeks or as long as three months depending upon the weather. Slaves would normally be brought above decks during the day, forced to exercise, fed twice, and returned to the hold at night. Sanitation was non-existent and the slaves were often left to lie in their own waste. Frequent illness was common, with dysentery, smallpox, measles, and yellow fever ravaging entire shiploads of slaves. One in every six slaves died enroute. Many slaves attempted to rebel under such conditions either by revolting while still near the African coast or by jumping overboard and succumbing to drowning during the voyage.
e. Arrival in the New World
When the ship neared the Americas, the slaves were prepared for market. They were brought above deck, washed, and sometimes fed. Those who were lucky were presold to a specific buyer. But most had to endure the humility and horrors of the slave market. Here they were, once again, treated like animals, poked and prodded, and inspected in the most invasive ways. Or they were sold at “scramble” when all they buyers would rush into the holding pen and scramble to grab the slaves they wanted. Most were destined to places where they had no family and would know only hard labor.
f. Political and Economic Effects on Africa
Slavery was a destructive force on the economic and political stability of African kingdoms. The depopulation deprived African societies of vital labor, soldiers, and wealth. Even when Africans played a role in the trade, the Europeans still benefited the most. Such exploitation and weakening of the political and economic conditions facilitated the eventual carving up of Africa in the nineteenth century.
THE DEVELOPMENT OF NORTH AMERICAN SLAVE SOCIETIES It was nearly 150 years before slavery became a central part of the American economy.
a. Slavery Comes to North America
The first blacks arrived in Virginia in 1619 and while their status is unclear, enslaved blacks did start arriving soon thereafter. But indentured servitude was a cheaper labor option and remained so for some time. Chesapeake slaves lived and worked side-by-side with other laborers and thus Virginia was “a society with slaves,” where the color of one’s skin did not determine the course of one’s life. But all of that changed in the last twenty five years of the 1600s as the Chesapeake became a “slave society” as land became scarce, slavery more profitable, and indentured servitude less tenable. Direct importation of slaves to the colonies also began, driving down prices and providing more slaves to meet demand. The African population of the region expanded rapidly and laws were passed to increasingly govern the rules of ownership and control of the population, institutionalizing slavery for the colonies.
b. The Tobacco Colonies
As demand for tobacco grew among Europeans, both production and the slave labor force in the Chesapeake grew exponentially. Slaveholding became widespread and the population of slaves grew twice as fast as the population of whites. While imported slaves accounted for some of the growth, natural increase was responsible for most of the growth in numbers.
c. The Lower South
This region was a slave society from the outset. Originally trading in Indian slaves, South Carolina marked the shift by the beginning of the eighteenth century with the increase in rice production and the introduction of indigo. As export demand grew, so too did the slave population—in numbers and as it expanded into other colonies such as Georgia—reaching nearly 80% of the lower South’s population.
d. Slavery in the Spanish Colonies
Despite opposition from the Catholic Church and the uncertainties expressed by the Crown, slavery took hold in the Spanish colonies. The practice, however, varied widely. Florida’s system was more similar to the practices employed in Africa and the colony protected runaway slaves from other colonies, offering them free land if they helped defend Florida. New Mexico relied upon a robust trade in Indian slave labor.
e. Slavery in French Louisiana
In the early years the French Indies Company imported many slaves to Louisiana for planters in Biloxi, Mobile, and New Orleans. But very early on some rebellious slaves paired up with the local Indians and the Natchez Rebellion broke out, killing nearly ten percent of the entire white population of the colony. Slavery thus was held in check and did not emerge as an important institution in the colony until the end of the 1700s.
f. Slavery in the North
While not “slave societies,” Northern colonies nonetheless did have slaves and relied upon them in important ways, especially in the commercial dairy and farming regions and the urban centers such as Philadelphia and New York.
AFRICAN TO AFRICAN AMERICAN Despite being taken to a new world, many Africans retained their customs and traditions from their homelands even as they were forced to assimilate into American culture and the institution of slavery and even though they came from many different places in Africa, they formed one common culture in the American colonies.
a. The Daily Life of Slaves
The vast majority of American slaves were used in agricultural labor. Masters barely clothed their slaves. Slaves who worked on plantations had harsher conditions than those who worked on small farms, often side-by-side with their owner, yet those who worked on large plantations often had more autonomy than their small farm counterparts.
b. Families and Communities
Despite the efforts of the white masters to stifle the emergence of an African-American community, slaves did their best to create a sense of family and community. They did so through developing their own forms of marriage and extended kinship. These relationships were just enough to hold the community together, even when the bonds were severed as a result of cruel masters and the internal slave trade.
c. African American Culture
An American culture emerged among slaves as more of them were born and raised entirely within the colonies. Together, with their African legacy, they forged new traditions, a new culture, and a unique religious tradition to sustain them throughout their lives of bondage. This culture was most easily discerned in African American customs surrounding the burial of the dead, the development of music, and the creation of their own language. The two most notable slave languages were Gullah and Geechee.
d. The Africanization of the South
Mutual acculturation took place throughout the South, as African customs worked their way into white society through foods, folk practices and beliefs, material culture, architecture, labor and agricultural practices, and even cross-over language.
e. Violence and Resistance
The slave system was predicated on the threat of violence. Slaves, however, found a way to resist and thwart the intentions of their masters through intentional ways that resulted in less productivity, by running away, and forming maroon colonies. Others, however, engaged in revolt. There were some notably violent and alarming revolts throughout the colonial period, stretching across all regions. But they were quickly put down, the perpetrators executed or sold into other slave societies, and laws passed to curtail future revolts. But the American colonies were not rife with revolts precisely because slaves were creating a community through family and kinship, resulting in a slave community often unwilling to risk the consequences of a failed revolt.
SLAVERY AND THE ECONOMICS OF EMPIRE Slavery was the keystone of British economic success, with its slave colonies accounting for 95% of all of its imports, even though they held less than half of the colonial population. The slave trade itself represented one of the most prosperous economic ventures in English society.
a. Slavery: Foundation of the British Economy
The profits from slavery allowed for substantial capital investment throughout the Empire and often gave the investors a 10-15% rate of return. The capital return led to substantial fixed capital and the emergence of banks, insurance companies, and investment houses to secure that capital. It also led to capital projects and infrastructural developments. Slavery also supplied the raw materials for industrial manufacturing, providing nearly seventy percent of the cotton for British textile mills. Slavery also created a huge colonial market for British manufactured goods and exports. The multiplier effect led to even greater economic growth.
b. The Politics of Mercantilism
The mercantile system, a series of laws, regulations, and trade barriers, existed to ensure that all the wealth of the colonies flowed back to England. Mercantilists believed that there was a fixed amount of wealth to be had and in order to assure that they amassed more of that wealth (which they equated with power) they structured their economic system to ensure that the wealth did not go elsewhere.
c. British Colonial Regulation
England established a series of state-sponsored trading monopolies and gave them exclusive rights and privileges through a series of laws known as the Navigation Acts, which excluded foreign competitors. It also restricted the extent to which colonial enterprises could compete with those in England. Some of these policies were counterproductive, but England did not want to surrender the right of control. So under PM Walpole, England practiced what became known as “salutary neglect” and simply overlooked those laws that were detrimental to economic prosperity. But the whole system was dependent upon the successful use of slave labor in the colonies.
d. Wars for Empire
Throughout the colonial period a series of wars was carried on in both Europe and the American colonies between England, France and Spain. These wars were often the by-product of economic competition and perceived trading advantages. The wars ended up changing little in the colonies and served only to waste precious profits on all sides.
e. The Colonial Economy
Even as England structured the economic system to their own benefit, the colonists still prospered. The market protections given to their cotton crop and the free trade allowed for agricultural products, combined to give the American colonists significant benefits and the accumulation of great wealth. The slave trade was also a very lucrative enterprise which allowed New England traders to also operate in the molasses-for-rum black market. Over time the economies of the colonies, while based on different goods and enterprises, became mutually dependent upon one another.
SLAVERY AND FREEDOM The prosperity and freedoms amassed by the colonists during this period were only possible by restricting the same for African and African American slaves.
a. The Social Structure of the Slave Colonies
With great wealth came enduring class divisions. The landed elite controlled more than 60% of the colonial wealth and collaborated to secure their position as the unofficial aristocracy of the British colonies. They lived on estates, held political and religious power, owned hundreds of slaves, and became the leading “first families” of the colonies. The patterns of aristocracy varied by region, but the end result was the same: control of land, wealth, and power. The gap between the elite and the middle and lower classes continued to grow throughout the eighteenth century. While slave holding increased, it did not always lead to wealth, particularly among the small farmers and middling class.
b. White Skin Privilege
But class was not the only social marker. Skin color also took on substantial significance. Laws were passed to increasingly make distinctions between and further separate whites from blacks. These laws were not always equally applied. A black received much harsher consequences when they violated the laws in comparison to a white. A mulatto group also emerged, those of mixed parentage. Most were still enslaved, but many were free and formed the core of free black communities throughout the colonies. But even though they were free, blacks in these circumstances were still denied basic rights on the basis of their skin color. Racism became entrenched in American society.
EXPLORING AMERICA This module examines the relationship between race and slavery in America and how European perceptions of Africans played an important role in defining the status of Africans in the American colonies. But slavery was often distinct from race, so while many colonists came to despise the practice of slavery, they rarely changed their views on race.
Chapter Resources at a Glance Maps
The African Slave Trade (plus outline and interactive map on CD-ROM)
Slave Colonies of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century (plus outline and interactive map on CD-ROM)
Triangular Trade Across the Atlantic (plus outline and interactive map on CD-ROM)
Ten Views Found in the Island of Antigua
A Slave Coffle
Slaves Below Deck
Africans Herded from a Slave Ship
Residence and Slave Quarters of Mulberry Plantation
The London Coffee House
Mum Bett, also known as Elizabeth Freeman
Buddy Qua of St. Vincent
Celebration in the Slave Quarters
The Slave Hunt
London’s Old Custom House Quay
New England Sea Captains in Surinam
Advertisement in the Virginia Gazette
Estimated Number of Africans Imported to British North America, 1701–1775
Africans as a Percentage of Total Population of the British Colonies, 1650–1770
Value of Colonial Exports by Region, Annual Average, 1768–1772
Tobacco and Rice Exports to England (in thousands of pounds)
How the slave system evolved out of indentured servitude and developed from there.
The long history of slavery from the earliest times to the emergence of the Atlantic trade and its infamous “middle passage.”
How Africans attempted to cope with their new circumstances, formed communities, and became African Americans.
The origins and development of American racism.
Discussion Suggestions and Possible Answers 1. How did the system of slavery develop and become entrenched in the Americas? How was the slave system that emerged in North America different from that which emerged elsewhere in the Atlantic world?
Answer: The system developed slowly as labor pools of indentured servants and Indians dried up and as the costs of trading in slaves decreased. North American slavery became the only self-sufficient system, relying more and more on the internal growth of the slave population through gentler treatment and natural growth while other slaves systems became increasingly repressive and harsh. Only 5% of the total number of slave imports ever went to the British colonies.
2. What were the effects of the slave trade both on enslaved Africans and on the economic and political life of Africa?
Answer: The slave trade was extremely disruptive and punishing. It physically and mentally abused Africans and forced them into a world previously unknown and from which there was little hope of escape. By depleting Africa of its peoples the continent’s tribes and peoples were politically, economically, and militarily weakened to the point that European powers were able to colonize virtually the whole of the continent in the nineteenth century.
3. What was the process of acculturation involved in becoming an African American? In what ways did slaves “Africanize” the South?
Answer: African slaves had to find a way to exist in American society. Through the development of families and extended kinship networks they created a community. Since the American colonial slave system was mostly dependent upon natural growth (as opposed to growth through imports) those slaves who were born here often set the tone for the slave culture. But Africans provided much needed influence on all facets as well, resulting in a blended or “creole” culture. This happened in all facets of life, family, community, religion, music, culture, and even death rituals. The south was Africanized through the constant intermixing of the black and white cultures. Slaves introduced new words, foods, customs, and practices that were assimilated into white culture.
4. What was the connection between the institution of slavery and the building of a commercial empire?
Answer: Slavery was the “stolen” and therefore free labor that underpinned all of the economic development and the amassing of wealth. It provided the raw materials for industrialization, it was central to the shipping interests, it allowed England to establish fixed capital and capital projects, and had a multiplying effect on the wealth and growth of the English and colonial economies.
5. In what ways did colonial policy encourage the growth of racism?
Answer: By separating the two races through a series of laws designed to ensure white privilege and uphold the emerging class system. Even the poorest whites were given status above blacks of any wealth and status. Because the entire economic system rested on the success of slavery, the separation had to be codified and secured.
Lecture Outline Origins of the Slave System
Africans in America: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/home.html, Pt. 1, “The Terrible Transformation” documents the life of slaves in America between 1450 and 1750 as the institution grows from one of many labor systems into the labor system and evolves from a temporary state of servitude to perpetual servitude through the generations.
Slaves and the Courts, 1740–1860: http://lcweb2.loc.gov/ammem/sthtml/ is part of the American Memory Historical Collections of the Library of Congress. It documents the experiences of African and African American slaves in the American colonies through the use of pamphlets and court records. There are case reports, examinations of cases, works concerning slaves, fugitive slaves, slave revolts, and the African slave trade.
The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record: http://hitchcock.itc.virginia.edu/Slavery/index.php is a treasure trove of more than a thousand searchable images on slavery, the slave trade, and slave life in America.
Africans in America, Pt. 1, “The Terrible Transformation” (60 mins.), WGBH/PBS, 1998. Using maps, narratives, and images from the period, this documentary details the life of slaves as they confront the institution and its rapidly changing aspects.
Instructor’s Resources (Available on CD-ROM) Additional Images
“To be sold…a cargo of 170 prime young likely healthy Guinea slaves.” Savannah, July 25, 1774
Primary Sources Jose de Acosta, A Spanish Priest Speculates on the Origins of the Indians (1590)
John White, The Lost Colony (1590)
Don Juan de Onate, Plaus: A Settlement in New Mexico (1599)
Wessell Webling, A Free Man Signs an Indenture (1622)
The Cambridge Agreement (1629)
Bacon’s Rebellion: The Declaration (1676)
Onandogas and Cayugas: Iroquois Chiefs Address the Governors of New York and Virginia (1684)
Gottlieb Mittelberger, The Passage of Indentured Servants (1750)
Petition of “A Grate Number of Blackes of the Province to Governor Thomas Gage and the Members of the Massachusetts General Court” (1774)
Alexander Falconbridge, The African Slave Trade (1788)
Olaudah Equiano, The Middle Passage (1788)
Whose History Is It?
The Living History of Slavery. While the role of slavery in the American story has only slowly made its way into the historical depictions of historical sites, now that it has, and all groups agree on the necessity of its inclusion, controversy has plagued its presence. Both African Americans and whites find its depictions uncomfortable, often too closely identifying with its negative behaviors, feelings, and beliefs. How can slavery remain a part of the story and not evoke such negative emotions? Students are left to decide.
Critical Thinking Exercises Students should explore the ways in which slavery was similar or different across the various countries and regions of the Americas—in its institutionalization, laws, customs, and labor practices.