The Development of Slavery in the New World and the British Colonies



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The Development of Slavery in the New World and the British Colonies


Origins of New World Slavery
Centuries before contact between the Old World & the New World, slavery was commonplace in Europe. While slavery is today commonly associated with black Africans, during the 15th century when Columbus sailed to America Italian merchants bought and sold the Slavic peoples from Eastern Europe as slaves. The word slave is taken from the word “Slav.”

Slavery, however also included those of Middle Eastern or African origin. This was especially true after 1425 when Pope Martin V (5th) threatened to excommunicate (through out from the Catholic Church) Catholic merchants who sold fellow Christians as slaves. According to the record, the first black African slaves to be imported into Europe arrived in the Portuguese capitol of Lisbon in 1441. By the 1450s, the African slave trade between the two continents was common place.

Many of the early slaves brought by the Portuguese to Europe were used to raise sugar on the plantations located on the northern African island of Madeira. For hundreds of years, slaves and sugar growing were commonly linked in Europe.

It comes as no surprise, then, that following the landing of Columbus in the Caribbean in the 1490s, with the introduction of sugar to the New World, where it came to thrive, that African slaves were imported to the Americas as early as 1518. By the end of the 16th century (1599), 25,000 African slaves were on the Caribbean sugar plantations located on the islands of Cuba and Hispaniola, and in South American Brazil.

The Spanish and the Portuguese imported thousands of African slaves to fill the growing demand for cheap labor on their plantations. The work required of slaves laboring on sugar plantations and in sugar mills was so strenuous, that most slaves died within four to five years after their arrival in the New World. How could this be? The profits from sugar were so high, that plantation owners could afford to regularly replace their overworked slaves with new ones. Slaves working on these plantations were an expendable commodity.

European powers not wanting to be left out of the increasingly lucrative sugar trade challenged the exclusive rights of the Portuguese and the Spanish in both the sugar trade and resulting slave trade. The Dutch gained control of Brazil in the 1630s and worked to double the sugar cultivation of the colony in just under a generation. The French established sugar mills ion the Caribbean, most successfully on the island of St. Dominique (Haiti) and the British seized control of the Spanish settlement of Jamaica in 1655. As settlement in the New World expanded and other crops such as coffee, tobacco and tea were cultivated on ever increasing larger scales the demand for labor increased and so did the resulting slave trade.

With lucrative markets throughout the Caribbean and Brazil, new World slavery came to involve millions of African slave. Today, historians estimate between 1500 and 1850, 10 million African slaves were imported to the Western hemisphere. The peak period of importation stretched from 1701 to 1810, years during which three out of every four slaves were shipped to the Americas. Of the total number of slaves imported to the New World over nearly four centuries (400 years), approximately 505 were sold to work on the Dutch, French, & British sugar plantations. about one-third (1/3) were imported to Brazil, 10% were sold to owners in the Spanish colonies, with only less than 5% being purchased by colonists in British north America.

Slave Trading & the New World Colonies
Nearly every western European nation participated in the African slave trade to the New World at one time. While the Portuguese controlled the trade through its first century (1490-1590), the Dutch challenged their markets and became the most prolific slave trading country of the 1600s (17th century). However by the end of the century English traders gained the upper hand in monopolizing the trade from 1672 to 1698. Yet, the demand for African slaves in the New World was so great that the exclusivity on the trade was broken open by 18th century (1700s) to all who wanted traffic African slaves from Africa to the New World colonies.

Slavery in the New World was over a century (100 years) old when the first slaves arrived in Jamestown on a Dutch trading ship bringing the fledgling settlement much needed supplies in 1619. These earliest African arrivals, however, were not, by definition true slaves. Since the institution of slavery did not exist by law in Jamestown, the Africans were considered yet another group of workers. These blacks were not thought of much differently than indentured servants. In fact, they and their children obtained land after their indentures were completed. Some early African arrivals to Jamestown would not only become landowners, but slave owners as well. Slavery, however, was quickly codified in the Virginia colony and within ten years slavery became an institution sanctioned by law that meant lifelong work for an owner.

The numbers of African slaves in the British North American colonies did not increase dramatically throughout most of the 1600s because at that point in the labor trade slaves cost twice as much as an indentured servant. As such there was very little economic incentive for Virginians to purchase slaves. As long as a viable number of white indentured

workers continued to stream into the British North American colonies, the need for slave labor was limited.

By the early 1700s things began to change in England. The growth of cottage industry employed growing numbers of Englishmen and as such crated a labor shortage in the colonies on the growing “cash crop” plantations that produced tobacco, rice, indigo, tea and coffee.

The available statistics tell the story of how important the slave trade was to British shippers in the 1700s. Throughout the 1600s, English shippers rarely ever delivered more than 10,000 slaves during any one decade. But after the turn of the century, and especially after 1730, the numbers increased dramatically. From 1731 to 1740, over 40,000 slaves were shipped across the Atlantic. During the 1740s, the number rose to nearly 60,000.

By the 1760s, the tally of African slaves in British North America rose to nearly 70,000. The delay in this growth resulted from the fact that the British colonies were some of the last to be established in the New World. In 1700 the number of slaves in British North America constituted about 11% of the total colonial population. But within the century the percent would double to 20% of the colonial population. This number is even more telling when one looks at the distribution of the slave population being heaviest in the number in the Southern colonies.

Slavery Takes Root in British North America
Long before the end of the 17th century (1600s), the status of African workers in the colonies had begun to change. Racial attitudes developed which caused whites to redefine the role and definition of black workers in the British colonies of North America. Working from the racial bias that white Europeans were the preeminent race, colonists found it increasingly difficult to justify the equality of white indentured servants (fellow British citizens) as being equal to that of black Africans. Additionally, as need for indentured servitude dropped because of the growing prosperity in England colonist began looking for a way to ensure a steady supply of plantation labor, African workers became the avenue for this insurance.

In 1662, the Virginia House of Burgesses acknowledged that new status of lifelong slavery by voting that the children of Africans inherited their mother’s status, meaning they would be born into slavery. Seven years later in 1669, Virginia leaders determined that if a master “accidently” killed a slave while being punished, it would not constitute a serious crime because they were “just” slaves, property of their master. A generation later, in 1705, the colonial legislature of Virginia enacted a comprehensive Slave Code which further defined the duties of slaves, closing nearly every door that might have allowed a black African to become free.

Other colonies followed Virginia’s example. With the institution of slavery more clearly defined and the number of white indentured servants declining, the numbers of African slaves being imported into the colonies rose dramatically in the decades before the Revolutionary War. While many slaves were field hands, working on farms and larger plantations, the slave economy differed from region to region.

Generally, slaves were few in the Northern colonies above Maryland, but wide spread in the Southern colonies.

In the Tidewater region of the Chesapeake, slavery grew considerably in the 18th century (1700s). Eighty thousand (80,000) Africans were imported to Virginia and Maryland between 1700 and 1770. But an even greater number developed by natural increase, meaning slave couples had children. In fact, the British colonies of North America were the first colonies to increase their slave populations this way (natural increase) instead of by replacement of new slaves from Africa. This occurred in the colonies because owners of slaves in British North America, in general, never considered their slaves expendable, as they were in the Caribbean islands or South America, where sugar profits paid for new slaves every four or five years. By the time of the American Revolution (1775) the majority of African slaves in British North America had been born in the colonies.

The cultivation and rapid market success of cash crops – tobacco, rice, indigo, tea and coffee in the 1700s was the final justification for the adoption of slavery in the colonies, especially those colonies of the south and lower south (Carolinas & Georgia). By 1770 nearly 90,000 African slaves lived in the lower south, in some areas this population outnumbered the with population with a margin of five to one.




Reflection Questions for “The Development of Slavery in the New World”
After reading the above article answer the questions in complete sentences, restating the question in the answer, and remembering to provide details from the reading to support your conclusions.

Origins of New World Slavery


  1. Why were nearly half of the slaves brought to the New World used on sugar plantations?

  2. Prior to the arrival of Europeans in the New World, slavery was common in Europe. Where did most of the slaves in Europe come from prior to 1500?

  3. Once the Spanish and Portuguese begun bringing slaves to the New World from Africa, how did they treat them?


Slave Trading & the New World


  1. Discuss how the Dutch and the English became engaged in the slave trade. Provided specific examples from the reading.

  2. What was the labor status of the first blacks brought to the British North American colonies, namely Jamestown, VA?

  3. Why did colonists make increasing use of black workers as opposed to indentured servants? In other words, what caused the system of indentured servitude to no longer be a viable labor option?

  4. Write a short paragraph referencing the statistics in this section to discuss (prove) the increasing involvement of the British in the New World slave trade.


Slavery Takes Root in British North America


  1. Discuss why the status of African workers in the Britain’s North American colonies began to change from one equivalent to an indentured servant to that of slave.

  2. Why was Virginia the first colony to make laws regarding the slave status of Africans in their colony/

  3. List the steps taken by the Virginia House of Burgesses to codify slavery, be specific.

  4. Discuss why both the institution of slavery and the number of slaves rose dramatically in Britain’s North American colonies between 1770 and the eve of the American Revolution in 1775.





The Development of Slavery in the New World





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