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In this lesson, you'll learn a little about the slave trade, the growth and characteristics of slavery in the colonial period - including laws regulating the institution and the population of free blacks in the English colonies.
In 1619, a Dutch trading ship brought several Africans to Jamestown, Virginia - England's first American colony. They were sold as indentured servants. One of those original African servants, a man named Anthony Johnson, completed his indenture, bought land and prospered. Soon, he imported several of his own servants, including another African man named John Casor. Rather than freeing him after seven years like most indentured servants, Johnson claimed that Casor was his slave. The case went to trial, and Johnson won. So, in 1655, an African man became America's first owner of a permanent slave!
Slavery was not a new concept for Africans, but the nature of slavery in Africa at that time was completely different. Slaves were generally criminals, debtors or prisoners of war. They played an important role in society, they could hold jobs with authority and were often seen as members of the extended family. Their children could not be bought or sold. Plantation slavery was non-existent.
Most of the Africans who participated in the American slave trade - including the captives - had no clue that new world slavery had evolved into something very different.
Slavery was just one piece of England's triangular trade. English manufactured goods were sent to Africa, where they were traded for slaves. The slaves were then taken to the Americas, where they were traded for raw materials. The materials went to England to be used in the manufacture of more goods. The part of the journey from Africa to America was called the Middle Passage.
On tightly packed ships, slaves were chained together below deck. They sat down or laid down, side-by-side, sometimes with their heads between the feet of the next row. A slave who died lay chained to his neighbor until the following morning. With no windows below the water line, the heat and odor from body waste, blood and decay soon became suffocating. Disease spread quickly. After inspection on deck every morning, the dead and diseased were thrown overboard.
The crew took extreme measures to minimize revolts and suicides, which became more common as the journey progressed. A slave who refused to eat might be beaten to death or thrown overboard. The sharks that commonly followed slave ships were used as a terror weapon against the captives. Africans who spoke the same language were often separated to prevent them from plotting a mutiny. Others were muzzled.
After two to four months in these conditions, about half of the human cargo died. The other 10 to 50 million Africans were ready for auction in America.
During the 17th century slavery was not as widespread in the thirteen colonies as it was in Spanish territory. English colonies generally depended on indentured servants.
That began to change near the end of the 1600s, especially in the south. First, conditions in England improved, and fewer people were willing to indenture themselves. Planters also began to realize that slaves were a better investment, since the workers didn't leave every seven years. Then, when a band of former servants burned down Jamestown during Bacon's Rebellion in 1676, Virginia's leadership began to worry about the growing class of poor freemen. Importation of servants declined, but slaves were increasing.
In 1655, there was one slave-for-life in Virginia. But within fifty years, more than a thousand new slaves entered the colony every year, and 4,000 more went to the other twelve colonies. By 1750, nearly 45,000 new slaves came to British America every year.
As with all colonists, slave life varied, depending on where a person lived and what his job was. In the north, slaves might work as cooks, maids, farm hands, gardeners, drivers or skilled laborers. These workers were generally healthier, received better treatment and were more highly valued than their counterparts in the fields. However, they had less privacy, worked seven days a week and were often ostracized by field hands.
America's first published black writer was a northern slave named Phillis Wheatley. Imported from Gambia when she was a child, Wheatley was sold to a Boston family who taught her to read, and encouraged her to write poetry. Her poems were often religious, written in classical style. Wheatley published her first poem in 1767, when she was just sixteen years old, and later became one of the most famous poets of her time.
Urban slavery also existed in the middle and southern colonies. But it was far more likely that a slave would end up on a plantation in the south.
Slaves on Chesapeake tobacco plantations typically worked together from sun-up to sun-down, six days a week. Their lives were guarded, but slaves were often worked to their physical limit and could be brutally punished. Physical relationships between slaves were encouraged - or even forced - in order to increase the population. But plantation slaves were more likely to be sold off, so marriages and families were often severed. Still, plantation slaves did have two advantages: they generally did not work on Sundays, and because plantations could have hundreds of slaves, they enjoyed a greater sense of community.
Slaves on rice plantations in South Carolina and Georgia might be part of the task system. Each worker was assigned a task acre to be completed each day. When the task was finished, so was the slave. This division of labor evolved because rice planters imported slaves from certain locations in Africa where rice was farmed. But, the new arrivals brought diseases that the white population had no resistance to. Owners moved their houses away from the fields, and sometimes left the plantation completely during a rainy season. Overseers managed the plantation in the owner's absence. The task system kept the plantation running with less effort on the overseer's part.
These slaves might work for months without ever seeing their owners, and an efficient slave had a lot of free time. Since imported slaves continually refreshed native traditions, these plantations developed vibrant slave cultures with distinctive forms of music, dancing, religion and even language.
The farther south you went in the colonies, the greater the number of slaves, the more distinctive their culture, the more fearful the whites and the more repressive the slave codes.
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Beginning in 1662, African American children automatically took on their mother's legal status, whether slave or free. Soon, slaves were declared real estate. Using the logic that no one would purposely destroy his own valuable property, a slave's death at the hands of his owner was considered accidental. Slaves could not be used to work as clerks or in any position handling money. Laws forbid educating slaves or paying them any wages for extra work. They could not leave their owner's property without a pass, drink alcohol, own weapons or livestock, grow certain crops in their own gardens or wear nice clothing. There were mandatory punishments for violations, and whites who refused to comply could be fined, publicly beaten, have their property confiscated or even be exiled from the colony.
In time, 'black' became socially equal with 'slave,' so even though there were free blacks throughout the colonies, they too became legally inferior to whites. Besides being racist, whites knew that freemen were the most likely to help runaway slaves, so they did whatever they could to discourage a free black population. If a Virginia plantation owner wanted to free a slave, he had to pay for the person's passage out of the colony. In South Carolina, the legislature had to approve emancipation. Freemen could not work in stores, own horses or hogs, they could not own slaves or hire white servants and they could not marry a white person.
Back in 1655, when Anthony Johnson became America's first legally recognized slave owner, there were at least twenty other free black men and women in Jamestown. Many of them were landowners. But that became increasingly uncommon as laws and attitudes changed throughout the south. Johnson's death prompted another landmark decision, that blacks were not citizens. The court concluded that he was 'a negro and by consequence, an alien.' A white man seized Johnson's land from his heirs.
There were many more free blacks in the north. When New Netherlands was overtaken by the English in 1664, the Dutch emancipated all of their slaves, creating a significant free black population. Northern slave owners were much more likely to free slaves in their wills, or allow slaves to purchase their own freedom with money they made working in their spare time. However, free blacks were not considered social equals and were often accused of unsolved crimes.
Slavery legally existed in the north until the Civil War, but most northern slaves were freed during the American Revolution, either by British troops, or by colonial governments who exchanged army service for freedom. When the United States took its first census in 1790, eight percent of the African American population was free.
Let's review: though slavery has existed throughout time, slavery in the American colonies was much harsher than it had been practiced in Africa. England brought slaves to America as part of the triangular trade network. The portion of the journey between Africa and America was called the Middle Passage. Half of the captives onboard died because of the horrible conditions, but increasing numbers of enslaved Africans still reached the American shores throughout the 17th and 18th centuries.
Most northern slaves - and some in other colonies - worked in an urban setting. Phillis Wheatley was a literate urban slave and became the first African American to publish her poetry. Most captives, however, ended up on southern plantations. Rice plantations developed the task system in which slaves enjoyed more free time and a distinct culture. But, whites became fearful of the growing slave population and passed slave codes in their favor. Even the limited number of free black colonists found their rights being eroded.
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