Africans were in North and South America while these continents were being explored and expropriated as European colonies (1500s–1700s). However, their roles and status varied from Mexico to Brazil, to the Carolinas and to New Amsterdam. Bonded labor—common both in Europe and Africa—declined in Europe, while it became more important in Africa after trade with Europe had been established. At the end of the 14th century, Europeans—primarily the Portuguese and the Spanish—were exploring the west coast of Africa, looking both for trade opportunities and trade routes to the East. In their interaction with African merchants, they began to export small numbers of slaves to their European homelands. Once the Europeans had explored and began to settle the New World, however, the trade in African slaves increased rapidly.
Initially, Europeans brought only small numbers of Africans to the New World. Yet, as the need for labor grew with increased agricultural, mining, mercantile, and other business interests, so too did the number of black slaves, the vast majority of whom were male. Brazil and the Caribbean had the largest number of imports for the longest period of time: until the 1880s. Although most of the figures for the Atlantic slave trade system are imprecise, it is possible to estimate that Brazil received at least four million slaves and the islands of the Caribbean—which were colonized by the French, Dutch, English, Danish, and Spanish—as well as Spain’s mainland possessions, received at least 5.5 million. The mainland United States—as colonies and then as a nation—imported about 450,000 Africans over a 250-year period. Slavery in this country began, then, as one part of a long history of international trade in goods and people, both in Europe and in Africa.
Europeans divided the slave trade into three geographic regions: Upper Guinea, Lower Guinea, and Angola. More than three-fifths of the slaves brought to the Chesapeake were from the Gold Coast or the Bight of Biafra. While many of the Sierra Leonians went to Carolina, they were outnumbered there by Angolans. Senegambians were prominent in both the Carolinas and Louisiana. The presence of these and other enslaved African groups in North America was due primarily to wars and thievery. Rivalries between ethnic and tribal groups, raids by North Africans and local soldiers, and piracy conducted up the many rivers of the African coast provided the majority of captured Africans.
Traditionally, the entry of Africans into British North America is dated from the 1619 sale of some twenty men and women from a Dutch ship in Virginia. Although there were undoubtedly other Africans in those regions that would later become part of the United States, slavery as it developed in British North America and was continued in the American republic can be traced to what happened in the Chesapeake in the 1600s.
For the first few decades, the status of Africans was uncertain. Some were treated as indentured servants and freed after a term of service, often after fourteen years. Others were kept on in servitude because their labor was needed. It was too tempting for aspiring planters not to take advantage of the vulnerable black laborers. By the 1640s, court decisions began to reflect a different standard for Africans than for white servants and to accept the concept of lifetime black servitude. In the 1660s, Virginia decreed that a child followed the status of its mother, thus making lifetime servitude inheritable. A series of court decisions dating from the 1660s locked slavery into place in the Chesapeake and its existence was not questioned in the later development of the Carolinas. Georgia resisted briefly and then accepted the institution. Slave law to the north of the Chesapeake did not differ significantly.
Many Africans who arrived in the New World were familiar with bonded labor. Slavery in Africa, as elsewhere, was not a static institution. European trade rivalries and the European view of North and South America as a site for aggrandizing their power through mineral extraction and staple crop production caused great escalation in the numbers of Africans enslaved and brought to the Americas. Trade rivalries also caused tremendous changes in the status and functions of the enslaved. The desire and eventual need of West Africans to trade with Europeans in order to gain access to weapons and other prized goods escalated their involvement in the slave trade to such an extent that they could no longer draw on the reserve of slaves that they traditionally had in their societies.
While there was a general protocol in place in which representatives of trading companies negotiated with African rulers through middlemen, the actual methods of the traders varied greatly. As the trade became more lucrative with greater demand from the New World, more and more slaves were stolen through armed raids. The slave trade also had an immense impact on the developing economies of the New World and the changing economies of western Europe. It was the foundation for European mercantilism and industry in the 17th and 18th centuries, the labor force for colonial agriculture, and a prime force in the growth of the shipbuilding industry.
By the time a body of law regarding slavery had been put firmly into place, a number of free Africans who had escaped permanent bondage through indenture lived throughout the colonies. They married other free blacks, slaves, Native Americans, and occasionally European servant women, and raised families. These groups, in addition to African sailors and free blacks arriving from the West Indies, constituted the core of the free black class in the colonies.
Lifetime bondage, or slavery, was firmly and legally established in the British North American colonies by the late 1600s and continued to exist in every colony in some form until the era of the American Revolution. The period of the greatest importation of slaves into the land that became the present-day United States was from approximately 1680 to the Revolutionary War (1776). There was a scattering of bondspeople in New England and, moving southward, the number of slaves increased from New York through Virginia, while a system of plantation slavery similar to that of the Caribbean developed in the eastern part of South Carolina and Georgia. In the Carolinas and Georgia, importation began about 1720 and continued until the slave trade became illegal in 1808. There slaves were acquired through the lowcountry ports of Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia, or in the other major slave market: the Gulf Coast port of New Orleans, Louisiana. New Orleans—controlled by the French and the Spanish during this period—imported most heavily while the American colonials were at war. This activity continued through the early 1800s as the area became an import market for the rising “Cotton Kingdom.”
By the seventeenth century, the African slave trade was booming in the Americas. The slave dealers made so much money from their human cargoes that Africans soon came to be known as “black gold.” Slaves could be secured in Africa for about $25 a head, or the equivalent in merchandise, and sold in the Americas for about $150. Later when the slave trade was declared illegal, Africans brought much higher prices. Many slave-ship captains could not resist cramming their black cargo into every foot of space, even though they might lose between fifteen to twenty percent of the lot on the way across the ocean. It is estimated that seven million Africans were abducted during the eighteenth century alone, when the slave trade became one of the world’s great businesses.
Since England had no laws that defined the status of a slave, the colonies made up their own. These “slave codes” protected the property rights of the master. The codes also made sure that the white society was guarded against what was considered a strange and savage race of people. Slaves had almost no rights of their own. Some masters tried to treat slaves well. For example, George Washington freed his slaves in his will. Thomas Jefferson’s slaves lived in brick cottages. Jefferson Davis’s slaves governed themselves with slave-run trial courts. However, the extreme opposite also existed. Harsh slave owners would half-starve their slaves, working them hard, whipping them often, treating them worse than cattle, and making their lives miserable for their own amusement. When a master was cruel, the slaves had no legal protection from his brutal treatment.
Enforcement of the slave codes varied from one area to another and even from one plantation to another. Slaves who lived in cities and towns were less restricted than slaves who lived in the country. Slaves on small farms enjoyed more freedom than those on huge plantations. Even in the best of circumstances, slaves were property and could be bought, sold, lent, or rented out. Their opportunities to learn and achieve were very limited. The slaves had little personal incentive to work hard. Slavery offered little room for promotions.
Plantation slaves often had little contact with their masters. Their supervisors were drivers and overseers. Drivers were slaves who had been made into bosses by their masters, so they were in a bad situation. If a driver took it easy on the workers and the work was not done, he would be flogged. If he was too hard on the workers, then the driver made enemies among his fellow slaves. Overseers were whites who took orders from the master. A few were made managers, but most were not.
In the south, most slaves helped plant and harvest crops. The typical slave worked on a small farm with one or two other Africans, alongside the master and his family. Other slaves worked in and around the master’s house instead of out in the fields. In southern towns and cities, blacks served as messengers, house servants, and craftsmen.
In the north, farming was not as important to the economy as it was in the south. Therefore, black slaves worked in a wider variety of jobs. They provided skilled and unskilled labor in homes, ships, factories, and shipyards.
While British North America received few slaves, it was deeply involved in the slave trade, which was dominated after the 1680s by the British Royal African Company. For much of the eighteenth century, Britain’s prosperity was involved with the purchase, capture, and export of slaves from western Africa to the European colonies of the western hemisphere. Some colonial legislatures (Massachusetts, Virginia, South Carolina) attempted to tax slave imports, fearing slave insurrection and hoping to encourage European immigration, but found their laws ignored by traders or overturned by royal representatives. By the mid-1700s, voices began to be raised against slavery on moral grounds. Primarily, these were the voices of religious societies. In England and British North America in the 1750s, the Society of Friends (Quakers) began to rid themselves of slaves.
In many ways, the colonial era presented enslaved Africans with more opportunities to abscond than did the more settled and legally-restrictive American society of the nineteenth century. Large sections of all the colonies were uninhabited by Europeans, and Native Americans were sometimes, although not always, willing to assist fugitives from slavery. In addition, vast tracts of forests and swamps, not yet claimed and settled, offered deep cover for runaways. The colonies were just beginning to organize their legal and law enforcement systems to protect slaveholding. Colonial slaves had often recently arrived from Africa or the Caribbean; they had no reason to believe that they could not escape from the system of slavery and start their own communities. Since the northern states were not yet “free” states, the slaves’ only recourse was to cross an international border, pass themselves as free in a new region, or live outside society.
More runaways before the American Revolution than afterward may have tried—as they did in the Caribbean and South America—to form maroon societies. Maroon societies (also called “marron” or “cimarron”) were bands or communities of fugitive slaves who had succeeded in establishing a society of their own in some geographic area, usually difficult to penetrate, where they could not easily be surprised by soldiers, slave catchers, or their previous owners. Africans enslaved in Spanish New World territories were most likely to run away and form such communities. Maroon societies were of several degrees of stability. At the least stable end were the gangs of runaway men who wandered within a region and hid together. They sustained themselves by raids or by prevailing upon their friends and relatives for food. Other more stable maroon societies included both men and women who might have developed a trade relationship with outsiders. Some maroon societies felt themselves safe enough to plant crops and attempt at least a semi-permanent settlement. The threat of maroons emerging from their hiding places to gather with slaves in revolt was another concept that troubled slave owners.
However, by the time of the American republic, such refuges were fewer. Further, the North American backcountry was already inhabited by Native Americans, who sometimes accepted Africans into their communities, sometimes kept them in slavery, and sometimes returned them to their masters. Even the colonial-era maroon societies were neither as large nor as long-lasting as those in the West Indies or Brazil. Maroon societies in North America were most likely to flourish on the borders between English/American and Spanish territories. Thus, Florida and the Texas- Mexico border had several active communities, as did Louisiana before its acquisition by the United States. The Great Dismal Swamp, Okefenokee, and other sites were also briefly home to bands of runaways, some of whom left after a period and others who planned to stay on and stay out of sight. Their success was modest, but—given the constraints—admirable.
Escapes into Spanish Florida were among the earliest successful attempts at freedom and community, beginning near the end of the 1600s and concluding only with Andrew Jackson’s march into Florida to eradicate the “Negro forts.” In 1738, the Spanish governor of Florida offered freedom to British colonial slaves who escaped to St. Augustine. While Spain had long been part of the international slave trade and had used slave labor throughout its colonies, that nation disputed British claims to Georgia and South Carolina. It wanted to keep those colonies as disrupted as possible. Encouraging runaways was a good way to do it. After the edict, slaves ran away both in groups and singly to Saint Augustine and nearby Florida villages. Many of these villages consisted of the remnants of southeastern Native American tribes, gathered together for survival, who became known as Seminoles. Georgia advised its citizens to keep a sharp lookout for runaways from South Carolina on their way to Florida and scout boats patrolled the water routes near the Georgia-Florida border.
The southern colonies had much larger slave populations and began to develop the slave patrols and punitive legislation that came to characterize the slave south. All blacks were required to carry a pass or ticket if they left their plantation or work place. Punishments for runaway slaves were severe; they included whipping, mutilation, branding with an R, sale to the West Indies, and sometimes death. If a group of slaves ran away together, as was common in the colonial era, several of the group would be put to death upon recapture. Those who aided or encouraged runaways were also punished with fines, imprisonment and, occasionally, death. South Carolina fined anyone who apprehended a runaway and neglected to inflict a whipping.
The organization and function of southern militias was closely tied to preventing slave rebellions and runaways. Slave patrols usually had a militia officer as their leader. Even during the American Revolution, scarce military resources had to be expended in patrolling roads, rivers, and seaports to prevent slaves from escaping to the British army and navy. From the beginning of American slavery, runaways were the most troublesome, expensive, and legally vexing aspect of that economic system. Colonial fugitives from slavery came from varied backgrounds and had a wide range of experiences.
The following descriptions of 18th-century runaways and of a rumored insurrection suggest some of the complexities of colonial slavery. (This rumor of insurrection came some fifty years after the actual Stono Rebellion and indicates how very long and lingering were the effects of armed slave resistance.)
Charleston, 8th August 1787 Colonel Arnaldus Vanderhorst, Berkley County MilitiaSir, Having received information that a party of runaway negro men, many of whom are armed, are become very troublesome and dangerous to the plantations in the vicinity of Stono, and it being represented that they are too numerous to be quelled by the usual parties of patrol, you will be pleased to order a command from your regiment of such part of the militia of the neighborhood as you may judge sufficient effectually to apprehend or disperse such slaves as fall within the above description.
***BROUGHT to the WORKHOUSE, IN CHARLES-TOWNMay 14, 1754 A new negro man, speaks no English, a little scarified on the temples, with smooth skin and thick beard, has a white cloth jacket and breeches.***STOLEN, Stray’d, or Run-away, on the 12th from Dr. John Finney in New-Castle, a Negro Woman, named Betty, aged about 18 years, of small Stature, round Face, has been about a Month in this country, speaks veryd little English, has had one Child; Had on, the Body of an old Gingham Gown, and an ozenbrigs Petticoat. She is supposed to have been taken from hence by an Oyster-Shallop, Benj. Taylor Master, bound for Philadelphia, and may be sold on some Part of the River.Whoever brings her to the Subscriber in New-Castle, and discovers the Person who carried her off, shall have Forty Shillings Reward, and reasonable Charges, paid by***Kingstown, Queen Ann’s County, September 10, 1759RUN away the 8th of this Instant, a Negroe Man, named Caesar, he has both his Legs cut off, and walks on his Knees, may pretend that he was Cook of a Vessel, as he has been much used on board of Ships; he was seen by New-Castle on Saturday last. Whoever secures the said Negroe in any Goal or Work-house, shall receive Twenty Shillings Reward, paid by me,SARAH MASSEY. N.B. He has been a Ferry man at Chester Town, Queen Ann’s County, for many years.Thomas PinckneyJohn Finney New-Castle, Sept. 15, 1740
Throughout the colonial period and until 1819, slaves escaped from the lower south into eastern and western Florida. While the famous “Negro Fort,” once the British Fort Gadsden, was taken by American troops in 1816, it was not until 1819 that the United States made a bold play to take all of eastern Florida. In that year, Congress attempted to put a stop to slave runaways and Native American raids across the Florida border by sending Andrew Jackson to make war on the encampments and communities of Africans and Native Americans. Jackson went further and claimed all of Florida for the United States. Spain was not strong enough to reclaim Florida and the descendants of many fugitives moved on to Cuba or retreated into the swamps.
1. What were the Portuguese initially doing in western Africa?
a. They were there to export Africans to the New World.
b. They were exploring the region to colonize it.
c. They were looking for trade opportunities and routes.
d. They were looking to increase the numbers of Africans who were moving to Brazil.
2. What brought more African slaves to the New World?
a. promises of freedom
c. a desire for more land
d. a treaty
3. Which of the following countries is the homeland of the Senegambians?
b. North America
c. Sierra Leone
4. Where do historians trace the origins of African slavery in the United States?
a. a ship that arrived in Louisiana
b. imports from Brazil
c. a ship that came to Virginia
d. imports from France
5. What does the author mean in this sentence? In the 1660s, Virginia decreed that a child followed the status of its mother, thus making lifetime servitude inheritable.
a. A child born in the colonies to a slave mother was freed after his mother was freed.
b. If a mother was a slave all her life, then it was possible that she would inherit a child.
c. In Virginia, a child born to a mother enslaved for life would also be a slave for life.
d. A slave child had to do anything its mother did throughout his or her lifetime.
7.At this time in history, what were many European countries most hoping to get out of North and South America?
c. court systems
8. How would 15–20 percent of a ship’s cargo of Africans be lost on the journey between Africa and the colonies?
a. With so many people on board, it was difficult for the ship’s crew to keep track of everyone. Therefore, some Africans were able to escape.b. The conditions on board the ship were so horrible that many of the Africans died en route.c. The ship would have met other ships along the way and would have sold some of the Africans to them before they even reached the colonies.d. The ship’s crew couldn’t manage the number of Africans on board, so they sent many of them back.
9. A “maroon society” was
a. founded by white slaveholders.
b. a collection of fugitive slaves.
c. very often stable.
d. welcoming to all races.
10. Why did the Spanish encourage runaway slaves to flee from South Carolina and Georgia into Florida?
a. They sympathized with the slaves’ plight.
b. They had always contested the British colonization of North America.
c. They were trying to boost Florida’s population so that they could lead a revolt against the British colonists.
d. They wanted South Carolina and Georgia to be in turmoil because they believed the Spanish should own them.
11. In South Carolina, what would happen if someone found a runaway slave, but did not whip him or her?
a. That person would be fined.
b. That person would be whipped instead.
c. That person would be branded.
d. That person would be killed.
12. How were Africans mainly captured to be sold into slavery?
13. In the 1600s, how did slavery begin to affect the economies of the New World and Europe?
14. What does the author’s mention of George Washington, Jefferson Davis, and Thomas Jefferson tell us about “slave codes”? Use examples to support your response.
15. Do you think slaves had better opportunities in the north or in the south? Explain.
16. Why do you think some Native Americans were willing to help runaway slaves hide? Why would others have sold them or returned them to their owners instead?