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2.6 Slavery in the Colonies





⏱️  4 min read

written by

james glackin

The first recorded slave transaction took place in Virginia in 1619 when African slaves arrived on a Dutch warship.  Most of these would become indentured servants. During the first half of the 17th century, white European indentured servants served as the majority of laborers in all of the 13 colonies. A small number of Native Americans were also servants.

🎥Watch: AP US History - The Impact of Slavery on Colonial America


“Stowage of the British slave ship Brookes under the regulated slave trade act of 1788,” 1789, via Wikimedia. Slave ships transported 11-12 million Africans to destinations in North and South America, but it was not until the end of the 18th century that any regulation was introduced. The Brookes print dates to after the Regulated Slave Trade Act of 1788, but still shows enslaved Africans chained in rows using iron leg shackles. The slave ship Brookes was allowed to carry up to 454 slaves, allotting 6 feet (1.8 m) by 1 foot 4 inches (0.41 m) to each man; 5 feet 10 inches (1.78 m) by 1 foot 4 inches (0.41 m) to each women, and 5 feet (1.5 m) by 1 foot 2 inches (0.36 m) to each child, but one slave trader alleged that before 1788, the ship carried as many as 609 slaves.

By 1700, black African slaves would be sent to the Americas against their will. This racial change was the result of Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676, where many poor white farmers staged a violent uprising against the government and wealthy tobacco planters of Virginia. The fear of a large, poor, resentful white population led the wealthy Virginia planters to look for a new labor force in Africa.

Black Africans were transported from western Africa in mostly Portuguese and British ships across the Atlantic Ocean as part of the Middle Passage. This gruesome trip took about 6 weeks in which about 20% of the slaves on board would die from disease, starvation, or suicide. Africans were enchained below deck in putrid conditions.  

The majority of black Africans were sent to Brazil and the West Indies.  Many slaves would die in their sugar mills or in the fields of the sugar plantations.

Slavery in the Northern Colonies

The northern colonies of New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey had legalized slavery in the 17th and 18th centuries but their smaller farms and limited soil would make the demand for slaves less than the southern colonies. All northern colonies would free most of their slaves legally by the early 19th century.

New England’s slave population was only about 3% but this number drastically increased to 25% in port cities such as Boston. Philadelphia and New York also had a significant number of slaves. Most northern slaves were domestic servants, dockworkers, sailors, and craft workers. Some would be hired out by their owners and were declared property.

In the decades before the Civil War, many slaves were freed. However, after the 1793 invention of the cotton gin, cotton and other southern products were linked to northern banking and shipping. These important economic sectors of the North had a vested interest in the agricultural production by slaves of the South.

Slavery in the Southern Colonies

The large agricultural plantations of the South and their single cash crop economies led to a high demand for slaves. Tobacco in the Chesapeake and rice and indigo in the South were all labor intensive crops. Cotton would become the major crop in the Deep South only after the invention of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin in 1793.

Tobacco, a crop that exhausted the soil and caused farmers to expand westward for more land, was harvested in Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina. Rice plantations and indigo were harvested in South Carolina and Georgia. Initially, James Oglethorpe and his followers in Georgia banned slavery, but other southerners moved into the “peach state” and brought slaves with them as Georgia legalized slavery in 1750.

Slaves Response to Slavery

Black slaves did resist the institution of slavery by murdering their owners, destroying machinery and other property, escaping, and committing suicide. Some escapees formed maroon groups in swamps or in the mountains and would menace plantations for food and other products. Rebellions were not frequent, but they did happen. As part of the Stono Rebellion in South Carolina in 1739, slaves seized arms, burnt houses, and killed 25 whites.

Most of the slave revolts occurred in areas where there were a large number of slaves, such as the American South. More violent revolts happened in Jamaica, Haiti, and the Caribbean because African slaves outnumbered whites in many communities. The result of most revolts were the mass executions of black slaves.

Black slaves who were born in the colonies were more prone to adopt parts of white culture than those who were brought by ship from Africa. Blacks born in the colonies developed an African-American culture that emphasized religion, distinct foodways, music, dance, and the importance of family. The Baptist Church became a staple of many slave communities as part of the Great Awakening religious revival starting in 1740.

Slave Laws

The Barbados Code was a major law passed in 1661 in Barbados which meant that black slaves were chattel (property) and had no basic rights that they would have been entitled to under normal English common law. This law protected the white slave owners and allowed them to kill slaves without any legal consequences. Men from Barbados would move into the American colonies and bring these codes with them.

Other codes were consistent throughout the American colonies. Slaves could not travel without a written slip from their master. They were forbidden to gather in large numbers, except in the company of whites. These laws also did not allow blacks to marry, read, or serve on juries.

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