Slavery in the Colonial World

Early American history is a story of three cultures:  European, Native American, and African. The impact of African culture on American society is indisputable.  Because of the institution of slavery, which began in America in Virginia in 1619, great numbers of Africans were brought to North America against their will, and they suffered huge deprivations and oppressive conditions as part of their lives as slaves. The history of slavery is troublesome in many ways, beyond the sheer brutality of it. Galley slaves in the Roman Empire were worked to death in Roman warships. Slaves often held important household positions among wealthy members of ancient cultures. They were used in backbreaking work like mining, and they were used for sport, fighting to the death in Roman colosseums. In the Middle Ages slavery existed under the rubric of serfdom. The story is endless and has touched every major civilization in the history of the world. Although American slavery has much in common with slavery in other historic contexts, it has its own unique features.

slave shipIt is important to remember, as one African American historian has noted, that “slavery was old when Moses was young.”  The lives of Africans who were brought to America as slaves often started as the result of tribal wars in the sub-Saharan part of the continent. They were prisoners of other tribes, and when the plagues in Europe required more laborers, they could be sold for profit to slave tradres, who the ahipped and resold them. As mentioned above, slavery existed from ancient times well into the modern period, and, sad to say, in parts of the world slavery, or a condition very much like slavery, still exists today.  None of that changes the fact that American slavery is the great paradox of American history.  That a nation “conceived in liberty” could have been built on the backs of thousands of African slaves is certainly one of the most troublesome features of the American past.

The legacy of slavery continued long after its ending with the American Civil War.  During Reconstruction and the times that followed, into the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the legacy of slavery has remained part of American culture.  Of all the millions of slaves taken from West Africa into the Western Hemisphere, about 5 percent wound up in what became the United States.  They came from all parts of the west coast of Africa, and the cultural differences among them were certainly as great as those of Europeans and Native Americans, yet almost all Africans were treated identically, not much different from beasts of burden.

Most slaves started as prisoners captured in African wars or raids and were sold to white traders for transport across the Atlantic. The middle passage was notoriously inhumane and the conditions in the slave ships were so intolerable that slaves often tried to commit suicide by jumping over the side or refusing to eat; anything was better than rather than the horribly painful existence in the slavers. The film Amistad depicts much of that story, though not with complete accuracy.

When the slaves arrived in American trading centers they were sold off to the highest bidder, and to the extent that any human connections remained among the slaves, they were almost certainly broken. Little or no recognition was given to slave families, let alone friendships or marriages. Slaves often wound up on plantations with other Africans from different regions, with different customs and languages. They soon learned that survival, which generally depended on the sort of treatment they received from their masters, required that they suppress their African origins and adapt as best they could to life in this strange, new world. All they knew for sure was that there was no going back.

The institution of lifetime slavery in America did not occur immediately.  The first slaves to arrive were treated more or less as indenture servants, and many of them eventually became free; some became landowners, and some of them, paradoxically, even became slave owners themselves.  But within a few short decades, the lot of slaves had evolved into one of permanent lifetime servitude from which there was no escape, save by the voluntary manumission on the part of the owner, which was not likely to occur.  Colonial America was chronically labor poor, and labor was valued highly, so slaves became an economic commodity whose monetary worth rose steadily as the economic fortunes of America rose.

One can understand the evolution of slavery by looking at the evolution of the Virginia slave statutes.  By 1670 a code indicated that because corporal punishment was the only means of chastising a slave, and because no one would willfully destroy his own property, the death of a slave as a result of corporal punishment could not have been deemed intentional. Thus the death of a slave was not considered a felony, which meant that slave owners gained virtual life-and-death authority over their slaves.

Religion was no consolation for the slave.  Very early it was decided that even though slaves could be Christianized for the salvation of their souls, the fact that they became Christians did not entitle then to freedom.  In addition, the religious practice of slaves was monitored to prevent religion from becoming a call for liberation. Slaves were allowed to worship, but under strictly controlled conditions.

The daily life of slaves was hard.  They were given the bare essentials for life:  a place to sleep, clothing, enough food to keep them healthy enough for work.  Luxuries of any kind were virtually unknown; they worked six or seven days a week, for most of the daylight hours.  And although their health was often protected because of their economic value, they were worked as hard as a body can physically tolerate.  African slaves increased in number through natural reproduction at approximately the same rate as whites for most of the colonial period.  Thus relationships between male and female slaves were encouraged, and something resembling marriage was occasionally recognized; however, if economic conditions demanded, marriages were severed, and the selling of partners and children from the plantation to another location was common.

The literature of slavery is now vast.  Many historians have examined the African cultures from which the slaves came.  The slave cultures in the American South have been documented through slave codes and records of slave owners to the point where we have an excellent view of the life of the slave.
To say it was hard is inadequate, for it does not fully convey the agony that the slave existence could always be.  On the other hand, life was difficult for everybody in colonial times, except for those who managed to accumulate some wealth and position.  If one looks at the histories of indentured servants such as those contained in the documents for this part of the course, one can see that indentured servitude could also be a brutally harsh existence.  The main difference seems to have been that for the indentured servant, there was a light at the end of the tunnel; eventually if he or she survived, the indentured servant would become free, perhaps with a little property to get a start of one’s own.  But for the slaves there was no light at the end of the tunnel; they knew they would spend all their lives in slavery and that their children would spend their lifetimes as slaves as well.

Although many slaves were in fact eventually freed by their masters long before the end of slavery in 1865, no slave could reasonably expect to be freed except by the most generous masters in what could only be called unusual circumstances.  As much of the literature has borne out, economic conditions for the slave owner, which were generally favorable, often took unexpected downturns, so that even when slave owners had an abundance of slaves, they would hold onto them as a hedge against more difficult times.  Often those with more slaves than they could profitable employ rented them out to other plantations, or sometimes got them jobs in villages or towns in blacksmith or harness shops.  Slave wages would be paid to the slave owner, and if he were generous perhaps a portion of that income would go to the slave himself.

We shall return to the institution of slavery later in this course, but in the colonial period one sees the gradual adoption of slavery as an economic resource, devoid of human considerations, that would remain a major component of American history for centuries to come.

Colonial America Home | Colonial Life | Updated June 1, 2020