Short Lecture on the Origins of Slavery in America
During the century and a half between the arrival of twenty blacks in Jamestown in 1619 and the beginning of the American Revolution in 1776, slavery—something that had never existed in England itself—spread throughout the English colonies, from Virginia it would make its way south into the Carolinas and then out to the frontier, and it would also make its way north into the midAtlantic states and into the farthest reaches of New England. It grew slowly, almost imperceptibly, until it had become so embedded into the American way of life and commerce that colonists eager for wealth imported hundreds of thousands of Africans to work in their fields. During the eighteenth century, slavery became an entrenched and for many colonies, central component of society. But slaves were brought to America to work. First and foremost, it was a system of labor.
Colonial America was overwhelmingly agricultural. Many early English colonists had hoped to become fabulously wealth without having to work—much like the Spanish conquistadors who came a century before them, they had great hopes of finding gold, or if not that, then perhaps they would discover the Northwest Passage to the Pacific Ocean, thereby gaining access to the riches of the East Indies. It soon became quite clear that forget about wealth, survival itself was going to be a challenge, and was going to depend on working the land. The New World may not have held the abundant riches colonist dreamed of, but one thing was abundant: land. For the first generation of settlers, feeding themselves took up most of their energy, but in 1617, it was discovered that tobacco seeds, transported from the West Indies, thrived in the soil of the Chesapeake region. (Incidentally, it was Pocahontas’ husband, John Rolfe who successfully planted the first tobacco crop.) Over the course of the seventeenth century, tobacco became a major commodity fad, and would rival tea and alcohol in popularity throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Initial inflated prices for the tobacco would help fuel the development of Virginia. But first, the settlers faced a problem: they had a crop (tobacco), and there was plenty of land to grow it, but what was missing? Labor. Labor is THE problem of colonial America. Who does the labor? Conditions were so dismal in the colony that planters realized the only way they could get people to work for them would be to force them.
That may seem like a less than obvious choice. But these colonists came from a society in England that was highly stratified—the rich and powerful took it as their right to exploit the poor and powerless. In many ways, the early colonists came from a world that was pre-modern—without concepts of cruel and unusual punishment, equal rights, exploitation. In fact, it was a world that took inequality for granted. So there was nothing particularly problematic about the idea of forced labor. And the colonists didn’t particularly care what this forced labor looked like. They needed labor, period. Some seventeenth century colonists were willing to pay freely hired workers, but they also experimented with two sources of unfree labor: Indians and Europeans, before it occurred to them to import Africans on a widespread scale.
For a variety of reasons, Indian slavery was never successful. Many Indians simply refused to perform agricultural labor, which they viewed as women’s work. Indians also happened to know the terrain a lot better than the Europeans did, and there was always the risk of Indians escaping and conspiring against their captors. Finally, as we have talked about this semester, the Indians had already disastrously encountered Europeans before the English ever got there, and by the early seventeenth century, there simply were not enough Indians left to meet the labor needs of the colonists—between the outright killing of Indians, and the massive epidemics of Europeans diseases like smallpox and measles, that killed many, and in some areas most, of the Indian population.
For these reasons, it was far more common to try to find European laborers. In fact the basis of the seventeenth-century workforce in the southern part of the English colonies were European laborers. Most came as indentured servants. The practice of indenturing, or apprenticing, children and teenagers, and less often adults, to masters was widely practiced in seventeenth-century England as a form of welfare for the poor and way to provide job training. In the colonies however, indentured servitude was primarily used as a way to help European immigrants who wanted to come to America but couldn’t afford it. By selling themselves into a sort of temporary slavery, in exchange they got a free trip across the Atlantic. For the many indentured servants who ended up in the South where they basically represented cheap labor for eager planters, they found themselves in a form of labor that looked radically different from England—it was much harsher, and much more exploitative. Further, while most servants came to American voluntarily, some arrived after being kidnapped or sentenced for criminal behavior. Most adults would be indentured for four or five years, but children often served seven years or more. During their indenture, servants were essentially slaves, under the complete and unchallenged authority of their masters. Masters could whip their servants, could prevent them from marrying, and even sell them to others.
Initially, indentured servitude boomed in the colonies because it met the needs of planters as well as the needs of Europeans eager to migrate to the colonies. One of the great advantages for landowners was that they were granted land based on how many servants they held, thereby increasing their landholdings—fifty acres for every person they transported to the colonies. So for example, when Virginia planter John Carter imported eighty indentured servants in 1665 to work for him, he received four thousand acres. For the growing class of colonial landowners, indentured servitude was a win-win situation—cheap labor, more land, and an elevated social status by virtue of the fact that they had authority over other human beings.
Of course, we have to ask what was in it for the indentured servants. During this time in England, a civil war had disrupted the whole social and economic order. Indentured servitude provided a way out of hardship—an escape from poverty, hunger, unemployment, prison—and a chance to start over in a new place, and perhaps even prosper. The people who volunteered to ship out were overwhelming young and male—they came from the bottom half of society, and had little hope of anything if they stayed in England. For roughly ten-percent of those who came to America as indentured servants, things worked out basically as they had anticipated—they were able to work off their indenture, and managed to find some economic prosperity of their own. But for that other ninety-percent, things turned out pretty badly. Most indentured servants ended up working in the tobacco fields of Virginia and Maryland. They worked for men who were desperate for wealth, and were going to get as much work out of their servants as possible before their terms of service were up. Many servants ran away—if they were caught, they faced whippings, or brandings or even physical mutilation, and their terms of service would often be extended. Many others died—as many as half of all servants in the seventeenth century Chesapeake died while in service. Some who survived might become independent craftsmen or even landowners, but that was rare. Add to this that there were far fewer women in these colonies than men, most male servants were unable to find wives and so they remained single. You ended up with a very large class of men who had no family, no roots, no stability, no money, a sort of permanent underclass of discontent laborers.
Black slaves had been introduced to the Chesapeake region in 1619, when a Dutch captain sold twenty Africans in Virginia. But it was not entirely clear at first that the status of black laborers in America would be fundamentally different from that of white indentured servants. In the rugged conditions of the seventeenth century south, it was often difficult for Europeans and Africans to maintain strictly separate roles. In some areas—South Carolina for example, where the number of African arrivals increased more quickly than anywhere else—whites and blacks lived and worked together on terms of relative equality. Some blacks were treated much like white hired servants, and some were freed after a set term of service. A few Africans themselves became landowners, and some apparently owned slaves of their own. But as a whole, in these early days of the American colonies, the cost of African slaves remained out of reach for most people. Not only did slaves cost more money up front than did indentured servants, there was always the risk of a slave dying, and then your entire investment would be lost.
So, although blacks continued to trickle into the colonies throughout the seventeenth century, up until the 1680s, the non-Indian population of the British colonies remained overwhelmingly white. As long as a steady supply of indentured labor continued to come, colonists saw little reason to go to the expense and trouble of importing large numbers of Africans, who, unlike English laborers, would have to go through a longer period of adjustment—to a new culture, a new language, new customs—before they would become productive members of the workforce.
But everything changed in the 1680s. The problem with indentured labor was that it was temporary—at some point, servants had to be freed. That meant not only did you continually lose your workforce, but as the population increased in the colonies, there was a greater and greater demand for labor. You would need more and more indentured immigrants to meet this growing need. But as it happened, in the 1680s, there was a sharp decline in the number of English migrants arriving in America under indenture. Part of the reason is that the political situation in England had stabilized, and the economy was improving, so there was less of an incentive to leave. At the same time, as immigrants looked across the ocean at America, it didn’t seem quite as attractive as it once did. With more people settling in the colonies, it became harder and harder to get land. And since land was the way to get rich in early America, without land you had little hope of climbing the economic ladder. So for these reasons, fewer ships arrived carrying new immigrant laborers. By the end of the century, it became clear that indentured Europeans could no longer meet the labor needs in the Southern colonies.
In another twist of history, at the same time that the number of new indentured Europeans arrivals declined, the price of African slaves suddenly dropped. Colonial planters didn’t care where the labor came from, or what the laborers looked like, they were simply desperate for it. Indians slave labor obviously hadn’t panned out, European indentured servants were harder to come by. But by the mid to late seventeenth century, some colonists, especially those in the Virginia and Maryland colonies, were becoming enormously wealthy off of the tobacco trade, and as the prices of African slaves dropped, these wealthier colonists started thinking that perhaps African slaves were the answer to their labor problem.
Another turn of events sealed the fate of slavery in America. As we noted, the problem with indentured servants is that at some point, you had to free them. These ex-servants were often male, young, poor, without roots, without much hope of ever owning land or practicing a trade. So as terms of service came up, a growing class of young, rowdy, unskilled, impoverished men were let loose into a society that had no place for them. And this made these young men angry, and violent. So they led rebellions in 1663. And in 1675. And 1683. People were killed, chaos ensued. And this of course troubled the planters.
How do you stop ex-servants from running amok in the countryside and causing trouble? Well, one solution is that you don’t let them go free. But the idea of holding European servants in permanent bondage was inconceivable. As unjust, and at times horrific, as things might have been for indentured servants, they were still protected by certain legal rights that the English government had ensured. Among those rights of course, is that they could not be held in permanent bondage. Here again, African slaves provided an answer to the problem. As captives from a foreign land, they had no rights, no protection. As slaves, they would expect to be held in permanent bondage.
What other advantages might African slaves provide? Compared to Indian slaves or European servants, they posed a greatly reduced risk of successful escape. They often did not know the geography of the region, and would have had little knowledge of where to go. Further, and most obviously, their skin color gave them away. It was a lot more difficult for a black runaway slave to blend into the population than it was for a white indentured servant, or an Indian slave.
By the end of the seventeenth century, only about one in ten of the residents of the colonies was African. But because Africans were so heavily concentrated in a few southern colonies, they were already beginning to outnumber Europeans in some areas. The high ratio of men to women among African immigrants (two men for every one woman in most areas) impeded the natural increase of the black population. But in the Chesapeake at least, more new slaves were being born by 1700 than were being imported from Africa. In South Carolina, by contrast, the difficult conditions of rice cultivation—and the high death rates of those who worked in the rice fields—ensured that the black population would barely be able to sustain itself through natural increase until much later. Between 1700 and 1760, the number of Africans in the colonies increased ten times to about a 250,000. A relatively small number lived in New England; there were slightly more in the middle colonies. The vast majority, however, continue to live in the south. By then the flow of white laborers to that region had all but stopped, and Africans had becomes securely established as the basis of the southern work force.
But the most important thing to note about the shift from indentured labor to slave labor is that American colonists first turned to African slavery not because of any particular idea about race, or some kind of ideological desire to enslave black people, but for a very practical reason: the flow of indentured white labor had dried up.
English people already had certain stereotypes of Africans that helped them feel more comfortable with their enslavement. First, Africans were “black” in contrast to the English people’s own sense of themselves as white. Europeans had numerous word associations with colors—white was associated with purity, cleanliness, godliness, while black could mean anything from dirty to evil. Secondly, English people perceived Africans as savage and uncivilized. English people saw African culture as very different from their own, and if it was different, it must also be inferior. Finally, English people saw Africans as heathens—and at a time in Europe when wars were being fought over exactly what kind of Christian you were, to be not Christian at all was deeply suspect.
Unquestionably, English people definitely saw themselves as very different from Africans, and no doubt their negative stereotypes of Africans helped to shape ideas of race during the early years of slavery. But as much as the English were struck by differences between themselves and Africans, throughout much of the seventeenth century, enslaved black laborers were treated nearly the same as other lower class laborers. There were few lines between blacks and lower-class whites during the first decades of settlement. Indentured servants had many of the same constraints as slaves, and the two groups often lived together, worked together, played together, sometimes slept together, and ran away together. In terms of our idea of slavery and racism in America, seventeenth-century race relations were remarkably flexible. There were no impenetrable barriers that separated races. Although almost all blacks came to the colonies as slaves, most whites came as unfree laborers as well, and the two groups had a lot in common. But two things separated white unfree laborers from blacks. First, white laborers could eventually earn their freedom, while for the most part, black slaves served for life. But more importantly, the majority of white laborers came to America voluntarily. None of the Africans did.
Involuntary would become the most important thing that would lead to a permanent separation between white and black workers. Desire to attract white immigration put limits on how harshly indentured servants could be treated. Gradually, the status and treatment of European migrants improved. An increasing number of new immigrants were literate and possessed skills that enabled them to take advantage of opportunities that the growing colonial economy offered. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, very few white servants in the South still worked in agricultural labor. Agricultural labor was left almost entirely to blacks, who as involuntary migrants could not be lured away by the same economic opportunities offered to whites. The status of white migrants rose in inverse proportion to the status of black laborers, whose own status became more clearly defined. By the eighteenth century a rigid distinction had become established between black and white. Colonial assemblies began to pass “slave codes” limiting the rights of blacks in law and ensuring almost absolute authority to white masters. One factor, and one factor only determined whether a person was subject to the slave codes: color. In contrast to the colonial societies of Spanish America, where people of mixed race had a different and higher status than pure Africans, English America recognized no such distinctions. Any African ancestry was enough to classify a person as black.
Over the next century, white Americans would come to the conclusion that black people were biologically and inherently suited for slavery. By the middle of the eighteenth century, racism would become hardened, whites and blacks sharply separated, slavery entrenched as THE labor system of the southern colonies, as well as legally established in the northern colonies. Whether slave or free, blacks would be kept at the bottom of society for generations to come. In the decades preceding the American Revolution, slavery spread throughout all of the colonies. In the North, where labor was less dependent on slaves, slavery became a luxury more than anything else. But in the Chesapeake colonies, slavery formed the backbone of an economy that became almost entirely based on tobacco. Throughout the colonial period, Virginia had the highest population of the colonies, and more importantly, the highest value of exports.
On the eve of the American Revolution, slaves made up about two-fifths of the entire population in Virginia, but in the tobacco-producing areas along the Chesapeake, they made up at least half the population. In South Carolina, they constituted a majority of the population. In Georgia they made up close to half of that colony’s population. At the same time, demand for slaves in the North began to decline. And as the Revolution approached, many northerners began to sense a disconnect between the language of liberty and democracy on the one hand, and the practice of slavery on the other. Although only faint at the end of the eighteenth century, a line began to be emerge between the South, where slavery was solidly entrenched, and the North, where it was not.