Before the 17th century, Africans were not seen as “black”, but as “pagan”. The subtle change to racism occurred in this century as Trans-Atlantic trade developed. In the time period from 1600 to 1763, labor systems in British America changed drastically in the West Indian islands and the Southern colonies because of Trans-Atlantic trade, but they stayed similar in the Middle and New England colonies to what they were before constant trade across the Atlantic was introduced.
First, there is the change resulting from the South Atlantic System. This system was made up of slaves from Africa going to the West Indies owned by Great Britain, sugar being harvested from the West Indies going to England who sold it to other countries, who then used the money it acquired from the sugar sale to buy more slaves. The English West Indian islands consisted of Barbados, Jamaica, and the Bahamas where sugar plantations were developed in the 1650s. These plantations started off as small farms whose labor came from indentured servants. As time went on, however, slaves became cheaper and easier to replace, after they died from the harsh plantation life, than indentured servants. This led to a major increase in the number of slaves imported, and by 1713 there were 122,000 Africans living the life of slavery in the British West Indian islands.
Moving on, the change in labor systems continued on up into the Chesapeake and South Carolina on the mainland of British America. In the areas around Maryland and Virginia, indentured servitude was the main form of labor until 1676 when Nathanial Bacon led indentured servants in a revolt that resulted in Jamestown burning to the ground. One of the things Bacon’s Rebellion taught the plantation owners was that their source of labor needed to be completely and entirely under their control. Indentured servants, especially after their debt was paid, couldn’t be controlled, so the landowners looked to slavery for the labor needed to grow tobacco and ship it to England. By 1740 almost 40% of the Chesapeake population was African. In South Carolina, growth was small until it was discovered that rice grew well there. This resulted in a labor change similar to that in the West Indies. The work necessary to grow rice and export it to England was brutal, so slaves were constantly being imported from Africa to replace those who had died. This continual supply of slaves resulted in a black majority in 1705 which grew until 80% of the population in rice-growing areas of South Carolina was made up of Africans.
In the New England and Middle colonies very little change was seen in the way labor systems were used. Though these areas benefited immensely from the South Atlantic System, they were only a place where goods were transferred from the West Indian islands and the Southern colonies to England. Combined, indentured servants and slaves made up about 30 % of the workforce in New York City and Philadelphia up until the 1750s with very little fluctuation. Almost half of the population of major sea-ports such as Boston and Philadelphia were made up of artisan families. The children of these families learned their trades through an apprenticeship to an older relative and then passed on the skills they learned.
Overall, changes to the labor systems in the English West Indies and the Southern colonies were brought about by an increase in slaves, while the New England and Middle colonies kept continuity in their labor systems by not needing an overwhelming number of slaves to work their smaller farms and artisan shops.
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