Slavery in America the Beginning of Slavery Essay

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  • Subject: Black Studies
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Slavery in America

The Beginning of Slavery

The first year that African slaves were brought to Colonial America was reported to be 1619 (Vox, 2012). The ship that docked at Point Comfort, in Jamestown Virginia, was owned by the Dutch. The Dutch crew was said to be starving and they wanted to make a trade with the colonists -- slaves for food, Vox explains in The New York Times-owned publications About.com. There were a reported twenty slaves on board, and this was verified by a letter from Dutch crewmember John Rolfe to the treasurer of the Virginia Company, Edwin Sandys.

It is possible that African slaves actually arrived prior to 1619 -- perhaps in the northern colonies -- but Vox explains that the only "hard evidence" available as to the presence of slaves came from Rolfe's letter. The British were involved in the slave trade at that time but Vox writes that they were "reluctant to institute slavery in their new American colonies." Historian Betty Wood reports that by 1625, there were just 23 Africans in the Virginia colony, and thirty-five years later that number rose to 950, which was approximately four percent of the entire population of Virginia (Vox).

That said, there were many indentured servants that had been brought from England to Virginia, and while they were not technically enslaved like the Africans were, their treatment was "…largely indistinguishable from that of slaves" (Vox). In time the indentured servant industry ended in Virginia. In fact, during Nathaniel Bacon's 1676 Rebellion, white and black slaves rose up against Virginia's leadership in a united campaign, and as a result, Virginia opted to use African slaves exclusively and phased the indentured servant program out (Vox).

The National Geographic presents a timeline of slavery, reporting that in 1662 a law was passed in Virginia that black mothers' babies will be slaves if the mother is in bondage and will be free if the mother is free. And in 1705, Virginia lawmakers basically passed legislation that allowed masters to own slaves; that same law allowed masters "…to kill and destroy" slaves that ran away. Various slave revolts are reported by the National Geographic time line, all of which were put down by militia with many slaves being killed.

In 1775 of course the American Revolution against England began, but 1775 was also an important date in the history of slavery; the Abolitionist Society was founded by Anthony Benezet of Philadelphia and the first president of the Abolitionist Society was Benjamin Franklin (in 1787).

The British began sending fewer indentured servants to the New World in the 1660s, according to historian Betty Wood. In her book, Slavery in Colonial America, 1619-1776, the author points out that England had a "heightened interest" in "commerce and colonization," and along with this new theme England became more involved in the transatlantic slave trade. There were merchants that had profited handsomely by bringing boat-loads of indentured servants to the colonies and now they were "…set to make even more money by entering the slave trade," Wood writes (Wood, 2005, p. 11).

By the 1680s, tobacco was a huge crop in Virginia, and growers needed laborers in order to plant, maintain and harvest the tobacco. Hence, the tobacco farmers were "more than willing to do business" with British slave traders because they needed the workers. By the late 1680s, African slaves made up 11% of the population of Virginia; by 1740 slaves made up 40% of the population of Virginia (Wood, 11).

In the Chesapeake, too, workers were needed to tend crops and Woods notes that "There was no ambiguity whatsoever about the legal status of the thousands of African people" who were brought to the Chesapeake area for work. Wood writes that about 49,000 Africans were brought into Virginia and Maryland between the years 1700 and 1740.

What were conditions like on the slave ships?

The slave ships bringing Africans to Colonial America were unhealthy, inhumane, hideously overcrowded and brutally unfair to the enslaved passengers. Alistair Boddy-Evans writes that the transport of slaves from the west coast of Africa to the Americas was called the "Middle Passage," and in the 18th century an estimated "6 million Africans" were forcibly taken from their homes -- and 2 million of those were seized and enslaved by England. "Long before they reached the New World," slaves were introduced to diseases they had no resistance to (Boddy-Evans, 2008). Moreover, many slaves suffered from serious malnutrition prior to their ships docking in Colonial America; in fact Boddy-Evans explains that the great majority of deaths to Africans occurred in the first two weeks of their passage. Some slaves became ill from European diseases before boarding the ships.

Once on board, "Slaves were stripped of every bit of dignity they had, and were subject to ill-treatment and punishment," Kristina Petterson writes in UNESCO ASPnet Projects. Slaves move, Petterson explains (Petterson, 2004, p. 2). There was a lack of ventilation and sanitation facilities -- such as they were, no toilets, and the slaves were asked to simply carry out their digestive and urination needs where they lay -- were unconscionable and appalling.

In some situations the slaves were loaded on board and made to wait for the ships to sail out to sea for days at a time. They were put in chains in the ships because the threat of losing runaway slaves prior to transporting them to the New World was an unacceptable option for the "slavers" (as the slave traders were known) (Petterson, 3).

The slaves were stowed below deck like "pieces of goods," Petterson explains. The captain in charge of the ship could pack the slaves as "tight packers" or "loose packers"; and it depended solely on how many slaves were on board.

Slaves were forced to be crammed into unbelievably close quarters on the ships in the middle Passage from Africa to Colonial America.

This illustration was found in Google Images and is credited to www.usfamilycultureblogspot.com

(Dr. Kristie Homes). Many slaves died on the way to their Colonial America enslavement, and their bodies were simply dumped overboard.

The issue of whether the ship would be packed tight or loosely depended on which system was the "most profitable," Petterson explains (4). If the captain had the vision to allow the Africans a bit more room, and treated them somewhat more humanely, he might get a better price for them in the slave auctions because obviously the slaves would be healthier if they had more room to move and stretch out on board the ships. In the end, Petterson continues, the idea of tight packing held a lot of interest for slavers because "…tight packing would be more profitable and safer" because for those slaves that showed signs of starvation and who needed to be "fattened up" -- or those with wounds that needed to heal -- they could be healed and fattened up in "slave yards before the slaves were offered for sale on slave markets" in Colonial America (Petterson, 4).

Due to the total lack of sanitation facilities, Petterson continues, "One can only imagine the stench that must have been below deck on the slave ships"; the slaves would be lying around "in their own and others' waste, blood and vomit" (4). Moreover, contagious diseases and lice were very common on board these "tight packed" ships. It is a hideous concept to imagine being chained together and stowed on shelves "which were usually less than half a meter high," preventing the slaves from standing up. Imagine lying down chained to another slave for up to 150 days, the maximum time it took for the Middle Passage to arrive in the east coast of Colonial America.

The women and children who were sometimes allowed to walk around the deck, but it was rare that a male slave was allowed out of his chains, Petterson explained (5). The slaves were chained together with the right foot of one shackled to the left foot of another; or, they were chained to the deck by their neck and legs.

Did the slaves understand where they were being taken and what it was all about? Petterson writes that they had "…no idea where they were going, how long they would be on board the ship, and what would happen to them at the end of this arduous journey. They were fed twice a day (slavers realized that to keep the slaves reasonably healthy they would need nourishment); some received boiled rice, millet or cornmeal; others were fed stewed yams or fruit that resembled bananas.

What happened to the slaves upon arrival in Colonial America?

Some slaves that had become ill during the transport from Africa were put in a secure place and fed and nursed so they could get top dollar on the slave auction. According to Jenny B. Wahl (Carleton College) writing in Economic History, slave sales were frequently held across the antebellum South in the 18th century (Wahl, 2010, p. 5). The South offered greater…

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