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The Growth of Slavery

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 4, 2012

The Growth of Slavery

Slavery grew rapidly as the colonies developed. The first Africans to come to America arrived in Jamestown in 1619; they were indentured servants who would earn their freedom after an agreed-upon term of labor. In 1661, the colony of Virginia passed laws stating that slavery was legal; the following year, the Virginia House of Burgesses made slave status hereditary. Massachusetts had passed laws against slavery in 1641; in 1670 these laws were amended to state that the children of slaves could be sold into slavery. By 1690 there were slaves in every colony, although there were far more of them in the South than in the North. This was a matter of economics and geography. Slaves were not in great demand north of Maryland because there were few large-scale farms or plantations. Africans who lived in the North might be laborers or house servants, many of whom were able, over time, to save money and purchase their freedom.

There were objections to slavery from the earliest days of the colonies. The Pennsylvania Quakers spoke out publicly against slavery as early as 1688. Benjamin Franklin founded the first antislavery society in the colonies. During the Revolutionary War, Abigail Adams noted how hypocritical it was for Congress to demand freedom for Americans while denying it to African Americans. However, those who insisted on maintaining slavery always overpowered those who opposed it. The abolitionist movement gained no real power or influence until the nineteenth century.

Slavers would sail to Africa to capture Africans, usually in the western region that Europeans referred to as the Gold Coast. African tribes aided and abetted the slavers by helping to capture people from tribes that were hostile to their own. The Middle Passage, as the trip across the Atlantic is known, was a horrifying nightmare for the African captives. They were crammed into the hold of the ship, where there was no fresh air or light. They were kept in chains throughout the voyage. Because the traders insisted on maximum profit, they stuffed as many captives into the ship as it could possibly hold. The slaves were laid side by side and end to end, each within a space no more than about two feet wide and six feet long. There were no sanitary facilities. Captives were occasionally taken on deck for fresh air; many threw themselves overboard to escape the terror. Many more died of disease on the way over. Still, 600,000 Africans survived the journey during the course of the eighteenth century. In some colonies, such as South Carolina, Africans soon made up the majority of the population.

Once a slaver had enough captives to fill the hold of his ship, he would sail to either the Caribbean or the North American mainland and unload his human cargo for sale at auction. Captives were robbed of all dignity during this process: buyers forced their mouths open to look at their teeth, squeezed their arms and legs to test muscle strength, and otherwise examined them as if they had been livestock. There was no attempt to keep families together; buyers purchased only the types of workers they needed. Husbands and wives, children and parents were often parted for good on the auction block—ironic considering the importance of religion and family in white Colonial society.

Some slaves were put to work as house servants, but most Africans had been imported to labor outdoors on the large farms or plantations in the Caribbean and the southern colonies. They were given the minimum amount of food needed to keep them alive and productive. They had no days off, received no pay, and worked constantly in all weathers, often under the threat of whipping, beating, or even more severe punishments for any infraction of rules. Female slaves had an even worse time than their male counterparts, because they were sexually abused. No white man would incur any legal or social penalty for raping a black woman. It was very common for a slave to bear her master’s children, who of course inherited her slave status.

White colonists were always concerned about the possibility of slave rebel- lion. Therefore, the southern colonies, where slaves were the most numerous, passed laws that severely curtailed opportunities for slaves to bond with one another. Slaves were forbidden to meet in large groups, to marry, to leave the master’s home without permission, to possess any weapons, or to learn to read or write. Despite these prohibitions, slaves frequently escaped North, where it was not too difficult to gain their freedom. The slaves escaped despite knowing that they were running serious risks of punishment if they were captured. A runaway slave would certainly be whipped, and might have their face branded, tongue cut out, or fingers or a whole hand chopped off. Slaves were considered valuable property, but they were easily replaced; therefore “troublemakers” were considered expendable.

Although slaves were forbidden so many freedoms, they somehow managed to function and even to develop a lively culture of their own. They remembered and were able to sustain and pass on aspects of culture from their distant African homes. Jazz, for example, is based on traditional African music. Slaves were also encouraged to absorb Christianity, at least up to a point, and developed their own style of worship, with its call-and-response motif that comes straight from African culture.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

Colonial Life Practice Test

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