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Chattel Slavery: Definition and America

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  • 0:00 Definition of Chattel Slavery
  • 0:59 Types of Slavery
  • 1:40 Origins of American Slavery
  • 3:00 Chattel Slavery in the North
  • 4:02 Chattel Slavery in the South
  • 4:47 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Kasza
In this lesson, we'll look at the practice known as chattel slavery. Learn about the different forms of slavery and the history of chattel slavery in America, then test your knowledge with a quiz.

Definition of Chattel Slavery

As far back in history as can be traced, slavery has existed in some form. Chattel slavery, or the owning of human beings as property able to be bought, sold, given, and inherited, is perhaps the best known form of slavery. Slaves in this context have no personal freedom or recognized rights to decide the direction of their own lives. The ancient Hebrew people were enslaved by Egypt for generations. Ancient Greece and Rome both relied on slavery as a means of forced labor for agriculture, household maintenance, and manufacturing of goods. In medieval Europe, slavery was practiced in Italy, Russia, France, Spain, and North Africa. Very often, slaves were members of one nation that was conquered by another. Throughout history, slaves have come from many different countries, ethnicities, and races.

Types of Slavery

In addition to chattel slavery, several other forms of slavery resulted in the ownership of one human being by another. For example, debt slavery was practiced as a means of one person paying off a debt to another. In some cases, the debt was so great that the children and grandchildren of the original debtor were enslaved to pay it off. Slavery as punishment was one means of paying for a crime by the guilty person forfeiting his personal liberty. An indentured servant was a type of slave who pledged his/her service and loyalty to another person for a given amount of time in exchange for some benefit, such as passage aboard ship from the Old World to the New World.

Origins of American Slavery

As various European nations began to establish colonies in the New World, a natural need resulted for labor to clear the land, build houses and other structures, grow crops, and tend to the daily needs of households. Initially, the labor force consisted of white indentured servants. The first appearance of black slaves in the Americas occurred on the Caribbean islands of Barbados and Jamaica. Both islands were colonized by the English businessmen who grew sugarcane as a cash crop. When the supply of white indentured servants dwindled, these planters began to buy West African slaves from the Dutch who conducted an active slave trade in the Atlantic Ocean. Slaves from Africa were tightly packed into these ships like sardines and delivered like goods, many of them dying on the trip over to the Americas.

On the American mainland, the practice of enslaving Africans developed differently depending on the needs of the region. In Virginia, for example, the Dutch slave trade was not accessible to the early days of the colony. As a result, Virginia tobacco planters relied initially on indentured servitude and, to a much lesser extent, labor from people indigenous to the area. Eventually, difficulties with keeping Native American laborers and obtaining enough indentured servants led to the Dutch establishment of an African slave trading outpost in the area.

Chattel Slavery in the North

In the northern colonies, the labor needs were much different than the agrarian South. While the northern colonies did rely on African slave labor, these slaves were more likely to serve as household servants rather than field laborers.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, slavery flourished in America, particularly in the southern states. In fact, the practice of slavery followed two very different paths in the South versus the North.

In northern states during the Revolutionary War period, slaves were offered emancipation by the British if they fought in the war against the American colonists. The northern states also were home to a growing antislavery sentiment, or abolition movement. These two factors made slave-holding an increasingly controversial practice in the North, so much so that slave owners gradually manumitted, or granted freedom to, their slaves. The fact that the northern economy did not depend heavily on slave labor also made it easier from a financial perspective for slave owners in the North to make this decision.

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