Rise of Slave Trade: Black History in Colonial America

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Alexandra Lutz

Alexandra has taught students at every age level from pre-school through adult. She has a BSEd in English Education.

In this lesson, you'll learn a little about the slave trade, the growth and characteristics of slavery in the colonial period - including laws regulating the institution and the population of free blacks in the English colonies. Updated: 07/24/2019

Slavery in Africa

In 1619, a Dutch trading ship brought several Africans to Jamestown, Virginia - England's first American colony. They were sold as indentured servants.

One of those original African servants, a man named Anthony Johnson, completed his indenture, bought land and prospered. Soon, he imported several of his own servants, including another African man named John Casor. Rather than freeing him after seven years like most indentured servants, Johnson claimed that Casor was his slave. The case went to trial, and Johnson won. So, in 1655, an African man became one of America's first owners of a permanent slave as sanctioned by a court.

Slavery was not a new concept for Africans, but the nature of slavery in Africa at that time was completely different. Slaves were generally criminals, debtors or prisoners of war. They played an important role in society, they could hold jobs with authority and were often seen as members of the extended family. Their children could not be bought or sold. Plantation slavery was non-existent.

Map depicting the triangular trade route
Triangular Trade Map

Most of the Africans who participated in the American slave trade - including the captives - had no clue that new world slavery had evolved into something very different.

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  • 1:28 Triangular Trade and…
  • 2:57 Growth of Slavery
  • 4:02 Slave Life and Culture
  • 6:52 Slave Codes
  • 8:39 Free African Americans
  • 10:05 Lesson Summary
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Triangular Trade and the Middle Passage

Slavery was just one piece of England's triangular trade. English manufactured goods were sent to Africa, where they were traded for slaves. The slaves were then taken to the Americas, where they were traded for raw materials. The materials went to England to be used in the manufacture of more goods. The part of the journey from Africa to America was called the Middle Passage.

On tightly packed ships, slaves were chained together below deck. They sat down or laid down, side-by-side, sometimes with their heads between the feet of the next row. A slave who died lay chained to his neighbor until the following morning. With no windows below the water line, the heat and odor from body waste, blood and decay soon became suffocating. Disease spread quickly. After inspection on deck every morning, the dead and diseased were thrown overboard.

The crew took extreme measures to minimize revolts and suicides, which became more common as the journey progressed. A slave who refused to eat might be beaten to death or thrown overboard. The sharks that commonly followed slave ships were used as a terror weapon against the captives. Africans who spoke the same language were often separated to prevent them from plotting a mutiny. Others were muzzled.

After two to four months in these conditions, about half of the human cargo died. The other 10 million Africans were ready for auction in the Americas.

The Growth of Slavery in the English Colonies

During the 17th century slavery was not as widespread in the thirteen colonies as it was in Spanish territory. English colonies generally depended on indentured servants.

That began to change near the end of the 1600s, especially in the south. First, conditions in England improved, and fewer people were willing to indenture themselves. Planters also began to realize that slaves were a better investment, since the workers didn't leave every seven years. Then, when a band of former servants burned down Jamestown during Bacon's Rebellion in 1676, Virginia's leadership began to worry about the growing class of poor freemen. Importation of servants declined, but slaves were increasing.

Map of the English colonies
English Colonies Map

In 1655, there was one slave-for-life in Virginia. But within fifty years, more than a thousand new slaves entered the colony every year, and 4,000 more went to the other twelve colonies. By 1750, nearly 45,000 new slaves came to British America every year.

Slave Life and Culture

As with all colonists, slave life varied, depending on where a person lived and what his job was. In the north, slaves might work as cooks, maids, farm hands, gardeners, drivers or skilled laborers. These workers were generally healthier, received better treatment and were more highly valued than their counterparts in the fields. However, they had less privacy, worked seven days a week and were often ostracized by field hands.

America's first published black writer was a northern slave named Phillis Wheatley. Imported from Gambia when she was a child, Wheatley was sold to a Boston family who taught her to read, and encouraged her to write poetry. Her poems were often religious, written in classical style. Wheatley published her first poem in 1767, when she was just sixteen years old, and later became one of the most famous poets of her time.

Urban slavery also existed in the middle and southern colonies. But it was far more likely that a slave would end up on a plantation in the south.

Slaves on Chesapeake tobacco plantations typically worked together from sun-up to sun-down, six days a week. Their lives were guarded, but slaves were often worked to their physical limit and could be brutally punished. Physical relationships between slaves were encouraged - or even forced - in order to increase the population. But plantation slaves were more likely to be sold off, so marriages and families were often severed. Still, plantation slaves did have two advantages: they generally did not work on Sundays, and because plantations could have hundreds of slaves, they enjoyed a greater sense of community.

Slaves on rice plantations in South Carolina and Georgia might be part of the task system. Each worker was assigned a task acre to be completed each day. When the task was finished, so was the slave. This division of labor evolved because rice planters imported slaves from certain locations in Africa where rice was farmed. But, the new arrivals brought diseases that the white population had no resistance to. Owners moved their houses away from the fields, and sometimes left the plantation completely during a rainy season. Overseers managed the plantation in the owner's absence. The task system kept the plantation running with less effort on the overseer's part.

Image of poet and slave Phillis Wheatley
Phillis Wheatley

These slaves might work for months without ever seeing their owners, and an efficient slave had a lot of free time. Since imported slaves continually refreshed native traditions, these plantations developed vibrant slave cultures with distinctive forms of music, dancing, religion and even language.

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