We condemn the war and support Ukraine in its struggle for democratic values.
We also encourage you to join the #StandWithUkraine movement by making a donation at this link
Slavery In The Colonial And Revolutionary Era

Slavery has existed in many forms throughout its long history. During the pre-Civil War (antebellum) years slavery, and consequently slave trade, expanded aggressively in the United States. This was fuelled by a surging world demand for cotton. By 1830s, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama formed the heart of the new “cotton kingdom”, producing more than half the country’s cotton supply (Wright, 1990).  The great bulk of this cotton production was cultivated by slaves.

A blatant racial component distinguished this modern western slavery from slavery that existed in various other times and place: the vast majority of slaves comprised of Africans and their descendants, whereas the vast preponderance of masters consisted of Europeans and their descendants.

Slavery has played a fundamental role in the history of the United States. It existed mainly in all the English mainland colonies but later came to dominate the productive relations from Chesapeake in Virginia and Maryland south. Majority of America’s founding fathers were large scale slave holders, including eight of the twelve first presidents of the United States.

Wright tries to right the geographical and temporal imbalance that has long distorted both the scholarly presentation and popular conception of slavery and of the early African-American culture in general (Wright, 1990).  He explores the over two thirds of the two hundred years that chattel slavery existed as a legal institution in America mainly on tobacco plantations and rice farms around Georgia and the coastal lowlands of south Carolina and the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia and Maryland. Wright also examines the experiences of African-Americans in the colonial era. On the foundation, that African heritage was one of the most fundamental factors that fashioned the lives of African Americans; Wright’s study begins in Africa. He examines the variety of social relationships and living conditions that formed the basis for African American culture (Wright, 1990). 

According to Wright the beginning and early manifestation of African-American culture varied according to time and place (Wright, 1990). Before they could develop customs, beliefs and group values, Blacks in America first had to form communities where they could have far-reaching social contacts with other Blacks. Wright examines the living and working conditions, and demographic configurations that for a long time prevented the formation of Black communities. However, once they did form, Wright argues, the African-American family unit was the most vital tool in passing down Black traditions to ensuing generations. This is mainly because African heritage emphasized kinship as the basis for social organization.

Debate over African American slavery increasingly dominated American politics, eventually leading to the country’s only civil war. After emancipation, asphyxiating the legacy of slavery remained a vital issue in American history, from reconstruction after the Civil War to the civil rights movement that arose a century later.

Wright also addresses the origins and development of racism and slavery in British colonies. He explores the various ways that slavery began at different times around the Chesapeake Bay region, New England, South Atlantic coastal, low country and the Middle colonies (Wright, 1990). Was English racial prejudice against black Africans the main reason slavery began? Wright concludes that, although racism existed before the first slaves were purchased in colonial Virginia; the existing prejudice was broadened and reinforced by the fact that only Blacks were legally debased and defined as slaves.

Several paradoxical changes were experienced by African Americans during this tumultuous, revolutionary era. The self-evident truth that all human beings are created equal raised basic questions about the morality of slavery leading to its abolition in the North and extensive manumission in the upper south. As Wright points out, on the other hand, the new Constitution and the Revolution implicitly legitimized slavery by not mentioning it. This entrenched slavery more intensely and restricted the lives of Blacks more narrowly in the remaining slave states. Furthermore, the theory that all men are equal and free made white Americans use racist arguments to rationalize slavery by viewing African Americans as a lower order. This rationalization also resulted in second-class citizenship for free Blacks who remained excluded from the rest of the American society. This also laid the foundation for the obstinate racist ideology that would plague their descendants until today.     

With the turn of the eighteenth century, slave demand rose rapidly. Between 1790 and 1830, slave export volumes nearly doubled and the prices of purchased slaves in Africa rose by a factor of four or more. Enslavement processes included warfare (Bight of Benin and Gold coast), raids (Upper Niger valley), kidnapping (Bight of Biafra), and judicial processes (Angola and Bight of Biafra). The dispersal of African American through slave trading is perhaps one of the major involuntary migrations in the history of mankind. The economic consequence on the African continent was overwhelming.

Slaves performed various tasks, from house servants to serving as guides, craftsmen, nurses, trappers and concubines, but they were most vital as agricultural labourers. Crops farmed with slave labour included tobacco in the upper south (Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina) and rice, in the lower South, (Georgia and South Carolina). On the Caribbean islands such as Jamaica, Saint Dominique and Barbados, sugar was a more prized slave-grown commodity. Horse breeding farms in Rhode Island and the large wheat producing estates in New York also had African American slaves. However, the soil and climate restricted the development of commercial agriculture in the Northern colonies making slavery less economically central compared to the South. In the North, slaves were typically held in small numbers, and mostly acted as domestic servants. It was only in New York, with its Dutch legacy, where slaves formed more than 10 per cent of the total population (Blassingame, 1972). In the North, less than 5 per cent of the inhabitants were slaves.  

Slaves on large holding mostly worked in gangs, under the supervision of slave driver, mostly white. However, some especially in South Carolina and the coastal region of Georgia laboured under the task system. This involved slaves being assigned a specific amount of work to finish in a day. Despite these variations, there were some dominant trends. First, slavery was tremendously rural. In 1860, only approximately five per cent of all slaves lived in towns. Second, although some slaves lived on small towns and others in giant estates, the norm was in between. In addition, most slaves lived within the resident of their masters.

Another characteristic feature was the rapid “Americanization” of both slaves and their masters. English colonialists quickly felt at home on their American holdings. Few desired to make quick killings on their agricultural ventures and then retire home to England to a life of leisure. The kind of absentee ownership widespread in the Caribbean was relatively rare in the American south. Masters here took an active role in managing their farms and plantations. Equally notable was the shift from an African to an African-American population. Only around 20 per cent of the American slaves were Africa-born by the eve of the American Revolution, and after the outlawing of slave imports in 1808, the percentage of African-born slaves became even lesser.

What most slaves hated most about slavery was not just the hard labour they were subjected to, but the lack of freedom or control over their lives. This was despite the fact that most slaves in the rural United States were expected to engage in hard physical labour. Masters may have conceited themselves on the care they provided for their “people”, the slaves, nonetheless had a different idea of that care. Slaves resented the constant interference in their lives and struggled to realize whatever autonomy they could. This led to the establishment of a variety of organizations advocating for the migration of black people from the America to regions where they could enjoy more freedom. Some advocated emigration while others endorsed colonization. Among these organizations was the American Colonization Society, during the 1820s and 1830s. In 1821, the ACS formed the colony of Liberia assisting thousands of black people and former African American slaves to move there from the United States. Although the Constitution banned the importation of African slaves in 1808, chattel slavery still persisted for the subsequent half century. Emancipation proclamation was later issued on January 1st 1863 by the then American president Abraham Lincoln. However, slavery was abolished in America until the passage of the 13th amendment on December 6th 1865 (Morgan, 1998).

To bring to light the reality of slavery, a number of former African American slaves, such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs have published accounts of their enslavement and their escapes to freedom. Finally, some other 6,000 former black slaves from the Caribbean and North America wrote accounts of their lives (Morgan, 1998). Out of these, around 150 were published as pamphlets or books.

A wide variety of experiences characterized the lives of Blacks during these centuries, from the tribal life in West Africa, to transportation across the Atlantic, to enslavement in the North American English colonies. These Black people were normal, complex human beings who made cogent decisions under difficult circumstances, not the passive objects or wily calculators portrayed in exaggerated, romantic stereotypes. The evolution of the Black society and slavery during the colonial period set much of course for the successive history of African Americans. By 1790, according to Wright, not only were the basic attitudes and American institutions concerning racism and slavery established, but also the most fundamental elements of African-American culture. Family, culture, a spirit of resistance, religion, and various other characteristic ways of life were established in a firm Black culture. The colonial era comprised the formative years of the African-American experience, and this foundation would provide blacks with identity and enable them cope with an antagonistic world over the next two centuries. 

Order now

Related essays