Perhaps no problem has bedeviled Americans more than African slavery and its legacy. Some would argue that slavery is America’s original sin – that there can never truly be peace or harmony in America because we are forever tainted by the stain of slavery.

By the 18th century, slavery formed a cornerstone of the British colonies. Every colony had slaves, from the southern rice plantations of South Carolina, to the northern wharves of Boston. Slavery was more than a labor system, it influenced every aspect of colonial thought and culture. The uneven relationship it engendered gave white colonists an exaggerated sense of their own status. English liberty gained greater meaning and coherence for whites when they contrasted their status to that of the unfree class of black slaves in British America. African slavery provided whites in the colonies with a shared racial bond and identity.

But, it’s worth taking a moment to consider whether or not slavery had to be a part of America’s story at all. Slavery is an institution created by people, and eventually ended by people. Racism is an attitude found in the hearts and minds of people, and equally so is equality. Which makes us wonder, was slavery an inevitable part of American history.


The growth of tobacco, rice, and indigo and the plantation economy created a tremendous need for labor in Southern English America. Without the aid of modern machinery, human sweat and blood was necessary for the planting, cultivation, and harvesting of these cash crops. While slaves existed in the English colonies throughout the 1600s, indentured servitude was the method of choice employed by many planters before the 1680s. This system provided incentives for both the master and servant to increase the working population of the Chesapeake colonies.

Virginia and Maryland operated under what was known as the headright system. The leaders of each colony knew that labor was essential for economic survival, so they provided incentives for planters to import workers. For each laborer brought across the Atlantic, the master who had paid for the worker’s passage was rewarded with 50 acres of land. This system was used by wealthy plantation aristocrats to increase their land holdings dramatically. In addition, of course, they received the services of the workers for the duration of the indenture.

This system seemed to benefit the servant as well. Each indentured servant would have their fare across the Atlantic paid in full by their master. A contract was written that stipulated the length of service — typically five years. The servant would be supplied room and board while working in the master’s fields. Upon completion of the contract, the servant would receive freedom dues, a pre-arranged termination bonus. This might include land, money, a gun, clothes or food. On the surface it seemed like a terrific way for the luckless English poor to make their way to prosperity in a new land. Beneath the surface, this was not often the case.

Only about 40% of indentured servants lived to complete the terms of their contracts. Female servants were often the subject of harassment from their masters. A woman who became pregnant while a servant often had years tacked on to the end of her service time. Early in the century, some servants were able to gain their own land as free men. However, by 1660, the large landowners claimed much of the best land. The former servants were pushed westward, where the mountainous land was less arable and the threat of attack from Native Americans constant. A class of angry, impoverished pioneer farmers began to emerge as they came to understand how the headright system had been manipulated to make the rich richer and the poor poorer.


Slavery, as a theory, had been a commonly accepted European practice long before the exploration of the New World. Drawing on ancient Greek and Roman history, pro-slavery defenders noted that enslaving prisoners of war was an acceptable alternative to execution—once an enemy had surrendered, it was believed to be the victor’s right to claim the life of their enemy through death or enslavement. Hence, when the Portuguese slave traders started exploring the coast of Africa where it was customary for warring indigenous tribes to enslave each other, they began to buy these slaves for export to the New World colonies. Other pro-slavery advocates argued that it was their mission to convert African non-Christians whom they referred to as heathens to Christianity and that slavery allowed them to do this more effectively. Ultimately, the desire for profit drove demand for slaves.

Primary Source: Painting

An illustration of slave life on a plantation. The main house where the White owners lived is visible in the background. The music and dance was a blend of various African and European cultural traditions.

The European demand for New World cash crops, especially sugar, tobacco, rice, and cotton, led to a demand for labor to cultivate these crops. Although the practices of indentured servitude and the enslavement of American Indians was already in place, planters in the southern British colonies quickly came to favor enslaved Africans. Not only were Africans well suited to tropical climates, they also brought special skills and husbandry knowledge for crops such as rice, which the British found useful. Slavery and the African slave trade quickly became a building block of the colonial economy and an integral part of expanding and developing the British commercial empire in the Atlantic world.

Only a fraction of the enslaved Africans brought to the New World ended up in British North America. The vast majority of slaves shipped across the Atlantic were sent to the Caribbean sugar colonies, Brazil, or the Spanish colonies in Central and South America. Throughout the Americas, but especially in the Caribbean, tropical disease took a large toll on the population. Unlike American Indians, Africans had a limited natural immunity to yellow fever and malaria; however, malnutrition, poor housing, inadequate clothing allowances, and overwork contributed to a high mortality rate which further increased the demand for the importation of Africans to replenish the labor supply.

The transport of slaves to the American colonies accelerated in the second half of the 1600s. In 1660, Charles II created the Royal African Company to trade in slaves and African goods. His brother, James II, led the company before ascending the throne. Under both these kings, the Royal African Company enjoyed a monopoly to transport slaves to the English colonies. Between 1672 and 1713, the company bought 125,000 captives on the African coast, losing 20% of them to death on the Middle Passage, the journey from the African coast to the Americas.

In the North American colonies, the importation of African slaves was directed mainly southward, where extensive tobacco, rice, and later, cotton plantation economies, demanded extensive labor forces for cultivation. In contrast to the high mortality rates of the Caribbean sugar plantations, North American slave populations tended to live longer.

By the 1800s, many southern farmers found that natural increase was a viable alternative to importation in order to replenish their slave populations. In other words, slaves had children, who would also be slaves.


The Atlantic slave trade took place across the Atlantic Ocean, predominantly from the 16th to the 19th centuries. The vast majority of slaves transported to the New World were Africans from the central and western parts of the continent, sold by African tribes to European slave traders who then transported them to the colonies in North and South America. Most contemporary historians estimate that between 9.4 and 12 million Africans arrived in the New World from the 16th through 19th centuries.

The First Atlantic System is a term used to characterized the Portuguese and Spanish African slave trade to the South American colonies in the 16th century. During the First Atlantic System, most of these traders were Portuguese, giving them a near-monopoly during the era, although some Dutch, English, and French traders also participated in the slave trade. After the union with Spain, Portugal was prohibited from directly engaging in the slave trade as a carrier and so ceded control over the trade to the Dutch, British, and French.

And so began the Second Atlantic System, which lasted from the 17th through early 19th centuries, in which the trade of enslaved Africans was dominated by British, French, and Dutch merchants. Most Africans sold into slavery during the Second Atlantic System were sent to the Caribbean sugar islands as European nations developed economically slave-dependent colonies through sugar cultivation. It is estimated that more than half of the slave trade took place during the 18th century, with the British as the biggest transporters of slaves across the Atlantic. In the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars of 1803 through 1815, most of the international slave trade was abolished, although American slavery continued until 1865.

Secondary Source: Map

The triangle trade. Sugar, tobacco and cotton were taken from America to Europe. From there, ships carried finished textiles, manufactured goods and rum to Africa where the ships loaded slaves for the Middle Passage to America.


The term triangular trade is used to characterize much of the Atlantic trading system from the 16th to early 19th centuries, in which three main commodity-types — labor, crops, and manufactured goods — were traded in three key Atlantic geographic regions.

Ships departed Europe for African markets with manufactured goods which were traded for purchased or kidnapped Africans. These Africans were transported across the Atlantic as slaves and were then sold or traded in the Americas for raw materials. The raw materials would subsequently be transported back to Europe to complete the voyage.

A classic example would be the trade of sugar (often in its liquid form, molasses) from the Caribbean to Europe, where it was distilled into rum. The profits from the sale of sugar were then used to purchase manufactured goods, which were then shipped to West Africa where they were bartered for slaves. The slaves were then brought to the Caribbean to be sold to sugar planters. The profits from the sale of the slaves were then used to buy more sugar, which was shipped to Europe, and so on. This particular triangular trip took anywhere from five to 12 weeks and often resulted in massive fatalities of enslaved Africans on the Middle Passage voyage.


The Middle Passage was the stage of the triangular trade where millions of enslaved people from Africa were shipped to the New World for sale. Voyages on the Middle Passage were a large financial undertaking generally organized by companies or groups of investors, rather than individuals. The duration of the transatlantic voyage varied widely, from one to six months depending on weather conditions. An estimated 15% of African slaves died during the Middle Passage; historians estimate that the total number of African deaths directly attributable to the Middle Passage voyage is approximately two million.

Primary Source: Diagram

A chilling diagram showing how slaves were packed into the holds of ships traversing the Middle Passage from Africa to America.

African kings, warlords, and private kidnappers sold captives to Europeans who held several coastal forts. The captives were usually force-marched to these ports along the western coast of Africa, where they were held for sale to the European slavers. Once sold to the European traders, African captives were brought to the slave ships for the voyage to the Americas. Typical slave ships contained several hundred slaves with approximately 30 crew members. Captives were normally chained together in pairs to save space and, at best, were fed one meal a day with water. Sometimes captives were allowed to move around during the day, but on most ships captives spent the entire journey crammed below decks.

During the Middle Passage voyage, disease (especially dysentery and scurvy) and starvation were the major killers. Furthermore, outbreaks of smallpox, syphilis, and measles were fatally contagious in close-quarter compartments. The rate of death increased with the length of the voyage as the quality and amount of food and water diminished. While the treatment of slaves on the Middle Passage varied by ship and voyage, it was often horrific. Captive Africans were considered by many Europeans to be less than human; they were instead seen as cargo or goods to be transported as cheaply and quickly as possible for trade. Corporal punishment was very common, with whippings used to punish melancholy or any form of resistance.

Slaves resisted in a variety of ways during the Middle Passage, usually by refusing to eat or committing suicide. In turn, crews and slave traders often force fed or tortured slaves and put nets on the sides of ships to keep slaves from attempting suicide. There are some recorded incidents of coordinated mass slave uprisings. However, few succeeded.


The Chesapeake region was composed of Virginia, with Jamestown as its first successful settlement established in 1607, and Maryland.

During the later part of the 17th century, the development of the Chesapeake region revolved around tobacco cultivation, which required intensive labor. At first, Chesapeake farmers hired indentured servants, men and women from England who sold their labor for a period of five to seven years in exchange for passage to the American colonies, to harvest tobacco crops. However, by the 1680s, fluctuating tobacco prices and the growing scarcity of land in the region made the Chesapeake less appealing to men and women willing to indenture themselves. The scarcity of indentured servants meant that the price of their labor contracts increased, and Chesapeake farmers began to look for alternative, cheaper sources of bonded labor.

As a result, many Chesapeake farmers turned toward imported African slaves to fulfill their desire for cheap labor. Although African chattel slavery was a more expensive investment that white indentured servitude, it guaranteed a lifetime service of free labor. As the demand for Chesapeake cash crops continued to grow, planters began to increasingly invest in the Atlantic slave trade.

A great deal of support for the system of chattel slavery came from the wealthy white’s fear of rebellions from the labor force. In the late 17th century, indentured servants made up the majority of laborers in the region. Wealthy whites worried over the presence of this large class of laborers and the relative freedom they enjoyed, as well as the alliances between black and white servants. Replacing indentured servitude with black slavery diminished these risks, alleviating the reliance on white indentured servants, who were often dissatisfied and troublesome, and creating a caste of racially defined laborers whose movements were strictly controlled. It also lessened the possibility of further alliances between black and white workers.

While laws in the tobacco colonies had already made slavery a legal institution, new laws, called slave codes were passed toward the end of the 17th century that severely curtailed black freedom and laid the foundation for racial slavery. Virginia passed a law in 1680 prohibiting free Africans and slaves from bearing arms, banning Africans from congregating in large numbers, and establishing harsh punishments for slaves who assaulted Christians or attempted escape.

Two years later, another Virginia law stipulated that all Africans brought to the colony would be slaves for life. Thus, the increasing reliance on slaves in the tobacco colonies—and the draconian laws instituted to control them—not only helped planters meet labor demands, but also served to assuage English fears of uprisings and alleviate class tensions between rich and poor whites.

Primary Source: Advertisement

An advertisement for Virginia tobacco. The role of slaves in the cultivation of tobacco was openly accepted.


The local economy in the Chesapeake was overwhelmingly agrarian, rural, and rooted in the headright system, which guaranteed numerous acres of land to any immigrant who paid their own passage to the New World and settled in the region. The headright system was designed to promote immigrant settlement and the cultivation of key staple crops that increased the prosperity of the Chesapeake region. As the headright system attracted more and more settlers to the Chesapeake, an increasing divide between coastal planters and farmers on the frontier began to emerge, with those in the westernmost areas usually poorer than planters in the east.

With the importation of African slaves, social and economic divisions between wealthy and poor farmers in the Chesapeake increased. As African slaves were generally more expensive to purchase than indentured servants, the wealthy planters invested heavily in African slaves and agricultural technology and expanded their lands, while poor farmers struggled to maintain their smaller agricultural enterprises.

These wealthy slave-owning planters came to dominate the top of the social and political hierarchy in the Chesapeake, placing pedigree and wealth as significant social identifiers. However, small farmers composed the largest social class in the Chesapeake. These agriculturalists owned small amounts of property and few or no slaves. The class division between wealthy planters and small farmers continued well into the 19th century, until the Civil War united these factions against the Northern states.


South Carolina, later dubbed the Rice Kingdom, was the first North American colonies to be deliberately founded on slave labor. In the 17th century, wealthy planters from Barbados moved to South Carolina looking for new territory. Barbados was a British colony on a small island in the Caribbean. A few Whites owned plantations that covered the island. The work was done entirely be African slaves who far outnumbered the Whites. Frustrated by the limited supply of land, these men looked for a new place where they could expand. Of course, they brought their system of chattel slavery with them.

Primary Source: Painting

A sugar plantation in the Caribbean. The British colony of Barbados was similar. A few White overseers managed plantations for absent owners. Slaves often far outnumbered Whites on the islands, although life for slaves was so harsh that owners needed to constantly import new slaves since they died before they could have children.

The planters were well aware that African slaves had skills and attributes well suited to the semi-tropical environment of South Carolina. Hence, South Carolinian planters began importing Africans in large numbers, and in 1710, African-born slaves outnumbered American-born people. By 1720, South Carolina’s population was 65% enslaved. Wealthy planters cultivated rice and other cash crops along the southeastern coast, while backwoods subsistence farmers were pushed out to the Appalachian Mountains and backcountry in the later part of the 18th century. These backcountry farmers, like their counterparts in the Chesapeake, seldom owned slaves.

The principle cash crop harvested by the South Carolina slave population in the early 18th century was rice, a crop which probably originated in Madagascar and had been introduced into South Carolina in 1694. Once rice was established as the principle cash crop of South Carolina, it brought unprecedented wealth and prosperity to planters and the region. By 1850, a South Carolinian rice planter, Joshua John Ward, was the largest American slaveholder, with an estate that held 1,130 slaves.

It is no coincidence that white planters in the region starting importing African slaves when rice cultivation was introduced into the South, as the first English planters in South Carolina knew little about rice cultivation. The planters relied on the expertise of their African slaves imported from the rice-growing regions of West Africa. For instance, enslaved Africans showed planters how to properly dyke the marshes, periodically flood the rice fields, and use sweetgrass baskets to quickly mill the rice.

In later years, water-powered mills, designed by millwright Jonathan Lucas, also helped expand rice cultivation in the South. Rice plantations were larger than their tobacco counterparts in the Chesapeake, and planters expected slaves to cultivate up to five acres of rice a year, in addition to growing their own vegetables to feed themselves and their families.


The northeastern and mid-Atlantic states, including Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, had legally permitted slavery in the 17th and 18th centuries. However, during the decades leading up to the American Civil War, almost all slaves in the North had been emancipated through a series of state legislature statutes, creating the northern “free states” in opposition to southern “slave states.”

Even though slavery was permitted, northern states characteristically had far smaller slave populations than the South. Few slave ships arrived in New York, Philadelphia, or Boston, which instead became trade centers for manufactured goods. Slaves that lived in the North were often domestic servants or bondsmen to small farmers and rural ironworks. Unlike in the South, northern farms were not large-scale enterprises that focused on producing a single cash crop. Instead they were often smaller, more agriculturally diversified enterprises that required fewer laborers. Hence, the need for chattel slavery gradually dwindled, especially as rapid soil depletion and the growth of industry in northern cities attracted rural northerners to wage labor.


When historians retell the development of slavery in North America, they can mistakenly give the impression that the Africans and the descendants quietly passed through life, content to be enslaved. This could not be further from the truth.

Slaves everywhere resisted their exploitation and attempted to gain freedom through armed uprisings and rebellions, such as the Stono Rebellion and the New York Slave Insurrection of 1741. Other less violent means of resistance included sabotage, running away, and slow labor paces on the plantations.

Unlike their counterparts in the Caribbean, however, American slaves never successfully overthrew the system of slavery in the colonies and would not gain freedom until after the Civil War in 1865.

Secondary Source: Statue

The statue of the anonymous slave in Haiti celebrates the successful uprising of slave against the French. Unlike the American slaves, Haiti’s slaves rose up in mass revolt and established an independent, black-controlled nation. Haiti is the second independent nation in the Americas after the United States.


Slavery was not invented in America, but it was carried to America by English settlers within only a few years of the settlement of Jamestown. Could this have been prevented? Was America simply swept up in a transatlantic economic system and it is unreasonable to think that there is any chance slavery would not have become an established part of the American experience?

Was slavery an inevitable part of American history? What do you think?



BIG IDEA: Slavery was a part of the English colonial experience in America from nearly the very beginning. Over time chattel slavery replaced indentured servants as the primary source of labor in the American South.

Much of the work done in the British colonies was first done by indentured servants. These poor people from Great Britain could not afford to pay for passage to America. Someone in America paid it for them in exchange for a set number of years of work. This system of indenture had some problems. Wealthy people who paid for the passage of others were rewarded with land, a practice that made the rich richer. Another problem was that the indentured servants could run away and blend in with other settlers since they were White.

Slavery was not an English invention. The Spanish and Portuguese had been using African slaves for many years. The first African slaves in the English colonies were probably brought from the Caribbean Islands rather than directly from Africa.

Eventually, slaves were brought directly from Africa to the Southern Colonies. Compared to life in Brazil or the Caribbean Islands, life for slaves was better in America. American slaves lived long enough to have children, which led to a natural increase in the slave population. This meant that the importation of slaves died out in America in the 1800s.

Merchants made a lot of money buying and selling slaves. They were an important part of the Triangle Trade. Slaves were purchased in Africa and brought to the Americas. Sugar, tobacco, cotton and other raw materials were loaded onto the ships in America and taken back to Europe. In Europe the ships were reloaded with finished products like furniture and guns, which were shipped off to Africa.

Of course, the voyage between Africa and America for slaves was terrible and deadly. About 15% of all slaves died before reaching land. Slavery and the slave trade were not only European practices. Many Africans participated by capturing other Africans to sell to the Europeans along the coast.

In time, slaves were seen as property the same as horses or wagons. Strict laws, or codes, were passed throughout the colonies defining the various rights slaves did not have and restricting aspects of their lives. Some slaves resisted, but these rebellions were always stopped, and resulted in the passage of more strict slave codes.

In the colonies, owning slaves became an important symbol of status for Whites. Only a few wealthy Whites actually owned slaves. In the Chesapeake Region (VA, NC, DE, MD) slaves worked on plantations growing tobacco. In the Deep South (SC, GA) slaves worked on plantations growing rice, sugar and eventually cotton.

The most socially segregated society was in South Carolina, which had been founded by Englishmen from the Caribbean island of Barbados. Slaves outnumbered Whites in both colonies.

There were slaves in the Northern Colonies, however, over time the total number diminished as the North turned toward industry.



Headright System: A legal system in the British American colonies in which men who paid for the passage of indentured servants were rewarded by the government with 50 acres of land per servant. The policy was designed to encourage immigration and was used by wealth Americans to increase their landholdings.

Atlantic Slave Trade: The transport of African slaves from the West Coast of Africa to the Americas (mostly South America and the Caribbean Islands) from 1500s through the 1800s.

Triangle Trade: The trade of slaves, raw materials and finished products between Africa, Europe, the Caribbean and the British Colonies.

Middle Passage: The trip slave ships took from Africa to America.

Chattel Slavery: System of slavery in which the slaves are considered property with no individual rights.

Slave Codes: Laws that regulated what slaves were allowed to do, including movement, gathering, learning, rights in court, etc.


Caribbean Islands: The small islands stretching in a long arch from Cuba to South America marking the division between the Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean. They were colonies by the English, Spanish, French, Dutch, and Portuguese.

Chesapeake Region: The area around the Chesapeake Bay, including the modern states of Virginia, Maryland and the upper are of North Carolina.

South Carolina: Colony created by English planters from Barbados. It was established with chattel slavery as an explicit foundation for the economy.

Barbados: British island colony in the Caribbean. Plantation owners from the island established South Carolina an American version of the island, complete with chattel slavery.

Appalachian Mountains: Mountain range that runs north to south from Maine to Georgia. It divides the original 13 colonies from the interior.

Backcountry: The area away from coastal settlements, usually in the mountains that was home to most Scotch-Irish immigrants.


Indentured Servant: White immigrants to America whose passage was payed for them. In turn, they worked for a set number of years in order to off the debt.


Stono Rebellion: A 1739 slave revolt in South Carolina. 25 Whites and 40-50 slaves were killed. The rebellion led to passage of stricter slave codes.

Haitian Revolution: Rebellion in the 1970s by African slaves in the French colony of Haiti. It led to the establishment of the independent nation of Haiti.

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