Colonial America Slavery Essay

Historical interpreters shoulder their tools and head for a day of labor in the fields as slaves would have done in colonial times.

Introduction to Colonial African American Life

Slavery existed in every colony

At the dawn of the American Revolution, 20 percent of the population in the thirteen colonies was of African descent. The legalized practice of enslaving blacks occurred in every colony, but the economic realities of the southern colonies perpetuated the institution first legalized in Massachusetts in 1641. During the Revolutionary era, more than half of all African Americans lived in Virginia and Maryland. Most blacks lived in the Chesapeake region, where they made up more than 50 to 60 percent of the overall population. The majority, but not all, of these African Americans were slaves. In fact, the first official United States Census taken in 1790 showed that eight percent of the black populace was free. [Edgar A. Toppin. "Blacks in the American Revolution" (published essay, Virginia State University, 1976), p. 1]. Whether free or enslaved, blacks in the Chesapeake established familial relationships, networks for disseminating information, survival techniques, and various forms of resistance to their condition.

Slave labor required for farming and tobacco cultivating

The majority of blacks living in the Chesapeake worked on tobacco plantations and large farms. Since the cultivation of tobacco was extremely labor-intensive, African slave labor was used, despite questions of whether slavery was morally right. Tobacco cultivation rivaled the sugar production of the British West Indies. Tobacco was an eleven-month crop. Cultivation began in late January with the preparation of the fields for planting, mending tools, and laying out the seed beds. Once the soil was ready (usually in March), tobacco seedlings were transplanted to the fields. By mid summer, tobacco was growing in the fields, but the delicate plant required constant care. At harvest time, tobacco was gathered and prepared for its shipment to England.

Plantation and farm slaves tend crops and livestock

For slaves working on farms, the work was a little less tedious than tobacco cultivation, but no less demanding. The variety of food crops and livestock usually kept slaves busy throughout the year. Despite the difficult labor, there were some minor advantages to working on a plantation or farm compared to working in an urban setting or household. Generally, slaves on plantations lived in complete family units, their work dictated by the rising and setting of the sun, and they generally had Sundays off. The disadvantages, however, were stark. Plantation slaves were more likely to be sold or transferred than those in a domestic setting. They were also subject to brutal and severe punishments, because they were regarded as less valuable than household or urban slaves.

In an interpretation of domestic slave life, a mother and daughter prepare a meal for the family.

Few men on domestic sites

Urban and household slaves generally did not live in complete family units. Most domestic environments used female labor; therefore there were few men, if any, on domestic sites. Most male slaves in an urban setting were coachmen, waiting men, or gardeners. Others were tradesmen who worked in shops or were hired out. In general, urban slaves did not have the amount of privacy that field slaves had. They lived in loft areas over the kitchens, laundries, and stables. They often worked seven days a week, even though Sunday's chores were reduced. Their work days were not ruled by the sun; instead, they were set by tasks. But there were advantages to working in town.

Urban and domestic slaves usually dressed better, ate better food, and had greater opportunity to move about in relative freedom. They also were go-betweens for field slaves and the owners. They were privy to a great deal of information discussed in the "big house." They knew everything from the master's mood to the latest political events. The marketplace became the communal center, the place for "networking." At the marketplace, slaves would exchange news and discuss the well-being of friends and loved ones. They often aided runaways, and they kept a keen ear to those political events that might have had an impact on their lives. Regardless of a slave's occupation, there was considerable fear and angst caused by an environment of constant uncertainty and threats of violence and abuse.

Slavery a part of 18th-century Virginia society

Slavery was an integral part of 18th-century Virginia society. Attitudes and class structure legitimized a slave system based on color of skin; slavery touched virtually all aspects of life in 18th-century Virginia. Beginning with the arrival of the first Africans at Point Comfort in 1619, an initially unplanned system of hereditary bondage for blacks gradually developed. Over the course of 150 years, slavery became entrenched in Virginia society, increasingly supported by a series of restrictive laws and reinforced by the teachings of the community and family.

Slavery was the foundation of Virginia's agricultural system and essential to its economic viability. Initially, planters bought slaves primarily to raise tobacco for export. By the last quarter of the 18th century, wealthy Virginia farmers were using slave labor in a diversified agricultural regime. Enslaved African Americans also worked as skilled tradesmen in the countryside and in the capital city of Williamsburg. Many also served as domestics in the households of wealthier white Virginians.

The constant interaction between black slaves and white masters (as well as blacks and whites in general) created an interdependence that led to the development of a distinctive Virginia culture. That interdependence was as destructive as it was unequal. The horrors endured by enslaved African Americans, whether physical or mental, were numerous. White Virginians were caught up in a system that measured social distinction based upon ownership of slaves. Economic reliance on slavery, fears about the consequences of emancipation, and unyielding racial prejudice and cultural bias all contributed to the continuation of slavery in an era of independence.

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African American Experience

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Slavery in Colonial America

Slavery was created in pre-revolutionary America at the start of the seventeenth century. By the time of the Revolution, slavery had undergone drastic changes and was nothing at all what it was like when it was started. In fact the beginning of slavery did not even start with the enslavement of African Americans. Not only did the people who were enslaved change, but the treatment of slaves and the culture that each generation lived in, changed as well.

When America was first founded the colonists believed that they could do one of two things. They could either ask for entire families and groups of people to come over from England to start family farms and businesses to help the colony prosper. The other option was to take advantage of the lower class people and promise them land and freedom for a couple of years of servitude (Charles Johnson et al, Africans in America 34). Obviously the second option was used and this was the start of indentured servitude in colonial America. The indentured servants that came from England were given plenty of accommodations in exchange for their servitude. They were also promised that after their time of service was complete that they would receive crops, land, and clothing to start their new found lives in America. Men, children, and even most criminals, rushed to the ports hoping to be able to find work in America and soon start their new life. However, a large quantity of them either died on the voyage over, died from diseases, or died from the intensity of their work, before their servitude was complete (Johnson et al, Africans, 34). America finally began to show signs of prosperity due to the crop, tobacco. The only problem now was that the majority of the workers were dying from being severely punished and overworked. The colony was in desperate need of people who could work the fields to help continue the growth of their cash crop, tobacco. In 1619, a Spanish ship containing some Africans was captured and then brought to Jamestown, where the Africans were traded for food (Johnson et al, Africans, 36). Little did anyone know but this one trade would shape the course of history for decades to come.

The first African Americans that were put to work in Jamestown were not treated in the way that people traditionally think of early slavery. In fact they were treated just as the indentured servants that had come from England were treated. This does not mean that they were treated with any sympathy or given easy work, but that they just were not discriminated by the color of their skin. In the beginning of the 1600s all servants had the same dream, to one day be free. In 1641, a black slave by the name of Anthony Johnson, was freed and given his own land to start his new life as an American (Johnson et al, Africans, 39). At this point in time the only things that separated people were if you were an owner or a servant and if you were a Christian or not. At some point in the mid 1700s something changed the way that the colonists saw things. All of a sudden there was no longer equal treatment of white and black slaves, the darker the color of ones skin was the worse off their life became. In 1640, three slaves tried escaping to Maryland but were unsuccessful, when they were brought upon the court two of the men were given an extra year of servitude and the other was sentenced to slavery for the rest of his life. The first two men were white and the third was black, this was one of the first ever instances of racism (Johnson et al, Africans, 40-41). Separation is one of the believed reasons for the changes. The colonists were hoping to turn the white slaves against the black in an effort to prevent the slaves from joining together and using their mass number to take over the colonies (Johnson et al, Africans, 40). These changes sparked a new era of slavery in the colonies.

Colonist no longer viewed African Americans as people but instead as more of cattle, or something to be owned. Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Virginia were of the first states to legalize slavery, and Virginia soon after stated that any child born from a slave would become a slave (Johnson et al, Africans, 41). Mothers and fathers no longer had the opportunity to give their child the gift of freedom, having a great impact on their society. As time passed things did not get any better, laws were passed giving people the right to punish a slave until death, whites could no longer marry blacks, and runaway slaves were allowed to be killed. Not only could the owners kill their slaves but they would also benefit because for every slave that was killed, the owner would receive two tons of tobacco for compensation. By the eighteenth century the colonies economy relied greatly on the buying, selling, and maintenance of black slaves (Johnson et al, Africans, 46). With crops prospering, the need for more slaves was increasing at an alarming rate, especially in the “sugar” colonies. In fact, in 1680, the average number of slaves shipped out of Bristol was eighteen thousand a year (Johnson et al, Africans, 77). The majority of slaves that were brought to America by boat arrived at Sullivan’s Island in Charles Town Carolina. When they arrived the slaves were sent through quarantine, judged for their worth and in most cases would all be sold on the same day they arrived. Slave trade was so popular at the time that farmers would come from hundreds of miles away in hope of finding a new servant. With the increase in the amount of slaves there was also an increase in the amount of punishment that an owner could inflict on his servants. Courts were able to order a slaves death or even the removal of a body part. Land owners had begun to see that it was cheaper for them to lose a slave and get a new one than to try and keep them alive if they were unruly (Johnson et al, Africans, 81). As the punishments began to


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