A Look at the Slavery in America

Slavery in America was not a carefully plotted scheme by the English colonists. Rather, it was gradually introduced in the colonies over time as labor resources dried up. Wealthy people didnt get rich on their own. They were dependant upon the labor of others to acquire their riches.

In the early 17th century labor came in the form of indentured servitude. This made travel to America possible for poor people from England. Their journey to the colonies would be paid for by the master who, in return, would get several years of service from the servant. The terms of service lasted up to seven years. However, many indentured servants didnt make it to the end of their term.

According to English law, servants were protected from cruel and unjust treatment. England had no way of enforcing the laws across the ocean; therefore it was controlled by those who were to benefit from the labor. This made for harsh conditions, such as long working days and severe beatings. (Making a Nation) An indentured servant, Richard Frethorne, from England wrote home to his parents saying. [We] drink water which is but Weak, and I have nothing to Comfort me, nor there is nothing to be gotten here but sickness, and death (Major Problems pg. 38)

Indentured servitude paved the way for slavery. Life expectancy at the beginning of the 17th century wasnt very long compared to today. Therefore, it was much more profitable for a plantation owner to purchase an indenture for a servant for a term of seven years than it would be to pay for a lifetime slave. However, as the century progressed, life expectancy grew, lower class white colonists gained more freedom, and slave labor became common in plantation societies.

America entered the market for slave trade in its later stage. The world had been engaged in active slave trade for almost two hundred years by the time the colonists began to participate. England really facilitated incorporating slaves into the colonial society by joining the trade market at the end of the 17th century and authorizing private merchants to transport slaves from Africa to North America. (Making a Nation)

The first incident of slavery in America appears to have been purely accidental. In 1619, a Dutch ship sailed off course and sold its boatload of twenty African slaves to Virginia colonists. This may have been the event which got the ball rolling for slavery in the colonies. Although it appears that some blacks on the ship were free, there are records of an African woman being sold along with all the children she may bear in the future. It also seems that, in its beginnings, African slavery was similar to white indentured servitude. Blacks and whites worked side by side and even ran away together. (Lecture 9/5)

It wasnt until the mid-17th century that race relations deteriorated at a rapid pace and laws began to distinguish between white servants and black slaves. For example, in 1640, two white servants ran away with a black slave. When they were caught, the punishment for each race was drastically different. The black servant was condemned to a lifetime of servitude, but the two white servants were merely sentenced to an additional year. In 1662, Act XII was passed, which stated:

Whereas some doubts have arrisen whether children got by any Englishman upon a negro woman should be slave or ffree, Be it therefore enacted and declared by this present grand assembly, that all children borne in this country shalbe held bond or free only according to the condition of the mother (Major Problems pg. 43)

Through this law a slave master could impregnate one of his slave women and there would be no free bi-racial population. If the bi-racial population could be free then there would be a good chance for revolt and upheaval. (Lecture: 9/5)

Slavery was not restricted to Africans alone. Rather, it encompassed Native Indians as well. The Carolina colony discovered through trading with Southern Indians that they could easily raid Spanish missions in Florida and take thousands of slaves at a time. The Southern colonists preferred women and children as slaves because they believed they were much less likely to revolt. Africans slaves, on the other hand, were predominantly male and they mated with the Indian slave women. (Making a Nation)

Slavery was never in the master plan for the colonies, even though it eventually became central to the southern economy and was a strong presence in the north. The rest of the world was involved in the lucrative business of slave trade well before the English colonies joined. Even at its height, slave trade in America accounted for a small percentage of the world trade. When slaves became readily available to colonists, and indentured servitude was gradually fading due to longer life expectancy, the slave market was the next logical step from the economic stand point in the colonies.

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