The Evolution of Slavery

From the original settlements in the Americas through the American Revolution, the institution of slavery evolved into the system we remember it as today. The myth is a Gone With The Wind plantation where blacks and whites coexisted as one big family, and the black slaves were part of the household. The reality is a system that evolved out of economical necessity, where black slaves were considered a cheap, plentiful alternative to hired workers or indentured servants. The original Spanish settlements provided a basis from which slave labor grew. The fertile farmlands created a demand for workers, and the Portuguese slave trade in Africa provided the supply. English settlers in the Americas, eventually unable to attain workers for their crops, turned to black slavery as the only way to get cheap labor in a relatively unpopulated land. At that point, slavery became the acceptable labor force for the original thirteen English colonies in North America, and it stayed that way until the end of the American Revolution. Then, for the first time, slavery abolitionists appeared in the north. But even so, the slave trade, and the number of people dependent on slaves for their livelihood, had grown too large and too profitable to come to an end.

The first European settlers in the Americas, the Spanish, settled mostly in South America and the Caribbean islands. They found fertile land in the New World and planted tobacco and sugar cane crops for trade with Europe. The crops flourished and there was an ample market for both tobacco and sugar that created a demand for what the Spanish settlers could provide. At first, in order to meet these demands, the Spanish enslaved the Indians, whose land they had settled on, and had a sufficient work force to maintain their new international market. However, the Indians weren’t immune to European diseases and eventually many of them died. Others were driven out of their native lands. The Indian labor supply began running out and the Spanish were forced to look for another kind of labor force to farm for them, since they had become so dependent on their crops for money. During this time, the Portuguese, who had settled along the coast of Africa, began shipping African blacks to the Americas. Crops in the New World were becoming so important to Europeans as a source of wealth that the slave trade became a very profitable business.  England, Portugal, and the Dutch all fought over who would gain control of the trade. England won this war and began exporting slaves to its colonies settled in North America.

At this time, the North American colonies were expanding, and English settlers began to realize how to use the new land. There was a lack of suitable farmland in the north, but the middle and southern colonies found that crops such as wheat, corn, tobacco, and indigo grew well in those regions. Since a strong European market was open for these crops, the demand for American produce grew. The colonists needed a work force capable of supplying enough labor to satisfy the market that their own population couldn’t provide. The workers they had were mostly poor people who had immigrated to the New World, often selling their time and labor in exchange for ship passage. These immigrants were granted contracts and became indentured servants and, for a time, supplied the labor needed to maintain the growing farms. Black slaves imported into the English colonies were also considered indentured servants for a time, but white servants were valued more highly. At the time, black slaves cost five times as much as white workers and were harder to obtain. During the 1600’s though, the flow of indentured servants began to taper off, due to improved economic conditions in England, and American colonists were forced to compete for their services. Then, in 1672, the Royal African Company formed and began shipping larger numbers of black slaves to the Americas. Indentured servants eventually gave way to the more readily available, and plentiful, slaves from Africa.

Colonists began to realize the benefits of purchasing black slaves. Since these slaves had no contracts, as the indentured servants did, they were entitled to no legal protection. Soon, their masters were able to hold them for unlimited periods of time, with no monetary compensation for their services. At the same time, the English realized they could exploit the Africans’ abilities to work on the land.  Black slaves were more suited than Europeans to hard manual labor in an intemperate climate. Their agricultural knowledge was more extensive, and they were more proficient at hunting game. As they became more acculturated to the English colonies, they learned trades: they were cooks, field workers, blacksmiths, and became all the more valuable for that. The colonists became more dependent on their slaves to provide a solid, knowledgeable, and ultimately inexpensive work force.

Slaves were also becoming more plentiful.  In addition to the growing slave trade, the overall death rate in the thirteen colonies was decreasing. More blacks were born in America, and they were born into slavery. These later generations were learning European customs, often being converted into Christianity, and their understanding of the Bible led to a desire to be able to read it.  Slaves were able to understand their masters better in these later generations, and could find their masters’ weak spots and exploit them. They learned that running away served not only as a chance for freedom, but as a way to deprive their owners of valuable labor. In short, slaves were becoming harder to control and their white masters lived in fear of rebellions. In 1740, South Carolina passed a Negro Act denying slaves any freedom of movement, freedom of assembly, freedom to raise their own food, earn money, or read English. They were denied civil rights and were punished severely for disregarding the laws that restricted them.

The slavery institution in North America continued undisturbed until the onset of the American Revolution in 1775.  During this war, England promised to set free all slaves willing to bear arms against the American insurrection. In reality, they ended up being treated as captured property by the British. Some ran into Canada and were freed, others ended up as slaves in the British West Indies colonies. The majority remained in America as slaves. After America achieved its independence from Britain in 1778, the states began to be divided in their attitudes towards slavery. By the 1780’s, the New England states had abolished slavery. The slave trade there had never really been essential, since their economy leaned towards the fishing industry and skilled trades, and slaves in that area were used mostly as domestic servants. The economy in the middle states was also capable of surviving without slave labor, depending more on the fishing industry and iron production than on farming. The Southern states, however, did rely on slaves for their wealth.  They had no other industry than farming and were unwilling to abolish slavery, since it meant giving up their sole work force.  When the Constitution was ratified in the 1780’s, the states did agree, at least, to abolish the importation of more slaves into North America.

By the end of the American Revolution, slavery had evolved from a rudimentary and experimental work force into a necessary and profitable enterprise. Although it was not truly necessary in the northern and middle states, and did not endure there, this was not only because of the moral implications of slavery. Rather, it simply wasn’t an economic necessity in these areas. These states, in fact, had fishing industries and skilled trades to rely on for their economy. The south was more conducive to farming, and wealthy farms and plantations dominated over all other industries. Here, slavery was both necessary and enduring. The slave trade evolved into a huge enterprise because of the demand for sugar, rice, tobacco, indigo: things the New World could produce for the European market. The demand for these products created a demand for labor to provide supplies for that market. And so a cycle was created and continued to perpetuate itself from the early 1600’s well through the 1800’s, when the moral implications of slavery became more important than the work slave labor could provide.