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Colonial America | People | African Americans

The history of Africans and those of African descent born in the Americas is an essential part of the history of the New World—and a complicated story. Soon after the “discovery” of the New World in 1492, Africans arrived and made their influence felt. They helped explore both South and North America and build settlements—and were essential for the survival and growth of colonies in both continents. Some Africans who arrived in the New World are thought to have come over freely, but most were brought over the Atlantic Ocean as enslaved people.

Visit Documenting the American
a website sponsored by
the University of North Carolina
featuring links relating to slavery,
including a collection of slave

The history of slavery is also a complicated story—one that is over 10,000 years old—and one that continues even today, worldwide. Slavery did not originate in colonial America, or even in the Americas or Africa, but evolved over time and throughout the world as human societies developed. For example, during ancient times, women who had been captured as a result of war or conquest were typically enslaved; male captives were usually killed. Ancient Greece and Rome relied on the enslavement of people as sources of labor and to help expand their empires. Ancient African nations also enslaved captives of war or used enslavement as punishment for certain crimes.

However, until Europeans appeared in Africa in the 15th century, African slavery was a different and much smaller-scale institution. Under the African system, some slaves served as soldiers or craftspeople, and most were treated well and worked as farmers. Profound differences emerged as the plantation system of slavery developed in colonial America.

Click on this timeline by Durham
University (Durham, England).
Explore this interactive timeline
by the National Geographic Society.

The beginnings of slavery in the American colonies were tied to the labor needs of English settlers. In Virginia, the first permanent English colony, colonists needed a large supply of workers to pick tobacco and clear forests, among other tasks. They turned toward a familiar English institution—indentured servitude. In England, apprentices were trained to be craftsmen by entering into a contract with a master of a craft, who taught the apprentice a skill. It was a system that helped educate and train many young people who did not have the money to pay for school or university. Once their apprenticeship was complete, apprentices could work for anyone and eventually set up their own businesses.

Slavery was legal in all 13 of
the original colonies. Many of
our founding fathers owned
slaves, including George
Washington and Thomas

Indentured servitude was neatly adaptable to the colonial need for labor. For the small cost of trans-Atlantic passage and various brokers' fees, a tobacco farmer could secure the services of a servant for between five and seven years. A majority of servants, who were members of England's lower classes, were more than willing to trade a few years of their lives in exchange for a fresh start. However, the practice of filling the hold of a servant ship by kidnapping boys or careless adults in English seaports was common. English courts also sentenced criminals convicted of petty crimes to become indentured colonial servants.

During the early 1600s, colonial slavery was a much different institution than that closer to the Civil War. Some enslaved African were put to work on plantations, while others were treated like European indentured servants and freed after a period of service. By the late 1660s, however, the supply of indentured servants began to dwindle. Meanwhile, English sugar cane growers in the West Indian colony of Barbados began following the example of Brazilian sugar plantations and buying captured Africans as enslaved workers. By the 1670s, the colonies of Maryland and Virginia each had nearly two thousand enslaved Africans or African Americans (people of African descent who had been born in the American colonies). England began importing slaves directly from Africa, and colonial assemblies began passing laws to turn African indentured servants into slaves. This was due in part to the high demand for tobacco and the fact that many European indentured servants died from diseases such as smallpox or influenza within a few years of arriving in the colonies. Africans seemed less vulnerable than Europeans to subtropical diseases, particularly malaria and yellow fever.

Triangular Trade Map

Visit this link to see another Triangular Trade Map
and to access more information.

Read about Triangular Slave Trade. Then follow the
personal stories of four enslaved Africans.

Layout plan for a slave ship

Quarters on a typical slave ship during the Middle
Passage were very tight. Click to view images related
to slave ships and the Atlantic Crossing.

Most slaves came from west African nations in the interior that were at war with coastal states. Despite common misconceptions that European traders raided villages to capture slaves, most Africans were enslaved by other Africans. The majority of slaves were prisoners of war, victims of bandits, or criminals receiving punishment for minor crimes or religious offenses. While some professional slave traders did raid African villages, most traders constructed bases on the west African coast, where they bought slaves in exchange for guns and other items.

The long, nightmarish journey of captured Africans across the Atlantic formed the "middle passage" of what became known as the triangular trade. The "Middle Passage" was the middle part of the three-part voyage that began in Europe, when ships loaded with items such as cloth, brandy, and firearms sailed to Africa's "slave coast." The cargo was then traded for slaves, and the ships sailed for the colonies, where the slaves were traded for sugar, tobacco, or other goods. The ships then sailed back to Europe. During the voyage, slaves were shackled and branded with hot irons. Three to four hundred slaves were often packed in a tiny, cramped area below deck, with virtually no headroom and little ventilation. The horrors of the experience made many slaves want to die, but because the human cargo was so valuable, ships' captains did all they could to keep slaves alive. Still, it is estimated that between ten and twenty percent of slaves died during the "Middle Passage."

Advertisement for Slaves

Advertisement for the sale
of slaves, circa 1760.

Upon arrival in the colonies, enslaved Africans found themselves in a society that viewed them as private property and was organized to keep them that way. There were many challenges to endure—being sold at auction, being separated from family members, settling into a new way of life, struggling with a foreign language, and undertaking the daily labor for which they had been seized. The life of a slave was dominated by this one activity.

Besides plantation and agricultural tasks, many enslaved people worked in mines, fished, piloted boats, labored in dairies, drove livestock, and even operated printing presses. Enslaved Africans brought the skills and trades they had learned in their homelands to the colonies, which helped industry and agriculture to grow quickly. For example, many slaves knew how to grow rice, which was unfamiliar to many Europeans. Without the skills and expertise of enslaved Africans and those of their descendants, large-scale rice fields in South Carolina and Louisiana would not have succeeded.

Slave quarters at a plantation

The picture above shows slave
quarters. Read more about their living
education, and religion.

Another important aspect of African-American culture was religion. Before 1750, European Americans made only small attempts at converting slaves to Christianity, fearing that, among other things, conversion might change a slave's legal status, even though most colonies had passed laws against this possibility. Therefore, for most of the colonial period, slaves were largely left alone in regard to spiritual and religious practices. There were many differences between African religions and Christianity. For example, Africans generally believed that their ancestors' spirits remained as members of the family and community and that they needed to be recognized and honored. As most had done in Africa, slaves often came together to share stories, worship God, and pay respects to their ancestors through music and dancing.

Whereas slave owners did not bother to offer religious instruction, slaves increasingly filled the gap. Beginning with religious revivals in the 1730s and 1740s, many slaves converted to Christianity. The religion gave them hope in a difficult world, and fused with African musical traditions, it led to the creation of spirituals—songs that slaves sang during their daily work tasks and which served as both music and proverbs for slave communities. Slave owners also eventually began to view Christianity among slaves more favorably because it seemed to make slaves work harder at their jobs.

Click to learn more about
the Stono Rebellion and
other slave revolts.

Most Southern slaveholders lived in fear of a major slave rebellion, but in most cases enslaved people resisted by acting against their owners in small ways that were aimed at causing the owners trouble or discomfort. Slaves would often break tools, pretend to be sick, or perform acts of sabotage and arson. Some slaves also ran away from their masters. Many headed south or hid in densely-forested swamps where they could not easily be caught. During the colonial period, fugitive slaves organized communities called "maroon colonies" that were hidden in swampy, mountainous, or frontier areas. In 1739, a famous revolt took place—the Stono Rebellion—in which an organized group of slaves headed for Spanish Florida, seeking to escape from the colony of South Carolina.

As widespread as slavery was, every colony also hosted a population of free African Americans. Some had bought their freedom, while others had escaped or lived in places that had abolished slavery. Being a free African American was far from enviable, even when compared to being a slave. There were few legal protections, even in supposedly free states, and the threat of being kidnapped and returned to slavery was always present. Despite these obstacles, freed African Americans worked in trades including construction, metalworking, and retail, while others founded schools and universities whose graduates eventually led the campaign to abolish slavery during the 19th century.