Slavery and the Slave Economy Thesis

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Slavery in Colonial America

Slavery and the Slave Economy

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Modern observers likely know in general terms that many Africans were enslaved through the 17th to 19th Centuries, but few probably know the extent of suffering that newly enslaved Africans endured from the outset, nor do many modern observers likely know the legal sources that were used to justify and legitimize the practice in the Old and New Worlds. In fact, some authorities argue that it was not until the end of the 17th Century that racial divisions had become sufficiently codified to protect the 'peculiar institution' of slavery in the New World. Given the impact that slavery has had on American society, gaining a better understanding of the origins of the slave economy and its implications for civil rights in the United States represents a timely and valuable enterprise. To this end, this paper provides a review of the relevant literature to describe the background in which slavery emerged and a description of the slave economy. Throughout most of the 17th Century, the tobacco economies of Virginia and Maryland depended of the contract labor of white indentured servants, who were employed for a term of four to five years, then freed. Only in the late-17th Century, particularly after Bacon's Rebellion in 1675-76, did the planter aristocracy change over the permanently enslaved African labor, which had been relatively uncommon in the Chesapeake colonies up to that time. In South Carolina, though, slavery had existed from the beginnings of the colony in 1670 and increased rapidly with the expansion of rice production, while white indentured servants were uncommon. This colony imported slaves at double the rate of Virginia and Maryland, and like the West Indies was only able to maintain its slave population by continued imports, while in the Chesapeake it began to replace itself and expand through natural increase in the 18th Century.

Background and Overview

TOPIC: Thesis on Slavery and the Slave Economy Assignment

As the recent capsize of a major passenger cruise ship dramatically demonstrated, sea voyages are dangerous enterprises, even today, but it is probably difficult or even impossible for modern observers to imagine the conditions that millions of Africans experienced during their transportation to the New World in the 17th Century. Some indication of these experiences, though, can be gained from Stephanie Smallwood's book, Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora, in which the author describes the sufferings that were experienced by 300,000 Africans who were unfortunate enough to become caught up in the slave trade in the Gold Coast region of Africa, now Ghana, during the half century period from 1675 to 1725. Starting in 1672, the Royal African Company had a monopoly on the slave trade, although it was forced to accept competition in the 18th Century. Throughout the period of the slave trade, over 90% of Africans were transported to the sugar-producing islands in the West Indies like Jamaica, Barbados and Santo Domingo, and only a small minority to the English mainland colonies (Smallwood 3).

Like their counterparts from other regions of Africa, these hundreds of thousands of unfortunates were transported to the English American colonies aboard slave ships in the most miserable conditions imaginable, and many did not survive the ordeal and were simply thrown overboard on the way. In this regard, Sowande Muskateen reports that "despite the efforts used to procure healthy bondpeople, no sea captain or physician could anticipate the diseases capable of wreaking havoc on the bodies and minds of African captives. The intermingling of bondpeople in close confinement in the holds of ships facilitated the exchange of contagious ailments" such as measles, influenza, and smallpox (Mustakeem 475). Despite efforts to recruit the healthiest Africans as possible, the toll was enormously high, and "regardless of race or gender, individuals traveling across the Atlantic were never granted immunity to various seaborne ailments or spared from subsequent death Even more importantly, medical complaints and treatment required for restoration played out much differently at sea than on land" (Muskateem 475). The "lucky" survivors of this nightmarish voyage found themselves truly strangers in a strange land, but some fared better than others, especially prior to the 18th Century.

While these Africans from the Gold Coast region were not unique in this regard, Smallwood maintains that these experiences provide an authentic example the factors that contributed to their predicament, including the powerful economic forces that were at play during this period in history. For instance, there were even social and cultural among the blacks themselves, with newly arrived African's being referred to as "saltwater Negroes" or "newcomers" who were regarded as inferior by their American-born counterparts because they could not speak English and were unfamiliar with local laws, customs and work routines (Jacobs 2008). According to S.M. Jacobs "American-born slaves were favored by slave-owners, and even among the enslaved there were clear advantages to having been born in the Americas" for the same reasons (Jacobs 568). These advantages would have some important implications for the slave economy that emerged in the Old South, particularly when the slave population there began to grow through natural increase rather than importation. Similarly, slaves with certain skills like carpentry of blacksmithing were valued at least double the price of field hands and ordinary laborers.

Emergence of the Slave Economy

Although the first slaves arrived in Virginia as early as 1619, they were far outnumbered by white indentured servants for most of the century, which was never the case in South Carolina. Virginia had a population of about 50,000 whites in the 1670s, but only 3-4,000 slaves or about 7% of the total population. Not until that decade did the importation of slaves even exceed 1,000, although 7,000 were imported in 1700-10 and 13,500 in the 1730s. By 1700, there were 20,000 slaves in Virginia about 20% of the population (Tomlins 25). Georgia and the Carolinas had about 13,000 whites in 1700, which had increased to 300,000 by 1780, and slavery existed in South Carolina from the beginning of the colony in 1670. Africans were already being actively traded as slaves in Virginia even in the early, Jamestown phase of settlement, and some were already slaves for life, owned by the Virginia Company. This does not mean that all blacks were being enslaved, since there are records that at least some were treated similarly to white indentured servants and freed after a term of years. In fact, prior to the end of the 17th Century, there was some degree of social mobility and equality available for some free blacks in the burgeoning American colonies and some blacks even gained some prominence and owned slaves themselves. Thomas D. Morris relates the famous story of Anthony Johnson, "a black who acquired property and became the owner of slaves in his own right," which would become almost impossible once slavery became a thoroughly rigid and codified system that applied to all blacks and their children (Morris 41). Likewise, in their study of free blacks in Northampton County, Virginia, T.H. Breen and S. Innes (1980) report that during the early and middle decades of the century, "Englishmen and Africans could interact with one another on terms of relative equality for two generations," which never happened again in the South after this time (Breen and Innes 72). In the 17th Century, black and white indentured servants could socialize together and even run away and rebel together, and the ruling planters always feared such combinations of freed slaves, servants and poor whites. While the exact legal or other mechanisms by which many blacks in 17th Century America gained their freedom remain unclear, the historical record does show that many were successful in doing so. In this regard, Morris adds that "by whatever legal or circumstantial route, scores of Virginia's blacks became free during the middle decades of the seventeenth century" (Breen and Innes 41).

Slavery as a legal concept did not exist in Britain at the time Virginia was colonized and even serfdom and other forms of involuntary servitude had gradually disappeared at the end of the Middle Ages. Slavery as it existed in North America is therefore not based on the English common law but on the older Roman legal code, by which the child inherits the condition of servitude from the mother. Indeed, this was an absolutely essential condition of slave masters since it gave them the power to claim all children born to slave mothers as their 'property', and it was first codified into law in Virginia in 1662. Slavery certainly existed in Virginia at that relatively early date, although Breen and Innes argue that "it was not until the slave codes of 1705 that the tragic fate of Virginia's black population was finally sealed" (Breen and Innes 5). According to Alden T. Vaughn, on the other hand, "Breen and Innes do not say why the slave code of 1705 was a turning -- or rather an ending -- point. The legislation of that year was essentially a codification of the colony's slave laws since 1662 and thus added… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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