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1619 - Early Slave Times

Slavery is now recognized as a great crime, but, for most of human history, few considered it either illegal or immoral. Slavery flourished in ancient Greece and Rome and was recognized by the Bible, Koran, and other sacred texts. Customs and law in Africa, Europe, and the Americas justified slavery and the trade in human beings.

During the three centuries prior to Columbus’s arrival in the New World, Europeans established plantations in and around the Mediterranean, crossed the great ocean, and gained a foothold on the coast of Brazil and then in the Antilles. Although planters cared little about the nationality or race of their slaves, they became increasingly dependent upon Africans. Thus, long before the settlement of America, the plantation system based on enslaved African labor had been established.

When Africans, Europeans, and Native Americans came together in the fifteenth century, each had knowledge of the institution of chattel bondage. Familiar with slavery and accustomed to a world of social hierarchies the people of Africa, Europe, and the Americas sold slaves and purchased them without fear of violating either the laws of God or of man. The lives of enslaved black men and women in 1650 bore little resemblance to those living in 1750 or 1850. Slaves living in different parts of the state had diverse experiences, and former slaves often commented on slavery’s diversity.

The first black Africans were brought to Virginia in 1619, just 12 years after the founding of Jamestown. Initially, many were regarded as indentured servants who could earn their freedom. By the 1660s, however, as the demand for plantation labor in the Southern colonies grew, the institution of slavery began to harden around them, and Africans were brought to America in shackles for a lifetime of involuntary servitude.

The end of the English Royal African Company’s slave trade monopoly in 1698 made it easier to obtain Africans. African slavery, which had been legalized in a series of laws starting in the 1660s, grew rapidly, and black slaves replaced white indentured servants as the primary source of plantation labor.

The nature of the trans-Atlantic slave trade changed. Slaves no longer dribbled in small numbers carrying knowledge of the languages, religions, and trading etiquette of the larger Atlantic world. Rather, they entered the colonies by the boatful, stuffed into the holds of ships under the grimmest of conditions.

While fewer than one thousand Africans arrived in Maryland between 1619 and 1697, nearly 100,000 disembarked during the three quarters of a century prior to the American Revolution. By 1755, about one third of Maryland’s population — in some places as much as one half — was derived from Africa, mostly from the interior of the continent. The colony became as much an extension of Africa as of Europe. Between 1619 and 1808, nearly one million Africans were transported involuntarily to North America.

The men and women dragged across the Atlantic were called “Africans.” But they were not Africans when they boarded the slave ships. Rather, they were members of particular nations — Angolans, Igbos, and Mande, for example — each with its own political hierarchy, social structure, traditions, and culture. Some were matriarchal and others patriarchal.

Some Africans labored as farmers, worked as village-based artisans or merchants, or served as soldiers. Most had been free, but some had been slaves. They wove different kinds of cloth, made different kinds of pottery, smelted different kinds of metals, sang different songs, and worshipped different gods.

The coastal region of South Carolina, a colony founded in the late 17th century, is a case in point. Transatlantic slave trade linked white European slave traders, white colonists seeking to purchase slaves, and enslaved Africans in a brutal and exploitative circuit of exchange. In addition, white colonists engaged in extensive trade with both England and other slave societies in the Caribbean, exporting to the latter foodstuffs in exchange for, among other things, more slaves.

Within the colony itself, river travel linked plantations and towns in the low country, where the majority of the colony's population resided. Before the construction of passable roads, African and African American slaves performed a range of economic tasks. While most slaves labored in agriculture—producing foodstuffs, tobacco, rice, and later cotton for export — a smaller number were involved in commerce and transportation. Indeed, in the late 17th through at least the mid-18th century, planters in the growing colony of South Carolina remained dependent on slave skills and stamina for carrying out agricultural production, skilled craftwork, and the transportation of goods.

Black boat crews, rowing from plantation to plantation, provided, in historian Peter Wood's words, "the backbone of the lowland transportation system during most of the colonial era, moving plantation goods to market and ferrying and guiding whites from one landing to another." White colonists' reliance upon black labor in colonial transportation generated a "steady demand for ships' hands in the coastal colony," which, in turn, afforded some mobility and autonomy to these slaves.

Under the new system, few black people gained their freedom and, in the half century prior to the American Revolution, the proportion of black people enjoying freedom in Maryland declined from one in four to one in twenty-five. Planters put the newly arrived Africans to work in primitive inland plantations, where the largely male population lived lonely lives without friends or families.

Driven to work at a feverish pace, slaves suffered grievously. Deadly diseases, for which newly arrived Africans had little resistance, killed them at a murderous rate. The sexually imbalanced population—in part a product of the planters’ preference for slave men — could not form families. During the first decades of the eighteenth century, the fertility rate of the black population declined and its mortality rate increased as the harsh regimen of tobacco agriculture transformed Maryland into a charnel house for black people.

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Page last modified: 06-10-2017 19:05:48 ZULU