As of December 31, 2014, I retired from full-time teaching in Humboldt State University's Department of History. While this website will remain online, it is no longer maintained.

History 110 - Dr. Gayle Olson-Raymer

The Enslaved - What They Endured

Today we will complete our Unit I discussion of "Intrusions into an Old World and the Beginnings of a 'New World'" by focusing upon the experiences of those who involuntarily came to the North American colonies in the 17th and 18th centuries - African slaves. But before we enter into this historical discussion of slavery, we need to go back to the first question we discussed in this class - why does this matter? Almost always in the course of this class a student will ask why we continue to talk about an issue that has been dead in America since the end of the Civil War. The answer is harsh but true - we must study the history of American slavery because it will provide a backdrop for the contemporary issue of global slavery. Indeed, as the map below indicates, in the 21st century, at least 27 million people are enslaved.

Map of slavery in the 21st Century

While this video shows us that contemporary slavery is certainly more prevalent in the Far East, Asia, and Africa, slavery still exists in North America. We must keep this in mind as we delve into the history of slavery in colonial North America.

Discussion Goals: The Enslaved - What They Endured
  1. To discuss the African origins of slavery in the British colonies.
  2. To examine the process by which slavery became a political institution in the "New World."
  3. To discuss the characteristics of slavery as it developed in the American colonies.

Goal #1: To discuss the African origins of slavery in the British colonies

Map of "Negroland" 1736

All too often, studies of American slavery fail to examine the life which the Africans were forced to leave behind. Therefore, we will begin our analysis of slavery by asking two questions:

From where did the slaves originate? As the above map of "Negroland" indicates, slaves were kidnapped mainly from western Africa, or what many have called The Slave Coast - the coastal areas of present-day Togo, Benin (formerly Dahomey) and western Nigeria. In the pre-colonial time this was one of the most densely populated parts of the African continent. It became one of the most important export centers for the Atlantic slave trade from the early 16th century to the 19th century.

As the map below indicates, between 1650-1860, as many of 15 million Africans were kidnapped and forced into slavery. While the vast majority were transported to South and Central America and the West Indies, about a half million came to North America. You can see that most slaves were kidnapped from southwest Africa, where they lived largely in tropical rainforests, or areas that had no geographical similarities to where they were transported in North America.

Map of the African Slave Trade

What kind of culture and lifestyle did the Africans leave behind after being forced into slavery?

As we begin our analysis of slavery in America, it is important to emphasize that we know a great deal about the evolution of African slavery in American society because slaves were property and as such, records were kept on everything that was owned.

Goal #2: To examine the process by which slavery became a political institution in the "New World"

As the chronology below indicates, slavery gradually became institutionalized in the British colonies of North America.

Goal #3: To discuss the characteristics of slavery as it developed in the American colonies

"There are two ways in which a man can be enslaved. One is through force. He can be penned behind fences, guarded constantly, punished Anti-slavery drawing in 1840severely for breaking the slightest rule, and made to live in constant fear. The second is to teach him to think that his own best interests will be served by doing what his master wishes him to do. He can be taught that he is inferior and that only through slavery will he eventually rise to the 'level' of his master.

The southern slave owner used both. The first was the way of the whip, the threat of the auction block, and murder. Its aim was to make the slave live in constant fear ... The second way was more subtle. Its aim was to brainwash the slave, to destroy his mind and replace it with the mind of the master. In that way the slave would enslave himself and there would be no need to police him. A slave should have no sense of himself that was separate from the self the master wanted him to have. Thus it was that no black had a name of his own. He was given the surname of his owner, no matter how many owners he might have during his life.

... Julius Lester, To Be a Slave, 1968: pg. 76

Characteristics of Slavery

  1. The roots of institutionalized slavery were economic.  Initially, it was the economic need for slaves that led to the institutionalization of slavery - not the social need to enslave the inferior.

    Map of Slave Population in No. american colonies 1800

  2. The system of slavery was legitimized through four rationales: racial, economic, legal, and religious.
  3. "Hearken, ye servants!  Give strict heed unto my words.  You are rebellious sinners.  Your hearts are filled with all manner of evil. 'Tis the devil who tempts you.  God is angry with you, and will surely punish you, if you don’t forsake your wicked ways.  Instead of serving your masters faithfully, which is pleasing in the sight of your heavenly Master, you are idle, and shirk your work.  God sees you.  You tell lies.  God hears you.  Instead of being engaged in worshipping him, you are hidden away somewhere, feasting on your master’s substance; tossing coffee-grounds with some wicked fortuneteller, or cutting cards with another old hag.  Your masters may not find you out, but God sees you, and will punish you.  O, the depravity of your hearts!  When your master's work is done, are you quietly together, thinking of the goodness of God to such sinful creatures?  No, you are quarrelling, and tying up little bags of roots to bury under the door-steps to poison each other with.*  God sees you.  You men steal away to every grog shop to sell your master’s corn, that you may buy rum to drink.  God sees you.  You sneak into the back streets, or among the bushes, to pitch coppers.  Although your masters may not find you out, God sees you; and he will punish you.  You must forsake your sinful ways, and be faithful servants.  Obey your old master and your young master - your old mistress and your young mistress.  If you disobey your earthly master, you offend your heavenly Master.  You must obey God’s commandments.  When you go from here, don’t stop at the corners of the streets to talk, but go directly home, and let your master and mistress see that you have come.”

    *  The minister is preaching against the established African American cultural practices of using coffee for divination, cards for conjuring, and making balls filled with roots for both divination and conjuring.  This was part of the Kongo civilization which was kept alive and well by many slaves in America. 

3. Slavery was not just a regional problem in the south; rather, it was a national problem that shaped the lives of all colonial residents, northerners and southerners, rich and poor, black and white alike. Furthermore, most of the slave traders landed their ships in the New England and Middle Colonies, as well as Poster for Slave Auction in 1780sauctioned them off in both regions - as can be seen in the poster below, advertising the arrival of slaves to be auctioned in the 1780s.

4. Slavery affected all of the colonies by nurturing the growth of several major social divisions that affected all of colonial America. These divisions, explained below, provide a clear message that American society was divided -  racially between the white, black, and red peoples of North America;  socially between the more privileged and less privileged of white and black society; and economically between rich and poor. There were at least four social divisions:

5. Slaves resisted slavery, both by means of active plots and rebellions, abolition support, enlisting with the North during the Civil War, as well as passive resistance to the day-to-day toil of slavery. Slaves in the Americas rebelled against their masters from the very beginning of the institution. As early as the summer of 1526, 500 Spaniards and 100 black slaves founded a town near the mouth of the Pee Dee River in what is now South Carolina. By November, the slaves rebelled, killed some of their masters, and escaped to join the local Indians. The 150 Spaniards who survived fled to Haiti without any slaves. Thus, the first non-Native settlers in the United States were blacks - blacks who rebelled against slavery from the very first. Following are the types of resistance regularly witnessed in North America.

6. Despite the physical and emotional brutality of slavery, many slaves retained their African ways, some of their African and Muslim traditions and family names, and their human dignity. As Historian Gary Nash has written:

"Though slaves were kept in bondage, slaves were far from passive.  They were not stripped of their identities; they were rarely emotionally attached to their masters; they seldom forgot their African culture.  Instead, they were locked into a dynamic relationship with their owners in which, despite the grotesquely uneven distribution of power, they demonstrated extraordinary ingenuity in setting limits on the master’s ability to coerce them.  However brutal the power held over them, slaves were actively and continuously involved in carving out psychological “space” for themselves.  Survival was their immediate goal, but freedom was their ultimate hope...Slaveowners could not obliterate slave family life without threatening the efficient and profitable management of the plantation.  Often they encouraged slaves to live together and take up the role of parents, for masters found that slaves were more dutiful and productive when tied to spouses and offspring.  If not concerned about the morality of their slaves, they were interested in maximizing the output of labor and minimizing insubordination.  Also, slaves themselves refused to give up the right to family association.  Though strictly confined within “the peculiar institution,” they still managed to forge affective ties.  Overcoming formidable obstacles, slaves fashioned intimate bonds between man and woman, parent and child." (Nash, 1979)

7. Slavery not only oppressed whites and enslaved blacks, it also endangered the rights and liberties of American citizens.

Interactive map of slavery in US


“The Enslaved - The Origins of Slavery”

  1. It was an economic need that led to the institutionalization and legalization of slavery, not the social need to enslave the inferior.
  2. Enough good will and shared experiences existed between white and black servants in colonial America to make masters fearful of a united resistance.
  3. By the end of the 1600s, colonial society was racially divided between the white, black, and red peoples of North America and socially divided between the privileged and less privileged of white and black society.  In some cases, such divisions were the result of a divide and conquer mentality deliberately designed by white, Protestant elites to maintain their economic, social, and political empowerment.
  4. Slavery was not just a regional problem confined to the southern colonies.  Rather, slavery was first a colonial problem and then a national problem  that shaped the lives of all residents, northerners and southerners,  black and white alike.
  5. The vast majority of slaves were discontented with their lives under slavery.  However, despite the cruelties of the system, many slaves were able to retain a great deal of their African identity and culture as well as preserve their basic human rights. Slave families showed a “stubborn resistance” to the pressures of family and cultural disintegration.
  6. While actual slave revolts were rare, the fear of such rebellion was constant among white slave owners.  Ironically, the institution of slavery also enslaved the white owners.
  7. Resistance was a regular byproduct of the institution of slavery - running away, not working too hard, collective strikes, and rebellion.  Slaves were not contented with their situation and most, when given an opportunity, resisted in any way they could.

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