Africans, Slavery, and Race
Was it inevitable that Africans would be imported to the Americas
to become slaves? Did European views about racial inferiority
contribute to the fact of New World African slavery?
today we might think that racial attitudes have always existed,
and that they influenced or contributed to the emergence of the
transatlantic African slave trade, the reverse is, in fact, true.
Modern ideas about race, racial difference and inferiority emerged
to explain the societies that arose in the New World as a result
Different Colonies, Different Societies
earliest European colonizers of the Americas, the Spanish, did
not develop significant slave societies in its colonies. Columbus
tried to grow sugar for profit, forcing indigenous people on the
island of Hispaniola to work his fields, but his efforts were
unsuccessful. Cortés and Pizarro's conquest of the Aztec and Incan
empires in the early 16th century, however, gave the Spanish an
alternative source of wealth. The Spanish assumed control of these
large Central and South American empires' systems for tribute.
Using existing arrangements for indigenous corvée labor, they
extracted gold and silver from established mines, filling the
coffers of a quickly emerging global Spanish empire and providing
specie and currency for its trade and economy.
The Europeans who followed found no similar natural wealth in
the regions they settled - the Portuguese in Brazil, then later,
the Dutch, French and British on the coasts (including what is
now Louisiana) and in the islands of the Caribbean. Instead, continuing
Columbus' lead, they tried to establish colonies to produce agricultural
goods to sell and trade, again using indigenous peoples as a workforce.
These attempts failed because natives were not familiar with European
farming methods and because they escaped and fled into territories
they knew well. Portuguese outposts on the western coast of Africa,
established as way stations for their fleets to travel into the
Indian Ocean and further east, provided an alternative supply
of labor. African slaves - initially captured in intertribal warfare
but later directly for sale in what became a lucrative slave trade
- were sold and shipped to the Americas to be the workforce for
European colonial enterprises. This African enslavement was driven,
not out of a sense of racial inferiority, but to satisfy labor
needs. Although initially not profitable, the value of the African
slaves themselves as well as the emergence of new European tastes
- and a market - for American-produced luxuries such as chocolate
and tobacco, eventually resulted in an enormous and profitable
system of trans-Atlantic trade. European ships carried supplies
to African slave ports. From there, cargoes of recently captured
slaves were shipped to the Americas from Africa, where those who
survived the horrific journey were sold as chattel. Plantations,
part of a new form and system of agricultural production, purchased
these slaves in large numbers to work fields that grew rice, indigo,
cacao, tobacco, and sugar for the return trade back to Europe.
Slaves became such a large part of the population and their work
such a large part of the economy in these colonies that historians
now call them as "slave societies." "Race," as it developed in
these colonial slave societies was different from how it developed
in the United States.
The situation was different in the British colonies that became
the United States. The New England colonies were established as
places for followers of Protestant dissenters to live and practice
their religious faith. The Chesapeake colonies, Virginia and Maryland,
established in the early 17th century, and later the Carolinas,
were settlement colonies where land was initially given to colonists
in exchange for their efforts to cultivate and work it. Those
colonists who fared well in the harsh conditions could accumulate
enough land to require additional labor to work their holdings.
After unsuccessful attempts to use native groups as workers, wealthy
colonists imported indentured servants from Britain - an available
supply of workers because of population growth. In the first century
of Virginia's existence, 100,000 of the 130,000 British arrivals
to the colony were indentures. Beginning in the 1620s, colonists
also began to import slaves, although most were from the Americas
and not directly from Africa. While slaves were present in these
British colonies, the larger presence of European settlers and
servants meant that their societies and economies were mixed,
or what historians, "societies with slaves."
Although it was permanent servitude,
slavery in the 17th century Chesapeake was not like slavery as
it later developed and in some ways, was difficult to distinguish
from indentured servitude. In an era where few laws defined slavery,
slaves enjoyed limited rights including the ability to work land
for themselves, to own property, including other slaves, and to
marry. Children of slaves did not inherit their parents' bondage.
Although it was not generally the case, slaves could earn or save
enough money to purchase their own freedom. While indentured servants
worked under temporary, as opposed to permanent, terms of service,
the life expectancy in the early decades of the Chesapeake colonies
was so low that almost two-thirds did not survive to the end of
their contracts. Indentured servants often worked with slaves
under the same conditions - one reason why there was occasional
intermarriage between the two groups, European and African.
How Did Race Develop in This Context?
The harsh conditions and low
life expectancy of colonists in Virginia eventually changed as
settlers became more familiar with its climate and their environment.
Increased survival and a continued influx of colonists brought
population growth and an increasing demand for land, which became
more scarce and further removed from access to roads and water
transportation, both vital for agricultural commerce. Landholdings
in Virginia expanded from the Tidewater region of fertile lands
and easily navigable rivers into the less fertile lands of the
Piedmont foothills and beyond, where they collided with the territorial
interests of native groups. An emerging planter class of colonists
who had succeeded in accumulating land and money shared few and
fewer interests with newly arrived immigrants, more and more of
them indentured workers who survived long enough to want to claim
land for themselves, and many of whom continued to share interests
and concerns with African slaves and freedmen.
of the tensions grew as the colony grew and decades passed, exploding
in 1676 in what became known as Bacon's Rebellion. Initially a
conflict between William Berkeley, the governor of Virginia, and
Nathaniel Bacon, a wealthy settler in the Virginia upcountry,
over land and Indian relations in the western part of the colony,
the rebellion sparked concerns about class and race when Bacon
went east to Jamestown, the colonial capital. Arrested, then pardoned
by Berkeley, Bacon returned with a small army and promised to
grant freedom to slaves and indentured servants who rallied to
his cause - as did Berkeley, less successfully. His followers
seized and set fire to Jamestown and temporarily gained control
of the colony. The rebellion itself proved short-lived when Bacon
died suddenly a month later and many of his followers were executed,
but its larger implications remained. Beyond Bacon's specific
issues, the coalition between poor whites and African slaves and
freedmen in his rebellion produced a larger concern that such
a coalition might remain a continuing source of further revolts
and class uprisings.
Such concerns, however, were mitigated
by intervening circumstances. In the years following Bacon's Rebellion,
the distinction between indentured servitude and slavery grew
into a pronounced difference. Indenture became less attractive
as a source of labor because servants now lived long enough to
claim land - as the rebellion had demonstrated violently - and
improved economic conditions in Britain reduced the supply of
workers willing to come to America and increased the price of
their contracts. Africans continued to be readily available, and
because many were not Christian, they could be enslaved and regulated
in a manner that indentures could not. Virginia enacted a series
of laws, constituting a formal slave code that removed many of
the rights slaves had previously enjoyed and added further restrictions
to slavery including anti-miscegenation statutes. Previously one
of several labor sources, slaves became Virginia's primary workforce
for its plantations, and slavery an integral institution within
With the hardening of slavery came the emergence
of race. Previously, people's appearance and origins had not mattered
as much before socially, particularly among the working class.
The physical distinctiveness of African slaves - now absent similar
European indentured servants - however, not only marked their
newly created subordinate position within Virginian society, it
became the justification and reason for that position. Virginia's
example, in turn, became a model that other British colonies with
slaves, when they were created, followed with a mutually reinforcing
dynamic. "Race" explained why Africans were slaves, while slavery's
degradation supplied the evidence for their inferiority. When
Thomas Jefferson observed almost a century later that Africans
were slaves, the apparent naturalness of their position had erased
the actual social history that had produced it.
John Cheng is a historian who teaches at George Mason University.
This background reading is an original summary of key scholarly
articles, many of which are listed in our Resources.