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A brief history of the "peculiar institution" of slavery

16th-18th centuries, in North America & Britain

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Topics in this essay:

bulletInadequacy of information about slavery
bulletSlavery during the 16th to 18th centuries
bulletAbolition movement begins in the 18th century

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Inadequacy of information about slavery:

The historical record of slavery deals almost completely with the beliefs and actions of whites in  Europe and North America. The full story is yet to be told. The contribution of the slaves themselves has been incompletely documented.  "How slaves transformed their African experiences into revolutionary action against the institution of slavery still has to be explored. Even specialists of Africa have inadvertently overlooked the importance of black abolitionist thought and action." 1

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Slavery during the 16 th to 18th centuries:

African slaves were transported to Spanish and Portuguese colonies in the Caribbean, Mexico, and Central & South America, starting very early in the 16th century.

Landowners in the American colonies originally met their need for forced labor by enslaving a limited number of Natives, and "hiring" many more European indentured servants.  In exchange for their transportation across the Atlantic, the servants committed to work for the landowner for 4 to 7 years. A few slaves were imported from Africa as early as 1619. With the spread of tobacco farming in the 1670's, and the diminishing number of people willing to sign-on as indentured servants in the 1680's, increasing numbers of slaves were brought in from Africa. They replaced Native American slaves, who were found to be susceptible to diseases of European origin. "...small numbers of white people were also enslaved by kidnapping, or for crimes or debts." 2 The Africans "came from many racial stocks and many tribes, from the spirited Hausas, the gentle Mandingos, the creative Yorubas, from the Igbos, Efiks and Krus, from the proud Fantins, the warlike Ashantis, the shrewd Dahomeans, the Binis and Sengalese." 3 Eventually 600 to 650 thousand slaves arrived in America against their will. 4

Slavery was an attractive proposition to landowners. In 1638, "the price tag for an African male was around $27.00 while the salary of a European laborer was about 70 cents per day." 2 A slave had less value at the time than 40 days of labor by a European.

Both slave transportation, and slavery itself in the U.S. were brutal institutions. It was  not unknown to have a 50% mortality rate during the passage from Africa. Slaves who were too ill to survive the trip were sometimes thrown overboard to drown. Once on American soil, slaves were largely treated as property, to be freely bought and sold.  Some slave owners allowed their slaves to marry; others imposed marriages on them. Slave marriages were not recognized by the states. The owner was free to split up a couple or family at any time simply by selling some of his/her slaves. Slave children were sent into the fields at about 12 years of age where they worked from sun up to sun down.

Slavery was also brutal in Canada. In 1734, a black slave, Marie-Joseph-Angelique, objected to slavery and her expected sale. She burned down her owner's home in Montreal in protest. The fire spread and eventually destroyed 46 buildings. Her sentence was to have her hands chopped off and then to be burned alive. This was reduced on appeal to simple hanging.

"Even in 1824, an 18-year old New Brunswick boy was 'hung by the neck until dead' for having stolen 24. In Upper Canada, [Ontario] theft can mean being branded with a red-hot iron on the palm of the hand or a public whipping." 5

Many, perhaps most, slaves engaged in passive resistance:

"They worked no harder than they had to, put on deliberate slowdowns, staged sit-down strikes and fled to the swamps en masse at cotton picking time. They broke implements, trampled the crops and 'took' silver, wine, money, corn, cotton and machines." 3

Others were more aggressive:

"They poisoned masters and mistresses with arsenic, ground glass and 'spiders beaten up in buttermilk.' They chopped them [slaveholders] to pieces with axes and burned their houses, gins and barns to the ground."

There were many slave conspiracies and revolts during the era of slavery. One source 6 writes that they went through three phases:

bullet1730s - 1760s: Sudden, violent attacks, involving an African ritual component
bullet1760s - 1800s: More conservative, wary revolts led by plantation slaves
bullet1800s - 1840s: Better organized attacks, organized by assimilated blacks, many of whom were tradesmen.

Among the most serious were in Gloucester County, VA, in 1663;  New York, NY in 1712;  Stono, SC in 1739; Richmond, VA in 1800; near New Orleans, LA in 1811; Charleston, SC in 1822; Southampton County, VA in 1831; and Harper's Ferry, VA in 1859. Slave owners lived in continuous fear of an open revolt.

Thomas Jefferson, principal drafter of the Declaration of Independence, was a tireless promoter of civil liberties. However, he did not conceive of the universal nature of human rights. He owned slaves himself, and even fathered mixed-race children by one of his slaves. Some of his thoughts on slavery were recorded in his "Notes on the State of Virginia." 7 He was opposed to general emancipation, arguing that "Deep-rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections by the blacks of the injuries they have sustained..." would hopelessly destabilize society. Jefferson was one of the promoters of the American Colonization Society, which was organized in 1816. It sought to free young African-Americans by educating them and transporting them to a colony outside the United States. Jefferson never freed his own slaves.

The Anglican Church in Virginia debated during the period 1680-1730 about whether slaves should receive Christian religious instruction. They decided that such instruction should be given. However, education programs were thwarted by the landowners and slave owners who felt that if the slaves converted to Christianity, then they could no longer be enslaved. 2

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Abolition movement begins in the 18th century:

The  mass movement to abolish slavery started in England in the mid-18th century. British ships controlled much of the slave trade at the time. Ships from Bristol and Liverpool transported tens of thousands of Africans annually to the Americas. Yet, within a few years "The worlds biggest slave trading nation was to become the prime mover behind the ultimately successful suppression of the trade." . 4

In 1772, Lord Chief Justice, Lord Mansfield, ruled that slaves in England could not be forced to leave the country. In 1783, actions of the captain of a slave ship Zong made a major contribution to the abolition movement. Believing that the ship was running short of water, he ordered 132 sick slaves thrown overboard to their deaths. When he later attempted to collect on the insurance policy, the public became outraged. The Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was founded at that time. In 1787, William Wilberforce (1759-1833) was persuaded to lead an attack on slavery in Parliament. In 1788, a Committee of the Privy Council was appointed to study the question.

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References used:

  1. P.E. Lovejoy, "The African Diaspora: Revisionist Interpretations of Ethnicity, Culture and Religion under Slavery," at: http://www.h-net.msu.edu/~slavery/essays/
  2. "Chrolology on the history of slavery and racism," at: http://innercity.org/holt/slavechron.html
  3. C.L. Bennett, "Black Resistance: Slavery in the United States," at: http://www.afroam.org/history/slavery/main.html
  4. "Slavery in the United States," Encarta Concise Enclopedia at: http://encarta.msn.com/encartahome.asp
  5. Lloyd Duhaime, "Montreal hangs a slave (1734)," at: http://www.wwlia.org/cahista.htm#slave
  6. M. Mullin, "Africa in America: Slave acculturation and resistance in the American south and the British Caribbean, 1736 - 1831," Univ. of IL Press, (1995). You can read reviews or buy this book safely and online from Amazon.com
  7. Thomas Jefferson, "Thomas Jefferson on Slavery," from "Notes on the State of Virginia" at: http://odur.let.rug.nl/~usa/P/tj3/writings/slavery.htm
  8. Duncan Clarke, "History of American slavery," PRC Publishing, (1998)

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Copyright 1999 to 2006 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 1999-JAN-18
Latest update: 2006-APR-04
Author: B.A. Robinson

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