The institution and practice of slavery is one of the uglier chapters of human history.  Indeed, it is more then  a chapter it is a recurring theme in human history.  Slavery, in one form or another, has been practiced, at one time or another, by virtually every culture, religion and ethnic group in human existence.  Indeed, the practice of slavery has continued in some parts of the world, with legal blessing, into the 21st century.  But, during the three hundred and seventy plus years, from 1492 to 1865, mankind showed a particularly ugly side in its inhumanity to fellow man.  
The colonization and development of the New World was largely fueled by slave labor.  Without slaves the exploitation of resources and the spread of agricultural systems would have been much reduced in scope and much slower to develop.  The silver, gold and gem mines of South and Central America would have been fewer in number with smaller out put.  The great tobacco and sugar cane plantations, and the later cotton plantations would have spread more slowly.  The logging of rare woods and the gathering of spices and other products would have been reduced considerably.  The growth of the entire hemisphere would have proceeded at a slower pace.

Most people are aware of the plight and enslavement of Black Africans in the New World, but many are not aware that they were not the first group to suffer the fate of enslavement.

Amerindian slaves

The first group enslaved by the European powers were the native Amerindian populations.  
Using musket and swords the Spanish rounded up the Arawaks and other native populations for transport from the islands and their home regions on the mainland, to be concentrated in areas where mining, farming, logging and such were deemed valuable.
The harsh living conditions imposed on the natives by the Spanish, along with the ravaging effects of European diseases that the natives had no resistance to, combined to devestate the population and create a labor vacuum that the Spanish needed filled.
Scholars differ on how many Amerindians were enslaved and subsequently perished, figures differ on what the original population was in the area when the Spanish first arrived, but all agree that the effect was catastrophic to the native populations and cultures.
The Spanish were not the only European power to enslave Amerindians, and the practice was not limited to the Caribbean and Central/South America.  The French and the British both tried using native populations for slave labor and had largely similar and dis-satisfactory results.  In North America the different population spread and cultures of the native peoples made them less adaptable, or numerous, to the type of enslavement and labor the Europeans were seeking.

White slaves

To offset the deficiencies of the Amerindian slave labor and supplement their numbers, especially in North America, the Powers began one of several practices that imported white Europeans as actual and virtual slave labor.

Indentured Servitude was one method of increasing the number of colonists, especially in the British colonies. Voluntary migration only provided so many people, and since the journey across the Atlantic was dangerous, other means of encouraging settlement were necessary.
Many European settlers who came to the Caribbean islands during the 16th and 17th centuries did so as indentured servants. Commoners, most of whom were young men, with dreams of owning their land or striking it rich quick would essentially sell years of their freedom in exchange for passage to the islands or colonies. The landowners on the islands would pay for a servant's passage and then provide them with food and shelter during the term of their service. The servant would then be required to work in the landowner's (master) field for a term of bondage (usually four to seven years). During this term of bondage the servant was considered the property of the master. He could be sold or given away by his master and he was not allowed to marry without the master's permission. An indentured servant was normally not allowed to buy or sell goods although, unlike an African slave, he could own personal property. He could also go to a local magistrate if he was treated badly by his master. After the servant's term of bondage was complete he was freed and paid freedom dues. These payments could take the form of land or sugar, which would give the servant the opportunity to become an independent farmer or a free labourer.

Indentured servitude was a common part of the landscape in England and Ireland during the 1600s.
However, many of the indentured did not enter bondage willingly.  The Poor Laws in England and the Debtor's Prison were paths into involuntary indenturship.   During the 1600s, many Irish were simply kidnapped and taken to Barbados. The term 'Barbadosed' was coined for this practice, and 'Redlegs' for the group concerned. Many future indentured servants were captured by the English during Cromwell's expeditions to Ireland and Scotland, and were forcibly brought over between 1649 and 1655. Similarly, the Jacobite Rebellions provided thousands more.  Many white Irish slaves were taken to Montserrat during this period of the slave trade.
Often, on the journey to the colonies, the indentured (and transported criminals) aboard the ships were given a portion of food set to last 2 weeks, with no opportunity for more, and no care as to the lives of those who finished their rations early. Many passengers did not survive the trip to the new land. Some died of starvation, disease, or suicide.
In Colonial North America, employers usually paid for European workers' passage across the Atlantic Ocean, reimbursing the shipowner who held their papers of indenture and providing an incentive for the captain to ensure they arrived alive. In the process many families were broken apart. During the time living with their masters, their fellow indentured servants took the role of family. In return, laborers agreed to work for a specified number of years. The agreement could also be an exchange for professional training: after being the indentured servant of a blacksmith for several years, one would expect to work as a blacksmith on one's own account after the period of indenture was over. During the 17th century, most of the white labourers in Virginia came from England this way. Their masters were bound to feed, clothe, and lodge them. Ideally, an indentured servant's lot in the establishment would be no harder than that of a contemporary apprentice, who was similarly bound by contract and owed hard, unpaid labour while "serving his time." At the end of the allotted time, an indentured servant was to be given a new suit of clothes, tools, or money, and freed.

However, this ideal was not always the reality for indentured servants. Both male and female laborers could be subject to violence, occasionally even resulting in death. Female indentured servants in particular might be raped and/or sexually abused by their masters. If children were produced the labour would be extended by 2 years.  Cases of successful prosecution for these crimes were very uncommon, as indentured servants were unlikely to have access to a magistrate, and social pressure to avoid such brutality could vary by geography and cultural norm. The situation was particularly difficult for indentured women, because in both low social class and gender, they were believed to be particularly prone to vice, making legal redress unusual.  The landowners and masters' reputations for cruelty in dealing with slave populations became a deterrence to the potential voluntary indentured servant.
In the Caribbean Islands newly freed servant farmers that were given a few acres of land  would find they were unable to make a living because sugar plantations had to be spread over hundreds of acres in order to be profitable and they often found themselves forced to sell their hard earned land back to their former master for a pittance.
Even the islands themselves had become deadly disease death traps for the white servants.  Yellow fever, malaria and the diseases that Europeans had brought over contributed to the fact that during the 17th century between 33 to 50 percent of the indentured servants died before they were freed.
It is difficult to determine exactly how many indentured servants entered the New World, but some figures have suggested that somewhere between half to three fifths of the total number of European immigrants that reached the New World came as an indentured servant.

Convict Labor

The Courts and Criminal Justice systems, especially that of Britain, provided another source of labor, Convict Laborers sent to the New World as a sentence of Transportation.

Transportation punished both major and petty crimes in Great Britain and Ireland from the 17th century until well into the 19th century. At the time it was seen as a more humane alternative to execution, which would most likely have been the sentence handed down to many of those who were otherwise transported. From the 1620s until the American Revolution the British colonies in North America received transported British criminals
A sentence of Transportation could apply for life or for a specific period of time. The penal system required the convicts to work, either on government projects such as road construction, building works and mining, or assigned to free individuals as a source of unpaid labour. Women were expected to work as domestic servants and farm labourers.
A convict who had served part of his time might apply for a ticket of leave permitting some prescribed freedoms. This enabled some convicts to resume a more normal life, to marry and raise a family, and a few to contribute to the further development of the colonies. Some used the freedom to revert to their previous ways. But exile was an essential component of the punishment. Returning from transportation was a hanging offence.

The actual number of convicts transported to North America are not verified although it has been estimated to be about 50,000. These were originally sent to New England, the majority of whom were prisoners taken in battle, from Ireland and Scotland. Some of these were subsequently sold as slaves to the Southern states.

African slaves

 After 1660, the Caribbean saw fewer indentured servants coming over from Europe. On most of the islands African slaves now did all the hard fieldwork.
Africans had been imported for many years, they were excellent workers: they often had experience of agriculture and keeping cattle, they were used to a tropical climate, resistant to many tropical diseases, and they could be "worked very hard" on plantations or in mines.

Africans had been traded as slaves for centuries -- reaching Europe via the Islamic-run, trans-Saharan, trade routes. (Slaves obtained from the Muslim dominated North African coast however proved to be too well educated to be trusted and had a tendency to rebellion.)
Between 1450 and the end of the nineteenth century, slaves were obtained from along the west coast of Africa with the full and active co-operation of African kings and merchants. (There were occasional military campaigns organised by Europeans to capture slaves, especially by the Portuguese in what is now Angola, but this accounts for only a small percentage of the total.) In return, the African kings and merchants received various trade goods including beads, cowrie shells (used as money), textiles, brandy, horses, and perhaps most importantly, guns. The guns were used to help expand empires and obtain more slaves, until they were finally used against the European colonisers.


In the history of slavery, asiento (or assiento, meaning "assent" ) refers to the permission given by the Spanish government to other countries to sell slaves to the Spanish colonies, from the years 1543–1834.

"Asiento" in Spanish means "agreement." Through an asiento, a trade relationship was established whereby a set of traders was given a monopoly over that route and/or product. In this case, it refers specifically to a monopoly over the trade of slaves between Africa and the Americas, this asiento existed between the early 16th and mid 18th century.

Initially, Portugal dominated the slave trade. Before the onset of the official asiento in 1595, the Spanish fiscal authorities gave individual asientos to merchants, primarily from Portugal, to bring slaves to the Americas. For the 1560s most of these slaves were obtained in the Upper Guinea regions, especially in the Sierra Leone region.
However, following the establishment of the Portuguese colony of Angola in Africa in 1575, Angolan interests came to dominate the trade, and it was Portuguese financiers and merchants who obtained the larger scale, comprehensive asiento that was established in 1595. Angolan dominance of the trade was pronounced after 1615 when the governors of Angola, made alliance with Imbangala mercenaries to wreck havoc on the local African powers. Many of these governors also held the contract of Angola as well as the asiento, thus insuring their financial interests. Shipping registers from Vera Cruz and Cartagena show that as many as 85% of the slaves arriving in Spanish ports were from Angola, brought by Portuguese ships. This asiento period came to an end in 1640 when Portugal revolted against Spain, though even then the Portuguese continued to supply Spanish colonies. In the 1650s Spain sought to enter the slave trade directly, sending ships to Angola to purchase slaves. These plans were abandoned and the Spanish returned to Portuguese and then Dutch interests to supply slaves. Later in, Britain and Holland dominated the slave trade.

At the conclusion of the War of the Spanish Succession, the Treaty of Utrecht gave to Great Britain a thirty-year asiento, or contract, to furnish (supply) an infinite amount of slaves to the Spanish colonies, and 500 tons of goods per year. This provided British traders and smugglers potential inroads into the traditionally closed Spanish markets in America.

Triangal Trade
Triangle Trade
Traffic on shipping lanes between Africa, the Caribbean, and Europe began to soar in the 18th century, a model that was known as triangular trade, and was a rich target for piracy.
Manufactured goods were shipped from England to Africa (the first leg of the journey). The same ship would then take a cargo of African slaves to the West Indies or southernmost American colonies (the second leg of the journey called the 'Middle Passage') and the surviving slaves would be sold for a good profit. The ships were sometimes sunk to get them thoroughly cleaned, drained and loaded for a return voyage to their home port. From the West Indies the main cargo was sugar, rum, and molasses; from Virginia, it was tobacco and hemp.  

British involvement in the triangular trade began with the colonization of America from 1607 and the West Indies from 1623, but it was dominated by the Portuguese and Dutch until late in the 17th century, when France, Denmark, and Sweden also became involved. The chief British ports were London, Liverpool, Bristol, and Glasgow.
Estimates of the total number of slaves transported are as high as 12.5 million from 1650 to 1850. The British West Indies took some 2.4 million slaves, and British North America 0.5 million. Conditions on board ship for the slaves were cruel and unhealthy, Slaves often tried to commit suicide by jumping overboard.
Slaves were introduced to new diseases and suffered from malnutrition long before they reached the new world. It is suggested that the majority of deaths on the voyage across the Atlantic occurred during the first couple of weeks and were a result of malnutrition and disease encountered during the forced marches and subsequent interment at slave camps on the coast.
Conditions on the slave ships were terrible, but the estimated death rate of around 13% is lower than the mortality rate for seamen, officers and passengers on the same voyages.
Slave ship

As a result of the slave trade, five times as many Africans arrived in the Americas than Europeans. The majority was shipped to Brazil, the Caribbean, and the Spanish Empire. Less than 5% travelled to the Northern American States formally held by the British.

Initially there was little difference between Black Africans and White European indentured servants and Convict Laborers in many parts of the New World.  Blacks could gain freedom after periods of service, were allowed to have jobs and earn extra income, that could be used to purchase their freedom and they could own some personal property.  But soon that began to change.

slave auction
In 1638 Jamestown Virginia held the first public slave auction in the town square.  The Slave Codes of 1705, in Virginia, were a set of official government documents that codified and enshrined what had become the prevailing attitude and policy throughout much of the New World.  The Codes forced any imported servant who was not Christian in his or her native country into the category of "slave." It provided that all persons of color be considered real estate as opposed to human beings. Additionally, there was no punishment for harming or even causing the death of anyone branded a slave. Harsh physical punishments were set forth in Slave Codes of 1705 as opposed to fines since slaves could not own property and thus had no means to pay the fines. Also, slaves were refused any right to have a court hearing of any kind in the Slave Codes of 1705.

Slave Auction ad

 In 1717 the average price at auction for an African male in good health, ranged from 25£ to 30£ each, or $2,500 to $3,000 each

Return to Directory