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.
The first group enslaved by the European powers were the native
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.
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
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
shelter during the term of their service. The servant would then be
required to work in the landowner's (master) field for a term
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
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
complete he was freed and paid freedom dues. These
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
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
slave populations became a deterrence to the potential voluntary
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.
The Courts and Criminal Justice systems, especially that of
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
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
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.
After 1660, the Caribbean saw fewer indentured servants coming
over from Europe. On most of the islands African slaves now did all the
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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