Arriving in Charles Town, Carolina in 1706, Reverend Francis Le Jau was horrified almost immediately. He met enslaved Africans ravaged by the Middle Passage, Indians traveling south to enslave enemy villages, and colonists terrified of invasions from French Louisiana and Spanish Florida. Slavery and death surrounded him.
Still, Le Jau’s stiffest complaints were reserved for his own countrymen, the English. White servants lazed about, “good for nothing at all.” Elites were no better, unwilling to concede “that Negroes and Indians are otherwise than Beasts.” Although the minister thought otherwise and baptized several hundred slaves after teaching them to read, his angst was revealing.
The 1660s marked a turning point for black men and women in southern colonies like Virginia. New laws created the expectation that African-descended peoples would remain enslaved for life. The permanent deprivation of freedom facilitated the maintenance of strict racial barriers. Skin color became more than superficial difference; it became the marker of a transcendent, all-encompassing division between two distinct peoples, two races, white and black.
Racial prejudice against African-descended peoples co-evolved with Anglo-American slavery, but blacks were certainly not the only slaves, nor whites the only slaveholders. For most of the seventeenth century, as it had been for many thousands of years, Native Americans controlled almost the entire North American continent. Only after more than a century of Anglo-American contact and observations of so many Indians decimated by diseases did settlers come to see themselves as somehow more naturally “American” than the continent’s first human occupiers.
All seventeenth-century racial thought did not point directly toward modern classifications of racial hierarchy. Captain Thomas Phillips, master of a slave ship in 1694, did not justify his work with any such creed: “I can’t think there is any intrinsic value in one color more than another, nor that white is better than black, only we think it so because we are so.” For Phillips, the profitability of slavery was the only justification he needed.
British colonists in the Caribbean made extensive use of Indian slaves as well as imported Africans. Before the intrusion of colonists, warring indigenous societies might take prisoners of war from enemy tribes to be ceremonially killed, traded to allied Indian groups as gifts, or incorporated into the societies of their captors. Throughout the colonial period, Europeans exploited these systems of indigenous captivity in many parts of the Americas. Colonists purchased captives from Indian traders with guns, knives, alcohol, or other manufactured goods. Colonists turned the purchased Indian captives into slaves who served on plantations in diverse functions: as fishermen, hunters, field laborers, domestic workers, and concubines. As the Indian slave trade became more valuable, illegal raids, rather than purchases, became more common. Courts might also punish convicted Indians by selling them into slavery.
Wars offered the most common means for colonists to acquire Native American slaves. Seventeenth-century European legal thought held that enslaving prisoners of war was not only legal, but more merciful than killing the captives outright. After the Pequot War (1636-1637), Massachusetts Bay colonists sold hundreds of North American Indians to the West Indies. A few years later, Dutch colonists in New Netherland (New York and New Jersey) enslaved Algonquian Indians during both Governor Kiefts War (1641-1645) and the two Eposus Wars (1659-1664). The Dutch similarly sent these Indians to English-settled Bermuda as well as Curaçao, a Dutch plantation-colony in the southern Caribbean. An even larger number of Indian slaves were captured during King Phillip’s War from 1675-1678, a pan-Indian rebellion against the encroachments of the New England colonies. Hundreds of defeated Indians were bound and shipped into slavery. The New England colonists also tried to send Indian slaves to Barbados, but the Barbados Assembly refused to import the New England Indians for fear they would encourage rebellion.
In the eighteenth century, wars in Florida, South Carolina, and the Mississippi Valley produced even more Indian slaves. Some wars emerged from contests between Indians and colonists for land, while others were manufactured as pretenses for acquiring captives. Some were not wars at all, but merely illegal raids performed by slave traders. Historians estimate that between 24,000 and 51,000 Native Americans were enslaved throughout the South between 1670 and 1715. While some Indians stayed in the southern colonies, many were exported through Charlestown, South Carolina, to other ports in the British Atlantic, most likely to Barbados, Jamaica, and Bermuda. Slave raids and Indian slavery threatened the many settlers who wished to claim land in frontier territories. By the eighteenth century, colonial governments often discouraged the practice, although it never ceased entirely as long as slavery was, in general, a legal institution.
Native American slaves died quickly, mostly from disease, but others were murdered or died from starvation. The demands of colonial plantation economies required a more reliable labor force, and the transatlantic slave trade met the demand. European slavers transported millions of Africans across the ocean in a horrific journey known as the Middle Passage. Writing at the end of the eighteenth century, Olaudah Equiano recalled the fearsomeness of the crew, the filth and gloom of the hold, the inadequate provisions allotted for the captives, and the desperation that drove some slaves to suicide. Equiano claimed to have been born in Igboland (in modern-day Nigeria), but he may have been born in colonial South Carolina and collected memories of the Middle Passage from African-born slaves. In the same time period, Alexander Falconbridge, a slave ship surgeon, described the sufferings of slaves from shipboard infections and close quarters in the hold. Dysentery, known as “the bloody flux,” left captives lying in pools of excrement. Chained in small spaces in the hold, slaves could lose so much skin and flesh from chafing against metal and timber that their bones protruded. Other sources detailed rapes, whippings, and diseases like smallpox and conjunctivitis aboard slave ships.
“Middle” had various meanings in the Atlantic slave trade. For the captains and crews of slave ships, the Middle Passage was one leg in the maritime trade in sugar and other semi-finished American goods, manufactured European goods, and African slaves. For the enslaved Africans, the Middle Passage was the middle leg of three distinct journeys from Africa to the Americas. First was an overland journey to a coastal slave-trading factory, often a trek of hundreds of miles. Second—and middle—was an oceanic trip lasting from one to six months in a slaver. Third was acculturation (known as “seasoning”) and transportation to the mine, plantation, or other location where new slaves were forced into labor.
Recent estimates count between 11 and 12 million Africans forced across the Atlantic, with about 2 million deaths at sea as well as an additional several million dying in the trade’s overland African leg or during seasoning. Conditions in all three legs of the slave trade were horrible, but the first abolitionists focused especially on the abuses of the Middle Passage.
Europeans made the first steps toward an Atlantic slave trade in the 1440s, when Portuguese sailors landed in West Africa in search of gold, spices, and allies against the Muslims who dominated Mediterranean trade. Beginning in the 1440s, ship captains carried African slaves to Portugal. These Africans were valued only as domestic servants given Western Europe’s surplus of peasant labor. European expansion into the Americas introduced both settlers and European authorities to a new situation—an abundance of land and a scarcity of labor. Portuguese, Dutch, and English ships became the conduits for Africans forced to America. The western coast of Africa, the Gulf of Guinea, and the west central coast were sources of African captives. Wars of expansion and raiding parties produced captives who could be sold in coastal factories. African slave traders bartered for European finished goods such as beads, cloth, rum, firearms, and metal wares.
Slavers often landed in the British West Indies, where slaves were seasoned in places like Barbados. Charleston, South Carolina, became the leading entry point for the slave trade on the mainland. Sugar and tobacco boomed in Europe in the early colonial period, but rice, indigo, and rum were also profitable plantation exports. In the middle of the eighteenth century, after trade wars with the Dutch, English slavers became the most active carriers of Africans across the Atlantic. Brazil was the most common destination for slaves—more than four million slaves ended up in Brazil. English slavers, however, brought approximately two million slaves to the British West Indies. About 450,000 Africans landed in British North America, seemingly a small portion of the 11 to 12 million victims of the trade. Females were more likely to be found in North America than in other slave populations. These enslaved African women bore more children than their counterparts in the Caribbean or South America. A 1662 Virginia law stated that an enslaved woman’s children inherited the “condition” of their mother. This meant that all children born to slave women would be slaves for life, whether the father was white or black, enslaved or free.
American culture contains many resonances of the Middle Passage and the Atlantic slave trade. Many foods associated with Africans, such as cassava, were imported to West Africa as part of the slave trade, then adopted by African cooks before being brought to the Americas, where they are still consumed. West African rhythms and melodies live in new forms today in music as varied as religious spirituals and synthesized drumbeats. African influences appear in the basket making and language of the Gullah people on the Carolina Coastal Islands.
Most fundamentally, the modern notion of race emerged as a result of the slave trade. Before the Atlantic slave trade, neither Europeans nor West Africans had a strong notion of race. Indeed, African slave traders lacked a firm category of race that might have led them to think that they were selling their own people. Similarly, most English citizens felt no racial identification with the Irish or the even the Welsh. Modern notions of race emerged only after Africans of different ethnic groups were mixed together in the slave trade and as Europeans began enslaving Africans and Native Americans exclusively.
In the early years of slavery, especially in the South, the distinction between indentured servants and slaves was, at first, unclear. In 1643, a law was passed in Virginia that made African women “tithable.” This, in effect, associated African women’s work with hard, agricultural labor. There was no similar tax levied on white women. This law was an attempt to disassociate white and African women. The English ideal was to have enough hired hands and servants working on a farm so that wives and daughters did not have to partake in manual labor. Instead, white women were expected to labor in dairy sheds, small gardens, and kitchens. Of course, due to the labor shortage in early America, white women did participate in field labor. But this idealized gendered division of labor contributed to the English conceiving of themselves as better than other groups who did not divide labor in this fashion, including the West Africans arriving in slave ships to the colonies. For white colonists, the association of a gendered division of labor with Englishness was a key formulation in determining that Africans would be enslaved and subordinate to whites.
Ideas about the rule of the household were informed by legal understandings of marriage and the home in England. A man was expected to hold “paternal dominion” over his household, which included his wife, children, servants, and slaves. White men could expect to rule over their subordinates. In contrast, slaves were not legally seen as masters of a household, and were therefore subject to the authority of the white master. Slave marriages were not legally recognized. Some enslaved men and women married “abroad”; that is, they married individuals who were not owned by the same master and did not live on the same plantation. These husbands and wives had to travel miles at a time, typically only once a week on Sundays, to visit their spouses. Legal or religious authority did not protect these marriages, and masters could refuse to let their slaves visit a spouse, or even sell a slave to a new master hundreds of miles away from their spouse and children. In addition to distance that might have separated family members, the work of keeping children fed and clothed often fell to enslaved women. They performed essential work during the hours that they were not expected to work for the master. They produced clothing and food for their husbands and children and often provided religious and educational instruction.