Slavery in the Colonies

Learning Objectives

  • Describe how Europeans addressed their labor problems
  • Describe the mistreatment of enslaved peoples and its lasting influence

European promoters of colonization claimed the Americas overflowed with a wealth of treasures. Burnishing national glory and honor became entwined with carving out colonies, and no nation wanted to be left behind. However, the realities of life in the Americas—violence, exploitation, and particularly the need for workers—were soon driving the practice of slavery and forced labor. Everywhere in America, a stark contrast existed between freedom and slavery. The Columbian Exchange, in which Europeans transported plants, animals, and diseases across the Atlantic in both directions, also left a lasting impression on the Americas.

Labor Systems

Physical power—to work the fields, build villages, process raw materials—is a necessity for maintaining a society. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, humans could derive power only from the wind, water, animals, or other humans. Everywhere in the Americas, a crushing demand for labor bedeviled Europeans because there were not enough colonists to perform the work necessary to keep the colonies going. Spain granted encomiendas—legal rights to Native labor—to conquistadors who could prove their service to the crown. This system reflected the Spanish view of colonization: the king rewarded successful conquistadors who expanded the empire. Some Native peoples who had sided with the conquistadors, like the Tlaxcalans had against the Aztecs, also gained encomiendas; Malintzin, the Native Nahua woman who helped Cortés defeat the Aztecs, was granted one.

The Spanish believed Native peoples would work for them because they were conquered, and, in return, the Spanish would bring them Catholicism. In theory, the relationship consisted of reciprocal obligations, but in practice the Spaniards ruthlessly exploited it, seeing Native people as little more than beasts of burden. Convinced of their right to the land and its peoples, they sought both to control Native labor and to impose what they viewed as correct religious beliefs upon the land’s inhabitants. Native peoples everywhere resisted both the labor obligations and the effort to change their ancient belief systems. Indeed, many retained their religion or incorporated only the parts of Catholicism that made sense to them.

Indians were not the only source of cheap labor in the Americas. By the middle of the sixteenth century, Africans formed an important element of the labor landscape, producing the cash crops of sugar and tobacco for European markets. To create sugar, workers or enslaved people had to cut the long sugarcane stalks by hand and then bring them to a mill, where the cane juice was extracted. They boiled the extracted cane juice down to a brown, crystalline sugar, which then had to be cured in special curing houses to have the molasses drained from it. The result was refined sugar, while the leftover molasses could be distilled into rum. Every step was labor-intensive and often dangerous.

Europeans viewed Africans as non-Christians, which they used as a justification for enslavement. Denied control over their lives, enslaved persons endured horrendous conditions. At every opportunity, they resisted enslavement, and their resistance was met with violence. Indeed, physical, mental, and sexual violence formed a key strategy among European slaveholders in their effort to assert mastery and impose their will.

The Origins of Slavery

Racial prejudice against African-descended peoples co-evolved with Anglo-American slavery, but Blacks were certainly not the only people enslaved, 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.

British colonists in the Caribbean made extensive use of enslaved Indians 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 enslave Native Americans. 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 Indians 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 enslaved Indians 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 resulted in even higher numbers of enslaved Indians. 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.

Enslaved Native Americans often 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.

Becoming Racist

Spanish conquerors established the framework for the Atlantic slave trade over a century before the first chained Africans arrived at Jamestown in 1619. Even Bartolomé de las Casas (died 1566), celebrated for his pleas to save Native Americans from colonial butchery, for a time recommended that Indigenous labor be replaced by importing Africans. Early English settlers from the Caribbean and Atlantic coast of North America mostly imitated European ideas of African inferiority. “Race” followed the expansion of slavery across the Atlantic world. Skin-color and race suddenly seemed fixed. Englishmen equated Africans with categorical blackness and blackness with sin, “the handmaid and symbol of baseness.” An English essayist in 1695 wrote that “A negro will always be a negro, carry him to Greenland, feed him chalk, feed and manage him never so many ways.” More and more Europeans embraced the notions that Europeans and Africans were of distinct races. Others now preached that the Old Testament God cursed Ham, the son of Noah and supposed ancestor of all Africans, and doomed them to perpetual enslavement.

And yet in the early years of American slavery, ideas about race were not yet fixed and the practice of slavery was not yet codified. The first generations of Africans in English North America faced miserable conditions but, in contrast to later American history, their initial servitude was not necessarily permanent, heritable, or even particularly disgraceful. Africans were definitively set apart as fundamentally different from their White counterparts, and faced longer terms of service and harsher punishments, but, like the indentured White servants whisked away from English slums, these first Africans in North America could also work for only a set number of years before becoming free landowners themselves. The Angolan Anthony Johnson, for instance, was sold into servitude but fulfilled his indenture and became a prosperous tobacco planter himself.

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.

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The Slave Trade

Elmina Castle

Figure 1. The trading post at Elmina Castle. The oldest European building south of the Sahara, Elmina Castle was established as a trade settlement by the Portuguese in the 15th century. In time, other European imperial powers would follow in the footsteps of the Portuguese by constructing similar outposts on the coast of West Africa.

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 enslaved Africans 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. The growing slave trade with Europeans had a profound impact on the people of West Africa, giving prominence to local chieftains and merchants who traded enslaved persons for European textiles, alcohol, guns, tobacco, and food. Africans also charged Europeans for the right to trade enslaved persons and imposed taxes on their purchases. Different African groups and kingdoms even staged large-scale raids on each other to meet the demand for enslaved individuals.

The Middle Passage

Once sold to traders, all enslaved persons sent to America endured the hellish Middle Passage, the transatlantic crossing, which took one to two months. By 1625, more than 325,800 Africans had been shipped to the New World, though many thousands perished during the voyage. An astonishing number, some four million, were transported to the Caribbean between 1501 and 1830. When they reached their destination in the Americas, Africans found themselves trapped in shockingly brutal slave societies. In the Chesapeake colonies, they faced a lifetime of harvesting and processing tobacco.

“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 enslaved Africans. 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 slave ship. The third was acculturation (a process known as “the seasoning”) and transportation to the mine, plantation, or other location where newly enslaved individuals were forced into labor.

The Middle Passage

The cover page of Olaudah Equiano's autobiography, showing his image, wearing traditional nice clothing of the era.

Figure 2. Image of Olaudah Equiano, known for most of his life as Gustavus Vassa. Enslaved as a child in Africa, he was taken to the Caribbean and sold as a slave to a Royal Navy officer. He was sold twice more but purchased his freedom in 1766.

Writing at the end of the eighteenth century, Olaudah Equiano recalled his own transatlantic crossing and 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 enslaved persons to suicide. According to Equiano, he was born in Igboland (in modern-day Nigeria), then enslaved and forced upon a ship headed to the Caribbean. He later purchased his freedom and lived in England, where he worked as an abolitionist and published his autobiography. He wrote the following about the Middle Passage:

The closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us. This produced copious perspirations, so that the air soon became unfit for respiration, from a variety of loathsome smells, and brought on a sickness among the slaves, of which many died, thus falling victims to the improvident avarice, as I may call it, of their purchasers. This wretched situation was again aggravated by the galling of the chains, now become insupportable; and the filth of the necessary tubs, into which the children often fell, and were almost suffocated. The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable.[1]

In the same time period, Alexander Falconbridge, a slave ship surgeon, described the sufferings of enslaved passengers due to shipboard infection 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, enslaved persons 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.

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.

Everywhere, Africans resisted slavery, and running away was common. In Jamaica and elsewhere, runaways created maroon communities, groups that resisted recapture and eked a living from the land, rebuilding their communities as best they could. When possible, they adhered to traditional ways, following spiritual leaders such as Vodun priests.

Slave ships often landed in the British West Indies, where the recently enslaved 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 slave traders became the most active carriers of Africans across the Atlantic. Brazil was the most common destination for enslaved persons—more than four million ended up in Brazil. English slave traders, however, brought approximately two million enslaved persons 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 enslaved women would be enslaved for life, whether the father was White or Black, enslaved or free.

Slave Resistance and Rebellion

The process of enslavement and living as an enslaved person was traumatic. Africans found themselves living a life they could not have imagined, and those born into slavery knew no life other than a hellish existence. Yet, some resisted. Resistance took many forms, large and small. Open, violent resistance was relatively uncommon, though it was not unknown. More common were acts of everyday resistance. What might seem like small inconsequential events to the modern reader were much more significant in the slave societies of the Americas.

White people who owned enslaved persons had one goal—to maximize the amount of labor obtained from those they held in bondage. If that is understood as the enslaver’s goal, then any act that limits the ability to obtain labor is, then, an act of resistance. Feigning illness and not working for the day is resistance. Breaking a tool is resistance. Running away is resistance, and that was a relatively common occurrence. Running away might last a day, or it might become permanent. In the Caribbean, notably in Jamaica, there were large, established communities of runaways, known as maroons, that the British repeatedly tried to re-enslave to no avail. Portuguese colonists had to deal with similar communities in Brazil, where they were known as quilombos. Some enslaved women were known to practice birth control. Limiting the number of children born into slavery had a significant impact on an enslaver’s wealth and ability to command labor and should thus be understood as a resistance. In sum, to assume that enslaved persons accepted their fate without opposition is to misunderstand their lived experience. This JSTOR History article tells of two African women who were enslaved by the Spanish and sought out ways to resist.

The British and Institutionalized Slavery

The English crown chartered the Royal African Company in 1672, giving the company a monopoly over the transport of enslaved Africans to the English colonies. Over the next four decades, the company transported around 350,000 Africans from their homelands. By 1700, the tiny English sugar island of Barbados had a population of fifty thousand enslaved individuals, and the English had encoded the institution of chattel slavery into colonial law.

This new system of African slavery came slowly to the English colonists, who did not have slavery at home and preferred to use servant labor. Nevertheless, by the end of the seventeenth century, the English everywhere in America—and particularly in the Chesapeake Bay colonies—had come to rely on African slaves. While Africans had long practiced slavery among their own people, it had not been based on race. Africans enslaved other Africans as war captives, for crimes, and to settle debts; they generally used their slaves for domestic and small-scale agricultural work, not for growing cash crops on large plantations. Additionally, African slavery was often a temporary condition rather than a lifelong sentence, and, unlike New World slavery, it was typically not heritable (passed from a slave mother to her children). It was in the New World that the notion of enslavement became synonymous with Black; never before in human history had that been the case.

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.

Slavery’s Lasting Influence

American culture contains many vestiges 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 coastal Carolina 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 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 distinguish between 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 those held in slavery. White men could expect to rule over their subordinates. In contrast, enslaved individuals were not legally seen as masters of a household, and were therefore subject to the authority of the White master. Marriages between enslaved individuals 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 permit a visit, or even sell an enslaved person 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.

Without a doubt, African slavery was one of the most tragic outcomes in the emerging Atlantic World.

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Watch It

In this CrashCourse Black American History episode, author, poet, and scholar Clint Smith explains how the legal system of the 1600s clearly discriminated against Black people and evolved in a way that differentiated chattel slavery from indentured servitude. In the episode, he details the story of one “lucky” biracial woman, Elizabeth Key, who was able to take her case to court to obtain her freedom. Most people were not so lucky, and the legal system further evolved to restrict the rights of Black people in the colonies.

If you’re interested in learning more about the legal precedents and policies that brought slavery to the colonies, watch another Black American History video: “Slavery in the American Colonies.” The entire series dives into many important and often lesser-known stories about living as a Black person in early America.


You can view the transcript for “Elizabeth Key: Crash Course Black American History #3” here (opens in new window).

Think It Over

  • What types of labor systems were used in the Americas? Did systems of unfree labor serve more than an economic function?


Middle Passage: part of the Atlantic slave trade referring both to the actual sea crossing of enslaved individuals  and the middle step in the transition from free to enslaved

seasoning: the process of acculturation in which an individual moves from free to enslaved; generally understood to occur after arrival in the New World

  1. Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, written by Himself (London: 1790), 51-54.