Institution of Slavery in America
Slavery, in one form or another, has been practiced throughout history by a wide variety of people groups, most typically involving the enslavement of insurgents or other prisoners of war. When the English came in 1607 and established a permanent settlement at Jamestown, they brought slavery and forced labor. In the institution of slavery, during the First Anglo-Powhatan War in 1610, colonist George Percy reported that the English had an “Indian guide” called Kempes in “hande Locke.” For most of the first half of the 17th century, English colonists in Virginia exploited the local Indian population, particularly its children. Some colonists disregarded Virginia statutes issued by the Virginia Assembly in the 1650s and again in 1670 forbidding the enslavement of Indian children.
As English colonists continued to enslave the indigenous people of Virginia, in 1619, the first free blacks from the African continent arrived in the state. During slavery, colonialist John Rolfe, one of the founders of the Virginia Company and its treasurer, wrote to Sir Edwin Sandys that year to inform him that the first Africans had arrived in Virginia. A 160-ton man-of-war named the White Lion transported “20 and odd Negroes” to Point Comfort in late August, according to Rolf (present-day Hampton, Virginia).
During the institution of slavery, they were bought by Governor George Yeardley and merchant Abraham Piersey in return for food and supplies. Two or three additional Africans arrived on the Treasurer ship in September. Portuguese-allied Angolan soldiers probably abducted these Africans from the Angolan kingdom of Ndongo.
The legal codification of race-based slavery grew as Europeans proceeded to inhabit the North American colonies in the 17th century. Many historians agree that slavery and indentured servitude coexisted in the early part of the century (with many Europeans arriving in the colonies under indentures). Still, throughout the 1640s-1660s, colonies established laws limiting the rights of Africans and African-Americans and solidifying the institution of slavery based on race and heredity, especially in the South. Officials condemned “a negro called John Punch” to serve his owner “for the time of his natural life” in 1641 after Punch tried to flee with two European indentured slaves.
At the institution of slavery, both of the Europeans were given four-year extensions on their terms of service, while Punch received a life sentence. According to historians, one of the first examples of slavery that was legalized, lifelong, and race-based is the case of John Punch. Colonialists in New England perpetuated the practice of exploiting indigenous Indians, particularly those seized during the conflict, while also establishing legal justification for the enslavement of African and African Americans. Slavery was initially legalized in Massachusetts in 1641 for “captives seized in lawful warres…and strangers as freely selle[sic] themselves or are sold to us,” according to popular belief.
During colonial times, the “triangle trade” defined the economics of the institution of slavery. Slave traders brought enslaved Africans to the North American colonies in this cyclical arrangement. There, they were converted into completed, high-end items such as rum and textiles that merchants along the African coast sold or exchanged for the African captives to bring them to North American colonies. Slave traders enslaved Africans and transported them across the Atlantic on ships known as the “Middle Passage,” which took them from Africa to the North American colonies or the West Indies for months. There were several Africans who died on the trek.
Slavery in colonial America took a major step forward in the 1660s. Slavery laws during the institution of slavery were passed and implemented by each colony on its own throughout the colonial period. Condemning children born to slave mothers to be slaves further established race-based and hereditary slavery in the colony of Virginia in the 1662 statute.
The institution of slavery became authorized in Maryland in 1663 and New York and New Jersey in 1664. As a result of these state-by-state legalization efforts in 2013, slavery was made acceptable in the states of Maryland, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia. Non-whites could not own guns in the colonies, and slaves could not be converted to Christianity without losing their position as a slave.
Slavery and the slave trade expanded rapidly in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Slavery in colonial America developed in tandem with the expansion of agriculture, notably tobacco and rice production (in Virginia and Maryland) (in the Carolinas). The 1672 growth of the Royal company resulted in an increased influx of Africans being transported to the colonies. Captive African commerce and transit to the colonies grew when the RAC’s monopoly was broken in 1696.
During slavery, a reduction in the practice of enslaving indigenous Indians was paralleled by a rise in enslaved Africans, and colonial rulers increasingly curtailed the rights and freedoms of enslaved Africans and Black Americans, particularly by making emancipation more difficult—and in some cases illegal—for slaves. Internal slave trade—the purchasing and selling of slaves already in the colonies—increased in the early 18th century, while the immigration of enslaved Africans was prohibited in several provinces.
It was during the institution of slavery that those who had been enslaved were viewed as property and had little or no legal rights. In many instances, people enslaved in numerous colonies were not allowed to testify in court, own firearms, meet in large numbers, or walk out at night. Although slaves were expected to labor from dawn to dusk on southern fields, some were granted Sundays off to manage their tiny gardens, mend assigned clothes or take care of other necessities that may enhance their paltry allotments of clothing and food.
Slaves were routinely purchased and sold as commodities, and families were often split up and sent to other estates or colonies to prevent slaves from escaping. Those who worked on large plantations were more likely to be housed in a quarter or a group of quarters with an overseer than those who worked on smaller plantations. The institution of slavery involved religion, storytelling, music, and dance were integral components of the lives of enslaved Africans, and they helped to sustain African cultural traditions over the years. Baptist and Methodist churches were frequented by slaves and free people of color throughout the Great Awakening in the late 17th and early 1800s.
The institution of slavery was a unique experience for each enslaved. From the 17th to the 18th century, slavery changed dramatically due to the numerous slave laws that colonial administrations implemented. Furthermore, a person’s enslavement experience may be defined by their physical location. Enslaved people in the southern states were often forced to work in tobacco fields. In contrast, others (including women and children) were employed as slaves for affluent plantation owners, such as cooks, maids, and other domestic workers. Enslaved people may have been skilled artisans, worked on the eastern seaboard’s many harbors and ports, or toiled on the smaller farms of middling landowners in the north and the southern cities and towns.
Fewer than 5% of the population of New England was enslaved in the northern colonies, where slave-owning households may have possessed just two or three slaves (though in larger cities like Newport, Rhode Island, slaves accounted for closer to 20 percent of the population of the city). Nearly half of the population in mid-Atlantic colonies like Virginia was slaves by the mid-18th century. About 60% of the enslaved people lived and worked on enormous estates with 50, 100, or more slaves in colonies like South Carolina.
Anxieties about slave uprisings and rebellions in the institution of slavery grew in the colonies as slavery spread, and the number of enslaved men, women, and children rose. Slaves headed by a slave named Jemmy seized weapons and ammunition from an arsenal along the Stono River in South Carolina on September 9, 1739. They then massacred those who stood in their way. The gathering expanded in size, and with drums banging, they set off for Florida, where they hoped to find freedom under the dominion of the Spanish.
Before the militia in the institution of slavery arrived, the party had slaughtered more than 20 white people, including women and children. Others were hung or sold to slave markets in the West Indies due to the struggle (a routine yet harsh punishment for enslaved men, women, and children in the colonies). Tensions between the white, black, free, and slave populations of the New York colony erupted in 1741 after a string of mysterious fires. Based on scant evidence, fearful whites concluded that enslaved males intentionally set the city’s fires as part of a larger plot of revolt. Thirty slaves were executed, while another 70 enslaved males had to leave New York.
Slaveholders discovered ways to silently oppose in their daily lives, such as damaging equipment or claiming to be sick, even if there was no large-scale insurrection. Others robbed their owners of food, clothing, or other valuables. Some people tried to flee. Slaves who ran away from their masters were advertised in newspapers in the eighteenth century, along with descriptions of their physical appearances and a reward for the person who caught and returned the slave to the owner. When a slave returned following a failed escape attempt, he was subjected to severe punishment.
A large percentage of slaves in the colonies during the institution of slavery lived in the South, where they accounted for 20% of the population by 1775. Slave and free African Americans worked together on the eve of the American Revolution to advance the abolition cause and petition governments for gradual manumission and extinction of slavery, helped by patriot language of life, liberty, and happiness. In addition, during the institution of slavery, enslaved African Americans were tempted by the prospect of freedom in exchange for their service to the British army. People imprisoned in the fledgling United States of America in 1783 fled to British colonies like Nova Scotia in search of a better life. Also, enslaved males were used as replacements for owners who did not want to fight, occasionally by choice. Some soldiers were compensated financially and given freedom in exchange for their service.
The American Revolution afforded many enslaved African Americans options to attain the freedom that did not exist earlier. The Revolution also altered popular perception of slavery—in 1780, Pennsylvania became the first major slave-holding state to begin the process of eliminating slavery. Though several other new states followed suit, the Revolution failed to eradicate the institution of slavery in America. Instead, the economy’s reliance on slavery proved to be a defining aspect in constructing the new United States government.
A Turning Point, Not a Beginning
According to some accounts of the institution of slavery, those who arrived in August of 1619 were the “first Africans on America’s North American continent,” however, this is inaccurate. To cite one example, historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. points out that Juan Garrido, who accompanied Juan Ponce de León in his search for the Fountain of Youth in 1513, became the first documented black person to arrive on the shores of what would become the United States.
In addition, it is not true that the first enslaved persons in the United States came in 1619. Enslaved Africans arrived at St. Augustine, Florida, the first European settlement in what is now the continental United States, in 1565. It was in 1526 when a Spanish expedition to what is now South Carolina was halted by the resistance of the slaves on board.
In addition to the institution of slavery, Pocahontas’s father Powhatan’s 30 or more tribal tribes occupied the territory that became Virginia long before Europeans or Africans arrived. As early as 1619, English colonists began enslaving indigenous people, according to Ashley Atkins Spivey, a member of the Pamunkey, the Powhatan chief’s tribe, who is an anthropologist.