Slavery in British America:  Colonial Era


Kasey McCarthy

The Slave Trade

In order to understand the historical aspects of the activities which became known as the slave trade, it is necessary to be aware of the ambitious economic greed that sparked it.  The enslaving of Africans was practiced long before the voyages of Europeans to the Gold Coast.  Beginning on a small scale, African rulers of various states traded their own people for surplus goods.  Slaves were kept on estates that engaged in production for the ruler.  The trading between Africans resulted in an interconnected system of trade networks along Africa’s many rivers. African rulers likewise became deeply involved in interstate commerce.  With the arrival of Europeans, African rulers recognized international trade as a new profitable source of revenue.  After 1500, European merchants increased their imports from Africa and slaves became one of the most valuable commodities. The exportation of Africans as slaves was nevertheless possible because so many African rulers and their established societies possessed slaves themselves.

Europeans served as the connecting influence to the trade of Africans to the Americas.  Numerous trade routes made up the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.  Shorter routes, like the one connecting Angola, Africa to Brazil, South America, consisted of the most traffic and lasted a period of about five weeks.  The longest voyage took two months.  It is the notorious Middle Passage which spanned the waters between Southeast Africa and the Americas.  Along the Middle Passage slaves suffered inhumane cruelty.  Like cattle, slaves were overcrowded onto ships with sparse, poor quality food.  Sanitation literally did not exist and so disease spread rapidly in close, filthy living quarters below deck.  The conditions only added to the mental anguish many Africans were experiencing. Psychological and physiological traumas caused depression amongst helpless  people: traveling a vast expanse, unaware of destination, lacking identity in their exploited nakedness.  The mortality rate on a trip from Angola to the Western Caribbean ran at an average of 15%.  Shorter voyages avoided death altogether while others could experience the loss of more than half of their cargo.

Slaves were first introduced to the Caribbean in 1502.  Shortly afterwards, the Spanish established a sugar mill in Hispaniola.  The Caribbean islands discovered the advantages of slave labor for tropical crops.  The closer the equator, the more tropical the climate.  Similarly, the more African workers in demand.  Transport costs were low, crops were profitable, and the Americas were relatively close in proximity to Africa.  It was all quite convenient and profitable.  Brazil and the Caribbean Basin together imported of all Africans that reached the Americas.  Slaves could be replenished yearly and soon Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Jamaica  were reaping the benefits of the slave trade.  The Americas developed an economy based on a steady stream of black labor.  Slaves became the most valuable and productive members of the work force.  Their forced labor load increased plantation profits and fueled the expanding Atlantic economy.

Jamestown, Virginia was first introduced to captive labor in 1607.  By the 1660’s until the 1730’s it was common practice for Caribbean saves to be sold to ship captains traveling to Chesapeake.  While most Africans poured into Brazil and the Caribbean, during Trans-Atlantic trade, the colonies received one in every twenty Africans that came to the Americas.  In 1680, only 7,000 Americans lived on the mainland.  Unfortunately, the colonies experienced a noticeable growth in slave numbers.  Eventually, all the up colonies from Massachusetts Bay to Georgia Florida border received Africans.  In the 1730’s, Charleston became the primary up 3  market for importing slaves. In 1732, Georgia added to that demand.  Before the 1660’s the Dutch were the main suppliers of slaves to the colonies. Afterwards, the English controlled the trade by established companies: Company of Royal Adventures in 1663 and The Royal African Company in 1672. In addition to these changes in trade, the 1600’s meant the importation of “seasoned slaves,” so named because they were bought from the Caribbean.  The practice proved troublesome and expensive.  To increase profits the colonies dealt with direct trade from Africa.  In 1766, Savannah received the first direct cargo of slaves and soon after, 4 out of 5 slaves in Chesapeake were from direct shipments.  The colonies, like the Caribbean, developed an economy based on slaves and the slave trade.  In Chesapeake, slaves worked on tobacco plantations.  In Georgia and the Carolinas it was rice.  Elsewhere it was sugar, cacao, and cotton.  John Rolfe, a tobacco planter, was quoted in 1619 as saying: “About the last of August came in a Dutch man of warre to what sold us 20 Negars” (Conniff 125).  Planters depended on black slave labor to continue their production of crops and therefore their increase in profits.

Trans-Atlantic trade not only fueled and fed-off the productivity of the Americas economies; it also dominated migration there.  Large influxes of people related in short periods of time.  During Atlantic trade in the early 16th century, 5,000 slaves made up the annual exports.  By the 18th century, that number reached 60,000.  The Middle Passage is responsible for transporting 10 million Africans to the Americas.  This is considered the largest migration in history before the European Exodus.

The campaign to end the slave trade did not begin until the 1780’s.  It was a time when traffic reached its utmost height of 900,000 African slaves shipped that decade alone.  Restrictions and high prices could not stop stubborn trade amongst up 5  merchants.  Trade still expanded either by smuggling or sailing under a different flag.  Putting an end to the slave trade meant reconstructing the Atlantic economy. The U.S. was not seriously disturbed by the deconstruction of the trade system.  They participated in domestic slave trade made possible by natural increase of slave population.  On the other hand, the demand and access to slaves from international trade determined the economics of plantations in Cuba and Brazil.  From 1800 to 1860 the U.S. slave population jumped from 1 million to 4 million.  The U.S. had a substitute to the Atlantic slave trade and came to dominate the world market.  In 11860, they produced over half of the global exports of raw cotton.  Meanwhile, Cuba and Brazil struggled to prolong trade.

The longevity of the slave trade was made possible by its economic importance to plantations in the Caribbean and by indifference to humanity.