Slavery in America

Slavery in America

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Negro slavery in America was introduced in the 17th century. The number of black slaves in America did not immediately expand after the Dutch Mann o Warre brought the first boatload to Jamestown in 1619. But by 1800, there were about 900,000 slaves in the United States; fewer than 40,000 of them lived in the northern states.In the last month of his life, Benjamin Franklin wrote a parody of a speech by Senator James Jackson of Georgia, in which Jackson defended the institution of slavery. Franklin pretended to recall the address made by a North African potentate a century earlier:

If we cease our Cruises against the Christians, how shall we be furnished with the Commodities their Countries produce, and which are so necessary for us? If we forbear to make Slaves of their People, who in this hot Climate are to cultivate our Lands? Who are to perform the common Labours of our City, and in our Families? Must we not then be our own Slaves? And is there not more Compassion and more Favour due to us as Mussulmen, than to these Christian Dogs?

Slavery was addressed by the United States Constitution when it calculated each slave as being equal to 3/5 of a free person for calculating representation in the House of Representatives. While there was no effort to abolish slavery itself at that time, some delegates to the constitutional conference wanted to abolish at least the slave trade. Instead, a moratorium of twenty years was agreed to.As the twenty-year period drew to a close, President Thomas Jefferson pushed for Congressional legislation to end the practice. On March 2, 1807, Congress passed the act that made the importation of slaves into America illegal effective January 1, 1808. The slave trade didn't vanish, but it became secretive.Religious groups both supported and opposed slavery. The Presbyterian Church opposed slavery as early as 1787 and its General Assembly pronounced itself deeply opposed in 1817. On the other hand, Baptists in the South found support for slavery in the Bible, both directly in the Old Testament and less clearly in the New Testament. Richard Furman, in a missive to the governor of South Carolina, wrote in 1823, which summarized the Southern Justification of Slavery:

In the Old Testament, the Isrealites were directed to purchase their bond-men and bond-maids of the Heathen nations; except they were of the Canaanites, for these were to be destroyed. And it is declared, that the persons purchased were to be their "bond-men forever;" and an "inheritance for them and their children." They were not to go out free in the year of jubilee, as the Hebrews, who had been purchased, were: the line being clearly drawn between them.

In the eyes of some, the Mexican-American War was brought about for the purpose of advancing slavery. Charles Sumner wrote a critique of the war that was adopted by the Massachusetts legislature in 1847. He stated:

A war of conquest is bad; but the present war has darker shadows. It is a war for the extension of slavery over a territory which has already been purged by Mexican authorities from this stain and curse.

This seems doubtful. The greatest support for the Mexican war came from the West. In the South, among Whigs as well as Democrats, the war was generally opposed. One of the opponents was John C. Calhoun, who worried that acquiring too much additional land would reopen the question of slavery in the territories.Many have questioned whether the economics of slavery would have kept it as an important practice in the South without the invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney. The cotton gin made the growing of cotton vastly more profitable and slavery came to be regarded as a permanent necessity.In 1855, David Christy wrote "Cotton is King," a book that was hailed by pro-slavery advocates. Although maintaining a degree of neutrality with regard to the morality of slavery, Christy demonstrated that the production of cotton was an integral part of the world economy and argued that the widespread benefits outweighed the defects of slavery:

He who looks for any other result, must expect that nations, which, for centuries, have waged war to extend their commerce, will now abandon theirmeans of aggrandizement, and bankrupt themselves, to force the abolition of American Slavery!

While the planters might feel that slavery was the underpinning of King Cotton, others viewed it as the cause of the South's relative underdevelopment in the realm of commerce. Hinton R. Helper, one of the few Southern abolitionists, tried to persuade the small nonslaveholding farmers to overturn the policies of the plantation aristocracy. His book, "The Impending Crisis," was widely praised in the North. In it, he exhorted them:

Nonslaveholders of the South! Recollect that slavery is the only impediment to your progress and prosperity, that it stands diametrically opposed to all needful reforms, that it seeks to sacrifice you entirely for the benefit of others, and that it is the one great and only cause of dishonor to your country. Will you not abolish it? May Heaven help you to do your duty!

When Europeans Were Slaves: Research Suggests White Slavery Was Much More Common Than Previously Believed

A new study suggests that a million or more European Christians were enslaved by Muslims in North Africa between 1530 and 1780 &ndash a far greater number than had ever been estimated before.

In a new book, Robert Davis, professor of history at Ohio State University, developed a unique methodology to calculate the number of white Christians who were enslaved along Africa&rsquos Barbary Coast, arriving at much higher slave population estimates than any previous studies had found.

Most other accounts of slavery along the Barbary coast didn&rsquot try to estimate the number of slaves, or only looked at the number of slaves in particular cities, Davis said. Most previously estimated slave counts have thus tended to be in the thousands, or at most in the tens of thousands. Davis, by contrast, has calculated that between 1 million and 1.25 million European Christians were captured and forced to work in North Africa from the 16th to 18th centuries.

&ldquoMuch of what has been written gives the impression that there were not many slaves and minimizes the impact that slavery had on Europe,&rdquo Davis said. &ldquoMost accounts only look at slavery in one place, or only for a short period of time. But when you take a broader, longer view, the massive scope of this slavery and its powerful impact become clear.&rdquo

Davis said it is useful to compare this Mediterranean slavery to the Atlantic slave trade that brought black Africans to the Americas. Over the course of four centuries, the Atlantic slave trade was much larger &ndash about 10 to 12 million black Africans were brought to the Americas. But from 1500 to 1650, when trans-Atlantic slaving was still in its infancy, more white Christian slaves were probably taken to Barbary than black African slaves to the Americas, according to Davis.

&ldquoOne of the things that both the public and many scholars have tended to take as given is that slavery was always racial in nature &ndash that only blacks have been slaves. But that is not true,&rdquo Davis said. &ldquoWe cannot think of slavery as something that only white people did to black people.&rdquo

During the time period Davis studied, it was religion and ethnicity, as much as race, that determined who became slaves.

&ldquoEnslavement was a very real possibility for anyone who traveled in the Mediterranean, or who lived along the shores in places like Italy, France, Spain and Portugal, and even as far north as England and Iceland,&rdquo he said.

Pirates (called corsairs) from cities along the Barbary Coast in north Africa &ndash cities such as Tunis and Algiers &ndash would raid ships in the Mediterranean and Atlantic, as well as seaside villages to capture men, women and children. The impact of these attacks were devastating &ndash France, England, and Spain each lost thousands of ships, and long stretches of the Spanish and Italian coasts were almost completely abandoned by their inhabitants. At its peak, the destruction and depopulation of some areas probably exceeded what European slavers would later inflict on the African interior.

Although hundreds of thousands of Christian slaves were taken from Mediterranean countries, Davis noted, the effects of Muslim slave raids was felt much further away: it appears, for example, that through most of the 17th century the English lost at least 400 sailors a year to the slavers.

Even Americans were not immune. For example, one American slave reported that 130 other American seamen had been enslaved by the Algerians in the Mediterranean and Atlantic just between 1785 and 1793.

Davis said the vast scope of slavery in North Africa has been ignored and minimized, in large part because it is on no one&rsquos agenda to discuss what happened.

The enslavement of Europeans doesn&rsquot fit the general theme of European world conquest and colonialism that is central to scholarship on the early modern era, he said. Many of the countries that were victims of slavery, such as France and Spain, would later conquer and colonize the areas of North Africa where their citizens were once held as slaves. Maybe because of this history, Western scholars have thought of the Europeans primarily as &ldquoevil colonialists&rdquo and not as the victims they sometimes were, Davis said.

Davis said another reason that Mediterranean slavery has been ignored or minimized has been that there have not been good estimates of the total number of people enslaved. People of the time &ndash both Europeans and the Barbary Coast slave owners &ndash did not keep detailed, trustworthy records of the number of slaves. In contrast, there are extensive records that document the number of Africans brought to the Americas as slaves.

So Davis developed a new methodology to come up with reasonable estimates of the number of slaves along the Barbary Coast. Davis found the best records available indicating how many slaves were at a particular location at a single time. He then estimated how many new slaves it would take to replace slaves as they died, escaped or were ransomed.

&ldquoThe only way I could come up with hard numbers is to turn the whole problem upside down &ndash figure out how many slaves they would have to capture to maintain a certain level,&rdquo he said. &ldquoIt is not the best way to make population estimates, but it is the only way with the limited records available.&rdquo

Putting together such sources of attrition as deaths, escapes, ransomings, and conversions, Davis calculated that about one-fourth of slaves had to be replaced each year to keep the slave population stable, as it apparently was between 1580 and 1680. That meant about 8,500 new slaves had to be captured each year. Overall, this suggests nearly a million slaves would have been taken captive during this period. Using the same methodology, Davis has estimated as many as 475,000 additional slaves were taken in the previous and following centuries.

The result is that between 1530 and 1780 there were almost certainly 1 million and quite possibly as many as 1.25 million white, European Christians enslaved by the Muslims of the Barbary Coast.

Davis said his research into the treatment of these slaves suggests that, for most of them, their lives were every bit as difficult as that of slaves in America.

&ldquoAs far as daily living conditions, the Mediterranean slaves certainly didn&rsquot have it better,&rdquo he said.

While African slaves did grueling labor on sugar and cotton plantations in the Americas, European Christian slaves were often worked just as hard and as lethally &ndash in quarries, in heavy construction, and above all rowing the corsair galleys themselves.

Davis said his findings suggest that this invisible slavery of European Christians deserves more attention from scholars.

&ldquoWe have lost the sense of how large enslavement could loom for those who lived around the Mediterranean and the threat they were under,&rdquo he said. &ldquoSlaves were still slaves, whether they are black or white, and whether they suffered in America or North Africa.&rdquo

The History of the History of American Slavery

In an age when the White House is being asked if slavery was a good or bad thing, perhaps we should take a look at the history of the history of slavery.

Why are we still fighting over the history of slavery and the Civil War? One possible answer is that history is mutable. It is written, after all, by people who are intimately wrapped up in all the social and cultural ways of thinking of their times.

A century ago, the major American historian of the South supported slavery. His name was Ulrich B. Phillips, and his American Negro Slavery, first published in 1918, was “central to proslavery historiography.” So writes scholar Gaines M. Foster in his exploration of the history of the notion that Southern slaveholders felt guilt about slavery even as they maintained it.

Phillips was born in Georgia in 1877. He earned his doctorate at Columbia and taught at Tulane, the University of Wisconsin, the University of Michigan, and Yale. He was “a leader in systematically researching plantation records, census data, and other primary sources,” says the New Georgia Encyclopedia. He was not a proponent of what Foster calls the “guilt thesis,” which started being discussed in the academy in the mid-twentieth century. Instead, Phillips critiqued slavery as an unprofitable economic system, but one that had value in both civilizing “savage Africans” and training a white planter elite for leadership.

Foster reminds us that Phillips’s racist work remained “the standard text on slavery” into the early 1950s. In the ‘teens and twenties, allegedly “scientific” concepts were used to defend commonplace racism and eugenics. The South was busy putting up memorials to Confederates. Anti-radical and anti-immigrant hysteria lead to restrictive immigration laws. Jim Crow and segregation were firmly entrenched. It’s little wonder that Phillips was not only read and lauded, but that he was so influential.

Foster writes that W.E.B. Du Bois, John Hope Franklin, and Richard Hofstadter, among others, all challenged Phillips’s dominant perspective. But according to Foster, it was Kenneth M. Stampp’s The Peculiar Institution (1955), which replaced American Negro Slavery “as the authoritative account of slavery.” After four decades of the Phillipsian take, Stampp “abandoned the benign view of slavery as a school for civilization and showed it to be a harsh institution that sought, but never fully achieved, the degradation of the slave.”

Once a Week

Is it an accident that Stampp published at the beginning of the Civil Rights struggle? Probably not. As Foster says, “social as well as intellectual developments” play a role in the adoption of historical perspectives.

A larger question might be: since most Americans aren’t history majors, how does all this scholarly history actually filter through society? After all, Gone With the Wind probably had much more cultural influence than any academic text (both book and movie versions of GWTW certainly fit well into the Phillipsian worldview). The answer may be: how does historiography not permeate through the society it comes from? Historiography suggests we can’t separate the writers of history from their own history.

An American Slavery Time Line 1492–1776

Slavery in America began in the early 17th Century and continued to be practiced for the next 250 years by the colonies and states. Slaves, mostly from Africa, worked in the production of tobacco crops and later, cotton. With the invention of the cotton gin in 1793 along with the growing demand for the product in Europe, the use of slaves in the South became a foundation of their economy.

Slaves processing tobacco in 17th-century Virginia. By Unknown. American Slavery Time Line. Image is in the public domain via

In the late 18th century, the abolitionist movement began in the north and the country began to divide over the issue between North and South. By 1820, the Missouri Compromise banned slavery in all new western territories, which Southern states saw as a threat to the institution of slavery itself. In 1857, the Supreme Court decision known as the Dred Scott Decision said that Negroes (the term then used to describe the African race) were not citizens and had no rights of citizenship therefore, slaves that escaped to free states where not free but remained the property of their owners and must be returned to them.

American Slavery Time Line: 1492–1663

1492 – Columbus makes the first of four voyages to the “New World.” Black men arrive with Columbus as sailors, and other Africans come as soldiers with the Spanish explorers who later conquer and colonize the Ca rib bean islands and the Americas.

August 20, 1619 – Twenty Africans are brought to the English colony of Jamestown, Virginia. Sold as indentured servants, these African captives must work for a period of time but are promised their freedom. Although not the first Africans in North America, they are considered the first Africans to settle in the future United States.

1624 – The Dutch colony of New Amsterdam ( later New York) is founded by approximately 100 settlers within a year, as many as eleven black African male slaves arrive from Angola.

1638 – The first American ship carrying enslaved Africans from the Caribbean island of Barbados, the Desire, sails into Boston Harbor its cargo also includes salt, cotton, and tobacco.

1645 – The Rainbow, the first American ship bound for Africa to trade for captives and return them to America, sails from Boston.

1652 – Rhode Island, a New England colony, outlaws slavery. But the slave trade becomes so profitable that slavery is later permitted Newport, Rhode Island, emerges as a major slave port.

1662 – A Virginia law declares that children take on the status of their mothers. Under this law, children born of enslaved mothers are also enslaved, even if their father is white and free.

American Slavery Time Line: 1664–1700

1664 – The British establish legal slavery when they take over the colonies of New York and New Jersey. Maryland passes a similar law, which also states that freeborn women who marry enslaved men are considered enslaved.

1684 – Africans are imported into Philadelphia, beginning a thriving slave trade in that city.

1688 – In Germantown, near Philadelphia, four Quakers issue what is considered the first American antislavery petition. Based on the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” the petition asks fellow Quakers to give up their slaves.

1694 – South Carolina begins to grow rice a boom in rice farming creates an increased demand for slave labor.

1700 – In Boston, Judge Samuel Sewall, one of the judges in the famous Salem witch trials, writes one of the first antislavery tracts in America. In The Selling of Joseph, he writes, “All Men, as they are the Sons of Adam . . . have equal Right unto Liberty.” By 1700, there are approximately 28,000 black people in British North America, about 11 percent of the total population, then estimated around 250,000. Enslaved people are being imported into Virginia at the rate of about 1,000 per year.

The African slave trade becomes the world’s most profitable business during the eighteenth century.

American Slavery Time Line: 1705–1754

1705 – Massachusetts declares marriage between whites and blacks illegal. Virginia rules that slaves are “real estate,” restricts their travel, and calls for stricter penalties for marriage or sexual relations between the races, which had been illegal since 1691.

1713 – Quaker opposition to slavery in Philadelphia continues to grow some Quakers develop a plan for emancipating slaves and returning them to their native lands in Africa.

1739 – The Stono Rebellion, a violent slave uprising, is put down in South Carolina. Thirty white people and forty-four black people die in the violence.

Ledger of sale of 118 slaves, Charleston, South Carolina, c. 1754. By Austin & Laurens, Charleston, South Carolina. American Slavery Time Line. Image is in the public domain via

1754 – John Woolman, a Philadelphia Quaker and tailor, publishes Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes: Recommended to the Professors of Christianity of Every Denomination. By arguing that slavery is unchristian and cruel, it becomes the most widely distributed antislavery work before the Revolution.

American Slavery Time Line: 1754–1776

1758 – Philadelphia Quakers stop buying and selling slaves and press for outright abolition of slavery. Quakers in other states and in London follow suit.

1770 – Anthony Benezet, a Quaker schoolteacher, begins a school for free blacks in Philadelphia. He helps hundreds of black people— some free and others enslaved—learn to read and write. New England slaves petition colonial legislatures 1773–1779 for freedom.

1775 – The American Revolution begins in April. Lord Dunmore, the royal governor of Virginia, offers freedom to any enslaved peoplewho escape and join the king’s forces. Black patriots fight in all of the early battles of the Revolution. Other escaped slaves join the British army. General Washington initially refuses to allow blacks to serve but later reverses that policy. Black soldiers eventually account for between 10 and 20 percent of the Continental Army and Navy.

1776 – The Continental Congress adopts the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia. During the debates, Congress removes a passage in Thomas Jefferson’s draft that condemns the slave trade.

Kenneth C. Davis is the New York Times bestselling author of America’s Hidden History and Don’t Know Much About® History, which gave rise to the Don’t Know Much About® series of books for adults and children. He is the author of IN THE SHADOW OF LIBERTY: The Hidden History of Slavery, Four Presidents, and Five Black Lives and lives in New York City.

Slavery in the United States

The slave market in Atlanta, Georgia, 1864. Library of Congress

When Europeans first colonized the North American continent, the land was vast, the work was harsh, and there was a severe shortage of labor. White bond servants, paying their passage across the ocean from Europe through indentured labor, eased but did not solve the problem. Tensions between settlers and former indentured servants increased the pressure to find a new labor source. Early in the seventeenth century, a Dutch ship loaded with African slaves introduced a solution—and yet paradoxically a new problem—to the New World. Slaves proved to be economical on large farms where labor-intensive cash crops, such as tobacco, sugar and rice, could be grown.

By the end of the American Revolution, slavery became largely unprofitable in the North and was slowly dying out. Even in the South the institution was becoming less useful to farmers as tobacco prices fluctuated and began to drop. Due to the decline of the tobacco market in the 1760s and 1770s many farmers switched from producing tobacco to wheat, which required less labor leading to surplus of slaves. However, in 1793 northerner Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin this device made it possible for textile mills to use the type of cotton most easily grown in the lower South. The invention of the cotton gin brought about a robust internal slave trade. As the lower South became more established in cotton production the region required more slave labor, which they received from upper South slaveowners looking to offload their surplus of slaves. In 1808, the United States banned the international slave trade (the importation of slaves), which only increased the demand for domestically traded slaves. In the upper South the most profitable cash crop was not was not an agricultural product but the sale of human lives. Although some southerners owned no slaves at all, by 1860 the South’s “peculiar institution” was inextricably tied to the region’s economy and society.

Torn between the economic benefits of slavery and the moral and constitutional issues it raised, white southerners grew more and more defensive of the institution. They argued that black people, like children, were incapable of caring for themselves and that slavery was a benevolent institution that kept them fed, clothed, and occupied, and exposed them to Christianity. Most northerners did not doubt that black people were inferior to whites, but they did doubt the benevolence of slavery. The voices of Northern abolitionists, such as Boston editor and publisher William Lloyd Garrison, became increasingly violent. Educated blacks such as escaped-slave Frederick Douglass wrote eloquent and heartfelt attacks on the institution and spoke on abolitionist circuits about their experience enslaved.

Anti-slavery proponents organized the Underground Railroad to help slaves escape north to freedom. Although fictionalized, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 immensely popular novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin opened northerner’s eyes to some of the horrors of slavery and refuted the southern myth that blacks were happy as slaves.

In reality, treatment of slaves ranged from mild and paternalistic to cruel and sadistic. Husbands, wives, and children were frequently sold away from one another and punishment by whipping was not unusual. In 1857 the United States Supreme Court in the decision Dred Scott v. Sandford ruled that all blacks, whether free or enslaved, lacked the rights to citizenship and thus could not sue in federal court. The Supreme Court took their decision a step further by deeming that Congress had in fact exceeded its authority in the earlier Missouri Compromise because it had no power to forbid or abolish slavery in the territories. The Supreme Court also ruled that popular sovereignty, where new territories could vote on entering the union as a free or slave state, lacked constitutional legitimacy. Thus, slaves had no legal means of protesting their treatment. Due to the Dred Scott decision, John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, and other earlier slave uprisings, Southerners feared servile insurrection above all else but this was rare. Instead as a form of resistance slaves would pretend illness, organize slowdowns, sabotage farm machinery, and sometimes commit arson or murder. Running away for short periods of time was common.

Slaves work in Sea Islands, South Carolina. Library of Congress

The outbreak of the Civil War forever changed the future of the American nation and perhaps most notably the future of Americans held in bondage. The war began as a struggle to preserve the Union, not a struggle to free the slaves but as the war dragged on it became increasingly clear to President Abraham Lincoln the best way to force the seceded states into submission was to undermine their labor supply and economic engine which was sustaining the south—slavery. Many slaves escaped to the North in the early years of the war, and several Union generals established contraband policies in the southern land that they conquered. Congress passed laws permitting the seizure of slaves from rebellious southerners as the rules of war allow for the seizure of property and the United States considered slaves property. On September 22, 1862, following the strategic Union victory at Antietam, President Abraham Lincoln presented the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.

This document decreed that, by the power of the United States armed forces, all slaves in states that were still in rebellion one hundred days after January 1, 1863 would be "thenceforward and forever free." Furthermore, Lincoln established an institution through which free blacks could join the U.S. Army, an unprecedented level of integration at that time. The United States Colored Troops (USCT) served on many battlefields, won numerous Medals of Honor, and ensured eventual Union victory in the war.

On December 6, 1865, eight months after the end of the Civil War, the United States adopted the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which outlawed the practice of slavery.

The Misguided Focus on 1619 as the Beginning of Slavery in the U.S. Damages Our Understanding of American History

In 1619, 󈬄. and odd Negroes” arrived off the coast of Virginia, where they were “bought for victualle” by labor-hungry English colonists. The story of these captive Africans has set the stage for countless scholars and teachers interested in telling the story of slavery in English North America. Unfortunately, 1619 is not the best place to begin a meaningful inquiry into the history of African peoples in America. Certainly, there is a story to be told that begins in 1619, but it is neither well-suited to help us understand slavery as an institution nor to help us better grasp the complicated place of African peoples in the early modern Atlantic world. For too long, the focus on 1619 has led the general public and scholars alike to ignore more important issues and, worse, to silently accept unquestioned assumptions that continue to impact us in remarkably consequential ways. As a historical signifier, 1619 may be more insidious than instructive.

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The overstated significance of 1619—still a common fixture in American history curriculum—begins with the questions most of us reflexively ask when we consider the first documented arrival of a handful of people from Africa in a place that would one day become the United States of America. First, what was the status of the newly arrived African men and women? Were they slaves? Servants? Something else? And, second, as Winthrop Jordan wondered in the preface to his 1968 classic, White Over Black, what did the white inhabitants of Virginia think when these dark-skinned people were rowed ashore and traded for provisions? Were they shocked? Were they frightened? Did they notice these people were black? If so, did they care?

In truth, these questions fail to approach the subject of Africans in America in a historically responsible way. None of these queries conceive of the newly-arrived Africans as actors in their own right. These questions also assume that the arrival of these people was an exceptional historical moment, and they reflect the worries and concerns of the world we inhabit rather than shedding useful light on the unique challenges of life in the early seventeenth century.

There are important historical correctives to the misplaced marker of 1619 that can help us ask better questions about the past. Most obviously, 1619 was not the first time Africans could be found in an English Atlantic colony, and it certainly wasn’t the first time people of African descent made their mark and imposed their will on the land that would someday be part of the United States. As early as May 1616, blacks from the West Indies were already at work in Bermuda providing expert knowledge about the cultivation of tobacco. There is also suggestive evidence that scores of Africans plundered from the Spanish were aboard a fleet under the command of Sir Francis Drake when he arrived at Roanoke Island in 1586. In 1526, enslaved Africans were part of a Spanish expedition to establish an outpost on the North American coast in present-day South Carolina. Those Africans launched a rebellion in November of that year and effectively destroyed the Spanish settlers’ ability to sustain the settlement, which they abandoned a year later. Nearly 100 years before Jamestown, African actors enabled American colonies to survive, and they were equally able to destroy European colonial ventures.

These stories highlight additional problems with exaggerating the importance of 1619. Privileging that date and the Chesapeake region effectively erases the memory of many more African peoples than it memorializes. The “from-this-point-forward” and “in-this-place” narrative arc silences the memory of the more than 500,000 African men, women, and children who had already crossed the Atlantic against their will, aided and abetted Europeans in their endeavors, provided expertise and guidance in a range of enterprises, suffered, died, and – most importantly – endured. That Sir John Hawkins was behind four slave-trading expeditions during the 1560s suggests the degree to which England may have been more invested in African slavery than we typically recall. Tens of thousands of English men and women had meaningful contact with African peoples throughout the Atlantic world before Jamestown. In this light, the events of 1619 were a bit more yawn-inducing than we typically allow.

Telling the story of 1619 as an “English” story also ignores the entirely transnational nature of the early modern Atlantic world and the way competing European powers collectively facilitated racial slavery even as they disagreed about and fought over almost everything else. From the early 1500s forward, the Portuguese, Spanish, English, French, Dutch and others fought to control the resources of the emerging transatlantic world and worked together to facilitate the dislocation of the indigenous peoples of Africa and the Americas. As historian John Thornton has shown us, the African men and women who appeared almost as if by chance in Virginia in 1619 were there because of a chain of events involving Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands and England. Virginia was part of the story, but it was a blip on the radar screen.

These concerns about making too much of 1619 are likely familiar to some readers. But they may not even be the biggest problem with overemphasizing this one very specific moment in time. The worst aspect of overemphasizing 1619 may be the way it has shaped the black experience of living in America since that time. As we near the 400th anniversary of 1619 and new works appear that are timed to remember the “firstness” of the arrival of a few African men and women in Virginia, it is important to remember that historical framing shapes historical meaning. How we choose to characterize the past has important consequences for how we think about today and what we can imagine for tomorrow.

In that light, the most poisonous consequence of raising the curtain with 1619 is that it casually normalizes white Christian Europeans as historical constants and makes African actors little more than dependent variables in the effort to understand what it means to be American. Elevating 1619 has the unintended consequence of cementing in our minds that those very same Europeans who lived quite precipitously and very much on death’s doorstep on the wisp of America were, in fact, already home. But, of course, they were not. Europeans were the outsiders. Selective memory has conditioned us to employ terms like settlers and colonists when we would be better served by thinking of the English as invaders or occupiers. In 1619, Virginia was still Tsenacommacah, Europeans were the non-native species, and the English were the illegal aliens. Uncertainty was still very much the order of the day.

When we make the mistake of fixing this place in time as inherently or inevitably English, we prepare the ground for the assumption that the United States already existed in embryonic fashion. When we allow that idea to go unchallenged, we silently condone the notion that this place is, and always has been, white, Christian, and European.

Where does that leave Africans and people of African descent? Unfortunately, the same insidious logic of 1619 that reinforces the illusion of white permanence necessitates that blacks can only be, ipso facto, abnormal, impermanent, and only tolerable to the degree that they adapt themselves to someone else’s fictional universe. Remembering 1619 may be a way of accessing the memory and dignifying the early presence of black people in the place that would become the United States, but it also imprints in our minds, our national narratives, and our history books that blacks are not from these parts. When we elevate the events of 1619, we establish the conditions for people of African descent to remain, forever, strangers in a strange land.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We shouldn’t ignore that something worth remembering happened in 1619. There are certainly stories worth telling and lives worth remembering, but history is also an exercise in crafting narratives that give voice to the past in order to engage with the present. The year 1619 might seem long ago for people more attuned to the politics of life in the 21st century. But if we can do a better job of situating the foundational story of black history and the history of slavery in North America in its proper context, then perhaps we can articulate an American history that doesn’t essentialize notions of “us” and “them” (in the broadest possible and various understandings of those words). That would be a pretty good first step, and it would make it much easier to sink our teeth into the rich and varied issues that continue to roil the world today.

This story was originally published on Black Perspectives, an online platform for public scholarship on global black thought, history and culture. 

Slavery in America - History

Slavery in America, typically associated with blacks from Africa, was an enterprise that began with the shipping of more than 300,000 white Britons to the colonies. This little known history is fascinatingly recounted in White Cargo (New York University Press, 2007). Drawing on letters, diaries, ship manifests, court documents, and government archives, authors Don Jordan and Michael Walsh detail how thousands of whites endured the hardships of tobacco farming and lived and died in bondage in the New World.

Following the cultivation in 1613 of an acceptable tobacco crop in Virginia, the need for labor accelerated. Slavery was viewed as the cheapest and most expedient way of providing the necessary work force. Due to harsh working conditions, beatings, starvation, and disease, survival rates for slaves rarely exceeded two years. Thus, the high level of demand was sustained by a continuous flow of white slaves from England, Ireland, and Scotland from 1618 to 1775, who were imported to serve America’s colonial masters.

White Cargo: The Forgo. Jordan, Don Best Price: $13.99 Buy New $16.50 (as of 02:25 EST - Details ) These white slaves in the New World consisted of street children plucked from London’s back alleys, prostitutes, and impoverished migrants searching for a brighter future and willing to sign up for indentured servitude. Convicts were also persuaded to avoid lengthy sentences and executions on their home soil by enslavement in the British colonies. The much maligned Irish, viewed as savages worthy of ethnic cleansing and despised for their rejection of Protestantism, also made up a portion of America’s first slave population, as did Quakers, Cavaliers, Puritans, Jesuits, and others.

Around 1618 at the start of their colonial slave trade, the English began by seizing and shipping to Virginia impoverished children, even toddlers, from London slums. Some impoverished parents sought a better life for their offspring and agreed to send them, but most often, the children were sent despite their own protests and those of their families. At the time, the London authorities represented their actions as an act of charity, a chance for a poor youth to apprentice in America, learn a trade, and avoid starvation at home. Tragically, once these unfortunate youngsters arrived, 50% of them were dead within a year after being sold to farmers to work the fields.

A few months after the first shipment of children, the first African slaves were shipped to Virginia. Interestingly, no American market existed for African slaves until late in the 17th century. Until then, black slave traders typically took their cargo to Bermuda. England’s poor were the colonies’ preferred source of slave labor, even though Europeans were more likely than Africans to die an early death in the fields. Slave owners had a greater interest in keeping African slaves alive because they represented a more significant investment. Black slaves received better treatment than Europeans on plantations, as they were viewed as valuable, lifelong property rather than indentured servants with a specific term of service. The Irish Slaves: Slav. Akamatsu, Rhetta Best Price: $11.77 Buy New $11.83 (as of 04:41 EDT - Details )

These indentured servants represented the next wave of laborers. They were promised land after a period of servitude, but most worked unpaid for up to15 years with few ever owning any land. Mortality rates were high. Of the 1,200 who arrived in 1619, more than two thirds perished in the first year from disease, working to death, or Indian raid killings. In Maryland, out of 5,000 indentured servants who entered the colony between 1670 and 1680, 1,250 died in bondage, 1,300 gained their right to freedom, and only 241 ever became landowners.

Early in the 17th century, the headright system, a land allocation program to attract new colonists, began in Jamestown, Virginia as an attempt to solve labor shortages. The program provided acreage to heads of households that funded travel to the colony for destitute individuals to work the land. It led to the sharp growth of indentured servitude and slavery because the more slaves imported by a colonist, the larger the tracts of land received. Promises of prosperity and land were used to lure the poor, who were typically enslaved for three to 15 years. All the while, agents profited handsomely by augmenting their land holdings. Corruption was rampant in the headright system and included double-counting of individual slaves, land allocations for servants who were dead upon arrival, and per head fees given for those kidnapped off English streets. Black Slaveowners: Fre. Larry Koger Buy New $23.75 (as of 04:41 EDT - Details )

Purveyors of slaves often worked in teams of spirits, captains, and office-keepers to kidnap people from English ports for sale in the American labor market. Spirits lured or kidnapped potential servants and arranged for their transport with ship captains. Office-keepers maintained a base to run the operation. They would entertain their prey and get them to sign papers until an awaiting ship became available. Spirits and their accomplices were occasionally put on trial, but court records show that they got off easily and that the practice was tolerated because it was so profitable.

The indentured servant system of people who voluntarily mortgaged their freedom evolved into slavery. England essentially dumped its unwanted in the American colonies, where they were treated no better than livestock. Servants were regularly battered, whipped, and humiliated. Disease was rampant, food was in short supply, and working and living conditions were grim. War with local native Indian tribes was common. Severe punishment made escape unrealistic. Initially, running away was considered a capital crime, with clemency granted in exchange for an agreement to increase the period of servitude.

Islam’s black slaves

The author of a book on the 1,400-year history of the other slave trade talks about the power of eunuchs, the Nation of Islam’s falsehoods and the persistence of slavery today.

In June, President Barack Obama, appearing at the University of Cairo, said: “I know that Islam has always been a part of America’s story. . . And since our founding, American Muslims have enriched the United States.”

    have not always been part of America’s story.
  • No Muslims took part in the Revolutionary War.
  • No Muslims fought during the Civil War.
  • No Muslims numbered among the ranks of U.S. soldiers in World War I.
  • No Muslims served the U.S. military in World War II or the Korean Conflict.

Muslims only became a sizable and significant after 1965 – – thanks to the revised Immigration and Naturalization Act.

An African Asks Some Disturbing Questions of Islam

Now Barack has made another historical boo-boo that was not corrected by any silver haired scholar or talking head on cable news. He announced that “unique African American culture existed in North America for hundreds of years before we actually founded the nation.”

Such a statement might be acceptable coming from Uncle Remus but not the President of the United States, who is expected to be somewhat knowledgeable and reasonably intelligent.

The failure of academics and journalists to correct the continuous historical errors of the Commander in Chief may reflect the sorry fact that one in four Americans never cracks open a book or reads a newspaper.

African Americans were not brought here in chains by the Pilgrims and the Puritans. Nor did they number among the Spanish at St. Augustine, the Dutch in New Amsterdam, or the French at Parris Island.

The first black slaves arrived in America in the early years of the 17 th Century.

At the time of the ratification of the Constitution in 1788, there were less than 50,000 slaves in America – – and the vast majority of them were white.

Sorry, Barack, but white slavery pre-dates black slavery in America. This fact has been verified by forensic evidence from archaeological digs and historical documents uncovered by contemporary scholars, including Don Jordan and Michael Walsh inWhite Cargo (New York University Press: 2009).

The white slaves not indentured, who began to arrive here in 1618, included hundreds of children – – waifs and strays – – who had been rounded up from streets of London to serve wealthy farmers in Virginia.

Other slaves came from the ranks of the homeless and the poor, whom King James I held responsible for spreading the plague, and from England’s swelling prison population.

The scheme was supported by James I, who believed the homeless and itinerant of London were spreading plague.

Of the first 300 white slaves to land in Virginia, only 12 managed to survive four years. The others died of ill treatment, disease, attack by native Americans or overwork.

Contemporary records show that one child victim, Elizabeth Abbott, was beaten to death when her master ordered her to be given 500 lashes for running away.

At least 70,000 white men, women, and children from England and Ireland were shipped to the colonies to be sold as slaves on the auction block during the 170 years of British rule.

White slaves transported to the colonies suffered a staggering loss of life in the 17th and 18th century. During the voyage to America, the white slaves were kept below deck for the entire nine to twelve week journey. They were chained with 50 other men to a board, with padlocked collars around their necks. The weeks of confinement below deck in the ship’s stifling hold often resulted in outbreaks of contagious disease, including cholera and dysentery.

Ships carrying white slaves to America often lost half their slaves to death. According to historian Sharon V. Salinger of the University of California, Riverside, “Scattered data reveal that the mortality for [white] servants at certain times equaled that for [black] slaves in the ‘middle passage,’ and during other periods actually exceeded the death rate for [Black] slaves.”

Ms. Salinger affirms a death rate of ten to twenty percent over the entire 18th century for black slaves on board ships en route to America compared with a death rate of 25% for white slaves.

Foster R. Dulles in Labor in America writes that white slaves “experienced discomforts and sufferings on their voyage across the Atlantic that paralleled the cruel hardships undergone by negro slaves on the notorious Middle Passage.”

Dulles says the whites were “indiscriminately herded aboard the ‘white guinea men,’ often as many as 300 passengers on little vessels of not more than 200 tons burden–overcrowded, unsanitary…The mortality rate was sometimes as high as 50% and young children seldom survived the horrors of a voyage which might last anywhere from seven to twelve weeks.”

Independent investigator A.B. Ellis in the Argosy writes concerning the transport of white slaves, “The human cargo, many of whom were still tormented by unhealed wounds, could not all lie down at once without lying on each other. They were never suffered to go on deck. The hatchway was constantly watched by sentinels armed with hangers and blunder busses. In the dungeons below all was darkness, stench, lamentation, disease and death.”

In the past, white slavery was acknowledged as having existed in America only as “indentured servitude.”

Such indentured servants were, for the most part, convicts, who served a term of four to seven years laboring on the farms, plantations, and estates in Virginia, Georgia, Maryland, and the Carolinas in exchange for their freedom. But they represented only a small fraction of the hundreds of thousands of whites who remained slaves for life. Such slavery was hereditary: children of the white slaves also became chattel without hope of freedom.

In George Sandy’s laws for Virginia, Whites were enslaved “forever.” The service of Whites bound to Berkeley’s Hundred was deemed “perpetual.”

Throughout the colonial period, white slaves remained the main labour force on the Virginia and Maryland plantations, outnumbering Africans by as many as four to one.

Benjamin Franklin suggested the American authorities should send rattlesnakes back to England in return for such unwelcome imports.

Whites remained slaves until the Emancipation Proclamation. In 1855, Frederic Law Olmsted, the landscape architect who designed New York’s Central Park, was in Alabama on a pleasure trip and saw bales of cotton being thrown from a considerable height into a cargo ship’s hold. The men tossing the bales somewhat recklessly into the hold were Negroes the men in the hold were Irish.

Olmsted inquired about this to a ship worker. “Oh,” said the worker, “the niggers are worth too much to be risked here if the Paddies are knocked overboard or get their backs broke, nobody loses anything.”

At present, several African American groups are seeking reparations from the United States government for the time their ancestors spent as slaves. One group, the African World Reparations and Repatriation Truth Commission, is demanding an astronomical $777 trillion.

Ocala’s Trinity United Church of Christ has passed a resolution demanding reparations and declaring that:

“WHEREAS: The institution of Slavery is internationally recognized as crime for which there is no statute of limitations, AND

WHEREAS: Uncompensated labor was demanded from enslaved Africans and their descendants for more than two centuries on U.S. soil AND

WHEREAS: The principle that reparations is the appropriate remedy whenever government unjustly abrogates the rights of a domestic group or foreign people whose rights such government is obligated to protect or uphold has been internationally recognized…”

Michelle Obama, no doubt, expects a sizeable check from Uncle Sam since Jim Robinson, her great-great grandfather worked as a slave on a sprawling rice plantation in Georgetown, South Carolina.

I would like a check in a substantially greater amount for my English and Irish ancestors who were subjected to similar indignities.

Indigenous Complicity and Complex Relationships

Indigenous peoples found themselves caught in between colonial strategies for power and economic control. The fur trade in the Northeast, the English plantation system in the south, and the Spanish mission system in Florida collided with major disruptions to Indigenous communities. Indigenous peoples displaced from the fur trade in the north migrated south where plantation owners armed them to hunt for enslaved people living in the Spanish mission communities. The French, English, and Spanish often capitalized on trading enslaved people in other ways for example, they garnered diplomatic favor when they negotiated the freedom of enslaved people in exchange for peace, friendship, and military alliance.

This was illustrated by the British establishing ties with the Chickasaw who were surrounded by enemies on all sides in Georgia. Armed by the English, the Chickasaw conducted extensive raids designed to capture enslaved people in the lower Mississippi Valley where the French had a foothold, who they then sold to the English as a way to reduce Indigenous populations and keep the French from arming them first. Ironically, the English believed arming the Chickasaw to conduct such raids was a more effective way to "civilize" them compared to the efforts of the French missionaries.

Between 1660 and 1715, as many as 50,000 Indigenous peoples were captured by other Indigenous tribe members and sold into enslavement in the Virginia and Carolina colonies. Most who were captured were part of the feared Indigenous confederacy known as the Westos. Forced from their homes on Lake Erie, the Westos began conducting military raids of enslaved people into Georgia and Florida in 1659. Their successful raids eventually forced the survivors into new aggregates and social identities, building new polities large enough to protect themselves against enslavers.

Slavery in America - History

Plantation owners in Virginia and other Southern states originally used indentured servants to work in the fields. After Bacon’s Uprising, plantation owners realized that freed indentured servants posed a risk. They began importing slaves from Africa to work on their plantations.

The idea of slavery wasn’t new. Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans all kept slaves. In fact, slavery has been practiced all over the world for thousands of years. Slavery was a common part of life in Africa, where slaves were treated relatively well. They could marry, gain an education, and interact in everyday society.

Ironically, slavery in America allowed the young country to prosper economically and achieve freedom from Great Britain. Many of the Founding Fathers kept slaves. Of course, the benefits of freedom weren’t extended to the slaves themselves, who often suffered terribly.

In the 1600s, Europeans brought slaves to the New World. Many of these slaves were kidnapped by African slave traders. The terrified men, women, and children walked hundreds of miles across Africa to the Gold Coast in north-western Africa.

They were then chained and loaded so tightly onto boats that they could barely move. As many as 25 percent – approximately 2 million Africans – died during the voyage. Many became sick and died from disease. Others jumped overboard.

The ships sailed from Africa’s coast to the West Indies in the Caribbean Sea. Here, the slaves were inspected to make sure they were healthy. They were trained and sold in auctions. They were then loaded on boats bound for America.

Europeans traded salted fish, guns, rum, and iron bars used as money for the slaves.

Most of the slaves brought to America lived in the South, many of them on plantations. Field hands worked long hours under grueling conditions on the plantations. Household slaves had it better. They cooked, cleaned, sewed, and kept the gardens. Some slaves learned trades, such as carpentry or tanning. Some slave owners were kind, but many were very cruel.

Slaves in New England were usually treated better, although they weren’t free.

As the numbers of slaves in America grew, slave owners worried about uprisings. They made laws stating that slaves were to be treated as property. Slaves weren’t allowed to marry, although many did. Their children and spouses could be ripped away from them. It was against the law for a large group of slaves to gather in one place.

Slaves tried to keep their own culture alive. They created gospel music by mixing traditional African rhythms with Christian themes. They told stories and made art.

1. Prosper: to thrive, flourish, do well

2. Benefit: an advantage or gain

Questions and Answers

Question: Why didn’t the Founding Fathers and early colonists understand that slavery was wrong?

Answer: That’s a good question with a complicated answer. First, some colonists did believe slavery was wrong but felt powerless to stop it. Unfortunately, slavery and other forms of oppression were common in many cultures. For hundreds of years in Great Britain, people lived under a feudal system, in which a few people owned most of the country’s land and wealth while the rest of the people lived in poverty. Children and women had few rights and were often poorly treated. Human life, in general, wasn’t highly valued. Slave traders and plantation owners were blinded by their own greed.

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