An irreversible chain of events influenced the economy of the British colonies when Africans arrived in America in 1619. With a switch from the expensive system of indentured servitude, slavery emerged and grew rapidly for various reasons, consisting of economic, geographic, and social factors. The expansion of slavery in the British colonies, from the founding of Jamestown in 1607 to just before America gained its independence in 1775, had a lasting impact on the development of our nation’s economy. This impact was a result of the corruption justified by the workforce slaves provided, the convenience of slave trade, and the perceptible difference in their physical characteristics. Economically, slavery allowed for an increased source of income that indentured servitude could not compete with.
The plantation system developed when the British colonists entered colonial America and divided the land into areas suitable for farming. The colonies’ economy relied on the cultivation of crops, which demanded labor that slaves could provide. Societal and cultural components also contributed to the prevalence of slavery during this time period. Slave labor in the colonies was often used as an expression of authority for plantation owners. Often, masters would assert their dominance by inflicting brutal punishment and using discriminatory words. The belief that slaves were inferior to masters was caused and reinforced by the concept of white supremacy, which had been established based on economically created social conditions.
The transatlantic slave trade began in the mid-fifteenth century when the Portuguese sent Christopher Columbus in 1492 to sail down the West African coast with the intention of trading gold and spices. However, the explorers discovered a more valuable resource: human beings. The Colonies, Europe, Africa and the Indies shaped what is known as Triangular Trade, which initiated the importation of slaves. Over time, slaves’ destinations evolved from Europe to the Americas, where the plantations were quickly growing into assets for international exchange. The Triangular trade allowed for massive profit opportunities, increased access to commodities, as well as more political power and colonization.
The Chesapeake colonies were made up of Virginia—with Jamestown, its first promising establishment in 1607—and Maryland. Each of these regions evolved into a similar agricultural system that was dependent on tobacco. During the late 1600s, the evolution of the Chesapeake region relied on tobacco farming, which called for intensive labor. Originally, Chesapeake farmers imported indentured servants—men and women from England who signed a contract agreeing to work for five to seven years in exchange for passage to the American colonies—to gather tobacco crops. However, by the 1680s, varying tobacco prices and the increasing shortage of land made the Chesapeake territory unappealing to men and women that were willing to indenture themselves. Farmers began to search for cheaper, alternative sources of labor due to the scarcity of indentured servitude and the lack of financial convenience.
As a result, Virginia experienced division among the wealthy landowners and the poor colonists, both free and indentured servants. Resentment developed when the poorer classes perceived the colonial governor, William Berkley, as favoring the wealthy. Tensions grew when Berkley came to an agreement with the neighboring tribes, that the settlers would not push west. Colonists disliked this decision because they felt as if the valuable land had already been taken by the wealthy and they were being denied the opportunity to better their financial situations. Subsequently, the frontiersmen began to push west despite Berkley’s orders, leading to Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676. Chesapeake plantation owners, in order to fulfill their desire for cheap labor, advocated for the exchange of African slaves. Although African slavery was a higher expense than the white indentured servants, it ensured free labor for a lifetime. As the demand for Chesapeake cash crops continued to expand, planters began to increasingly invest in the Atlantic slave trade, into the 1700s.
The British conquests to the West Indies exposed Bermuda in 1609, and Barbados in 1625 which showed the English the profitability of the plantation system. Originally the West Indies was discovered by the Spanish, but was later developed by the French and Dutch. Britain then took it a step further with the massive production of sugarcane. Establishing smallholdings in the West Indies was crucial because eventually, these smaller farms blended into larger plantations. The commercial activity of the enslaved Africans was critical to Europeans at this time. The tasks given to the plantation slaves were difficult and labor-intensive.
Originally, several European settlers used indentured servitude as a form of labor, however, due to a considerable number of fatalities, the labor was deemed inadequate. Because of this high mortality rate, enslaved Africans assumed the role indentured servants once filled. Prices for individual slaves were set based upon age, gender, state of health and skill, making them more expensive than indentured servants. In addition, slaves were viewed as a resource and thus possessed monetary value that fluctuated with the market. To justify and encourage the inequality with which slaves were treated, plantation owners used racial slurs and segregational practices. Due to a massive overpopulation of slaves, masters would often brand, tar and burn the blacks in order to keep them accountable. Overseers, or ‘slave-drivers,’ typically carried a whip and corporal punishment, which left deep flesh wounds and was used to control the slaves.
In the early 18th century, the most dominant cash crop harvested by South Carolina slaves was discovered by the Carribean planters, and was not yet introduced to South Carolina until 1694. Once rice was proven to be the primary cash crop of South Carolina, it produced remarkable wealth and prosperity to planters in the region. Due to the perfect climate in the South, English planters needed African slaves to help them navigate rice cultivation. The planters relied on the expertise of their African slaves from the Rice Coast. For example, enslaved Africans demonstrated to the planters how to properly cultivate the rice. The innovations used by the slaves increased the efficiency of land development. Although disease, heat-stroke, and injuries killed many of the slaves who worked on the plantations, rice became so profitable that the appeal towards enslaved people grew. Because of the warm wet climates, rice plantations were more valuable than the tobacco counterparts in the Chesapeake. The increase in the value of rice motivated the plantation owners. The planters then expected slaves to cultivate up to several acres of rice a year, in addition to growing their own vegetables to feed themselves and their families. The transAtlantic trade helped develop the economy and culture of the modern world, as well as took advantage of rice to help fuel the movement of the enslaved people.
Slavery in South differed from New England. The South developed large-scale plantations that never fully formed in the North. In 1750, most slaves in the South lived and worked on a large rice or tobacco plantation and lived with other slaves. In New England, slaves usually lived alone or at most with one or two others. If there were slaves they probably worked on a small farm, or perhaps held trade in an urban area like Boston. Many Puritans opposed the idea of slavery because of their religious beliefs. Moreover, because New England did not have immense cash crops such as rice and tobacco, slaves were not necessary to its economy.
Therefore, most slaves were used for domestic work like farming. A key difference between the Northerners and elsewhere is that in New England white males worked alongside the blacks and did not consider them to be inferior to them. Additionally, since the majority of the population were opposed to slavery, blacks often had more freedoms than slaves in different colonies.
The Middle colonies, including New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey had legally authorized slavery in the 17th and 18th centuries. Even though slavery was permitted, northern states had a substantially smaller amount of slave populations than the South. Few slave ships arrived in Philadelphia, New York, or Boston, which instead evolved into trade centers for manufactured goods. Slaves that lived in the North were often bondsmen to small farmers and rural ironworks or domestic servants. Unlike the South, northern farms were often more agriculturally diversified enterprises that required fewer laborers, not large-scale enterprises that focused on producing a single cash crop. Hence, the need for enslaved bondsmen gradually decreased—especially when the growth of industry in northern cities started to attract many rural northerners to wage labor and once the soil rapidly depleted.
The widespread ownership of slaves had significant implications. The popularity of slaves inflicted fear within the plantation owners. The fear of rebellion not only gave masters a reason for cruel and unreasonable punishments, but also persuaded them to pass a series of laws to restrict the slaves behaviors. These common laws were known as slave codes. Despite the variation of beliefs on slave’s rights, the colonies agreed upon slave codes to regulate the slaves’ actions. Legally considered property, slaves were not permitted to own land. They were also required to live off the plantation and were designated specific curfews.
Another consequence of colonial American in the 1600s to the mid-1700s was the British control of colonial trade. American colonists considered themselves subjects of King George III. The colonies were tied to Britain through trade and the way they were governed. The trade in America was restricted, causing the colonists to rely heavily on Britain for imported goods. There was very little money, so the colonists had to bargain for the supplies they needed. Eventually, this led to several conflicts between Britain and colonial America, such as the battles during the 1760s and 1770s.
Due to the climate of North America, the cultivation of cash crops like tobacco and rice became a necessity in colonial economies. As a result, the idea of a cheap escape from indentured servants became increasingly popular, leading to the development of slavery. By the 1700s African slaves had almost replaced all indentured servants. The concept of inexpensive slaves only encouraged colonists to be more attracted towards wealth and power, causing slavery more labor-intensive despite the cruel outcomes. Farmers prospered with the abundant land and slave labor available to grow cash crops. To an extent, the tobacco plantations became the social and economic norm. To conclude, all of the American colonies economies in North America were both directly and indirectly dependent on slavery.