If you remember, Dear Reader(s), that way back in June I had visited the Museum of the American Revolution and had written up a post about its presentation of slavery. I am, in general, supportive of the narrative they chose to tell, yet there were still gaping holes that left me, frankly, annoyed and did the general public a disservice, I thought.
Thus, as is my wont, I took myself to the local library and checked out a load of books on the subject to make myself smarter than the museum. The first (and shortest!) one I read was called The Origins of Slavery: Freedom and Bondage in the English Colonies by Betty Wood.
It was quite interesting and I highly recommend this book for an overview of the founding of the American colonies and how slavery was involved. The quick and dirty summary: a long, long time ago, the English saw all the riches Spain was pulling from the Caribbean and Gold Coast, had a serious fit of FOMO, and began their own colonization efforts to compete.
This book discusses why West Africans became the default slaves, the seeds of the “American ethos”, the foundations of cash crops like sugar and tobacco, relationships with the natives and other European colonists, and then seeds of abolitionism. It begins far back in the fifteenth century and covers 300 years to end on the eve of the American Revolution. It goes into just enough detail, and is very organized that, having finished it several weeks ago, I could still probably write a rough outline of its content.
Why did West Africans become the slaves of choice?
A number of factors came into play. The English drew their model of slavery from the Bible, where slavery was linked to sin. Those captured in war forfeited their very lives. Slavery was for strangers, that is, not English. In general, darkness (like their skin) was associated with sin as well. West Africans weren’t Christian and therefore prime targets for conversion, or whatever type of conversion would happen with slavery. Natives had been considered but were impractical because a) the English needed them as trading partners, and b) they could easily escape into the land that was there home. Indentured servants were impractical because they expected wages and their freedom at the end of their contract. Also they were white and it was harder for the English to take humanity away from people who looked similar to themselves (even, yes, the Irish). This is a very poor and quick summary of this topic, which takes three whole chapters to discuss.
The beginning of the American Dream
For an amount of time filled with backbreaking work, the European indentured slave would receive a parcel of land in the New World. Their masters found them unwilling to return to being the labor force, rather wanting to take their land, get their own indentured servants, and become their own wealthy landholders. In fact, this book sets it up that Plymouth Plantation and Jamestown Colony were founded only after Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago were completely out of land to distribute to the formerly indentured. Which is an interesting perspective because we tend to view Plymouth and Jamestown as before the beginning of anything we pay attention to. But the American colonies were desirable because there was no end of land to distribute, even before Manifest Destiny was invented, and so it became an attractive option for the upwardly mobile English workers.
Cash crops: Sugar and Tobacco
Barbados was founded on sugar. It seems like all the sugar in Europe was grown in the Caribbean. To be truly profitable, slavery was necessary, as the colonists needed a large labor force that wouldn’t be freed in a few years (indentured servants) or would need anything like wages (hired hands). The English then decided to expand to the American colonies. Plymouth Colony took a lot of work to get off the ground and eventually became profitable through fur trading. The colony at Jamestown tried growing sugar as well, but the Chesapeake Bay has a much different climate than Barbados. So they found a plant that thrived in the Tidewater region: tobacco. Fortunately for them, tobacco is one of those commodities that a person will pay top dollar for, so tobacco farming took off and became a staple.
Relationships with Natives and other Europeans
As mentioned previously, the English saw the practicality of keeping the Natives as allies, for trading purposes and should they ever need an ally against one of the other European groups trying to colonize the same land (ie, Spain, France). The English/Americans/Colonists always get a lot of heat for allowing the slave trade to continue, but I would argue that the Dutch are equally responsible. The English had outlawed the sale of slaves but the Dutch were the ones who captured, traded, and sold West Africans to the English. It’s like if you swear you won’t buy cigarettes yourself but you keep bumming them off a friend, with the Dutch in the role of the really awful enabler of a friend.
A few final notes:
Ms. Wood goes into quite a lot of detail in fleshing out all the points in an organized fashion. She even throws down some tantalizing hints of what will become the Civil War. If you noticed, Plymouth Plantation in future Massachusetts made its wealth from fur, wood, and trading with its neighbors, while Jamestown in Virginia made its wealth on a cash crop that required slaves in order to be economically sustainable. These two settlements exemplify the north vs south economies and will grow into thesis statements about the economic roots of the Civil War.
Not included in this write-up and review was a lot of information on the duties of a Christian slaveowner, what happens when your slave converts to Christianity (which sounds like the title of a bad humor column), how that played into the growing abolitionism of the 18th century, especially as the American colonies were headed towards their own epic freedom struggle.
If you wanted an easy read that gives a thorough overview of, as the title says, the origins of slavery in the English Colonies, look no further than this book. It covers most angles of the issues involved and sets things up in such a way that the ripples through time, even through today, are apparent and significant.
Image Source: Map
Image Source: The American Dream
Image Source: Tobacco in the American Colonies
Image Source: New Amsterdam
Image Source: Am I Not a Man?