Slavery in the United States: Historical Trends--18th Century

Figure 1.--

Slavery continued to evolve in America during the 18th century. Many colonies refined the legal code first estanlished in the 17th century regulating slavery. Slavery became a major source of labor in the southern colonies. The numbers of Africans tranported to the New World is not known with any accuracy. The first notable slave in America was the Stono River rebellion (1739). It occured in South Caeolina during harvest time when overseers were pushing the slaves to work harder. Fear of the slaves was greatest in the southern colonies because of the large numbers, but it was not absent in the north. New York had the largest black population in the Colonies with the exception of Charlestown. A major incident was the New York City Fires (1741). The largest numbrs of mortalities occurred in the 18th century, at leat in terms of Africans transported to North America. . Scholars debate the actual numbers. Slavery became a major issue during the Rvolutionary War (1775-83). The Crown offered liberty to slaves who fought with the Loyalists. Many slaves did obtain their freedom during the War. The debate over slavery in the United States did not begin with the Constitutinal Convention, but it was here that the issue first came to the fore (1787). Because of the insistence on slavery by the southern colonies, the Constitution for the most part avoided the issue. The delegates at the Constitutional Convention could not address the central issue of slavery, although they agree to make provision forr ending the slave trade. Northern States began to gradually end slavery ad it was thught that this would also occur in the South, but the invention of the cotton gin transformed the economics of slavery (1793).

Olaudah Equiano

Almost all first-hand accounts of the Africab slave trade come from the slavers. In some cases slavers who turned against the trade, but in almost all cases European white men who participated in it. I know of no accounts by the Arabs involved, although they may exist. But what is especially lacking is accounts by the Africans who were enslaved. Most of those individuals are lost to history, in part because families were broken up and in part because they were illiterate and not permitted schooling once they arrived in the New World. One of the rare exceptions is Olaudah Equiano, a Nigerian boy, captured and enslaved when he was 11 years old. Equiano is an exception because he no only mananaged to buy his freedom, but educated himself and wrote an account of his experiences. There are a number of slave naratives, but Equiano's account is particularly important because it includes details on his capture and the Middle Passage, transport across the Atlantic to his new slave life. Other slave narratives are accounts of lives as slaves in the South, mostly during the 19th century. They are also important, but Equiano's book is generaly seen as the definitive account of the Middle Passage.

Criminal Transport

The greatest problem in the colonies from the very beginning was labor. Slavery largely disppeared in England during the Norman era (11th-12th centuries). Thus there was no legal basis for slavery with the early English colonists. There was, however, a basis for forced labor--indentured servants. Some of the indentured servants in the English colonies were criminals transported by the Government. The criminal justice system in England and the rest of Europe was brutal before reforms following the mid-19th century. Individuals found guilty of the most minor offenses such as petty larceny and pick pocketing could be hanged. An option to the presiding was transportation to the colonies as indentured servants. This occurred in both England and Ireland. The individuals included those found guilty for both serious and petty crimes. Because the offenses included petty crimes, some quite young children, mostly boys, were included in these transports. The decesion seems a matter of judicial choice rather than legal guidelines. We are not sure to what extent judges were influenced by a miscreants age in deciding the punishment or the length of servitude. These transports began with the founding of the colonies, but were relatively limited until the 18th century. They continued even after the American Revolution into the 19th century. Ausrtralia was seen at first as a porison colony. Sentences varied. They could be for life, but were more commonly for a specific period. There was no inheritance of slave status by their children, although there were limitations on marriage. The criminals transported were used to work on a variety of government projects, including road construction, building works, and mining. It was virtually impossible to find workers for such projects. Fee indivuduals wanted to found afarm or business. Those transportedf might also be purchased for use as unpaid labour. Most of thge transportees were men, but there were a few women. They worked as n were expected to work as domestic servants and agricultural labor. There were both indentured servants who were transported and those who contracted to be endentured servants to pay for therir passage. In the later case, 7 years was a common term of servitude. Their legal status meant that they could be bought and sold, required permission to marry, and could be punished phyically. Transported convicts after serving a portion of his term could aplly for a 'ticket of leave' through which some freedoms might be gained. As there was no basis for slavery in ERnglish law, the first Africans brought to the colonies were treated as indentured servants.


The numbers of Africans tranported to the New World is not known with any accuracy. The largest numbrs of mortalities occurred in the 18th century, at leat in terms of Africans transported to North America. . Scholars debate the actual numbers. The American Constitution included provisions ending the slave trade and the British Royal Navy played a major in supressing it in the 19th century. Thus by about 1840 the slave trade to the New World had been reduced to relatively small numbers. Scholars believe, however, that about 10 million Africans were transported to the New World. While scholars may debate the actual figure, most will agree that 10 million is a reasonable approximation. This is a staggering figure as it far exceeds the number of Europeans who came to the New World. (The number of Europeans increased substantially beginning in the 1840s with the Irish because of the Potato Famine and many other countries after the Civil War.) What is staggering about this figure is that European immigration before 1840 titaled only about 2 million. Here figures are again not precise, but much more reliable than data on African slaves. The obvious question is why was the European population in the Americas so much higher if in fact so many more Africans were transported to the New World. The answer is unavoidable. Huge numbers of Africans died both in the passage to America and as a result of overwork and abuse as slaves in America. No fact more eloquently puts to lie the long held myth that slavery in the American south was benign. (Conditions on Caribbean and Brazilian plantations were iften even worse.)

Yamasee War (1715)

The Yamasee belonged to the Muskhogean language group. Their homelands were what is now northern Florida and southern Georgia. The advent of the Spanish in the late-16th century forced the Yamasee to migrate north into what would become South Carolina. Relations between the tribe and English settlers in that region were generally amnicable during the latter half of the 17th century. This gradually shifted as more settlers reached the Sourheast and more interactions insued, meaning encroachments on Yamasee territory. The Europens as they expaned their settkement meant that they began t limit Indian agricultural and hunting lands. Despite this, the Yamasee had moved north where they sought English protection from theSpanish. They had become dependent on English firearms and various manufactured trade goods which they trded for derskins. As they purchased more thn they could pay for in dearskins, tge Yamasee fell into debt. Thevmerchants not receiving the promised dearskins seized and enslaved several Yamasee women and children to satisfy the debts. The Yamasee were outraged and formed a confederation with other tribes resenting European incursions. They attacked settlements in South Carolina (1715). The Yamasee killed several hundred settlers, burned himes, slaughtered livestock. Settlers fled the western frontier areas. They moved to the relative security of Chrleston or the more estanlished North arolina colony. The Yamasee War (1815) would be a turning point in settler/Native American relations in the Southeast and a decline in the Indian slave trade.

Stono Rebellion (1739)

The first notable slave rebellion in America was the Stono River rebellion. It occured in South Caeolina during harvest time when overseers were pushing the slaves to work harder. A small group of slaves began preparing saturday night and struck sunday morning (September 9, 1739). They were led by a newly enslaved Angolan named Jemmy. They trcked south recruiting more followers from plantations along the way. The slaves were responding to rumors that freedom awaited them in the Spanish colony of Florida. In fact the Spanish were giving both freedom and land to runaway slaves to help destabilize the English South Carolina colony. Relations between Britain an Spain were strained. In Europe the War of the Austrian Secession (1740-48) was about to break out. The Spanish Fort Mose was located in northern Florida and manned with black soldiers. slaves that reached there would be freed. An epidemic in Charleston where the colonial government was based had caused some problems. The slaves may have also heard of the new Security Act, requiring men to carry guns on Sunday when slaves were not well supervised. The rebelling slaves may have thought that this was their last chance. The rebellion occurred near the Stono River in St. Paul's Parish close to Chalestown. A band of about 20 slaves broke into a shop selling guns. They killed two men there and then moved to the Godfrey plantation where they burned the house and killed Godfrey as well as his son and daughter. They moved south raiding plantations. Most of the whiteencountered were killed, about 20-25 people. Some slaves orotected their masters. Some joined the rebellion, others refused to do so. Lieutenant Governor Bull encountered the slaves and raised the alarm. After a brief fire fight most of the rebels were killed or captured. All but one who escaped were soon captured. The last rebel was aprehended 3 years later. White planters had been for several years preparing a Negro Act that would unify the various earlier laws and severely limit and regulate the lives of slaves. After the Stono Rebellion, it was quickly enacted. Slaves were no longer allowed to have their own plots and grow their food. Assemblingb in groups was prohibited. Slaves were forbidden to earn their own money. Teach slaves to read was prihibited. Some of these provisions were new restrictions. Others were earlier restrictiins which were not being observed by many slave owners. The new Negro Act was mean to regulate every aspect of a slave's life.

New York Fires (1741)

Fear of the slaves was greatest in the southern colonies because of the large numbers, but it was not absent in the north. New York had the largest black population in the Colonies with the exception of Charlestown. New York authorities claimed to have discovered a plot by free and slaves blacks to burn down the city. Evidence of such a plot is shaky. What is especially interesting is the evidence collected about living conditions of blacks at the time. Several people were arrested and tried for conspiracy and fomenting rebellion. The testimony given at their trial provides an invaluable record of living conditions. Many blacks complained of living and working codituons, inadequate food, clothing, and housing. Men complined of not being able to gain access to their wives. In the end the ciurt concluded that blacks were not persons in law. The sentences handed out were horific. The court sentenced 13 men to be burned at the stake. This was not a punishment to which white people were sentenced, no matter how terrible the crime. Others were hanged. As in South Carolina, more repressive laws were enacted to control both slaves and free blacks.

Ameican Revolution (1776-83)

The Stamp Act (1965) began an era of increasing tension between the Colonies and Britain which was increasingly intent on actively governing the Colonies to an extent that it had not done earlier. Colonial legislatures were increasingly frustrated by British rule. Blacks were not as politicall aware as the white colonists, but some were aware of the Patriot claims for freedom and liberty. Some were aware and sent petitions to Governor Thomas Hutchinson of Massachusetts petitioning for their freedom (1773-74). Patriot retoric was indeed inflamatory. Patriots proclaimed that they would not be the slave of Britain. British officials observed that those in America who cried the loudest for libery were the greates slave owners. Fighting between the Patriots and British begn in Massachusetts (1775). Whin the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, the colonists had to chose sides, there was strong supports for both sides. A substantial number of the Colonists were Loyalists and many were undecided. Blacks free and slave thus had to make decessions. Blacks represented an important part of the population. About 20 percent of the Colonial population was of African ancestry. Blacks split their alegiences, supporting and fighting on both sides. Congress at John Adam's urging appointed George Washington to commnd the Continental Army. Washington was an important slave oner at first refused to accept black recruits. Armed blacks were a frightful sight to slave owners. He eventually changed his mind. I am not entireky sure why. The desperation of the Patriot cause must have been a factor as was the performance of blacks in militial units. Blacks also joined the Loyalists. Lord Dunmore the colonial givernor in Virginia offered freedom to blacks who fought with the Loyalists (November 1775). An Ethiopian Corps was formed. With a knowldge of local conditions, the blacks raided Patriot areas buring farms, securing supplies for the British Army, and freeing friends and relatibes. The impact of these operations despite theit tactical benefits may have played a major role in turning uncommotted Colonists against the British. Frustrated in the northern colonies and bottle up in New York, the British launched their southern offensive. Lord Cornwallis achieved at first considerable success. Blacks hearing rumors of freedom flocked to the British by the thousands. The British had no way of caring for these people. It ws not just men of fighting age but entire families. Conditions in the camp were terrible. Food was scarce and diseases, especially smallpox rampant. . The Scotts Irish frontier population was ardently anti-British. Appeals to blacks turned many ubcommited Colonists against the British. An offensive aimed at Virginia turned into a bloody campaigned that drained Cornwallis force as the Patriots grew stronger. Finally Cornwallis surrendered his army at Yorktown (1881). With the end of the War many Loyalists had to leave America. Thousands were transported by the British including many former slaves. Most of the slaves that flocked to the British were returned to slavery. Here i do not yet have details in how this was handled. Some slaves who fought with the Partriots received their freedom. Again here I do not yet have details.

State Constitutions

Throughout the Colonies, new constitutions were written. This process began while the Revolution War was still in progress. Massachusetts approved their new constitution (1780). Slavery was not mentiined in the consitution. A black woman challenged slavery citing the wording of the new constitution. A court ruled in her favor. Massachusetts abolished slavery (1783). Other northern colonies followed suit. The dates and process varied from colony to colony. The southern colonies, however, ensrined slavery in their new constitutions.

U.S. Consitution (1789)

The U.S. Constitution does not authorize or condone slavery. The framers left it as atate matter. It does accept it as an existing institution authorized by state law. Here the representatives at the Cobstitutiinal Convention had no choice. If the northern delegations which included opponents of slavery had insisted on abolition, there would have been no constitution an no United States. The southern delegation at the Convention would not have accepted it. While the Constitution does not authorize slavery or provide for slsvery, there are two provisions in the Constitution referring to slavery. The first is the 3/5s rule. In determining the number of Representatives to which each stat was entitled to in Congress, slaves were to be counted as 3/5s of a person. The pro-slave delegates wanted them counted as a full person, maximizing the Congressional delegations of the slave states. The anti-slave delegated did not want the slaves counted for purposes of representation. The compromie agreed to was 3/5s. The other slve provision was a commitment to end the slave trade which even at the time ws cinsidere aeprehensibe activity. One reason the framers agreed to difer any action on slavery was that it was seen at the time to be a dieing institution. Cotton was not yet an important crop. And until the invention of the cotton gin, was not expected to be one.


Ely, Melvin Patrick. Israel on the Appomattox

Horton, James Oliver and Louis E. Horton. Slavery and the Making of America (Oxford University Press, 2004), 254p.


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Created: May 25, 2002
Last updated: 9:48 PM 8/2/2014