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The Start of Slavery in North America

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The Arrival of the First Slaves

Historians normally date the start of slavery in the North American colonies to 1619. That year, a Dutch ship carrying African slaves docked at Point Comfort, which served as Jamestown's checkpoint for ships wanting to trade with the colonists.

The crew of the Dutch ship was starving, and as John Rolfe noted in a letter to the Virginia Company's treasurer Edwin Sandys, the Dutch traded 20 African slaves for food and supplies.

Indentured Servitude and Slavery

In fact, African slaves may have been present in England's North American colonies earlier than 1619, but Rolfe's letter is the earliest hard evidence of the presence of slaves. The British were reluctant to institute slavery in their new American colonies. They largely relied on indentured servants in the 17th century.

In 1625, there were only 23 Africans present in the colony of Virginia, according to historian Betty Wood. Thirty-five years later, this number had only increased to 950, or around three to four percent of the colony's population. The colony had many more indentured servants, and historians like Edmund Morgan argue that the living conditions and treatment of indentured servants were largely indistinguishable from that of slaves.

During this period, slaves of African descent and white indentured servants often worked, socialized and even ran away from their masters together. But by the end of the 17th century, the colony became more reliant on slave labor as the number of British and Europeans willing to indenture themselves declined and as the leaders of the colony feared uprisings among the poor, landless whites.

The Entrenchment of Slavery

The solution to the constant threat of rebellion from the landless poor? Raise the status of the poorest whites in the colony by instituting a system of racial slavery. Morgan sees the turning point in the rise of slavery in Virginia as coming in 1676 during Bacon's Rebellion, when Nathaniel Bacon led both white and black men against the leaders of the Virginia colony. Fearing this display of unity among poor whites and blacks, Virginia became a colony wholly dependent on slave labor and phased out indentured servitude.

Sources

  • Boles, John. Black Southerners, 1619-1869. University Press of Kentucky, 1984.
  • Morgan, Edmund. American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia. W. W. Norton & Company, 2003.
  • Wood, Betty. Slavery in Colonial America, 1619-1776. Rowman & Littlefield, 2005.
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