When the American Revolution unfolded in the 1760s there were more than 460,000 Africans in colonial America, the vast majority of them slaves. Slavery was an insidious practice where human beings were kidnapped, mainly from Africa, transported to North America and sold at auction. Once purchased, the slave became the personal property of his or her owner. Slaves were forced to labour for six days a week, often from dawn to sundown. While their conditions varied depending on location, type of work, local custom and the disposition of their owners and overseers, African American slaves endured a miserable existence, without any rights or freedoms. The American Revolution did not challenge the institution of slavery, at least not directly – however focus on liberty and natural rights raised many questions about the future of slavery in a land of supposedly free men.
The first slave arrivals in the 13 colonies can be traced back to 1619, when a passing slave ship, en route to sugar plantations in the Caribbean, landed in Virginia. Locals there were desperate for labourers to work large plantations, so purchased a number of Africans under an indenture (see below). As Virginia and its neighbouring colonies expanded and claimed large tracts of land, the demand for slave labour also grew. Ships sailing from Africa, packed like sardines with human cargo, began to bypass the Caribbean and sail straight for the British colonies. Slaves were also purchased in the northern colonies, albeit in much smaller numbers. French colonists in Canada, Louisiana and along the Mississippi valley also acquired and exploited African slaves, as well as enslaving some Native American tribes.
From the slaves’ perspective, the transition from tribal life to colonial slavery must have been terrifying. The majority of American slaves originated along the west coast of Africa. They were kidnapped by European raiding parties or purchased from Arabic slave traders or rival tribes. The cargo holds of Atlantic slave ships were filled to bursting, often containing hundreds of people in a small space. Many slaves were chained to plank beds, others were shackled to walls or masts; in either case, the slaves were given little or no room to move or access to sunlight. Leaking decks and no sewage meant that slave holds were soon awash with water and human waste. Not surprisingly, many slave ships were decimated by diseases like dysentery, as well as malnutrition, heat, humidity, fighting among slaves and mistreatment from the crew. The voyage across the Atlantic could take between four and six weeks.
Once the ship at arrived at its destination, slaves were unloaded, washed, inspected, auctioned like cattle and taken by their owners to work on cotton, tobacco, rice or indigo farms. They were provided with basic shelter and forced to work daylight hours for six days a week. The life of a slave revolved around work and obedience; they were often beaten by their owners or overseers if they were slow working, insolent or defiant. Slaves were denied rights, freedom of movement or an education. They required the master’s permission to marry or have children. Being private property, slaves could be sold off at the master’s whim, causing the separation of families and communities. Slaves who attempted to flee were whipped and often branded. Young female slaves were often subject to sexual assault from their owners or overseers.
A historian’s view:
“Though the issue grew to divide the country, slavery did not have to be squarely faced while the colonies were part of a mother country that tolerated it… However for the slave-centred South even the possibility of this change was enough to light the spark for the coming revolution. This came with the Somerset decision in England, that freed a slave brought to London by a colonist, raising a question as to slavery’s legitimacy in the Empire. Although this decision did not overturn slavery in the colonies, its logic was not lost on southerners. For the South, compromise on slavery was unthinkable. Independence was the only solution.”
Alfred Blumrosen, historian
At the time of the revolution, most wealthy colonial planters and country gentlemen owned at least a few slaves. At the age of 11 George Washington inherited ten slaves from his father; by Washington’s death in 1799 there were 316 slaves working at his Mount Vernon estate. Thomas Jefferson, despite expressing criticisms of slavery and the slave trade, maintained around 200 slaves at Monticello during the revolutionary period. There is evidence to suggest that Jefferson, late in his life, fathered several children with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings. Among the other Founding Fathers who owned slaves were Patrick Henry, James Madison, Richard Henry Lee, John Jay, John Hancock and Benjamin Rush. Benjamin Franklin owned slaves until the 1780s when he began to favour the abolition of slavery.
By the 1760s slavery was in sharp decline in the northern colonies, due to its small land holdings and a higher proportion of yeoman farmers. Slavery retained its legal status, however, and there was no significant abolitionist movement until after the revolution. Some colonies, such as Rhode Island, had few slaves of its own but profited heavily from the slave trade that passed through its ports. The vast majority of African-American slaves were found in the southern colonies. Virginia had more than 185,000 slaves or around 40 per cent of its total population. Other colonies with large numbers of slaves were South Carolina (75,000, 55 per cent), North Carolina (68,000, 33 per cent), Maryland (63,000, 30 per cent), New York (19,000, 12 per cent) and Georgia (15,000, 75 per cent). Another 30,000 or so slaves were spread across the remaining seven colonies.
Africans were not the only people forced to labour in the 13 colonies. Thousands of Europeans came to America in the 17th and 18th centuries as indentured servants – in effect, as unpaid labourers under a fixed term contract. The vast majority of indentured servants were defaulters (those unable to pay debts) who were facing arrest and a long term in prison. To avoid this, they signed an indenture that surrendered their freedom and bound them to unpaid work for a fixed term, such as five, seven or ten years. As with African slaves, indentures and the workers bound by them could be bought and sold as private property. Indentured servants were often subject to similar mistreatment and exploitation as slaves, though unlike slaves their freedom was restored when the indenture expired. The exact number of indentured servants in colonial America is unclear, however, historians like Richard Hofstadter suggest that more than half the white settlers who arrived in colonial America before the revolution did so under some kind of indenture.
1. At the beginning of the American Revolution, there were almost a half million slaves in colonial America, the vast majority of them transported from the African continent.
2. Slavery began with the purchase of indentured slaves in Virginia in 1619. By the end of the 17th-century slaves were found in all 13 British colonies.
3. The system of enslavement used in America was chattel slavery, where slaves were acquired and treated as the personal property of their masters.
4. While conditions varied, most African-American slaves endured a miserable existence and were subject to heavy workloads, strict restrictions, punishments and mistreatment.
5. Thousands of Europeans also arrived in America as indentured servants bound to long terms of unpaid labour, usually for defaulting on debts. Indentured servants were also treated poorly, though unlike African-American slaves they were eventually granted their freedom.