Early Slave Trade - The Mercantilist Tradition
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As early as the middle of the fifteenth century, Portuguese sailors discovered that Negroes were available in large numbers along the west coast of Africa. Spain actively joined the slave trade when labor shortages developed in her Caribbean possessions. The Dutch gained a firm foothold in the trade in the middle of the sixteenth century and retained a substantial control of the West African markets for nearly a century. Some Englishmen engaged in the trade during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, but it was not until 1672, when Charles II granted a monopoly to the Royal African Colony, that the influx of Negro slaves into the English colonies - mainly the British West Indies - truly began. Indeed, large-scale importation of slaves into the mainland colonies did not take place until the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.
Introduction of Slavery. The first Negroes to arrive in Virginia were purchased as servants from a Dutch ship in 1619. At that time some twenty Negroes were sold into indentureships that averaged twenty-eight years, considerably longer than those of white servants. Nevertheless, those Negroes who completed their indentureship were permitted to participate in colonial life. Unfortunately, few Negroes had any legal proof of their indentureship; when faced with an oppressive labor shortage, their masters did not hesitate to hold them indefinitely. The first evidence for the existence of actual slavery appears in Virginia after 1640; the institution seems to have been an almost absent-minded development. The number of Negro slaves grew slowly, and was probably less than 25,000 in 1700.
Slave Codes. Many legal decisions were made in colonial America that supported belief in the Negro's inferiority, even in cases where the Negro was not in fact a slave. Runaway servants who were white received corporal punishment and had their terms of indenture increased by a year; Negro runaways were condemned to a lifetime of servitude. By 1660 Virginia law tacitly recognized that Negro slavery existed. In 1664 Maryland felt obliged to interdict interracial marriages because "divers free born English women, forgetful of their free condition, and to the disgrace of our nation, do intermarry with Negro slaves." As the economic importance of Negro slavery increased, a code of law governing slavery slowly evolved; but it was not until 1750 that Southern law generally defined slaves as chattels. The unusually harsh slave code in South Carolina, passed in that year, was justified on the grounds that "the Negroes and other slaves brought unto the people of this province . . . are of barbarous, wild, savage natures, and such as renders them wholly unqualified to be governed by the laws, customs, and practices of this province."
The number of slaves increased spectacularly after 1700, with a particular concentration in the colonies from Maryland southward. Several explanations exist for the unusual increase. In 1678, Britain opened the slave trade to all its subjects. One clause of the Treaty of Utrecht (1713), which ended the War of the Spanish Succession, granted the Asiento, or the right to supply slaves, to England. This grant permitted the English to supply the Spanish colonies with 4,800 slaves annually. Within a short time, the English had broken Dutch control of the slave trade and had shipped 30,000 slaves to the Americas. By 1715 no less than 60,000 slaves were held in the colonies, and by 1760 a total of 386,000 slaves labored on farms and plantations, nearly 299,000 of them in the Southern colonies.
Slavery in South Carolina and Virginia. South Carolina proved especially receptive to slavery since its rice culture demanded a work force capable of laboring in the hot and humid marshes where the rice was grown. By 1724 Negroes outnumbered whites two to one in the colony, a proportion that increased steadily until 1760 when Negroes made up 70,000 of the colony's 100,000 population. A substantial number of these slaves were brought from the West Indian plantations with which the Carolinians had intimate social and economic ties. A similar rise in the number of slaves occurred in Virginia. The expansion of tobacco culture made the Chesapeake planters increasingly willing to stabilize their labor force with slaves. Though slaves had numbered less than five per cent of the population of Virginia in 1671, they had increased to over forty per cent of the Old Dominion's population by 1756.
Slavery in the Northern Colonies. Among the northern colonies the largest number of slaves were found in New York, where they farmed the large Hudson estates, and in New York City, where they served as menial workers. Few slaves were found in New England, largely because its economy had little need for such labor. The lively opposition of the Quakers to slavery kept the institution at bay in the middle colonies.
The Slave Trade. Elsewhere the influx of slaves provoked efforts at restriction. Georgia, Virginia, Maryland, South Carolina, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania, fearful that Negro slaves would drive away white immigrants, attempted unsuccessfully to limit their importation. The English government disallowed these efforts, however, for fear that they would dry up the substantial wealth poured into the empire by the slave trade. In 1750 John Woolman, a Quaker leader, led the Friends to oppose the ownership of slaves by any member of their society. But Puritan moral scruples did not extend to nonparticipation in the slave trade. Newport, Boston, and Salem carried on a lively trade in "black ivory" with West Africa. Trading one hundred gallons of rum for an adult male, eighty-five gallons for an adult female, and sixty gallons for a child, the average slaver could purchase and transport seventy-five slaves across the sea. The cramped quarters - slaves were squeezed into a space three feet high between decks, with a floor space five feet long by sixteen inches wide for each slave - inferior food, and poor hygiene killed six to ten slaves per cargo. Such loss was considered negligible by the slave trader, however, as those who survived brought a net profit of £.300 for each voyage undertaken.
Colonial Unease about Slavery. By 1775, the holding of slaves had become an accepted fact of life throughout much of the South. Many colonial intellectuals still had serious qualms about its continued existence, though few men were ready to accept total emancipation with full equality. In Notes on Virginia, written in 1781, Thomas Jefferson lamented the existence of slavery but could conceive no solution unless the slaves were "expatriated." Virginians could flirt with the idea of ending slavery in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries; but South Carolinians, possessed of an agriculture built on slave labor, and confronted with a huge Negro majority, thought of slavery as necessarily enduring. And there existed a subtle fear among the Carolinians that a servile revolt might engulf them, a fear kept alive by the Cato Conspiracy of 1739, in which thirty whites and forty-four slaves were killed less than twenty miles from Charleston. References condemning the king for fostering slavery in the colonies were deleted from the Declaration of Independence when the delegates from South Carolina and Georgia protested sharply against their inclusion. But the moral, ethical, and economic problems resulting from slavery could not be resolved successfully simply by ignoring them. Slavery, firmly entrenched in the colonies by 1775, was destined to become the irreconcilable contradiction in the American democracy.