From Indentured Servants to Slaves for Life

Before the United States declared its independence from Great Britain in 1783, the Spanish, British, and French had colonies and slaves within what is now the United States. Since most of African-American acculturation is from the English, this will focus on the English colony of Jamestown.

By 1619 there were thirty-two Africans living in Jamestown. They were not considered enslaved because the English didn’t have a law for slavery; but they were indentured servants – they would work for a number of years and after the those years were up, they would gain their freedom. During this time, black and white servant worked together harvesting tobacco and they even slept in the same headquarters. However by 1640 race was starting to become a major factor in the English colonies.

Here are the reasons why:

  • The African population largely increased in the Virginia colony because the English maintained control of the Atlantic slave trade.
  • White indentured servants  had become very expensive. The reason being, white indentured servants had more opportunities outside of Virginia and less and less European men and women would sell their freedom.
  • The English had always separated themselves from people different from them. Therefore, Africans were an extreme physical difference. Although black and white servant possessed many commonalities, their masters divided them by race.
  • The masters begun to separated white from black in the tobacco fields – white women only did domestic work and black women would do the agriculture.
  • Africans could not become Christians (although Christianity along with Islam were huge religions in Africa and therefore many of the Africans were probably Christians).
  • By 1662 it became law that white people could not have intimate relationships with black people.

The laws regarding African servitude became more strict and harsh and eventually lifetime enslavement became the norm for Africans. They were no longer considered indentured servants – they couldn’t gain freedom after a number of years. Instead they were enslaved for life.


The Passage From West Africa to the West Indies and Latin America

The majority of Africans captured into slavery were a result of wars happening in Central and West Africa. The Europeans were around to provide firearms for the warring and they greatly benefited from these nations being at war. Individuals and families towns and villages were raided and captured into slavery. They were bound together by rope and wooden yoke around their necks. Many people died and were even murdered on the journey to the trading stations or factories. These factories were holding cells where the captured Africans were separated from families and ethnic groups (to prevent rebellion), subjected to dehumanizing body inspections, and were branded with the logo of the traders company. They were left in these trading stations for weeks and even months. Most if not all of the Africans had never seen white people and thought the Europeans were witches and cannibals.

On the journey to the West Indies, many Africans would jump out of the boats, trying to escape capture, and all of whom died. Others would band together and start a rebellion. The ships that transported slaves were called Slavers. The trip from West Africa to the West Indies, depending on the size of the ship, took anywhere from 40 days to six months. As the demand for slaves increased, their was an increasing amount of piracy and sea wars for slaves.

On the slavers, captured Africans were boarded and tightly packed. The reason being, the captains would have one-hundred or two-hundred more slaves than the ship could manage. The Africans were planked on shelves with very little body and head space. Male slaves were chained together with the woman and children on separate decks. The conditions on the slavers were disgusting and deadly. The ship crew barely fed the slaves, they didn’t clean the feces, the slaves were not allowed to exercise, and they would have to remain with dead bodies and the dangerously sick. Many Africans died on the journey to the West Indies. Malaria, yellow fever, measles, dysentery and other diseases were rampant and killed lots of people. The floor was covered with blood and mucus; it was awful. Along with the wrath of disease, African women were subjected to sexual abuse by the crew members. It is noted that the sexual abuse has influenced African women attitudes about sexuality and as a result, when the slaves reached the Caribbean and Latin America, they didn’t reproduce.

African-American History: The Orgins of the Atlantic Slave Trade

I realized that not too many people are knowledgeable of African-American history. It is important that we know and understand history so that we can lead better futures. If more black people knew the history of their ancestors they would appreciate free education, they wouldn’t embrace each other as “nigga”, and most importantly they would value their lives.

My junior year I decided to minor in Africana Studies and as I result I feel liberated. The elementary and high school history books doesn’t present accurate information and they fail to give a true detailing of African-American history in the Americas. Therefore, I will assume that responsibility. I am the African-American history teacher and my lessons begins now!

First and foremost slavery is not an American entity. It was custom of ancient civilizations, including Africa, to possess slaves. The people who were forced into slavery were often prisoners of wars and captured women and children whose statesmen had lost a war. But most importantly race or skin color had no meaning and influence on the enslavement of people. There were European slaves in Africa.

The first Western European contact for expansion in West Africa began with the Portuguese in the early 1400s. The Portuguese arrived at the Guinea Cost where they traded for gold, ivory, and pepper, but they also wanted slaves. The Portuguese were granted permission by the kings of the countries, such as Benin, to trade for slaves. A big misconception about the slave trade is that the Europeans themselves captured Africans into slavery. However, it was the African traders who would capture individuals and sell them into slavery.

Initially, the slave trade was not in demand because many European Countries had a large enough labor force. But with Christopher Columbus’s discovery of the Americas – North America, South America, and the Caribbean, European settlement and domination began. They exploited the Native Americans and committed mass genocide ( the majority of the Native Americans died out from diseases). As a result the European colonies did not have a big enough workforce and that increased the demand for slaves and fueled the Atlantic slave trade.

The major players in the Atlantic slave trade were the Portuguese, Spanish, English, and French. They had colonies in Mexico, Central and South American, North America, and the Caribbean. With the discovery of gold and silver mines in the Spanish colonies of Peru and Mexico and the sugar plantations in Portuguese controlled Brazil, the demand for slave increased dramatically. Equally, the cultivation of rice, indigo, tobacco increased the demand for slaves.

During the 16th century, Portugal and Spain were the main players in the atlantic slave trade. Most of the slaves were routed to Brazil. In the end Brazil received the most African slaves; an estimated four million. By  the 17th century the Dutch seized control of the Atlantic slave trade that was once dominated by Spain and Portugal. Eventually, after a few wars with the French, Spanish, and Dutch, England gained control of the slave trade in 1713.

By 1790 the English slave ships called slavers, were transporting 50,000 captured African slaves annually.

Stay tuned for more….