Black History Month 2014: American Slavery – The Early Days

Illustration of plantation slavery in the Canary Islands

We’ve looked at the slave ships that brought Africans to the New World, but what were they brought here for? In order to begin to answer this question, I put on my “I Can Learn Anything with Google” hat and look briefly at what necessitated American slavery. The focus here is slavery in the U.S. and the colonies that would be come the U.S., where an estimated 253,000 slaves were shipped. Seeing as how American slavery (1619 – 1865) existed for longer than our nation has actually been a nation (246 years vs. 238 years), I’m going to do this in parts. Let’s skip back to the early 1600s to examine Slavery – The Early Days. Spoiler Alert: native Americans get hit first, and the life of an African was very, very cheap.

Note: My apologies to anyone that I may offend with my smart assery and occasional silliness. This whole topic is a pot full of painful stuff and humor is how I cope. If you’re still reading, bear with me.

The first permanent colony of what would become the United States was Jamestown, VA (British-owned), whose chief export was tobacco. The great climate and demand for growing tobacco necessitated cheap labor, and options were limited: indentured British servants, native American slaves, and African slaves.

Indentured servants were introduced by the Virginia Company to colonial America in 1619. They were a combination of willing migrants, the religiously persecuted, criminals, and other undesirables. In exchange for food, clothing, lodging, and a trip to the colonies, they worked for a fixed term (4-10 years) for no wages. At the end, they’d be free to look for new jobs and a life in the colonies. They would also receive “freedom dues”, with some contracts including at least 25 acres of land, a year’s worth of corn, arms (‘Murica), a cow, and new clothes (source). There were even some blacks treated as indentured servants and given the same opportunities for freedom dues as whites. This, however, didn’t work out in the long term (clearly). Why pay all that money for someone only to lose them in the end? Cut costs! Get workers that have no opportunity for freedom. You pay for them once, and never again. Get slaves.

Native Americans enslaved by Spaniards, 1596

Different versions of slavery were present in the Americas before Europeans took it over (hell, it was present in Africa before Europe caught on, but we’re focusing on the U.S. of A). Natives would enslave captives of war who they would use for small scale labor and ritual sacrifice. The rights and privileges of these slaves varied widely between tribes. Some were even able to marry widows. This all changed when the British began to colonize. Being high on product and short on labor, British colonies were more than willing to buy the slaves from the local tribes. Then they began instigate conflicts between tribes for more war slaves, and eventually stole from the tribes directly. As an example, it’s estimated that between 30,000 to 50,000 natives were shipped out of Charleston, SC alone to the Caribbean between 1670 and 1715. I’d provide more numbers in this bit, but the records are spotty at best.

The enslavement of natives didn’t work out so well for the fledgeling colonies. Don’t get me wrong here, it still happened. Huge swaths of native American communities were devastated by the capture and sale of their people throughout the history of American slavery. Many were traded to work in West Indian sugarcane plantations when the sugar market boomed. However, the enslavement of natives proved costly in money and lives. Although several tribes were complicit in the enslavement of rival tribes, toward the mid 1700’s they began to band together to resist their enslavement. Also, as time went on from the 1600s to the 1700s, African slaves became more readily available.

A sample slave auction; Richmond, VA

While the first sets of Africans were brought to Virginia in 1619, the first sets of African slaves were brought into present-day New York City (NYC represent!) in 1625 by the Dutch West India Company. Although enslaved, Africans had a few basic rights and families were preserved. Their children could be baptized, they could testify in court, sign legal documents, and even *gasp* bring civil actions against whites. Some were permitted to work after hours, earning wages equal to those paid to white workers.

In 1662, Virginia decreed that children born in VA “shall be bond or free according to the condition of the mother”, thereby allowing plantation owners the right to enslave their illegitimate mixed-race children, removing their responsibility to acknowledge, support, or emancipate these children. Along with that, “free” white women would be penalized for sex with slaves by serving that slave’s master for life, preserving the property rights of slaveowners. By 1664, the colonies all passed laws mandating lifelong servitude for all black slaves. During the late 1600s, British indentured servitude declined, and planters became increasingly concerned about creating a large class of restless, landless, poor white men (former indentured servants). Wealthy VA and MD planters bought slaves in preference to indentured servants, and eventually poorer planters followed suit. By the end of the 1600s, a planter could buy an African slave for life for the same price that he could purchase a white indentured servant for 10 years.

Consider the economic choice between a white indentured servant with a term of 4 years and a slave. Figures here will be an irresponsible combo of these indentured servant contracts. Let’s take young William Buckland’s 1755 salary of £20 sterling per year for 4 years (80 pounds total) and scale that back to the 1627 economy. That’s an average £13.7 per year in 1627, totaling £54.8. For reference, £54.8 pounds in the 1627 economy scales up to £135,000 in 2012, or about $220,000 American. At roughly $55,000 per year, PLUS food, housing, clothes, and job prospects at the end if their terms, they’re looking like a mighty better deal than an astronomy grad student. But I digress. Atop the £54.8 salary, housing, food, and clothes for 4 years, there’s the cost of the voyage (£5, about $20,000 today), and the freedom dues of 25 acres of land, a year’s worth of corn, arms (‘Murica), and a cow. If we devalue all the freedom dues, a 4 year servant still cost roughly $250,000 in today’s dollars.

Contrast that with the average slave cost of £20 in the 1600s (very rough estimate based on this). Let’s assume that slaves came in at about…24 years of age, and lived to the average life colonial life expectancy of 44 – that’s 20 years of service. So, for the total cost of an indentured servant, you could buy roughly 3 slaves that would work FOR LIFE. In addition, you are guaranteed ownership of their offspring. If each slave had only one kid, you then had 3 new slaves for 40 years. Considering only two generations in this model, the price of one indentured servant (£60) got you 6 slaves and a combined 180 years of service. Your costs reduce from £15 per year to ~£0.3 per year; a 98% reduction of cost. Slavery: the ultimate capitalist model.

In 1676 Bacon’s Rebellion hit Virginia like a molotov cocktail, in that the capital was bathed in fire and literally burned to the ground. Discontented frontiersmen and frequent attacks from natives caused the white underclass to ally with Africans against bond-servitude and revolt, demanding the colonial government seize native American land for distribution, amongst other things. They held the rebellion for 8 months before the British royal army suppressed it. This unity amongst the underclass alarmed the ruling class, and in response racial lines drawn by slavery were brought to the fore and solidified into law and common rhetoric.

From here it turns darker for a while. But there’s sunshine on the horizon. Have to first remember the struggle before we celebrate the triumphs. Cheers.