I have wanted to write this for some time now, but it seems something else always gets in the way. As I get in discussions, I learn that many people do not understand the beginning of slavery in America— how it evolved, and modern day 21st-century slavery. At this point, I am planning for a three-part series.
Most people are not aware that very few African slaves were brought straight to the colonies, especially in the 17th century. An extensive sugar trade had been built up in the Caribbean, and nearly every African slave brought across the Atlantic went there.
The early slaves in the colonies were Indians. In fact, it is estimated that South Carolina alone exported 24,000 to 51,000 captive Native Americans to the West Indies between 1670 and 1715. This was far more than the total number of Africans brought to all thirteen colonies during the same period.
The majority of Africans brought to the colonies came from the Caribbean sugar colonies. Slaves were a commodity and used in trade; in fact, some of the first African slaves brought to North America were brought on a Dutch ship that had captured them from the Spanish. Up until later in the 17th century, the typical slave was a young white boy.
Indentured servitude was used to the advantage of both parties. Poor families often sold their sons into servitude, giving them a chance they could never have at home. People seeking to come to America sold themselves. The people in the colonies who needed help could have the labor force for the cost supplying transport, room and board, and clothes. The term was set, normally four to seven years, after which they were given cash, clothing, and tools or land, in addition to learning a trade during their term. They were then free to be an ordinary settler.
This was true regardless of color. While much of the world looked at slaves as property, the colonies treated the Africans the same as the Europeans. It was a legal contract. The term of servitude could be extended by a couple of ways. One was by choice or agreement between the owner and the slave, and the other was as punishment for behavior, such as trying to escape or criminal activity. Escape was breaking the contract. Years might be added by a judge, and in extreme cases, life in servitude might be handed down.
It does not seem that race entered the picture until late in the 17th century. There were a number of black slave owners, and it seems the first-lifetime slave was a black man owned by another black man.
Anthony Johnson was an Angolan who ended up in Virginia and finished his term sometime after 1635. He was granted land by the colony. As is often left out of the equation, Anthony was originally captured by an enemy tribe and sold to Arab (Muslim) slave traders. Originally indentured to a merchant with the Virginia Company, he ultimately finished his contract while working for a tobacco farmer. Contracts were paid off either by someone with the cash to buy out the contract or by the labor of servitude.
In time, Anthony built his farm up to 250 acres with five indentured servants, four white and one black. Anthony had bought the contract of John Casor, the black man, in the 1640s. Casor complained one day to a neighbor that Anthony had kept him several years past his term. The neighbor, Robert Parker, persuaded Johnson to release Casor. Parker then offered Casor work and a term of indenture was signed.
In 1654, Johnson sued Parker in court demanding the return of Casor. He originally lost the case, but on appeal won not only Casor’s return, but Parker had to pay the court fees. This was the first instance in the thirteen colonies of a life of servitude given when no crime had been committed.
I remember being taught that millions of slaves were brought to the colonies. A 1625 census in Virginia showed the number of negro slaves to be 23. In 1649 there were 300 and in 1690 there were 900. I have no intention of glorifying the idea of slavery, however, we have to understand it was the way society was at the time, just as they would not understand our society today. For the most part, buying and keeping a slave was an expensive proposition, and one way to maximize that investment was through breeding.
There are also those who will tell you the idea of Irish slaves is a myth. The Irish slave trade began when 30,000 Irish prisoners were sold as slaves to the “New World.” The Proclamation of 1625 by King James I, required Irish political prisoners to be sent and sold to English settlers in the West Indies. By the mid-1600s, the Irish were the main slaves sold to Antigua and Montserrat. In fact, 70% of Montserrat’s population were Irish slaves. Remember, slaves primarily were needed in the Caribbean at the time— the tobacco and cotton plantations had yet to develop into large-scale industries.
Between 1641 and 1652, at least 500,000 Irish were killed and 300,000 sold as slaves, dropping Ireland’s population from 1.5 million to 600,000 in just eleven years. Widows and orphans were sold as well. During the decade from 1650 to 1660, more than 100,000 children aged 10-14 were taken from their families and sold to the West Indies, Virginia, and New England. Additionally, 52,000 (largely women and children) were sold to Barbados and Virginia, and another 30,000 men and women were also sold at auction. In 1656, Oliver Cromwell ordered 2,000 Irish children taken to Jamaica and sold to English settlers. At this time in history, being an Irish Catholic was worse than being black.
African slaves were expensive, bringing 50 Sterling in the late 1600s, while an Irish slave would go for 5 Sterling or less. Due to this, the Africans were often treated better than their Irish counterparts. Their masters also figured out that they could increase value through breeding. A black slave bred to an Irish girl produced a mulatto child that was more valuable than a white child. Another advantage was that when a woman’s term was up, she would seldom leave her child or children. The children were slaves, as well, until they were old enough to work off their contract.
By 1681, the practice of intentionally breeding blacks to whites was outlawed. It had become so widespread and profitable that it was infringing on the business of the slave traders importing from Africa. Legislation was passed “forbidding the practice of mating Irish slave women to African slave men for the purpose of producing slaves for sale.” It was stopped only because it interfered with the profits of a large slave transport company. Yes, history never changes— just follow the money!
As the nation grew west in the 19th century, many Irish went west as they had no reason to stay where they had been raised and hated. While they were not loved much more in the west, there was more opportunity to be away from people. Many of the early cowboys and ranch hands were Irish. Many of the old campfire songs were originally Irish tunes with new words to fit their new life. As the West grew, much of the hard labor was done by Irish and Chinese immigrants.
In Part Two, we’ll look at the explosive growth of slavery that ended after the Civil War, and maybe you will learn a few more things you did not know. The point to take from Part One is that all slaves were treated as indentured servants until later in the 17th century. Most history is written as if the trade was the same from the beginning. As with most things, they evolved with time and the money involved.
Note: Much of this information is readily available, but there is also a lot of misinformation and rewriting of history so we have to be careful. Much of the information is painstaking to uncover as it is court documents, state and local documents. A significant amount that is well referenced is found in The Origins of American Slavery: Freedom and Bondage in the English Colonies by Betty Wood and Setting the Record Straight: American History in Black & White by David Barton. Another source is The Indian Slave Trade: The Rise of the English Empire in the American South 1670–1717 by Alan Gallay.