In 1619 twenty Africans landed in Jamestown, Virginia, a budding British colony of the Americas focused on the growing and exporting of tobacco. Tobacco plantations required labour and until 1700, white indentured servants, mainly from Britain, provided most of the work. But various factors would lead plantation owners to replace indentured servitude with slavery and by the American Revolution (1776), all the British colonies practiced permanent chattel slavery. How and why did this transition happen?
Colonial Plantations and Labour. Historian Peter Kolchin writes, “Almost from the beginning, America was heavily dependent on coerced labour… (3) Before slavery, British colonists utilized two other sources of unfree labour – Native American slavery and Indentured Servants. Native American slavery comprised a relatively small portion of colonial workers. Historians point to various reasons for this. First, diseases had severely decimated the Native American population since Europeans arrived in the late 1400s. Estimates vary, but there is a growing consensus that between 70 and 90 percent of indigenous Americans (North, Central and South America) died from European-borne diseases such as smallpox and measles. A decimated population could not meet growing plantation labour demands. Also, familiar with local environments, Native Americans could escape, survive, and rejoin their communities.
Indentured Servitude. Indentured servitude provided a better option and became the primary source of unfree labour during the 17th century. The arrangement ostensibly met the needs of both the servant and plantation owner. Indentured servants often left England to escape poverty, persecution and political instability. Without resources to traverse the Atlantic, they “sold themselves into temporary slavery in exchange for free transatlantic transportation… (Kolkin, 8). A steady supply of indentured servants pre-empted the need to seek alternative sources of labour – including slavery. As Kolkin writes,
…so long as a ready supply of indentured labor continued to exist, colonists saw little reason to go to the expense of importing large numbers of Africans, who, unlike English labourers, had to undergo prolonged adjustment to alien conditions – strange masters had unusual customs, spoke an unintelligible language before becoming productive members of the workforce. (11)
Various factors made slavery less viable during most of the 17th century. Slavery at this time involved more risk and expense. Especially during the early 17th century, plantation labourer life expectancy was low. James Oakes estimates that “90% of those who migrated to the Chesapeake in the seventeenth century came as servants, and half died before completing the term of service.” (68). Plantation working conditions were brutal, and workers had less protection than in England. As Oakes points out, “As long as life expectancy was low, it was generally more profitable for a planter to purchase an indentured servant for seven years than a slave for life.” (10) Also, the immense crossing distance from Africa to North America – much further than Africa to Brazil, for instance) led to high slave fatalities and reduced profitability.
The Transition to Slavery. An interplay of factors encouraged the transition from indentured servitude to slavery. First, colonial demand for labour began outpacing the labour supply of indentured servants. Virginia’s growing tobacco plantations required more work, and from the 1690s, Carolina evolved into a significant producer and exporter of labour-intensive crops, rice and indigo. (Black,88) Carolina planters would benefit from enslaved Africans already well-versed in rice production.
Factors on the supply side also encouraged the transition to slavery. Kolchin points out that “at the same time that colonial demand for labor was surging, a sharp decrease occurred in the number of English migrants arriving in America under indenture.” (11) Various factors contributed to this decrease. The monarchy’s restoration in England facilitated “both political stabilization and an economic upturn” that encouraged labourers to stay in Europe. (Kolchin, 12). Also, less arduous opportunities in American colonies like New York and Pennsylvania attracted immigrants, effectively siphoning potential plantation labourers.
Essentially, the indentured labour supply could not keep up with the growing demand for labour. Slavery became an increasingly viable choice.
Slavery Becomes More Viable. Various factors mitigated the high initial costs of slavery for wealthy planters who benefitted from slavery as a long-term investment. In the 1680s, England’s Royal African Company broke the Dutch monopoly on the slave trade, significantly reducing the cost of slave transport. Also, enslaved Africans proved very capable and resilient. Many had engaged in agricultural labour and, unlike Native Americans, had been exposed to European diseases, developing immune systems more adept to colonial life.
Unlike indentured servants, Africans remained slaves for life. In 1662, Virginia made slavery a hereditary condition by declaring that “all children born in this country shall be held bond or free according to the conditions of the mother.” (Berkin, 70) In other words, permanent slave status passed from the mother to her children. This law drastically favoured plantation owners. As Kolchin writes, “…whereas in the seventeenth century the slave population failed to reproduce itself and had to be replenished in much the same way the servant population did, in the eighteenth century, it became a self-perpetuating labor force.” (13)
Native Americans and English indentured servants also presented higher flight risks from the brutal conditions of plantation labour. European indentured servants could leave and readily blend into other communities. Native Americans often knew the environment and could escape and even return to their people. On the other hand, enslaved Africans landed in a foreign setting that offered no friendly escape destinations. Moreover, due to skin colour, Africans fleeing a plantation were more visible and less able to blend into free communities. As Kolchin writes, “Racial distinction, in short, facilitated enslavement. (13).
Slave Codes. Plantation owners also benefitted from slave codes. As Carol Berkin points out, the “legal difference between black and white servants was vague until the 1660s. As previously mentioned, in 1662, Virginia legislated that all children of slave mothers inherited her slave status. Other colonies followed suit. Slave codes legally entrenched racial differences while imposing various restrictions such as banning enslaved people from holding meetings, owning property, getting married, possessing guns or inflammatory literature.
Conclusion. The transition to slavery happened relatively quickly – less than one hundred years. The estimates vary, but according to James Oakes, the number of African or African-descended inhabitants of the mainland colonies” increased from 2920 in 1660 to more than 300, 000 a century later. (126). By this time slavery had become the labour system of the Southern colonies and was legally recognized in the Northern colonies.
Slavery had been firmly entrenched in American society by the middle of the 18th century.
Berkin, Carol. Making America. A History of the United States. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001.
Black, Jeremy. A Brief History of Slavery: A New Global History. London: Constable and Robinson, 2011.
Foner, Eric. Give Me Liberty: An American History. Volume 1. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2017
Hine, Darlene and William C. Hine. African Americans: A Concise History. New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc. 2014.
Kolchin, Peter. American Slavery. 1619-1877. New York: Hill and Wang, 1993.
Oakes, James. Of the People. A History of the United States. Volume 1: To 1877. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.