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AFRICAN SLAVERY IN THE AMERICAS

For both political and economic reasons, African slavery became widely introduced in the Chesapeake colonies in the 1670s and 1680s. Cultivation of goods such as tobacco required a large number of workers, and by this point fewer and fewer English people were willing to come to Virginia as indentured servants (with increased prosperity, more workers were remaining in England, while others viewed the economic possibilities of the Middle Colonies as more appealing.) The Portuguese and other European powers had engaged in slave trading as early as the 1440s, and African slaves had been imported to the Spanish possessions in the Americas. The first Africans entered Virginia as workers in 1619; few legal differences existed between white and black workers at that time. By 1662 servitude for blacks in Virginia was a legal fact when it was stated that a child born to a mother who was a slave was also a slave.

The trading of slaves was a pivotal part of the triangular trade system that tied together the economies of North America, South America, the Caribbean, Africa, and Europe in the late seventeenth century. Under this system, finished products from Europe went to Africa and the Americas, while raw materials from various colonies went to Europe. The shipping of slaves from Africa to America became known as the middle passage, as it served as the foundation of the entire trading system.

Until the 1670s the financial risk of owning African slaves was too much for most Virginia plantation owners, who still could be guaranteed a supply of British indentured labor. Yet as that labor force eroded, the desire to own African slaves increased. This desire only expanded when the Dutch monopoly on the slave trade ended in 1682, drastically reducing the prices of slaves in British colonies. Many landowners in the region that could not afford slaves ended up moving westward.

The middle passage or journey of African slaves on European slave ships to the Americas is well documented. Disease and death were common on these ships for both the Africans kept chained under the decks and the European crews of the ships. It is estimated that almost 20 percent of all Africans who began the journey on one of these ships perished before reaching the Americas.

Until the 1730s most slaves in the region worked on small farms with two or three other slaves and the plantation owner. Under these conditions it was difficult to create a unique slave culture. However, slaves cultures did slowly develop, combining dements of African, European, and local traditions. African religious traditions were sometimes combined with Christianity to create a unique religious culture. Slaves used various methods to demonstrate their hatred of the slave system that had been thrust on them. Many owners reported examples of broken tools, stolen supplies, and imagined illnesses.

Slaves were used in other colonies as well. The most oppressive conditions for slaves existed in South Carolina, where they were used to harvest rice. Overwork and mosquito-borne epidemics caused thousands of slaves to die an early death there.

Slave owners lived in fear of slave revolts, which occasionally did occur. The most famous slave uprising occurred near Charleston, South Carolina, in 1739 and was called the Stono Rebellion. Nearly 100 slaves took up arms and killed several plantation owners before they were killed or captured and executed. The effect of the rebellion was that slaves were treated more harshly than they had been before.

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