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The Slave Trade

"Auction & Negro Sales," Whitehall St.
Photo courtesy Library of Congress (No. 0707)

Resistance to lifetime servitude began with the first Africans forcibly brought to the Western Hemisphere in the 1500s, and resistance continued until the last emancipations in the Americas. For the former British colonies which became the United States, colonial-era resistance and early antislavery activities are the base on which the Underground Railroad was built. Without resistance, there would have been no need for the extensive legal codes which upheld property rights in human beings or for the brutal intimidation which always existed just beneath the surface of this coercive social system.

The circumstances which gave rise to the Underground Railroad were based on the transportation of Africans to North America as part of the Atlantic slave trade. About twelve million Africans were transported across the Atlantic to the Western Hemisphere from 1619 to 1850. Of this number, only about five per cent were brought to British North America and, later, to the United States from Africa, most of them arriving between 1680 and 1808. Varied forms of bonded labor had existed in Europe and Africa, but as the need for labor grew in the New World's plantations and mines, the importation of unwilling Africans also grew. In early North America, the system of lifetime servitude, or slavery, was supported by an elaborate and severe legal code based on race. A few Africans slipped through that legal net and were free, but not many.

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