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Slave ship Amistad off Culloden Point, Long Island, NY, oil by unknown artist, 1839
Photo courtesy of New Haven Colony Historical Society and Adams National Historic Site
An estimated 12 million Africans were transported across the Atlantic to the Western Hemisphere from 1450 to 1850.  Of this number, about five percent were brought to British North America and, later, to the United States, most of them arriving between 1680 and 1810.  A small number of Africans went first to the British West Indies and then to North America. 1

Africans were present while North and South America were explored and expropriated as European colonies (1500s-1700s), but their roles and status varied from Mexico to Brazil to the Carolinas and New Amsterdam. 2   Bonded labor, common both in Europe and Africa, declined in Europe while it became more important in Africa after trade with Europe was established.  At the end of the 14th century Europeans, primarily the Portuguese and the Spanish, were exploring the west coast of Africa, looking both for trade opportunities and trade routes to the East.  In their interaction with African merchants they began to export small numbers of slaves to their European homelands.  With the exploration and eventual European settling of the New World, however, the trade in African slaves increased rapidly.  Initially Europeans brought only small numbers of Africans to the New World.  Yet as the need for labor grew with increased agricultural, mining, mercantile and other business interests, so too did the number of black slaves, the vast majority of whom were males.  Brazil and the Caribbean had the largest number of imports and for the longest period of time, until the 1880s.  Although most of the figures for the Atlantic slave trade system are imprecise, it is possible to estimate that Brazil received at least 4 million slaves and the islands of the Caribbean, colonized by the French, Dutch, English, Danish and Spanish, as well as Spain's mainland possessions, received at least 5.5 million. The mainland United States, as colonies and nation, imported about 450,000 slaves over a 250 year period.  Slavery in this country began, then, as part of a long history of international trade in goods and people in Europe and in Africa. 3

[Photo] C. 1840 engraving by J.W. Barber of the Mende's confinement aboard the slave ship Amistad
Photo courtesy of Connecticut Historical Society

Europeans divided the slave trade into three geographic regions--Upper Guinea, Lower Guinea and Angola.  More than three-fifths of the slaves brought to the Chesapeake were from the Gold Coast or the Bight of Biafra.  Many Sierra Leonians went to Carolina where they were outnumbered there by Angolans.  Senegambians were prominent in both the Carolinas and Louisiana.  Rivalries between ethnic and tribal groups, raids by North Africans and local soldiers, and piracy on the rivers of the African coast provided the majority of captured Africans. 4

Traditionally, the entry of Africans into British North America is dated from the 1619 sale of some 20 blacks from a Dutch ship in Virginia. Although there were undoubtedly other Africans in those regions which later became part of the United States, slavery as it developed in British North America and was continued in the American republic can be traced to what happened in the Chesapeake in the 1600s.  For the first few decades, the status of Africans was uncertain.  Some were treated as indentured servants and freed after a term of service, often 14 years.  Others were kept on in servitude because their labor was needed, and it was too tempting for aspiring planters not to take advantage of the vulnerable black laborers.  By the 1640s, court decisions began to reflect a different standard for Africans than for white servants and to accept the concept of lifetime black servitude. In the 1660s, Virginia decreed that a child followed the status of its mother, thus making lifetime servitude inheritable. A series of court decisions from the 1660s forward locked slavery into place in the Chesapeake and its existence was not questioned in the later development of the Carolinas. 5  Georgia resisted briefly and then accepted the institution. Slave law to the north of the Chesapeake did not differ significantly. 6

[Photo] Newspaper ad c. 1780 for the sale of slaves at Ashley Ferry outside of Charleston, South Carolina
Photo courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-10293 DLC
Many blacks who arrived in the New World were familiar with bonded labor. Slavery in Africa, as elsewhere, was not a static institution.  European trade rivalries and the European view of North and South America as a site for aggrandizing their power through mineral extraction and staple crop production caused great escalation in the numbers of Africans enslaved and brought to the Americas.  Trade rivalries also caused tremendous changes in the status and functions of the enslaved.  The desire and, eventually, the need of West Africans to trade with Europeans in order to gain access to their weapons and other prized goods escalated their involvement in the slave trade to such an extent that they could no longer draw on the reserve of slaves that they traditionally had in their societies. 7 While there was a general protocol in which representatives of trading companies negotiated with African rulers through middlemen, the actual methods of the traders varied greatly.  As the trade became more lucrative with greater demand from the New World, more and more slaves were stolen through armed raids. The slave trade also had immense impact on the developing economies of the New World and the changing economies of western Europe.  It was the foundation for European mercantilism and industry in the 17th and 18th centuries, the labor force for colonial agriculture, and a prime force in the growth of the shipbuilding industry. 8

By the time a body of law regarding slavery was firmly in place, a number of free blacks who had escaped permanent bondage through indenture lived throughout the colonies.  They married--other free blacks, slaves, American Indians, occasionally European servant women--and raised families. This, in addition to African sailors and free black arrivals from the West Indies, constituted the core of the free black class in the colonies. 9

"Auction & Negro Sales," Whitehall St., Atlanta, Georgia, 1864
Photo courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-B8171-3608 DLC

Lifetime bondage, or slavery, was firmly and legally established in the British North American colonies by the late 1600s and continued to exist in every colony in some form until the American Revolution.  The period of greatest importation of slaves into the United States was from approximately 1680 to the start of the Revolutionary War in 1776. There were a scattering of bondspeople in New England and, moving southward, the number of slaves increased from New York through Virginia, while a system of plantation slavery similar to that of the Caribbean developed in eastern South Carolina and Georgia.  In the Carolinas and Georgia, importation began about 1720 and continued until the slave trade became illegal in 1808. There slaves were acquired through  the low country ports of Charleston and Savannah or in the other major slave market, the Gulf Coast port of New Orleans.  New Orleans, controlled by the French and the Spanish in this period, imported most heavily while the American colonials were at war and continued through the early 1800s as an import market for the rising Cotton Kingdom. 10

When British North America severed ties with England, the slave trade between West Africa, the British West Indies, and North America was also officially severed, but colonial American merchant shipping was prepared to expand its role and replace the British.  At the same time, in the Revolutionary Era, the public debate in favor of liberty from England strengthened arguments against the slave trade and human bondage.  When legal codes were changed during the American Revolution, both the Continental Congresses and the individual states took the opportunity to condemn and restrict the slave trade.  Reasons for condemning the slave trade varied.  It was increasingly attacked as a moral evil by religious and benevolent societies; parts of the South feared slave insurrection if the numbers of Africans grew to be much greater than the white population; it appeared that the enslaved population could sustain itself and increase in numbers without significant importations.  To end the slave trade, however, was not necessarily to favor an end to slavery.  Here the colonies divided.

[Photo] Abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher, c. 1860, auctioning a young slave girl, Pinky, from the pulpit of Plymouth Church in New York.
Photograph from National Historic Landmarks collection

Since the Americans had argued for natural rights in their Declaration of Independence, there was some sentiment for ending the slave trade, although less political will for ending slavery.  Ultimately, the Constitution did not follow up on the implications for "liberty" offered in the Declaration of Independence.  The Constitutional compromise of 1787 put an end to the slave trade by 1808, but the Constitution and the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 confirmed the rights of slaveholders to their property. Section 2, Article 4 of the Constitution referred to slavery without naming it when it said, "No person held to service or labour in one state, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labour, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labour may be due."

After the American Revolution, Abolition Societies were formed in every part of the United States.  The American antislavery movement was modeled on the English antislavery movement from the adoption of the Constitution in 1787 until the 1820s.  English reformers, led by Quakers, evangelicals and certain politicians, had organized in 1787 to abolish English participation in the international slave trade.  The British reformers ended the slave trade by 1807 and ended slavery by 1833, with compensation to owners. The Americans followed the British example of advocating the gradual and compensated abolition of slavery.  But it was the activities of American free blacks and the resistance to slavery by American slaves that provided the movement with its most tireless workers and its best reason for persisting.

Above essay excerpted from the Underground Railroad Resources in the United States National Historic Landmarks Theme Study. Related information about The African Squadron: The U.S. Navy and the Slave Trade, 1920-1862 can be found on the Mystic Seaport, The Museum of America and the Sea website.


1  Phillip Curtin, The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969), 18.

2  For a summary of these diverse experiences, see Brenda Stevenson, "From Bondage to Freedom: Slavery in America," in Underground Railroad , (Handbook 156, Division of Publications, National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C., 1998.)

3  John Thornton. Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1680 .  (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992), xv.  See also  Donald R. Wright, African Americans in the Colonial Era: From African Origins Through the American Revolution (Arlington Heights, Ill.: Harland Davidson, Inc., 1990).

4  James Rawley, The Transatlantic Slave Trade: A History (New York: W.W. Norton, 1981), 17-18. See also Philip Curtin, Steven Feierman, Leonard Thompson and Jan Vansina, African History (New York: Longman, 1991);  Patrick Manning, Slavery and African Life: Occidental, Oriental, and African Slave Trades . (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990). 62-85.

5  Edmund Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia  (New York: W.W. Norton, 1975), 299-311; Winthrop Jordan, The White Man's Burden: Historical Origins of Racism in the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974), 26-54.

6  James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton, In Hope of Liberty: Culture, Community and Protest Among Northern Free Blacks, 1700-1860 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), 5-12.

7  Thornton, 116-125.

8  Rawley, The Transatlantic Slave Trade, 247.

9  For the origins of northern free blacks, see James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton, In Hope of Liberty , Ch. 1-2.  For a Chesapeake example, see T.H. Breen and Steven Innis, " Mynne Owne Ground": Race and Freedom on Virginia's Eastern Shore, 1640-1676 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980).

10  Curtin, The Atlantic Slave Trade, 83; Daniel C. Littlefield, "The Slave Trade to Colonial South Carolina: A Profile," South Carolina Historical Magazine 91 (1990): 68-99; Susan Westbury, "Slaves of Colonial Virginia: Where They Came From," William and Mary Quarterly 3rd Series 42 (1985): 228-237.

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