400 Years since Slavery in the United States

Shomit Sengupta

Shomit Sengupta

How did slavery actually begin in America? Who started it? and how did it end? In this article, we explore the unexplored and try to get a bird’s eye view of the last 500 years with regards to slavery. To read more such short stories, please visit our library.

On a dark and stormy night in August 1619, an English ship arrived at the British colony of Jamestown, Virginia with 20 Africans. They were to be used as laborers on the vast tobacco, rice, and Indigo plantations along the southern coast of America. Thus began a widely adopted practice in which millions of Africans were kidnapped from their homes, put on a ship and sailed to the British American colonies of Maryland, Virginia and Georgia to be used as laborers on the plantation sites. In order to ensure that the African denizens remained dependent on them for their survival, the British colonists put in place draconian laws aimed at preventing their captives from ever learning to read or write. Furthermore, their movements were greatly restricted and those that were able to muster the courage to run away, were caught and brutally tortured. Why were the Africans chosen for such a heinous trade? To understand this, we would need to digress from our main topic, just for a bit.

To be fair, it’s not the British but the Portuguese and Spanish that began the practice of enslaving Africans for labor in the western colonies of south America. In the late 15th century, Spanish and Portuguese travelers set off on expeditions funded by their Kings, to explore the world west of Europe in search of land and treasures. One such traveler was an Italian explorer by the name of Christopher Columbus, who is famed for having “discovered” America in 1492. All he ever wanted to do was find a direct water route from west of Europe to Asia… but he never did. Instead, he bumped into the Bahamas – the eastern most point of the Americas. Before this discovery, the Americas existed as a solitary land all by itself. Neither did the Americans know of any other continent, nor did the rest of the world know of their existence.

Upon reaching America, Columbus’ crew discovered that American land was way more fertile than their own land, and thus crops like Tobacco, and Rice could be bountifully produced and transported back home. Word of this spread throughout Europe and over the next hundred years, Portuguese and Spanish conquerors plundered two of the largest South American civilizations – The Aztec civilization (present day Mexico) and the Inca Civilization (present day Ecuador, Bolivia, Columbia, Chile, and Peru) – thereby ruining those civilizations to the point of extinction. And whom did these Spanish and Portuguese conquerors use to achieve their objectives? That’s right, the Africans!

Thus, Africans were transported first to Central America and South America to be used as laborers by the Spanish and Portuguese Colonists, and hundred years later, to North America (present day USA) by the British. Why Africans? Simply because –

  1. West Africa was close to major seaports, and was geographically located at a point equidistant from both the United States as well as South America
  2.  Laborers from west African countries were more familiar with the agricultural methods needed for the mass cultivation of high labor- intensive crops such as Rice and tobacco.
  3. Africa was more easily accessible by the Europeans than was Asia, which required one to embark on a far more perilous journey.

And thus, began the greatest system of racial discrimination that the world would ever see.

Now that we’ve understood why Africans were chosen as laborers on the plantations of Virginia, Georgia and Maryland, let’s get back to where we left off. So, the British simply wanted to make money by growing crops and selling it to markets back home. And to grow their plantation business, they needed millions of laborers to toil in the fields. Hence, in the years to come, the southern parts of modern-day United States became increasingly dependent on labor-intensive agriculture to sustain their economic growth.

Slavery in the United States can be divided into 2 prominent eras – the pre-independence era and the post-independence era.

Pre-independence era (1619 to 1776) – During this period, USA was under British rule, and hence slavery grew in tandem with British needs. Tobacco plantations thrived in this era as the British did everything under their control to produce large quantities of tobacco and sell the produce to the markets back home. Gradually, slavery became an indispensable part of the American economy as tremendous manpower was required to sustain the level of tobacco production in the British-American colonies. However, during the 1750s, a new kind of ideology started developing in the north – one that viewed slavery as an evil that must be abolished. The plight and suffering of the Africans in the southern states further added fuel to this abolitionist ideology.

However, before anything could be done about slavery, the Americans would have to overthrow the British to be able to take matters into their own hands. Protests against the British crown gained momentum during the 1760s and 1770s, when the colonizers imposed hefty taxes on the American citizens as a way to recover some funds to pay off debt. The Americans refused, by arguing that since they had no representation in the constitution (which comprised solely of British representatives), they would not pay taxes to the government. This led to a series of revolutionary wars that ultimately resulted in the declaration of independence on July 4th, 1776. As per the Declaration of Independence, the 13 American colonies that were under British rule would sever their political connections to Great Britain. The United States of America was thus created.

Post-independence period (1776 to 1865) – Following the declaration of independence, most northern states abolished slavery within their borders as their economy didn’t depend on slave labor as did the south’s. By the year 1804, slavery was a thing of the past in the North; however, it still largely existed in the southern states. According to a 1790 US census, 35% of the population of Georgia, 40% of the population of Virginia and 43% of the population of South Carolina were slaves. Thus, the South continued to rely on slavery for economic growth until the great civil war of the 1860s, which resulted in the eradication of slavery.

The Civil war During the 1850s, tension between the northern and southern states grew to an extent that by the year 1861, seven southern states had broken off from the Union and formed their own independent country – the Confederate States of America. Shortly after, a civil war erupted between the union and the confederate states provoked by the confederate forces firing shots at Fort Sumter, where Union troops had stationed themselves. By the end of 1861, the confederates were 11 states strong, after four more states hastily decided to withdraw from the union.  While the Union fought the civil war to put an end to slavery, the confederates fought for enslavement.

The Emancipation proclamation of 1863 – Two years into the civil war, Abraham Lincoln passed this historic law that granted freedom to slaves in those confederate states that were involved in active rebellion against the Union. Furthermore, he gave the freed slaves the option to enlist in the Union army, something that was deemed unimaginable until that point. As the gears of public sentiment on slavery gradually shifted during the Civil war, the Lincoln administration hit the final nail on the coffin of Slavery on Jan 31st 1865, with the release of the 13th amendment to the United States Constitution (Amendment XIII). From here on in, slavery would merely be a chapter in history books.

Post – abolishment phase – Over the next five years, the congress passed two more amendments to the US constitution which gave African American citizens the rights of American citizenship and then the right to vote. However, despite these progressive measures, white supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan among others, made life a living hell for the Africans. Lynching became increasingly common in the south and the infamous Jim Crow laws (a bunch of laws aimed at ensuring that African-Americans remained inferior politically, economically, and socially to the whites) took effect from the late 19th century all the way till 1965, when they were finally scrapped.

It’s really unfortunate how the African race was systematically downgraded over several centuries, not for any wrong of theirs but simply because they were at the wrong place (geographically, West Africa’s proximity to ports as well as to the European continent made Africa a highly convenient source for procuring laborers) at the wrong time (during the European exploratory era of the late 15th century). Not that they ever had a choice, it was but an unfortunate coincidence. Four centuries of African slave trade changed the course of Africa’s economic development. By 1850, Africa’s population was only 50% of what it would have been if slave trade had not occurred. Population stagnation invariably caused the African economy to permanently settle at a point far lower on average compared to its peers. The economic and social impacts of slavery are felt even today, 155 years after its abolishment.

This probably goes to show that the economic plight and social sufferings of people are not always due to their personal incompetence. More often than not, they are a result of decades, and perhaps centuries of oppression and deprivation that eventually creates a gap so large that in order to fill it, the victim must work extra hard compared to his peers. AND HE IS SURE TO PREVAIL.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Ufaque

    So very informative! Great read 🙂

  2. Sagar

    Great piece of Information….

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