A House Divided

Slavery existed in the British colonies in America prior to the 1775 American Revolution and clearly prior to the 1787 United States Constitution.[1] The primary cause of the 1861-1865 US Civil War war was slavery. Slave labour underlay the entire Southern economy and plantation culture, which were both quite different from the North. The 1776 Declaration of Independence noted that 'all men are created equal and have certain unalienable Rights'. In 1857, the US Supreme Court, however, found in the Dred Scott case that Blacks were not included as citizens as defined by the Constitution and therefore had no right to its protection. The same Court further ruled that Blacks were indeed private property and therefore their slave owners were protected under the Constitution. There was considerable tension between northern and southern states over the perceived hypocrisy of slavery in a country dedicated to democracy.

Louisiana Purchase: 1803


Slave-state status: 1861


American slave states: 1863


The Purchase created opportunity to expand a slave-based economy in new states


Slave states are in red and free states are in blue: five slave states stayed in the Union


Emancipation addressed Confederate states in red not Union slave states in blue


The 1787 American Constitution had avoided the controversial issue of slavery by including four provisions prohibiting slave trading but allowing historical slavery to continue for 20 years (to 1808). The political reality, however, was that the slave states were a majority and that date passed with slavery intact. The 1803 Louisiana Purchase confused the domestic slave issue by enabling the potential expansion of slavery into the new territories. Such an expansion would increase their majority and further protect the slave-owners' majority. As a final weapon, as early as 1820 Southern leaders threatened to secede from the Union over threats to abolish or limit their profitable slavery. The 1820 political issue was a petition to allow the new territory of Missouri to join the US as a slave state, which was finally allowed, but which initiated a Compromise law prohibiting slavery in the remaining Louisiana Purchase area. Suspicion and distrust over the limit to states' rights grew through the 1840s and 1850s, until open challenges to continued slavery were made in the press and in Congress.

In 1861, eleven slave-owning states seceded from the Union, five border, slave states joined 19 free states in opposing the Secession. Virginia's secession was challenged by western Virginia counties which were recognised as the new state of West Virginia in 1863. Civil war broke out between the North and South in 1861. The War began in South Carolina and resulted in at least 618,000 dead. US President Abraham Lincoln issued Proclamations in 1862 and 1863, which declared the freedom of all slaves in any of the 11 states comprising the rebellious Confederate States of America, The Emancipation Proclamation was deemed only a limited war measure and thus some slavery continued until 1865 when it was officially abolished by an amendment of the American Constitution.

Origins of Slavery

The enslavement of people from west Africa by European and African traders, and their mass transportation to the Americas was known as the transatlantic Slave Trade. Slavery was hardly new, it wasn't even invented in either Africa, or Europe. More likely slaves were first used in Sumeria and by ancient civilizations of Asia, Africa, Europe, as well as pre-Columbian America. Slavery was endorsed by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and reference can be found in the Bible, Talmud, and Koran. Presumably the first slaves were captured enemy soldiers who had become the 'property' of kings, or priests.

Since slavery dates back to the development of farming (c8000 BC) there is little doubt that slaves were used in farm work and became important to the development of civilisation. Given their practical utility in freeing others for specialised work, slaves were also bought and sold, or resulted from family breakdowns, and kidnapping of children. In south-eastern Europe Slavia translates to 'slave' implying that area as a source of slaves for centuries. Similarly, the Irish raided Britain for slaves, and the later Vikings freely bought and sold slaves. In 73 BC Spartacus convinced 69 fellow gladiators to rebel and escape their Roman confinement. Their early victories evidently persuaded c60,000 others to join their revolt, convincingly underlining man's natural desire for freedom - despite their inevitable defeat, with 6,000 crucified.

The Greeks and Romans apparently thought more about humanity than other civilisations and had mixed feelings about keeping slaves. Rome was built on slavery but both the Cynics and the Stoics rejected slavery as contrary to justice, and even contrary to the unity of the human race. Some Roman jurists even believed that slavery was contrary to nature and maintained only by man's law. Philo, the Alexandrian Jewish philosopher, claimed that the Jewish Essenes actually renounced slavery in practice. Philo said '...not a single slave is to be found among them, but all are free, exchanging services with each other, and they denounce the owners of slaves...'. While the Arabs encouraged slavery, their status was governed under the Koran.

Slaves were excluded from religious functions and from any office involving jurisdiction over others. A slave's testimony was not admitted at judicial proceedings. In penal law, the penalty for an offense against a person was half of that for a freeman. While maltreatment was deplored, there was no fixed shari'a penalty. The slave was a chattel with no legal powers or rights. He could not enter into a contract, hold property, or inherit. If he incurred a fine, his owner was responsible. Islamic jurists took account of humanitarian considerations. They laid down, for example, that a master must give his slave medical attention when required, must give him adequate upkeep, and must support him in his old age. If a master defaulted on these obligations to his slave, the law could compel him to fulfill them or to sell or free the slave. A slave could enter into a contract to earn his freedom.[2]

The Danes and Norwegian Vikings were expert slave traders. The Viking slave trade was driven by the development of Afghani gold mines by the Caliph's Muslims. The Arab's new-found wealth was a perfect solution for Scandinavian fur-traders, who soon discovered a market for white slaves from Europe. The Vikings pursued the Arab trade of gold for slaves into Russia and down the Volga.

The Spanish Problem

When Christopher Columbus landed in 1492 on Hispaniola he reported that he '...found very many islands filled with people without number.' The colonists soon numbered 12,000 and the Taino Indians were extinct before 1560! In 1497, the Spanish introduced the Encomienda, which transferred all the Indies' land to the Spanish colonists. The native Indians living there were forced to pay labour, or money, to the new owners and became instant slaves. The Spaniards became power mad and forced the Indians into a living hell.

They were described by the Spanish priest Las Casas as falling 'like wolves upon the fold.' They slaughtered 'everyone they found there [in Indian villages], including small children, old men, pregnant women, and even women who had just given birth.' 'They hacked them to pieces, slicing open their bellies with their swords as though they were so many sheep herded into a pen.' Las Casas said that the Spanish fed their victims to their dogs, or roasted them alive. When an enslaved Indian could carry something no further, 'they cut his head from his shoulders so they would not have to break the chains that held the line of prisoners together'.[3]

Unsurprisingly, the short-sighted treatment by the Spaniards caused the native birthrate to fall precipitously at the same time the death rate was headed in the opposite direction. The Indian population on Hispaniola has been estimated to have been 4,000,000 in the 1490s and yet the Spanish had to import Africans by 1503 due to a labour shortage.[4] To make matters worse for the Spaniards, Queen Isabella of Castile established the policy that Indians who accepted Christianity were to be free Spanish citizens. (Those who didn't could be sold into slavery.) But like other subjects, the Indios were to pay royal tribute, which could be in the form of labor. With so few colonists, Indian labor was deemed a necessity, which could teach the Indians useful European habits. Isabella's solution was the encomienda, which was a labor system.[5] The deserving Spaniards would use Indians for mining or farming and would feed the Indians, bring them to Christ, and defend them. Unsurprisingly, the conquistadors were tough ex-soldiers, merchants, or convicts, "nobodies who wanted to become somebodies," and they weren't very Christian. The Indians had an unreasonable reaction to this regime and did not want to be either Christians, or slaves.

The wave of immigrant Spaniards brought other gifts with them. In 1518, Cuba and Hispaniola were devastated by a smallpox epidemic. Spain had enough men to operate in Europe, but not enough to build and farm a new world. By 1548 there were 35 sugar mills operating on Hispaniola and sugar is a labour-intensive crop. The Portuguese had introduced African slaves to Spain and they quickly became the clear solution. In 1505, King Ferdinand sent 17 slaves to Hispaniola to ' getting gold for me.' He sent a further 250 in 1510, and in 1513 he claimed a tax on every slave sold to the Indies. In 1518, Charles V agreed to ship slaves directly from Africa; and the principal suppliers were the Portuguese. By 1600, 75,000 captive slaves had been shipped into the Spanish Main. Sadly for the native Indians the Africans brought more diseases. The Caribbean peoples suffered from smallpox, leprosy, typhus, measles, mumps, influenza, miosis, yaws, a selection of worms, bilharziasis, diarrhea, dysentery, sleeping sickness, African trypanosomiasis, tuberculosis, etc.[6]

Fortunes were to be made in the New World, especially in the Caribbean and Brazil in the harvesting of sugar cane. The majority of African slaves were imported into the Spanish Caribbean and Portuguese Brazil to work on sugar plantations. (Later English slaves in the Chesapeake area grew tobacco, and much later American slaves grew cotton.) The Europeans instituted slavery in the Americas, because they had already killed off the natives. This seems to hold true for both Central and South America, the Caribbean, and also North America. The Africans were unhappy with their new role and the first riots began in 1522.

The Planters

The planters had a their own views of slavery and its uses. The following accounts are documented as shown and seem typical of the times. These men controlled power in America, since they created wealth for the colonies and states through their produce and market strategies. attitudes were unchanged through the American Civil War.

William Byrd was a wealthy, English colonist in Virginia in the early 1700s. He wrote a letter in 1726, quoted below by Gerald Mullins in his book Flight and Rebellion. Although Byrd's view may have been the exception that seems unlikely, given the body of evidence. Byrd's letter gives insight into the existence of slavery. Similar evidence suggests that the Spanish were even less likely to do the extensive work themselves to clear land and raise crops. European colonial attitudes were predicated on the existence of their control of power and the potential free labour. The inescapable choice became captured, or purchased, Africans. The Portuguese first met the demand for African slaves, but they were soon joined by English, Spanish, French, Dutch, various Italian city-states, the Danes, and Germans. The current estimate is that twenty-five million Africans were removed from their lands by force and half of those were taken to the Americas.

Besides the advantage of pure Air, we abound in all kinds of Provisions without expense (I mean we who have Plantations). I have a large Family of my own, and my Doors are open to Everybody, yet I have no Bills to pay, and half-a-Crown will rest undisturbed in my Pocket for many Moons together. Like one of the Patriarchs, I have my Flocks and my Herds, my Bond-men and Bond-women, and every Soart of Trade amongst my own Servants, so that I live in a kind of Independence on everyone but Providence. However this Soart of Life is without expense, yet it is attended with a great deal of trouble. I must take care to keep all my people to their Duty, to set all the Springs in motion and make every one draw his equal Share to carry the Machine forward. But then 'tis an amusement in this silent Country and a continual exercise of our Patience and Economy.

Ira Berlin and his colleagues documented the impact of President Lincoln's anti-slave policy through the American Civil War years. They recorded the views of the slaves themselves, as well as participants in the War whose documents impacted on the Slave issues. The Union Army tried to stay out of the detail of slavery, but many became involved as the slaves themselves pushed for their own freedom. The excerpt below is based on details come from a formal, sworn and signed affidavit by Archy Vaughn, a Tennessee freedman, taken at Memphis, Tennessee, dated 13 September 1865. The incident was witnessed by five names: no apparent redress action was taken. The following was transcribed as written.[7]

Last spring [1864] I was living with Bartlet Ciles about 8 miles from Somerville - near McCulloughs and one eving some Confederate soldiers or Guerillas came along and he told me to feed their horses. and I was at the barn gitting corn. and staied longer than he thought I should and when I went back to the house - he told me he was going to whip me in the morning - that night I took an old mare and went to the ferry across Wolf River. I was going to Laffayette Depot to get into the federal lines and Andrew Johnson who lives close to the ferry. took me and kept me until Billy Simons came along and gave me to him to carry me back to Bartlet Ciles. When he Ciles took me down to the woods. and tied my hands, and pulled them over my knees and put a stick through under my knees. and then took his knife and castrated me and cut a lop of my left ear, he made a colored man named Dallas help hold me - he drove me off from his plantation some time in June - I think.

African Slave Sources


12,000,000 African slaves for the Americas


The people themselves were collected inland in Central Africa from tribal chiefs (as captured enemies), or by their captors (often the Portuguese), and marched in chains to the coast - up to 1,000 miles distant.  On arrival the slaves were branded and locked in kraals (fenced compounds) to be fattened while the ship was made ready and the trip organised.  They did not all survive (up to 98% died and an average of 15% died in transit and more en-route to the ships) but even so between 1700 and 1740 approximately 50,000 slaves arrived in the Chesapeake area alone, and two-thirds of these were men.  Some slavers specialised in women and girls as young as ten were captured in their thousands.  In America c1725 sixty percent of the slaves had been born in Africa, but by 1750 native Africans dropped to 30 percent. They '...had proved a prolifick people'.[8]

Europeans shippers were unwelcome inland, where Africans had networks for supplying slaves and moving them to the coast. In West Africa, Muslim families organised slave caravans and moved to the coast. Perhaps one-third of all slaves came from 800 km (500 mi) on either side of the Congo River and another one-third from the area that today is Benin and Nigeria.  Along the Gold and Slave coasts (an area now comprising the nations of Ghana, Togo, Benin, and Nigeria), the rulers of large states such as Ashanti, Dahomey, and Oyo obtained slaves through tribute. Slaves were provided by the rulers of less powerful states in exchange for protection or as a symbol of allegiance. The establishment of sugar plantations in the West Indies led the British, French, and Dutch, to claim larger parts of the slave trade from Portuguese during the 1640s, and by the eighteenth century the British were the dominant slave traders.

The slaver ship captains were given funds to buy goods to barter Africans from their own, or warring, tribal chiefs to create an aura of legality.  Initially men were bought with cowrie shells, cotton materials, tobacco, or liquor.  Pompous clerics praised the contribution made by slaves to the Empire and sought their conversion to Christianity.  But nothing could redeem the demeaning process of being displayed, branded like cattle with a hot iron, and sold for about £15 in the West Indies in the 1650s.  About 3,000 slaves were sold annually in the Barbados in the mid-seventeenth century.  The costs to the slave-dealer were low and included £5 of initial goods for the original purchase and an additional £5 for the costs of shipping and feeding.

Ira Berlin recounts a horror story about the failures of the Middle Passage - the voyage from Africa to America.[9] Planters wanted strong, young men in preference to women, but even before these slaves left their assembly compound in Africa many had already died en- route to the departure. The voyage up the Mississippi was often long and more died after seeing America for the first time. Handling was organised by private companies, who often failed to feed the slaves on arrival and so more died of starvation. The Africans who survived these challenges still had to face a new harsh environment, wars, disease, and harsh labour.

The nightmarish voyage of the Venus offers sobering evidence of the fate of many of the Africans whom French slave traders packed off to Louisiana. Of the 450 slaves loaded aboard the Venus in Africa in April 1729, only 363 reached the Mississippi River. Another forty-three succumbed before they disembarked in New Orleans. According to officials, the remaining slaves were so disease-ridden that 'more than two-thirds of those who were sold at auction into the hands of the inhabitants ... died' soon thereafter.

Advances in ship design and navigation enabled European traders to travel reliably to Africa. The Portuguese were the first to begin capturing Africans and taking them back to Europe as slaves. Spanish traders took the first African slaves to America in 1503. Over the next century the slave trade developed as a lucrative commercial system. Traders exported manufactured goods to west Africa where the goods were exchanged for captive slaves from African merchants. Slaves were rounded up by African chiefs as defeated enemies, or tribal criminals

“...imprisoned from head to feet, below the deck, locked in from outside, where they see neither sun nor moon, and there is no Spaniard who dares to stick his head in the hatch without becoming ill.. so great is the stench, the crowding and the misery of  that place.” (account from 1627).[10]

The Portuguese established stockades for 6,000 on the Cape Verde Islands as 'holding pens' prior to further transportation to either America, or Europe. The popes had earlier divided the world between the Spanish and Portuguese, and King John II authorised the sinking of all foreign ships off the coast of Guinea and the throwing of their crews overboard.[11] After Portuguese interests shifted to Asian spices, the Portuguese became over-stretched. By 1534 French corsairs from Dieppe had caused havoc by raiding Portuguese caravels off Africa. It was this type of interference which had led the Portuguese and Spanish to great secrecy of their maps and trade sources.

New World Slave Trade

European migration to the Americas is fixed in schools as a flood, dwarfing the native Indians and African slaves. By 1820 2.5 million Europeans had migrated to the Americas compared with 8.5 million Africans! Of those Africans 90% were shipped to Brazil, the Caribbean, and South America. The 1860 US census showed a slave population of ~4,000,000 in 15 states in which slavery was legal. Unquestionably their labour shaped the Americas and thus the impacted on the world. Sadly many of their lives were an unrelieved hell.

The slaves were transported across the Atlantic and sold for huge profits in the Americas. The slaves were kept in the ship's hold in specially built ships with platform layers at 1m 14 cms (3' 9") heights: they were not allowed to stand or relieve themselves privately for months. 'They are frequently stored so close, as to admit of no other posture than lying on their sides.'[12] The smell would have been unbelievable, and disease spread rapidly in the foetid hold and many died before reaching land. By the end of the 18th century Britain had come to dominate the trade, with around 150 slave ships leaving Liverpool, Bristol, and London each year. There were 27,000 known slave voyages. Sick slaves were thrown overboard to drown, and in one case 133 Africans were thrown overboard, to allow the ship master to file a false insurance claim. These numbers deal only with African slaves and no count has been made of the native Indians, an estimated 98% of whom were either killed off by disease, or who died as slaves.

Outline Chronology






1441   Portuguese captured 12 Berbers brought to Lisbon as slaves.   1672   Royal African Company granted monopoly for British slaves.
1444   Portuguese captured 235 Tuaregs brought to Lisbon as slaves.   1676  

Revolt in Virginia - again in 1831.

1446   Africans ambush and kill 21 Portuguese on slaving raid.   1688   Pennsylvanian Quakers protested slavery.
1448   Portuguese adapt from capture to purchase slaves, about 1,000 Africans sent to Portugal.   1700   Est 1,574,000 Africans shipped to Americas.
1452   Pope Nicholas V authorised Portugal to enslave Africans.   1712  

Revolt in New York - again in 1741.

1455   Captain John Lok captured slaves in Sierra Leone and first sold Africans in England.   1739  

Revolt in South Carolina.

1479   Spain granted Portugal right to supply slaves to Spain.   1751  

Slavery legalised in Georgia.

1482   Portugal built a fortess São Jorge da Mina on the Gold Coast of Ghana to hold slaves.   1775   British Governor of Virginia offered freedom to slaves who fought for Crown.
1502   African slaves brought to Hispaniola.   1777  

Vermont abolished slavery.

1511   Spanish priest complained about treatment of Indians slaves.   1778  

5,000 former African slaves served in US military.

1522   Slaves rebelled, in 1523, 1527, 1537, 1546, 1552, 1612, on Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, in Mexico, Venezuela, Brazil, etc.   1807  

Slavery abolished in Great Britain.

1542   Spain abolished Indian slavery.   1808   US Congress prohibited US involvement in slave trade.
1550   Portugal imported African slaves to Brazil.   1821  

Liberia founded by America for former slaves.

1559   Portugal legalized slaves for Brazilian plantations.   1833   Slavery abolished in British Empire.
1595   Spain contracted slave supply for colonies.   1839  

Slaves revolt on Amistead ship - again in 1841 on Creole.

1617   Runaway slaves in Mexico granted charter for town of San Lorenzo de los Negros.   1862  

Slavery abolished in Washington DC, USA.

1619   Dutch imported 20 Africans to Jamestown.   1863  

Lincoln issued Emancipation Proclamation.

1641   Massachusetts gave legal status to slavery.   1865  

US Congress abolished slavery.

1662   Virginia declared a slave's child follows the mother's status.   1866  

US Congress gave equal citizenship rights.

Approximately 12 million people were seized and forcibly taken from Africa to the New World as slaves via the Atlantic slave trade. Nearly eight million additional Africans died en route to the Americas before slavery was stopped.  Slave traders transported most of these slaves to tropical and subtropical America, where most worked as labourers on large agricultural plantations. The majority went to Brazil, the Caribbean, and Spanish-speaking regions of the South and Central Americas. The rest were taken to North America, fewer were detoured to Europe. The Atlantic slave trade involved the largest intercontinental migration of people in world history prior to the 20th century. This transfer of so many people, over such a long time, had enormous consequences for the Atlantic world. It profoundly changed the racial, social, economic, and cultural makeup in many of the American nations that imported slaves. It left a legacy of racism that many nations are still struggling to overcome.

Transatlantic Slavery


Estimated Numbers

British North America   550,000
Spanish America   2,000,000
British Caribbean   2,500,000-3,000,000

French Caribbean

Dutch Caribbean   50,000
Danish Caribbean   50,000
Brazil   4,000,000-5,000,000

~12,000,000 Africans: ~8,000,000 (est) died in transit!@


The survivng numbers of the transatlantic slave trade are estimated at 12 million people. The total number taken from eastern Africa and enslaved in the Arab world is considered to have been between 9.4 and 14 million. The figures are uncertain due to the lack of written records. Despite the obvious profit motive, approximately eight million Africans are thought to have died after capture, in general transit across the 'middle passage' of the Atlantic, due to the inhuman conditions aboard the slave ships and brutal suppression of any resistance. Many additional people captured from the African interior died on the long journey to the coasts. Most of the captured had never seen a white man, had never seen the ocean, had never left their families before, and were in shock. There were additional losses after transhippment in the Caribbean and during the trek to the American plantations or mines. On reaching the plantations, life expectancy was short because of poor diet and the back-breaking work.

Mortality estimates vary, but consensus indicates the following death rates: sixteenth century 40%; seventeenth century 15%; and 10% for both the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.[13] There were an estimated 27,000 known slave voyages, carrying primarily healthy males. From 1680-1688 the Royal African Company shipped 60,783 slaves of whom 14,388 died in the Middle Passage (between Africa and America). The Dutch shipped 111,129 slaves and lost 18,787 from 1700-1739. The Portuguese shipped 170,642 slaves and lost 15,587 from 1795-1811.[14]

The forced removal of 25 million people made Africa's population stagnate or even decline during the slave trade. Some historians have argued that some African kingdoms were more socially and economically advanced than many European countries before 1500. In the 14th century, the West African empire of Mali was larger than Western Europe, and reputed to be one of the richest and most powerful states in the world. Historians continue to debate how and why African kingdoms and traders became so actively involved the slave trade.

Upon capture, or sale, the Africans were often branded to show unmistakably the owner's claim. African slaves who did survive adolescence acquired some immunity to such 'Old World' diseases as smallpox and measles, as well as malaria and yellow fever. This meant they lived three to five times longer than white labourers under the difficult conditions on plantations. The Africans clearly outlived the Native Indians who had died in tens of millions from the European diseases. The difference was apparently, unlike the Indians, the Africans' acquired some immunity to smallpox and some of the other familiar European diseases.

Not only did these up-rooted people have to survive in a world of new diseases, they were separated from their families and forced into degrading work. Moreover, the Africans were trapped in a foreign land. When Africans ran away they could neither go home nor be mistaken for members of the white planters' society. Slaves in the British colonies lived longer than their cousins in the Spanish lands, due to less brutal working conditions and fewer tropical diseases. Whites also died (they were less resistant to humid malarial conditions than either the Indians, or the Africans) in much of the Caribbean - up to 90% - thus creating the basic labour problem for sugar farming.

Slave-Based Farm Crops

Slavery in the Americas really took off with the growth of the Brazilian sugar trade in the sixteenth century.[15] Europeans craved tobacco, and especially cane sugar after they tasted it during the early Crusades in the Middle East. In the Caribbean, sugar-cane plantations had proved the best way to exploit the remarkable growing climate, but that required large numbers of men.  An initial measure was to send convicts from the British jails to the West Indies.  'Scotchmen and Welshmen we esteem the best servants,...' the St Kitts planters observed in 1673, '...and the Irish the worst, many of them being good for nothing but mischief.'[16] Clearly there was a limit to the number and quality of British felons and the huge potential profits drove the British to emulate the Spanish use of African slaves.  African slaves gradually replaced indentured workers from 1650.[17]  The use of Australian territories as British penal colonies was required because of the loss of America which been used earlier for the same purpose.

Although Spain discovered America, in 1682 the English moved west from Charles Town (Charleston), and France claimed the mouth of the Mississippi River in 1699.  The English plantations out-performed the American-Spanish and French-Louisiana farmers.  Economics dominated colonial considerations and with the Indians dying and migrating further west, Europeans imported African slaves. British slave numbers increased from 250,000 in 1790 to 3,000,000 in 1860.[18] For example, British planters imported about 264,000 slaves into the Caribbean between 1640 and 1700, but high mortality rates reduced (killed) the number of slaves on the islands to about 100,000 by the 1700 census. The English moved to Carolina and most planted rice - later indigo and then cotton.  In 1700, blacks were a minority in Carolina; by 1725 whites were a minority.[19] The following table is taken from the US Bureau of the Census.[20]

US Slave Distribution






New Hampshire








Rhode Island


New York


New Jersey










North Carolina








District of Columbia


South Carolina


East Florida




West Florida









British North America imported slaves to grow sugar cane, tobacco, rice, and indigo. After the Revolution Americans grew cotton. The Atlantic slave trade became part of a prosperous trading cycle known as the triangular trade. In the first leg of the triangle, European merchants purchased African slaves with commodities manufactured in Europe or imported from European colonies in Asia. They then sold the slaves in the Caribbean and purchased such easily transportable commodities as sugar, cotton, and tobacco to be sold in Europe. Britain outlawed the slave trade in 1807, as did the United States in 1808.

Slave Life

Whipped: 1863


Upon arrival in the Americas and the Caribbean, there was little respite: slaves were again separated from those they had bonded with, and put to back-breaking work in the sugar, tobacco and cotton industries. Beatings and rapes were commonplace. Slaves working on Caribbean and South American sugar plantations faced higher mortality rates as a result of harsh labour conditions and exposure to tropical diseases. As a result, slave populations in many such areas grew because planters imported a continuous supply of African slaves to speed the production of their crops.

Slave punishments were severe. In Santo Domingo recaptured slaves, absent for 15 or more days, were given 100 lashes and also had a 20 lb weight attached to their leg for one year. Sex with natives was at least a flogging, but in some areas the punishment included cutting off the genitalia. In 1540 one slave was caught after three weeks absence in Costa Rica: he was boiled alive. Visitors often commented on the continual crack of the whip.

More effective than violence was organisation of the slaves into gangs. The gangs were formed on the basis of strength, the strongest tasked on the heaviest and hardest work, of cutting and planting. The next gang carried the cut sugar cane to central points where yet a third gang bundled the canes and loaded it on carts, which carried the canes to a refining factory for boiling. At this point brighter slaves were tasked to crush, boil, distill and barrel the refined sugar for transport to Europe. These gangs were themselves led by hand-picked slaves, who were then rewarded with better food and housing. The work was hard and during the primary season from January to July the slaves were worked from dawn to dusk. The demands of the tobacco crop were less severe as the planations were smaller.

In all areas the native population was used first, but their high mortality rate from European diseases soon killed most of them off. Particularly in Spanish Peru and Chile,as well as well as Portuguese Brazil, the surviving Indians were usually enslaved as additional numbers to the totals shown in the graph. Thomas Pasley, a British sailor, left an account of a visit onto a slaver (ship), describing the conditions of slave transport.[21]

'In my life I have never witnessed anything so shocking. About 450 people were packed into that small vessel as you would pack a bale of goods; and diseases of all sorts became rife with them. One hundred had died before she was taken [captured by the British Navy], and they were and are still dying daily....Some children were in the last stages of emaciation and sores. It was dreadful, and so distressing I could have cried.'

Most slave owners were not inclined to either humanity or charity and the following incident, taken from a Jamaican estate manager's diary, may serve to characterise the life of a slave.

'(25 May 1756) Derby caught by Port Royal [both slaves] eating canes.  Had him well flogged and pickled, then made Henry [another slave] shit in his mouth.'[22]

As James notes, the 'sin' of eating the sugar cane was inevitable because the slaves were being starved! Starvation was later demonstrated by a forensic examination of about one hundred slave skeletons, which revealed an average life expectancy of twenty-nine.[23]

Anti-Slavery Opposition

The movement against slavery began in the late 18th Century. An Englishman, Thomas Clarkson, worked against the trade for more than 50 years, traveling Britain to organise meetings and distribute abolitionist literature. He pioneered a string of tactics - including boycotts of goods - which are still employed by campaign groups today. The publication of 'slave narratives' from writers such as Olaudah Equiano helped to change public perceptions of slavery. British MP William Wilberforce campaigned vociferously against the trade for 35 years and is often given much credit for the parliamentary act banning it in 1807, and the legislation which later freed and gave rights to slaves in British territories in 1833.

As a result of pressure by evangelical English Protestants Britain abolished domestic slavery in 1772 and its own slave trade in 1807: slavery was abolished throughout the British empire in 1833. British anti-slavery leaders included William Wilberforce and Zachary MaCaulay, with support from William Pitt and Henry Brougham. At the 1814-1815 Congress of Vienna, post-Napoleonic peace was established by European statesmen, who included Britain's Lord Castlereagh. Castlereagh used the opportunity to embed the principles of a European 'Balance of Power', and a high level of morality. Castlereagh became convinced that slavery was evil and determined to eliminate the trade. Castlereagh, and his successor Canning, cajoled four major slave-trading powers to accept abolition in principle and committed the British Royal Navy to act as enforcer.[24] Castlereagh gained support for the Congress members to sign a statement condemning the trade and to consider imposing an trade embargo against offending nations. A home for freed slaves was created in Sierra Leone and in 1815 there was a population of 100,000.

Enforcing the ban was difficult. Because of the potential enormous profits slavers hid in small inlets and rivers, safe from the large British 'men of war' whose large draft excluded close inland searches. The British had to build an entire fleet of dedicated crews with 32 small ships on the west African coast by 1847. Patrols were hampered by rules which excluded seizure unless actual captives were found on board. Until 1822, when the rule was changed, slavers being pursued often threw their prisoners overboard to drown before a naval vessel could board them. The United States refused to allow any American ships to be searched, which resulted in most slavers flying the Stars and Stripes. Eventually slaving equipment (like shackles and extra ventilation gratings) was also banned and the British government authorised the search of ships believed not to carry any American nationals.

It remained for the powerful British fleet, to enforce anti slave trade laws, and that was difficult. The Atlantic slave trade continued, with declining numbers, through most of the 19th century. The movement of African slaves across the Atlantic did not end until slavery was outlawed everywhere in the Americas. In 1849 a British flotilla helped persuade Brazil to give up slaving. In 1862, President Lincoln was forced by the British foreign minister, Lord Palmerston, to set up an anti-slave patrol and to accept British search and seizures. Havana and Mozambique continued to the end of the century as slave-market centres as Cuba was the last American country to outlaw slavery in 1888.

Sadly, slavery apparently still continues today in a variety of forms and places despite international opposition.[25] In A Persistent Evil: The Global Problem of Slavery, a report published by the Harvard International Review in 2002, Richard Re suggested: "Conservative estimates indicate that at least 27 million people, in places as diverse as Nigeria, Indonesia, and Brazil, live in conditions of forced bondage" Practices which amount to slavery include sex trafficking and bonded labour, where a person's work is 'security' for a debt which they can never repay.


1            For historical and general background see BBC News, Quick guide: The slave trade,, dated 15 March 2007. See also James and Lois Horton, Slavery and the Making of America; James Walvin, A Short History of Slavery; Beverly McMillan, Captive Passage, The Transatlantic Slave Trade and the Making of the Americas; Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals, the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln; Colin Palmer, The First Passage, Blacks in the Americas 1502-1617; Marie Jenkins Schwartz, Born in Bondage; Gerald Mullin, Flight and Rebellion, Slave Resistance in Eighteenth-Century Virginia; Nick Hazelwood, The Queen's Slave Trader; Ira Berlin, Many Thousands Gone, The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America, pp. 83, 369-373; Ira Berlin, et al, Freedom, A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861-1867, p. 323; and Samuel Bawlf, The Secret Voyage of Sir Francis Drake, 1577-1580, Gerald Mullins, Flight and Rebellion.

2            See Bernard Lewis, Race and Slavery in the Middle East, cited at

3             Despite his horrific description, Bartolomew de Las Casas was not the Christian figure he appeared. Despite his outrage against the treatment and destruction of the gentle, Tainos Indians on Hispaniola he did not oppose slavery. To indigenous slavery, he strongly encouraged the importation of Africans to work in the mines and in 1503, the first Africans were brought to Hispaniola as slaves. See Francis Augustus MacNutt, Bartholomew de Las Casas; his life, apostolate, and writings, at Project Gutenberg Literary Archive Foundation, The Arabs have a long history of capturing African slaves by well-organised raids into the Great Lakes region of Africa. See Alan Moorehead, The White Nile, especially pp. 5-9, 29, 85-87, 156-157, 199-200, for a a description of methodology.

4             James Walvin, A Short History of Slavery, pp. 40-41.

5            Gregory Cerio, "Were the Spaniards That Cruel?", "Newsweek", Special Issue, Fall/Winter 1991, pp. 48-51.

6            Charles C Mann, 1491, New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, p. 104.

7            Ira Berlin, Freedom, A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861-1867, p. 323.

8             Richard Middleton, Colonial America, p. 278.

9             Ira Berlin, Many Thousands Gone, The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America, pp. 83.

10         Cited in James Walvin, A Short History of Slavery, pp. 48-49.

11         Nick Hazelwood, The Queen's Slave Trader, p. 34.

12         James Walvin, A Short History of Slavery, p. 83.

13         See Beverly McMillan, Captive Passage, The Transatlantic Slave Trade and the Making of the Americas, p. 54. For an overview see Atlantic slave trade, at

14         Beverly McMillan, Captive Passage, The Transatlantic Slave Trade and the Making of the Americas, p. 69.

15         Ibid, p. 94.

16         Lawrence James, The Rise and Fall of the British Empire, p. 20, cites Calendars of State Papers, America and the West Indies, 1574-1660, p.25.

17         Lawrence James, op. cit. , p. 21.

18         National Geographic, The Making of America: Deep South, Washington, 1983.

19         Lawrence James, op. cit..

20         US Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1970, Vol 2 p. 1168.

21         Arthur Herman, To Rule the Waves, p. 421.

22         Lawrence James, op. cit., p. 23.

23         Ibid.

24         Arthur Herman, op. cit. , p. 420, these were France, the Netherlands, Spain, and Portugal.

25         See Breaking the Silence, at

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