The Origins and Nature of New World Slavery

 

The Origins of New World Slavery

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y the beginning of the eighteenth century, black slaves could be found in every New World area colonized by Europeans, from Nova Scotia to Buenos Aires. While the concentrations of slave labor were greatest in England's southern colonies, the Caribbean, and Latin America, where slaves were employed in mines or on sugar, rice, tobacco, and cotton plantations, slaves were also put to work in northern seaports and on commercial farms. In 1690, one out of every nine families in Boston owned a slave.

It was not inevitable that Europeans in the New World would rely on African slaves to raise crops, clear forests, and mine precious metals. In every New World colony, Europeans experimented with Indian slavery, convict labor, and white indentured servants.

Why did every European power eventually turn to African labor? Europeans imported African slaves partly for demographic reasons. As a result of epidemic diseases, which reduced the native population by 50 to 90 percent, the labor supply was insufficient to meet demand. Africans were experienced in intensive agriculture and raising livestock and knew how to raise crops like rice that Europeans were unfamiliar with.

Initially, English colonists relied on indentured white servants rather than on black slaves. Over half of all white immigrants to the English colonies during the seventeenth century consisted of convicts or indentured servants.

As late as 1640, there were probably only 150 blacks in Virginia (the colony with the highest black population), and in 1650, 300. But by 1680, the number had risen to 3,000 and by 1704, to 10,000. Faced by a shortage of white indentured servants and fearful of servant revolt, English settlers increasingly resorted to enslaved Africans. Between 1700 and 1775, more than 350,000 Africans slaves entered the American colonies.