What were the origins of slavery?

by Steven Mintz

In 1690, one out of every nine families in Boston owned a slave. In New York City, in 1703, two out of every five families owned a slave. From Newport, Rhode Island to Buenos Aires, black slaves could be found in virtually every New World area colonized by Europeans.

Black slaves arrived in the New World at least as early as 1502. Over the next three centuries, slave traders brought at least fifteen million Africans to the New World (another twenty percent or more Africans died during the march to the West African coast and an additional twenty percent perished during the "middle passage" across the Atlantic Ocean).

Why beginning in the sixteenth century did Spanish, Portuguese, French, Dutch, Danish, and English colonists all bring African slaves to their New World colonies? Why did they do something that we find wholly repugnant morally?

Few questions have aroused more bitter debate or evoked more impassioned controversy than the origins of black slavery. Was it, as some have argued, the product of deep-seated racial prejudice? Certainly, there is a great deal of evidence showing that many Europeans held deeply racist sentiments well before the establishment of the institution of slavery. We know, for example, that Elizabethan Englishmen associated blackness with evil, death, and danger. They portrayed the devil as having black skin and associated beauty with fairness of skin. Through their religion, too Englishmen denigrated Africans, claiming that Negroes were the descendants of Noah's son Ham, who, according to the Old Testament, was cursed by having black offspring for daring to look upon his father drunk and naked while his brothers averted their eyes. (In fact, Ham was not the Biblical ancestor of Africans).

Long before the English had much contact with Africans racist stereotypes were already widespread. One English writer claimed that Negroes were naturally "addicted unto Treason, Treacherie, Murther, Theft and Robberie." Without a doubt, Englishmen considered Africans an alien and inassimilable people.

Or was black slavery the product of a haphazard and random process that took place gradually with little real sense of the ultimate outcome? Proponents of this line of argument note that there was nothing inevitable about European colonists relying upon a black slave labor force. Far from being the result of a conscious plan, the adoption of black slavery, it is argued, was the resulted of innumerable local and pragmatic choices, reflecting such variables as the mortality of the native Indian population, the availability of white servants, and the cost of African slaves. In every English colony, for example, colonists initially relied on white indentured servants for the bulk of their labor needs--not on black slaves. They finally settled on African slaves because of supply shortages and the threat of revolt among white indentured servants.

Still others insist that slavery was the product not of racism but the outgrowth of European attitudes toward the poor. European societies were based on the principle of inequality. Elizabethan Englishmen flogged the poor and forced them to toil in workhouses. Far from finding the idea of slavery repellant, Elizabethan Englishmen accepted the idea, for example, adopting a statute in 1547 allowing persistent vagabonds to be enslaved and branded with the letter "S."

Once slavery was introduced, slavery carried far-reaching consequences for the future. By assuming positions formerly occupied by an underclass of unruly and despised white servants, black slaves helped to create a remarkably "free" and affluent society of whites, committed to the principles of liberty and equality.

Questions for Discussion

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