Slavery played an important role in the development of the American colonies.  It was introduced to the colonies in 1619, and spanned until the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. The trading of slaves in America in the seventeenth century was a large industry. Slaves were captured from their homes in Africa, shipped to America under extremely poor conditions, and then sold to the highest bidder, put to work, and forced to live with the new conditions of America.

There was no mercy for the slaves and their families as they were captured from their homes and forced onto slave ships. Most of the Africans who were captured lived in small villages in West Africa. A typical village takeover would occur early in the morning. An enemy tribe would raid the village, and then burn the huts to the ground. 

Most of the people who were taken by surprise were killed or captured; few escaped. The captured Africans were now on their way to the slave ships. “Bound together two by two with heavy wooden yokes fastened around their necks, a long line of black men and women plodded down a well-worn path through the dense forest.  Most of the men were burdened with huge elephants’ tusks. 

Others, and many of the women too, bore baskets or bales of food. Little boys and girls trudged along beside their parents, eyes wide in fear and wonder”  (McCague, 14). After they were marched often hundreds of miles, it was time for them to be shipped off to sea, so that they could be sold as cheap labor to help harvest the new world. But before they were shipped off, they had to pass through a slave-trading station.

The slave trade, which was first controlled by Portugal, was now controlled by other European nations. In the late 1600s, Spain, Holland, England, France and Denmark were all sending ships to West Africa.  The slave trade was becoming big business (Goodman, 7). The selection of the slaves by the traders was a painstaking process. Ships from England would pull up on the coast of Africa, and the captains would set off towards the coast on small ships. 

“If the slave trader was a black chief, there always had to be a certain amount of palaver, or talk, before getting down to business.  As a rule, the chief would expect some presents, or dash” (Stampp, 26).  Once the palaver was over, the slaves had to be inspected.  The captain of the ship usually had a doctor who would check the condition of the slaves.  They would carefully examine the slaves, looking in their mouths, poking at their bodies, and making them jump around. 

This was done so that the doctor could see how physically fit the slaves were.  If the slaves were not of the doctor’s standards, they were either killed or kept to see if another ship would take them. In the 1600s, the journey across the Atlantic for the African slaves was a horrible one.  It was extremely disease-ridden, and many slaves did not survive the journey.  The people were simply thrown into the bottom of the ship and had to survive the best they could. 

Often, many slaves had to wait in the bottom of the ship while they were still docked at the harbor so that the traders could gather up more and more slaves.  There were usually 220 to 250 slaves in each ship.  Then they had to stay down there for the long trip across the Atlantic Ocean to the New World. “Women and children were allowed to roam at large, but the men were attached by leg irons to chains that ran along the ship’s bulwarks. 

After a breakfast of rice or cornmeal or yams, with perhaps a scrap of meat thrown in, and a little water, there came the ceremony of “dancing the slaves” -a compulsory form of exercise designed, it was said, for the captive’s physical and mental well being”(Howard, 23). Even though there was ventilation, the air in the crowded hold area quickly grew foul and stinking. Fierce tropical heat also added to the misery of the slaves.  Seasickness was also a problem.

Conditions on the ships improved as the slave trade continued, but thousands of Africans still lost their lives on the journey to the new world. When slaves would try to rebel on the ship, they were immediately killed and thrown overboard. Some slaves preferred death over slavery.  Watching their chance while on deck, they often jumped overboard to drown themselves (Davis, 67). Africans were brought to America to work.

“They worked the cotton plantations of Mississippi and in the tobacco fields of Virginia, in Alabama’s rich black belt, in Louisiana’s sugar parishes, and in the disease-ridden rice swamps of Georgia and South Carolina”(Buckmaster, 153).  Most slaves were worked extremely hard because they had the job of cultivating the crops on the plantations.  It began before daybreak and lasted until dark, five and sometimes six days a week. “An Alabama man said ‘Sunup to sundown was for field Negroes.’ 

Men and women alike were roused at four or five a.m., generally by the blowing of a horn or the ringing of a bell” (Goodman, 18). By daybreak, the slaves were already working under the control of Negro drivers and white overseers. They plowed, hoed, picked, and performed the labors appropriate to the season of whatever they were harvesting.

For example, during the harvest season on a sugar plantation, slaves were worked sixteen to eighteen hours a day, seven days a week.  That is longer hours than convicts were permitted to work in several of the Southern states (DuBois, 35). This was not only limited to sugar. Cotton and tobacco workers had the same harsh hours in the hot southern sun.

Even children were put to work on the plantations. “By the age of six or seven, children were ready to do odd jobs around the plantation-picking up trash in the yard, raking leaves, tending a garden patch, minding babies, carrying water to the fields.  By the age of ten, they were likely to be in the fields themselves, classed as “quarter hands”  (McCague, 35).

Often there were health problems among the slaves in early America.  “The combination of hard, sometimes exhausting toil and inferior diet, scanty clothing and unsanitary housing-led, predictably, to health problems”  (Goodman, 31). This caused a problem for slave owners because they wanted the most efficiency out of their slaves as possible.

In some places, doctors were called in to treat blacks as well as whites. The slave trade played an important role in the growth of the American colonies.  Without the trading of slaves in the seventeenth century, American plantations would not have prospered into the export empire that they were.

Works Cited

Buckmaster, Henrietta.  Let My People Go.  Boston:  Beacon Press, 1941.  Davis, David Brion.  Slavery and Human Progress.  New York:  Oxford University Press, 1984. 

DuBois, William Edward Burghardt.  The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America.  New York:  Schocken Books, 1969. 

Goodman, Walter.  Black Bondage: the Life of Slaves in the South.  New York:  Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969. 

Howard, Richard.  Black Cargo.  New York:  G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1972. 

McCague, James.  The Long Bondage 1441-1815.  Illinois:  Garrard Publishing Company, 1972.  Stampp, Kenneth M.  The Peculiar Institution.  New York:  Borzoi Books, 1982.

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