Slavery in the Americas: Country Trends

Figure 1.--Here we see African-American children in front of their home. It is often used as an example of slave children. We have, however, been unable to find details about when and where it was takem. It could well have been taken after the Civil War and Emancipation, even decades after. One of the many tragedies of the Civil War is the failure of Reconstruction and the denials of basic rights to African Americans in the South for a centurty.

Discussions of slavery in the New World too often focus on just the United States. In fact only a small prtion of the slaves trasported to the New World came to the United States and the 13 colonies before indepndence. The great bulk of captive Africans wre transported to the Caribbean and Brazil. There the slave system was unbelievably cruel and brutal to the point of genocide. So many slaves there perished that constant shipments of newly captive Africans were required to maintain the hugely profitable sugar plantations. The United States received only a small portioned of the captive Africans transported. And although cruel and inhuman, it was not genocidal. Our discussion on this page is a chronolgically based thematic history of slavery in the Americas. Often these developments included broad trends that affected more than one of the modern countries. Readers interested in the history of slavery in a specific countries can click here. We are developing individual country histories. We have several country slave pages and are gradually adding more as our site expands. For many Latin American countries we have pages that deal with aspects of slavery, but not one central slavery page. We invite readers from these countries to participate in this process of developing more detailed information on slavery.

North America

North America was dominated by the United States. Slavery came to be an important part of the colonial economy, primarily in the southern colonies. By the time of indepependence, the northern states were beginning the process of ending slavery. Each of the northern states abolished slavery in a process that took several decades. Slavery was avoided in the Constitution although it was an issue at the Convention (1789). It was widely believed that slavery was uneconomic and would gradually witheraway at its own volition, Eli Whitney and the cotton gin changed that (1793). The slave trde was abolished (1807). ThevUnited states was different than other slave countries. Slavery was not a genocidal system as in the Caribbean and Brazil. The slave population did not require constant shipments of captured Africans. It was self sustaining. It would take the Civil War to end slavey in the southern states and African-American soldiers would play a role in the destruction of slavery. At the time of the war, therewere nearly 4 million slaves in America. Slavery was never important in Canada and we have little information about it. Presumably it was ended with the British decesion to end slavery in the Empire (1830s). Canada as the Abolitionist Movement grew in the United states became the destination of run away slaves attempting to escape on the Underground Railway. Slavery was less important in Mexico than many countries because the Native American population was reduced to the status of medieval serfs and used for forced labor. As with much of the rest of Latin America, slavery was ended with independence. hat did not and was the exisence of much of the population as compesinos in an almost feudal serfdom.


European colonial control of the Americas began in the Caribbean. When little gold was found, the Europeans began developing the region's agricultural potential. At first they used the Native American population for forced labor, but this failed when they were decimated by European diseases. The colonists began importing captive Afticans as a slave work force. Agriculture was at first limited, but boomed with the development of plantations focusing on sugar, a tremendiusly valuable commodity. The sygar boom began in Portuguese Brazil, but when the Portuguese drove the Dutch out of the Northeast, theuv brought needed technology to the Caribbean. The Dutch were involved in the decades long Dutch-Portuguese War and also attacked Portuguese trading posts in West Africa, helping to break Portuguese dominnce of the slave trade. Africans were imported in large numbers by the English, Dutch, French, and Spanish colonies in the Cribbean. A situation developed unique in the long history of slavery, more than 90 percent of the population on some islands,like Haiti and Jamaica were Africans. These were horrendous socities. Slaves were literaly worked to death on many of the islands. The profits from sugar were so great that the planters simply imported replacement workers from Africa. The population of many of the islands, as a result, is today largely black. The slave system in the Caribbean was complicated by the number of colonial powers: Denmark, England, France, Spain, and the Netherlands. The Caribbean included both the Greater and Lesser Antilles. We do not know much about some of the smaller islands, but we are gradually building pages on slavery for the various Caribbean islands: Barbados, Cuba, Dominica, Grenada, Guadelupe, Haiti, Jamaica, Martiniue, Puerto Rico, Santo Domingo (Dominican Republic), Trinidad, and other colonies.

Central America

Slavery was not a major institution in Central America. We can see that today in the demographic patterns of the region. We do not see major black populations except in Belize and the Nicaraguan Mosquito Coast. Guatemala had a substantial Native American population which as in Mexico was converted into a kind of feudal serf population.

South America

Pope Alexander VI with a papal bull divided the world to avoid war between Portugal and Spain (1493). The two Catholic powers confoirmned this with the Treaty of Tordesillas. The Spoanish were unaware of Brazil which jutted out into the South Atlantic at the time. The Portuguese may have been as they insisted on moving the dividing line west. The history of slavery in the Americas differs in the Portuguese and Spanish colonies. While only one country, the Portuguese colony (Brazil) is half of the cointinent. A central aspect of slavery in the Americas was the development of plantation sugar culture. This began in Brazil and the Dutch had a major role. Slavery in Brazil became a major aspect of colonial economy and this continued into the early republican period after independence. Slavery continued in Brazil after the Latin American wars of independence. Slavery was much less important in the Spanish South American colonies. Here geography was a factor. As in North america, it was most important in the areas with a warm climate. In the Andean areas, the Native Americans despite enormous declines in population were converted to a status like medieval serfs and thus provided the agricultural work force for Spanish landowners. There were a few areas where slavery was of some importance, primarily coastal areas of Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela. Slavery was ended in the Spanish colonies after the Latin American wars of independence. Slavery was also a factor in the Guianas, but the history varied with the policies of the three colonial powers (England, France, and the Netherlands).



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Created: 7:25 PM 2/17/2012
Last updated: 8:04 PM 12/9/2016