Slavery in the Americas

Figure 1.--Here is an drawing from a pre-Civil War War publication in the South depicting an idealized image of slavery of course from the slave-holders point of view. Unfortunately we do not know in what publication it appeared, but it look likes the 1850s. Images from the north tended to depict the brutality of slavery. Interesting neither depicted the economic importance of the slaves in building America. Source: Librry of Congress LC-USZ62-89745.

The Portuguese as they pushed south along the coast of West Africa were the first Europeans to come into contact with the people of Sub-Saharan Africa. Thus when Portugal and Spain established the first American colonies, they first introduced Africans as a labor source in the New World. It was sugar that first made slavery important and Caribbean sugar islands became enormously important. The European countries which conquered native American civilizations in the 16th century enslaved millions in Brazil and South America to work in mines and the tremendously profitable sugar plantations. The conditions were so brutal and European disesases so virlulent that native American populations were descimated. The Spanish and Portuguese turned to Africans. Millions of Africans were transported across the Atlantic and sold into slavery in the Americas. Slavery in earlier epochs had no racial connotations. With the growth of the African slave trade, slavery in the Western mind became associated with race as with the collapse of Native American populations, it was Africans who were enslaved in huge numbers. European Christian who would not have tolerated the enslavement of other Europeans found little objection to enslaving black Africans.

Country Slavery Trends

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. We invite readers from these countries to participate in this process.

African Slavery

Slavery was an institution throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. It was largely related to wars among tribes. Slave might be taken in raids, especially women. The status of these slaves differed from the system of chattel slavery that developed in America. Men captured by battle by also be made into slaves. This helped reduce the military potential of opposing tribes. They were also a source of wealth.

European Voyages of Discovery

The great European voyages of discovery of the 15th and 16th centuries were fundamentally economic enterprises. They were conducted by the European countries of the Atlantic coasts to establish direct trade contacts with China and the Spice Islands (Indonesia) that was being blocked by Byzantium/Venice and the Arabs. At the time, trade in silk, porcelin, and spices from the East carried over the Silk Road had to pass through Turkish, Arab, Byzantine, and Italian middleman, making them enormously expensive. The crusaders failed to break the Islamic wall separating still primitive Europe from the riches of the East. Circumventing the land Silk Road and the sea Spice Route would have profound economic consequences for Europe and the world. The ballance of power would shift from Eastern to Western Europe and eventualkly to northern Europe. Two nations led the early explorarions in the 15th century--Spain and Portugal. These two countries pioneered the sea routes that would lead Europeans to Asia and the Americas, but the Dutch, English, and French were to follow in the 16th century. The Portuguese as they pushed south along the coast of West Africa were the first Europeans to come into contact with the people of Sub-Saharan Africa. The Portuguese set up trading posrs as thdy moved south. And from the beginning, slaves were one of the commodities foe which they traded.

Native Americans

The European countries which conquered native American civilizations in the 16th century enslaved millions in Brazil and South America to work in mines and the tremendously profitable sugar plantations. The conditions were so brutal and European disesases so virlulent that native American populations were descimated. Scholars describe a demographic colapse of native Ameican populations. Actual numbers are only rough estimates. Schoars believe that in the 15th century the population of Native Amerucans in the United States totaled 6-9 million people in the 15th century when the Europeans arrived. The 1900 American Census reported a Native American population of 0.25 million. Huge population declines were also reported in Brazil, Mexico, Peru, and other countries.

Portuguese and Spanish Slavery

Thus when Portugal and Spain established the first American colonies, they first introduced Africans as a labor source in the New World. Both encountered difficulties turning the native American people into a slave labor force. The Spanish were more successful as they encountered the settled agraian societies of the Andes and central Mexico. The Spanish engaged in a debate concerning the humanity of the Native Americans. The Native Americans were in the end turned into serfs with a status similar to slavery. Actual slavery, however, became the lot of the Africans imported from Africa. The democraphics of Latin America shows the dichotomy. Spanish colonies where the Native Americans were reduced to serfdom have small black populations. Countries where the Native Americans were killed off, such as Brazil and the Cariibean, have substantial black populations.


Sugar is not needed for proper nutition, but for some reason man is geneticall programed to seek out sugar. It is one of the five tastes (sweet, bitter, sour, salty, and umami (savory or mearty) that human taste buds detect. Sugar is found in small quantities in many foods. Man was not gentically engineered to consume large quantities of sugar. And doing so in our modern world has caused all kinds of health problems. For most of human existence, this is how sugar was ingested, supplement by occassion bee hive finds. It was the Polynesians who are believed to have discovered sugarcane. Indian traders operating in Polynsia brought it back to India where processes for manufacturing refined sugar were first developed. When the Persian Emperor Darius invaded northwestern India (6th century BC), the Persians encountered sugar bringing it further west. The Arab Islamic outburst resulted in the creation of a vast empire--the Caliphate (7th century AD). The Arabs encountered sugr in Persia and spread it througout their empire as far west as Spain. It was during the Crusades, however, that European elites first became aware of sugar. The Arabs continued to control the sugar trade for several centuries after the First Crusade. The word surgar (azucar in Spanish) is of Arab origins. Arab control meant that quantities were limited in Europe ad hugely expensive. Only a few areas in Europe were suitble for growinging sugar cane. This changed with Colunbus' discovery of the Americas ad the colonization of huge areas in the tropical zone that were suitable for growing cane. This set in motion both a sugar boom and the Atlantic slave trade. Large scale production began in Brazil (17th century), but soon spread to the Caribbean. The European sweet tooth made tiny Caribbean islabds some of the most valuable realestate in the world.


Brazil had the largest slave population in the world, substantially larger than the United States. The Portuguese who settled Brazil needed labor to work the large estates and mines in their new Brazilian colony. They turned to slavery which became central to the colonial economy. It was particularly important in the mining and sugar cane sectors. Slavery was also the mainstay in the Caribbean islands with economies centered on sugar. Estimates suggest that about 35 percent of captured Africans involved in the Atlantic slave trade were transported to Brazil. Estimates suggest that more than 3 million Africans reached Brazil, although precise numbers do not exist. Brazil had begun to turn to slavery in the 15th century as explorers began moving along the coast of Africa. With the discovery of the Americas, the Portuguese attempted to enslave the Native American population as well. This did not prove successful. The Native Americans died in large numbers, both because of slave rading, mistreatment, and the lack of resistance to European diseases. The Portuguese found captured Africans to be a valuable trading commodity as Europeans began to settle the Caribbean islands. They also began transporting Africans to their Brazilian colony. Portuguese Prime Minister Marquês de Pombal abolished slavery in Portugal (February 12, 1761). The Portuguese action, however, did not address slavery in the colonies. Slavery was widely practiced. Brazilians of all classes owned slaves. Slaves were not only owned by upper and middle class Brazilians, but also by lower class Brazilians. There were even slaves who owned other slaves.

Caribbean Sugar Islands

It was sugar that first made slavery important. The Sugar Boom developed first in Brazil. The Dutch as prt of the War for Independence/Duthch Portuguese War seized northeastern Brazil ad held it for several decades. When the Portuguese finally ousted them, they brought sugar technology to the Caribbean. The climate was perfect. Small islands that had once been of only minor importance, suddely became enormously valuable. The Europeans had, however, virtually exterminated the Native American populations (largely unintetionally through exposure to European diseases). The Spanish arrived first and decimated the Native Ameican population on first Hispaniola and then Puerto Rico and Cuba. They thus began importing captive Africans. But the numbers of Africans were limited because the Caribbean islands did not produce very valuable crops. Sugar chaged this. Suddenly small islands which no one cared much about became some of the most valuable realestate in the world. Sugar is, however, a labor intensive crop and workers in large numbers were needed to work the new sugar plantations. The Portuguese who had focused on the coast of Africa at first dominated the slave trade. This changed as the Dutch, French, and English also began setting up West African trading posts and entered the slave trade. They also began seizing the Spanish colonies (Jamaica and western Hispsniola--Haiti) as well as islands the Spanish had bypassed (such as Barbados, Dominica, Guadelupe, Martinique, St. Kitts, and others). The colonial powers vied for control of the smaller islands. As the sugar economies developed, a massive demand for slaves was created. Haiti became enormously valuable to France. And even small islands were extrodinarily valuable. On islsands like Barbados virually all the available land was conveted into sugar cane plantations. And their populations of these island became primarily enslaved Africans. Slavery by any definition involves brutality. But the slave system on the sugar islsands was especially brutal. It was unique in history. Many of the Caribbean sugar islands had populations that were more than 90 percent slaves. The history of slavery varied with each island having its own destinct histories. The system in some colonies such as Haiti and Jamaica was one of unbelievable bruality. The slaves were virtually worked to death. The sugar profits were so great that the planters simply purchased replacemnets from Africa. On others islands, such as Dominica, it was a milder form which allowed many slaves to purchase their freedom. The last important sugar industry was the Cuban sugar industry, in part because it was Slanish, but became the most important (19th century).

Spanish America

The Spanish were the first to implant colonies in the Ameica. First on Hispniola and then Puerto Rico and Cuba. The slaves were at first Native Americans. But a comination of mistreatment and European diseases soon desimated the relatively small Native American populstions of the islands. While the Spanish colonists were decimating Native American populatuions, im Spsin Bartlomew de las Casas was leading a debate over the nature of Native Americans and how they should be treated. As the debate raged, the colonists began importing captive Africans to enslave. The Native American populations on the mainland were much larger. They too were decimated, but not wiped out as on the islands. The Spanish colonists enslaved Native Americans, but over time through the creation of the encomienda, Native American people took on the rokles of serfs, although the difference between slaves and serfs was not great. Some Africans were imported as slaves, but primarily to work in the coastal lowlands of Venezuela, Colombia, Central America, Mexico, and northern Ecuador. Except for the Caribbean sugar islands, the role of slavery in Hispano-America was much less imporant than in Luso-America (Brazil). The new republics that achieved independence from Spain abolished slavery (1810s-20s). The Spanish retained possession of their Caribbean islands (Cuba and Puerto) and slavery continued there for decades.

The Guianas

Most of South America was a part of the Spanish or Portuguese colonial empires. There were three other colonial powers (England, France, and the Netherlands) which established small colonies in the northeast corner of the continent--the Guianas. Thee was resistance from the Spanish and Portuguese, but unlike the rest of South America, the Guianas were not colonized by Spain and Portugal by the time that Dutch, English, and French seapower was growing. These colonies were English, French, and Dutch Guiana. It was the Dutch who played a key role in bringing the sugar industry from Brail to the Guianasa and the Caribbean. These colonies were culturaly linked with the Caribban possessions of these colonial powers. The population of all three colonies, including the number of slaves was relatively limited. The pattern was basically the same, efforts to enslave native Americans failed and captive Africans were imported. Some slaves escaped and established Maroon populations with the Native Americans in the interior. Eventually indentured workers were also imported from the Dutch and English colonial empires. Settlement patterns varies simewhat. The Dutch for security reasons tended to concentrate settlement and economic activity around sugar plantations sited inland from the coast. The British able to rely more in the powerful Royal Navy began to found cane plantations on the richer coastal lands. The British and French had Caribbean islnds perfectly suited for can culture. The Dutch Caribbean islands like Aruba abd Curaçao were more arid and less suited for cane culture. Emancipation occurred at various times. The British led the effort to end the slave trade and were the first to emancipate the slaves. The Dutch were the last. The Dutch were particularly important because they worked out the basics of plantation sugar production. Details on slavery in the three colonies is available: Dutch Guiana, British Guiana, and French Guiana. Guyana and Suriname are now independent. French Guiana is now part of France.

Unites States Slavery

One of the most significant institution in United States history was slavery. Slavery helped build America. It is a major reason why America developed differently than Europe. It is also a major cause of the disparities that now exist among Americas (much greater than in Europe), and the roots of major social problems are rooted in slvevery. Two historians write that the legacy os slavery, "... remains in the history and heritage of the South that it shaped, in the culture of the North, where its memory was long denied, in the national economy for which it provided much of the foundation, and in the political and social system it prfoundly influenced." [Horton and Horton] Despite the importance of slavery in the Americam epoch, slavery until recently has been a subjected avoided by American historians. To the extent that slavery was addressed, it tended to be discussed in terms that accepted the southern myth of idelic plantation life and benign white masters struggling to deal with lazy, workers ith a child-like mentality. This has changed in recent years as historians produce more realistic treement of slavery. One area in which progress has been disappointing is school textbooks. The egregiously racist treatment has been removed from textboks, but for the most part school rextbooks still give little attention to slavery and the discussion presented is usually not illuuminating. One problem here is the economics of school textbooks and the need to meet the editorial demands of large states. Here Texas is a particular problem. American schools have attempted to deal with the racial issue bu designating February as Black History Month. Unfortunately rarely does Black History Month address slavery. Rather it generally amounts to an innoucous effort to point out Blacks who have contributed to America which do little to explain social inequities in America. The avoidance of slavery is not just a matter of white unwillingness to address slavery, but many Black educators also seem reluctant.

African Slave Trade

The Spanish and Portuguese after desimating the Native American population turned to Africans as a work force in Brzil and the West Indies. Millions of Africans were transported across the Atlantic and sold into slavery in the Americas. Slavery in earlier epochs had no racial connotations. With the growth of the African slave trade, however, slavery in the Western mind became associated with race as with the collapse of Native American populations, it was Africans who were enslaved in huge numbers. European Christian who would not have tolerated the enslavement of other Europeans found little objection to enslaving black Africans. With the foundation of English colonies, Africans were also brought to North America. Most were set to work on the of the plantations of the American South.


The numbers of Africans tranported to the New World is not known with any accuracy. Scholars debate the actual numbers. The American Constitution included provisions ending the slave trade and the British Royal Navy played a major in supressing it in the 19th century. Thus by about 1840 the slave trade to the New World had been reduced to relatively small numbers. Scholars believe, however, that about 10-15 million Africans were transported to the New World. While scholars may debate the actual figure, most will estimates fall in the 10-15 million range. This is a staggering figure as it far exceeds the number of Europeans who came to the New World. (The number of Europeans increased substantially beginning in the 1840s with the Irish because of the Potato Famine and many other countries after the Civil War.) What is staggering about this figure is that European immigration before 1840 titaled only about 2 million. Here figures are again not precise, but much more reliable than data on African slaves. The obvious question is why was the European population in the Americas so much higher if in fact so many more Africans were transported to the New World. The answer is unavoidable. Huge numbers of Africans died both in the passage to America and as a result of overwork and abuse as slaves in America. No fact more eloquently puts to lie the long held myth that slavery in the American south was benign. (Conditions on Caribbean and Brazilian plantations were iften even worse.)

Legal Status

African slaves were regarded as property. Laws were enacted that gave owners total power over slaves, including the right to kill their slaves.


Slave women were generally incouraged by their masters to have children as slaves were a valuable commodity who could be sold if not needed by the owner. The average price of a slave in the mid-19th century was about $600, a very considerable sum over $10,000 in 2002. (See the Inflation Calculator for such calculations.) The conditions under hich slaves lived and work under mean that their life span was less than was prevalent among whites. This was especially true among field workers on the plantations of the ddep South. Planters and other slave owners encouraged their slaves to produce children. After the early 19th century, America no longer permitted the importation of slaves. Slaves were a very valuable commodity. Slave girls were often expected to begin bearing children by about age 13. It was not uncommon for slave women to have had several children by about age 20. Some owners promised women slaves their freedom if they produced a set number of children and a common number was fifteen. It hould be remembered that having a child was a much more dangerous undertaking for a woman than is the case today. Young women might be offerd for sale as "good breeding stock" much as one would advertise a farm animal. Some owners operated brreding farms to produce children for sale.

Slave Families

Slaves were often allowed to choose their own partners. These slave familie had no legal status, but they lived under the same roof, raised children, and attmpted to protect each oher within the limits of their abilities. The often brutal treatment at the hands of slave owners severely undermined family life. Enslaved women were subject to sexual exploitation at the hands of their owners. Slaves lived in constant fear that partners are children might be sold away with no choice of reunion or evn communication. Historical records suggest that most slaves were sold at least once in their lives. Children i particular were commonly sold and separated from their parents.


Practices concerning the slave children variedy widely, both by region and the personal attitudes of their owners. Frederick Douglass claims that where he was raised in Maryland that the practice was "to part children from their mothers at a very early age. Frequently, before the child has reached its twelfth month, its mother is taken from it, and hired out on some farm a considerable distance off, and the child is placed under the care of an old woman, too old for field labor." Probably more common was to wait until the child was aporoaching adolescence and had more value as a potential worker. Many slave accounts indicate that their early lives were happy before they reached an age at which they began to realize that they were some one's property. Slave children began to work at an early age, most were given tasks by the time they reached 5 years if nit early. The young children might ran errands or carry water and food to field hands. By the age of 7-8 years they were commonly given more respionsible tasks.


In assigning chores to slave children, the owners did not have to worry about school. Most slave states had laws making it a crime to teach slaves to read or write. In the South even private titoring was prohibited. These laws were generally passed as a measure to prevent communication among slaves to make a potential slave uprising, like Nat Turner's Rebellion, impossible. Despite the difficulties, a small number if slaves did learn to read and write, usually because a kindly white person took an interest in them. Often these were children that had been fathered by white slave oeners. The best example is of coure Frederick Douglas. Even in the North African-Ameruican children often had trouble gaining access to public schools. Educating black children even in free northern states was a very contentious issue until the Civil War.


Maroon was the term for Africans who escaped from slavery in the Americas and their decendents who formed independent village settlements similar to those of their African origins. Some were also influenced by Native American cultures. We suspect that this was posible because the recently rasported and enslaved were the most likely to run away. Runaway slaves also joined Native American people, but Maroon refers to those runaways who set up indeendent African communities. In the United States, the Sminoles were a type of maroon. There was no Seminole tribe, they were refugees of other tribes destoyed or displaced by the U.S. Arny and white settlers. They included many escaped slaves, but seem to have adopted a Native American life style. Some argue that that the terms 'Maroon' and 'Seminole' were derived from the Latin word 'maurum' or 'moor' in English, meaning 'black' or 'dark skinned'. This word usually referred to runaways or castaways and is theorigin of the Englsh word mmarooned'. As soon as European settlers (at first Spanish and Portuguese) began importing and enslaving captured Africans, some began to run away. This depended on where they were enslaved. On small islands not only was it virtually impossivle to hide, but th indigenous people were also eradicated. On the larger islands there was more possibility to hide. Thus Maroons in the Caribbean were espcially notable on Jamaica and Haiti. Then as settlement reached the continent we see Maroon groups in the Guianas. This was because settlement never penetrated beyond the coast into the interior. he sutuation in the English North American colonies/United states was a little different. Here the settlers did move inland, eventually driving the Naive Americans beyond the Mississippi. There was one Maroon group, the Seminoles in Florida. They were a mixed Native American/African group. Some Maroon groups armed themselves and fought battles with the settlers, but theuwere vulnerable to attack, The safest Maroons were in the Guianas because there was so little European penetration onto the interior.


No examination of historical boys' clothing styles in America would be complete wihout an examination of slavery which was a legal institution until 1863-65. A sizeable number of Americans through the mid-1860s lived in slavery. These black Americans lived in the southern and border states. In many cases they were sold away from their mothers as slave families in America had no legal standing. HBC has very limited information on slavery and how slave children were dressed at this time, but it is an issue we hope to persue. There are limitations here as there are few photographs of slave children until he arrival of Federal troops in southern slave states.


The available imagery of African slavery in America is extremely revealing. There are almost no paintings of Afruican slaves from the ante-beleum South. A few paintings exist of freed slaves who had their portraits painted, but very few paintings were done of slaves by their masters. This was because their oiwners had no interest in spending money on slaves, but also because the South as the 19th century progressed became increasingly defenside as abolitionist sentiment grew. Few plantation owners wanted images of slavery. There is one exception here. Weakthy Souttherners visited Europe before the War and when doing so often took personal slaves with them. Europeans unaccutomed to Blacks were intrigued and some portraits made in Euroipe included these slaves--often elaborately dressed. Portraits actually made in the outh, even by primitive artists to our knowledgfe, never included slaves in their portraits of wealthyb plantation owners. There exist today many images of happy, singing slaves picking cotton with a grand plantation in the background. These iages almost all come from the post-Civil War era as White Southerners began to perpetuate the Lost Cause theme, including the claim that Blacks were happy and well off on Southern plantations. There are like wise few photographs other than those taken in the 1860s as Federal troops moved south.

Slavery in the North

At the time of the Revolution, as British colonies, slavery was legal. After the Revolution, northern legislators gradually abolished slavery. The laws varied as to timing and compensation. Pennsylvania passed the first law emancipating slaves in 1780. The process of emancipation had been completed by 1801. As a result, the Peensylvania-Maryland border, the Mason-Dixon Line, had become a very real dividing line between slave and free labor in the United States.


Cotton is the most widely used natural fiber in the manufacture of clothing. It has a number of qualities making it ideal for making textiles and clothing. It is a natural vegetable fiber--the most important textile raw material. Cotton also played a major role in the Industrial Revolution that has so changed modern life. American slavery was decling in importance. Many though that in the South it would eventually disappear as it was in the North. The Industrial Revolution, however, led to Ely Whitney's cotton gin. The resulting efficiences changed the economies of cotton cultivation. New plantations were founded on King Cotton as Southern planters moved west into Alabama and Mississpi and eventually Texas. The revitalization of the South's slave-based economy began a process that was to laed inexorably to Civil War. Cotton today continues to be the most important natural textile, still widely used in the production of clothing.

Work Assignments

The vast majority of the slaves in the deep South were involved in agricultural labor on large plantations. This is where the living and working conditions were often horendous. The principal crop was cotton and slaves were used to plant, hoe, and then pick the cotton balls. Picking was called "chopin" cotton. This was back breaking manual labor. Fw of the slaves on these plantations were taught or developed skills. Except for the household slaves, few planttion slaves had peronal relations with their owners. Some plantation slaves did learn trades to facilitate the plantation's operations, but this was a small minority. The slave owners were primarily focused on maximizing cotton production. Slaves in the border states were much more likely to be owned on small farms or small-scale pripertor like black smiths or carpeters. They were thus more likely to have a closer worjing relationship with their owners. They were also more likely to have been taught trades and othe skills. While slavery was an economic system primarily centered on agriculture, slaves were also used as servants to make live more pleasant. Another occupation for slaves, always slave women, as child care.


A variety of control and discipline devices were used on slaves. Many such devices were also used on Russian serfs. Some of the best known devices were collars, shackles, and chains. Therewerealo slave bridles. One report descrines their use in Brazil during the 18th century. Similar bridles were sometimes applied in Russia to the serf boys and serf girls (shepherds) so that they could not drink milk from the animals that they were caring for.

Women and Girls

HBC hasenerally focused on the experiences of boys throughout history. Here we need to distress an especially trobling aspect od American slavery that affected girls and women. Any assessment of slavery in America is incomplete without facing up to this issue. There is no doubt that African American girls and women were routinely raped by slave owners and overseers. In the era where slavery was viewed as a benigh paternalistic institution, this simple fact was largely ignored. Actual historical evidence was not addressed and the very obvious existence of large numbers of light-skined African Americans simply ignored. Modern historians treat the subject more honestly, especially since the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Salley Hemmings came to light. There were a range of relationships involved. Some slave masters brutally simply raped young African American girls using what ever violence was required. The assaults were obviously most commonly visited on teenage girls and young women. Then there was a range of approaches, including threats to the girl or women, to her family, or threats about punishments, added work, sale, or promises of freedom. Whether violence actually occurred or not, such threats to an individual without civil rights can not be considered anything but rape. Then there were relationships with actual emotional involvement. The Jefferson-Hemmings relationship is one such example. As so few Africa-Americans could read and write, there are few accounts of what slave girls and women experienced. There are, however, some accounts. Perhaps the most reviting is that of Hariet Jacobs. [Jacobs]

Haitian Slave Revolt (1791)

After the initial slave rebellion on St. Dominique, a civil war developed between the black dominated north and the mulatto dominated south. Toussaint L'Ouverture, an educated herb doctor and military man, emerged as the leader of the former slaves in the north. He conquered the entire island. Spain ceded the eastern side of the island to France (1795). Toussaint managed to restor order, ended the massacres, and restored some of the colony's lost prosperity (1796). Napoleon Bonaparte seized control of France. He attempts to retake Saint Domingue because of the huge exports that had come from the colony. He sends a substantial 34,000 man army to defeat the slave armies and reestablish French control. The French commander Leclerc through subterfuge seized Toussaint L'Ouverture seized and deported him to France (1801). He died in a French prison. The Convention in Paris reintroduced slavery to Saint Domingue (1802). This result in a renewed rebellion and more massacres (1802). The slaves continued to resist even after Toussaint's capture. Haitains declared an independent republic (1804).

Ending the Slave Trade

The United States banned the importation of slaves (1808). There was, however, only minimal enforcement. It was the Royal Navy that eventually ended the slave trade. The slave trade had been a lynch pin in thr triangular trade that has been a key element of the British economy and helped bring great wealth to Britain. It had in part helped to finance the growth of the Royal Navy. The expansion of the British merchant fleet under the protection of the Royal Navy resulted in Britain dominating the slave trade by the 18th century. British ships beginning about 1650 are believed to have transported as many as 4 million Africans to the New Wiorld and slavery. The British Parliament during the Napoleonic Wars banned the slave trade (1807). This was a decession made on moral grounds after a long campaign in Britain against slavery at considerable cost at a time of War. After Trafalgur (1805) the powerful British Royal Navy could intercept suspected slave ships under belligerent rights. After the cesation of hostilities this became more complicated. The only internationally recognized reason for boarding foreign ships was suspected piracy. Thus Britain had to persue a major diplomatic effort to convince other countries to sign anti-slavery treaties which permitted the Royal Navy to board their vessels if suspected of transporting slaves. Nearly 30 countries eventually signed these treaties. The anti-slavery effort required a substantial effort on the part of the Royal Navy. The major effort was carried out by the West Coast of Africa Station which the Admiralty referred to as the ‘preventive squadron’. The Royal Navy from this station for 50 years conducted operations to intercept slavers. At the peak of these operartions abour 25 ships and 2,000 officers and men were deployed. There were about 1,000 Kroomen, African sailors, operating West African Station. The Royal Navy deployed smaller, shallow draft vessels so that slavers could be persued in shallow waters. Britain also targeted African leaders who engaged in the slave trade. A British forced in one operation deposed the King of Lagos (1851). The climate and exposure to filthy diseased laden slave ships made the West African station dangerous. The officers and men were rewarded with Prize money for both freeing slaves and capturing the ships. The Royal Navy's task in East Africa and the Indian Ocean was even more difficult. This was in part because of the support for slavery among Islamic powers (both Arabian and Persian). The slave trade persisted into the 1860s, in part because of the continued existence of slavery in the United states. Eventhough thecslave trade was outlawed in America, the American Navy was not used to aggresively inters=dict the slave trade. This did not change until President Lincoln signed the Right of Search Treaty in 1862, a year before the Emancipation Proclamation. The Cuban trade ended (1866).

Jamican Slave Revolot (1831)

The greatest slave revolt in the WEst Indies was the Jamaican Baptist War. Rainfall was below normal in 1831. Some plantations experenced drought conditions. This reduced the crop yields. Some planters to make up for falling revenue reduced rations. The slaves as a result of the missions supported by the anti-slavery movement in Britain were aware of efforts to end slavery. It was here that ideas about emancipation and the white preachers at the missions were so different than the planters. Religious meetings also gave slaves the opportunity to plot abd exchange pans with slaves on other plantations. This provided an element that was never available to slaves in the United States. [Reckord, p. 108.] the white missionaries preached a message of patient obedience and resignation. There was also a native Baptist church with led by blacks which preached a more activist message. The revolt began during the Christmas holiday (1831). Samuel Sharp, a domestic slave and Baptist deacon, organized a peaceful general strike to achieve emancipation and a living wage. The signal to begin the strike was a fire on the Kensington Estate in St. James Parish. The strike, however, soon got out of hand. Here the actual course of events are not entirely known. It is clear that from the beginning that the plantrs saw the strike as rebellion pure and simple. Rebellion swept the western parishes. The Revolt becamne known as the Baptist War because of the role of the missions. The slaves destroyed 106 sugar plantations in St. James Parish alone. A militia force organized by the planters and the small British garrison supressed the strike after only 10 days. The authorities reported killing 201 slaves, the actual total was probably about 400. Missionaries were arrested. Hunting down escapee slaves continued for weeks after. Sharpe was hung. An estimated 20,000 slaves participated in the rebellion. They killed planters and ruined crops. The British and planters convinced them to lay down their revolt with promises of abolition. These romises were not met. The Britsh hung 3440 slaves were were identified as leaders. Large numbers were punished in various ways such as whippings. The British Parliament held two inquiries to assess the property damage and loss of life.

Emancipation of British Slaves in the Caribbean (1833)

The emancipation of slaves in the Caribbean began on Haiti. Slavey in the Cabbean ws horendous and was essentially genocidal. Set off by the French Revolution (1789), Haiti slaves freed themselves (1791). The French had second thoughts give the huge profits generated by the Haitian sugar plantation, but wer unable to regain control of the colony. The subsequent slave rebellions on Jamaica made it cler to the British that the military cost of maintaining slavery exceeeded to the value of the plantations. This and the riing imotance of the Abolitionist Movemnt led to passage of the Great Reform Act (1832). Abolition followed the next year (1833). It did not bring immediate emancipation, but a gradual movenent was set in motion. The Dnes, Dutch, and French followed suit. The Soanish, however, continued to maintin slavery (Cuba and Puerto Rico).

The American Debate Over Slavery

The debate over slavery in the United States did not begin with the Constitutinal Convention (1787), but it was here that the issue first came to the fore. Some northern delegates were opposed to it. Southern delegates were committed to it. It became clear that there would be no Constitution without a compromise. The compromise was that a decission on the future of slavery wold be deferred. A curious arrangement was written in to the Constitution by which for voting purposes slaves would be counted as 2/3s of a person. Many delegates believed or at least hope that slavery would gradually die out as individuals states abolished it. Subsequent history was a series of compromises meant to difuse the issue. The centerpiece of this effort was the Missouri Compromise (1820). This worked for over three decades until promoted by Seator Stephen Douglas Congress undid it with the Kansas-Nebrasks Act (1854). The result was rising tensions, "Bleeding Kansas", the and a the breakdown of compromise, John Brown's raid on the Federal arsenal, and at last a breakdown of comprosise and civil war.

Free Blacks

The history of black Americans before the Civil War primarily focuses on slavery. While most blacks lived in the South as slaves, there were free blacks and not only in the northern strates. The northern states relatively soon after the Revolution abolished slavery. This was done state by state. While slavery was abolished, not all slaves were immeiately emancipated. Even when emancipated, blacks in the soiuth were not afforced full civil rights such as ther franchise. There was also resistance in allowing black children to attend public schools. Slavery was retained by the border and southern states. Even in the southern states there were free blacks. Some southern states passed laws requiring freed slaves to leave the state, but her enforcement was often uneven. We are not sure just how many free blacks there were in the South. One study of Virginia, estimates that nearly 10 percent of the state's black population was free. [Ely] This proportion of the population rather surprised me. I'm not sure about the proportion in other slave states. What is interesting about the free blacks in the South before the Civil War is that they had the right to own property. They also had access to the courts. This is not to say there was equal justice. Court records show that blacks did bring civil actions and at least in property mastters did receive some judiucual relif. [Ely] Another interesting aspect of free blacks in the South before the Civil War is that there were shared institutions. Free blacks for example attended churches with whites. Of course the churches were run by the whites. It is also true that men that attended church together also did business with each other. [Ely] Many of the interactions and shared institutions disappeared after the War.

Civil War (1861-65)

American donestic politics in the first half of the 19th century was dominated by the issue of slavery. America was unable to find a political solution to slavery. The primary cause of the Civil War was slavery. "Lost Cause" hisdtorians after the War attempted to down play the importance of slavery, primarily because the Confederacy and the Southern cause could not be defended if based primarily on slavery. Modern historians, however, almost universally agree that slavery was the priomary cause of the War. Slavery was finally resolved on the battlefield. The Civil War was the most costly war in American history. The casualties were horendous. Military historians often refer to it as the firtst modern war. American blacks played a major role in the conflict. The black role in the Federal armnies was so importyant that even the Confederacy at the end of the War was considering the arming of blacks.

Emancipation Proclamation (January 1863)

The Emancipation Proclamation is one of the key documents in American history. Not other document except perhaps the Declaration of Independence had a more revolutionary impact on America. The Proclamation itself was closely tied to the progress of the War. Like many other steps on race issues, it was not taken by Congress, but was a presidential proclamation. President Abraham Lincoln had wanted to act sooner on the slavery issue, but was afraid that Confederate victories would make emancipation look like an act of desperation. Only after the Federal victory at Antitem (September 1862), did he feel confident to proceed. President Lincoln on January 1, 1863 declared that all "... slaves within any State, or designated part of a State, ... then ... in rebellion ... forever free." It was a half measure to be sure. The slaves in the border states were not freed. It did signal, however, a fundamental shift in Federal policy. The War was now to be fought, not only to preserve the Union, but to free the slaves. One of the interesting aspects of the Emancipation Proclamation is its very legalistic tone, in sharp contrast to the soaring retoric of his Gettysburg Address or the Second Inagural.


After the Civil War, the Federal Government began a process of Reconstruction. The Federal Government descipte Southern critics, persued a soft peace. Southern soldeiers were allowed toi simply return home after afirming loyalty. Lee's soldiers after surrender were not even interned. The same was true of Johnston's soldiers in North Carolina who surrendered soon after. Blacks for the future. White southerners attepted to intoduce a legal system which kept the freed slaves in a state of servitude. Their primary instrument was the Black Codes (1865). They resstricted the rights of Blacks and limited economic and educatioinal opportunities. White southerners formed a secret paramilitary white supremacist organization, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). The KKK terrorized blacks with beatings, whippings, burning of homes and lynching. Radical Republicans in Congress persue a policy aimed at protecting southern Blacks. Here the quarled with President Johnson (1864-69). President Grant was more supportive (1869-77). The central step taken was the passage of the 13-15 amendments which abolished slavery and guaranted the civil rights, including the right to vote, of the freed slaves and guaranteed the equal protection of the law. (The Emancipation proclamationThere was an execyive order and open to legal chgalenge.) The slaves were freed, Reconstruction brought great hope for change in the South. There were some considerable gains made. Schools were established and Blacks elected to public office. The Freedman's Bureau was established. After President Hayes (1877-81) withdrew Federal troops from the South, the white majority began to take away the civil rights that the freed slaves had briefly experienced.

Emancipation of Spanish Slaves: Cuba and Puerto Rico (1873-78)

After the Napoleonic Wars when Britain began a campaign to end the slave trade, the Spanish were not cooperative. Spain contunued to maintain slavery on Cuba and Puerto Rico into the late-19th century after slavery had been abolished elsewhere in the Caribbean. While Spain officially ended the slave trade (1835), slavery continued on the two remaining Spanish colonies in the America--Cuuba and Puerto Rico. In fact the slzave trade did not end. Slavers continued delivering captive iszlands to both islands. The relatively small Spanish Navy made no serious effort to stop the slvers. And Spanish officials on the two islands commonly turned a blind eye on the traffic. Cuba is the large Caribbean island and has large flat areas ideal for sugar plantations. Not country is more perfectly suited for growing sugar cane. Cuba was by far the most important with its productive sugar plantations. Puerto Rico was amaller islans with less land suitable for plantation agriculture. [Figueroa] The abolitionist move had an increasing influence on the Spanish public. Mass demonstrations were organized Perhaps 15,000 people demonstrated in Madrid (1873). [Schmidt-Nowara, p. 152] Moret's anti-slavery law was a compromise approach. It instituted a harsh apprenticeship system as the first step toward freedom for the freed slaves. Full freedom was set for 1886. Spain's revolutionary process brought emancipation to Puerto Rico (1873). Slavery end in Cuba after the conservative restoration of the Bourbon monarchy (1874-76) and the truce ending the Ten Years War (1878). [Scott, p. 194.]

Emancipation of Brazilian Slaves (1888)

Brazil was a major desination of the Atlantic slave trade. Brazil justsout into the Atlantic and was thus a much shorter run for the slavers. Brazil had the largest slave population in the world, substantially larger than the United States. Pedro II was a ruler of conservative mindset. He came to see slavery, despite its economic importance to Brazil as inherently evil. Pedro began a series of measures liberating Brazilian slaves. He was posed to entirely abolish slavery. His measures against slavery met oposition from major landowners and the military, the leadership of which was drawn from the landed elite. The Emperor was on a trip to Europe when his daughter, Princess Isabel serving as regent, issued a decree abolishing slavery (May 13, 1888). This essentially did away for the last bastion of slavery, although forced labor cotinued for some time, in the Western Hemishere and ended what remained of the the African slave trade. Princess Isabella's decree is known as the Golden Law. It was widely praised in Europe. Abolishing slavery was the last major action taken by the Brazilian royal family. Brazil proved to be the last Western Hemisphere country to abolish slavery.


Ely, Melvin Patrick. Israel on the Appomattox

Figueroa, Luis Antonio. Sugar, Slavery, and Freedom in Nineteenth-century Puerto Rico.

Horton, James Oliver and Louis E. Horton. Slavery and the Making of America (Oxford University Press, 2004), 254p.

Jacobs. Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself (1861). This book was originally published under the pseudonym Linda Brent. The book was at first dismissed as a fabrication but is today widely considered factual.

Scott, Rebecca. Slave Emancipstion.


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Created: May 25, 2002
Last updated: 11:27 AM 5/22/2017