Sunday, October 24, 2010


     Slavery in British North America began in 1619 with the first shipment of twenty slaves from the African continent to Jamestown.  Referencing back to the lesson on John Smith, Jamestown was founded in 1607 and those that settled were not used to partaking in physical labor.  By 1619, Jamestown was becoming a well established colony and more land was available, mostly being used for farming crops.  One of the crops that the settlers of Jamestown were introduced to was tobacco.  Tobacco was, and still is, a very labor-intensive crop to grow, along with the fact that it takes the nutrients out of the ground, killing usefulness of the soil.  A growing market for tobacco, in the colonies as well as in Britain, created a demand for extra labor in the tobacco fields.  Slave labor equaled cheap labor.
     There is however one point that needs to be made clear.  There was not an immediate influx of African slaves to the North American continent right after 1619.  The slave colonies of Maryland, North and South Carolina, and Georgia were not established until starting in the 1630s on up to the 1730s.  It also needs to be understood that the northern colonies also had slaves, just not to the extent that the southern colonies did.  The disparity between the slave populations in the northern and southern colonies did not come to fruition until after the American Revolution and with the invention of the cotton gin in 1793 by Eli Whitney.
     The aforementioned disparity in slave population has been what historians have termed "slave society" and "society with slaves".  A "society with slaves" is pretty easy and simple to understand.  The northern colonies consisted of societies that had slaves with about one in every eight households owning slaves, at most two slaves in each of those households.  The southern colonies, however, were "slave societies."  These societies were much more complex in that the economies of these colonies revolved around the use of slaves for all labor.  Remember, slave labor was cheap labor.  Contrary to popular belief, the majority of Southerners that owned slaves did not live on plantations.  The majority owned only a few slaves, at most maybe ten slaves.  Plantation owners that had the hundreds of slaves that are talked about in movies and television shows, were in the minority.
     Geography played a huge role in the establishment of the "slave society" and "society with slaves."  The labor-intensive crops, like tobacco and cotton, that were grown in the south did so because of the nutrient-rich soil and warmer climate.  These crops would not survive a growing season in the northern colonies because of the colder temperatures and different soil.  The southern colonies gravitated toward an agriculture-based economy whereas the northern colonies toward an industrial-based economy.
     Many wonder and have wondered, including myself, how slavery could be such a dividing issue leading up to the Civil War.  I think the reason is because the southern economy could not function (or believed they could not function) without the use of slave labor.  Without slaves, the southern colonies would not have had an economy, or maybe a very poor one.  On a side note, I think I need to clarify here that I do not condone or agree with the South owning slaves, but I do understand, based on how things were, why slavery existed.  There was very little industrial support and growth to act as a fall back plan in the event that slavery was abolished.  The end of the Civil War and abolition of slavery may have ordered the southern states to change their ways, but the mindset of the southern states did not change immediately concerning the idea of slave labor and African-Americans.

Source of information: The Intellectual Devotional: American History by Kidder and Oppenheim, pg. 3

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