During the course of early history in the Americas, the institution of slavery proliferated through much of the economical and social life of the British-influenced colonies and the Caribbean islands. However, as one delves into an investigation to the practices of slavery that abounded throughout these regions during the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it becomes clear that, while all slaves shared the common struggle of living in bondage, slaves in particular areas fared better than those working in other locales. This essay will examine some of the factors that led to these variances and decipher just how these differences played out among the colonies of South Carlina and Virginia, as well as the British West Indies. One should begin this examination of slavery by considering the fact that, while all of the aforementioned regions saw British involvement, each one of these areas saw different crops and also various slave-holding philosophies. These prevailing trends are a result of myriad factors. However, perhaps most important are those pertaining to market demand for various crops and the social climates of these regions.
The South Atlantic System, which included the marketing of productive crops such as rice, sugar, and tobacco, was at the heart of the slave trade. Receiving millions of Africans during the course of the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries, certain American colonies and the British West Indies would go onto become the recipient of young African men and, in some cases, women who would literally toil to death as they grew, maintained, and harvested the lucrative crops that would yield wealth for many of the planters.
Looking first toward the Caribbean, one finds that sugar crops proved to be an economical powerhouse, with steady demand from many markets craving to enjoy the sweet ingredient that has long since become a culinary staple. In her article, “Slavery in America,” Jean West describes how “white gold,” was not only in itself a leading cause for planters to purchase slaves to continue business expansion, but the “sugar byproduct,” molasses, was distilled into rum and used for the purchase of more slaves; the great irony in this was that “the labor of slaves fueled the enslavement of even more Africans.”
These sugar islands not only received slaves, but those which came found themselves in a grueling environment indeed. These slaves, having just managed to survive the often fatal Middle Passage during their trans-Atlantic voyage, wound up working ten-hour days, toiling “under a hot, semi-tropical sun,” sleeping in “flimsy huts,” having to be “subject to brutal discipline,” and then, after having “worked […] To death,” the expired slaves would be replaced by new slaves to help fill the roles needed to accommodate the ever-growing and vastly profitable sugar and molasses industry (Henretta, Brody, and Dumenil 80).
Virginia was a British colony whose primary crop of profit came to be tobacco. The Chesapeake population had long included Africans. However, the population of these blacks remained quite small, and not all were active slaves. Some of these Africans were servants, some were “free,” and others had no definable legal standing (Encarta).With the expansive rise of tobacco farming and an increased flow of African slaves, the black population had begun to increase by the 1680s, and by 1690, black slaves began outnumbering the significant ranks of white indentured servants who had previously labored in the colony (Encarta).
As the population of black slaves continued to grow, Virginia began to grapple with these people, considered at the bottom level of society, through the passage of certain strict and discriminatory laws. Some of these laws included a 1692 measure that banned interracial sexual intercourse between Africans and English populations in the colony; another law, passed in 1705, read as the following: “All servants imported or brought into this country by sea or land who were not Christians in their native country shall be accounted and be slaves,” (Henretta, Brody, Dumenil 83). As can be inferred from the operation of these southern colonies, slavery was not only rationalized economically and socially, but, as the latter aforementioned Virginia law illustrates, slavery was justified by some on religious grounds, too. The outcropping of social events following Bacon’s Rebellion during 1675-1676 was another reason for Virginia’s expansive use of slavery. After the revolt of white indentured servants in Virginia during the middle-1670s uprising, many in the colony turned to utilizing the labor of African slaves (Henretta, Brody, Dumenil 53).
South Carolina began to see a large increase of its slave population in the early eighteenth century, just at the time when Africans who had been removed from rice-producing regions of their native continent began earnestly planting and growing rice crops. While rice production in the colony dates back to as early as the 1680s, the major commercial potential of rice was soon fully realized and, by the first decade of 1700, rice rapidly became “the colony’s richest economic activity,” (Encarta). Indigo, another slave labor-dependent industry, became the second-leading crop during the 1740s (Encarta). Rice was a major export to various other regions, including Europe.
South Carolina’s geographic position also lent it a number of other trade advantages. Barbadian sugar planters who moved to South Carolina used slaves to raise cattle and crops, which were then exported to the West Indies. Furthermore, South Carolinian merchants were able to establish trade with Indians, who would exchange deerskins for English-manufactured commodities (Henretta, Brody, Dumenil 69). Perhaps one drawback to South Carolina’s location was its close proximity to Spanish Florida. In the 1739 Stono Rebellion, a number of disgruntled slaves were “instigated” by the governor of the Spanish colony to leave their plantations for the promise of freedom (Henretta, Brody, Dumenil 86). This minor but symbolic slave uprising led to seventy-five slaves literally marching out of South Carolina and killing some whites near the Stono River; white militia eventually overtook many of these rebelling slaves, and many in South Carolina ended up adopting policies of stricter plantation discipline and importing fewer new slaves from Africa (Henretta, Brody, Dumenil 86).
The physical labor required to grow and harvest rice was demanding in every respect. The rice was grown in swampy areas, where mosquitoes and their deadly viruses proliferated (Henretta, Brody, Dumenil 83). Furthermore, slaves had to trudge through the marshes as they “planted, weeded, and harvested the crop in ankle-deep mud, amidst pools of putrid waters,” (Henretta, Brody, Dumenil 83). The horrid working conditions in which the slaves had to toil included arduous irrigation projects, seemingly endless hours, and work among the mosquito-infested swamps that left many slaves dead. As slaves passed away, planters would systematically bring in more.
The three slave regions mentioned in this investigation have a number of elements that need to be cross-examined. Most glaringly, it is important to examine the differences in the various labor and social climates of these three British-controlled realms. Of these slaveholding entities, perhaps the least grueling was Virginia. There are a few reasons for this; namely, having to grow and tend to tobacco fields was far less a labor-intensive task than having to raise rice or mind sugar crops. While tobacco slaves needed to simply plant seeds, maintain the crops, and then harvest tobacco leaves on fields, rice slaves had to labor in the swampy rice paddies, toiling with planting, weeding, and then harvesting the rice all the while combating dangerous mosquitoes, mucky conditions, and then, for those in charge of irrigation projects, having to move “tons of dirt,” (Henretta, Brody, Dumenil 83). Of the three profiled regions, the slaves in the British West Indies had the worst conditions of all within which to labor. Because slaves were inexpensive and the price of sugar was so high, slaves were literally “worked to death” as they worked, subject to “brutal discipline,” in sweltering heat as they toiled to keep the sugar industry well supplied with the highly demanded commodity (Henretta, Brody, Dumenil 83).
Social matters were also another set of factors behind the variances in slave holding regions. In the West Indies, slaves were treated as nothing more than metaphorical cogs in a wheel. Because sugar profits were so high, planters could afford to essentially burn slaves out until they died of exhaustion, injury, or disease, and then replace the fallen slave with another, only to likely face a similar fate. Slaves in South Carolina did not fare all that much better than their West Indies counterparts. Rice slaves, also having to maintain operations of a highly lucrative crop, were pushed to their physical limits, for they, too, were effectively replaceable. If these African laborers died, and all too many indeed perished in their harsh work environment, the deceased slaves were readily replaced.
The scheme of slave life in Virginia was relatively less harsh than was the case in South Carolina and the British West Indies. Virginian slaves, principally, had far less-demanding farm work on tobacco fields than that which was found in the swampy rice paddies to the south or the hot sugar cane fields on the islands in the Atlantic. Furthermore, slaves were treated with much greater care than their counterparts mentioned elsewhere in this review. However, this gentler slave handling was not necessarily the result of a more humane philosophy, per se. In fact, the milder treatment of slaves in Virginia came from the fact that many slaveholders in the colony usually could not afford to replace slaves, as could the rice and sugar planters. Therefore, the slaves were treated considerably more carefully so as to prevent extreme fatigue, injury, or death, allowing them to live longer as functioning laborers—much in the way that one may treat a machine carefully so as to avoid having to pay to replace it.
Another issue surrounding the Virginian slave population is that slaveholders would impel African men and women to procreate so as to provide free, additional labor. Between natural births, the further addition of new African slaves, and a lower death rate due to less rampant spread of disease and less aggressive labor and abuse, Virginia saw significant natural net increases in the black population.
When looking at slave population numbers throughout the eighteenth century, it is important to note the high death rate of slaves in South Carolina and the Caribbean. In Barbados, for example, 85,000 slaves were transported to the region between the years 1708 and 1735; yet, the population of blacks increased from 42,000 to only 46,000 (Henretta, Brody, Dumenil 80). This source further notes that ”
One factor that led to various degrees of violence toward slaves was indeed the relative population of slaves in a certain region. While blacks in the North saw relatively “little violence,” slaves in the highly black West Indies could expect to receive punishment involving the use of branding irons; slaves in the rice-farming areas of South Carolina, where Africans outnumbered Europeans eight to one, were often tightly monitored while away from their plantations (Henretta, Brody, Dumenil 86).
The need for slavery in the South and the West Indies as opposed to the North was in large part due to the fact that the North and the South had different types of economies. While the South boasted the production of profitable commodities such as rice, tobacco and, later, cotton (all which required vast farms and large numbers of laborers, a position filled mainly by slaves), the North was seeing a growing economy tied to the ports along coastal regions such as Boston, Newport, New York, and Philadelphia (Henretta, Brody, Dumenil 89). Those who were attracted to the jobs and climate of these emerging urban giants were British and German immigrants and laborers and artisans from rural areas (Henretta Brody, Dumenil 89). One area where blacks did see a role in the northern economy was in having to fill the duty of unloading and stocking barrels of goods from ships that would enter and leave the various ports of places such as Philadelphia and New York City, where blacks accounted for ten percent of the workforce (Henretta, Brody, Dumenil 90).
As seen in this examination of slavery in these particular regions, slavery was not only an extensive institution, but indeed a complex one as well. Furthermore, one can begin to understand that slavery was not practiced in universal fashion. While all slaves had to endure existing in inhumane bondage, some slaves did experience less brutality than others, thanks in large part to economical and agricultural differences among the three highlighted terrains. Furthermore, as evidenced, there were also social implications involved in the various slave climates; while some slaves lived as veritable farming machines, others, particularly those in Virginia, were often able to create families.
This illustration of these British-led slavery practices indeed serves not only to depict the dynamics of slave economies, but also to convey just how grueling the slaves’ condition really was. While some survived, and even thrived, most did not, and many died while having to commit to forced labor. Sadder still is the high number of slaves which perished due to the abhorrent conditions on the slave ships as they traversed the Middle Passage to the Americas. The slaves that did survive and toil helped to produce a roaring economic engine in the South and the Caribbean that led to great wealth not just for the planters who owned the crops, but the colonies themselves. More so, the economic network that would span from Europe to the Caribbean to the Carolinas and Virginia and up to the Northeastern colonies helps to elucidate just how integral the institution of slavery was for the involved entities. Insomuch, one can begin to realize that the institution of slavery was key to emboldening the economies of the American colonies, the Caribbean, and even parts of Europe. Profoundly, though, slavery had not only an economic impact on these regions, but it left a glaring social fingerprint as well that, as many will argue, is still felt to this day.
Henretta, James A., David Brody, and Lynn Dumenil. America: A Concise History. 3rd ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2006.
“South Carolina.” Microsoft Encarta. 2006. Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia Online. 27 January 2007
“United States History.” Microsoft Encarta. 2006. Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia Online. 27 January 2007.
West, Jean M. “Sugar and Slavery: Molasses to Rum to Slaves.” Slavery in America. Undated. 27 January 2007
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