African slavery in the New World is one of the most important parts of American history. During the settlement of the North and South American colonies, many factors led to their development into autonomous countries. Specifically, in the British colonies in North America, settlers needed to cultivate the land of the colonies so that they could live and grow new cash crops to send back to England. A major challenge with those initiatives was that the labor was treacherous, due to the new land they colonized and people (American Indians) they encountered. The easiest economic option when faced with a capital and labor shortage is to add unskilled and low-wage laborers to the workforce. That labor shortage was filled in the form of enslaved Africans, which led to the systemic and violent – a fact not to be understated, because it was brutally inhumane – racism that is associated with slavery, not the other way around. Dire economic conditions drove the colonies towards slavery and were the reasons behind its exponential growth in the early 1700s.
The settlers were struggling just to maintain their own livelihood, and needed to find a way to make their voyage across the Atlantic profitable for the mother-country. If colonies struggled, it was only logical that they looked to the more successful colonies for guidance (Menard, 1988, 33). For the British settlers, they looked to Portuguese and Spanish colonies in Central and South America. This is what transpired in Transitions to British Slavery, which showed how Maryland, South Carolina and Virginia reached an economic state centered on slave labor (Menard, 49). Portugal and Spain, as discussed by Jordan, already had an established trade route that stopped in Africa, Europe and the New World (2012, 58). British colonies saw how perpetual African slavery worked for those countries and combined it with their already prevalent system of indentured servitude to improve their own colonies.
The colonists needed to find a sustainable lifestyle in the New World, especially those who came there through indentured servitude to pay their way across the Atlantic. Jordan articulated very clearly that the British understood and practiced servitude as a way to pay off debts (52). In White Over Black he described how serving someone was a punishment, but it also provided an exploitable economic benefit (Jordan, 52). British settlers knew what could be done if you owned someone’s labor. If one could do less work than originally required, but make more profit than if they were to do all the work, that person would be better off, fiscally speaking. Legally controlling what someone’s labor was already a part of common law when the settlers reached the Americas. This was not a new concept they invented around Africans. They just created a more economically favorable – though exponentially less humane – system by making African slavery perpetual (Jordan, 53). This aided them economically as it assured their costs could be kept down and that they would always have a labor force to pick from. This concept. in the economic sense, was very good. It allowed for large profits, limited work and miniscule operational costs. While in practice slavery is inhumane and indefensible, in theory it is an economical means that anyone could manipulate to get rich, and so they did. The cumulative effect of high labor demands, undeveloped land and a pressing need for a viable lifestyle in the New World meant slavery was the answers to several issues, none of which appear to involve race.
To say slavery originated from racism would be to ignore the economic history and implementation of enslavement in the Americas. The colonies were not established with African enslavement as part of their foundation. Slavery was chosen as a means to fix a broken economic system; broken in the since that it was deemed too difficult for Britain to colonize America, if they had to force their own citizens, who already had a home, to migrate to America. So instead they turned to other another race; people they would not ask for approval when it came to colonization and cultivation; and initially, who they chose were not Africans.
In Capitalism and Slavery, Williams states that the first slave trading involved, “not the Negro but the Indian.” (1994, 7). The colonists did not even immediately move to African slavery when they crossed the Atlantic, but they recognized they needed an abundance of field hands and decided it was not going to be them. They became a major marketplace for African slave trade after concluding that natives were too hard to enslave, not being as isolated as Africans. Williams notes that enslavement contradicted the Native American’s way of life, more so than others. Owning an Indian was more than to enslave “his muscles but also his collective spirit,” Williams wrote (8). This made them a less efficient option. Instead of fighting the Indians and forcing them into slavery the British moved on to another ethnic group, while displacing Native Americans from their homeland at the same time.
After recognizing the costs of white servitude and the difficulties of Indian enslavement, settlers determined Africans were their cheapest, and the more efficient, option. This meant perpetual ownership of their labor and the children of slaves’ future labor. The limitations of white servitude and Indian slaves, in contrast with the “stable, large-scale, international,” market that was African slavery for plantations, made the choice to use Africans very logical (Menard, 39). It was economic, though incredibly despicable. If their focus was strictly economic, then it makes sense that perpetual slavery would be the one they chose, as it would be the most labor one could possibly acquire. African slavery in the New World, in short, was about making the colonies profitable and viable, not about oppressing Africans, though it ultimately became a racially oppressive system that they would go to war to protect.
Jordan, W. White Over Black. The University of North Carolina Free Press. 2012. 44-98.
Menard, R. Transition to African Slavery in British America, 1630-1730: Barbados,
Virginia, and South Carolina. Indian Historical Review 15. 1988. 33-49.
Williams, E. Capitalism and Slavery. The University of North Carolina Free Press. 1994.
Ch. 1 “The Origins of Negro Slavery” 1-29.