Slavery in North America and the West Indies: An Attempt of Comparison

Seminar Paper, 2005

23 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. North America
2.1. Beginnings of Slavery until the War of Independence
2.2. Changes in the ante-bellum Period up to the Civil War
2.3. Slave Life and Culture

3. The West Indies
3.1. Historical Overview
3.2. Slave Society and Plantation System
3.3. Slave Resistance

4. Comparison

5. Conclusion

6. Sources

7. Appendix

1. Introduction

When in 1619 the first 20 blacks arrived in Virginia, nobody could even guess what consequences would arise from this arrival. This event should be the beginning of a yoke of suppression of blacks lasting nearly 250 years in order to work for the “white man’s” fortune in the newly founded colonies in North America and the West Indies. In this “dark chapter” of history many of the slaves were driven to death by starving, exhaustion, beating or diseases. Legally they were not even considered as humans, but as mere properties.

Regarding the American and Caribbean Colonies, certain differences occur in economies, life conditions and social structure of slaves. Consequently my research will deal with the description and the comparison of “black history” from the beginnings (early 17th century) until the end of slavery in America and the West Indies. After having a look at the historical background, I intend to examine some crucial questions, for instance: Why did slavery in America develop in a different way than in the Caribbean? Or: Why did so many elements of the African culture survive until today on the West Indies, whereas an “African-American Culture” developed in North America? According to Stamp it took several centuries to ascertain, in other words to accept, that “Negroes are […] only white men with black skins, nothing more, nothing less.”[1]

2. North America

2.1. The Beginnings of Slavery until the War of Independence

In fact, the origin of the American slavery problem can be found in 1619, when a Dutch captain brought the first 20 blacks as indentured servants to Virginia. These blacks were treated the same way like other white indentured servants who accepted to work three or four years without getting any money, in order to pay off their debts for the journey to America. Surely blacks as well as whites had to work hard (agricultural labour-like planting tobacco), but under human conditions. Even their legal status was the same, which meant the permission for marriages (and intermarriages between blacks and whites), the integration in churches and sometimes basic education. Some of these facts were acknowledged by Robert Beverley (pp. 98) who told about relations of servants and slaves in 1705. But this “acceptable” situation should not last long, because in 1638 the first “real” black slaves, who were acquired in Barbados, arrived in New England.

Russell Menard (pp. 109) mentions that soon after whites experienced black slaves as labourer, the situation changed immediately. Most planters complained about the short time of servitude of indentured servants. Just after having been productive on an optimal level, they had paid off their debts by working some years and after that they decided to establish their own business. They were replaced by new indentured servants, but these ones had not yet acquired the desired skills. Another point in favour of slave labour was that white servants were obviously difficult to discipline and relatively expensive. Black slaves were easier to control, they reproduced themselves and were cheaper after some years working. A certain pattern became visible – the demand for indentured servants declined, when the availability of slaves increased. After the Royal African Company had been established in 1672, the import of slaves occurred in greater dimensions. In contrast to that, Francis Bremer (pp. 205) points out that although more slaves were imported, the extent of slavery in connection with

agriculture was rather unpopular in the Chesapeake Colonies. This can be simply justified with the economical situation, because New England’s farmers never decided to cultivate staple crops like cotton, which would have required huge amounts of slaves.

Additionally Stanley Elkins (p. 40) states that the first legal step towards the institution of slavery was made in 1663 by Maryland Law which implied that all Negroes should serve “durante vita”, a term which is equated by serving the whole life time. Until the end of the 17th century, the proportion of black slaves in the Chesapeake colonies (Virginia and Maryland) was relatively low, which meant 3% to 4% of the whole population. Expressed in concrete numbers, there had lived about 24000 whites and 900 blacks (cf. appendix).

According to Edmund Morgan (223) the majority of the labour force after 1700 were slaves, simply because the “Virginians bought the cheapest labour they could get.” Also the legal status changed at the beginning of the 18th century, resulting in separate laws for whites and black slaves. Racial discrimination began to develop in this time. As a kind of contemporary opinion, Hugh Jones stated that the new laws were good to prevent slaves from running away. Besides he thought that blacks had a pretty good job there and a better life than in their home countries. They just had to plant corn and in case blacks were free, they could not take care of themselves without the “loving” care of whites.

Peter Kolchin (pp. 192) claims that racism acted as a justification of slavery or as a state of nature, and consequently, the “savage”, uncivilized and heathen blacks, often captured from West Africa (Niger Delta, Gold Coast, Dahomey), were supposed to become civilized. Finally, I would like to quote Edmund Morgan (223): “The rise of liberty and equality in this country was accompanied by the rise of slavery.”

Franklin and Moss (pp. 122) report that some states, from 1783 on, decided that blacks who served in the War of Independence were granted freedom. Another four years later the North-West-Ordinance was signed which said that in the newly explored Northwest Territories

indentured servitude should prevail and slavery should be abolished. Besides, the city of Boston could be regarded as an exception in the whole USA, just because all of the 761 blacks living there were free.

According to William Freehling (1979, p. 4), the Declaration of Independence was a white man’s document which created, or in other words consolidated, at first aristocratic privilege and second black bondage. On the one hand, even an outstanding character like Thomas Jefferson regarded blacks as an inferior race and bought or sold many of them as slaves. On the other hand, he proposed in 1784 to declare slavery illegal in all Western territories after 1800, but unfortunately this proposal was not signed, because one single vote had been missing.

John Ashworth (34-40) adds that Jefferson had the opinion that slavery could not be justified in any way, he condemned the slave trade as well and he made many other proposals for Emancipation patterns. In fact, Jefferson blamed the English King George III. for introducing slavery, too. To my mind the inner conflict of Jefferson was perfectly characterized by Freehling (1979, 4) who said: “He lived in the grand manner, burying prayers for freedom under an avalanche of debt.”

Peter Kolchin (63) points out that as a result of the independence of the USA, the abolition of slavery had been completed and the African slave trade had been banished forever from the Northern States. Nevertheless, free blacks were discriminated there, because they were excluded from most public schools and had no right to vote. Consequently freedom did not mean equality at the same time. The last striking point to mention is that after being granted freedom, most of the former slaves did not want to return to their home countries in Africa, because they felt as Americans.

2.2. Changes in the ante-bellum Period up to the Civil War

I would like to begin this chapter with a quotation of Henry W. Grady[2] who said: “The Old South rested everything on slavery and agriculture, unconscious that these could neither give nor maintain healthy growth.” This statement characterizes the situation best.

According to Franklin and Moss (pp. 132) a different economic situation prevailed in the 19th century in the Southern States of the USA. After the great depression of tobacco prizes and the loss of fertility of the soil in 1783 (caused by more than 150 years of intensive planting), planters were forced to think about alternative farming crops. Consequently they developed a new sort of cotton, which was suitable for mass production, and the Cotton Gin, which facilitated the harvest of cotton and its further processing. As a result, a new boom of cotton planting evolved which was connected with a new need for labourers and the rising demand for cotton in Great Britain. Moreover, Freehling (1994, 17) states that after abolishing slavery in the Northern States, all the planters there made good deals by selling all their slaves to Southern planters. In 1808, the international slave trade was forbidden by law and planters could not buy slaves as easy as it was before, because now they were dependent on smugglers, who kept on selling slaves. The development of the North and the South differed: the North became more industrialized and urban (dynamic), whereas the South “lingered” on an agriculture and rural level (static).

Franklin and Moss (213/pp. 278) point out some really important stations on the way to the Civil War. The first is Nat Turner’s slave rebellion in 1831, when many blacks and whites were killed. Secondly, after “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was published in 1852, many Northerners decided to support the abolition of slavery. Abolitionists suffered a defeat in 1857 when the Dred Scott Decision was passed through the Supreme Court, which decided that slaves are not persons under the Constitution and consequently had no right to receive liberty. Furthermore,

in 1859 John Brown tried to raid the national weapon depots in order to start an offensive against Southern slave holders. Finally, when the Republican Party won the elections of 1860, the way into the Civil War was only a matter of time.

According to Clarence Mohr many slaves wanted to participate on the Northern side as a kind of revenge against the “crimes” of the Southern slave-holders during this war. Some of them wanted to free their friends or relatives, whereas others wanted to fight because of their “[…] basic hatred of bondage.” (Mohr, 381)

2.3 Slave Life and Culture

Slaves were extremely restricted in their freedom. Kenneth Stamp (pp. 63) reports that slaves were not allowed learning how to read and write, to take part in elections and sometimes even a simple use of drums or acoustic signs were forbidden. Any violation of such rules could be punished in several ways: e.g. smaller food rations, Sunday or holiday work, whippings, brandings, castrations or sentence to death (hanging or burning). The most “effective” penalty was whipping, which was subdivided into different degrees, in which whipping to death was the hardest punishment. Slave-owners had thought that they could break the will and spirit of their slaves by doing so and the whip would stand as a symbol of the master’s authority. Fogel and Engerman (pp. 78) claim that slaves sometimes got gifts from their owners (in form of money, some acres of land or goods) and very rarely they got the chance for an apprenticeship as blacksmith or carpenter. Slaves who got such an apprenticeship often had a better life than their fellow sufferers on the plantations and were better situated in the whole society. According to a contemporary (Judge Crenshaw[3] ) slaves had no civil rights, could not make any wills or contracts, had no right to possess properties, nor could they inherit something.

David Brion Davis (pp. 19) states that a slave could be bought, sold, leased, mortgaged, bequeathed, presented as a gift, pledged for a debt, included in a dowry or seized in bankruptcy. Consequently, the central aspect of slavery was dehumanization in the worst way.

An interesting stereotype of black slaves is pointed out by Stanley Elkins (82/308), when he describes the “Sambo” image. According to that, slave-holders regarded their slaves as childish, loyal to their masters, but lazy. Consequently the slave-owner has to appear in a certain paternalistic position by supporting his “black children” with food, clothing and dwelling, because these infantile slaves can only exist in the state of slavery. Many thought that by enslaving them, slave-holders do them a favour, because if blacks were in Africa, which was condemned as the continent of savagery, cannibalism and devil worshippers[4], they would not become civilized people. John Calhoun, a notorious representative of pro-slavery arguments, stated: “[…] the slave enjoyed a better life than the free Negro.”[5]

Fredrickson (35) goes a step further and says that slave-owners thought that blacks could find happiness and fulfilment only when they have a white master, who guides them through their life, just because of the inability of black slaves to function in a free society. The former slave Frederick Douglass (359) criticized this paternalistic “preferential treatment” by commentating on the whole matter: “And if the Negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall also […] give him a chance to stand on his own legs.”

Peter Kolchin (pp. 40) points out that manifold dimensions of culture existed between slaves and their owners. A relation between slaves and masters, Africans and Europeans and finally pagans and Christians could be recognized. As a result, it is possible to say that a kind of Americanization of Africans did take place and a certain “mixed culture” developed, but nonetheless, several important aspects of African culture remained stable and did not change over a period lasting more than 300 years.


[1] Kenneth M. Stamp, cited in Elkins (23)

[2] cited in Rubin (6)

[3] mentioned in Elkins (59)

[4] according to Governor George McDuffie (mentioned in Fredrickson, 30-34)

[5] cited in Williams (275)

Excerpt out of 23 pages


Slavery in North America and the West Indies: An Attempt of Comparison
University of Potsdam  (Institut für Anglistik/Amerikanistik)
Text and Context: Important Documents in American History
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ISBN (Book)
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Sklaverei Karibik, Sklaverei USA, Plantagensystem, Sklavenwiderstand, Sklavengesellschaft, Englische Kolonialherrschaft, Sambo, Maroons
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Stefan Küpper (Author), 2005, Slavery in North America and the West Indies: An Attempt of Comparison, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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