Slavery in New York at the beginning of the 17th century

Diploma Thesis, 2015

49 Pages, Grade: A




Chapter 1. Slavery – definition and historical background.
1.1. Preliminary remarks
1.2. Slavery - attempt at definition.
1.3. The development of slavery.
1.3.1. The African slave trade
1.3.2. Unfree labor in the North American colonies
1.3.3. Slavery and capitalism
1.4. Slavery and human rights–the emancipation movement.

Chapter 2. The specific character of the New York state
2.1. Preliminary remarks.
2.2. Slavery in the New York state in the colonial times.
2.3 New York as the biggest slavery state in the North.
2.3. Prohibiting the sale of slaves and gradual emancipation.

Chapter 3. Abolition and emancipation movement
3.1. Preliminary remarks
3.2. The New York Manumission Society.
3.3. John Jay – a leader of antislavery movement.
3.4. The failure of gradual emancipation and its reasons




The objective of this thesis is to present the issue of slavery in the New York colony from the Dutch rule at the beginning of 17th century through English domination and American Revolutionary War. Its aim is also to present a struggle of progressive white New York citizens and black enslaved for full emancipation. For most of its history, New York has been the largest, most ethnically diverse, and most economically expansive city in the North American colonies. It was also the headquarter of American slavery for more than two hundred years. During the American Revolutionary War, the British army occupied New York City in 1776. The Crown promised freedom to slaves who left rebel masters . By 1780, 10,000 black slaves lived in New York. After the American Revolution, the New York Manumission Society was founded in 1785 to work for the abolition of slavery and for assistance to free blacks. The state passed a 1799 law for gradual abolition; after that date, children born to slave mothers were free but required to work an extended period as indentured servants into their twenties. Existing slaves kept their status. All remaining slaves were finally freed on July 4, 1827.

Key words: Duch colony, New York seaport, slavery, American Revolution, manumission movements, gradual emancipation, full emancipation.

Chapter 1. Slavery – definition and historical background.

Slavery is social phenomenon known to all historical eras. In the antiquity, slavery constituted the social and economic basis. Without slaves the ancient society would be inconceivable. Although slavery was largely substituted during the medieval times with serfdom, the great discoveries renewed its attractiveness for the emerging new economy based on the mercantile approach. Slavery had already existed in Muslim countries, however, the kind of slavery initiated by European colonial powers was exceptional because it was race-based. It is also characteristic that slavery practically did not exist in Europe. In its western part, serfdom was gradually replaced by market regulated social and economic relations. Nevertheless, the whole of the colonial economy was largely dependent on the institution of slavery.

In the 1830s, American abolitionists, under the guidance of Evangelical Protestants, noticed proper moment in their battle to end slavery. Abolitionists treated slavery as national evil, and that it was a moral obligation of every American to remove it from America by freeing the slaves and returning them to Africa. Viewpoints on slavery varied depending on the state. Till the mid-nineteenth century, the ideological contradictions between a national defence of slavery in America on the one hand, and the universal freedoms included in the Declaration of Independence had created a deep moral schism in the national culture (I Will Be Heard 2014 ).

This thesis attempts to analyse the phenomenon of slavery in the state of New York. In order to achieve this goal, it seems necessary to commence with an overview. The first chapter will describe the historical background of slavery. Its objective is to provide a definition of slavery. The remaining two chapters will be focused on the slavery in the state of New York. The second chapter will cover its history until the first major attempts of emancipation. The third chapter will concentrate on the emancipation movement within the discussed state. The state of New York is a particularly interesting object of study and analysis for a few important reasons. First of all, it has been one of the most important states of the Union in terms of political, cultural and economic significance. Secondly, it was the Northern State with the most considerable number of slaves who constituted the basis of the state economy. Moreover, it seems that the emancipation movement which was developed in the state of New York had a profound and immense influence on the rest of the country. The objective of this thesis is to prove whether the assumptions specified in the introduction are plausible. Due to a particular role of New York City within the state history, it seems inevitable that most of the thesis will focus on the history of the city. However, other areas will be covered as well.

1.1. Preliminary remarks

The following chapter will have an introductory character. It is believed that before beginning the analysis it is indispensable to begin with a general discussion concerning the analysed issue. Therefore, it seems plausible to work out an appropriate definition of slavery. Contrary to popular beliefs, slavery is a complex issue requiring explanation and should be approached from different perspectives. Subsequently, the chapter will deal with the general historical background of slavery. Due to the fact that this paper has a rather rudimentary character, these issues will be discussed relatively briefly. Finally, the chapter will attempt to explore the emancipation movement as it is the leading issue of the thesis.

1.2. Slavery - attempt at definition.

Definition of slavery determines a relationship of at least two individuals. It may take diversified forms and achieve certain results. The outcomes of slavery are similar across times and cultures but their forms can be different. Nevertheless, they are exploitative in their character and refer to usage of labour for productive activities resulting in economic benefits, use of the enslaved individual as an item of consumption and sexual purposes as well as the savings received due to unpaid and enslaved labour. Any particular slave may bring one, several, or all of specified gains for his/her holder (Bales 2014 : 1).

The outcomes of enslavement are similar but its forms can be diversified. Relationship of slavery is determined by numerous traits that are embedded in a vast variety of cultural, religious, social, political, ethnic, commercial, as well as psychological forms. The combination of elements that define any slave-slave owner relationship may be very specific, but reflects general patterns characteristic for society in which slavery exists. The extremely variant forms of slavery across time and across different societies indicate that the traits signifying a certain relationship as slavery may seem to be unclear. Religious reasons, “willing” participation, token “payments”, the evident consent in a “contract”, and other meanings can be applied in the social discourse explaining the slave/slave owner relationship (Bales 2014: 1).

In the case of slavery the issue of possession is essential and allows to examine definitional assumptions which have marginalized the legal definition of slavery. Since the 1930s this definition has been frequently complicated due to individuals and organisations attempting to expand the issue of slavery in order to match their agenda in order to treat the problem of their interest as “slavery”. In the 1960s they took the efforts to equate colonialism and apartheid with slavery or consider incest and juvenile detention as contemporary forms of slavery in the 1990s (Allain, Bales 2012:4).

There were numerous attempts to define slavery. The results of research on contemporary slavery prove that Kevin Bales's viewpoints in this respect included in his works have been adopted. Bales has discussed contemporary slavery and suggested an agenda for research as well as efficient interference. Bales’ definition is focused on the application of violence and control of economic exploitation. The essential factor of slavery is control that restricts freedom of the individuals expressed in the control of the slaves that prevents their escape and forces them to work. According to Bales, slavery as a status or condition is not defined by customs, practices, methods, or mechanisms of enslavement. An individual might be enslaved in many ways, but the means which brings a person to the state of slavery does not determine that state. It refers to the means by which a person is subjected to the control of another (Allain, Bales 2012:4).

That issue based on the concept that possession means control is a traditional approach in property law. Antony Honoré wrote that possession is: “the foundation on which the whole superstructure of ownership rests”. Possession is the most important power attributed to the right of ownership (Allain, Bales 2012:6).

Property lawyers claim that a proper exercise of the powers combined with the right of ownership is related to the understanding of slavery. Those scholars and the slavery experts discussed the aspects of the legal definition according to the Bellagio-Harvard Guidelines on the Legal Parameters of Slavery. They recognise that in slavery, the exercise of “the powers attaching to the right of ownership” indicates control over individuals which significantly deprives them of personal freedom including the exploitation through the management, disposal or use of that person. This exercise is supported by violence, deception and/or compulsion. The term “slavery'’ and its content are questioned despite the fact that an agreed international definition of slavery has existed since in 1926. It says: “Slavery is the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised”. The general opinions on the legal definition of slavery have been negative since the 1930s (Allain, Bales 2012:10).

Slavery was the major human rights issue of international concern. In spite of universal condemnation, slavery-like practices are still a serious problem. Currently, the word “slavery” contains a variety of human rights violations. These additional abuses include the sale of children, child prostitution, child pornography, the exploitation of child labour, the sexual mutilation of female children, the use of children in armed conflicts, debt bondage, the traffic in persons and in the sale of human organs, as well as certain practices under apartheid and colonial systems. It is difficult to obtain a clear picture of the scale of contemporary slavery. This problem is increased by the fact that the victims of slavery-like abuses come from the poorest and the the least educated social groups. There is enough evidence to prove that slavery-like practices are widespread.(Fact Sheet 1991:1).

Racism is a particular phenomenon combined with discrimination of the group of people and supported by the idea that some characteristics, such as skin colour, make them inferior. The concepts of “race” and “racism” are relatively new. They appeared and became an element of the dominant social ideology related to the African slave trade in the 16th and 17th century (Selfa 2002).

The early 1600s were marked by a great flow of immigrants from Europe to North America. The settlers whose motivations were diversified began to build a new civilization in the North American colonies. The first English immigrants reached North Americas long after the Spanish had established their colonies in Mexico, the West Indies and South America. Most colonists left their homeland due to political oppression or religious persecutions. Some of them were adventurers who saw new opportunities for themselves. Between 1620 and 1635 due to economic difficulties in England many people remained jobless. Even skilled artisans could not earn enough to meet the needs of their families Poor crops contributed to the distress. The Industrial Revolution had created a textile industry, which demanded growing supplies of wool to keep the workshops running. Landlords evicted the peasants and changed their land into the pastures. Colonial expansion became a chance for all these people. During the arbitrary reign of Charles I the migration to the New World increased. The revolt and victory of Charles' opponents under the guidance of Oliver Cromwell in the 1640s forced the "king's men" to travel to Virginia. Judges and enforcement authorities offered convicts a chance to leave England for America instead of serving prison sentences. Ships' captains received large rewards from the contracts for poor migrants and used every method from incredible promises to abducting to collect as many passengers as possible. The first blacks were brought to Virginia in 1619, which was only 12 years after Jamestown had been founded. They were treated as indentured servants who could be set free after some time. However, by the 1660s, due to the high demand for plantation labour in the Southern colonies, the institution of slavery expanded, and Africans were delivered to America for a lifetime involuntary service (The Outline of American history: 2014).

1.3. The development of slavery.

The ancient Greece and Rome were based on slavery. However, ancient slavery was not perceived as racial one. Slaves consisted mostly of conquered people or captives in wars. If white people are understood as originated in the territory of contemporary Europe, then the vast majority of slaves in ancient Greece and Rome were white. According to Roman law slaves were the property of their holders. who were not interested in the slave’s ethnic or racial descent. Slave emancipation contributed to producing a mixed population of slaves and free people in Roman empire and all were seen as “Romans” (Blackburn 1997:35).

Encounters between the Mediterranean area and black Africans were not a source of racism against the latter. Even though there are many documents of interaction between ancient Greeks, Romans and Egyptians and the people of Kush, Nubian, and Ethiopian kingdoms of Africa, there have been no proves of integration of black Africans within social structures of the ancient world as well as black-white intermarriages. The proportions of slaves in a particular ancient states or in particular sectors of their economies are unknown. The widespread idea that slaves accounted for approximately one-third of the population of ancient Athens and Roman Italy has no evident proves. The quantitative evidence, collected in Roman Egypt in the first three centuries AD, shows different percentages for different parts of the country, from 7% in one city in Upper Egypt to 14.7% in the cities of Middle Egypt (Scheidel 2005:3).

Slavery and serfdom used to be a widespread forms of servitude in the Middle Ages. They signified different forms as well. Slavery was a personal form of bondage in which individuals were tied by birth to the landlord. Serfs were committed to services for the lord who was an owner of the land and could be transferred from one lord to another (Maddocks, Anderson, Bingham 2006:701).From the 10th to the 16th century, the main source of slaves in Western Europe was Eastern Europe. Russia turned out to be the major area where the ethnicity of slave-holders and slaves was the same.

Empires perceived themselves as centres of the universe and treated foreigners as inferiors. Ancient Greeks and Romans fought against people they considered people at a lower level of cultural development .The Bible’s “curse of Ham” was interpreted as condemnation of Africans to slavery. The colour white was associated with angels or light and the colour black with evil and darkness. However, neither these cultural nor ideological factors explain the issue of the New World slavery and racism that has been created on this basis(Selfa 2002).

1.3.1. The African slave trade

The slave trade took about four centuries, from the mid 15th century when the Portuguese first travelled down the African coast, till 1888 when slavery in Brazil was eventually abolished. Slave traders brought approximately 12 million slaves from Africa to work mostly on the plantations in the Caribbean, South America, and North America and about 1.5 million did not survive the sea trip to the New World. The African slave traders, European marchanrs, and New World planters organised huge forced human transfer in history(Selfa 2002).

The first contacts of the Europeans mostly from Spain, Portugal, and England with African kings were related to trade of goods. After the establishment of the plantations in the New World, the slave trade began due to huge demand for labour force. Captives in wars or people from other tribes used to be sold into slavery by the African kings. The alliances with Europeans were concluded to support the African rulers in wars. Captives from their enemies were transferred as booty. The allegation that African kings and chiefs sold their own people into slavery has become a popular explanation of the Europeans condemned for their participation in the slave trade. By 1700 slave trading took the form of organized routine. African chiefs and kings along the coast permitted the European companies to build forts near their villages. The slave trade was focused around these forts where deals were made with European agents or “factors” who bought the slaves and arranged their transportation (Selfa 2002).

Slaves were subjected to 18-hour work daily. The whole of slave families were forced to work. Operation of the New World plantations could be compared to factories. Everyone had their tasks assigned which comprised the cycle from the fields to the processing phase. Slaves used to be deprived of the whole of the rights. From the Caribbean to North American colonies, numerous laws were passed constituting a code of common practices. Slaves were not allowed to have weapons, could not marry without the consent of their owner, and their families could be separated. They were prohibited to own property. Slaves cultivated vegetables and raised chickens as they had to meet their food needs by themselves. Nevertheless, they were banned to sell their own products for profit. Some colonies encouraged religious practices among slaves, but a slave’s conversion into Christianity did not change his/ her status. There were colonies which did not support religious instruction, especially when it turned out that church meetings could be the chief ways for conspiracies and revolts. Slaves were banned to serve on juries, to vote, or to be appointed for public offices. They had no right to education either. The African slave trade contributed to the shape of numerous societies from Argentina to Canada. They were diversified in their use of slaves, the regimen imposed as well as of legal and customary approval for mixing of the races. However, none of them turned out to be so severely racist as the British North American colonies (Selfa 2002).

1.3.2. Unfree labor in the North American colonies

Apart from the inhuman conditions black slaves had to suffer, one should emphasise that when Europeans began to settle the New World, African slaves were not a subject of their calculations. Nowadays slavery is considered in categories of racism. In the 17th and 18th centuries planters treated it mostly as a source of income. Their objective was to use slavery as a method of labour organization in order to produce such goods as sugar, tobacco, and cotton that could be sold overseas and not a system of white supremacy. In the seventeenth century North American English colonies, the most of slaves and “unfree laborers” were white. The term “unfree” determines the difference between slavery and servitude. Slavery and indentured servitude referred to slaves or servants attached to a particular employer for a certain period of time. Slaves could not make any decisions concerning the work with another master. The master was the only one, who could sell slaves either for money or livestock, lumber and machinery (Selfa 2002).

In the early 17th century the North American colonies used to operate as private business enterprises. The Spanish, who conquered Mexico and Peru in the 16th century collected incredible riches for Spain, but the settlers in Maryland, Rhode Island, and Virginia built their welfare through agriculture. Apart from sheer survival, the settlers’ objective was to obtain enough labour force to produce indigo, tobacco, sugar, and other products to be sold in England. Since 1607 Jamestown in Virginia was founded till about 1685, white servants were the key source of plantation labour in English North America (Selfa 2002).

The colonists attempted to force the native population to work for them and failed. The Indians refused to become servants and escaped into the surrounding areas, with which they were more familiar than the settlers. Hence, the English colonies adopted a policy of expelling the Indians and turned to white servants. The majority of indentured servants were white men, of English or Irish descent, who were forced to work for a determined period including four to seven years. The “ intendentured workers” were given boarding on the plantation but they did not receive any wages and, they could not leave their masters to work for anyone else. After they had served their term, they could acquire some land for their own. They were turned into servants in several ways. Some of them were petty criminals in Britain, or troublemakers in Ireland. Many were just kidnapped in Liverpool or Manchester, and embarked on the voyage to the New World. Some of them voluntarily became servants expecting to start new life after having completed their terms. The 17th century was a revolutionary period in England and the ideas of freedom were challenging the old royalist systems. The colonial planters in their majority turned out to be royalists, but their labourers asserted their rights to better living conditions. The costs of servant labour were growing over time. Planters petitioned the colonial boards to increase the importation of African slaves (Selfa 2002).

Small number of black slaves could be found on the North American plantations throughout the 1600s. Moreover, till the end of the 17th century, the planters paid more for black slaves than for white labour. Blacks' statuses differed and included free people, slaves and servants. Virginia law did not provide the condition of perpetual slavery and did not recognize Africans as a group different from the white intendentured servants till 1661. Blacks exercised their rights and they were allowed to serve on juries as well as hold the property. A few of them owned white servants. The planters’ economic calculations were a significant issue in the colonies’ tendency to use full-scale slave labour. The price of an African for life was the same as a white intendentured servant for ten years. Moreover, planters were afraid of multiracial riots and it was also an argument supporting racial slavery. In 17th century a severe racial division did not exist in the North American colonies and many black slaves, servants, and white indentured servants used to be involved in numerous conspiracies (Selfa 2002).

Bacon’s Rebellion was the most significant of those conspiracies which developed into an uprising in 1676. Its objective was to press the colonial government to distribute Indian land. The conflict was expanded by demands for tax relief. Planter Nathaniel Bacon's army consisting of whites and blacks sacked Jamestown and the governor had to escape. The rebel lasted for eight months until the rebels were defeated and disarmed. The planters offered concessions to the white freemen such as lifting taxes and allowing them to vote. It was a step forward towards racial slavery.

Some time before, the Burgesses had established the concept of slavery for life and Africans were entered into a different category to white servants. However. systematic slave code was not necessary until slavery became systematic. Slavery could not become systematic as long as the price of an African slave was double in relation to the price of an white servant for a five years.. These circumstances changed after Bacon’s Rebellion. In the 1600s about 20,000 African slaves were brought to America. In 1664, the state of Maryland legally defined who could be considered a slave on the basis of paternity. Establishing paternity was difficult but maternity was definite. Due to this reason the planters established slavery status in accordance with the mother’s condition and white slave holders' children with slave women were guaranteed to be slaves. After assuming that African slaves would cultivate major export products, the planters started constituting the ideas and institutions which purpose was reinforcement of white supremacy. Most unfree labour became black labour. Laws and ideas proved the subhuman status of blacks and the ideology of racism fully developed over the next generation (Selfa 2002).

1.3.3. Slavery and capitalism

Slavery in the North American colonies contributed to the great, 18th century economy blossom and became a driving force for European industrial revolution. It is claimed that slavery in the colonies and capitalism were combined. While it is not a proper statement that slavery created capitalism, it is right to claim that slavery emerged as one of the most important sources for the accumulation of wealth that contributed to the development of capitalist economy in Europe and North America. In the 1700s, so called the “triangular trade” between the overseas colonies, European mother countries and the West Africa played a dominant role in slave trade. In the mid 1700s Parliament passed a law allowing free and open trade in Africa. Three British cities London, Bristol and Liverpool became the backbone of the English slave trade. These three cities supplied great number of slaves to the Virginian tobacco plantations and to the rice and indigo plantations of South Carolina. New England entered the slave trade as well. Newport, Bristol and Providence, Rhode Island (and to some extent, Boston and Salem in Massachussets) became major slaving ports and transported slaves to the West Indies and the Southern colonies. The trade stimulated regional ship building and the production of rum, obtained in the trade from the West Indies, which was used in exchange for slaves in Africa (Emert 1995 :10).

The triangular trade routes were characteristic of the Atlantic slave trade. There were two main patterns of triangular trade. The first was a trip from England to Africa, further to the West Indies and then back to England. The slave ship left Liverpool with a cargo of manufactured goods, than sailed to West Africa were these products were exchanged for slaves. The slaves were transported to West Indies and sold. The profits served to purchase a cargo of sugar (or other product which was brought back to Liverpool). The second pattern of triangular trade commenced in New England. Slave ship sailed to West Africa with a cargo of rum. Rum was exchanged for slaves. Than its destination was the slave market of the West Indies. The profits were used to purchase cargoes of molasses for rum production (Emert 1995:20).


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Slavery in New York at the beginning of the 17th century
Warsaw University  (Applied Linguistics)
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Duch colony, New York seaport, slavery, American Revolution, manumission movements, gradual emancipation, full emancipation
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MA Sylwia Mazur (Author), 2015, Slavery in New York at the beginning of the 17th century, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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