Why Slavery Came to the American Colonies
Tobacco. Established as the cash crop of the American colonies through John Rolfe's experiments at Jamestown, it demanded high labor and lots of land in order to be profitable. Land, for the colonists, wasn't too much of an issue: their misguided dealings with Native Americans (the result of one of the greatest cultural misunderstandings in history) helped them to acquire vast tracks of land along the Eastern Seaboard of what is now the United States.
But labor wasn't as easy to come by. For the most part, relations with Native Americans were either avoided or tense. Enslaving the native population, which at that time was slowly dying of infectious diseases brought over by the colonists, wasn't as great of an option as the colonists hoped for. Instead, their labor source initially came from Europe: indentured servants.
Indentured servitude began in 1617 to increase the colonization of the New World and provide the needed labor source for tobacco production. Joint-stock companies, such as The Virginia Company, promoted an idealized version of the New World to the lower classes of England. But why did such efforts work?
First, the lower classes in England didn't have an easy life. Emerging from the ravages of plague after plague during the Dark Ages, they faced a population boom. This boom meant more people. And more people meant more mouths to feed, more land to divide up to farm, and more competition for jobs. It resulted in a crisis for the lower class: no jobs, no food, no land. Forced to live in urban slums or attempt survival as a tenant farmer, the lower classes saw the New World as a fresh start: a place with plenty of land and food for everyone, where your job was farming your own land.
Second, there was another shift in England that affected the lives of the lower class. Traditionally, England relied on the production of wheat as its main crop. Wheat is labor-intensive, meaning there was always jobs and food to go around. However, in the 1500s, England shifted away from wheat production in favor of wool production. This led to the investment in sheep and land for grazing, further depleting the land available for lower class families. Yet there was a major problem: sheep are nowhere near as labor-intensive as wheat production. This resulted in the loss of hundreds of jobs, especially in the lower classes of tenant farmers. The tenant farmers now had nowhere to go: homeless and wandering, they were dying of starvation and overcrowding cities looking for work. So the New World, for all its potential drawbacks (like savage Indians and no stores to purchase wares), seemed like as good a gamble as any - maybe even better than the risk of dying on London's streets.
Third, there was the introduction of the Headright System. Pioneered by the Virginia Company, this system was a major draw for potential colonists. After 5 to 7 years of servitude, a servant would be granted 50 acres of land. For every additional person in the family that came with the servant, the servant received another 50 acres of land. Thus, whole families now looked upon the New World as a real way to start over. Provided they survived the harsh sea voyage and rampant disease (not featured in the advertisements), it was a good deal and a fresh start for people who otherwise would probably never own land of their own.
Finally, African slaves were expensive. Slave traders went from Africa to South America and the Caribbean, then to North America. Thus, middlemen were involved that drove the price of slaves up to nearly twice the price of indentured servants. Additionally, slaves generally didn't survive very long (in fact, very few people survived more than few years in the New World before dying or returning to Europe). So high costs and high mortality rates made the investment in slaves unfavorable to landowners.
Thus, indentured servitude was the initial system of labor in the colonies. But it wouldn't last very long.
The Shift to Slavery
By the 1660s, indentured servants had come to face the harsh reality of the New World. Most died before their term of service was up, never receiving the land for which they had hoped.
As more and more white, single males signed up for indentured servitude, the population of the colonies increased. This led to a land crunch, because by this time the Native Americans were growing a bit tired of "selling" their land.
Additionally, everyone was growing tobacco. What happens when everyone is selling the same thing on the market? The prices drop. Decreasing prices meant less profits, and less profits meant a decrease in a landowner's ability to buy more land and servants. This led to an increase in tenant farming and wage labor, which created conditions much like what had occurred in England only 50 years before: when there was no labor, men wandered around scrounging for a meal and hoping for a job.
Finally, most of the indentured servants coming over were white, single males. There were very few females who made the journey, and even fewer who were single. Even then, the colonies had a 4-to-1 ratio of males to females. So not only was there no land and no work (as had been promised), there weren't even any girls to court! This meant there were very few families, leading to further instability within the colonies.
All these factors, put together, meant there was an increasing gap between those who owned land (the rich) and those who worked but didn't own the land (the poor). The poor started to resent the upper class landowners, who were also controlling the colonial governments for their own benefit.
About this time, two other factors came into play. First, the price of slaves dropped dramatically. Second, mortality rates had declined. Populations were now accustomed to the climate of the New World and, while disease was still present, most were living out their terms of servitude and becoming free men. Free men who wanted land, profits, and women.
By the 1670s, slavery was more favorable. Slaves could be imported for relatively cheap prices. Plus, a slave was a slave for life unless his/her master granted freedom (which was rare). There was no requirement to give a slave land or money to start his own life: he was yours. Additionally, any children born to a slave mother were also slaves, according to laws which had been recently enacted. So slaves provided a steady source of labor, the potential for generating more slaves that didn't require "purchase," and were less likely to understand their position in society as well (given that most slaves, upon import, didn't speak English and had no knowledge of English ways of life). All that was required was an initial purchase price and however much the slaveowner decided to "invest" in his slaves through food, clothing, shelter, and (very rarely) education.
Then, in 1674, the Royal African Company was established to import slaves directly from Africa to Virginia. This cut out the middlemen in the Caribbean and South America, which had been the first stops on slavetraders "tours" of the New World. Thus, the price of slaves decreased greatly. Add to it the growing resentment of the lower classes of former indentured servants, and wealthy landowners had the solution to their labor and social problems. Thus, slavery came to the American colonies.
More by this Author
What were the Navigation Acts in the 1600s? Why did Charles II impose them? What were the effects of the Navigation Acts?
An interpretation of primary sources on the lost colony of Roanoke, detailing one possible outcome of the settlers' fate.
Europe is rising from the Middle Ages, looking back on the darkness and into the light of new ideas, new inventions, and new...worlds? I explore the reasons Europeans wanted to explore and colonize.