Origins of American Slavery History

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In The Origins of American Slavery by Betty Wood, the book successfully provides a well-rounded breakdown of the conditions that led to slavery in America. The author argues that the start of American slavery was the result of circumstances involving religion, social situations, and economics. It is important to note that Wood discusses that the English did not begin the process of colonization of North America with the direct objective of enslaving anyone. The need for laborers in order for the English to prosper economically was a significant start in slavery as a whole. Wood takes us through the history of slaves in America by illustrating slavery in the Caribbean, the Chesapeake colonies, and in the Puritan/Quaker colonies. Wood also dives deeper into why slavery was not necessarily based on ethnicity in the sixteenth century, but more based on biblical narratives about the practices of serfdom in medieval Europe. The difference in race was not an explicit worry for the English, yet racial discrimination did grow through the practices of slavery. The need for labor in producing crops was a large reason for the development of slavery.

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The very first slaves in America originated from the Caribbean. Many Englishmen moved to the Caribbean in order to start their own sugar plantations. They hoped to match the success of Brazilian peoples as they cultivated sugarcane. According to the author, the Englishmen originally relied on European indentured servants to aid in their labor. Yet they turned to West African workers due to their cheaper labor and lack of ability to demand rights like the Europeans did. Wood mentions that the slave owners ‘felt themselves to be under continuous threat from an enslaved population that heavily outnumbered them” (p. 53). This resulted in the slave owners taking drastic and gruesome measures to make sure the African slaves did not revolt against them.

Next, Chesapeake colonists needed a large workforce to help produce tobacco. The author states that their area lacked stable connections to the Dutch slave trade. Since the Chesapeake colonists had to deal with a decrease in European servants and stresses with claiming the native peoples as their workers, the planters had to look elsewhere. Dutch traders eventually saw an opportunity to work with the Chesapeake markets and established a connection to that region. Wood states that in 1705 in Virginia, ‘the essential framework within which the institution of slavery would subsequently operate had been put in place” and that in the Common Law of England, it ‘declares unequivocally that Africans were a form of property” (p.92). Along with Virginia, New England’s English settlers would soon develop a slave status from more than just those of West African descent.

Puritans and Quakers in the northern colonies also owned slaves yet had different views and expectations compared to the Chesapeake colonists. Wood suggests that they did not desire riches nor did they focus on producing cash crops. Thus, meaning their need for labor was a lot smaller than that of the southern areas. Wood notes that ‘people of African descent in Massachusetts continued to enjoy many of the rights enshrined in the Body of Liberties. In the realm of both civil and criminal law they continued to receive something approximating an equality of judicial treatment” (p. 106). Even though slaves were considered property, they were still legally people. In this sense, they had more rights relating to the law compared to the slaves from the Caribbean. Slaveholders also needed to care for the physical and spiritual well-being of their slaves meaning that the West Africans in these areas were granted more rights than their counterparts in the plantation colonies.

In the book The Origins of American Slavery, Wood never fails to mention the complexity of the institution of slavery throughout different parts of the United States. Whether it was for economic gain, religious logics or ethnic reasons, Wood discusses the reasoning behind each areas need for laborers. The author stresses that there were many aspects of English society that were liable for the spread of slavery.

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Origins of American Slavery History. (2021, Mar 04). Retrieved December 4, 2022 , from
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