With the discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus in 1492, the new opportunities were endless, and everyone wanted their share of the riches. Spain, England, Portugal all wanted pieces of the New World and were willing to pay the ultimate price in search of gold and glory. Across Europe, Africa, and most of the Old World, slavery has been used in almost every society dating back to before the ancient Greek and Roman empires.
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The need for labor is ultimately what fuels the desire to own slaves to build what would eventually become the Americas that we know today. Just as in their homelands, the people who came to the Americas brought over their version of slavery. For years, Portugal and Spain were enslaving Africans and transporting them all over the world. This is the beginning of the slave trade that will ignite the expansion of agriculture economies in the Southern half of colonial America. In England, and also in the colonies, there was no English law on slavery.
There were indentured servants that would serve for a specified amount of time and then would eventually gain their freedom but none were actual slaves as we know the word today. Even though to the south in Spanish colonies, the slave trade was exploding, the British Colonies did not adopt race based slavery right away. Instead it was a gradual transition from servitude to slavery that also encompassed a transition from slavery based off of individual circumstance to slavery based off of race. This occurred due to a multitude of reasons but two crucial factors were ease of acquiring African slaves and the need for massive amounts of labor.
The discovery of the New World was not only about land, there was also the discovery of all new goods that were otherwise not known to anyone in Europe or Africa. Goods such as tobacco from Virginia or Sugar from the Caribbean were in high demand across Europe and thus resulted in the vast expansion of production in the Americas. Tobacco farms expanded immensely across Virginia due to the states excellent growing conditions. With many people flocking to the Chesapeake region to stake their claim in order to get rich, there was a major need for labor. In the beginning, the English farmers knew that in order to get rich off of tobacco, it would need to be produced in massive quantities. First, the English tried to enslave the Chesapeake tribes that were native to the region. This proved very difficult due to their numbers and knowledge of the region.
At the time in Virginia, land was readily available to anyone who wanted some. This in turn created a huge problem for plantation owners because People who could make a living for themselves from the land had little reason to work for someone else (Clark, 68) which created a major labor shortage. In order to solve this problem, many land owners turned to indentured servants. In the early days of tobacco farming, most laborers were indentured servants (Clark, 64) rather than African slaves. Meanwhile, back in England, their own economic hardships made recruiting indentured servants very easy for land owners in Virginia. Men would sign contracts for periods of four to seven years with the promise of receiving their freedom and fifty acres of land after the completion of their term.
For low skill agriculture workers, this was a great opportunity to get transportation to the colonies with the prospect of receiving a large amount of land in the future. When this did not meet the needs for labor, English authorities turned to the undesirable population of England itself. Orphans were shipped to the colonies to serve as indentured servants until the age of twenty-one when they would be freed. This did not become successful due to a large number of them dying after only a couple years of hard work in the fields. Another option that was tried was using convicts from England. This was not very popular amongst land owners because these people have already broken the law foreshadowing difficulty keeping them disciplined on the plantations. After exhausting these other forms of labor, the English colonies began to rely more and more on race based slavery just like the Spanish and Portuguese colonies to the south.
After exhausting other means of labor and still failing to meet the requirements of plantation owners, people living in the English colonies in the southern half of the colonies turned to race based slavery of Africans. Although this clearly did not happen overnight, there was always an underlying tone of racism in the colonies towards Africans. Whether it was in judicial proceedings or in everyday life, the Africans always seemed to be on the receiving end of a harsher punishment. Starting in the middle of the seventeenth century, laws were written to codify the enslavement of Africans.
In 1662, Act XXI states that negro womens children to serve according to the condition of the mother (Henning 42) which began the tradition of passing on the chains of slavery from parents to children. Following this, Africans were no longer protected by the law that stated that an Englishman could not enslave a fellow Christian. And if that did not make it easy enough to enslave Africans, it was enacted that all servants imported and brought to this country, by sea or land, who were not Christians in their native country shall be accounted and be slaves (Henning 42). It was laws like these that laid the foundation for the Chesapeake region and the rest of the south to transform into slave society. Another factor that contributed to this massive change was the expansion of the colonies and the improvement of the English economy. Less and less indentured servants were coming over from England and the ones that did were headed to new colonies such as Pennsylvania in search of better opportunities.
The creation of laws against Africans plus the underlying notion that whites were superior to blacks was just the beginning. When people moved south to form the colonies of North and South Carolina and then Georgia, they brought the tobacco agriculture with them. At first, these colonies relied on both indentured servants and on slaves. Georgia even had a law prohibited slavery. After a shortage of servants, the land owners turned to African Slaves and Georgia removed the law prohibiting slaves. This paved the way for the slave society of the south.
The final nail in the coffin for potential African slaves was the English takeover of the slave trade. This monopolization of the slave trade made it easier and cheaper for English land owners in the colonies to buy and sell slaves. This drastically increased the number of slaves in the colonies as the plantation owners turned to an all slave workforce to cultivate their wealth. In addition to the English monopoly on the slave trade, African rulers also sold their own people into slavery. Seizing the opportunity to gain wealth and to be able to trade for goods otherwise unknown to Africans, leaders of tribes and kingdoms betrayed their own citizens to achieve personal power and wealth. This made is easier for Europeans to enter Africa and take people hostage to transport across the Atlantic.
Throughout the history of the world, slavery has always been present and is not just an American invention. With the discovery of the new world, there was numerous opportunities for many men to get rich. The southern half of the American colonies were very well suited to grow cash crops whose demands soared in England and across Europe. Land owners needed one thing, cheap labor. After experimenting with servants and other types of labor, the colonies ultimately resorted to race slavery and it worked very well. This labor force was able to be harshly disciplined and worked hard all day without the need to care for them creating a relatively low-cost business.
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