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According to the news compilation by Niles, Niles, Hudgens and Beatty (1881), in 1585 “The Slave Trade was instituted in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, who personally took a share in it” .The notorious interest from the Queen gave the British Empire an infamous involvement in the slave trade, especially in the first thirteen American colonies (not present at the time). Queen Elizabeth, whom was still new to throne, was approached by an English adventurer by the name of John Hawkins (Cecily, 2007). John Hawkins, after returning from adventures through Africa, proposed an idea to the queen that was highly profitable, the enslavement of Africans. John Hawkins’ justification for this enslavement was that it provided the opportunity for savages to become civilized. The Queen’s first reaction was cautious, and “she warned Hawkins that slavery was ‘detestable’ and would ‘call down vengeance from heaven upon the undertakers'” (Cecily, 2007). However, Queen Elizabeth’s moral battles were quenched by her desire to expand her empire. Queen Elizabeth would partake in the slave trade for financial gain. With the Queen’s blessing, Hawkins ventured to Africa and engaged in the transatlantic trading of Africans. The slave trade became so popular that Queen Elizabeth would later send Sir Francis Drake in ventures to Africa, in which both Hawkins and Drake aided England to become a strong empire and as well as a major participators in the transatlantic slave trade.2
With Great Britain being a commercial empire and businesses growing, slave traders were able to sell proprietors slaves. James Walvin explains, “Whatever else they achieved (normally under the most testing of social and physical conditions) they were valued-and priced-for their laboring strengths and skills. In time, slaves came to fill a remarkable range of occupationsâ€¦but initially the Europeans wanted merely their muscle-power” (Cecily, 2007). It was not until the cultivation of the sugar crop in which the slave trade began to grow exponentially and the British colonies became a powerhouse slave based economies in the Caribbean. Sugar was popular among the British with its use in tea, coffee, and other goods. Sugar was turned into a necessity (Cecily, 2007).
This development of slavery in the 13 colonies of North America would occur after the American Revolution. Although slaves had been sold in these colonies since, slave labor did not become a significant part of the labor force in the colonies until the late 17th century. Since that moment, the numbers of slaves exponentially grew. By 1776, the African Americans population corresponded to about 20% of the total population in the 13 colonies. The North American colonies were a comparatively a minor destination for the global slave-trading network, since less than 4% of the entire African slave population was sent to the North American colonies. The Southern colonies economy was based on the exportation of heavy handed work crops: tobacco in Virginia and Maryland, and rice and indigo in South Carolina.
In American Revolution period, slaves encompassed about 40% of Virginia’s population. Most enslaved people in Virginia labored on small farms, in which they often found themselves working alongside their white masters. These small farm owners hired white laborers, and a minute number of slaves. As a result, the slaves faced more inspection from whites, and were expected to manual labor for the whole day, with few opportunities to relate with other enslaved African Americans.
Virginia was a colony overflowing with incongruities. It was the most philosophically progressive of the North American Colonies; yet in other ways it was the most backward and hypocritical. Wealthy Virginians believed themselves to be sophisticated and their lifestyles as courteous, but their entire culture was built upon violence. Virginia recognized the Anglican Church as its conventional religion, but its influence was patchy to say the least, and religious reform, when it happened, did not root within the colony. Virginia, politically bragged the oldest popularly elected governing body on the continent; the House of Burgesses was founded there in 1619. The Burgesses’ power came from the people, since the majority of Virginia’s adult white males were eligible to vote.
But while Virginia’s political ideas were progressive, its racial views were not. Virginians’ harsh and primitive labor system was related to their backward consideration of racial difference. Virginians’ based their slavery system on an perception of the races as being radically separate, yet two races were gradually entwined more within their society. Early in the seventeenth century, Virginia imposed laws that defined slavery as a permanent and hereditary state based on race. This made slaves lucrative because farmers could rely on their laborers’ children as well as them (Jordan, 1968).
The African slaves whom planters brought seemed remarkably unlike themselves. They spoke no English, worshipped bizarre gods, and practiced unfamiliar ceremonies. Within these “uncivilized” behaviors, Virginians justified their own unsophisticated labor practice. A slave’s life in Virginia was still filled with the strenuous labor which tobacco required. Seeds had to be hand-planted in specifically prepared beds as soon as the ground began to warm up in the early spring. As the young plants grew, these needed to be carefully and individually cared for (the required covered with straw in the evening to protect them from the frost, and to be uncovered at dawn so as to receive the morning sun). In March, the slaves began the long and delicate process of transferring the plantlet to the fields that had been hand-raked into thousands of small hills.
Using a sharp stick, an individual slave transplanted as many as 1000 small tobacco plants a day. And as the plants grew, they had to be inspected regularly for the worms that could destroy a crop. In late summer, the harvest would begin. For the next two months, with temperatures and humidity hovering around 90, the slaves would hand-cut the tobacco and carry it to a curing shed to be dried and then packed in hogsheads for shipment (Berlin, 1998).
Nurture tobacco was arduous, yet it was not the slave’s only job. They provided timber for firewood, pastured the livestock, and cultivated fresh land to replace the one being used in the production of tobacco.
Slavery depended on merciless cruelty to maintain control over the work force. Yet the use and celebration of violence failed to ensure an efficient and compliant work force. It proved the worst of tools because planters were far too dependent on the skills and will of its users and these did not submissively cooperate. Some slaveholders pressed beyond the bounds of all humanitarian considerations in punishing their slaves. “William Byrd II used chains and whips, branding and dismemberment to discipline his slaves; the most troublesome were fitted with a bit, much like a horse” (Carretta, 2005). But others struggled to find the manner and strength of will to impose their demands. Slaves refused to passively comply even in the midst of multiple forms and threats of violence; instead they found never-ending methods of demonstrating that force is a poor tool in administrating any group of people.
By the end of the colonial period, many of Virginia’s slave owners were desperately seeking an alternative to the tobacco and slave culture on which they depended. Some thought that shifting from tobacco to wheat would help. Farming wheat was less labor intensive; it would allow them to sell off many of the slaves they found so difficult to control, and it would reduce their dependence on the institution which, they claimed, tortured their souls. Yet slavery was still a deep-rooted institution in Virginia by the end of the colonial period; it was not about to break down under its own weight. Nor was the southerner’s sense of yoke strong enough to lead him toward support of anything rash like emancipation. But things were not right and many Virginians knew it. And so they did the understandable, they passed on the blame. They blamed the King of England, yet their burden was self-imposed and it would not be lifted until American blood would cover the fields in the American Civil War (Morgan, 1975).
Berlin, Ira. Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998.
Carretta, Vincent. Equiano the African: Biography of a Self-Made Man. New York, Penguin, 2005.
Cecily Jones “Elizabeth I” The Oxford Companion to Black British History. Ed David Dabydeen, John Gilmore, and Cecily Jones. Oxford University Press, 2007.Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. Ryerson University. 28 July 2012 http://www.oxfordreference.com/views/ENTRY.html?subview=Main&entry=t240.e132-s1
Jordan, Winthrop D. White Over Black: American Attitudes toward the Negro, 1550-1812. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1968.
Morgan, Edmund S. American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1975.
Niles H., Niles W., Hudghes J., and Beatty G. Nile’s Weekly Register, Containing Political, Historical, Geographical, Scientifical, Statistical, Economical, and Biographical Documents, Essays and Facts–General Index to the First Twelve Volumes,. Baltimore: Printed and Pub. by the Editor, at the Franklin, 1818. Print.
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