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Slavery in the British colonies

Every English colony practiced slavery, building an empire-wide system of white racial dominance and African oppression. 

Overview

  • The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries saw the expansion of slavery in the American colonies from South Carolina to Boston.
  • White colonists' responses to revolts, or even the threat of them, led to gross overreactions and further constraints on enslaved people’s activities.

An empire of slavery

Slavery formed a cornerstone of the British Empire in the 18th century. Every colony had enslaved people, from the southern rice plantations in Charles Town, South Carolina, to the northern wharves of Boston.
Slavery was more than a labor system; it also influenced every aspect of colonial thought and culture. The uneven relationship it engendered gave white colonists an exaggerated sense of their own status. English liberty gained greater meaning and coherence for white people when they contrasted their status to that of the unfree class of enslaved black people in British America.
African slavery provided white colonists with a shared racial bond and identity.

Slavery and the British Empire

The transport of enslaved people to the American colonies accelerated in the second half of the 17th century. In 1660, English monarch Charles II created the Royal African Company to trade in enslaved people and African goods. His brother, James II, led the company before ascending the throne.
Under both these kings, the Royal African Company enjoyed a monopoly to transport enslaved people to the English colonies. Between 1672 and 1713, the company bought 125,000 captives on the African coast, losing 20 percent of them to death on the Middle Passage—the journey from the African coast to the Americas.
The 1686 English guinea shows the logo of the Royal African Company—an elephant and castle—beneath a bust of King James II. Image credit: OpenStax
The Royal African Company’s monopoly ended in 1689. After that date, many more English merchants engaged in the slave trade, greatly increasing the number of enslaved people being transported. Africans who survived the brutal Middle Passage usually arrived in the West Indies, often in Barbados. From there, they were transported to the mainland English colonies on company ships.
While merchants in London, Bristol, and Liverpool lined their pockets, Africans trafficked by the company endured a nightmare of misery, privation, and dislocation.
Enslaved people strove to adapt to their new lives by forming new communities among themselves, often adhering to traditional African customs and healing techniques. The development of families and communities was an important response to the trauma of being enslaved. Other enslaved people dealt with the trauma of their situation by actively resisting their condition—whether by defying their owners or running away.
People who escaped enslavement formed what were called maroon communities; these communities successfully resisted recapture and formed their own autonomous groups. The most prominent maroon communities controlled an interior area of Jamaica, keeping the British away.

The Stono Rebellion

Enslaved people everywhere resisted their exploitation and attempted to gain freedom. They fully understood that rebellions would bring about massive retaliation from white people and therefore had little chance of success. Even so, rebellions occurred frequently.
One notable uprising that became known as the Stono Rebellion took place in South Carolina in September 1739. A literate enslaved man named Jemmy led a large group of enslaved people in an armed insurrection against white colonists, killing several before militia stopped them. The militia suppressed the rebellion after a battle in which both enslaved people and militiamen were killed; the remaining enslaved people were executed or sold to the West Indies.
Print depicting the Stono Rebellion. Image credit: Blackpast.org
Jemmy is believed to have been taken from the Kingdom of Kongo, an area where the Portuguese had introduced Catholicism. Other enslaved people in South Carolina may have had a similar background. If so, this common background may have made it easier for Jemmy to communicate with the other enslaved people, enabling them to work together to resist their enslavement even though slaveholders labored to keep enslaved people from forging such communities.
In the wake of the Stono Rebellion, South Carolina passed a new slave code in 1740 called An Act for the Better Ordering and Governing of Negroes and Other Slaves in the Province, also known as the Negro Act of 1740. This law imposed new limits on enslaved people’s behavior, prohibiting them from assembling, growing their own food, learning to write, and traveling freely.

The New York Conspiracy Trials of 1741

Eighteenth-century New York City contained many different ethnic groups, and conflicts among them created strain. In addition, one in five New Yorkers was enslaved, and tensions ran high between enslaved people and the free population, especially in the aftermath of the Stono Rebellion. These tensions burst forth in 1741.
That year, thirteen fires broke out in the city, one of which reduced the colony’s Fort George to ashes. Ever fearful of an uprising among enslaved New Yorkers, the city’s white population spread rumors that the fires were part of a massive slave revolt in which enslaved people would murder white people, burn the city, and take over the colony.
The Stono Rebellion was only a few years in the past, and throughout British America, fears of similar incidents were still fresh. Searching for solutions, and convinced enslaved people were the principal danger, nervous British authorities interrogated almost 200 enslaved people and accused them of conspiracy. Rumors that Roman Catholics had joined the suspected conspiracy and planned to murder Protestant inhabitants of the city only added to the general hysteria. Very quickly, 200 were arrested, including a large number of the city’s enslaved population.
After a quick series of trials at City Hall, known as the New York Conspiracy Trials of 1741, the government executed seventeen New Yorkers. Thirteen black men were publicly burned at the stake, while the others—including four whites—were hanged. Seventy enslaved people were sold to the West Indies.
Little evidence exists to prove that any conspiracy actually existed.
Image credit: OpenStax
The events of 1741 in New York City illustrate the racial divide in British America, where panic among white colonists spurred great violence against and repression of the feared enslaved population.

What do you think?

Do you think slavery would have been as widely used in the British Empire if King Charles and King James had not benefitted financially from the Royal African Company? Why or why not?
Why do you think white colonists responded with such fear and paranoia to the possibility of a slave revolt, even in situations where there was no evidence of conspiracy?
Imagine you're an enslaved person on a ship crossing the Atlantic. What are you thinking and feeling? What do you imagine is in your future?

Want to join the conversation?

  • female robot grace style avatar for user Laila Yahyaa
    Why did people want slaves? Why did the slaves get treated so badly?!
    (24 votes)
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    • starky ultimate style avatar for user SpencerGlove
      people wanted slaves to work their fields and do mundane tasks. Humans are the most intelligent beings on the planet, to own one as one would own a dog or cat would mean you could use their intelligence for personal profit and gain. They were treated badly to enforce the idea that they were not equal. In many cases slaves would outnumber slave owners, creating a sense of fear from the ownership. To combat this fear, they would ritualistically abuse their slaves to keep them weak and terrified.
      (52 votes)
  • aqualine tree style avatar for user dino65
    If they knew that the rebellions had little chance of success, then why did they still rebel?
    (8 votes)
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  • male robot hal style avatar for user Zev Oster
    Why didn't the slave codes limit the number of slaves in some way to mitigate the risk of uprisings? The benefits of having more slaves are null and void the instant enough of them unite to take or destroy everything you hold dear.
    (12 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user apples567
    Why were Africans beat, raped, killed, hanged,and oppressed by religion ,degrading names,and made sure that they weren't seen as humans just for free labor?
    (4 votes)
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    • starky tree style avatar for user CarteWhite
      Because at the time, most English people saw Africans as an inferior race. They thought that since they had a darker skintone that something was wrong with them and that made them lesser than. If you look back into history you will see that it never was really about free labor. The English thought that since they had a bunch of technology and organized communities and stuff like that that it somehow made them greater than Africans.
      (9 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Bristol
    isnt the proper grammar, "including four whites were hung"? or hanged, i think its hung. forth sentence, the new york conspiracy trials of 1714.
    (5 votes)
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  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user laurenantle2004
    What are the other ways of punishing slaves? I hate the idea of slavery but we should somewhat understand what they had to go through.
    (3 votes)
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    • starky tree style avatar for user CarteWhite
      What didn't they do to punish slaves. They branded them. Cut of body parts. Shot them. Killed their family members. To punish women, they would have their newborn babies sold to distant plantations. Left them outside without clothes in the freezing weather. A slave's whole life was a punishment.
      (9 votes)
  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user heinchinabro
    Why did the white people have to cut of the slaves limbs and burn them in the first place because like everyone else says, the white people needed slaves to cut more work out of their schedule and just do nothing while the slaves to everything, so let me be specifi here, why did the white people torture the slaves if they needed them for work?
    (2 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      In Chinese folklore there's a fable about a person who wanted to scare a monkey. She put the monkey into a comfortable cage, and introduced a chicken to be the monkey's pet. They bonded (the monkey and the chicken). Then, one day, she removed the chicken from the cage, and while the monkey watched, she killed the chicken, prepared, cooked and ate it. After that, the monkey was afraid of the person.

      In a similar way, the white people, being outnumbered by their slaves, and afraid of a possible revolt, maimed and killed a few of them now and then to keep the rest of them docile and working.
      (9 votes)
  • hopper cool style avatar for user NPSof™
    Where those slave owners to
    lazy too do any work?
    (1 vote)
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    • sneak peak yellow style avatar for user William Wang
      No, but slaves helped boost one's financial wealth. Slaves were a popular option because they were essentially "free labor" -- in fact, they were considered one's property to be used for financial gain.

      Slave owners weren't lazy; they were quite smart. Why work when one could 'own' other people and make them work instead... and for free? Indentured servitude became a widely-used practice because many slaves would not be paid, but would at least be housed and fed in return for their labor.
      (8 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Neurilene Fonseca
    Does anyone know anything about Whiskey Rebellion?
    (4 votes)
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  • sneak peak green style avatar for user corra.laboda
    why didn't people just suck it up and do their own work
    (3 votes)
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