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Lesson summary: Slavery in the British colonies

A high-level overview of slavery in the British colonies. 
After enslaved Native American laborers began to die due to exposure to disease, European powers began purchasing enslaved Africans, who became their primary labor source. Britain sent their first slave ships to the British West Indies to work on tobacco plantations and then later sugarcane plantations.

Key terms

Indentured servantA European immigrant (usually Scots-Irish, or British) who would work for another person for a set amount of time without pay in exchange for free passage to a new country
Middle passageThe forced voyage of enslaved Africans across the Atlantic ocean to the Americas in which nearly 30% died before making it to the colonies.
Triangular tradeA system of trading in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries between Britain, West Africa, and the Americas.
Chattel slaveryA practice which defined enslaved Africans as property, not as people.
Slave codesLaws passed by colonies that described the social status of enslaved Africans and described the rights slave owners had over them.
Stono rebellion (1739)The largest rebellion orchestrated by enslaved Africans in South Carolina, which resulted in the deaths of more than 42 white people and 44 black people.
Map of the 13 colonies, depicting both the number of slaves in each colony in 1770 and the percentage of enslaved Africans in regards to the total population. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Core historical themes

Spread of slavery: In the English colonies, the first use of enslaved labor started in the British West Indies. The majority of enslaved Africans were sent to sugar plantations in the British West Indies, even after the first ship of enslaved Africans landed in Virginia in 1619. By 1776, 20% of the colonial population was African American. There is a common misconception that slavery was limited to the Chesapeake and Southern colonies, as well as the British West Indies. Slavery did exist in the New England and Middle colonies, just at a smaller scale. In New England, enslaved Africans accounted for about 2-3% of the population before the American Revolution.
Labor systems: The first labor system in the British colonies was indentured servitude, in which servants worked for landowners in exchange for passage to America. But because indentured servants only worked for a short period of time and sometimes fought over access to land after their terms ended, plantation owners switched to using enslaved Africans as their primary source of labor. Enslaved Africans became vital to the cultivation of tobacco and soon made up nearly 50% of the population in the Chesapeake and Southern colonies.
Methods of resistance: Enslaved Africans resisted slavery in both covert and overt ways. Examples of covert forms of resistance include work slow-downs and breaking tools. Examples of overt forms of resistance include running away or organizing rebellions. One of the most successful rebellions in the American colonies was the Stono Rebellion in 1739, which resulted in the deaths of more than 40 white colonists and more than 40 Africans.

Review questions

  • How did the introduction of slavery affect the demographic makeup of the English colonies?
  • What are three ways in which enslaved Africans resisted the conditions of slavery?

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