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Slavery in the British colonies

Slavery was central to all British colonies in the 1700s, not just the South. It fueled the economy, from financing to farming. Laws were passed to control and define slaves. Enslaved people resisted through overt and covert means. Despite harsh conditions, they found solace in religion, dance, music, and family.

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Video transcript

- [Narrator] This is a chart showing estimated population around the year 1750 in the British colonies in the New World. I've arranged this more or less from north to south and you can see that as you go farther south, the percentage of the population that was enslaved and African grew greater and greater, but one thing to note here is that not any one of these colonies had zero enslaved people at all, even New Hampshire, the farthest north with the smallest percentage of enslaved Africans had some enslaved people there before the American Revolution. We frequently have the misconception that slavery only happened in the south. In fact, all British colonies had some amount of slavery and all British colonies had some involvement in the institution of slavery, whether that was bankrolling it as a financier, growing food that was intended for the slave colonies in the West Indies that didn't want to spare even an acre of land to grow something other than sugar, or shipping enslaved Africans by either owning or captaining the boats of the middle passage. In fact, one of the largest ports where slaves entered the North American colonies and were sold at auction was at Newport, Rhode Island. But despite this, the largest share of enslaved people were in the southern colonies, which focused on plantation agriculture. So, Maryland, Virginia, and then even farther south into the British colonies in the Caribbean. In some of these southernmost colonies, you can see that enslaved Africans outnumbered white people by sometimes quite a considerable amount. As the enslaved population in the colonies grew, colonial governments began passing more and more restrictions on the lives of enslaved people and began codifying who was or was not a slave. For example, if a white man and an enslaved woman had a child together, would that child be free like her father or enslaved like her mother? What about the opposite case? In Virginia in 1662, the government passed a law specifying that the children of enslaved women would follow the condition of their mothers. Other laws prevented interracial relationships and defined enslaved Africans as chattel slaves, which means personal property, and as the personal property of slave owners, enslaved people had little to no legal rights. So, over the course of the 1600s, slavery became stricter and more exclusively defined by race. The experience of being enslaved was unimaginably physically and emotionally taxing. Since enslaved people had no legal protections, owners could maim or even kill enslaved people with little to no repercussion. For women, life in slavery also meant the constant threat and frequent reality of rape at the hands of slave owners. Religion, dance, music, and family helped enslaved people deal with the harsh realities of everyday life and enslaved people also developed both covert means of resisting slavery, like, for example, breaking tools, which made it more difficult to work, or overt means of resisting slavery, particularly in slave uprisings. One of these, the Stono Rebellion in 1739 in South Carolina resulted in the deaths of about 42 whites and about 44 blacks. The South Carolina government responded to the rebellion by making slave codes even harsher. I wanna finish by just reiterating how central the institution of slavery was to not just some, but all of the English colonies. In the 19th century, Americans would refer to slavery as the peculiar institution, meaning not so much that it was strange, but that it was specific to the south part of the United States. But slavery really wasn't specific to the south part, it was the bedrock of the colonial economy, not just in the south, but in all the industries that contributed to slavery in the north as well, those who financed, fed, shipped, and even bought the products made by enslaved people created the economic prosperity of the North American colonies.