Slavery in America dates back to more than two hundred years before the birth of the republic of United States. Slavery as a trade and a practice did not begin and take place overnight; it was a progressive happening or phenomenon, which expanded over many years.
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Despite slaves having been at the heart of America as a country’s birth and development, it is surprising that the contribution made by slaves in the colonial America has been left out of many history books. Selective writing has denied those who took part in the struggle of laying the foundation for current America their rightful place in history. This research paper explores the contribution of slaves in colonial America.
Slaves in Colonial America
It is widely believed that only black people of African origin were enslaved. However, there were also quite a number of white slaves in colonial America. Vickers (535), notes that “though limited, there were Britons, Germans, Scots and Irish slaves in colonial America. Most of these white slaves had been shipped and subjected to slavery in colonies, as punishment by the local administrators in the countries of origin. Colonial masters owned slaves; however, in some parts, some Native Americans and free blacks also owned slaves”.
Vickers (345) notes that “slavery was most intensive in the southern part of America. The south had more slaves because the region had fertile soil for growing high-valued cash crops for export, such as rice, tobacco cotton and sugar”.
Initially, black slaves were referred to as indentured servants, which gave them a comparable lawful position equal to most deprived Englishmen who traded a number of years of labor for means of access to America. However, even when having the status of indentured servant, Roberts (281), notes that “the term Slave was used as a practical word in job regulation and politics”
Contribution of Slavery in Colonial America
Contribution in Agriculture
The contribution of slaves, those of African origin, is always reduced, in many documentaries and writings, as merely unskilled farming field hands and household servants. However, critical reading through history reveals that slaves were more than just field hands and household servants. Slaves contributed to Colonial America with their agricultural knowledge and inventions.
As Engerman (335)explains, “within the Southern Colony of South Carolina, Africans brought with them their exceptional skill of rice cultivation as they had long time expertise in growing rice back in Africa. They therefore shared these skills with their masters and as a result, rice production that had never been experienced before was witnessed” .Engerman (328) notes that initially, “slaves in the colonial America were subjected to all manner of work, which included working in cotton, sugar and tobacco plantations”.
Engerman (331), however, points out that this is not all that slaves contributed in the colonial America. Overtime, most of the African American slaves were immensely involved in almost every day-to-day economic activity of the times. This free involvement led to numerous inventions by slaves such as the invention of spinning machines, which largely contributed toward the development of modern cultivation machines that were used in many colonial American plantations.
The economic contribution of slaves in the colonial America can be discussed in connection with the various economic activities that the slaves were subjected to. Working in the plantation was the earliest and common economic activity that is documented in history books.
The utmost contribution by slavery in the southern parts of America was in flourishing the plantations thus leading to booming export trade. Desiring more surpluses from agricultural exports, there was high demand for labor. Consequently, as argued by Sale(78),”the colonialist had to bring in more slaves in order to enhance their cash crop production, which was the sure way to eminence”.
Salem (90) further notes that “the export business was going so well the colonists were able to afford two imports which would greatly contribute to their productivity and quality of life. 20 Blacks from Africa and 90 women from England. The Africans were paid for in food; each woman cost 120 pounds of tobacco. The Blacks were bought as indentured servants from a passing Dutch ship low on food, and the women were supplied by a private English company”.
The achievement of tobacco plantations led to legalization of African slavery in Virginia as well as in Maryland; consequently, facilitating the southern Agriculture based economic prominence. In these southern agricultural estates, Nobleman (6), notes that “majority of slaves were field hands, picking cotton, as well harvesting rice, tobacco, wheat and many other crops that were grown in the plantations”.
Nobleman (7) elaborates that “in small plantations slaves were given different roles, with children and the elderly being subjected to household chores, while the energetic youths and the rest of the slaves served as meadow hands”. In some occurrence, Nobleman (6) observes that “the slaves were forced to draw the plow or where there was no plow they would have to dig the soil without one”.
In addition, Nobleman (7) points out that in other parts of America such as Texas, “slaves not only worked in the field, but also worked as carpenters, huntsman, as chefs and as brick masons”. In as much as enslavement was such tragic, the author argues that, it was the hard work and efforts of the slaves that made plantations successful ventures, and provided the economic backbone of Texas as it is known today.
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Contribution of Urban Slaves
There was however a slight difference among the slaves that worked in the plantations and those that lived in the urban setups of the colonial America. In most cases, Morgan (88) observes that “the urban slaves had few more privileges compared to their counterparts who worked in the rural plantations.
Some of these privileges were reflected in the fact that the urban residing slaves had more opportunities of earning money, which eventually enabled them to buy their freedom”. Many of the African-American slaves that resided in the urban setup, according to were either domestic or maritime workers.
Most of the female slaves in the urban centers’ were involved in a number of occupations; most of them were cooks, while some of them served as laundresses. Their male counterparts on the other side were involved in giving coachmen services, gardening or worked as shopkeepers.
Even though the urban residing slaves had a better lifestyle given they enjoyed more freedom of movement and were usually decently dressed, Morgan (93) notes that “most of them lived in roof space within the cooking place, or in the laundry area”. The author also points out that “the urban slave contributed a great deal in helping their rural based counterparts through contributing their resources to antislavery organizations, as well as hiding escaping slaves from the plantations”.
A key economic contribution by the urban slaves, in colonial America, was registered in the maritime industry. In this industry, most of the slaves served as dockworkers. They were involved in the back-breaking work of loading and unloading vessels that engaged in business transactions within the US harbors, and many other places the world over. Slaves worked hard in docks in all of the big cities bordering water bodies i.e. seas and oceans.
In absence of these slaves, it would have been extremely hard or even unfeasible to pack and take down, as well as move goods within the borders of the United States in particular, and to the rest of the world in general (Grigg 84). As Griggs (89) further points out, “the slaves’ contribution in the maritime industry was not limited to that of porters. There were many of them who were trained and did skilled work just like the white workers”.
Cultural Contribution of Slaves
There was immense cultural contribution by the slaves in colonial America. Griggs (102) point out that “these comprised, most outstandingly, imaginative and musical creations, academic outputs, and specific spiritual practices”. It is worth noting that even though the slaves were shipped to America against their will, this did not mean that they left their culture back in Africa. As expected, they brought it (their culture) to their new abode.
Though no one can deny that the experience the black slaves passed through was pathetic and inhuman, the persecution did not stop their deep-rooted culture from taking effect, and eventually largely influencing the American culture. In particular, Middleton (300) remarks that “the African culture greatly assisted in the development of America’s own music, arts and clad”.
Middleton further reiterates that it is comprehensible that given Africans were lashed into compliance and obligated into lifetime forced manual labor; they would be, most of the times, offended and irritated. As a result, they came up with forms of expression that reflected their life and its hardships.
When it comes to songs, indigenous African composition consisted primarily of wind and cord melodies interposed by hand acclamation, xylophones, and playing of the drums beats. All these found expression in American music; making it distinct and life giving for many.
With regard to language, the slaves had their own dialects before they left Africa. As would have been anticipated, upon being dumped into an English speaking society, their language slowly started fading out. Nevertheless, through appropriating English as per their dialects a new form of American English was realized.
This form of English is still in existence today in the form of the black Americans’ colloquial speech (Thomas 35). Thomas (56) explains that “the Black English, as the altered English is commonly referred to, is still widely spoken in America by a big percentage of African-Americans”.
Though the African America slaves’ spiritual practices have undergone quite a considerable amount of transformation over time, the centre belief, vigor and values of African American traditions is still firm as highlighted in religious and gospel music. In the course of their day-by-day forced responsibilities, Slaves sung in relation to how God exercised control and had supremacy above everything.
Middleton (302) comments that “the African American slaves, believed that God had power over everything and consequently he could save them from oppression”. Equally important in African religions, are their departed ancestors.
Middleton (310) observes that, “majority of the slaves with Africa origin, highly believed that their ancestors could protect the living”.For this explanation, the African American slaves always threw a small quantity of food or drinks before they ate, to appease their dead family members, in return for protection against anything bad that may befall any member of the their family.
Moreover, Middleton (311) indicates that “in cases where the master did not give religious directives, as was often the case, the African slaves would assume the responsibility”.
Over the years, most of the slaves preferred the Baptist church as opposed to other denominations, because the Baptist were not strict with some rules thus they readily incorporated some of the African cultures that were hard for Africans to leave behind (Middleton 314).
The preference of Baptist resulted from the fact that the Baptist church did not accommodate any slave owner in their congregation and therefore, the slaves were relieved some unnecessary discomfort of worshiping in the same place with their masters.
Political Contribution by Slaves
The contribution of slaves and mostly those of African heritage in the American Revolution marks the greatest sacrifice, which though often disregarded, led to the birth of today’s United States of America, which is a great nation, internationally known for its democracy, wealth, and diversity.
The American Revolution was both a blessing to some and at the same time a curse to different parties that took part in it. To the Native Americans, Grigg (86), observes” that the revolution presented an opportunity to fight for liberty from the British colonialist”. On the other hand, most of African Americans saw the revolutionary war as an opportunity to fight for liberty.
Grigg (93) comments that “the responsibility of the black slaves in the American Revolution can be comprehended by capturing the fact that loyalty was not to a location or a person, but to an approach or philosophy”. Despite the consequences of where the devotion of the African American rested, they gave an input that was not officially recognized, but which was instrumental towards realization of United States of America.
During the period of American civil disobedience, the African American soldiers served both in the continental armed forces as well as in the British army. The condition of the free blacks in pre-independent America was one of vagueness, one flanked by servitude and some freedom. Lanning (205) observes that “the African American slave were faced with unusual permitted, economic and societal limitations”.
Like Grigg, Lanning (204) argues that the “most important motivating factor behind the African American slave’s participation in either the patriot or the British Army was freedom”. Apart from their believe in freedom, Lanning (209) argues that “slaves also joined the forces out of the spirit of exploration or in order to benefit from the monetary gain that was pledged to those who joined the forces”.
Similarly, Lanning (212) points out “both the Americans and the Eglish used the promise of liberty to lure Africans to fight in their ranks”. In the war itself, Green & Pole (335), notes that “despite some level of discomfort on the part of slave owners, there are a number of blacks, who were used to pilot the war ships while others were entrusted with managing ammunition”.
After the end of the revolution war, and declaration of American independence in 1776, the Africa American loyalists who had given support to the British army in the war, were repositioned to New York, while others were shipped to London.
However, most of them if not all, sooner than later became conscious of the fact that though they had been guaranteed freedom after the war, life had not in reality changed much, from the style it was prior to the revolution (Green & Pole 340). After the war, Green & Pole (357) reveal that “the black service men were disqualified from martial services in various States, with some of the states permitting free men to serve in their mercenary troops”.
In conclusion, it has to be noted that although slaves are not consciously credited for their contribution to development in America, without them the much achieved would not have been practically possible. The plantations in agrarian South America flourished because of hard forced labor of slaves.
As it was noted in the paper, slaves were not just hands in the fields but contributed in bettering farming through sharing knowledge and skills. They also came up with inventions e.g. the spinning machine that was later modified to make work easier in plantations.
The economic contribution of slaves was also registered in urban areas away from the plantations. Additionally, they were used as dockworkers and worked in the ships that fed US with what it needed from the outside world. Culturally, the slaves infused into America cultural practices that are to date shaping how things are done especially in performed arts.
Finally, slaves also had a great impact on the American Revolution that led to the birth of the American republic. in their struggle for emancipation, former slaves have helped anchor values such as freedom and equity in the American psyche. Therefore, no amount of denial will change the reality that without the sacrificial effort and hard work of these slaves, America probably would not be what it is.
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Grigg, A., John. British Colonial America: People and Perspectives. California: ABC Publishers, 2008
Lanning, MColley. Dictionary of Afro-American Slavery. California: Greenwood Press, 1988
Middleton, Richard. Colonial America: a history 1565-1776. New York: Wiley-Blackwell, Publisher, 2002
Morgan, Philip. Diversity and Unity in Early North America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001
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Salem, C. Dorothy. The Journey: A History of the African American Experience Part 1. Boston: The McGraw-Hill Companies Inc, 2007.
Thomas, Helen. Dance, Modernity, And Culture: Explorations In The Sociology Of Dance. London: Routledge, 1995
Vickers, Daniel. A Companion to Colonial America. Massachusetts: Wiley Blackwell Publishers, 2006