We will write a custom Essay on Slave Trade in North America and Antony Johnson’s Story specifically for you
807 certified writers online
The African slave trade was the base of expanding colonies in North America. Both black and white slaves had similar rights at some point, but slavery was later transformed under the economic circumstances, prejudices, and fear of others.
The Middle Passage and the Economy of the Colonies
The reasons behind the massive expansion of slavery in Europe and the Americas are apprehensible, but horrid nonetheless. Although the African coast was densely populated, it could not compete with the empires of Europe. The Europeans thus discovered a new way to boost the economy of the empires and colonies. Africans, whose cities were not as technologically advanced as the European ones, were ready to trade “gold, ivory, and slaves for textiles and guns” (Oakes et al. 12). The slaves had to face the ‘Middle Passage’, also called ‘The Transatlantic Trade’, where goods from Europe were traded for slaves from Africa; those, in return, were shipped to the Americas and sold in exchange for raw materials. The materials were shipped back to Europe. The colonies of England in North America, e.g. Chesapeake, needed cheap labor to produce tobacco.
Although Europeans (mostly young males from Britain) immigrated to the colonies, the death rates were too high, and the population size too small. First African slaves appeared in Virginia in 1619, but ten years had passed before enslavement became generalized in Chesapeake (Oakes et al. 71). African slaves were supplied in thousands compared to immigrants from England. As soon as the death rates among African slaves decreased, their labor in the tobacco fields was able to bring more profit to the owners. Unlike white slaves from the British Empire, African slaves had a lifetime status. The wealth was only possible if the owner of the plantation had slaves, so the economy of the North American colonies was extremely dependent on the slave trade. At first, the owners of plantations had to engage the family in the fieldwork; later, the wealth of the colonies was determined by the number of slaves in plantations and fields (Oakes et al. 70). If the white and African servitude was similar at first, later it became lifetime for Africans.
The New World
The new colonies may have had an appealing name (‘The New World’), but it was a severe experience for African people who had to endure long voyages through the Atlantic Ocean. Almost 10% of traded slaves died during the voyage; most of them had never seen the ocean or white people, so they were petrified when they faced the deep waters and the slave owners (Oakes et al. 129). Moreover, even before departure slaves were kept in pens, sometimes for six months (Oakes et al. 129). It is possible to assume that these slaves were tortured and humiliated before they were sold to the colonies because they were war prisoners; slave trade was nothing new to Africa, but most of the time, male slaves were sold to the New World, while women became servants or plural wives (Oakes et al. 126). Any utopian ideas that the Africans had were crushed by the real state of affairs. Nevertheless, the life of white and black ‘servants’ was similar across the colonies until the year 1639 when the Maryland Assembly excluded slaves from the citizens who had “all the rights and liberties of any natural born subject of England” (Oakes et al. 71). Not all African slaves were able to speak several languages, especially the ones that had never contacted Europeans. These slaves had to overcome horrors of the voyage, the diseases, the exhausting labor and whipping, and the language and culture barriers that did not leave a chance to negotiate about their slave status. The Europeans, in return, had had prejudices against black people before they contacted the Africans (Oakes et al. 71). They viewed Africans as savages, almost as beasts (Oakes et al. 71). ‘The New World’ turned out to be a horrible trap.
The Story of Anthony Johnson
One of the first slaves in Virginia was ‘Antony a Negro’ who later became Antony Johnson. He married a black servant Mary and had four children. Later he became one of the few black people who were servants but managed to gain freedom. In 1651 he had 250 acres of land; moreover, some of his servants were white (Africans in America: The Terrible Transformation). Anthony Johnson “enjoyed the privileges of the British men” until the year 1640 when three slaves rebelled and escaped the owner. One of them, John Punch, was sentenced to lifetime slavery, for the first time in the colonies (Africans in America: The Terrible Transformation). This was the terrible transformation of the servitude in the colonies: at first, the slaves were certain they and their children would be free in several (usually seven) years, but now this lifelong sentence threatened all of them (Africans in America: The Terrible Transformation). Race-based slavery mounted on the fear of outsiders; it “has taken root especially well on the people who were defined as strangers” (Africans in America: The Terrible Transformation). The colonies needed cheap labor, so ‘strangers’ became slaves, and prejudices against them were an excuse to pursue this free labor. Racism was not natural, but the circumstances pushed it to the extremes.
Slavery was nothing new in the XVII century, but later it became race-based in North America; the causes of it were the colonies’ need for free labor, racial bias against Africans, and growing economic dependence on the slave trade.
Africans in America: The Terrible Transformation. Ex. Prod. Orlando Bagwell. Boston, MA: WGBH Boston. 2000. DVD.
Oakes, James, Michael McGerr, Jan Ellen Lewis, Nick Cullather, Jeanne Boydston, Mark Summers, Camilla Townsend and Karen Dunak. Of the People: A History of the United States, Volume 1: To 1877. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. Print.