When historians refer to imperialism, they are generally describing one nation conquering and dominating another group of peoples. The actions of 15th century Europeans in the Americas certainly fit this definition. The New World has discovered at about the same time the navies and merchant shipping of European nations were at their apex. Therefore, this was an opportunistic time to colonize other lands, especially those whose inhabitants were less technologically advanced. This is what the Romans did and the Greeks before them, it was the Europeans’ turn for imperialistic conquest.
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The New World conquest yielded new lands, riches, and slave labor which set off an imperialistic hunger that spread to Africa. It was closer, larger and the natives from that continent were preferred as slaves over the natives of the Americas. Initially, when the Spanish controlled the Caribbean islands, their interests were only in the mining of silver and gold. When the riches of the mines had been exhausted, the search for additional wealth moved inland and the Spaniards adopted a plantation-based economy (Meyer, 2003). Products from the Americas such as tobacco, cotton, cocoa, and sugar were becoming increasingly popular in Europe which caused the Caribbean plantations growing these commodities to grow accordingly. The shortage of manpower to operate these ever-growing plantations required many numbers slaves from Africa to be imported. As the Spaniards were reaping the rewards from their colonization of the Americas, their need for additional labor in the mines and plantations continued to grow. However, the local population was dwindling with the influx of disease and abuse and this, combined with Spain abolishing the enslavement of natives in the Americas in the mid-1500s, necessitated a need to acquire Africans to fill their labor requirements (Meyer, 2003).
By the early 19th century, the New World wealth had been well plundered and it was widely feared that the slaves emanating from there could spread new diseases in Europe or contract European diseases and die themselves. Africa was an attractive target to quench the Europeans’ new thirst to create far-away empires and control territories that held the raw materials needed to maintain and grow their prosperous economies which were built upon imperialistic tactics. New territories also meant the opportunity to trade with new markets. By the mid 19th century, the conquest of Africa was well underway. Gaining and controlling new territories outside the original country was justified by many explanations. A certain amount of national pride fueled the desire for an expansionist agenda. Obtaining new colonies was widely viewed as a gauge of a nation’s global prominence. Another justification was based on the prevalent racist attitude. “Europeans thought that they were better than Africans” (McDougal-Littell, 1999). Church officials and missionaries encouraged imperialism because the natives of conquered territories could be more easily coerced to convert to Christianity.
In the initial phase of slavery in the New World (1519-1580), colonies were being formed and the trade of slaves was somewhat limited. From 1580 to 1650, the slave trade from Africa soared because of the massive Native American deaths due to disease, the growth of the economy in the colonies, and the unification of the Portuguese and Spanish governments (Palmer, 1976). The early era of colonization in the New World was a time of enormous changes as “the native Indian populations were decimated by disease and increasingly dominated by the Spanish social and economic structure” (Meyer, 2003). Slavery declined steadily during the years 1650 to 1827. “From New England to Virginia to Jamaica, the English planters in seventeenth-century America developed the habit of murdering the soil for a few quick crops and then moving along. On the sugar plantations, unhappily, they also murdered the slaves” (Dunn in Nash, 2000). Estimates put the total number of African slaves brought to new colonies from 1519 to 1650 at 120,000 (Meyer, 2003). The bulk of these slaves worked in the important mining and agricultural industries but they also were used for other menial type activities such as servants and cooks.
As is indicated by the importance of foreign aid in the outcome of the Revolutionary War, the United States and those who helped bring it about were strongly dependent upon the products produced by slaves. “They desperately need the assistance of other countries, especially France, and their single most valuable product with which to purchase assistance was tobacco, produced mainly by slave labor” (Morgan, 2003: 6). This need and dependence seem to indicate that a large reason for slavery in the North American colonies was to produce tradable goods that would purchase the aid and support they required to make themselves free at the expense of someone else’s freedom. However, this also suggests that slavery was an important institution within the colonies long before the need for outside support was necessary. “Unquestionably it was a demand for labor which dragged the Negro to American shores, but the status which he acquired here cannot be explained by reference to that economic motive. Long before black labor was as economically important as unfree white labor, the Negro had been consigned to a special discriminatory status which mirrored the social discrimination Englishmen practiced against him” (Degler, 1959: 62). Investigating the reasons why slavery became such an ingrained element within the North American continental society reveals deep discrimination combined with a complicated philosophy that led to the development of slavery as it was practiced, regardless of when it appeared in colonial statues.
Degler (1959) suggests that white men in the new colonies already harbored discriminatory attitudes toward those with darker skin when they arrived on North American shores. Because there wasn’t already a tradition of slavery within their culture as there was in the Spanish and Portuguese cultures, those who settled the North American shores were free of any cultural conceptions regarding the strictly legal construction of slavery, a construction that would end when the legal status was changed and thus rested solely on law rather than skin color. However, this is not to say that they weren’t aware of the conception of slavery as it was practiced by the Spanish and Portuguese. “As early as 1623, a voyager’s book published in London indicated that Englishmen knew of the Negro as a slave in the South American colonies of Spain. The book told of the trade in ‘blacke people’ who were ‘sold unto the Spaniard for him to carry into the West Indies, to remaine as slaves, either in their Mines or in any other servile uses, they in those countries put them to’” (Degler, 1959: 53). This sketchy knowledge regarding the construction of slavery suggested lifetime servitude rather than illustrating the more complicated social concepts of slavery as it was held in other parts of the world, in which slaves were capable of buying their freedom or having it purchased for them and then enjoying equal status with their captors should they choose to settle in that region.
To prove his point, Degler (1959) points to the difference of skin color as being used to denote inferior status as it was reinforced by differences in religious and practical beliefs. The Indians found on the North American continent were ignorant of the Protestant beliefs of those arriving from Europe just as were the Africans being shipped over. For these reasons and more, the Indians and the Africans were held to be on relatively equal status. “The Commissioners of the United Colonies recommended that in order to spare the colonies the cost of imprisoning contumacious Indians, they should be given over to the Englishmen whom they had damaged or ‘be shipped out and exchanged for Negroes as the cause will justly serve’. Negroes were being equated with Indians who were being bound out as prisoners” (Degler, 1959: 63). The ignorance of the ‘colored’ peoples was used as justification for the need to ‘protect’ these innocent peoples by taking them into possession and putting them to ‘honest’ work since it was obvious they weren’t capable of living ‘civilized’ lives while the need for passive workers was recognized and provided for by separating tribal members far from each other. Only by making decisions for these native peoples could they be properly provided for regardless of how well or evilly they were treated in reality.
However, there was also a fear, particularly in those areas where black people may tend to become more numerous than Europeans, that these suppressed peoples might take up aggressions against their owners. The conception that the black men would overrun places like Providence created a general distrust of them and a further effort to subjugate them through the concept of lifetime servitude as compared to the English servants that would be sent over to balance the racial mix. “As early as 1623 the Assembly passed an ‘Act to restrayne the insolencies of Negroes’. The blacks were accused of stealing and of carrying ‘secretly cudgels, and other weapons and working tools’. Such weapons, it was said, were ‘very dangerous and not meete to be suffered to be carried by such Vassals.’ Already, in other words, Negroes were treated as a class apart” (Degler, 1959: 55). The ability to apply different rules to persons of color led to yet further laws that would restrict their actions and keep them obedient, such as the idea that any black person seen out at night without a proper pass could be killed immediately and without impunity (Degler, 1959).
While it is acknowledged that the institution of slavery, as a properly named social construction, did not exist in the English colonies when they were first settled or even when the first black people arrived on its shores, Degler (1959) continues to indicate that slavery as a practice existed from very early on. “A Maryland deed of 1649 adumbrated slave status not only of life-time term, but of inheritance of status. Three Negroes ‘and all their issue both male and female’ were deeded” (Degler, 1959: 59). Other laws indicate that black female servants, as well as their children, were included in tithing calculations while white female servants were not, which suggests a deeper level of ownership in respect to the black servant. In addition, while the job functions of various servants seemed to have been more or less sharply defined, the job functions of black people could be considered to be anything the owner wished them to do, including sending women and children into the fields, a function typically restricted to men only.
While these conceptions of the black servant would seem to suggest a more southern influence as the need increased for more workers and numbers of black people increased to farm the plantations, Degler (1959) also points to northern indications of slave status as a result of discrimination more than a need for cheap labor or a threat from an overbalanced population. Black people were not permitted to carry weapons of any kind, just as they were restricted in the south despite the lack of this restriction placed on white servants and they were not to be trained in any kind of military or defensive action, as is demonstrated in a law enacted then quickly rescinded in Massachusetts in 1652 and 1656 respectively (Degler, 1959). “The practice of slavery was preceding the law in Massachusetts precisely as it had in the south” (Degler, 1959: 64).
Morgan (2003) suggests that the reasons for slavery go deeper than simple discrimination into the philosophy of people like Thomas Jefferson, who felt that any man dependent upon another man for his well-being could not be considered a free man. By this conception, slavery was a ready cure for those individuals who would otherwise sit in idleness and irreligious activity. It was the presence of large proportions of poor laborers left without work thanks to a surplus of such workers that led to high rates of crime and threat to the property of more responsible individuals. It was the fear of this threat occurring that presumably led men such as Jefferson and Madison to refrain from including the African slaves in their considerations of the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as much as it was the new nation’s dependence upon slave labor to purchase and retain the support of other nations (Morgan, 2003). “It seems probably that the Revolutionary champions of liberty who acquiesced in the continued slavery of black labor did so not only because of racial prejudice but also because they shared with Tucker a distrust of the poor that was inherent in eighteenth-century conceptions of republican liberty” (Morgan, 2003: 13).
Because of the widespread, long-lasting era of enslaving people that were of a different color than the Europeans, the lingering stench of bigotry continues to this day. History seems to repeat itself over and over again. To the Greeks, non-Greeks were thought of as barbarians, Romans believed they were the only truly civilized race and Christians continue to segregate the people in terms of believer and non-believer. The conquest of lands and societies by a country provides its people with feelings of patriotism and unity. As has been witnessed with almost all of the world’s societies throughout history, strong feelings of nationalism breed contempt and disdain for those outside the geographical, racial or ideological boundaries of that particular group. These perceptions of superiority grew so intense that Europeans justified the total subjugation of two races of people.
- Degler, Carl. (1959). “Slavery and the Genesis of American Race Prejudice.” Comparative Studies in Socity and History. Vol. 2, N. 1: pp. 49-66.
- McDougal-Littell. (1999). “Telescoping the Times: The Age of Imperialism, 1850-1914.”
- Meyer, Michael C. (2003). The Course of Mexican History. (7th Ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.
- Morgan, Edmund S. (2003). American Slavery, American Freedom. W. W. Norton & Company.
- Nash, Gary. (2000). Forward to Sugar and Slaves by Dunn, Richard. North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press.
- Palmer, Colin A. (1976). Slaves of the White God: Blacks in Mexico, 1570-1650. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.