Slavery in the 13 Colonies (Story Time with Mr. Beat)

Here is the story of the institution of slavery in colonial America.
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Music by Brother Saturn. All images found in the public domain, used legally through fair use, or produced by Matt Beat.

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Once upon a time, African nations fought each other, as nations tend to do throughout history. After a victory, an African nation would often enslave many of the enemies it had captured. Most of these enslaved Africans, from various nations, were then traded or sold to Europeans along the west coast. Next, the slaves were shipped like cargo across the Atlantic Ocean. This journey became known as The Middle Passage, and it became the largest movement of people in history. Conditions on the ships during the Middle Passage were so dreadful that up to 15 percent of the slaves didn’t even make it to the end of the journey. Packed like sardines in filthy conditions, most died from malnutrition and disease.

In 1619, a Dutch ship brought twenty Africans to the new British colony of Jamestown, Virginia. The slaves were needed to work in the quickly growing tobacco industry. From there, slavery spread throughout the American colonies. Over the next 200 hundred years, millions more would arrive to work large tobacco, indigo, and rice plantations in what would become the United States.

During the colonial era, you know, when states were just British colonies, most slaves worked on tobacco plantations.

Household slaves, those who acted as servants to colonists, were the next largest group.

Some of the earliest slaves were actually Native Americans, but they tended to die from European diseases or escape, so Africans became more preferable. During the first years of slavery in the 1600s, Africans experienced a relatively high level of racial tolerance and flexibility from their European owners. Several slaves could wander freely, get married, buy land and other property, or even buy their own freedom. You heard that right- that means they were actually paid some for their work, and several Africans in the colonies were not slaves. In some cases, slaves were freed if they were able to prove in court they were baptized as a Christian. In one Virginian county in 1668, 29 percent of all Africans were free. Some free Africans even owned slaves!

Because many Europeans were indentured servants, whites and black servants sometimes worked together, received the same punishments, and even plotted escapes together.

Beginning in the late 1660s, colonists in Maryland and Virginia passed new laws that further restricted the rights of all blacks, free and slaves.

Most slaves worked in the Chesapeake Bay region, working on huge tobacco plantations and large farms. The work was very hard, and slaves were busy most of the year, working sunrise to sunset. For those working on sugar plantations, which were larger than tobacco plantations, the work was even more difficult. While the most back breaking work fell to the strongest and healthiest, less physically demanding jobs were still handled by older or younger slaves- there was no minimum or maximum age for working. Slaves on plantations usually lived in complete family units, and they got Sundays off. Slave families became close, as did each slave community on every plantation.

This gave way to a new culture, in which customs came not just from their current ways of life, but from memories and traditions brought from Africa. Slaves told folktales and fables, which kept oral traditions strong. Slaves made drums, banjos, and rattles similar to those found in Africa. Enslaved women made baskets using an African coiling method and sewed quilts with African patterns. Many slaves became Christian, almost seamlessly merging their African religions and traditions with Christianity. Their version of Christianity gave way to slave preachers, who led congregations on plantations where they often expressed themselves through singing and dancing. It was a powerful, spiritual way for them to gain hope.

Tragically, plantation slaves were more likely to be sold or transferred than slaves working inside colonist houses. Tight-knit families were split apart, often with little notice. They were also more likely than household slaves to get brutally punished because they were seen as less valuable than household slaves.

Household slaves generally ate better, were dressed better, and had more freedom to move about. However, they usually worked seven days a week and worked even longer hours. Other slaves did things like working in ironworking, shipbuilding, and other early industries.
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