US History of Slave Trade and Slavery

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History of Slavery and Slave Trade in the United States of America

The history of slavery in present-day United States (1619-1865) began when English colonists first settled Virginia and lasted until the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Before the widespread establishment of chattel slavery, much labor was organized under a system of bonded labor known as indentured servitude. This typically lasted for several years for white and black alike, and it was a means of using labor to pay the costs of transporting people to the colonies. By the 1700s, court rulings established the racial basis of the American incarnation of slavery to apply chiefly to Africans and people of African descent, and occasionally to Native Americans. The Southern colonies' devotion of resources to tobacco culture, consequently, was labor intensive. By the end of the 17th century, it had a higher number and proportion of slaves than in the North. (See also Slave Percentages of the Total Population in Southern States, Total Slave Population in United States, by State and Distribution of Slaves in United States History.)

US Slave Trade, Transatlantic to North America Map
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United States Atlantic Slave Trade: Africa, African, to America History Map

US African Slave Trade, America, United States Map
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Africa and Transatlantic Slave Trade to North America History Map

From 1654 until 1865, "slavery for life" was legal within the boundaries of the present United States. Most slaves were black, and were held by whites; however some Native Americans and free blacks were also held slaves. The majority of slaveholding was in the southern United States where most slaves were engaged in an efficient and established system of agriculture. According to the 1860 U.S. census, nearly four million slaves were held in a total population of just over 12 million in the 15 states in which slavery was still legal. Of the 1,515,605 American families in the 15 slave states, 393,967 held slaves (roughly one in four), amounting to 8% of all American families. Most households, however, had only a few slaves. The concentration of slaves was held by planters, defined by historians as those who held 20 or more slaves. Hence, the planters achieved wealth and social and political power. Ninety-five percent of black people lived in the South, comprising one-third of its population, as opposed to 2% of the population of the North. 

US Slave Trade, Africa, African, Transatlantic Map
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United States Slavery, Slave Trade, North American, Routes Map

Africa Slave Trade Regions Map
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African, Transatlantic, North America, Slavery Map

The wealth of the United States in the first half of the 19th century was greatly enhanced by the labor of African Americans. But with the Union victory in the Civil War, the slave-labor system was abolished in the South and, as a consequence, it led to the decline of the antebellum Southern economy. The large southern cotton plantations became much less profitable due to the loss of the efficiencies in the gang system of agriculture. Northern industry, which had expanded rapidly before and during the war, further surged ahead of the South's agricultural economy. Industrialists from northeastern states came to dominate many aspects of the nation's life, including social and some aspects of political affairs. The planter class of the South had temporarily lost power. The rapid economic development following the Civil War, moreover, laid the groundwork for the modern U.S. industrial economy.

Southern Secession, Cotton, Slavery, US Map
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Atlantic Ocean, United States, America, Slavery, Slave Trade, North America Map

United States, Slavery, Slave Trade, Timeline Map
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Before Civil War, slavery was already on its way out of the US

Approximately 12 million Africans were shipped to the Americas from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Of these, an estimated 645,000 (5.4% of the total) were brought to what is now the United States. The overwhelming majority were shipped to Brazil. The slave population in the United States had grown to four million by the 1860 Census.


(Sources and additional reading listed at bottom of page.)

Recommended Reading: The SLAVE TRADE: THE STORY OF THE ATLANTIC SLAVE TRADE: 1440 - 1870. From School Library Journal: Thomas concentrates on the economics, social acceptance, and politics of the slave trade. The scope of the book is amazingly broad as the author covers virtually every aspect of the subject from the early days of the 16th century when great commercial houses were set up throughout Europe to the 1713 Peace Treaty of Utrecht, which gave the British the right to import slaves into the Spanish Indies. The account includes the anti-slavery patrols of the 19th century and the final decline and abolition in the early 20th century. Continued below.

Through the skillful weaving of numerous official reports, financial documents, and firsthand accounts, Thomas explains how slavery was socially acceptable and shows that people and governments everywhere were involved in it. This book is a comprehensive study from African kings and Arab slave traders to the Europeans and Americans who bought and transported them to the New World. Despite the volatility of the subject, the author remains emotionally detached in his writing, yet produces a highly readable, informative book. A superb addition and highly recommended.

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Recommended Viewing: Africans in America: America's Journey Through Slavery, Starring: Angela Bassett, Jeremy Rabb, Andre Braugher, Eric Foner, and Kemp Harris (360 minutes). Review: "Everything you thought you knew about slavery is about to be challenged." So says WGBH about its six-hour series Africans in America, and they are absolutely right. Interviews with historians and luminaries such as General Colin Powell, dramatic re-creations of important events, and beautiful photography create a vivid and compelling story of over 400 years of tragedy. Ten million Africans died on the journey to America alone; they and the countless numbers whose lives were wasted in servitude find a voice in Angela Bassett's outstanding narration. At once scholarly and moving, Africans in America should be required viewing for anyone interested in the American condition.


Recommended Reading: Uncle Tom's Cabin (Wordsworth Classics), by Harriet Beecher Stowe (Author). Description: Edited and with an Introduction and Notes by Dr Keith Carabine, University of Kent at Canterbury. Uncle Tom's Cabin is the most popular, influential and controversial book written by an American. Stowe's rich, panoramic novel passionately dramatizes why the whole of America is implicated in and responsible for the sin of slavery, and resoundingly concludes that only 'repentance, justice and mercy' will prevent the onset of 'the wrath of Almighty God!'.


Recommended Reading: American Slavery, American Freedom. Description: "If it is possible to understand the American paradox, the marriage of slavery and freedom, Virginia is surely the place to begin," writes Edmund S. Morgan in American Slavery, American Freedom, a study of the tragic contradiction at the core of America. Morgan finds the key to this central paradox in the people and politics of the state that was both the birthplace of the revolution and the largest slaveholding state in the country. With a new introduction. Winner of the Francis Parkman Prize and the Albert J. Beveridge Award. Continued below... 

About the Author: Edmund S. Morgan is Sterling Professor of History Emeritus at Yale University and the author of Benjamin Franklin. Morgan was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2000.


Recommended Reading: The Slave Ship: A Human History. Publishers Weekly: Starred Review. In this groundbreaking work, historian and scholar Rediker considers the relationships between the slave ship captain and his crew, between the sailors and the slaves, and among the captives themselves as they endured the violent, terror-filled and often deadly journey between the coasts of Africa and America. Continued below...

While he makes fresh use of those who left their mark in written records (Olaudah Equiano, James Field Stanfield, John Newton), Rediker is remarkably attentive to the experiences of the enslaved women, from whom we have no written accounts, and of the common seaman, who he says was a victim of the slave trade... and a victimizer. Regarding these vessels as a strange and potent combination of war machine, mobile prison, and factory, Rediker expands the scholarship on how the ships not only delivered millions of people to slavery, [but] prepared them for it. He engages readers in maritime detail (how ships were made, how crews were fed) and renders the archival (letters, logs and legal hearings) accessible. Painful as this powerful book often is, Rediker does not lose sight of the humanity of even the most egregious participants, from African traders to English merchants. Highly Recommended.

Recommended Reading: African Voices of the Atlantic Slave Trade: Beyond the Silence and the Shame. Description: The story of the Atlantic slave trade has largely been filtered through the records of white Europeans, but in this watershed book, Anne C. Bailey focuses on memories of the trade from the African perspective. African chiefs and other elders in an area of southeastern Ghana once famously called "the Old Slave Coast" share stories that reveal that Africans were both traders and victims of the trade. Though Africans were not equal partners with Europeans, their involvement had devastating consequences on their history and sense of identity. Continued below…

Like trauma victims, many African societies experience a fragmented view of their past that partially explains the silence and shame around the slave trade. Capturing astonishing oral histories that were handed down through generations of storytellers, Bailey breaks this deafening silence and explores the delicate nature of historical memory in this rare, unprecedented book.


Recommended Viewing: Slavery and the Making of America (240 minutes), Starring: Morgan Freeman; Director: William R. Grant. Description: Acclaimed actor Morgan Freeman narrates this compelling documentary, which features a score by Michael Whalen. Underscoring how slavery impacted the growth of this country's Southern and Northern states; the series examines issues still relevant today. The variety of cultures from which the slaves originated provided the budding states with a multitude of skills that had a dramatic effect on the diverse communities. From joining the British in the Revolutionary War, to fleeing to Canada, to joining rebel communities in the U.S. the slaves sought freedom in many ways, ultimately having a far-reaching effect on the new hemisphere they were forced to inhabit. AWARDED 5 STARS by

Sources: Otto H. Olsen (December 2004). Historians and the extent of slave ownership in the Southern United States. Civil War History; James M. McPherson (1996). Drawn with the Sword: Reflections on the American Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press; James Oliver Horton; Lois E. Horton (2005). Slavery and the Making of America. New York: Oxford University Press; Robert William Fogel (1994). Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery; Ronald Segal (1995). The Black Diaspora: Five Centuries of the Black Experience Outside Africa. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Stephen D. Behrendt, David Richardson, and David Eltis, W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research, Harvard University. Based on "records for 27,233 voyages that set out to obtain slaves for the Americas". Stephen Behrendt (1999). "Transatlantic Slave Trade", Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience. New York: Basic Civitas Books;

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