Mortality rates were particularly high during the first few centuries of the trans-Atlantic trade, before shipping technology improved to shorten the length of the overall voyage. Though the ocean passage may only last a few weeks, the overall Middle Passage often took months because European slave captains lengthened the voyage by making stops in various African ports to seek more slaves to fill their ship hold. They also made numerous stops in American ports to attempt to sell their enslaved cargo at the best prices. Different points of disembarkation and arrival also influenced the arduous ship conditions for enslaved Africans. While the few voyages sailing from Upper Guinea could make a passage to the Americas in three weeks, the average duration from all regions of Africa was just over two months.
Set of iron leg shackles used in the trans-Atlantic slave trade from Africa to North America, 18th century, courtesy of the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture.
The conditions that millions of Africans endured during the Middle Passage into Amerian slavery stands as one of the greatest examples in history of human beings inflicting dehumanizing suffering on fellow human beings. As British abolitionist William Wilberforce (1759-1833) stated, “Never can so much misery be found condensed in so small a place as in a slave ship during the Middle Passage.” In the holds of slave ships crossing the Atlantic Ocean, millions of enslaved Africans first experienced what it meant to be defined and treated as chattel property in the context of New World slavery.
The Slave Ship, Slavers throwing overboard the Dead and Dying — Typhoon coming, painting by J.M.W. Turner, 1840, courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts.
By overcoming barriers in maritime technology in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, European navigators connected the Atlantic World through their travels down the African coast and finally across to the Americas. The trade and settlement routes they established launched a New World of multicultural interactions, exchanges, and conflicts between Africans, American Indians, and Europeans. They also unleashed new and constantly changing definitions of freedom, slavery, and race that would forever alter diverse societies throughout the Atlantic World. Though the institution of slavery has long been a part of human history, European western expansion, New World plantation agriculture, and the trans-Atlantic slave trade all tied this ancient coerced labor system to new extremes of economic profit, oppressive racial categories, and intensive labor regimes.
Olaudah Equiano, aka Gustavus Vassa, ca. 18th century, courtesy of Project Gutenberg. Equiano became a prominent abolitionist in England after he escaped from slavery and published The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The Africanin 1789.
Despite the dehumanizing experience of American chattel slavery from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, enslaved people consistently resisted the terms of their status and generated their own social, political, spiritual, and cultural identities. They also challenged and defied the false racial beliefs used to justify their status, and demanded access to the developing rights and freedoms that had been reserved mainly for elite Europeans and European Americans in the New World. The extremes of chattel slavery in the Americas made the ideals and benefits of individual freedom apparent, particularly to enslaved people. During the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, an eruption of rebellions, revolutions, and emancipation movements occurred throughout the Atlantic World to uproot seemingly entrenched systems of slavery. But even with the downfall of chattel slavery in the nineteenth century, the legacies of this institution – which include systemic racism, class divisions, unjust labor systems, and various ongoing forms of slavery – still persist throughout the modern Atlantic World.
“To the Friends of Negro Emancipation”, an engraving from the West Indies, celebrating the abolition of slavery in the British Empire, 1833.
In addition, once the barrier of the Atlantic Ocean was overcome, the continuous trans-Atlantic movement of both people and trade brought new exchanges, conflicts, and social change. Early Atlantic World racial constructions, cultural identities, and labor hierarchies did not just affect Africans, American Indians, Europeans, and their descendants. In the nineteenth and twentieth century Caribbean, for example, East and South Asian immigrants became a significant part of plantation labor systems when African-descended islanders resisted the oppressive terms of post-emancipation regimes. Chinese and East Indian contract laborers became influential ethnic groups in the multicultural identities of different islands, though they also struggled with the extreme labor conditions of sugar plantations.
Map of Americas created by a Dutch publishing firm, Covens and Mortier, 1739.
In North America, new waves of European immigrants arrived in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. They confronted earlier American definitions of race and class identities that they redefined based on their own distinctive social, political, and religious backgrounds. Various new waves of Asian, Middle Eastern, African, and European immigrants, as well as Caribbean and Latino migrant and immigrant movements within the Americas, continue to challenge and redefine the meanings of race in the Americas in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. In the future, the highways of multicultural exchange and migration in the Atlantic World will only continue to grow in diversity and complexity.
Atlantic World societies in different national, regional and colonial contexts often share interconnected histories and cultural influences, but they also developed and changed over time in distinctive ways. The next two sections of this exhibition examine how Charleston and the Lowcountry developed as a colonial and antebellum port area in this Atlantic World system, and as a distinctive plantation region within North America, where African American slavery played an undeniably central role.
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Berlin, Ira. Many Thousands Gone. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1998.
Benjamin, Thomas. The Atlantic World: Europeans, Africans, Indians and Their Shared History, 1400-1900. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
Brown, Kathleen. Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: The University of North Carolina, 1996.
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Curtin, Philip. The Rise and Fall of the Plantation Complex: Essays in Atlantic History. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Davis, David Brion. Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World. Oxford and London, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Davis, Robert C. Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast and Italy, 1500-1800. New York, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
Eltis, David. The Rise of African Slavery in the Atlantic World. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Geggus, David P., editor. The Impact of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic World. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 2002.
Goldenberg, David M. The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Jews, Christians, and Muslims from the Ancient to the Modern World). Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2005.
Gomez, Michael. Exchanging Our Country Marks: The Transformation of African Identities in the Colonial and Antebellum South. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.
Hall, Gwendolyn Midlo. Slavery and African Ethnicities in the Americas: Restoring the Links. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press, 2006.
Hawthorne, Walter. “Nourishing a Stateless Society During The Slave Trade: The Rise of Balanta Paddyrice Production in Guinea Bissau,” The Journal of African History (Volume 42, 2001) 1-24.
Heywood, Linda M. and John K. Thornton. Central Africans, Atlantic Creoles, and the Foundation of the Americas, 1585-1660. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
Horton, James Oliver and Lois E. Horton. Slavery and the Making of America. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Isaac, Benjamin. The invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2006.
Joshel, Sandra R. Slavery in the Roman World. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
Klein, Herbert S and Ben Vinson III. African Slavery in Latin America and the Caribbean. Second Edition. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2007
Klein, Herbert S. The Atlantic Slave Trade: New Approaches to the Americas. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2nd edition, 2010.
Klooster, Wim. Revolutions in the Atlantic World: A Comparative History. New York, New York: New York University Press, 2009.
Kolchin, Peter. Unfree Labor: American Slavery and Russian Serfdom. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1990.
Landers, Jane G. Atlantic Creoles in the Age of Revolutions. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2011.
Lovejoy, Paul E. Transformations in Slavery: A History of Slavery in Africa. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2011.
McCurry, Stephanie. Masters of Small Worlds: Yeoman Households, Gender Relations, and the Political Culture of the Antebellum South Carolina Low Country. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
McMillin, James. The Final Victims: Foreign Slave Trade to North America, 1783-1810. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 2004.
Mintz, Sidney M. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. London, United Kingdom: Penguin Books, 1986.
Morgan, Jennifer. Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.
Northrup, David. Africa’s Discovery of Europe 1450-1850. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Oatis, Steven J. A Colonial Complex: South Carolina’s Frontiers in the Era of the Yamassee War 1680-1730. Lincoln, Nebraska and London, United Kingdom: University of Nebraska Press, 2004.
Rediker, Marcus. The Slave Ship: A Human History. Penguin, 2008.
Smallwood, Stephanie E. Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2008.
Smith, Mark M. Stono: Documenting and Interpreting a Southern Slave Revolt. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 2005.
Solow, Barbara (editor). Slavery and the Rise of the Atlantic System. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
Steinfeld, Robert J. The Invention of Free Labor: The Employment Relation in English and American Law, 1350-1870. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press, 2002.
Thomas, Hugh: The Slave Trade: The History of the Atlantic Slave Trade 1440–1870. London, United Kingdom: Picador, 1997.
Thornton, John. Africa and the Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Wood, Peter. Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion. New York City, New York: Alfred Knopf, 1974.
Young, Jeffrey Robert, editor. Proslavery and Sectional Thought in the Early South. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 2006.
Establishing Slavery in the Lowcountry
“A New Description of Carolina,” map of the proprietary English colony of Carolina, John Speed, The Theater of the Empire of Great Britain, 1676.
From the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, Charleston and the surrounding Lowcountry region epitomized a “slave society.” Chattel slavery, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and the U.S. domestic slave trade each played central roles in the Lowcountry’s economy, labor structure, and social hierarchy. Scholars estimate that over forty percent of all enslaved Africans sent to North America entered through Charleston Harbor — making Charleston the largest North American point of disembarkation for the trans-Atlantic slave trade. From Charleston, traders forced many enslaved men, women, and children further into the American interior through the domestic slave trade, but a significant number were also sold as chattel property to slaveholders in the surrounding Lowcountry. While some enslaved Africans and their African American descendants worked in domestic service or artisanal trades, the overwhelming majority provided agricultural skills and labor on plantations. Cash crops produced through enslaved labor, particularly Carolina Gold rice, made Lowcountry planters some of the wealthiest and most influential individuals in North America. In Carolina, demand for enslaved black labor became so great that by 1708 the colony (and later state of South Carolina) featured a black population majority that lasted, with temporary fluctuations, until the Great Migration of the early twentieth century.
Broadside from The South Carolina Gazette, Charleston, South Carolina, May 1769, image courtesy of Middleton Place Foundation.
Establishing Slavery in the Carolina Lowcountry, the second exhibition in the African Passages, Lowcountry Adaptations series, outlines various factors that caused slavery to become centrally significant to the economic, legal, and social structures of Charleston and the Lowcountry in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Slavery, as it developed in the English colony of Carolina, was both unique and part of broader patterns of this labor system’s growth throughout North America and the Atlantic World. This exhibition contextualizes Lowcountry slavery within the broader development of North American and Atlantic World slavery, while also identifying the historic factors that defined the distinctive development of this labor system in Carolina. From the founding of Carolina in 1670, enslaved Africans, African Americans, and American Indians in the Lowcountry powerfully resisted the dehumanizing terms of chattel slavery. The third exhibition of this series, Lowcountry Slavery: Daily Life and Revolutionary Change, examines the experiences, achievements, and struggles of enslaved people in the Lowcountry, particularly in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
“Slave sale, Charleston, South Carolina,” wood engraving, Illustrated London News, 1856, courtesy of the British Museum.
Sprout flow in rice fields, Middleton Place, Summerville, South Carolina, ca. early 2000s, courtesy of the Middleton Place Foundation. During the colonial period, rice proved to be the South Carolina Lowcountry’s most lucrative cash crop. Lowcountry planters primarily used enslaved African skills and labor in inland and tidal rice cultivation. Tidal rice plantations involved enslaved workers digging extensive systems of dikes, ditches, and fields, such as the one shown here at Middleton Place.
North American Context
Map of major regions where captives in the trans-Atlantic slave trade disembarked, Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, courtesy of David Eltis and David Richardson, Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, New Haven: Yale University Press 2010. The Caribbean and South America received ninety-five percent of the slaves arriving in the Americas. Some captives disembarked in Africa rather than the Americas because their trans-Atlantic voyage was diverted as a result of a slave rebellion or because of capture by patrolling naval cruisers after the trade was banned starting in the early nineteenth century. Less than four percent disembarked in North America, and only ten thousand in Europe.
Slavery in North American colonies often contrasted with other colonial areas in the Atlantic World. Comparing trans-Atlantic slave trade numbers and enslaved populations in North America to different Atlantic World regions provides insight into why slavery proved to be unique in this context. Even with these variations, however, enslaved Africans in North America still struggled with similar terms of racial oppression, coerced labor, and violence found throughout New World chattel slavery systems.
Of the over twelve million Africans forced into the trans-Atlantic slave trade from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, only four percent – roughly 470,000 men, women, and children – were sent to North America. The overwhelming majority of enslaved Africans in this trade went to sugar plantations in the Caribbean and Brazil. This significant difference in numbers stems from various factors, particularly contrasting mortality and reproduction rates for enslaved populations in different regions.
Harvesting sugarcane on a plantation in the Caribbean, drawing by Theodor Bray, ca. 1840-1860, courtesy of Tropenmuseum. Mortality rates for enslaved Africans were often exceptionally high on sugar plantations in the Caribbean and South America.
In the Caribbean and Brazil, enslaved Africans often experienced high mortality rates and unbalanced gender ratios, which limited natural population increase through reproduction. This kept market demand active for new shipments of enslaved Africans in these areas. In contrast, while the conditions of climate, disease, and labor in North America were often extreme, they generally proved to be less lethal for enslaved Africans in comparison to their enslaved counterparts on Caribbean and South American plantations. This allowed for greater rates of natural increase overall for North American slave populations, and less reliance on the trans-Atlantic trade.
Slaves exposed for sale, date unknown, courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Population growth factors for enslaved populations also varied within specific North American regions and at different points in time. For example, when the plantation economy was rapidly growing in the Carolina Lowcountry during the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, shipments of enslaved Africans to the port of Charleston increased significantly to meet planter demands. Mortality rates for these new arrivals could be as high as Caribbean and South American sugar plantations, particularly as enslaved Africans struggled with the recent physical and psychological trauma of the Middle Passage.
Family of African Americans on Smith’s Plantation, Beaufort, South Carolina, ca. 1862, courtesy of the Library of Congress and learnnc.org.
Over time, however, survival rates in Carolina, and throughout North American colonies, improved for new generations of enslaved African Americans born in North America. Even with this general pattern of population growth, South Carolina planters continued to purchase significant numbers of new arrivals through the trans-Atlantic slave trade to provide skills and labor for the Lowcountry’s numerous plantations. As described in “Barbadians in Carolina,” Carolina settlers’ trade and migration connections to the English West Indies during the colonial period distinctly shaped how slavery developed in this region. In contrast to other North American colonies, the Carolina Lowcountry initially functioned as an extension of the West Indian slavery and plantation system, where the trans-Atlantic slave trade was generally in great demand.
Frontispiece for Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself, by Harriet Ann Jacobs, 1861, courtesy of Documenting the American South. Harriet Ann Jacobs (February 11, 1813 – March 7, 1897) was an African American writer who escaped from slavery in North Carolina. Her autobiography was one of the first published accounts of the struggles of female slaves and the sexual abuse they frequently endured under slavery.
Despite exceptional mortality rates and trans-Atlantic slave trade numbers in the Carolina Lowcountry, North American colonies overall experienced higher rates of natural increase for enslaved populations in comparison to other Atlantic World colonies. In addition to a more temperate climate, many scholars argue that North American slaveholders strategically sought to improve survival rates through a more balanced gender ratio. With access to greater numbers of enslaved women, slaveholders could increase their enslaved population through childbirth as well as purchase, because the offspring of enslaved women legally inherited their mother’s status.
A number of scholars argue that sexual exploitation played a role in increasing childbirth rates among enslaved women. A more balanced gender ratio in North America colonies also meant that enslaved men and women could develop partnerships and family ties. Under chattel slavery, such ties were often constrained by legal restrictions against slave marriages, and all relationships between enslaved people were threatened by separation through sale.
Map showing the distribution of the enslaved population of the southern states of the United States, compiled from the Census of 1860, E. Hergesheimer (cartographer), Th. Leonhardt (engraver), 1861, courtesy of the Library of Congress. Though only around 470,000 enslaved Africans were sent to North American through the trans-Atlantic slave trade, by 1860, over four million African Americans lived in bondage in the United States.
Ultimately, a large number of African Americans descended from the relatively small number of Africans sent to North America. This led to a large domestic slave population in North America, particularly in southeastern colonies with significant plantation economies. Access to enslaved Africans and African Americans in North America, through both the trans-Atlantic and domestic trades, meant that slavery became a major labor system in many of the early English, Dutch, French, and Spanish colonies that later formed the United States. Even after the trans-Atlantic slave trade legally ended in the United States in 1808, slaveholders could acquire enslaved African Americans through inheritance, the domestic slave trade, natural increase, and even the illegal trans-Atlantic trade. By 1860, on the eve of the U.S. Civil War, four million African Americans lived in chattel bondage in the United States. They were valued at roughly three billion dollars, which equaled three times the value of U.S. manufacturing or railroads, seven times the net worth of all banks, and forty-eight times the expenditures of the federal government. As historian Ira Berlin asserts, the economic, social, and political history of North America, particularly the United States, cannot be understood without addressing the central role of slavery in this nation’s foundation.
Contrasting Beginnings of Slavery in North America
Map of the British Empire in America with the French and Spanish Settlements, map by Henry Popple, 1733, courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.
By the end of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, English colonies took up much of the Atlantic coast and eastern interior of North America, with the exception of Spanish Florida, Spanish Mexico, French Canada, and French Louisiana. This meant that the English system of New World slavery, and concepts of racial hierarchies, largely shaped how this labor system developed in the colonies that later formed the original United States. While the main goal of all Atlantic World planters purchasing from the trans-Atlantic slave trade was to acquire labor to produce lucrative exports, legal and social terms for slavery varied within different European colonies, and changed significantly over time.
Racial classifications in Spanish colonies in the Americas, ca. eighteenth century, courtesy of Museo Nacional del Virreinato, Tepotzotlán, Mexico. By the end of the eighteenth century, sexual interactions and intermarriage between Europeans, Africans, and American Indians in Spanish colonies led to a large interracial population and wide range of recognized racial categories.
For example, Spanish, Portuguese, and to a lesser extent French settlers from along the Mediterranean Sea often had greater exposure to sub-Saharan Africans through maritime trade systems established before the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Historian Frank Tannenbaum argued that this prior exposure translated to greater openness towards manumission (where individual slaveholders could choose to free their slaves), multicultural exchange, sexual relationships, and even intermarriage between Europeans and Africans. In contrast, northern European settlers and traders, such as the English and Dutch, had less prior exposure to sub-Saharan Africans, or to Mediterranean slavery systems. Their laws for establishing chattel slavery formed primarily in the context of the New World, with a heightened economic incentive to secure slavery for plantation agriculture through rigid racial hierarchies.
English North America
Although Africans arrived in North America with Spanish explorers in the sixteenth century, the earliest documented evidence of Africans in English North American colonies dates to 1619. In an account from this year, crewmembers from a Dutch ship traded approximately twenty enslaved Africans to settlers in Jamestown, Virginia. The crew consisted of privateers who had pilfered these captives from a Spanish ship. Privateering conflicts in the Atlantic were a regular occurrence between European rivals in the seventeenth century. Before English and later U.S. traders established direct trade relationships on the West African coast, many colonists in North America accessed the trans-Atlantic slave trade through privateering, or by acquiring enslaved Africans and Amerindians from English colonies in the Caribbean.
“Landing Negroes at Jamestown from Dutch Man-of-War, 1619,” illustration in Harper’s Monthly, 1901, courtesy of Library of Congress. The enslaved Africans depicted in this painting were reportedly the first to arrive in English North America in 1619.
In the seventeenth century, African captives in North America often came from Atlantic African ports and coastal areas with a long history of European trade relations. Some historians have identified these Africans as “Atlantic Creoles” because of their intimate knowledge and experience with European customs, languages, and social structures. In the early decades of European settlement in North America, Atlantic Creoles could sometimes use their multicultural experiences and identities to negotiate the terms of their enslaved status, and even obtain freedom, though this was not the norm for the majority of enslaved Africans.
The Slave Trade (Slaves on the West Coast of Africa) by François Auguste Biard, oil on canvas, ca. 1833, courtesy of BBC Paintings. Initially, captives in the trans-Atlantic slave trade came from coastal port areas of West and Central Africa. As demands for more enslaved labor increased in the Americas, the slave trade in Africa expanded, and more captives originated from deeper in the interior.
As demands for more enslaved labor increased throughout the Americas, the trans-Atlantic slave trade in Africa expanded, and increasing numbers of Africans forced to the New World originated from the interior of West and West Central Africa. In contrast to Atlantic Creoles from the coast, African arrivals from the interior brought diverse cultural, spiritual, and political customs, and they often had less prior experience with European languages, customs, or diseases. The expanded slave trade, combined with increasingly extreme labor conditions and disease exposure in growing plantation economies, meant that mortality rates were temporarily higher for enslaved Africans throughout the Americas in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, including in English North American colonies. Survival rates in North America began to improve again during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as planters sought to maintain a domestic slave population through new generations of enslaved African Americans, particularly after the legal end of the trans-Atlantic slave trade to the United States in 1808.
Drayton Hall, a former plantation in Charleston, South Carolina, 2007. As plantation economies grew in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, North American planters acquired more enslaved Africans and had an economic and military incentive to enforce more rigid racial hierarchies.
With the rise of plantation systems and cash crop economies in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, slaveholders had an economic incentive to enforce racial hierarchies to ensure the enslavement of Africans, while also guarding privilege and freedom for white Europeans. They also had a military incentive — increasing slave population numbers to provide plantation labor also meant a greater threat of slave rebellions. The development of the plantation complex in English North America in the late seventeenth century, particularly in the southeastern colonies, triggered a major shift to more oppressive racial hierarchies and legal restrictions for enslaved populations. In areas where slaves formed a large portion of the overall population, such as the Carolina Lowcountry, these rigid laws developed rapidly.
French Louisiana and Spanish Florida
A map depicting European occupation of North America in 1702, made in 2010. Areas that are a solid color represent approximate areas of occupation, rather than officially claimed lands, which were generally much larger. Areas with conflicting claims are depicted with color gradation, and may or may not be occupied by either side.Many of these land claims also intersect lands claimed by American Indians, which are not shown.
In contrast to southeastern North American English colonies such as Virginia and Carolina, settlers in French Louisiana in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries initially focused on trading with American Indians and searching for mineral deposits rather than developing plantations. Though French Louisiana settlers attempted to develop tobacco and indigo plantations in the 1720s, an alliance of Natchez American Indians and escaped Africans led a rebellion that prevented this development. The Natchez Rebellion did not end slavery in this region, but it allowed for more fluid legal definitions and experiences of race, slavery, and social status found in regions without a dominant plantation economy. In Louisiana, sugar plantations would not effectively develop until the end of the eighteenth century, when the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) ended Saint Domingue’s dominance over the sugar trade in the Caribbean, allowing space for competitors in this lucrative market.
Watercolor painting of southeastern American Indians and an African child, Alexander De Batz, French Louisiana, 1735. French Louisiana demonstrated more fluid race and slavery experiences before the rise of plantations in this region in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
In Spanish Florida (first settled in 1513), settlers purchased enslaved Africans for various forms of labor, but scholars argue that slavery in this context proved less restrictive. As a military tactic, the Spanish offered freedom to slaves who escaped from their English rivals, particular from the nearby English colonies of Carolina and later Georgia. This led to various free African settlements in Florida composed of runaway slaves. These escaped Africans often intermixed with Seminole American Indians in northern Florida. By the nineteenth century, tensions between African and American Indian Seminoles and the United States government led to a series of violent conflicts called the Seminole Wars (1814-19, 1835-42, 1855-58). A plantation economy based on enslaved labor did not fully form in Florida until it became a part of the United States in the early nineteenth century.
Former site of Fort Mose, Fort Mose Historic State Park, St. Augustine, Florida, 2008. Escaped slaves from Carolina and Georgia were recognized as free in Spanish Florida, as a military tactic by the Spanish to destabilize the English plantation economy. Free Africans were often taken into the Spanish militia, at sites such as the Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mosé fort north of St. Augustine (also known as Fort Mose), which was established in 1738 by the colonial governor, Manuel de Montiano. The military leader at the fort was a Creole man of African origin, who was baptized as Francisco Menendez by the Spanish.
English North America: Slave Societies vs. Society with Slaves
Map of African American populations in the thirteen English colonies that later became the United States, seventeenth through eighteenth centuries (modern state boundaries shown), created by Michael Siegel, 2005, the Routledge Atlas of American History, courtesy of Routledge Cartography.
The economic significance of slavery also varied significantly within different English North American regions, which led to contrasting legal structures, social hierarchies, and labor experiences for enslaved Africans. While colonial societies in New England and Canada included enslaved Africans and American Indians, scholars argue that these regions functioned as “societies with slaves,” where the institution of slavery was relatively peripheral to local economies and white social status. Northeastern colonies featured fewer plantations, and enslaved people often worked in domestic service or artisanal trades.
African burial ground, Manhattan, New York, ca. 1700s. The African Burial Ground National Monument currently preserves this site containing the remains of more than 400 enslaved and free Africans buried during the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in New York City. Though New York was never a “slave society,” slavery was more prevalent and politically supported in New York City than other northern cities such as Philadelphia and Boston.
In contrast, major plantation areas in southern colonies functioned as “slave societies,” where “slavery stood at the center” of politics, the economy, labor experiences, and social identities. Slaveholders made up the ruling class in these areas and the master-slave relationship shaped all aspects of society and daily life.
Due to the strong influence of West Indian settlers (described in the “Barbadians in Carolina” section) the Carolina colony developed rapidly as a “slave society.” Within a few short decades of the colony’s founding in 1670, the Carolina Lowcountry featured a profitable plantation economy based on enslaved African labor. In contrast, the English colony of Virginia (established 1607) initially focused on developing a mixed labor force of European settlers and indentured labor, free American Indian laborers, and enslaving Africans and American Indians, for small to large agricultural systems. Though tobacco cultivation has a much longer history in the region, a cohesive tobacco plantation economy did not fully form in Virginia until the mid to late seventeenth century, shortly before the founding of Carolina.
James Edward Oglethorpe, painting by Alfred Edmund Dyer, ca. 1735-1736, courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London, England. James Oglethorpe, the first governor of Georgia, established this colony as an egalitarian settlement for the “worthy poor” from England. At that time, Georgia was the only North American colony where slavery was prohibited, before Georgia leaders overturned the ban in 1749.
The English colony of Georgia has a unique history of slavery among English North American colonies. James Oglethorpe obtained a charter for the colony in 1732, in partnership with other English philanthropists, to establish an egalitarian settlement for the “worthy poor” from England. At that time, Georgia was the only North American colony where slavery was prohibited. White English settlements in Georgia also provided a military buffer between European rivals in Carolina and Spanish Florida, and helped protect against conflicts between Carolina settlers and escaped Africans and American Indians in northern Florida. In 1749, Georgia leaders overturned the colony’s ban against slavery. The growing wealth of planters in South Carolina from slave-grown cash crops proved too enticing to Georgia’s leaders. Improving economic conditions in Europe also meant that white indentured laborers were increasingly difficult to attract to the colony. By the 1750s, white planters from South Carolina began moving into Georgia to establish rice plantations based on enslaved labor, and they quickly transformed the colony of Georgia into a slave society.
Iron mask, collar, leg shackles and spurs used to restrict slaves, woodcut by Samuel Wood, 1807, courtesy of the Library of Congress.
In all of these contexts, violence and oppression played prominent roles in the experience of enslavement. In societies with slaves, slaveholders could treat enslaved people brutally precisely because they were marginal to their economic needs. In slave societies with large enslaved populations, the practice or threat of violence served to punish resistance, prevent rebellions, and maintain the master-slave power structure. Slaveholders were legally allowed to punish slaves at their discretion, through whipping, beating, branding, bodily mutilation, imprisonment, sale, and even death. Enslaved women were also particularly vulnerable to rape and sexual abuse and the hands of white slaveholders and overseers. As described further in the third exhibition under “Violence and Slavery,” enslaved people consistently resisted this brutality in various ways, including running away, retaliating against their masters and overseers, and even forming armed rebellions.
Regional Labor Experiences: Sugar and Tobacco
The Plantation, ca. 1825, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This painting by an unknown artist depicts fields for cultivating cash crops, a ship for exporting goods, and a large mansion, but enslaved laborers are notably absent from this representation of plantation life. The role of slavery in producing plantation wealth was often erased or romanticized in American popular culture, during the time of slavery and into the present.
The conditions required for cultivating different cash crops largely shaped regional labor experiences and population demographics for enslaved Africans in the New World. European settlers experimented with a range of crops and export goods, often with significant influences from American Indians and Africans, but eventually market competition and environmental constraints determined which major cash crop different plantation regions primarily exported. The most lucrative cash crops to emerge from the Americas in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were sugar, tobacco, and rice. As described in the next exhibition in this series, cotton agriculture did not become a major feature of the U.S. southern economy until the early nineteenth century.
Sugar: The Caribbean and Brazil
A representation of the sugar-cane and the art of making sugar, West Indies, engraved by John Hinton, 1749, courtesy of the Library of Congress.
The lucrative potential of sugar launched the rise of plantation agriculture from the Middle East to the Mediterranean, to islands in the Indian and Atlantic Oceans near Africa, and finally to the Americas. By the mid-seventeenth century, European settlers in the Caribbean and Brazil had established sugar plantation systems that dominated the trans-Atlantic sugar market. Sugarcane required large labor forces and demanding physical labor (particularly during harvest times) to cultivate a profitable export. It also required skilled laborers for processing the crop from cane, to juice, and finally to crystallized sugar.
Sugarcane, created by Franz Eugen Köhler, Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen, 1897.
Sugar planters initially deployed the labor of enslaved American Indians as well as enslaved Africans and European indentured servants, but by the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, African slavery had become the dominant labor system. European diseases often decimated American Indian populations, and planters found it increasingly difficult to coax indentured servants to work under the brutal conditions of sugar production. Increased European access to the trans-Atlantic slave trade in the seventeenth century made enslaved Africans more cost-effective than indentured servants, and the growing wealth of sugar planters meant they could increasingly afford to invest in enslaved Africans for large plantation operations. Planters could also purchase enslaved Africans on credit, and then use the proceeds of their labor to pay the cost.
Slave market in Pernambuco, Brazil, drawing by Augs. Earle, engraving by Francis Edward Finden, 1824, courtesy of the Library of Congress. The engraving was included in the journal of Maria Graham’s voyage to Brazil from 1821-23.
Sugar cultivation primarily thrived in the tropical regions of the Caribbean and Brazil (and later Louisiana in the nineteenth century). Diseases such as smallpox, typhoid, and dysentery were prevalent, particularly in the warm climate, and enslaved workers were exceptionally vulnerable due to extreme labor exertion, malnutrition, and the recent trauma of the Middle Passage. For these reasons, mortality rates for enslaved workers were generally high in many sugar-producing areas, and often exceeded survival rates. Significant demand for new African laborers through the trans-Atlantic slave trade often remained consistent in these areas into the early nineteenth century.
Tobacco: Mid-Atlantic North America
Enslaved laborers working in tobacco sheds on a colonial tobacco plantation, unknown artist, 1670.
Tobacco plantations thrived in the temperate climate of the Mid-Atlantic region of North America starting with the English colony of Virginia in the seventeenth century. In contrast to sugar, European settlers could make a profit growing tobacco with smaller slaveholdings and less labor exertion. The result was that mortality rates were less extreme than sugar plantation areas, though they remained significant, particularly during the early development of tobacco plantation production.
Tobacco field in North Carolina, image by Kevin Bercaw, 2011.
In contrast to sugar plantations, which required large slave holdings that often led to a black population majority, tobacco plantations could operate profitably with smaller numbers of slaves. They also employed a mixed labor force of free, indentured, and enslaved workers, so that colonial tobacco plantation regions generally had a white population majority.
Images of punishment under slavery, from Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, an American Slave, Written by Himself, 1849, courtesy of Documenting the American South at the University of North Carolina.
In this minority context, enslaved Africans and African Americans had less access to the extended kinship connections found with large enslaved communities in black majority contexts. They maintained African community enclaves, but enslaved Africans in the Mid-Atlantic tobacco region also lived in close and constant proximity to local whites. This proximity could have violent consequences for enslaved Africans and their African American descendants. Slaveholders throughout the New World regularly sought to “break” new arrivals into submission by “stripping” them of their African identities. Along with limiting independence and mobility, slaveholders employed oppressive strategies that included removing African names, assigning backbreaking labor, and minimizing food and clothing rations. Further submission methods were developed over time, such as legally forbidding African spiritual practices, drumming, and speaking in African languages. In black majority contexts, these “stripping” strategies could be more difficult to implement, because slaveholders had less direct interaction with large groups of enslaved laborers. In white majority contexts, or in colonies that functioned as “societies with slaves,” slaveholders often had more direct and regular opportunities to control the daily experiences of enslaved people.
Rice in the Lowcountry
Carolina Gold Rice, image by Kay Rentschler, ca. early 2000s, courtesy of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation.
In the early eighteenth century, rice became the major cash crop of the Lowcountry, and would continue to dominate coastal South Carolina’s economy into the nineteenth century. Rice was first domesticated in Asia several thousand years earlier, then spread to Eurasia and Africa, and finally arrived in the Americas with the “Columbian Exchange” in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. After rice grains came to Carolina in the late seventeenth century, enslaved West Africans in Carolina from rice-growing regions most likely grew rice for subsistence food. It was not until the eighteenth century that Carolina planters had amassed the local capital, enslaved labor force, economic entrepreneurship, and plantation cultivation system to support a major rice export industry. Before 1720, naval stores and the American Indian slave trade were the most lucrative exports from the Carolina colony.
Generalized patterns of rice production in Africa, eighteenth-nineteenth centuries, based on Littlefield, 1995, courtesy of the South Carolina Geographic Alliance.
Scholars currently debate whether Europeans or West Africans from rice-growing regions provided the initial skills and technology that were critical for launching Carolina’s lucrative rice plantations. On one side of the debate, historians Daniel Littlefield and Judith Carney assert that rice agriculture in the Lowcountry began with and depended on West African expertise. They base their argument on the long history of West African rice cultivation, the Carolina adoption of rice-growing technology unique to West Africa, and Lowcountry planter preferences for enslaved Africans from rice-growing regions. Other scholars, including David Eltis, Philip Morgan, and David Richardson, argue that shifting trade access within the larger Atlantic market was a more significant factor in shaping which parts of West and Central Africa slaves in the Americas came from, regardless of planter preferences.
Generalized patterns of rice production in South Carolina during the Colonial Period, map created by Kovacik and Winberry, 1987, courtesy of the South Carolina Geographic Alliance.
They also assert that the transmission of rice cultivation skills to Carolina could have occurred through various channels. Most scholars today agree that the Carolina rice industry grew out of a complex series of cultural, economic, and technological exchanges between Europeans and Africans in the colonial period. They also acknowledge that enslaved West Africans from rice-growing regions directly brought key skills and experiences to Carolina rice cultivation and processing, including the use of fanner baskets and toe-heel planting methods.
Fanner baskets, used for winnowing rice, courtesy of Drayton Hall. In October, enslaved workers on Lowcountry rice plantations fanned the threshed grain in wide, flat baskets made by African basket-makers. These three baskets look strikingly similar, and demonstrate the continuation of this agricultural technique and art form from West Africa to the Lowcountry. The light brown basket on the left is from Senegal; the dark brown basket on the right belongs to the Drayton family and was made before the U.S. Civil War; the white basket at the top of the picture was made by an African American sweetgrass basket maker in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina in the early 2000s.
As found on sugar plantations, rice cultivation required large slaveholdings and extreme levels of labor exertion. Enslaved workers transformed the Lowcountry landscape to develop inland and tidal rice plantations by clearing thousands of acres of dense swampland and building hundreds of miles of dykes, canals, and trunk irrigation systems. Once they cleared the fields for cultivation, enslaved Africans then spent a large portion of the year knee-deep in mud and stagnant water to maintain and harvest the crop. Combined with sub-tropical climates and diseases, arduous rice plantation labor in the Lowcountry led to high mortality rates among enslaved populations. Though many West African arrivals may have benefitted from a genetic sickle cell trait that provided some immunity to malaria, they had no exceptional resistance to diseases such as smallpox, pleurisy, pneumonia, and a variety of sub-tropical diseases endemic to the region. The recent physical and psychological trauma of the Middle Passage also weakened the immune systems of new arrivals, making them exceptionally vulnerable to disease and exhaustion.
Rice culture on the Ogeechee, near Savannah, Georgia, sketched by A.R. Waud in Harper’s Weekly, 1867, courtesy of the Library of Congress.
With access to North America’s largest trans-Atlantic slave trade port in Charleston, Lowcountry slaveholders in the colonial and the post-Revolutionary period could overcome high mortality rates in their enslaved population by continuing to purchase new “saltwater” Africans. Like sugar planters, the growing wealth of rice planters and port access to the Atlantic trade meant that Lowcountry slaveholders had less incentive to ensure the survival of enslaved Africans. In this way, increased trade access could indirectly lead to particularly brutal and negligent treatment of enslaved Africans by white slaveholders.
“Negro Cabins on a Rice Plantation,” illustration from The Great South; A Record of Journeys in Louisiana, Texas, the Indian Territory, Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland, American Publishing Company, 1875, courtesy of Documenting the American South at the University of North Carolina.
Over time, however, like other parts of North America, enslaved Africans and African Americans in the Lowcountry experienced greater rates of survival and successful childbirth in comparison to slaves in tropical sugar-growing areas. With a black population majority, they also had access to large African American communities, in contrast to slaves in the tobacco-growing Mid-Atlantic regions of North America. Greater survival rates combined with large African communities increased the possibility for enslaved Africans in the Lowcountry to maintain identities, languages, traditions, and kinship support systems heavily influenced by West and West Central African roots. They could also pass these cultural traditions on to new generations of African Americans, to form the distinctive Gullah Geechee culture of the Lowcountry.
Thomas Drayton Inventory of Slaves, Drayton Hall, Charleston, South Carolina, 1724, courtesy of Drayton Hall.
With cash crop revenues increasing in the eighteenth century, Lowcountry planters began to live away from their plantations during the sickly summer and fall months. They lived in second homes in nearby urban areas such as Charleston and Savannah, or in coastal or mountain hamlets, such as Pawleys Island, South Carolina and Flat Rock, North Carolina. Some planters even left the southeast region for northern urban areas, including New York City. Lowcountry planters never entirely became absentee planters, like English West Indian planters who often lived in England, but they did spend large portions of the year away from their rice fields. This meant that enslaved Africans and African Americans on rice plantations, numbering in the dozens to hundreds, could access some independence from white planters in this region – though white overseers and enslaved black drivers still asserted the planter’s authority throughout the year.
Drawing of “Negroe Gardens” on Drayton family plantation, from Drayton diary, ca. 1700s, courtesy of Drayton Hall. Under the task system, slaves could complete a set assignment and then spend any extra time cultivating their own subsistance gardens or hunting for game.
In the Lowcountry, planters implemented a task system for organizing rice cultivation labor, in contrast to the more widespread gang system used in sugar, tobacco, and later cotton. Under this system, instead of working by set hours, from sun up to sun down, enslaved laborers completed an assigned task or set of tasks each day that varied depending on gender and age. Once this task was completed, they could pursue other activities such as tending their own subsistence crops, hunting, or fishing. This limited independence allowed enslaved Africans to supplement and enhance the nutritional value of their diets beyond slave rations. They could also develop informal market economies by selling or trading extra game and subsistence crops, often to other slaves, non-slaveholding whites, and even white slaveholders.
A rice raft, South Carolina, ca. 1895, image by Robert N. Dennis collection of stereoscopic views, courtesy of New York Library Photography Collection.
Despite these advantages, the conditions of disease, labor exertion, and brutality on rice plantations undermines portrayals of Lowcountry rice slavery as more benign than plantation labor elsewhere. These conditions were so extreme that similar to the West Indies, the Lowcountry did not experience natural increase of enslaved populations, as found in other North America colonies, until the 1760s. Enslaved children experienced especially high mortality rates in Lowcountry rice plantations.
Early Carolina Settlement: Barbados Influence
Map of West Indies and Caribbean, created by Herman Moll, 1732, courtesy of Geographicus Rare Antique Maps. Map reveals relatively close proximity of Carolina colony and British West Indies. Early settlement in Carolina was strongly influenced by trade with Barbadians and other West Indian settlers, as well as emigration from the West Indies of both planters and slaves to this new North American colony.
The development of a plantation economy and African slavery in Carolina began before English colonists even settled Charles Town in 1670. In 1663, eight Lords Proprietors in England received land grants in North America from King Charles II for their loyalty to the monarchy during the English Civil War. The Lords decided to combine their shares to establish a profit-seeking proprietary settlement, Carolina, between the English colony of Virginia and Spanish Florida. To ensure financial success, they sent representatives to study the lucrative sugar plantation system on the Caribbean island of Barbados. They also recruited white settlers from this English West Indian colony to help launch their new North American settlement. These white Barbadians often brought enslaved Africans and African Barbadians with them.
“The Barbadoes Mulatto Girl,” painting by Augostino Brunias, ca. 1764, courtesy of the Barbados Museum & Historical Society. Painting depicts presence of enslaved Africans and African European “mulatos” in Barbados, as well as a sugarcane plantation in the background. Barbadian settlers brought the plantation model to the Carolina colony, and reliance on African enslaved labor.
Sugarcane never became a major cash crop in Carolina, but these Barbadians eventually transplanted their West Indian model of plantations and slavery to the new colony. Initially, Lowcountry planters attempted and failed to develop a cash crop from olives, grapes, mulberry trees, and different English-based grains. Carolina settlers also engaged in the fur trade with American Indians, extracted tar and pitch for naval stores, and raised livestock for exporting packed beef to the English West Indies. By 1690, however, Lowcountry planters had successfully applied the West Indian plantation model to rice, and Carolina rapidly developed into a lucrative plantation economy and slave society.
Map of Barbados, Richard Ligon, ca. 1647-50, courtesy of the Latin American Library, Tulane University. Ligon, who lived in Barbados between 1647 and 1650, wrote about the enslaved society that contributed a significant number of the first permanent African descended settlers in Carolina. Large sugar estates identified on Ligon’s map occupied the best land on the island, displacing many small farmers. By the mid seventeenth century, an enslaved black majority grouped together on large plantations was a constant source of anxiety to the declining white population. Ligon may have been thinking of a failed slave revolt that took place in Barbados in the 1640s when he included the drawing of runaways being pursued by the militia on the map. The militia were responsible for controlling the slave population and defending white English rule on the island.
An overview of the early colonial history of Barbados provides context for why this English West Indian colony was so influential in the development of plantation economies in the Lowcountry and throughout English North America. In the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Barbados was an ideal place to recruit settlers who could promote the Lords Proprietors’ commercial interests in Carolina. By the 1660s and 70s, this relatively small Caribbean island featured the most lucrative trading system in the English colonies, and the most profitable sugar plantation system in the world. Barbados’ booming plantation economy had developed in just a few short decades, due to a series of geographic and historic advantages.
Execution of James Scott, Duke of Monmouth, 15 July 1685. In 1685, Monmouth attempted to overthrow King James II. He was executed for his actions, and over eight hundred of his supporters from England, Ireland, and Scotland were punished by being transported to work on sugar plantations in the English West Indies, including Barbados.
After the English settled Barbados in 1627, they quickly began cultivating different crops to find a lucrative export. As a coral island, much of the land in Barbados is flat or sloped and arable, in contrast to more mountainous volcanic islands elsewhere in the Caribbean. In addition, in the early seventeenth century, the island was reportedly uninhabited. Though Amerindian groups had a long history of occupying Barbados, conflicts between these groups and prior encounters with Spanish explorers (and European diseases) had nearly wiped out their numbers before the English arrived. In contrast, other English colonies in the Caribbean, such as Antigua and St. Kitts, continually struggled with attacks from Amerindian inhabitants, which delayed settler attempts to develop plantation economies. Geographically set apart at the eastern extremity of the Caribbean island chain, English settlers in Barbados could avoid conflicts with both European rivals and Amerindians and quickly develop cultivation and trade systems.
When English settlers arrived in Barbados they brought enslaved Africans captured from European rivals in privateering skirmishes. Dutch traders also brought enslaved Amerindians from British Guiana in South America. In the first few decades of settlement, however, the Barbadian labor force primarily consisted of white indentured servants, convicts, and “barbadosed” or kidnapped workers from Scotland, Ireland, and England. Barbadian settlers used this mixed labor force to cultivate cash crops such as tobacco, cotton, and indigo on small to medium-sized landholdings, but they struggled to find a successful export. In addition, labor conditions were extreme and oppressive, and indentured servants protested their treatment on the island through riots in 1634 and 1649.
Morgan Lewis Windmill, Barbados, West Indies, image by Mary Battle, March 2012. In addition to opening access to the trans-Atlantic slave trade, Dutch traders in Barbados also introduced windmill technology for processing sugarcane. Many of these structures remain on the island today.
The colony of Barbados continued to struggle financially until the 1640s, when the Portuguese expelled Dutch traders and Sephardic Jews from northern Brazil during a civil war. These settlers turned to English West Indian colonies for new trade markets. They particularly looked to Barbados to cultivate sugar for the booming European market, and to encourage a consumer base for their connections to the trans-Atlantic slave trade in West and Central Africa. As the easternmost Caribbean island in the Lesser Antilles, Barbados was ideally situated to become a port for European trade, and an entryway into American trade systems. European sugar consumption also grew tremendously in the eighteenth century. New Barbadian sugar planters as well as traders became immensely wealthy. The Sugar Revolution transformed Barbados from a colony of small landholdings to an entirely deforested island, covered in plantations worked by enslaved Africans and owned by a handful of elites.
UNESCO Slave Route marker at Newton Plantation, Christ Church, Barbados, image by Mary Battle, 2012. In the 1970s, archaeologists discovered one of the largest slave burial grounds in the Americas at Newton Plantation. They estimate that the remains of nearly six hundred enslaved Africans are interred at this site.
Initially, white indentured servants remained a large part of the sugar plantation labor force, but as contract prices rose, planters sought to limit their costs by exploiting permanently enslaved Africans from the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Moreover, once white servants completed their indenture (if they survived the extreme disease and labor conditions), they also hoped to obtain land. On a relatively small island dominated by large plantations, additional acreage in Barbados became increasingly difficult to obtain. To become landholders, free white Barbadians had to emigrate to larger English West Indian islands such as Jamaica, or to North American colonies such as Virginia and Carolina. Small landholders felt pressure to sell their land to large landholders and move, and the younger sons of elite planter families with no land inheritance had to seek their fortunes elsewhere. For these reasons, many white settlers moved from Barbados to populate other English colonies in the New World. When they moved, these migrants sometimes brought enslaved Africans with them. Meanwhile, Barbadian planters acquired more enslaved Africans, and by the 1670s, when the Carolina colony was first being settled, Barbados had a black population majority.
“A Negro Festival drawn from Nature in the Island of St Vincent,” drawing by Agostino Brunias, engraving by Audinet, 1801, courtesy of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, United Kingdom. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, enslaved Africans in Barbados sometimes escaped by boat to nearby islands such as St. Vincent. On this mountainous island, Amerindian Kalinagos allowed Africans to become a part of their social structure and intermarry after 1660, when Kalinago relations soured with European allies. Many of St. Vincent’s current inhabitants are descendants of these escaped Africans and Amerindians.
Like enslaved Africans throughout the New World, growing numbers of Africans in Barbados consistently resisted their status and labor treatment, sometimes in collaboration with white indentured servants, by forming rebellions, stalling work, and running away. Though forested gullies on the island could provide some refuge for runaways, Barbados did not have mountainous regions to sustain significant maroon communities like Jamaica. Instead, enslaved Barbadians sometimes escaped by boat to other islands, such as St. Vincent. In contrast to white indentured servants, enslaved Africans in Barbados could not legally emigrate or claim land, but many were forced to migrate with white planters, or sold to other English colonies, including Carolina. These enslaved Barbadians brought experience with plantation agriculture as well as strategies for how to resist New World slavery. They also brought diverse multicultural influences drawn from African and Caribbean contexts.
Barbadians in Carolina
The Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina, drafted by the Lords Proprietors, 1669-1670. The original authors were most likely Anthony Ashley Cooper, the Earl of Shaftesbury, and the philosopher John Locke. This legal document encrouaged African slavery in Carolina by ensuring that every freeman had “absolute” power over his “Negro slaves.”
Soon after the original eight Lords Proprietors (one of whom, John Colleton, was a Barbadian) obtained charters for Carolina in 1663 and 1665, a group of Barbadians led by John Yeamans attempted to establish a settlement on the Cape Fear River (now North Carolina). This settlement did not last, but Yeamans later became one of the first governors of Carolina from 1672 to 1674. Even before Charles Town (the first successful English Carolina settlement) was founded in 1670, the Lords drafted a Fundamental Constitution of Carolina in 1669 that encouraged African slavery based on the West Indian model. This Constitution granted every freeman “absolute Power and Authority over his Negro slaves,” which assured West Indian planters they could continue using enslaved African labor when they immigrated to Carolina to establish plantations. The Lords Proprietors also offered prospective Carolina settlers twenty acres of land during the first year of settlement for every black male they owned, and ten acres for every black female.
St. Nicholas Abbey, Barbados, image by Mary Battle, 2012. Sir John Yeamans was the former occupant of this plantation site in the seventeenth century, before he emigrated to Carolina and briefly became one of the first governors of the new colony. He was also a prominent member of the Goose Creek Men, an anti-regulatory faction in Carolina.
Various white Barbadians who had been small to medium sized landholders on the island immigrated to Carolina in the first decades of settlement. Many families who became prominent planters and slaveholders in Charleston — including the Middleton, Drayton, and Gibbes — have Barbadian origins. These Anglo Barbadian settlers brought colonial experience, the parish system, the Anglican Church, and plantation slavery to Carolina. In the seventeenth century, Barbados and the West Indies was also Carolina’s chief source of enslaved labor. One third to one half of Carolina’s early arrivals at this time migrated from the English West Indies, particularly Barbados, rather than directly from Africa. In exchange for enslaved Africans, sugar, and other commodities, Carolina settlers shipped lumber, pipe staves, pitch, tar, resin, beef, pork, corn, peas, and enslaved American Indians to Barbados and other West Indian colonies such as Jamaica. This trade connection launched Carolina’s early economy before the growth of rice agriculture, and continued until the Revolutionary War severed U.S. ties with other English colonies. These early trade connections were so significant that historian Peter Wood described Carolina as a “colony of a colony” of Barbados in its early history.
South Carolina leaders established a slave code in 1712, based on the English slave code in Barbados. The South Carolina slave code served as the model for other colonies in North America. It included provisions listed in this document, based on Charles M. Christian and Sari Bennet, Black Saga: The African American Experience: A Chronology.
Many black and white settlers only briefly spent time in Barbados before arriving in Carolina. Still, their experiences on this West Indian colony greatly influenced Carolina’s commercial priorities and legal systems. In 1691, Carolina leaders established a slave code modeled almost verbatim after laws passed by the Barbadian assembly between 1661 and 1688. Though such laws in practice were often flexible or ignored in early colonial contexts, this code served to legally define enslaved Africans as chattel property in Carolina. They were the most draconian statutes for enforcing slavery in the North American colonies. Through ongoing trade relationships with the West Indies, white and black Carolinians also shared information and ideas, including news about slave rebellions that occurred on various Caribbean islands throughout the eighteenth century. For whites in Carolina, this further encouraged fears about maintaining the safety of whites in a black majority colony, and led to increasingly strict and violently enforced laws for Africans and African Americans in Carolina and beyond. For enslaved Africans in Carolina, news of rebellions and black resistance inspired hope for freedom, as well as concerns about white retaliation.
Ruins of plantation house at Middleton Place, Summerville, South Carolina, 2007. Arthur Middleton was a prominant member of the Goose Creek Men, along with Sir John Yeamans, Maurice Matthews, Robert Daniel, James Moore, and James Moore Jr. Middleton emigrated to Carolina directly from England, but he was influenced by the Barbadian planters who dominated this faction group. His descendants became wealthy planters, large slaveholders, and influential politicians in the Carolina colony and later state of South Carolina.
Though the Lords Proprietors actively sought white Barbadian settlers, they soon found that colonial experience could also make Barbadians independent and unruly in contrast to settlers that came directly from Europe. The Goose Creek Men formed an opposition faction in the early Carolina settlement against the Lords Proprietors, and many had Barbadian origins. Like many white settlers in Carolina, the Goose Creek Men sought economic advancement at all costs, and proved willing to trade with pirates and enslave American Indians to sell to the West Indies, despite regulations against these practices by the proprietary government in England. Throughout the 1680s, the Carolina colony was embroiled in factionalism encouraged by the Goose Creek Men.
Stono River, image by Mary Battle, Hollywood, South Carolina, 2012. Conflicts during both the Yamassee War (1715-1717) and the Stono Rebellion (1739) took place along this river outside of Charleston.
To counterbalance this influential faction, and to increase the number of white settlers who could protect against slave rebellions and attacks from American Indians and Spanish rivals, the Lords Proprietors attempted to recruit more white settlers, including Huguenots, English Baptists, English and Scottish Presbyterians, and Quakers. They also offered lenient terms for religious freedom in the colony, which attracted Sephardic Jews to the Lowcountry as well as Protestant Christian Europeans (Catholics were prohibited until after the American Revolution). Despite their efforts, social and political turmoil continued in the Carolina colony.
Bowens-Bowen Family Reunion, St. Lucy Parish Church, Barbados, 1996, image courtesy of the Post and Courier and Drayton Hall. The descendants of enslaved Africans forced to migrate to Carolina from Barbados are powerful reminders of the historic ties between these former English colonies. In 1996, Richmond Bowens of Charleston (born at Drayton Hall), a descendant of enslaved African Barbadians in Carolina, traveled to Barbados to reestablish family links severed by slavery. Bowens (center) is shown here beside his Barbadian cousins, Julian and David Bowen. “Bowen” is spelled without an ‘s’ in Barbados.
At the same time, Carolina’s active American Indian slave trade within the colony and to the English West Indies, which Barbadian settlers strongly encouraged, created tensions between European settlers and Lowcountry American Indians. These tensions nearly destroyed the colony during the Yamasee War (1715-1717), when a confederation of American Indian groups attacked Carolina settlers in retaliation for American Indian slavery and other trade and land encroachment grievances. By 1719, Carolina had officially split into North and South Carolina (though the first official governor of North Carolina was appointed decades earlier), and settlers asked the English crown to take direct control of the colonies. South Carolina settlers believed that the Lords Proprietors could not provide effective management or security to protect them against outside attacks from American Indians and European rivals, or from African and American Indian slave rebellions within the colony.
American Indian Slavery in Carolina
Stono River, Hollywood, South Carolina, image by Kimberly Pyszka, ca. 2009-12, courtesy of the College of Charleston Center for Environmental Research. Various American Indian groups lived on the coast of what would become South Carolina when Europeans arrived in the sixteenth and seveneteenth centuries.
When English settlers arrived in the Lowcountry region in the late-seventeenth century, they encountered American Indian groups including the Wando, Kiawah, Stono, Etawan, Edisto, Tuscaroras, and Yamassees. Many of these groups had already been exposed to Europeans through Spanish and French exploration, and were decimated by European diseases. Those who survived engaged strategically with Carolina settlers in trade and military alliances, as well as conflict and open warfare. Alliances and rivalries shifted over time, creating a complex web of collaboration, exchange, and animosity between American Indian and Carolina settlers.
Detail of the Sewee Shell Ring, Francis Marion National Forest, Awendaw, South Carolina, 2011. Archaeologists have found shell rings, or shell middens, in various parts of the South Carolina and Georgia Lowcountry. They believe they were created by American Indians living in villages along the coast, either as refuse from eating shellfish, especially oysters, or as deliberately built monuments, similar to American Indian mound building on the lower Mississippi River.
Slavery contributed to tensions between Lowcountry American Indians and Carolina settlers. While attempting to replicate the Barbadian system of plantation agriculture dependent on enslaved African labor, Carolina settlers also enslaved significant numbers of American Indians. Settlers traded guns and other manufactured goods to American Indians for deerskins and slaves, creating a cycle of debt and dependency that often led to European trader abuses. Barbadians were especially involved in developing an American Indian slave trade in Carolina to the West Indies. While American Indians were familiar with the Lowcountry landscape and could often escape from Carolina plantations, they could not easily escape from West Indian plantations. Other American Indians were held captive in Carolina. By the 1720s, the Carolina census included 1500 enslaved American Indians out of an estimated total population in the colony of 17,000.
Map overview of the Yamassee War, 2007.
Angered by land encroachment, trader abuses, debt, and enslavement, a confederation of American Indians attacked English settlements and plantations during the Yamassee War (1715-1717). This war was one of the strongest challenges to European dominance in North America by American Indians during the colonial period, and it nearly destroyed the Carolina colony. Eventually colonists established a shaky peace after forming an alliance with the Cherokee in 1716. Many American Indian groups left the area, moving south or deeper into the interior.
Cherokee from Carolina who accompanied Sir Alexander Coming to England in 1730, Isaac Basire, 1730. Different American Indian groups strategically engaged European settlers in Carolina in a range of ways, from conflict and resistance to alliance and assimilation.
In the years following the Yamassee War, Carolina settlers attempted to maintain this peace by limiting American Indian slavery. Lowcountry planters focused on increasing their labor force through the purchase of enslaved Africans, who were arriving in greater numbers through the port of Charles Town. By the late eighteenth century, as the numbers of African arrivals outnumbered enslaved American Indians, the census stopped differentiating between African and American Indian slaves, and “Negro” increasingly became synonymous with “slave” in the Lowcountry.
Archaeological evidence of burning of St. Paul’s Parish parsonage in 1715, during Yamassee War, Hollywood, South Carolina, photo by Kimberly Pyszka, ca. 2009-12, courtesy of the College of Charleston Center for Environmental Research.
The Yamassee War also helped solidify an early sense of white racial unity between planter elites and non-slaveholding settlers in Carolina. White settlers began adopting a siege mentality in the seventeenth century against the multiple threats of American Indian attacks, slave rebellions, and attacks from Spanish Florida. In contrast, the colony of Virginia had fewer “frontiers” of conflict, and instead struggled more with class conflicts between whites as well as slave rebellions. In Carolina, tensions flared regularly between poor whites and elite white slaveholders, particularly as large plantation owners in the Lowcountry pushed small, non-slaveholding farmers into the backcountry. But Carolina generally avoided violent class conflicts and political upheavals between whites. The multiple sources of conflict in the early Carolina colony generated a sense of white unity across classes. Non-slaveholding whites also played an essential role in the structure of the Lowcountry’s slave society, by working as overseers on plantations and participating in slave patrols to capture runaways and prevent rebellions.
Africans in Carolina
Broadside from The South Carolina Gazette, Charleston, South Carolina, May 1769, image courtesy of Middleton Place Foundation. Advertisement notes that this shipment of Africans to Charles Town comes from the “center of rice country.”
Africans probably first arrived in the area that would become South Carolina in 1526, as part of a Spanish expedition from the Caribbean. For the next century, ongoing struggles between Spanish, French, and American Indian groups in this region involved enslaved Africans who accompanied, and sometimes escaped from, European rivals. Due to heavy reliance on slavery and the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the Carolina colony featured a black population majority by 1708 that would last in the state of South Carolina into the mid-twentieth century.
“Slave sale, Charleston, South Carolina,” wood engraving by E. Crowe, Illustrated London News, 1856, courtesy of the British Museum, London.
In the late seventeenth century, English traders established direct access to the trans-Atlantic slave trade, particularly in West and West Central Africa, through the Royal African Company and other trading companies. Barbados was a major port for England’s trans-Atlantic trade, and in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, from one-third to one-half of enslaved Africans in Carolina came from the English West Indies. By the early eighteenth century, however, the port in Charles Town (renamed Charleston in 1783) began to receive larger numbers of enslaved men, women, and children arriving directly from Africa.
Old Slave Mart Museum, Charleston, South Carolina, image courtesy of Jane Aldrich, ca. early 2000s. The Old Slave Mart Museum in Charleston documents the history of the U.S. domestic slave trade in the Lowcountry. It is located in a building that formerly housed Ryan’s Mart, an indoor slave market in the nineteenth century.
African arrivals to Charles Town rarely exceeded 300 a year in 1710. By 1720 they numbered more than 1,000 annually, and by 1770 more than 3,000 enslaved Africans arrived in the Lowcountry each year. Though the Revolutionary War temporarily stifled the trans-Atlantic slave trade to Charleston, planters and traders in the nineteenth century were eager to acquire more Africans before the U.S. trans-Atlantic slave trade came to a legal end in 1808. Anticipating the upcoming ban on enslaved African imports, Charleston traders acquired some 70,000 Africans between 1804 and 1807. Over forty percent of all enslaved Africans who came to North America through the trans-Atlantic slave trade arrived through Charleston Harbor. These Africans were sold to plantations in Carolina Lowcountry, or into the U.S. domestic slave trade, particularly to Georgia and East Florida in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Runaway slave advertisement placed by slave master in South Carolina newspaper, ca. late eighteenth to early nineteenth century, courtesy of the University of Southern Mississippi. Advertisement notes that the runaway will most likely go to Charleston, South Carolina, where he has an aunt and uncle.
With a unified port of entry and a black population majority, enslaved Africans in the Lowcountry were more likely to have ties of language, kinship, and nationality with other enslaved Africans in the area, in contrast to North American colonies with multiple ports, where African connections of nationality or kinship were more dispersed. In Carolina, access to these bonds drew enslaved Africans together across plantation boundaries, so that Lowcountry planters often looked for runaways on plantations where the escaped slave had kinship or ethnic ties.
The dominant regional and ethnic origins of African arrivals to Carolina changed over time due to various factors, including shifting conflicts and access to the trans-Atlantic slave trade in West and Central Africa, as well as market competition and planter preferences in North America and Carolina. According to slave trader Henry Laurens, colonial South Carolina planters initially preferred to purchase Africans from the Senegambia region.
Bunce Island, Sierra Leone, ca. early 2000s (top), 1726 (bottom), images courtesy of Comet Multimedia and the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition. The Bunce Island slave fortress was a major supplier of enslaved West Africans to rice plantations in the British colonies of South Carolina and Georgia. Slave trader Henry Laurens was Bunce Island’s business agent in Charleston.
Despite these preferences, more Angolans were imported in the early colonial period than any other African nationality because of trade access in that region. British slave traders did, however, attempt to appease Carolina preferences for Senegambians. Overall, by the end of the colonial period, African arrivals in Charleston primarily came from Angola (40 percent), Senegambia (19.5 percent), the Windward Coast (16.3 percent), and the Gold Coast (13.3 percent), as well as the Bight of Benin and Bight of Biafra in smaller percentages.
Mortar and pestle used for pounding rice to remove husks in rice growing regions of West Africa and the Lowcountry, ca. early 2000s, image courtesy of Jane Aldrich and Drayton Hall.
Scholars have found that in contrast to the Chesapeake, Lowcountry planters differentiated among the many West African cultures, and deliberately sought out slaves of particular ethnicities or from particular regions. Runaway advertisements and other archival sources show that Carolina planters noticed certain skills, physical appearances (including “country marks” or tribal scarification), personality traits, and habits that they ascribed to particular African cultures. These characterizations were often based on shallow and inaccurate stereotypes, but they sometimes reflected a calculated understanding of international cultures and economies. Scholars such as Daniel Littlefield attribute this attentiveness to planter interests in obtaining enslaved Africans who could provide specific cultivation skills, particularly knowledge of rice agriculture from rice-growing regions in West Africa. Other scholars argue that this level of detail reflects the symptoms of a slave society heavily invested in, and influenced by, the trans-Atlantic slave trade and ongoing presence of new African arrivals.
Sullivan’s Island Historic Marker, Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina, ca. early 2000s, courtesy of the U.S. National Park Service. Marker notes history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and pest houses on this island near Charleston. Queen Quet of the Gullah Geechee Nation stands to the left of the marker with a small child. Over forty percent of enslaved Africans forced to North America arrived through Charleston Harbor.
For Africans in Carolina, arrival in Charles Town was a brutal and traumatic experience. After surviving the Middle Passage, many then spent weeks in pest houses on Sullivan’s Island for disease quarantine, followed by sale at the hands of traders. Initially slave sales in Charles Town were confined to pens or yards behind homes or stores on Broad and Tradd Street. Carolina traders sought to make slave sales organized and ‘civil’ processes, providing wine, drink, and other refreshments for buyers as they debated prices for enslaved African men, women and children.
Enslaved African child in chains, wearing collar and shackles, unidentified British artist, ca. 1820-1840, courtesy of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, United Kingdom.
Later slave sales moved to enclosed markets such as Ryan’s Mart downtown. If they were not immediately sold to local planters or city dwellers for agricultural or domestic work, many of these Africans were forced to travel miles further into the interior, to secondary markets in Georgetown, South Carolina or Savannah, Georgia, and later through the more widespread U.S. domestic slave trade. Despite these overwhelming conditions, as described further in the next exhibition, Lowcountry Slavery: Daily Life and Revolutionary Change, Africans in Carolina developed powerful survival and resistance strategies, as well as rich cultural and spiritual practices drawn from West African traditions that they adapted to Lowcountry contexts.
Plantation rules, Drayton Hall, Charleston, South Carolina, ca. 1844, courtesy of Drayton Hall.
During the colony’s earliest years, enslaved Africans worked, sometimes side-by-side, with Europeans and enslaved and free American Indians, to produce subsistence crops as well as lumber, beef, naval stores, and other exports for Caribbean islands whose own land had been entirely turned over to sugar production. The influence of West and West Central Africans was already evident in this early colonial economy. For example, as historian Peter Wood explains, Carolina settlers used a free-range style of herding cattle that was more typical of West Africa than of Europe, so that enslaved Africans in Carolina became some the earliest American “cowboys.” Initially, enslaved Africans and American Indians were sometimes allowed to bear arms and work independently, but this autonomy, and the presence of a mixed labor force in South Carolina, changed rapidly with the rise of rice plantations in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Soon the overwhelming majority of laborers in the Lowcountry were enslaved Africans, and they worked predominantly on plantations, cultivating rice or other cash crops such as indigo, and Sea Island cotton. In addition, as described in the next exhibition, white reactions to the Stono Rebellion near Charles Town in 1739, one of the earliest and largest slave rebellions in English North America, also led to more oppressive laws for enslaved Africans and African Americans.
Map of Triangular trade between western Europe, Africa and Americas, 2007.
During the colonial period, the Carolina economy relied on a multi-national trans-Atlantic trade system. British merchants supplied manufactured goods to acquire slaves from West and West Central African ports, which they then shipped to English colonies in the Americas in exchange for cash crops exports produced primarily by enslaved African labor on plantations. Before the American Revolution, South Carolina merchants served as local factors for British merchants in Liverpool, Bristol, and London who directed most of the trade of enslaved Africans from West Africa to Carolina.
Miles Brewton House, 27 King Street, Charleston, South Carolina, image by Louis Schwartz, 1969, courtesy of the Library of Congress. Miles Brewton (d. 1775) was a prominent slave trader in Charleston. The historic gates outside the house feature spikes, which reportedly were placed there as a defense against slave rebellions
White Carolina planters and slave traders made immense profits from selling and extracting labor and skills from enslaved Africans, and became some of the most influential social, political, and military leaders in the colony, and later in the state and new nation of the United States. Slavery was central to the wealth, social structure, and political and legal systems of South Carolina. Rigid, violently enforced racial hierarchies were essential to maintaining this system.
Charles Pinckney (1757-1824), painting ca. eighteenth century. Pinckney was a prominent local and national politician from Charleston. He signed the U.S. Constitution, and along with other South Carolina delegates advocated to maintain slavery in the new nation.
Despite the overwhelming dominance and oppression of slavery in the Carolina Lowcountry, Africans and African Americans continuously resisted this system in a range of a ways. As described in the next exhibition section, in addition to armed rebellions and running away, Lowcountry African American culture and identity was also a form of resistance. The institution of slavery was designed to control black labor and reduce enslaved Africans and African Americans to the status of chattel property — but it did not succeed. Instead, enslaved people fostered distinctive traditions in their daily life practices on rural plantations or urban households and shops, of foodways, land cultivation, music, dress, language, medicine, craft, oral traditions, spirituality, and political and social organization. In the Lowcountry, these distinctive traditions still resonate today, particularly within African American Gullah Geechee communities.
The Old Plantation, painting by John Rose, ca. 1785-1795, courtesy of the Abbey Aldrich Rockefeller Art Museum, Williamsburg, Virginia.
This exhibition has provided an outline of how slavery developed and became entrenched in the South Carolina Lowcountry during the colonial period. The next exhibition, Lowcountry Slavery: Daily Life and Revolutionary Change, explores the experiences, cultural continuations, and multicultural adaptations of enslaved Africans and African Americans living in the urban and rural contexts of the Lowcountry in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. The next exhibition also examines what happened to this institution, and the diverse experiences of enslaved people, when the Lowcountry experienced major upheavals during the American Revolution (1775-1783) and finally during the U.S. Civil War and Emancipation (1861-1865).
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