Chapter 20 Africa and the World ca. 1400-1800 

People     Empires    Trade   Islam   Slavery

Slave Trade in the US

An Exploding Population Base

Between 1700 and 1760 the colonial population of the US mushroomed from 250,000 to 1.6 million persons—and to 2.5 million by 1775. Natural population increase—predicated upon abundant land, early marriages, and high fertility rates—was only one source of the population explosion. Equally significant was the introduction of non-English peoples. Between 1700 and 1775 the British North American slave trade reached its peak, resulting in the involuntary entry of an estimated 250,000 Africans into the colonies. The black population grew from 28,000 in 1700 to over 500,000 in 1775, with most living as chattel slaves in the South. At least 40 to 50 percent of the African population increase in the colonies was attributable to the booming slave trade.


16. How was it that Olaudah Equiano came to live in England and work as an active abolitionist?

Olaudah Equiano on His Ship Passage as a Slave to America          Slavery

Eli Whitney's Flawed Legacy

1. How did the invention of the cotton gin revitalize slavery?

In the early 1790s, slavery was a dying institution. Slave imports into the New World were declining and slave prices were falling because the crops grown by slaves—tobacco, rice, and indigo—did not generate enough income to pay for their upkeep. In Maryland and Virginia, planters were replacing tobacco, a labor-intensive crop that needed a slave labor force, with wheat and corn, which did not. At the same time, leading Southerners, including Thomas Jefferson, denounced slavery as a source of debt, economic stagnation, and moral dissipation. A French traveler reported that people throughout the South "are constantly talking of abolishing slavery, of contriving some other means of cultivating their estates."

However, the booming textile industry had created a high demand for short-staple cotton, but it could not be marketed until the seeds had been extracted from the cotton boll, a laborious and time-consuming process.

From a slave known only by the name Sam, Whitney learned that a comb could be used to remove seeds from cotton. In just ten days, Whitney devised a way of mechanizing the comb. Within a month, Whitney's cotton engine (gin for short) with the aid of a horse to turn the gin, could separate fiber from seeds faster than 50 people working by hand.

Whitney's invention revitalized slavery in the South by stimulating demand for slaves to raise short-staple cotton. Between 1792, when Whitney arrived on the Greene plantation, and 1794, the price of slaves doubled. By 1825 field hands, who brought $500 apiece in 1794, were worth $1500. As the price of slaves rose, so too did the number of slaves. During the first decade of the nineteenth century, the number of slaves in the United States increased by 33 percent; during the following decade (after the African slave trade became illegal), the slave population grew another 29 percent.

E. Degas, New Orleans Cotton Exchange

In 1803 alone, over 20,000 slaves were being brought into Georgia and South Carolina to work in the cotton fields.

Much of this cotton was exported to Britain where the invention of the Spinning Jenny, the Water Frame and the Power Loom had rapidly increased the demand for raw cotton. By 1850 America was producing 3,000,000 bales of cotton and the industry had become a vital element of the South's economy.

Cotton manufacturing was the basis of England's manufacturing economy and the need for market for finished cotton cloth promoted England's Imperialistic expansion.

cotton production 1790-1860

Sugar was important in some regions as well.

At first settlers in America imported cane sugar from the West Indies. However, after the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803, plantation owners began growing sugar cane. This crop was labor intensive and large numbers of slaves were purchased to do this work.

The crushed cane was used for fuel, molasses and as a base for rum. The industry grew rapidly and by 1830 New Orleans had the largest sugar refinery in the world with an annual capacity of 6,000 tons.

The map of the slave based economy that developed by 1860:

This was a huge difference from the economics of the colonial era

Recall the triangular trade around the time of the revolution:

The Old South: Images and Realities

The Plantation Legend 

32. What was the plantation legend?

During the three decades before the Civil War, popular writers created a stereotype, now known as the plantation legend, that described the South as a land of aristocratic planters, beautiful southern belles, poor white trash, faithful household slaves, and superstitious field hands.

This image of the South as "a land of cotton" where "old times" are "not forgotten" received its most popular expression in 1859 in a song called "Dixie," written by a Northerner named Dan D. Emmett to enliven shows given by a troupe of black-faced minstrels on the New York stage. In the eyes of many Northerners, uneasy with their increasingly urban, individualistic, commercial society, the culture of the South seemed to have many things absent from the North—a leisurely pace of life, a clear social hierarchy, and an indifference to money.

33. What did the South produce besides cash crops?

Despite the strength of the plantation stereotype, the South was, in reality, a diverse and complex region. Though Americans today often associate the old South with cotton plantations, large parts of the South were unsuitable for plantation life. In the mountainous regions of eastern Tennessee and western Virginia, few plantations and few slaves were to be found. Nor did southern farms and plantations devote their efforts exclusively to growing cotton or other cash crops, such as rice and tobacco. Unlike the slave societies of the Caribbean, which produced crops exclusively for export, the South devoted much of its energy to raising food and livestock.


34. What was the truth about the South’s large slaveholders?

Actually, large slaveholders were extremely rare. In 1860 only 11,000 Southerners—three-quarters of one percent of the white population—owned more than 50 slaves; a mere 2358 owned as many as 100 slaves. However, although large slaveholders were few in number, they owned most of the South's slaves. Over half of all slaves lived on plantations with 20 or more slaves and a quarter lived on plantations with more than 50 slaves.

35. How many slaves did the average slaveholder possess?

Slave ownership was relatively widespread. In the first half of the nineteenth century, one-third of all southern white families owned slaves, and a majority of white southern families either owned slaves, had owned them, or expected to own them. These slaveowners were a diverse lot. A few were African American, mulatto, or Native American; one-tenth were women; and more than one in ten worked as artisans, businesspeople, or merchants rather than as farmers or planters. Few led lives of leisure or refinement. The average slaveowner lived in a log cabin rather than a mansion and was a farmer rather than a planter. The average holding varied between four and six slaves, and most slaveholders possessed no more than five.

37. What was critical to the economic growth of the United States?

The plantation legend was misleading in still other respects. Slavery was neither dying nor unprofitable. In 1860 the South was richer than any country in Europe except England, and it had achieved a level of wealth unmatched by Italy or Spain until the eve of World War II.

The southern economy generated enormous wealth and was critical to the economic growth of the entire United States. Well over half of the richest 1 percent of Americans in 1860 lived in the South. 

Even more important, 

southern agriculture helped finance early nineteenth-century American economic growth

Before the Civil War, the South grew 60 percent of the world's cotton, provided over half of all U.S. export earnings, and furnished 70 percent of the cotton consumed by the British textile industry. Cotton exports paid for a substantial share of the capital and technology that laid the basis for America's industrial revolution.  

In addition, precisely because the South specialized in agricultural production, the North developed a variety of businesses that provided services for the southern states, including textile and meat processing industries and financial and commercial facilities.

Impact of Slavery on the Southern Economy

38. What led Southerners to neglect transportation improvements?

An overemphasis on slave-based agriculture led Southerners to neglect industry and transportation improvements. As a result, manufacturing and transportation lagged far behind in comparison to the North. In 1860 the North had approximately 1.3 million industrial workers, whereas the South had 110,000, and northern factories manufactured nine-tenths of the industrial goods produced in the United States.

The South's transportation network was primitive by northern standards. Traveling the 1460 overland miles from Baltimore to New Orleans in 1850 meant riding five different railroads, two stagecoaches, and two steamboats. Most southern railroads served primarily to transport cotton to southern ports, where the crop could be shipped on northern vessels to northern or British factories for processing.

39. If slavery was highly profitable, why did it have a negative impact on the Southern economy?

Although slavery was highly profitable, it had a negative impact on the southern economy. It impeded the development of industry and cities and contributed to high debts, soil exhaustion, and a lack of technological innovation. The philosopher and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson said that "slavery is no scholar, no improver; it does not love the whistle of the railroad; it does not love the newspaper, the mail-bag, a college, a book or a preacher who has the absurd whim of saying what he thinks; it does not increase the white population; it does not improve the soil; everything goes to decay." There appears to be a large element of truth in Emerson's observation.

Because large slaveholders owned most of the region's slaves, wealth was more stratified than in the North. In the Deep South, the middle class held a relatively small proportion of the region's property, while wealthy planters owned a very significant portion of the productive lands and slave labor. In 1850, 17 percent of the farming population held two-thirds of all acres in the rich cotton-growing regions of the South.

There are indications that during the last decade before the Civil War slave ownership was increasingly concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. As soil erosion and exhaustion diminished the availability of cotton land, scarcity and heavy demand forced the price of land and slaves to rise beyond the reach of most, and in newer cotton-growing regions, yeomen farmers were pushed off the land as planters expanded their holdings. In Louisiana, for example, nearly half of all rural white families owned no land. During the 1850s, the percentage of the total white population owning slaves declined significantly. By 1860, the proportion of whites holding slaves had fallen from about one-third to one-fourth. As slave and land ownership grew more concentrated, a growing number of whites were forced by economic pressure to leave the land and move to urban centers.

Because of high rates of personal debt, Southern states kept taxation and government spending at much lower levels than did the states in the North. As a result, Southerners lagged far behind Northerners in their support for public education. Illiteracy was widespread. In 1850, 20 percent of all southern white adults could not read or write, while the illiteracy rate in New England was less than half of 1 percent.


40. Why were Southern cities small?

The South, like other slave societies, did not develop urban centers for commerce, finance, and industry on a scale equal to those found in the North. Virginia's largest city, Richmond, had a population of just 15,274 in 1850. That same year, Wilmington, North Carolina's largest city, had only 7264 inhabitants, while Natchez and Vicksburg, the two largest cities in Mississippi, had fewer than 3000 white inhabitants.

Southern cities were small because they failed to develop diversified economies. Unlike the cities of the North, southern cities rarely became processing or finishing centers and southern ports rarely engaged in international trade. Their primary functions were to market and transport cotton or other agricultural crops, supply local planters and farmers with such necessities as agricultural implements, and produce the small number of manufactured goods, such as cotton gins, needed by farmers.


The primary distinguishing characteristic of the South was its dependence on slave labor. During the decades before the Civil War, 4 million African Americans, one-third of the South's population, labored as slaves.

48. How were slaves able to sustain a vital culture?

They were able to sustain ties to their African past and to maintain a cultural life. Through religion, folklore, music, and family life as well as more direct forms of resistance, slaves were able to sustain a vital culture supportive of human dignity. ?

The Legal Status of Slaves 

49. What was the main goal of the slave codes?

Maintain the institution, justify it, excuse it, protect white property rights and minimize the possibility of uprisings.

Every southern state enacted a slave code that defined the slaveowners' power and the slaves' status as property. The codes stated that a slave, like a domestic animal, could be bought, sold, and leased. A master also had the right to compel a slave to work. The codes prohibited slaves from owning property, testifying against whites in court, or from making contracts. Slave marriages were not recognized by law. Under the slave codes, slavery was lifelong and hereditary, and any child born to a slave woman was the property of her master.

The slave codes gave slaves limited legal rights. To refute abolitionist contentions that slavery was unjust and inhumane, southern legislators adopted statutes regulating slaves' hours of labor and establishing certain minimal standards for slave upkeep. Most states also defined the wanton killing of a slave as murder, prohibited cruel and unusual punishments, and extended to slaves accused of capital offenses the right to trial by jury and legal counsel. Whipping, however, was not regarded by southern legislatures as a cruel punishment, and slaves were prohibited from bringing suit to seek legal redress for violations of their rights.

The main goal of the slave codes, however, was to regulate slaves' lives. Slaves were forbidden to strike whites or use insulting language toward white people, hold a meeting without a white person present, visit whites or freed slaves, or leave plantations without permission. The laws prohibited whites and free blacks from teaching slaves to read and write, gambling with slaves, or supplying them with liquor, guns, or poisonous drugs. Most of the time, authorities loosely enforced these legal restrictions, but whenever fears of slave uprisings spread, enforcement tightened.

Slave Labor

50. What was a key part of the system of slave discipline and motivation?


Because slaves had little direct incentive to work hard, slaveowners combined a variety of harsh penalties with positive incentives. Some masters denied disobedient slaves passes to leave the plantation or forced them to work on Sundays or holidays. Other planters confined disobedient hands to private or public jails, and one Maryland planter required a slave to eat the worms he had failed to pick off tobacco plants. Chains and shackles were widely used to control runaways. Whipping was a key part of the system of discipline and motivation. On one Louisiana plantation, at least one slave was lashed every four and one-half days. In his diary, Bennet H. Barrow, a Louisiana planter, recorded flogging "every hand in the field," breaking his sword on the head of one slave, shooting another slave in the thigh, and cutting another with a club "in 3 places very bad."

Thomas Johnson with slave whip and chains

But physical pain alone was not enough to elicit hard work. To stimulate productivity, some masters gave slaves small garden plots and permitted them to sell their produce. Others distributed gifts of food or money at the end of the year. Still other planters awarded prizes, holidays, and year-end bonuses to particularly productive slaves. One Alabama master permitted his slaves to share in the profits of the cotton, peanut, and pea crops.

(1) Moses Roper, Adventures and Escape of Moses Roper (1838)

Mr. Gooch, the cotton planter, he purchased me at a town called Liberty Hill, about three miles from his home. As soon as he got home, he immediately put me on his cotton plantation to work, and put me under overseers, gave me allowance of meat and bread with the other slaves, which was not half enough for me to live upon, and very laborious work. Here my heart was almost broke with grief at leaving my fellow slaves. Mr. Gooch did not mind my grief, for he flogged me nearly every day, and very severely. Mr. Gooch bought me for his son-in-law, Mr. Hammans, about five miles from his residence. This man had but two slaves besides myself; he treated me very kindly for a week or two, but in summer, when cotton was ready to hoe, he gave me task work connected with this department, which I could not get done, not having worked on cotton farms before. When I failed in my task, he commenced flogging me, and set me to work without any shirt in the cotton field, in a very hot sun, in the month of July. In August, Mr. Condell, his overseer, gave me a task at pulling fodder.

Having finished my task before night, I left the field; the rain came on, which soaked the fodder. On discovering this, he threatened to flog me for not getting in the fodder before the rain came. This was the first time I attempted to run away, knowing that I should get a flogging. I was then between thirteen and fourteen years of age. I ran away to the woods half naked; I was caught by a slave-holder, who put me in Lancaster jail. When they put slaves in jail, they advertise for their masters to own them; but if the master does not claim his slave in six months from the time of imprisonment, the slave is sold for jail fees.

When the slave runs away, the master always adopts a more rigorous system of flogging; this was the case in the present instance. After this, having determined from my youth to gain my freedom, I made several attempts, was caught and got a severe flogging of one hundred lashes each time. Mr. Hammans was a very severe and cruel master, and his wife still worse; she used to tie me up and flog me while naked.

Slave whipping accounts

Material Conditions of Slave Life

51. What were the hallmarks of life as a slave?

Deprivation and physical hardship were the hallmarks of life under slavery. It now seems clear that the material conditions of slave life may have been even worse than those of the poorest, most downtrodden free laborers in the North and Europe. Although the material conditions for slaves improved greatly in the nineteenth century, slaves remained much more likely than southern or northern whites to die prematurely, suffer malnutrition or dietary deficiencies, or lose a child in infancy.

52. What was wrong with the average slave diet?

The slaves' diet was monotonous and unvaried, consisting largely of cornmeal, salt pork, and bacon. Only rarely did slaves drink milk or eat fresh meat or vegetables. This diet provided enough bulk calories to ensure that slaves had sufficient strength and energy to work as productive field hands, but it did not provide adequate nutrition. As a result, slaves were small for their ages, suffered from vitamin and protein deficiencies, and were victims of such ailments as beriberi, kwashiorkor, and pellagra. Poor nutrition and high rates of infant and child mortality contributed to a short average life expectancy—just 21 or 22 years compared to 40 to 43 years for whites.

Slave Family Life

53. What obstacles strained slave family life?

Slavery severely strained family life. Slave sales frequently broke up slave families. During the Civil War, nearly 20 percent of former slaves reported that an earlier marriage had been terminated by "force." The sale of children from parents was even more common. Over the course of a lifetime, the average slave had a fifty-fifty chance of being sold at least once and was likely to witness the sale of several members of his or her immediate family.

Even in instances in which marriages were not broken by sale, slave husbands and wives often resided on separate farms and plantations and were owned by different individuals. On large plantations, one slave father in three had a different owner than his wife and could visit his family only at his master's discretion. On smaller holdings divided ownership occurred even more frequently. The typical farm and plantation were so small that it was difficult for many slaves to find a spouse at all. As a former slave put it, men "had a hell of a time getting a wife during slavery."

Other obstacles stood in the way of an independent family life. Living accommodations undermined privacy. Many slaves had to share their single-room cabins with relatives and other slaves who were not related to them. On larger plantations, food was cooked in a common kitchen and young children were cared for in a communal nursery while their parents worked in the fields. Even on model plantations, children between the ages of  7 and 10 were taken from their parents and sent to live in separate cabins.

Slavery imposed rigid limits on the authority of slave parents. Nearly every slave child went through an experience similar to one recalled by a young South Carolina slave named Jacob Stroyer. Stroyer was being trained as a jockey. His trainer beat him regularly, for no apparent reason. Stroyer appealed to his father for help, but his father simply said to work harder, "for I cannot do anything for you." When Stroyer's mother argued with the trainer, she was whipped for her efforts. From this episode, he learned a critical lesson: The ability of slave parents to protect their own children was sharply limited.

Slave Auction Accounts

A slave-market in America.

54. What about slavery did abolitionists most bitterly denounce?

Of all the evils associated with slavery, abolitionists most bitterly denounced the sexual abuse suffered by slave women. Abolitionists claimed that slaveholders adopted deliberate policies to breed slaves for sale in the lower South—"like oxen for the shambles"—and kept "black harems" and sexually exploited slave women. Some masters did indeed take slave mistresses and concubines. One slave, Henry Bibb, said that a slave trader forced Bibb's wife to become a prostitute.

Slave Cultural Expression

55. What characterized slave religious beliefs?

During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, slaves embraced Christianity, but they molded and transformed it to meet their own needs. Slave religious beliefs were a mixture of African traditions and Christianity. From their African heritage, slaves brought a hopeful and optimistic view of life, which contrasted sharply with evangelical Protestantism's emphasis on human sinfulness. In Protestant Christianity the slaves found an emphasis on love and the spiritual equality of all people that strengthened their ties to others. Many slaves fused the concepts of Moses, who led his people to freedom, and Jesus, who suffered on behalf of all humankind, into a promise of deliverance in this world.

A major form of African American religious expression was the spiritual. Slave spirituals, such as "Go Down Moses" with its refrain "let my people go," indicated that slaves identified with the history of the Hebrew people, who had been oppressed and enslaved, but who achieved eventual deliverance.


56. What were important forms of slave cultural expression?

In addition to the spiritual, storytelling was another important form of slave cultural expression. Slave folktales were much more than amusing stories; slaves used them to comment on the people around them and to convey lessons for everyday living. Among the most popular slave folktales were animal trickster stories, like the Brer Rabbit tales, derived from similar African stories, which told of powerless creatures who achieve their will through wit and guile rather than power and authority. These tales taught slave children how they had to function in a white-dominated world and held out the promise that the powerless would eventually triumph over the strong.


Slave Resistance

57. What was the most famous slave revolt in the United States?

The best known slave revolt took place nine years later in Southampton County in southern Virginia. On August 22, 1831, Nat Turner, a trusted Baptist preacher, led a small group of fellow slaves into the home of his master Joseph Travis and killed the entire Travis household. By August 23, Turner's force had increased to between 60 and 80 slaves and had killed more than 50 whites. The local militia counterattacked and killed about 100 African Americans. Twenty more slaves, including Turner, were later executed. Turner's revolt sparked a panic that spread as far south as Alabama and Louisiana. One Virginian worried that "a Nat Turner might be in any family."

The Confessions of Nat Turner, 1831

58. Why didn’t slave revolts occur more often?

Slave uprisings were much less frequent and less extensive in the American South than in the West Indies or Brazil. Outright revolts did not occur more often because the chances of success were minimal and the consequences of defeat catastrophic. As one Missouri slave put it, "I've seen Marse Newton and Marse John Ramsey shoot too often to believe they can't kill" a slave.

The conditions that favored revolts elsewhere were absent in the South. In Jamaica, slaves outnumbered whites ten to one, whereas in the South whites were a majority in every state except Mississippi and South Carolina. In addition, slaveholding units in the South were much smaller than in other slave societies in the Western Hemisphere. Half of all U.S. slaves worked on units of 20 or less; in contrast, many sugar plantations in Jamaica had more than 500 slaves.

The unity of the white population in defense of slavery made the prospects for a successful rebellion bleak. In Virginia in 1830, 100,000 of the state's 700,000 whites were members of the state militia. Finally, southern slaves had few havens to which to escape. The major exception was the swamp country in Florida, where former slave maroons joined with Seminole Indians in resisting the U.S. army.

Recognizing that open resistance would be futile or even counterproductive, most plantation slaves expressed their opposition to slavery in a variety of subtle ways. Most day-to-day resistance took the form of breaking tools, feigning illness, doing shoddy work, stealing, and running away. These acts of resistance most commonly occurred when a master or overseer overstepped customary bounds. Through these acts, slaves tried to establish a right to proper treatment.


Free African Americans

59. What typified the life of free blacks in 1850s America?

 intense legal, economic, and social discrimination, which kept them desperately poor

Free African Americans varied greatly in status. Most lived in poverty, but in a few cities, such as New Orleans, Baltimore, and Charleston, they worked as skilled carpenters, shoemakers, tailors, and millwrights. In the lower South, a few achieved high occupational status and actually bought slaves of their own. One of the wealthiest former slaves was William Ellison, the son of a slave mother and a white planter. As a slave apprenticed to a skilled artisan, Ellison had learned how to make cotton gins, and at the age of 26 bought his freedom with his overtime earnings. At his death in 1861, he had acquired the home of a former South Carolina governor, a shop, lands, and 63 slaves worth more than $100,000.

Free people of color occupied an uneasy middle ground between the dominant whites and the masses of slaves. Legally, courts denied them the right to serve on juries or to testify against whites. Some, like William Ellison, distanced themselves from those black people who remained in slavery and even bought and sold slaves. Others identified with slaves and poor free slaves and took the lead in establishing separate African American churches.

In addition to the more than 250,000 free African Americans who lived in the South, another 200,000 of them lived in the North. Although they made up no more than 3.8 percent of the population of any northern state, free African Americans faced intense legal, economic, and social discrimination, which kept them desperately poor. They were prohibited from marrying whites and were forced into the lowest paying jobs. Whites denied them equal access to education, relegated them to segregated jails, cemeteries, asylums, and schools, forbade them from testifying against whites in court, and, in all but four states—New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts, and Vermont—denied them the right to vote.

In the North as well as the South, most free African Americans faced economic hardship and substandard living conditions. Northern African Americans typically lived in tenements, sheds, and stables. An 1847 visitor described the typical black dwelling in Philadelphia as "a desolate pen," 6 feet square, without windows, beds, or furniture, possessing a leaky roof and a floor so low in the ground "that more or less water comes in on them from the yard in rainy weather." According to the New York Express, the principal residence of a free black in that city was a house with eight or ten rooms, "and in these are crowded not infrequently two or three hundred souls."

During the 1830s or even earlier, African Americans in both the North and South began to suffer from heightened discrimination and competition from white immigrants in both the skilled trades and such traditional occupations as domestic service. In the late 1850s, the plight of free African Americans worsened. In states such as South Carolina and Maryland, they faced a new crisis. White mechanics and artisans, bitter over the competition they faced from free people of color, demanded that the states legislate the reenslavement of African Americans. During the winter of 1859, politicians in the South Carolina legislature introduced 20 bills restricting the freedom of African Americans. None passed. The next summer, Charleston officials went house to house, demanding that free people of color provide documentary proof of their freedom and threatening to reenslave those who lacked evidence. A panic followed, and hundreds of free blacks emigrated to the North. Some 780 emigrated from South Carolina before secession; 2000 more left during the first month and a half of 1861.