From the seventeenth century on, slaves became the focus of trade between Europe and Africa. Europe’s conquest and colonization of North and South America and the Caribbean islands from the fifteenth century onward created an insatiable demand for African laborers, who were deemed more fit to work in the tropical conditions of the New World. The numbers of slaves imported across the Atlantic Ocean steadily increased, from approximately 5,000 slaves a year in the sixteenth century to over 100,000 slaves a year by the end of the eighteenth century.
Evolving political circumstances and trade alliances in Africa led to shifts in the geographic origins of slaves throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Slaves were generally the unfortunate victims of territorial expansion by imperialist African states or of raids led by predatory local strongmen, and various populations found themselves captured and sold as different regional powers came to prominence. Firearms, which were often exchanged for slaves, generally increased the level of fighting by lending military strength to previously marginal polities. A nineteenth-century tobacco pipe (1977.462.1) from the Democratic Republic of the Congo or Angola demonstrates the degree to which warfare, the slave trade, and elite arts were intertwined at this time. The pipe itself was the prerogative of wealthy and powerful individuals who could afford expensive imported tobacco, generally by trading slaves, while the rifle form makes clear how such slaves were acquired in the first place. Because of its deadly power, the rifle was added to the repertory of motifs drawn upon in many regional depictions of rulers and culture heroes as emblematic of power along with the leopard, elephant, and python.
The institution of slavery existed in Africa long before the arrival of Europeans and was widespread at the period of economic contact. Private land ownership was largely absent from precolonial African societies, and slaves were one of the few forms of wealth-producing property an individual could possess. Additionally, rulers often maintained corps of loyal, foreign-born slaves to guarantee their political security, and would encourage political centralization by appointing slaves from the imperial hinterlands to positions within the royal capital. Slaves were also exported across the desert to North Africa and to western Asia, Arabia, and India.
It would be impossible to argue, however, that transatlantic trade did not have a major effect upon the development and scale of slavery in Africa. As the demand for slaves increased with European colonial expansion in the New World, rising prices made the slave trade increasingly lucrative. African states eager to augment their treasuries in some instances even preyed upon their own peoples by manipulating their judicial systems, condemning individuals and their families to slavery in order to reap the rewards of their sale to European traders. Slave exports were responsible for the emergence of a number of large and powerful kingdoms that relied on a militaristic culture of constant warfare to generate the great numbers of human captives required for trade with the Europeans. The Yoruba kingdom of Oyo on the Guinea coast, founded sometime before 1500, expanded rapidly in the eighteenth century as a result of this commerce. Its formidable army, aided by advanced iron technology, captured immense numbers of slaves that were profitably sold to traders. In the nineteenth century, the aggressive pursuit of slaves through warfare and raiding led to the ascent of the kingdom of Dahomey, in what is now the Republic of Benin, and prompted the emergence of the Chokwe chiefdoms from under the shadow of their Lunda overlords in present-day Angola and Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Asante kingdom on the Gold Coast of West Africa also became a major slave exporter in the eighteenth century.
Ultimately, the international slave trade had lasting effects upon the African cultural landscape. Areas that were hit hardest by endemic warfare and slave raids suffered from general population decline, and it is believed that the shortage of men in particular may have changed the structure of many societies by thrusting women into roles previously occupied by their husbands and brothers. Additionally, some scholars have argued that images stemming from this era of constant violence and banditry have survived to the present day in the form of metaphysical fears and beliefs concerning witchcraft. In many cultures of West and Central Africa, witches are thought to kidnap solitary individuals to enslave or consume them. Finally, the increased exchange with Europeans and the fabulous wealth it brought enabled many states to cultivate sophisticated artistic traditions employing expensive and luxurious materials. From the fine silver- and goldwork of Dahomey and the Asante court to the virtuoso wood carving of the Chokwe chiefdoms, these treasures are a vivid testimony of this turbulent period in African history.
Alexander Ives Bortolot
Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University
The Origins and Growth of Slavery in America
How did slavery come to America, and why did it grow in the 1800s?
The most brutal institution in American history, slavery existed in the United States from the early 17th century until 1865, when Congress enacted the Thirteenth Amendment shortly after the Union victory over the Confederacy in the Civil War. By that point, more than 4 million African-American slaves lived in the United States. Although their communities thrived and multiplied, these people were subject to harsh living conditions and enjoyed none of the rights or freedoms so fiercely protected by white Americans.
Native Americans were the first enslaved people in North America. Many aboriginal societies had practiced different forms of slavery for thousands of years before they had ever seen Europeans. The practice, however, represented a temporary condition and was used more as a badge of status than a moneymaking enterprise. Most Indian slaves were women and children either purchased or captured as prizes in warfare. Some were adopted into their new tribe over time, their offspring being free persons who could even rise to positions of leadership. Slavery, therefore, was not a hereditary condition, nor was it based on race.
Europeans continued the practice of enslaving Indians after their arrival in the New World in the late 15th century. Spanish, English, and French colonists broadened the scope of Indian slavery by selling Indians, including men, into bondage in other colonies as punishment for warfare or rebellion. The Spanish in particular created a vast system of slave labor in its colonies in Latin America.
The English and French enslaved Native Americans much less frequently and seldom held Indian slaves to labor among them. Rather, they sold Indian captives south to the West Indies, as Connecticut colonists did to surviving Native American women and children following the Pequot War of 1636-1637, which virtually annihilated the Pequots from New England. In general, the British colonists found it difficult to enslave Native Americans, who had great opportunities to escape from bondage and rejoin their tribes.
The system of chattel slavery (the personal ownership of a slave) that developed in the New World and focused on African Americans was different than the slavery practiced against Native Americans. The first group of African slaves, numbering four men and women, arrived aboard a Dutch ship at Jamestown, Virginia in 1619.
English planters like John Rolfe quickly realized the enormous profits to be had from importing unfree laborers. Rolfe’s introduction of a viable tobacco plant in Virginia served as a major impetus for the adoption of African slavery as the region’s main labor system. Tobacco was an extremely labor-intensive crop, requiring field hands to spend long hours bending over plants under the blazing hot sun. Most whites proved entirely unsuited for this labor, in part because they were unused to such hot and humid weather conditions and in part because they flat out refused to do such work. Some white indentured servants were forced to work in the fields, but as the 17th century progressed, it proved more and more difficult to convince Europeans to immigrate under these conditions.
African slaves solved many of these problems. Physically, Africans were more used to such brutal weather conditions and capable of laboring in them for longer periods than whites. As African slaves represented a diversity of nations and spoke a wide variety of languages, they also found it difficult to communicate with one another and organize resistance to their forced bondage. And unlike the Native Americans, Africans were too far from their homeland to run away from their white masters. Finally, some West African leaders proved extremely receptive to the idea of selling other Africans into slavery for profit, so that most of the kidnapping of Africans and forcing them into bondage was actually done by other Africans, requiring even less effort on the part of whites to perpetuate the system. For all these reasons, African slavery quickly emerged as a desirable and profitable labor system.
Throughout the course of the 17th century, the various British North American colonies erected a series of laws and social conventions that served to establish African slavery at the heart of colonial society, particularly in the South. Although African slavery spread to all of the colonies, it never took hold in the northern colonies as it did in the southern, primarily because of the nature of the work required. Northern colonies were populated with small family farms, and the rocky terrain proved inhospitable for crops like tobacco. Slaves certainly existed in the northern colonies but not in nearly such large numbers as in their southern counterparts.
During the colonial period, nowhere did slavery become more firmly entrenched than in Virginia, and the slave system that Virginia developed during this period served as a model for all other slave societies in the years to come. At first, in the 1620s, the rules governing slavery were ill-defined, and some masters treated the Africans more like indentured servants than slaves. Several Africans even labored for specified amounts of time and then secured their freedom. By the 1640s, however, the idea that African slavery should be both perpetual and hereditary had begun to take hold, as the labor required to keep large plantations functioning and profitable grew scarce and the price of slaves rose.
The Virginia House of Burgesses passed a series of laws in the second half of the 17th century that legitimized African slavery. Perhaps most important, the legislature grounded slavery on a strict definition of race, ensuring that anyone with even as little as one-eighth of African blood was likely to be a slave. The laws also clearly classified slaves as property, according them no rights or protections under the law. Masters were free to do with their slaves as they pleased. Although the legislature would pass other laws in the coming decades to refine the slave-labor system, its essentials were in place by 1700.
By that point, slavery was firmly established as the primary labor system of the South. White indentured servants from Europe became increasingly scarce, while African imports rose dramatically beginning in 1680. New England shipping firms profited immensely from the trade by transporting Africans from their homeland to America. Known as the Middle Passage, the journey across the Atlantic Ocean in slave ships was a brutal one, with the Africans being held below decks, chained together in cramped conditions, and suffering from disease, starvation, and outrageously poor sanitary conditions. Although mortality rates on the Middle Passage were alarmingly high, most Africans reached North America and were quickly sold into perpetual bondage with no hope of ever attaining their freedom or returning home.
- Note that most of the captured slaves did NOT come to the modern day United States