Short History of the American Negro - Benjamin Brawley

Beginnings of Slavery in the Colonies

1. The Word Negro.—The word Negro  is the modern Spanish and Portuguese form of the Latin adjective niger, meaning black. As commonly used, the word is made to apply to any and all of the black and dark brown races of Africa. Such a usage is not strictly correct, the term having both a narrower and a wider significance than this would imply. In Africa the real Negroes occupy only a relatively small part of the continent, while outside of Africa, on the islands of the Pacific Ocean, there is a branch of the Nigritian race of people only less important than the main branch of Negroes in Africa.

2. African Slave Coast.—The Negroes who came to America as slaves were by no means all of exactly the same race stock and language. Plantations frequently exhibited a variety of customs, and sometimes traditional enemies became brothers in servitude. The center of the colonial slave-trade was the African coast for about two hundred miles east of the great Niger River. From this comparatively small region came as many slaves as from all the rest of Africa together. A number of those who came were of entirely different race stock from the Negroes; some were Moors, and a very few were Malays from Madagascar. Such wide differences in race and tribal origin account for the very marked distinctions of form and feature to be observed to-day in Americans of unmixed African descent.

3. The Negro in Spanish Exploration. Negroes are mentioned in the very earliest accounts of explorers in America, even by Columbus in the records of his voyages. After 1501 they became familiar personages in the West Indies; and in 1513 thirty Negroes assisted Balboa in building the first ships made on the Pacific Coast of America. On his accession to the Spanish throne Charles V granted "license for the introduction [into America] of Negroes to the number of four hundred" (1517), and thereafter importation to the West Indies became a thriving industry. Those who came in these early years were sometimes men of considerable intelligence, having been trained as Mohammedans or Catholics. It was about 1525 that Negroes were first introduced within the present limits of the United States. These were brought to a colony near what is now Jamestown, Va. In course of time the Negroes here were so harshly treated that they rose in insurrection against their oppressors and fired their houses. The settlement was broken up, and the Negroes and their Spanish companions returned to Hayti, whence they had come. The best authenticated case of a Negro's leading in exploration is that of Estevanico, or Estevanillo, one of the four survivors of the ill-fated expedition of De Narvaez, who sailed from Spain June 17, 1527. The three companions of this man returned to Spain; but he himself became a medicine-man among the natives, and later became highly esteemed by those interested in extending the Spanish domain. To him belongs the credit of the discovery of the Zuni Indians and of New Mexico. No part played by the Negro in these early years, however, exercised any abiding influence on the history of the race in the United States.

4. Beginnings of the African Slave-Trade.—The revival of slavery at the close of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the system of Negro slavery were due to the commercial expansion of Portugal in the fifteenth century. In 1441 Prince Henry sent out one Gonzales, who captured three Moors on the African Coast. These offered as ransom ten Negroes whom they had taken. The Negroes were brought to Lisbon in 1442, an in 1444 Prince Henry regularly began the European trade from the Guinea Coast.

For fifty years his country enjoyed a monopoly of the traffic. The slaves were taken at first to Europe, and later to the Spanish possessions in America, where Indian slavery did not work well. Spain herself joined in the trade in 1517, and as early as 1530 William Hawkins, a merchant of Plymouth, visited the Guinea Coast and took away a few slaves. England really entered the field, however, with the voyage in 1562 of Captain John Hawkins, son of William, who also went to the west coast of Africa. Captain Hawkins made two other voyages, one in 1564 in the good ship Jesus, and another, with Drake, in 1567, taking his slaves to the West Indies. Queen Elizabeth evidently regarded the opening of the slave-trade as a worth achievement, for when she made Hawkins a knight she gave him for a crest the device of a Negro's head and bust with the arms securely bound. France joined in the trade in 1624, and then Holland, Denmark, and the American colonies.

5. Development of the Slave-Trade by England.—The rivalry between the different countries of Europe over the slave-trade soon became intense; and England, with her usual aggressiveness, soon assumed a commanding position. "The commercial supremacy of the Dutch in the first part of the seventeenth century excited the envy and the emulation of the English. The Navigation Ordinance of 1651 was aimed 5) ?> at them, and two wars were necessary to wrest the slave-trade from them and place it in the hands of the English." The English trade proper began with the granting of rights to special companies, to one in 1618, to another in 1631, and in 1662 to the "Company of Royal Adventurers," rechartered in 1672 as the "Royal African Company." James, Duke of York, was interested in this last company, and it agreed in a contract to supply the West Indies with 3,000 slaves annually. In 1698, on account of the incessant clamor of English merchants, the commerce was opened generally, and private traders by act of parliament were allowed to participate in it on payment of a duty of 10 percent on English goods exported to Africa. The market for the slaves was the American colonies of the European countries, at first especially the Spanish West Indies. In course of time England came to regard the slave-trade as of such importance that when in 1713 she accepted the Peace of Utrecht she insisted on having awarded to her for thirty-three years the exclusive right to transport slaves to the Spanish colonies in America.

6. Planting of Slavery in the Colonies.—(a) Virginia.—It is only for Virginia that we can state with definiteness the year in which Negro slaves were first brought to an English colony on the mainland. When legislation on the subject of slavery first appears elsewhere, slaves are already Present. In August, 1619, a Dutch vessel brought to Jamestown twenty Negroes, who were sold into servitude. Virginia, however, did not give statutory recognition to slavery as a system until 1661, the importations being too small to make the matter one of importance. In this year, however, an act of assembly stated that Negroes were "incapable of making satisfaction for the time lost in running away by addition of time;" and thus slavery gained a firm place in the oldest of the colonies.

(b) Massachusetts.—Negroes were first imported into Massachusetts from Barbadoes a year or two before 1638, but in John Winthrop's Journal, under date February 26th of this year, we have positive evidence on the subject as follows: "Mr. Pierce in the Salem ship, the Desire, returned from the west Indies after seven months. He had been at Providence, and brought some cotton, and tobacco, and negroes, etc., from thence, and salt from Tertugos. Dry fish and strong liquors are the only commodities for those parts. He met there two men-of-war, sent forth by the lords, etc., of Providence with letters of mart, who had taken divers prizes from the Spaniard and many negroes." It was in 1641 that there was passed in Massachusetts the first act on the subject of slavery; and this was the first positive act in any of the colonies with reference to the matter. It was enacted that "there shall never be any bond slavery, villeinage, nor captivity among us, unless it be lawful captives, taken in just wars, and such strangers as willingly sell themselves or are sold to us, and these shall have all the liberties and Christian usages which the law of God established in Israel requires." This article clearly sanctioned slavery. Of the three classes of persons referred to, the first was made up of Indians, the second of white people under the system of indenture (of which more must be said), and the third of Negroes. In this whole matter, as in many others, Massachusetts moved in advance of the other colonies. The first definitely to legalize slavery, she early became the foremost representative of the sentiment against the system. In these early years the New England colonies were more concerned about Indians than about Negroes, as the presence of the former in large numbers was a constant menace, while Negro slavery had not yet assumed its more serious aspects.

(c) New York.—Slavery began in New York under the Dutch rule and continued under the English. Before or about 165o the Dutch West India Company brought Negro slaves to New Netherland. Most of these continued to belong to the company, though after a period of labor (under the common system of indenture) some of the more trusty were allowed to have small farms, from the produce of which they made return to the company. Their children, however, continued to be slaves. In 1664 New Netherland became New York. The next year, in the code of English laws that was drawn up, it was enacted that "no Christian shall be kept in bond slavery, villeinage, or captivity, except who shall be judged thereunto by authority, or such as willingly have sold or shall sell themselves." As at first there was hesitancy about making Negroes Christians, this act, like the one in Massachusetts, by implication permitted slavery.

(d) Maryland.—It was in 1632 that the grant including what is now the states of Maryland and Delaware was made to George Calvert, first Lord Baltimore. Though slaves are mentioned earlier, it was in 1663-64 that the Maryland legislature passed its first enactment on the subject of slavery. It was declared that "all negroes and other slaves within this province, and all negroes and other slaves to be hereinafter imported into this province, shall serve during life; and all children born of any negro or other slave, shall be slaves as their fathers were, for the term of their lives."

(e) Delaware and New Jersey.—The real beginnings of slavery in these colonies are unusually hazy. The Dutch introduced the system in both New Jersey and Delaware. In the laws of New Jersey the word slaves occurs as early as 1664, and acts for the regulation of the conduct of those in bondage began with the practical union of the colony with New York in 1702. The lot of the slave was somewhat better here than in most of the colonies. Although the system was in existence in Delaware almost from the beginning of the colony, it did not receive legal recognition until 1721, when there was passed an act providing for the trial of slaves by two justices and six free-holders. Delaware was influenced a good deal in her views by Pennsylvania, the Quaker colony where slavery was generally opposed though tolerated.

(f) Pennsylvania.—Especially in its earlier years, by reason of the sturdy and independent character of its settlers, the colony of Pennsylvania became noteworthy for its opposition to the enslavement of Negroes, and early acts on the subject were largely restrictive. When slavery is first heard of in Pennsylvania, in 1688, a memorial against the system is drawn up by Francis Daniel Pastorius for the Germantown Quakers. In 1700 the legislature forbade the selling of slaves out of the province without their consent, and the importation of slaves from Carolina was prohibited in 1705 on the ground that it made trouble with the Indians nearer home.

(g) Connecticut.—It was almost by accident that slavery was officially recognized in Connecticut in 1650. The code of laws compiled for the colony, in this year was especially harsh on the Indians. It was enacted that certain of them who incurred the displeasure of the colony might be made to serve a person injured by them or "be shipped out and exchanged for negroes." In 1680 the governor of the colony informed the Board of Trade that "as for blacks there came sometimes three or four in a year from Barbadoes, and they are usually sold at the rate of 22 apiece." These people were regarded rather as servants than as slaves, and early legislation was mainly in the line of police regulations designed to prevent their running away.

(h) Rhode Island.—In 1652 it was enacted in Rhode Island that all slaves brought into the colony should be set free after ten years of service. This law was not designed, as might be supposed, to restrict slavery. It was really a step in the evolution of the system, and the limit of ten years was by no means observed. "The only legal recognition of the law was in the series of acts beginning January 4, 1703, to control the wandering of Indian and African slaves and servants, and another beginning in April, 1708, in which the slave-trade was indirectly legalized by being taxed." (Alexander) "In course of time Rhode Island became the greatest slave-trader in the country, becoming a sort of clearing-house for the other colonies." (DuBois).

(i) New Hampshire.—This colony, profiting by the experience of its neighbor, Massachusetts, deemed it best from the beginning to discourage slavery. There were so few Negroes in the colony as to form a quantity almost negligible. Still, the system of slavery was recognized, an act being passed in 1714 to regulate the conduct of slaves, and another four years later to regulate the conduct of masters.

(j) North Carolina.—In this colony, even more than in most of the others, the system of Negro slavery was long controlled by custom rather than by legal enactment. It was recognized by law in 1715, however, and police laws to govern the life of slaves were enacted.

(k) South Carolina.—The history of slavery in South Carolina is peculiarly noteworthy. The natural resources of this colony offered a ready home for the system, and the laws here formulated were as explicit as any ever enacted. Slaves were first imported from Barbadoes, and their status received official confirmation in 1682. By 1720 the number had increased to 12,000, the white people numbering only 9,000. By 1698 such was the fear from the preponderance of the Negro population that a special act was passed to encourage white immigration. Legislation "for the better ordering of slaves" was made in 1690, and in 1712 the first regular slave law was enacted. Once before 1713, the year of the Assiento Contract of the Peace of Utrecht, and several times after this date, prohibitive duties were placed on Negroes to guard against, their too rapid increase. By 1734, however, importation had again reached large proportions; and in 1740, in consequence of an insurrection led by a slave named Cato, a prohibitive duty several times larger than the previous one was placed upon Negroes brought into the province. The whole system of slavery in South Carolina was very profitable, Negroes being naturally adapted to life in the lowlands.

(l) Georgia.—The colony of Georgia was chartered in 1732 and actually founded the next year. Oglethorpe's idea was that the colony should be a refuge for persecuted Protestants and the debtor classes of England. Slavery was forbidden on the ground that Georgia was to defend the other English colonies from the Spaniards on the south, and that it would not be able to do this if, like South Carolina, it dissipated its energies in guarding Negro slaves. For years the development of Georgia was slow, and the prosperous condition of South Carolina constantly suggested to the planters that "the one thing needful" for their highest welfare was slavery. Again and again were petitions addressed to the trustees, George Whitefield being among those who most urgently advocated the innovation. Moreover, Negroes from South Carolina were sometimes hired for life, and purchases were sometimes openly made in Savannah. It was not until 1749, however, that the trustees yielded to the request. In 1755 the legislature passed an act that regulated the conduct of the slaves, and in 765 a more regular slave code was adopted. Thus did slavery finally gain a foothold in what was destined to become one of the most important of the Southern states.