Why Slavery? Why Africans?

Published 18 May 2017

How strong was the relationship between race and slavery in colonial North America?

The Virginians in the 17th century were no different by other Americans in terms of being labor intensive and productive. But during this period, the Virginians begin to feel the need for more labor as more production of tobacco farms was established to cater to the growing needs of England for tobacco. Since these early Virginians were mostly colonials from England, the crown of England is fully supporting them in their commerce and agriculture.

Tobacco production in Virginia has become the forefront for Agriculture in North America that creates revenues that supports the crown of England. There is only one problem the Virginians are facing and that is the lack of labor force which is needed to power the production for more tobacco. The number of African slaves who were brought or bought from Africa continues to dwindle and most of them are getting old. They were called Negroes during that time by the colonials from England because of their ebony dark skin and the word has spread out in this part of the world.

In the early days of colonialism, the Virginians avoided taking in more Negroes from Africa because they believe that keeping them for a lifetime while keeping their family as well is not logical enough for a man of single family with small farms. But with the addition of more agricultural areas, more lands were tilled and cotton and muscovado sugar were added as the principal crops in Virginia. Thus suddenly the necessity for the Negroes was felt. However, most of the citizens are contemplating of taking in more Negroes because they are afraid they would also revolt once they are more in numbers just like in England.

Before the introduction of Negroes in the 1640s, the main crop in Virginia was primarily tobacco and majority of the workers were whites who migrated from England to avoid the civil war conflict. Migrating to Virginia to work as laborers was the only option to survive and so English workers flock to Virginia to work on farms. But with the introduction of cotton and sugar, more laborers were needed while tilling the lands became tougher. White workers who are not used to hard work avoided the strenuous labor. But with the advent of peace in England, white workers’ arrival in Virginia declined while the former workers decided to own their own lands and some of them migrated back to England. This calls for more Negro workers for the job. In 1660, Virginians started to buy Negroes from the Dutch traders who travel between Africa and Europe. But because of the passing of Navigation Acts which prevented the Dutch to enter the colonies of the whites, buying of slaves was once again stopped.

The people of West Indies however continued to buy slaves from Africa through their own voyage and selling of slaves by the West Indies to Virginia carried more Negroes into the state. With the importation of muscovado sugar and tobacco, more Englishmen from England came to Virginia to try the opportunity brought about by agriculture. By 1750, more than 100,000 Negroes were taken in inside Virginia and West Indies but stricter rules in owning Negroes for slaves have been implemented. Rules in punishing slaves enable more slaves to practice their rights but some puritanical North American colonials remained strict with their slaves to the point of killing them if they go against the rules of their masters. The slaves from then on became an integral part of the colonists for without them there would be no commerce, trade and comfortable life for colonists. Thus the relationship between race and slavery in North America was very strong because the Negroes remained to be slaves for many years not because they are capable in sustaining life for their masters but because they were seen as lower in race farther from their masters’ white race (Morgan).

Were English colonists motivated to enslave Africans by prejudice or by profit?

As written by English adventurous traders, the Englismen arrived in Africa in the 1550s to make trade with the people. Although the Englishmen were known to be nation of colonizers, there were no motives of colonizing the Africans and converting them to English religions whatsoever. As the trade continued to grow and participated by the Portuguese and the Spanish, it was only in 1631 when the English were forced to settle in Kormantin due to the fact that the Royal African Company, a shipping and trading company was put on hold to sail. This initiates familiarity of the Englishmen with the culture and color of the African natives. Initially these first English settlers treated the West Africans equal as men because they all work together in harmony.

Words of mouth travels as English nobles and historian travelers explored the mystery of Africa and its people. Shakespeare and Othello call them in their works as “blacks” and sometimes “Negroes”. However during the 17th century, constant traders in Africa began to notice certain distinctions between North Africans and the South Africans. They see Africans of the North to be blacker than the Africans of the south so they branded the South Africans to be “moors” while the North African to be “black moors”.

Since the English traders have developed a strong trading relationship with the Africans, few Negroes begin to mingle with the Englishmen and agree to be taken to England to work as free slaves. Prior to that, five West Africans were taken to London in 1554 by Englishman trader William Towrson to have them as his slaves. Towrson trained them to learn English so that they could help him with his trade across Africa. From them on, sporadically Negroes were brought to England to work as free slaves or for free labor. Soon the Negroes seem to be novelties for the English nobles because of their uniqueness in color and their adaptability to learn English cultures.

Although the Portuguese and the Spanish who for centuries have been in contact with the Africans, they did not recognize them as lower in race. However, the English interests with blacks were partly out of curiosity while others disdain them for being black. As an evidence of the English critical observation with the Africans during that period, even the Oxford English Dictionary described the meaning of black as “deeply stained with dirt; dirty, foul and soiled. It signifies dark with deadly purposes or pertaining to death, sinister and disastrous. In other words there came in this period the insignificance of being black as an emotionally partisan in color and the symbol of evil and a sign of repulsion and danger by many English colonists. This kind of mentality was ingrained in the English culture where black connotes filthiness, sin, baseness, ugliness, evil and the devil, while white is being in purity, virginity, virtue, beauty, beneficence and God. Obviously, the English carry in them the culture of the Elizabethan English who is complimented to be the perfect and ideal human beauty because of the color of her skin.

Due to the influx of bigger trade and settlement of other Europeans in African countries, the English came to conclusion that the Negroes must be converted to Christianity because they believe that being an atheist is a great fundamental defect and sin to God. However, some of these Englishmen are not strong believers themselves that is why most of them do not feel the necessity to introduce Christianity to the Africans. By being atheists, it was thought that during the latter part of the 17th until the 18th century slavery became engraved to English civilization mainly because it was powered by prejudice generally evoked by the puritanical English religious sects. The Negroes were seen as the unbelievers, the uncultured or even to the point of seeing them to be ape kind. Far from being equal they were defiled as lustful and unclean as animals. They were bought as slaves because of their energetic and unusual resilience to work.

The Englishmen’s objectives of re-creating them to be civilized and turn them into Christians have never happened but the English traders succeeded in passing them as part of their commodities. Negroes are bought from other Negroes, traders and so on. At last the Englishmen find reasons to capitalize on the Negroes unique culture, uncultivated characteristics and physical appearance which for them are inferior qualities that are suited only to be slaves. And so the question if what motivates the Englishmen to enslave Negroes according to this commentary, it shows that they were enslave primarily because of prejudice and then by profit because they became good commodities for the ambitious and racial English colonists (Jordan).

Works Cited:

  • Jordan, Winthrop D. White or Black: American Attitudes Towards the Negro, 1550-1812.
  • Morgan, Edmund S. American Slavery, American Freedom. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1975.
Did it help you?