How Did American Slavery Begin?

Updated on August 7, 2019
Larry Slawson profile image

Larry Slawson received his Masters Degree at UNC Charlotte. He specializes in Russian and Ukrainian History.

How Did American Slavery Begin?
How Did American Slavery Begin?


How did American Slavery begin? Edward Countryman attempts to address this question in his compilation of five articles taken from a variety of leading historians. Each resource presented offers the reader a tremendous vantage point into the lives of slaves and offers direct insight into how slavery developed over time. By looking at a variety of issues surrounding the development of slavery, the reader gains an entirely new perspective that is not entirely centered on European-American racism. Instead, a more complex account of slavery’s progression is introduced into the readers’ mind that accounts for an assortment of different causes. Through this newfound insight it becomes clear that slavery directly resulted not only from racial prejudices, but from expanding economic needs within the English colonies and religious confrontation within the African interior. Coupled together, these three attributes helped pave the way for future American expansion and the eventual rise of the American republic.

Margaret Washington and Edmund Morgan's Perspective on Slavery

Margaret Washington’s "Who Enslaved Whom" and Edmund Morgan’s "Slavery and Freedom: The American Paradox" both offer perhaps the best insight into how slavery began within America through an examination of economic and religious factors. Contrary to popular belief, slavery did not entirely rest upon the works of Europeans and later Americans. While it is argued that slavery persisted because of a need for extra labor, the American economic needs, in turn, served only to help drive the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Washington demonstrates this view by arguing that slavery evolved from these economic desires once coupled with the raging religious conflict and “holy wars” within the African continent itself (Washington Pg. 74). Dominant ethnic groups that included the Fulas, Mandingas, and the Susu (all of which shared Muslim religious ideologies) often waged Jihad against neighboring African communities who maintained “simple manners and customs, loose tribal organizations, and decentralized government” (Washington, Pg. 75). In turn, these various ethnic groups became easy “prey” for the encroaching Muslim societies (Washington, Pg. 75). Classified as pagans for their beliefs, many of these ethnic groups soon found themselves aboard slaver ships bound for the West Indies and the North American east coast. With Europeans largely inhabiting the African coastal regions and the majority of slaves being from the internal regions of Africa it is hard to dispute the notion that many Africans were sold into slavery by their own people. It is important to note, however, that Washington makes it abundantly clear that the rise of American slavery did not rest solely with the dominant African ethnic groups. She instead makes an excellent point with the statement taken from Ottobah Cugoana: “if there were no buyers there would be no sellers” (Washington, Pg. 67). The economic needs of America in regard to cotton, indigo, and rice cultivation, therefore, played a decisive role in keeping the African slave trade thriving. Following basic economic principles of supply and demand, the excessive demands of British colonists only served to bolster enslaving operations across the African continent. “Jihad” merely “coincided with coastal Carolina’s agricultural expansion” (Washington, Pg. 77).

Going hand in hand with Washington’s argument, Edmund Morgan continues to describe the role of the economy within the New World and its impact on the development of slavery. Whereas Washington discusses how rice, cotton, and indigo instituted a need for a larger workforce, Morgan goes into greater detail and explores the deep underlying causes behind the economic hardships within America and how slavery came about as a result. Morgan’s argument, in turn, offers an entirely new perspective on the rise of slavery that seemingly erodes all preconceived notions of slavery’s rise within the readers’ mind.

The expansion of the English into the New World directly resulted from a need to deal with British labor problems. With many poor, out of work, and landless people within the British Isles came a rise in crime, public drunkenness, and general misbehavior among the “idle” population (Morgan, Pg. 128). Thus, the New World afforded England the opportunity to deal with its increasingly poor population by relocating many of them through colonization. With expansion of the English into the New World came a growing number of indentured servants within the newfound Virginia colony. In order for indentured servitude to work, however, there needed to be two basic principles in place: high mortality rates among the servants and an abundance of land. With high mortality, the Virginia colony did not have to account for as many freed servants once their period of indenture ended. Secondly, an abundance of land allowed for the expansion of settlers once their period of servitude was up. With mortality rates dwindling into the late 1600s, less land and opportunities remained present for the annual arrival of indentured servants across the Chesapeake region (Morgan, Pg. 132). What began as a land full of opportunity soon turned into a land of turmoil with the growing number of discontent colonists. Adding to this argument, Morgan contends that it was at this crucial moment in history that slavery began to take root.

Bacon’s Rebellion, essentially, resulted from the frustrations of a growing number of poor, landless individuals who had served their time of indenture only to find few opportunities and less land then when they first arrived in America. Following this bloody event, it became abundantly clear that a new form of labor needed to be implemented in order to quell off the annual number of indentured servants entering the New World and to provide a means of cheaper labor to alleviate low tobacco-generated profits. Slavery, as Morgan contends, proved to be the only reasonable choice. Slavery dealt with the problem of immigration, solved the issue of needing an abundance of land since slaves became lifetime property of the owner, and allowed for a cheap labor force that could be worked rigorously. In turn, this newfound workforce allowed for expanded economic development because of the relatively cheap labor slavery allowed for. It was at this moment that “the rights of Englishmen were preserved by destroying the rights of Africans” (Morgan, Pg. 135).

The Atlantic

A. Leon Higginbotham and Winthrop Jordan's Perspective

As demonstrated by Washington and Morgan, the notion of racism cannot be used to describe slavery’s beginnings entirely. Nevertheless, racial prejudices did play an important role in its development, as discussed by historians A. Leon Higginbotham and Winthrop Jordan. Consequently, Countryman includes two of their articles within his edited volume as a means of describing this particular perspective on American slavery.

According to A. Leon Higginbotham, being black or coming from mixed ancestry (Creole or Mulattoes) appeared to be synonymous with sin during both the rise and progression of slavery (Higginbotham, Pg. 88). Blacks often found themselves to be powerless victims in a society dominated by racist notions of white superiority. Higginbotham highlights this notion with a description of a white man accused of having sexual relations with a black woman. For lying with the woman he “defiled his body” by being with someone inferior (Higginbotham, Pg. 90). As Higginbotham describes: American society viewed the event as "not fornication” that the man had committed, “but bestiality” (Higginbotham, Pg. 90). This account alone gives a tremendous insight into the white superiority complex that existed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The white embodiment of supremacy, as seen, often had dehumanizing effects upon the black race as a whole. Options did exist to help alleviate a black’s status within society, however. As part of the servant class, blacks “were last among equals” (Higginbotham, Pg. 88). Being baptized into the Christian religion, however, “accorded” them “the privileges of a free person” prior to the 1680s (Higginbotham, Pg. 89). Furthermore, continuous mixing with white blood helped alleviate poor social status as well, but only within Jamaica. A 1733 legislature in Jamaica ruled that “three degrees removed in a lineal Descent…a Mulatto…shall have all the Privileges and Immunities of His Majesty’s white Subjects of this Island, provided they are brought up in the Christian Religion” (Jordan, Pg. 111). Unfortunately, as both Jordan and Higginbotham conclude, such legislature never passed within the American continental region and the racial divide continued to remain strong.

As Higginbotham and Jordan argue, the racist outlooks upon the black race, in turn, only helped incorporate the system of slavery into the New World. Whereas economic needs seemed to be the driving force behind creating a society dependent on slave labor, the ideas of blacks being racially inferior beings only helped make the transition from indentured servitude to slavery easier to implement. Using the Holy Bible as a means of rectifying these new standards, the British colonists and later Americans began their journey down a dark path of social injustice that persisted for many years to come (Countryman, Pg. 8).


In conclusion, it is abundantly clear that the rise of slavery cannot be determined by a single underlying factor. Instead, the progression of American slavery resulted from a variety of social, economic, and religious problems. Fully aware of its complexity, Countryman attempts to address the issue of slavery’s beginnings through offering a variety of different viewpoints on the matter. The end result is a newfound understanding of America’s past and how slavery came to exist within the New World.

Works Cited:

Countryman, Edward. How Did American Slavery Begin? Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999.

Questions & Answers

    © 2017 Larry Slawson


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      • Larry Slawson profile imageAUTHOR

        Larry Slawson 

        6 months ago from North Carolina

        Thank you Miranda! So glad you enjoyed :)

      • Miranda Scott profile image

        Miranda Scott 

        6 months ago from Tennessee

        This a great article! very informative and a great read if I may add.

      • kenneth avery profile image

        Kenneth Avery 

        2 years ago from Hamilton, Alabama


        Nice work here. Very informative; helpful.

        Appreciate you sharing this hub--especially the part about the Bacon Rebellion. I really found out some things that I didn't know.

        Keep up the fine work.

      • k@ri profile image

        Kari Poulsen 

        2 years ago from Ohio

        Sounds like a good book to read. The history is disturbing. It was not taught in school why there were slaves, just that there were. (Back when I was in school, lol.) I agree with Angel, we must not forget because when we forget we run the risk of repeating.

      • Angel Guzman profile image

        Angel Guzman 

        2 years ago from Joliet, Illinois

        Interesting collection of articles. This disturbing history must never be forgotten and shows the ongoing manipulation of religion to justify oppression has early beginnings.


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