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Slavery begins in America

The system of indentures (meant) servants were brought out from England at the planters’ expense, bound to service for a term of years, and then given their freedom and a little land. But indentures proved unsatisfactory: the servants had consistently to be replaced, were frequently disobedient and unreliable, and as frequently ran away and made good their escape.

Hugh Brogan


Few Europeans can finance the two month Atlantic crossing to the New World. The indentured servant system offers an opportunity to the desperate and the daring. There are three classes of indentured servants. The first are the free-willers, or redemptioners, those who want to go to America but lack money. Then, there are those forced into servitude to escape poverty, or religious persecution. And lastly, there are convicts. In return for transportation and maintenance, all three groups work for between four to seven years as labourers. At the end of their term, they receive "freedom dues" of cash, clothing, tools and land.

But indentured servitude proves unsustainable. By 1650 the best lands in the tidewater regions of Virginia are already in the hands of wealthy plantation families. However, their former servants now own their own land, and improving economic conditions in England means there are fewer, and fewer replacements. The solution to this problem lay with a new group of arrivals.


Amongst the 1000 new settlers of Jamestown in 1619, are 20 from Angola. Brought by Dutch traders, initially, their status is similar to indentured servants and, indeed, some do go on to own their own land. In 1650, one of them, Anthony Johnson, is recorded as a freeman owning cattle and 250 acres.

In 1654, John Casor, an African, becomes the first legally recognized slave in America. A court in Northampton County rules him property for life. In 1662, Virginia passes a law stating any children of an enslaved mother will follow her status and automatically become slaves, even if the father is a freeborn Englishman. Undoubtedly, this law is designed to free whites from legal responsibility for their mixed race children. After some blacks join in Bacon’s failed 1676 rebellion, the race is singled out for slavery and the Virginia Slave codes of 1705 further define the status of slaves as those people imported from nations that were not Christian.


Racial inequality is backed by the British Empire and its slave triangle. Manufactured goods from Britain are exchanged for slaves from Africa. Those slaves are then transported to America, and exchanged for raw goods such as fish, tobacco, sugar and eventually, cotton. These goods, produced on the plantations by slavery, are then shipped back to Britain. Between 1700 and 1800, more than quarter of million Africans are brought to America, more than any other immigrant group combined. Some of the Founding Fathers of America will be slave-owners.

Did you know?

The Native Americans made bad servants, as seen, for example, in Las Vegas. And due to their lack of immunity to European diseases, and tendency to die therefore, they made even worse slaves. Native Americans were, however, happy to be slave owners themselves., It’s estimated that half of the settlers living in the colonies south of New England came to America under the indentured servant system., From the 16th to the 19th centuries, an estimated 12 million Africans were shipped as slaves to the Americas, mainly Brazil and the Caribbean. Of these, approximately 645,000 were brought to what is now the United States.