Origins of American Slavery

In the early seventeenth century, the English began to rapidly and successfully colonize America. With this rapid population increase also came, shortly after, a booming new agricultural economy. And with this economy came a need for labor, a labor that was, at first, hard to find. Looking desperately for help, big time planters and small time farmers alike, began to develop a system of servitude, which first involved indenture servants from Europe and Native American slaves. But soon the English looked across the sea for a new source of labor. They looked to Africa and by the middle of the seventeenth century everywhere in English America the status of slave, with all that it entailed, became reserved for those of West African ancestry rather than for native Americans or for certain Europeans (Betty Wood, Origins of American Slavery, pg6). But why did the English look to Africa as a source of involuntary servitude?
Did the English consider the use of slaves from West Africa before colonization?
We know that the Spanish and Portuguese were enslaving them as early as the late fifteenth century (Wood, Origins of American Slavery, pg 10). Perhaps the English sought slaves in Africa, because it was already socially and economically acceptable. But why would any country, including Spain and Portugal, turn to Africa for slaves in the first place? Most scholars are under the influence that it was purely because of the Africans ethnicity. But others lay significance mainly on the economic and demographic considerations of the time. Economic necessity and a quest for profits may haven driven the English to enslave West Africans (Wood, Origins of American Slavery, pg 7). But the most convincing theory, to most, is the theory that Africans were accepted as eligible for slavery by the lack of Christianity in their society.

Through many centuries of Crusades and Holy Wars, Europeans had come to associate a relationship between Christianity and slavery (Wood, Origins of American Slavery, pg 11). They considered them heathens and sinners and considered it their "duty" as Christians to bring them to the Lord. And during the early stages of African slavery in America they honored this belief and released slaves after a number of years. But soon legislation was passed that not only made slavery life-long it also made it heretical.
Mainland America possibly was not even the first sight of English enslavement of West Africans. By the mid-1630\'s the English on Barbados had already established a slave status for them. That did not happen in Virginia until the second half of the seventeenth century (Wood, Origins of American Slavery, pg 40). The English began to settle the eastern Caribbean in an attempt to establish ports for English privateers that would loot Spanish treasure ships. Once settled in the Caribbean they emulated the model of growing tobacco as was set by Virginia. At first, like Virginia, the English in the Caribbean used indentured servants from Europe as a means of labor. But they quickly saw the benefit of West African slaves. It was not long before the Dutch began to sell slaves to English colonies in the Caribbean. Shortly after that, the islands in the east Caribbean began to cultivate sugar cane opposed to tobacco. The Island of Barbados became a major producer of sugar. By 1660 there were 26,200 Europeans and 27,100 West Africans in Barbados. This large growth in the number of slaves in English Caribbean colonies was common to most the islands. Not only was the population growing on the islands, as it was in Virginia, but also in newly formed colonies on the mainland.


Betty wood, Origins of American Slavery