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What Is Colonial Slavery?

By Jessica F. Black
Updated May 17, 2024
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Colonial slavery usually refers to slavery in the American Colonial period between the early 1600s and the late 1700s when the colonies became independent from Britain. Some of first settlers who arrived in America acquired an abundance of land but lacked a labor force. The African slave trade was a legal market throughout Europe at the time, and the first settlers brought a small group of African slaves who were referred to as indentured servants. Indentured servitude changed as the colonies grew and laws were enforced in regards to servants, rendering them slaves.

By the late 1600s, laws regarding slaves were established and the Africans who had been brought to America would work for their right to live. Colonial slavery throughout America grew rapidly, creating a competitive market, and human trade became increasingly popular. There were many people who fought against slavery but they were often outnumbered, which caused legal slavery to survive nearly 300 years. Colonial slavery gradually transformed from an economic commodity to a racism-based practice. Treatment of slaves also changed, and cruelty was often based on the perception that this labor force was barbaric.

As the laws regarding colonial slavery became stricter, the work load became more tedious. Many farmers had extensive property and required an extremely large number of slaves to work the land. The majority of colonial slaves worked in the crops, and hours usually involved constant labor from dawn til dusk. Most plantations also used a small number of slaves for house work, and this form of colonial slavery was sometimes considered more civilized. Slaves who did not live in local slave communities often lived on the plantation and were overseen by several slave masters.

The number of slaves increased into the millions, and anti-slavery movements also began to increase. Supporters of this movement were able to introduce the idea of freedom for all, and several activist groups emerged. Although the late 1700s displayed a growing separation from slavery, it was not until 1865 that slavery was abolished.

An order devised by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 called the Emancipation Proclamation was the first step towards total elimination of slavery, and millions of slaves were freed. It took nearly three centuries to see the rise and fall of American slavery, and many slaves did not live to experience freedom. In the end, the American Civil War guided the nation into a new era of freedom, but hardships existed well after slavery had been abolished.

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Discussion Comments
By burcinc — On Dec 11, 2011

@simrin-- Even if many Native American Indians hadn't died due to diseases, I think colonial slavery would have still taken place. Slavery of Native Americans would still be slavery.

Plus, slavery didn't just take place in Colonial America, it took place in Europe as well. It was just the norm of that era. It was because of the colonial mentality that the white race is superior to non-whites. So slavery of blacks was considered ethical.

By burcidi — On Dec 10, 2011

I have a friend from the South who took me to a Southern restaurant because I had never tried Southern food before. There were several really interesting dishes made of the various parts of pigs that we usually don't eat.

She told me that during slavery times, slaves didn't have access to a lot of food and they would usually get the parts of the pig that whites wouldn't eat. So from there emerged a whole new type of cuisine that utilized whatever that was accessible to slaves at that time.

I think that the impacts of slavery in colonial America is embedded in our culture. So that's why colonial slavery can never be forgotten and it shouldn't be either.

By SteamLouis — On Dec 10, 2011

Do you think it's true that colonial slavery in America started because about half of the Native American population was wiped out due to disease?

I remember reading about this somewhere that when colonial settlers arrived in America, they brought many European diseases with them. The Native Americans had never experienced these diseases before and about half of all Native Americans in America died due to it.

But there was a huge need for labor workers and that's when the colonies started bringing labor from Africa.

I think this sounds like a good explanation for why slavery began in America. Do you think that if Native Americans had not been wiped out because of disease, African slavery would have still taken place?

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