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The Origins of Slavery

Slavery, in all its repugnance, has an origin that began in ancient times when conquering armies, and tribes, in Europe and Asia found it more profitable to enslave captives than to massacre them. Most ancient Asian nations, including the Jews, had slaves that were bought and used to perform various functions. In medieval Europe, slaves were known as serfs, a title that cast them as members of the lowest feudal order. Owned by the Lord of the Manor, they served his wishes, labored in his fields, and relied on him for sustenance.

Black slavery between antagonistic tribes existed in Africa long before the advent of the Portuguese in the 1400s. However, they and the other powerful nations of Europe developed a trading in black slaves that evolved beyond the tenet that prisoners of war were more valuable in human bondage than in death by convincing the powerful native empires of Africa that exchanging their prisoners of war, and other blacks, for European products was more beneficial than enslaving them.

Portuguese slave trading and kidnapping, beginning in 1442, particularly on the west coast in an area that became known as the ‘Slave Coast’ (present day nations of Togo, Dahomey, and Nigeria), caused the Spanish in 1517 to enter the lucrative market, followed by the English (1553), the French (1624), and soon after by Holland, Denmark and the American colonies. Africa’s estimated population was 100,000,000, nearly 20% of the world’s population, in 1650; 90,000,000 (1800); 95,000,000 (1850); and 120,000,000 in 1900.

The first Negroes (20) arrived at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619 aboard a Dutch ship, not as slaves, but as servants, much like other unfortunate Indians and whites, who were committed to periods of four to seven years servitude. Many of America’s early destitute immigrants would sign papers of indentured service in order to pay for their passage to the new world or support them in their early years of residency. 

After years of service, these individuals, black, white, and Indian, eventually gained their freedom. Some of the blacks, when freed, bought property, but because of racial prejudice were unable to rise beyond the lowest level of colonial society.slavesfeetinchainsbrown.gif (15120 bytes)

Through the years, the transition from limited servitude to a lifetime of slavery for Negroes was legalized in the colonies by Massachusetts in 1641, followed by Connecticut in 1650 and Virginia in 1661. Statutes legalizing slavery soon were passed in the rest of the colonies. In the late 1700s, the demand for workers on plantations in the South was further increased by the 1793 invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney (this was a machine for separating cotton fibers from the seeds). Whitney’s gin could clean as much cotton in a day as could 50 people working by hand and helped meet the growing demand for cotton. More and more workers were then needed on the plantations which led to a tremendous growth in the slave population.

The course was set for human persecution and indignity that would divide a new nation, and bring upon a future generation the death and destruction wrought by a catastrophic civil war.

'Black History' segment written in June, 1998 by David Lodge

 

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