11 Introduction

Servitude and Slavery in the American Colonies

Module Introduction

African and African-American slave labor helped transform European colonies in North America into important producers of coveted commodities such as tobacco, rice, indigo, and, later, cotton and sugar. Nevertheless, a colonial economy based in part on racial slavery was not inevitable in North America. Initially, colonists relied mostly on European and even African indentured servants for labor in the tobacco fields of places like Virginia and Maryland. But as these colonial societies developed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, fluid labor arrangements and racial categories began to solidify into the race-based, chattel slavery that increasingly defined the economy of the Britain’s North American empire. The North American mainland originally occupied a small and marginal place in that broad empire, as even the output of its most prosperous colonies paled before the tremendous wealth of Caribbean sugar islands. And yet the colonial backwaters on the North American mainland, ignored by many imperial officials, were nevertheless deeply tied into these larger Atlantic networks. A new and increasingly complex Atlantic World connected the continents of Europe, Africa, and the Americas. Patterns and systems established during the colonial era would continue to shape American society for centuries. And none, perhaps, would be as brutal and destructive as the institution of slavery. (2)

Module Three focuses on the development of racial slavery, and slave societies, in the Chesapeake colonies of Virginia and Maryland and the Low Country colonies of South Carolina and Georgia. It addresses how the growth of a tobacco economy in the Chesapeake, and the decline of indentured servitude, led to an increasing demand for and reliance on African slave labor. It also discusses how the slave societies in the tobacco based colonies of the Chesapeake differed from the rice based economies of the Low Country. Module Three also discusses how colonies like Virginia and Maryland created new laws to make racial slavery a legal category and increasingly define blackness as associated with bondage and whiteness linked with freedom. Finally, Module Three demonstrates how Africans and African-Americans in these new slave societies created enduring family bonds and kinship networks despite their legal status as chattel property. (1)

Learning Outcomes

This module addresses the following Course Learning Outcomes listed in the Syllabus for this course:

  • To provide students with a general understanding of the history of African Americans within the context of American History.
  • To motivate students to become interested and active in African American history by comparing current events with historical information.

Additional learning outcomes associated with this module are:

  • The student will be able to discuss the origins, evolution, and spread of racial slavery.
  • The student will be able to describe the creation of a distinct African-American culture and how that culture became part of the broader American culture. (1)

Module Objectives

Upon completion of this module, the student will be able to:

  • Discuss the important differences between various slave societies in North America in the 17th and 18th centuries.
  • Formulate an opinion as to the inevitability of racial slavery in North America. (1)

Readings and Resources

Learning Unit: Slavery in Colonial America (see below) (1)


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