The idea of slavery based on race is a relatively recent development. Although the system of slavery as a whole existed for a long time, it was not dependent on such characteristics a race, religion or heredity. In the early colonial period, slavery was not a common source of labor. As the colonial settlements in this period remained relatively small, labor was in the form of indentured servitude. Indentured servitude involved individuals entering into a contract to work for a specified period, and when the terms of the contract were fulfilled such individuals would gain their freedom. In the American colonies, most indentured servitude laborers were entitled to land and money at the termination of their contracts. This system, which incorporated both whites and black, was common at the time as it provided cheap labor. As such, blacks in the early colonial America were not enslaved. However, as the plantation farming increased, demand for both labor and land increased. This expansion, coupled with other factors such as rebellions and religion led to the evolution of race-based slavery in the American colonies.
A major contributor to the rise in slave-based slavery was the expansion of the colonies and the plantation farming. In the early years of the colonization of the American continent, the majority of African and the poor whites that came from the English working class were considered as equals. Whites and blacks all worked side by side in the small plantations that had been established at the time. Furthermore, the blacks and whites who broke their indentured servitude contracts were all equally punished and were entitled to freedom dues that included land and various supplies. At this period, blacks and whites were all entitled to freedom (Clark & Hewitt, 2000).
However, as the plantations increased, there was a need for a more permanent and reliable workforce. Indentured servants could no longer meet the increasing demand as once freed they also required labor for their newly acquired lands thus posed a threat to the property-owning elite. The indentured servants freedom also meant that the labor force was decreasing. It also meant that labor acquired through indentured servitude would no longer be cheap as more laborers were required. As a result, free labor, in terms of acquiring slaves, was the suitable solution to this challenge. However, not all groups in the American colonies could be enslaved. For instance, the native population, the native Americans could not be easily enslaved as they had weapons thus could defend themselves, furthermore, they had extensive knowledge of the lands and could avoid capture easily (Wood, 2003). Poor people from the English working class also could not be enslaved as it would discourage immigration to the new colonies and also their bodies could not handle the harsh working conditions in the American colonies. Thus, the logical choice for slaves were the Africans.
The American colonists made certain assumptions about Africans in their decision to base slavery on race. The physical differences between the Europeans and the Africans and to some extent the native Americans had a significant impact on the development of the plantation slave labor systems in the American colonies. The physique of the African bodies made them suitable for the environment and labor. The colonists noted that blacks seemed to do and survive better than the whites when they labored in some of the plantations such as in the sugar colonies and the Lowcountry (Clark & Hewitt, 2000). Although this assumption was accurate, the reasons why the African survived better was due to the fact that they had acquired immunity over some of the diseases that affected most of the immigrating Europeans such as yellow fever and malaria. However, this did not prevent the colonists from interpreting the better survival rates of the Africans as a reason that they were better suited for labor in the hot climates of the American colonies.
Another significant contributor to the race-based slavery system was the was the fear of rebellion from the indentured servants and the existing slaves. The American colonists were concerned with the increasing signs of discontent and cooperation among poor English men, the unfree colonists and slaves of all types prior to the race-based slavery system. The whites and the blacks worked together, intermarried, shared common resentment for the elite, and also ran away together from overbearing masters (Holt & Brown, 2000). In one instance, the poor colonists, indentured servants and the slaves led by Nathaniel Bacon, were involved in an uprising in Virginia. Although the rebellion was initially formed to protect the lands from native Americans raids, it eventually turned to a revolutionary effort to overthrow the ruling elite class (Gormlie, 2015).
Due to such acts of rebellion from the poor English men and the labor force, the elite colonists recognized the need to separate the workforce so as to better control it. prior to the race-based slave system, lifetime servitude could only be enforced on individuals who were not Christians. As such, there was a need to eliminate the possibility that an individual could gain freedom through conversion to Christianity. To achieve this goal, the colonists outlawed conversion to Christianity as a means to freedom. A more comprehensive approach involved removing religion as a reason in defining servitude. Thus, there was a shift from spiritual faith to physical appearance in determining ones status. As a result, the colonists, rich and poor alike, started viewing Africans, not as heathen people, but rather as black people (Gormlie, 2015). Consequently, the definition of who could be made into a slave changed from those who were not Christians to those who differed in appearance from the colonists.
With the new definitions of terms of slavery in place, the elite class gradually moved away from indentured servants in favor of more African slaves. The planter elite in the colonies no longer imported English-speaking slaves as such slaves were familiar with the European culture and language were could not be enslaved for a lifetime due to their religious and physical similarities with the American colonists. On the other hand, African slaves differed both in religion, culture and physical appearances thus they would be easier to control, offered free labor for a lifetime and were unlikely to form alliances with the poor Englishmen (Wood, 2003). Further measures were also put in place to widen the gap between the Europeans and the African. Over the years, a majority of the southern colonies passed laws that further erode the freedoms of the Africans.
For instance, in Virginia, laws such as one banned the provision of arms and ammunition to the Africans made clear distinctions between the blacks and the whites. Additional laws that drove a wedge between the Africans and indentured white servants included a legislation that severely punished an indentured servant if they committed a crime with an African (Clark & Hewitt, 2000). For instance, an indentured servant who ran away with an African was subject to serve out the rest of the African slaves time in servitude. Additionally, children born from an African slave woman were subject to slavery regardless of whether the childs father was not a slave.
Such measures strategically extended special privileges to the poor whites that further widened the gap between the white servants and the black slaves. They further eliminated the chances of future alliances between the poor whites and the black slaves. Over time, the poor whites gained a higher status and a personal stake in the existence and evolution of race based slavery. Although their own situations had only slightly improved, they were in a much better position that the slaves (Gormlie, 2015). Due to the numerous laws passed that supported race based slavery, by the mid-1770s, slavery had been made into a permanent condition that was inherited through the mother and slaves were considered as slaves. At this point, blacks were not eligible for indentured servitude and were only considered as property, they could not own property and had no legal standing (Wood, 2003).
Ultimately, the evolution of race-based slave system can be seen to be as a result of capitalism. As indentured servants were declining in supply, the need for a cheap source of labor initially sparked the inception of the idea of slavery. Other factors, such as physical appearances and religion only came into play so as to justify the enslavement of a particular group, the Africans. Furthermore, additional measures had to be put in place to ensure that the different races did not interact thus minimizing the chances of resistance and rebellion. All these factors led to the establishment of racial profiling, effects of which are still evident in our present societies.
Clark, C., & Hewitt, N. A. (2000). Who Built America?: From conquest and colonization through 1877. Basingstoke: Worth Publishers.
Gormlie, F. (2015, February 27). The Origins of Institutionalized Racism a System to Control Blacks and Whites. Retrieved from SanDiego Free Press: https://sandiegofreepress.org/2015/02/the-origins-of-institutionalized-racism-a-system-to-control-blacks-and-whites/
Holt, T. C., & Brown, E. B. (2000). Major Problems in African-American History: From slavery to freedom, 1619-1877. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Wood, P. H. (2003). Strange New Land: Africans in Colonial America. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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