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Slavery in Early America

While it was a Dutch ship that brought the first slaves to Virginia, no European nation had a monopoly on the practice. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to raid the African coast for slaves, in the mid-15th century. They were quickly followed by the Spanish, who used Africans to supplant the New World Indians who had either been killed or died of diseases.

By the mid-16th century, the English sea dog John Hawkins was operating a thriving slave trade between Africa and the Caribbean.

Most slaves were seized from tribes in the interior of the continent and sold from ports in West Africa to the New World. Some were hunted down by European and Arab slave traders. Many were sold by rival tribes after being captured in wars or on raids. And some were sold by their own tribes when they failed to make good on personal debts or got on the wrong side of their leaders.

Although the use of African slaves in the tobacco fields proved successful and more slaves were gradually imported, the practice of slavery was by no means a strictly Southern colony phenomenon. While the Northern colonies had less use for slaves as agricultural workers, they put Africans to work as domestic servants.

Not everyone in the colonies was enamored with slavery. In 1688, a radical Protestant group in Pennsylvania known as the Mennonites became the first American religious group to formally oppose the practice.

In 1700, a New England judge named Samuel Sewall published a three-page tract called “The Selling of Joseph,” in which he compared slavery to what Joseph’s brothers did to him in the biblical story and called for the abolition of slavery in the colonies.

But voices such as Sewall’s were few and far between. Although the total population of slaves was relatively low through most of the 1600s, colonial governments took steps to institutionalize slavery. In 1662, Virginia passed a law that automatically made slaves of slaves’ children.

In 1664, Maryland’s assembly declared that all black people in the colony were slaves for life, whether they converted to Christianity or not. And in 1684, New York’s legislators recognized slavery as a legitimate practice.

As the 17th century closed, it was clear that African slaves were a much better bargain, in terms of costs, than European servants, and the numbers of slaves began to swell. In 1670, Virginia had a population of about 2,000 slaves. By 1708, the number was 12,000. Slavery had not only taken root; it was sprouting.

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