What caused slavery in America?

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Answered by: Steven, An Expert in the Slavery Category
Slavery in America -- meaning the keeping of people of African descent as slaves within the territories that make up the United States of America -- was first practiced by the Spanish in modern day Florida at their settlement in St. Augustine. There are records from as early as 1606 that record the births of the first African-Americans on the North American continent, and from the middle of the seventeenth century onward St. Augustine was a center of the Spanish slave trade to the New World. Beyond the Spanish keeping of slaves, the arrival of African peoples in the English colonies can be traced to a Dutch privateer that sold "twenty and odd Negroes" to the settlers of Jamestown in the colony of Virginia in 1619. It was in the Virginia colony that slavery first took root, and from which the American practice of slave keeping evolved.

For those caught up in slavery in America, the process by which the American colonies slowly developed a dependence on the labor of people kept as chattel may have seemed (at first) to have been limited in scope and not entirely built upon racial foundations. Slaves sold at Jamestown and Charleston and other American ports had some social mobility, and could occasionally purchase their way out of bondage (provided they lived long enough), and many white people found themselves in a similar position as their black neighbors. White indentured servants long and loudly complained about being treated worse than slaves, and it was a common practice for the English to transport prisoners (or, in the case of the Irish, rebels) to the American colonies to have them serve out their penalties by settling and working in their colonies. Yet as the seventeenth century progressed, those slaves of African descent found it more difficult to climb out of the caste their lot had been cast into.

An example of the declining opportunities that people of African descent faced in the seventeenth century can most clearly be seen in the family of Anthony Johnson, a slave brought to colonial Virginia in 1621. When Anthony arrived he was originally listed in colonial documents as "Antonio, a negro," but within five years of his arrival had risen from slave to servant, purchased his freedom, changed his name to Anthony, and married a fellow African person by the name of Mary. Anthony and his wife spent the next decade saving money, purchasing the indenture contracts of some of their fellow servants, and eventually purchasing a farm on which they raised their family. Anthony was able to successfully navigate the court system of colonial Virginia to defend his rights, and when he died his wife was able to secure a pension for herself. While Anthony was exceptional in many regards, his ability to move upwards in society suggests that opportunities existed for African peoples. He could marry, he could own property, he was an equal to white people in court. His sons and grandson (that we have records for) did not fare so well, and by 1706 the family farm (named Angola after where Anthony likely came from) was dissolved as Anthony's grandson died without heir. While slavery was the norm for thousands of Africans in North America, this cutting off of opportunity sealed the fate of countless others who may have been able to grapple their way up out of the condition of chattel.

Slavery as an institution was fully cemented into the cultural and social life of the Southern colonies with the failure of Bacon's Rebellion in 1676 and the passage of laws to protect property and stave off future revolts. Scholars have argued about the motives behind and actual process by which poor whites were elevated in status above their African-American contemporaries, but it is clear that by the turn of the eighteenth century the distinction was clear. With a decline in indentured servants coming from Europe to the American colonies, and a growing sense of racial and national identities -- as opposed to religious identities that had dominated the previous century -- meant that white settlers, both rich and poor, had a strong incentive to build legal barriers around the institution of slavery. One can see throughout the Southern colonies a string of laws passed in the eighteenth century that codified into law what had long been informal practice: slaves were forbidden from owning weapons or other forms of property, slaves could not serve on juries, slaves became a class of people recognized as distinct by the law.

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