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Slavery in Colonial North America Previous Next
Digital History ID 3036


The first generation of Africans in the New World tended to be remarkably cosmopolitan. Few of the first generation came directly from Africa. Instead, they arrived from the West Indies and other areas of European settlement. These "Atlantic Creoles" were often multilingual and had Spanish or Portuguese names. Sometimes they had mixtures of African and non-African ancestry. They experienced a period of relative racial tolerance and flexibility that lasted until the 1660s. A surprising number of Africans were allowed to own land or even purchase their freedom.

Beginning in the late 1660s, colonists in the Chesapeake colonies of Maryland and Virginia imposed new laws that deprived blacks, free and slaves, of many rights and privileges. At the same time, they began to import thousands of slaves directly from Africa.

During the late 17th and 18th centuries, three distinctive systems of slavery emerged in the American colonies. In the Chesapeake colonies of Maryland and Virginia, slavery was widely used in agriculture--in raising tobacco and corn and other grains--and in non-agricultural employment--in shipbuilding, ironworking, and other early industries.

In the South Carolina and Georgia Low Country, slaves raised rice and indigo and were able to reconstitute African social patterns and maintain a separate Gullah dialect. Each day, slaves were required to achieve a precise work objective, a labor system known as the task system. This allowed them to leave the fields early in the afternoon to tend their own gardens and raise their own livestock. Slaves often passed their property down for generations.

In the North, slavery was concentrated in productive agriculture on Long Island and in southern Rhode Island and New Jersey. Most slaves were engaged in farming and stock raising for the West Indies or as household servants for the urban elite.

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