Digital History

Introduction by Steven Mintz

The Diversity of Colonial Slavery Previous Next
Digital History ID 451



During the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, three distinctive systems of slavery emerged in the American colonies. In the Chesapeake colonies of Maryland and Virginia, slavery was widely used in raising tobacco and corn and other grains.

Yet while raising tobacco or corn was less debilitating and taxing than growing sugar cane in the West Indies or rice in the South Carolina and Georgia Low Country, slavery in the Chesapeake may have been more difficult psychologically. Even in the eighteenth century, slaveholders in the Chesapeake supervised their slaves much more closely than in the Low Country or the Caribbean and intervened more frequently in their lives. Also, in the Chesapeake, unlike in the West Indies or the Low Country, virtually all people with any African ancestry were defined as slaves.

Beginning in the 1720s, slaves in the Chesapeake region became the first slave population in the New World able to naturally reproduce their numbers. Eager to encourage a rapid population increase, slave owners in the Chesapeake consciously imported many female slaves.

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. Although slaves were subjected to a harsh labor regime, the task system became the norm. Each day, slaves were required to achieve a precise work objective. 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. The kind of slavery that emerged in the low country was similar to some West and Central African forms of slavery and was very different from the kinds of slavery found in the Chesapeake.

Far more than in the Chesapeake, planters in the Low Country openly acknowledged sexual unions with black women. An elite of free light skinned people of color emerged that served as intermediaries between whites and blacks.

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. A massive influx of Africans in the mid-eighteenth century in Africa and inspired the creation of many African churches and benevolent societies. Northern slaves developed a vibrant African-American culture. They celebrated a number of popular festivals like Election Day, during which roles between whites and blacks were temporarily reversed.

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