Contrary to popular belief, the first slaves in the American colonies were not Africans. Also, the majority of Africans taken from their homelands for the purpose of slavery were not destined for the shores of what would eventually evolve into the United States. Slavery was a documented “established institution” dating back to as early as 1760 B.C., where it is referred to in the Code of Hammurabi.
Slavery was an accepted part of society in ancient cultures such as Greece, Assyria, and Egypt, and at one time, the Roman Empire’s total population consisted of 25% slaves, with Italy’s slaves comprising 30% to 40% of its total population. By 500 B.C., slaves comprised upwards of a third of the population in some Greek city-states. In Sparta following several slave revolts about the year 600 B.C., the Spartans restructured their city-state into an authoritarian regime, for the leaders decided that only by turning their society into an armed camp could they hope to maintain control over the numerically dominant enslaved population.
From the pre-Christian era up to colonization of the New World, slavery was an accepted part of daily life in countries and cultures across the globe, and whether or not a particular culture was enslaved was generally determined by their weakness in warfare. To the victors go the spoils, which in this case were the indigent peoples of the conquered lands. Slaves consisted of Irish, Turkish, Chinese, Arab, Persian, Greek, and many other cultures, and was not restricted to one particular race, ethnicity, culture, or country.
The Spaniards were the first Europeans to use Africans as slaves in New World colonies such as Cuba and Hispaniola (where the first African slaves arrived in 1501), where the native populations starved themselves to death rather than work for the Spanish. The natives were originally used as forced labor, but the spread of disease and their demise due to self-imposed starvation eventually forced the Spanish colonists to obtain laborers elsewhere, which ultimately began what came to be known as the Atlantic slave trade.
In Europe, the Dutch had overtaken the pre-eminent slave trade by 1650, until they were usurped by the British in 1700. Britain played a prominent role in the Atlantic slave trade, especially after 1600, and slavery was a legal institution in all thirteen of the American colonies and Canada (which had been acquired by Britain in 1763). The Slave Trade Act of 1807 and the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 by British Parliament effectively ended slavery in Britain.
Slaves from Africa were slaves in Africa long before they were slaves anywhere else in the world. From 1300 to mid-1800, nearly all African countries had a slave population that comprised one-third of their total populations. The status of slavery varied from a feudal vassal system, where the slaves tithed part of their income and crops to a land owner and had a small number of restrictions on their freedoms, to a slavery system that more closely resembled the one instituted in the American colonies of the 1700’s and 1800’s, where slaves were considered property, treated poorly, and had no personal freedoms whatsoever.
With regard to the Atlantic slave trade, Africans themselves participated in promulgating the practice with the selling of prisoners of war to European slave traders. These prisoners were primarily Africans and were being sold as slaves by their own people. As recently as the late 1990’s, evidence has shown that West Africa still actively engages in the practice of enslaving its own people for the purpose of forced manual labor.
In South America, the ancient Mayan, Aztec, and Incan civilizations routinely practiced slavery, and one of the more common reasons for introducing someone into the bonds of slavery was to pay off a debt (private or public, such as taxation), rather than for utilization as manual labor. In Brazil, slavery was an economic mainstay, and Brazil received 37% of all the African slaves shipped out of Africa via the Atlantic slave trade. Portugal began purchasing African slaves in 1550 for work in sugar plantations once they had depleted the indiginous populations.
By the middle of the 18th century, British and French Caribbean interests such as Jamaica and St. Dominique (now the Independent Republic of Haiti) had the largest slave societies of the region, rivaling Brazil as a destination for enslaved Africans. Haiti and Indonesia still actively practice slavery to this day, and despite the fact that slavery has been globally banned by various international organizations, there remains an estimated 25 to 30 million people in some form of slavery, whether it is the Asian sex trade (which traffics in young females) or more traditional slavery used for manual labor and servitude.
The first slaves used by Europeans in what would later become the United States territory were seen in the early 1500’s and were part of various Spaniard explorers’ attempts to colonize parts of North America or to find certain legendary locations like the Seven Cities of Gold and the Fountain of Youth.
In 1619 a group of twenty Africans were brought to the English colony in Jamestown, Virginia by a Dutch soldier and sold as indentured servants. The transition from indentured servitude to racial slavery happened gradually, and it was not until 1661 that a reference to slavery entered Virginia law (the law was directed at Caucasian servants who ran away with African servants). It was not until the Slave Codes of 1705 that African American status as slaves was sealed into American history.
Despite the popularly held belief that British North America (the United States) was the primary destination of African slaves, only about 5% of the slaves brought out of Africa actually ended up there. The vast majority of slaves were actually sent to the Caribbean (British and French holdings), Brazil, and South America. Also, many slaves in British North America were owned by plantation owners who lived in Britain and oversaw their land holdings and affairs from afar, without ever having set foot on American soil.
Contemporary knowledge regarding slavery, even by those who claim to be outraged at the oppression of their people as slaves, is extremely limited. As already stated, the United States only received about 5% of the total slave trade. According to the 1860 Federal Census, only 1.4% of the total White American population owned slaves, with 4.8% of the Southern White American population being slave owners.
While slavery is most often considered a black eye on the history of the United States, the United States actually played a very small part in the Atlantic slave trade from Africa, and an almost nonexistent role in the global slave trade. The first slaves in the United States were actually Caucasians and were brought from Britain when America was colonized. Following colonization, the settlers then attempted to use Native Americans in the slavery role before it evolved into where it stands today – with the public image of slavery being that of an African American being owned by a white American.
Danny on July 06, 2020:
Too often is it found that society tries to marginalize the roles played in slavery even hide truths.
Numbers and statistics are used on occasion to distract attention and try to get readers to believe they've been given facts.
Statistics can be used to make anything appear however one chooses. Ask a trusted statistician. Classrooms show this technique and skill to discourage this type of use. Also, to warn to be careful and leary of such practices.
cpt john smith on June 21, 2020:
I learned something today, maybe they should teach this in schools. This article shows that slavery has been around a very long time and we the USA was not the first to have slaves, also european had white slaves so it was not just blacks and only blacks. As far as paying the decendents of slaves because the they are decendents of slaves is unfair to all others today. The oppression they feel comes from not trying to improve themself. if blacks get paid for being decendents so should the white decendents of slaves only fair. but also why don't the blacks protest in the countries where slaves are still used today and be thankful for the fact they have a better life then the ones who are still slaves.
Iris Bracy-Ahmad on April 13, 2018:
History has shown us that the institution of slavery was evil in how it used humans for monetary gains...The countries and institutions who became wealthy as a result of slavery and institutional racism should be forced to pay reparations to the families who are the descendants of slavery and are still suffering economically from institutional racism!!
iwritestories on April 09, 2018:
Thanks for this article.
The word "slavery" alone pisses me off. There's a long history of slavery in Africa and in some other parts of the world.
svenster on November 20, 2013:
I found this article to be quite interesting, pretty informative, and one of the better written ones I've read thus far on HPs. I'd say the point was to attempt to briefly portray the history and trend of slavery using specific examples and facts. Although, it is lacking direct citation of sources, one could easily verify the veracity of the content and it's unlikely that many direct facts and examples are all 'made up.' Multiple statistics and facts are provided within the article. I disagree that the point of this article is necessarily to minimize US involvement in slavery. It seems some become defensive when their personal views of history are challenged.
blahblah on February 11, 2012:
skips around to much no main focus point but very informational and interesting
SFLYNN on December 10, 2011:
Steven you watch too much tv. read some real history books not the ones at a school. all of this is true.
Steven Matherly from Raleigh, North Carolina on May 19, 2011:
I'm not sure what the point of this article is. Is it to minimize the role of the United States in the slave trade. You can say it was minimal all you want but without statistics and facts to back it up you are simply asserting something that we all know not to be true.
I find it troubling that someone would even take the effort to write something like this. To what end?
Wesman Todd Shaw from Kaufman, Texas on March 07, 2011: