Large-scale African slavery was introduced into the English colonies of North America around the middle of the seventeenth century.Although slavery developed in all of the British colonies, it did not have the same level of importance in each of the areas of settlement.Slavery mainly spread over those areas where there were large plantations of high-value cash crops, such as tobacco, indigo, sugar, rice and coffee.
Consequently, in the Chesapeake and the Southern colonies, this form of labour rapidly became the basis of their economies.
In New England and the Northern colonies, however, slavery was going to remain peripheral. The settlers? need for cheap labour to work on their plantations was one of the main reasons why the British colonies began to import enslaved Africans. In the Chesapeake area, successful tobacco cultivation required abundant land (since the crop quickly drained soil of nutrients). Consequently, plantations gradually spread out along the region’s rivers and planters quickly found themselves being land rich but labour poor. At first, indentured servants were used as the needed labour.
These servants were mainly young English men who, in exchange for their transportation costs, had to provide four to seven years of free labour in the plantations. Once the period of indenture was over, those servants who managed to survive service were given freedom dues. However, in the 1660s, when the supply of indentured servants began to dry up (partly because the English economy improved and people started having better opportunities there) tobacco cultivators turned to a new source of labour: African slaves.
Planters first imported already enslaved Africans from Caribbean sugar islands (the “Atlantic creoles“) but then, they began to purchase slaves directly from Africa. Although this new labour force was usually more expensive than indentured servants, it proved to be highly profitable because slaves, as well as their offspring, meant a lifetime of service. As a result of the introduction of slavery, society became more stratified: the Chesapeake colonies developed a three-tiered society with planters at the top, few poor farmers in the middle and slaves at the bottom.
Because Africans were included among the first colonists to come to South Carolina, they composed one third of its early population. As African slaves had a variety of skills well suited to the semitropical environment of this colony, they contributed significantly to South Carolina’s prosperity: for instance, the cultivation of Carolina’s cash crops, rice and indigo, was only developed on a large scale with the help of skills and techniques of the African slaves.
The similarity of South Carolina’s environment to West Africa’s and the large proportion of Africans in the population ensured that many aspects of West African culture survived in this colony: for example, enslaved parents continue to give their children African names, a dialect combining English words with African terms developed, etc. In contrast to the other areas, New England and the northern colonies were not committed to slavery as their chief source of labour. Lacking large-scale agricultural enterprises, these colonies did not demand many slaves.
Although slavery was not as profitable to the north as it was to the south, northern colonists did own slaves. In these colonies, since European household servants were hard to find, the slaves owned by the northern settlers were mainly used as domestic servants for the urban elite. Because fewer slaves were introduced into the north, social differences were not as sharp as in the south. The gap between the rich and the poor in New England colonies was narrower than in the Chesapeake colonies.
The different level of importance slavery had on the British colonies in North America accentuated the already existing differences between these settlements. To the distinction between cash crops plantations in the Chesapeake area and diversity of economy in the New England colonies was now added this quite dissimilar role of slavery. This distinction between large-scale slavery in the south and near absence of slavery in the north was going to last until to the middle of the nineteenth century. It was not until the American civil war that this situation finally came to an end.