George E. Novack

Negro Slavery in North America

(October 1939)

First Published: The New International, Volume V, Number 10, October 1939, pp. 305-308.
Transcription/Editing: 2005 by Daniel Gaido.
HTML Markup: 2005 by David Walters.
Public Domain: George Novak Internet Archive 2005; This work is completely free. In any reproduction, we ask that you cite this Internet address and the publishing information above.

History is rich in examples of the revival of institutions appropriate to more primitive civilizations in advanced societies. Mankind is infinitely ingenious in adapting old cultural forms to new uses under the changed conditions of a new social order. Like a thrifty housewife, humanity hesitates to discard familiar acquisitions, however outmoded; it prefers to store them in attics or cellars in the hope of finding a use for them in the future. The history of economics, no less than the history of philosophy, religion, and politics, shows that such expectations are often realized.

The rise of chattel slavery in America is a striking case in point. Slave labor was the characteristic form of labor in ancient society and the economic foundation of the classical Greek and Roman cultures. Long after it had vanished from the centers of European society it was reborn in the New World at the dawn of capitalist civilization and continued to flourish in the bosom of the capitalist system for three centuries and a half. This reversion of the infant society of the New World to one of the most antiquated social institutions of the Old World, its longevity and its tenacity, makes chattel slavery the most conspicuous instance of the law of combined development in American history.

American society, the child of European capitalism, reproduced not only the features of its father but also of its more remote forebears. Almost every form of social relationship known to mankind sprang up on the soil of the New World, either in a pure form or in a medley of combinations. All the successive stages of civilization preceding the advent of capitalism, primitive communism, barbarism, slavery, feudalism, had a place in the sun until they withered away or were uprooted by the advance of capitalist forces. This varied profusion of social institutions makes the early history of America an extremely instructive textbook for the student of civilization.

Except for self-employed farming, chattel slavery was the earliest, the most widespread, and in the long run proved also to be the hardiest of all these pre-capitalist methods of production in the field of agriculture. Wherever the European settled in America, slavery was sooner or later established. It made its way through the Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and French possessions; it became the keystone in the structure of the richest English and French colonies; it constituted the foundation of the Southern Cotton Kingdom. In the course of three hundred and fifty years slavery thrust its roots so deeply into North American soil that it required the greatest revolution of the nineteenth century to destroy it.

The history of chattel slavery in North America must be divided into two distinct periods. The first period extended from the introduction of slavery into the New World by the Spaniards and Portuguese at the beginning of the sixteenth century through its development in the West Indies and North American coast to its decline in the British and French colonies at the end of the eighteenth century. The second period covers the rise, growth, and decay of the Cotton Kingdom in the United States during the first part of the nineteenth century.

These two epochs of chattel slavery were the offspring of two different stages in the development of capitalist society. In its initial phase American slavery was a collateral branch of commercial capitalism; in its final stage it was an integral part of industrial capitalism. We shall see that opposite forms of plantation life dominated the slave system of the two periods in North America.

Slavery in the North American Colonies

The Introduction of Slavery: The first question that suggests itself in connection with chattel slavery is: how did such an historical anomaly come into being? Slavery in America is as old as its discovery. When Columbus set sail for “the Indies” in 1492, chattel slavery was a familiar institution in Spain and Portugal. The Spaniards were accustomed to enslave the peoples they conquered. The Moors, the African Negroes, and the American aborigines were all infidels, subject by divine law to serve Christian masters. Slavery did not however constitute the productive basis of Spanish society but existed alongside of it in the interstices of feudal life. Many Spanish vessels engaged in the slave trade and carried Negro slaves in their crews. It is not surprising to find that captain Christopher Columbus likewise had African slaves among his crew on his first voyage of discovery. It is even less surprising that within two years after reaching the West Indies he had five hundred of the natives seized and sent back to Spain to be sold on the auction block at Seville. Chattel slavery was one of the blessings brought, like syphilis, to the natives of the New World by their white conquerors.

The Spanish adventurers who followed Columbus took possession of the inhabitants of the West Indian islands, Mexico, and Peru, forcing them to labor in the mines and in the sugar fields. When the West Indians died off from overwork, starvation, and abuse until only a miserable few were left, large numbers of Negroes were transported from Spain and the West Coast of Africa to replace them.

From 1520 on, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Dutch, and English vessels poured Negroes in a never-ending stream into the West Indies. Sanctified by religion and legalized by the crown, the African slave trade became the most profitable of commercial enterprises. A Flemish favorite of Charles V of Spain obtained the exclusive right of importing four thousand Negroes annually into the West Indies and sold the patent for 25,000 ducats to some Genoese merchants who established the first regular trade route from Africa to America. In 1562 John Hawkins, an English sea-dog who scented the profits of the slave trade, sailed to Guinea with three ships and a hundred men provided by a company of gentlemen in London, where he procured at least three hundred Negroes and sold them in Hispaniola (Spanish Santo Domingo). The next year the first Negroes were imported into the English West Indies.

The slave traffic had already been flourishing for over a century when the first boatload of twenty Negroes was brought to Jamestown, Virginia, in 1620 by a Dutch vessel. Negro slavery made its way more slowly and gradually in the coastal colonies than in the West Indian islands.

There were not more than three hundred Negroes in Virginia thirty years after their introduction. By the close of the seventeenth century, however, Negro slaves began to displace white servants as the main body of the laboring population in Virginia and Maryland. Black slavery was soon transformed from a supplementary source of labor into the fundamental form of agricultural production.

Negroes were imported into South Carolina by way of the West Indies when it was discovered in 1694 that the lowlands were suitable for rice cultivation. Thereafter slavery spread as fast and as far throughout the English colonies as conditions permitted. Georgia was the only colony to oppose its introduction. So long as the philanthropic Oglethorpe governed the colony, slavery and rum were prohibited. When Georgia reverted to the Crown in 1752 the inhabitants were finally allowed to gratify their desires for black labor and hard liquor. On the eve of the Revolution there were over half a million Negroes among the three million inhabitants of the colonies. Less than forty thousand lived in the North; the rest were concentrated in the South. In five Southern colonies the Negroes equaled or outnumbered the whites. The reason was obvious. While the ownership of slaves in the North was a badge of aristocracy and wealth, in the South it was the necessary basis of society.

The Necessity of Chattel Slavery

Why did Negro slavery strike such deep roots in the New World? Some historians attribute its persistence to physical factors. There is no doubt that favorable natural conditions facilitated the development of slavery. The tropical and semi-tropical regions of the earth have always been the motherlands of chattel slavery. This particular form of production thrives best upon an extremely rich soil which yields abundant crops with comparatively little cultivation by the crudest labor. Warm climates moreover enable the working force to labor without pause from one year’s end to the next and to be sustained with a minimum of the necessities of life. The smaller the amount of labor required for the maintenance and reproduction of the actual producers, the greater is the surplus value available for appropriation by the agricultural exploiter. Slavery cannot flourish without an inordinately high rate of surplus value since it is the costliest of all forms of labor.

Different natural conditions in the North as well as in the regions adjoining the plantation districts in the South led to the prevalence of quite different forms of agricultural labor. Slavery withered away in these parts, not through the indisposition of its proprietors to employ slave labor, but because the rocky soil and harsh climate prevented the cultivation of staple plantation crops. They were suitable only for raising corn, wheat, and other foodstuffs in which expensive slave labor could not compete with the small self-employed farmer or the hired laborer. Consequently, in those sections of the colonies, agriculture fell mainly into the hands of the small family farmers.

However great a role natural conditions played in the development of slavery, they did not constitute the decisive factors. Nature by itself only provided a more or less receptive seedbed for implanting this form of labor. For slavery to become the predominant method of colonial agriculture, certain social conditions had to be present. The main reasons for the growth of slavery were therefore to be found, not in the natural environment, but in the specific social and economic problems confronting the colonial planters.

They proposed to grow sugar, tobacco, and rice for commercial export to Europe. The large-scale agricultural operations required for cultivating these crops cannot be carried on by solitary laborers. They demanded an associated working force of considerable proportions. How were such working forces to be procured in the colonies where land was plentiful but labor lacking?

The labor problem was the most serious of all problems for the colonial planter. Some form of bondage was necessary to bring workers to the new lands and to keep them working thereafter for their masters. The colonizers grasped at any kind of labor within reach. Negro slavery was neither the first nor the only form of servitude in North America; it was preceded by Indian and white slavery.

The sparse native Indian population proved no solution. The English colonists tried to enslave the North American Indians in the same manner as the Spaniards enslaved the natives of West Indies, Mexico, and Peru. When they discovered that the Indians were either not numerous enough or, like certain African tribes, would not submit to slavery but sickened and died in captivity, they had little further use for them. They proceeded either to slaughter them on the spot or to drive them westward.

At first the landed proprietors relied upon the importation of white bondsmen from the mother country. England and the continent were combed for servants to be sent to America.

Some of these indentured servants came of their own accord, voluntarily agreeing to serve their masters for a certain term of years, usually four to seven, in return for their passage. Many others, especially German serfs, were sold by their lords to the slave merchants and ship-owners. In addition the overflowing prisons of England were emptied of their inmates and the convicts brought to America to be sold into servitude for terms ranging from four to fourteen years.

The Cromwellian conquest of Ireland in the middle of the seventeenth century made slaves as well as subjects of the Irish people. Over one hundred thousand men, women, and children were seized by the English troops and shipped over to the West Indies where they were sold into slavery upon the tobacco plantations. In The Re-Conquest of Ireland James Connolly quotes the following instance of the methods used.

“Captain John Vernon was employed by the Commissioners for Ireland to England, and contracted in their behalf with Mr. David Sellick and the Leader under his hand to supply them with two hundred and fifty women of the Irish nation, above twelve years and under the age of forty-five, also three hundred men above twelve years and under fifty, to be found in the country within twenty miles of Cork, Youghal and Kinsale, Waterford and Wexford, to transport them into New England.” This British firm alone was responsible for shipping over 6,400 girls and boys...

As a result of the insistent demands of the planters for labor, the servant trade took on most of the horrible features of the slave trade. Gangs of kidnappers roamed the streets of English seaports and combed the highways and byways of Britain and Ireland for raw material. In the rapacious search for redemptioners the homes of the poor were invaded. Where promises could not persuade, compulsion was brought into play. Husbands were torn from their wives, fathers from their families, children from their parents. Boys and girls were sold by parents or guardians; unwanted dependents by their relatives; serfs by their lords—and all this human cargo was shipped to America to be sold to the highest bidder.

Thus the bulk of the white working population of the English colonies was composed of bondsmen and criminals, who had been cajoled or coerced into emigration and had to pass through years of bondage before they could call themselves free. These people and their children became the hunters, trappers, farmers, artisans, mechanics, and even the planters and merchants, who were later to form the ranks of the revolutionary forces against the mother country.

These white bondsmen however provided neither a sufficient nor a satisfactory supply of labor. They could not be kept in a permanent condition of enslavement. Unless they were marked or branded, if they ran away they could not readily be distinguished from their free fellows or their masters. As production expanded, it became increasingly urgent to find new, more abundant, and more dependable sources of labor.

The Negro slave trade came to the planter’s rescue. Negroes could be purchased at reasonable prices and brought in unlimited numbers from the African coasts. They were accustomed to tropical climates and could be worked in such miasmic, malaria-breeding swamplands as those of South Carolina. They were gregarious, prolific, and, once domesticated, were willing to breed in captivity. By keeping the Negroes scattered, ignorant, and terrorized, the slave-owners could keep them in perpetual subjection and prevent them from escaping with impunity. The color of the black man’s skin became the sign of servitude, enabling the white man to keep the Slave yoke fixed firmly on his shoulders.

The profits of the slave trade were another potent factor in the extension of Negro slavery. The traffic in slaves became too lucrative an enterprise to remain in private hands. The sovereigns of Spain and England contended with each other for the lion’s share of the trade to fill the royal treasuries. The possession of the slave trade was one of the richest prizes at stake in the War of the Spanish Succession. The Treaty of Utrecht which concluded the war in 1713 awarded a monopoly of the slave trade to England. Their majesties organized a company for carrying on the traffic: one quarter of the stock was taken by Philip of Spain; another by Queen Anne of England; and the remaining half was divided amongst her subjects. Thus the sovereigns of Spain and England became the largest slave merchants in the world.

The slave trade became a cornerstone of Anglo-American commerce. Many fortunes in Old and New England were derived from the traffic. This trade enjoyed the special protection of the Crown whose agents persistently vetoed the efforts of colonial legislatures to abolish or restrict it. It is estimated that from 1713 to 1780 over twenty thousand slaves were carried annually to America by British and American ships. In 1792 there were 132 ships engaged in the slave trade in Liverpool alone.

How economic necessity and political pressure combined to impose slavery upon the colonial upper classes is explained in the following extract from a letter written in 1757 by Peter Fontaine, a Huguenot emigrant to Virginia, to a friend across the Atlantic:

The Negroes are enslaved by the Negroes themselves before they are purchased by the masters of the ships who bring them here. It is to be sure at our choice whether we buy them or not, so this is our crime, folly, or whatever you please to call it. But our Assembly, foreseeing the ill consequences of importing such numbers amongst us, hath often attempted to lay a duty upon them which would amount to a prohibition, such as ten or twenty pounds a head, but no governor dare pass such a law, having instructions to the contrary from the Board of Trade at home. By this means they are forced upon us, whether we will or not. This plainly shows the African Company hath the advantage of the colonies, and may do as it pleases with the ministry...

To live in Virginia without slaves is morally impossible. Before our troubles, you could not hire a servant or slave for love or money, so that unless robust enough to cut wood, to go to mill, to work at the hoe, &c., you must starve or board in some family where they both fleece and half starve you. There is no set price upon corn, wheat, and provisions, so they take advantage of the necessities of strangers, who are thus obliged to purchase some slaves and land. This of course draws us all into the original sin and curse of the country of purchasing slaves, and this is the reason we have no merchants, traders, or artifices of any sort here but what become planters in a short time.

A common laborer, white or black, if you can be so favored as to hire one, is a shilling sterling or fifteen pence currency per day; a bungling carpenter two shillings or two shillings and sixpence per day; besides diet and lodging. That is, for a lazy fellow to get wood and water, $19.16, current per annum; add to this seven or eight pounds more and you have a slave for life.

“It seems probable,” says Charles Beard in The Rise of American Civilization, “that at least half of the immigrants into America before the Revolution, certainly outside New England, were either indentured servants or Negro slaves.”

The original foundations of American society rested not upon free but upon slave and semi-servile labor, both white and black.


Last updated on: 4.2.2006