The Origins of American Slavery: Freedom and Bondage in the English Colonies. By Betty Wood. (New York, Hill and Wang, 1997).
Although slavery eventually spread throughout the English New World colonies, English settlers’ vision of a New World initially did not include an economic system reliant on forced labor. In The Origins of American Slavery: Freedom and Bondage in the English Colonies, a critical issue publication, historian Betty Wood examines the societal and intellectual changes that allowed England to change from a nation largely immune to the temptations of enslaved labor to one that not only tolerated but depended upon the use of slavery. Wood authored Gender, Race, and Rank in a Revolutionary Age: The Georgia Lowcountry, 1750-1820, Women's Work, Men's Work: The Informal Slave Economies of Lowcountry Georgia, co-authored Come Shouting to Zion: African American Protestantism in the American South and British Caribbean to 1830 and edited Travel, Trade and Power in the Atlantic, 1765-1884. The Origins of American Slavery functions as a historiographical synthesis attempting to address how England, boasting of its unsurpassed status as a free nation, created a society dependent on slave labor.
Wood intends her work to challenge the dualistic debate of England’s slavery use; one side argued that economics preceded the need for forced labor and the other camp believed that racial prejudice drove the desire for West Africans’ enslavement. The Origins of American Slavery asserts that both racism and economic need resulted in the use of slavery and that neither thought rationale existed without the other. English settlers’ justification for slave use rested on aspects of contemporary ideology: a combatant’s loss of personal rights when captured and ensuing enslavement, the widespread use of indentured servants, and a view of non-Christians as strangers or outsiders.
English settlers employed servants for a five year contract term in which they exchanged passage to the New World for labor. While indentured servitude provided popular, many feared the potential for social disorder created by a lower class released from indentured servitude and refusing to work as a hired hand. The loss of obligatory labor and challenges to established class hierarchy influenced many settlers’ decision to buy a person rather than buy just their labor.
Wood asks why settlers generally overlooked Indians as a subjugated labor force in favor of buying West African slaves. Settler preference for African slaves included: Indians avoidance of dense settlement patterns, colonists’ need to trade with Indians and maintain workable relationships, and their perceptions of American Indians as “noble savage,” Wood believes, on the other hand, West Africans simultaneously appeared as living metaphors for “blackness,” which many members of European society equated with sin, and as the personification of the Hamitic myth, which argued that Africans descended from Noah’s cursed son, Ham, a man destined to sire a group of servants presumably marked by their dark coloration. English traders visiting the African coast commented on their difficulty identifying the social structure that governed that area’s peoples as well as their diverse religious practices.
Wood believes that religious dissimilarities influenced English validation of slavery more than racial distinctions did. She compares Barbados sugar planters’ exploitation of slaves with that of New England Quakers and Puritans’ slaveholding. In St. Kitts and Barbados, planters originally relied on indentured servants or Irish workers to work the fields until the English Civil War depleted the indentured servitude workforce and possible laborers declined to hire out to Barbados plantation owners. The planters turned to West African slaves provided by Dutch traders to enhance their already ostentatious wealth.
Wood states that New Englanders apparently justified their use of slavery through their treatment of the slaves. The Puritans and Quakers exposed West Africans to Christianity and heralded themselves as benevolent masters, many believing that by following these practices the peculiar institution paralleled their religious beliefs.
Wood’s examination shines in her portrayal of Barbados plantation owners’ engagement of slavery. She presents their thought process as evolutionary rather than instantaneously born from an especially heartless group of men. However, her analysis of religious justification for Puritan and Quaker use of African slaves fails to convince a reader; she glosses over the obvious paradox of, once African slaves converted to Christianity and no longer existed as an outsider, how a Christian could enslave another Christian?
The Origins of American Slavery functions as a succinct overview of changing English justification of slavery. Wood’s book contains an annotated bibliography that provides a list of monographs specifically addressing the issues broached in The Origins of American Slavery. Her familiarity with the Caribbean and the American colonies allows for a simple but convincing comparison between the two regions. Despite some oversights and unanswered questions, The Origins of American Slavery exists as a classroom reader and a springboard to deeper analysis of literature examining English slaveholding.
The Origins of American Slavery: Freedom and Bondage in the English Colonies. By Betty Wood.
Written in 1997, Betty Wood’s work The Origins of American Slavery is an insightful, succinct analysis of the conditions that led the adoption of the “peculiar institution” in the United States. Wood contends that the English did not begin their colonization of North America with the overt intention of enslaving anyone in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, but, rather, the institution of American slavery was the result of a highly complicated set of circumstances involving economics, religion, and social and ethnic imperatives. In order to support her thesis, Wood traces slaves in America through three phases including slavery in the Caribbean, slavery in the Chesapeake colonies, and slavery in the Puritan and Quaker colonies.
Before she goes into these stages, Wood offers an examination of English notions of slaves and ethnicity in the sixteenth century. According to Wood, the English did not have explicit models of slavery like the Spanish and Portuguese, but they did possess knowledge of practice from the biblical accounts of the ancient world and the custom of serfdom in medieval Europe. Additionally, they understood the relationship between slaves and captives, especially as it pertained to the Crusades and the capture of non-Christian “heathens”. Wood also asserts that difference in ethnicity was not a primary concern for the English, especially compared to disparity in religion. Although race issues grew through the practice of slavery and became codified in the eighteenth century, race was not a sufficient justification for slavery at that point in time. Fundamental to understanding the development of slavery in the English colonies is the need for labor in growing cash crops. In the early seventeenth century, colonists had three groups of people to choose from for their labor force: Europeans as indentured servants, Native Americans, and West Africans.
The first slaves in the Americas were those in the Caribbean. As the seventeenth century progressed, more and more Englishman moved to the Caribbean islands of Barbados and Jamaica in hopes of accumulating their fortunes. Learning from the Brazilian success with cultivating sugarcane, English entrepreneurs turned to starting their own sugar plantations. They initially relied on European indentured servants for their labor force. However, the stories of hardships in the Caribbean and the English Civil War slowed the flow of servants to the islands. Planters then turned to the readily available supply of West African workers provided by the Dutch presence in the Caribbean and their extensive slave trade. They not only found a cheaper labor force, but also a group who could not demand rights or freedom as the Europeans had.
Although they too needed a large workforce in order to produce their staple cash crop, this time tobacco, Chesapeake colonists were slower to participate in the enslavement of West Africans. Wood asserts that the Chesapeake area lacked the necessary connection to the Dutch slave trade that would have made West African slavery more economical than the European and native workers. However, the decrease in European servants and the difficulty in holding native peoples captive in territory familiar to them eventually led the Virginia planters to seek other options. As the colony’s population finally stabilized, Dutch traders recognized the potential Chesapeake markets for their slaves and sought to create a connection to the area. In 1705 Virginia legitimize the practice of slavery in its first slave laws.
In the northern colonies, Puritans and Quakers also owned slaves, but because of religious and economical reasons, held difference views of those they enslaved. They did not have the expectations of amassing great wealth in the colonies or the agricultural focus on cash crops so their need for labor was much less than the more southern areas. They too codified slave laws in the Body of Liberties but maintained two fundamental differences from other American slave owners. First, though slaves were to be considered property, they would keep their legal status as persons, and second, slaveholders would be held responsible for the physical as well as the spiritual well-being of their slaves. Consequently, West Africans in these areas were not denied their very humanity like their counterparts of the plantation colonies.
In her work, Wood takes the two most prominent origins of slavery—racial ideology or economics—and blends them together for a more comprehensive look at the issue. She succeeds in skillfully conveying the complexity of the origins of American slavery. Wood wisely says no one aspect of English culture or society could be responsible for the acceptance and spread of slavery as an institution, but that it was far more likely the result of a combination of many causes related to these and other areas.