The Colonial Period and the Revolutionary War
The Colonial Period and the Revolutionary War
Included in this section are the following entries with the primary source documents listed below in italics.
The First Africans to Arrive in the New World
Adapted from essays by Anthony Miles
Memoir of a Boy Sold into Slavery
"An Agreement to Deliver 17 Negro Slaves"
Virginia Passes the "Casual Slave Killing Act"
The First Slavery Statute and First Anti-Literacy Act
Tracing the Roots of African American Cultural Traditions in Early Slave Narratives
Adapted from essays by Patrick Rael, Bowdoin College
The Runaway Slave Act
A Witness Tells of Crispus Attucks's Death
African American Soldiers in the Colonial Period
Adapted from essays by Barbara Savage, University of Pennsylvania
"African Rights and Liberty" by Maria W. Stewart
The Pennsylvania Act and the Abolition of Slavery
The Vested Interest of the Framers of the Constitution in the Business of Slavery
The Debate over Slavery in the United States
Pennsylvania Quakers Protest Slavery
An Account of the Amistad Revolt
"Memorial Discourse" by Henry Highland Garnet
Letters Between H. C. Wright and Frederick Douglass on the Purchase of Douglass's Freedom
"A Fugitive's Necessary Silence" by Frederick Douglass
Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup
The Final Moments of John Brown
The historical moment that gave birth to the New World, that later led to the creation of the United States—and at the same time marked the beginning of the story of Africans in the New World—represents one of the critical moments in the story of humankind. In the period around the year 1492 (when Christopher Columbus "discovered" the North American continent), the Western world was changing in various and profound ways, and the story of civilization was in the process of accelerating, forever making the New World distinct from the Old one.
Perhaps most significant to the history of Africans in the New World and African Americans was the increasing importance of Europe and the Judeo-Christian tradition associated with it. During the Dark and Middle Ages advances in philosophy, the sciences, literature, and the arts were restricted to only a handful of monasteries and minds on the European continent while enjoying relative prosperity on the African continent and in the cultural centers of Islam and the Ghanaian Empire. The end of the fifteenth century, however, marked a turning point. The mercantile and religious zeal of the European nation-states found sudden and unprecedented expression and were in a state of constant evolution and export, thanks in great part to the coupling of these cultural phenomena with a handful of technological advances, such as the advent of the printing press, the astrolabe, and advances in shipbuilding.
The previous centuries had seen some European scientist-philosophers literally burned at the stake for their various visions. While that brand of religious superstition would remain a part of European culture for centuries to come, the European enthusiasm for all things pecuniary, religious, and technological was opening up, literally, a New World. In conjunction with this New World, a new, and disturbing, chapter began for many of the world's peoples of color—a chapter that would be particularly brutal for the peoples of Africa.
The final decades of the fifteenth century and the initial decades of the sixteenth century witnessed the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg; the decline of the Venetian shipping empire; and the turning back of the Ottoman Empire—and with it the Islamic faith—from the region of the Adriatic and from its incursion into the heart of the European continent.
These, however, were only brief blips on the radar compared with the events occurring on the Iberian Peninsula. If we think of the funding of the adventurer Columbus by the Spanish state (headed by Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile) as the moment that first planted the seed of what would develop into the New World and the United States, we begin to gain some focus on this bit of history. The first journey around the southern tip of Africa was made, turning shipping commerce away from the overland eastern European and Arabian routes, away from the ships of Venice, and toward the Iberian Peninsula and its strategic command over the vast unknown of Atlantic off to the west. This was also the moment in which slavery developed into a new, much more efficient and more brutal, method of pillaging inland African villages for labor both inexpensive and relatively easy to capture.
Gutenberg's invention of the printing press meant that for the first time information could be disseminated on a massive scale; this invention almost single-handedly gave birth to the secular world (including the first "novels"—books relating the story of an "everyman" rather than of figures of laical significance), and with it a modernizing world. The presence of these new and secular fonts of information may have further stoked the zealotry of the European monarchs. The Spanish monarchy was obsessed with the consolidation of the Catholic faith under the yoke of their growing empire. The Moors, who had thrived on the Iberian Peninsula since the eighth century, creating grand caliphates, cities, as well as great art and science, were finally ejected from their last stronghold in Granada in 1492. The Jews, who were traditionally the scholars, cartographers, and intellectuals of Spain and Portugal, also had no place in the burgeoning vision of an Iberian Peninsula free of heretics.
In what was perhaps the precursor to the fascistic twentieth-century efforts of a Joseph Stalin or an Adolf Hitler, the Inquisition raged on in Spain, sanctioned by a series of fiats and papal bulls that were handed down by the Vatican and were enforced on the rack and in the burnings in the public squares. Some histories say that daily life in the Spanish capital included the regular smell of burning flesh, which hung in the air, serving as a reminder to people of the cost of questioning faith or allowing forms of heresy to go unreported. This culture was the figurative cargo of the Santa María, the Niña, and the Pinta when these ships of Columbus dropped anchor in 1492 somewhere off the coast of current-day Florida. And it was with a zealous drive for progress and wealth as a backdrop that the great ships turned into the ports of western Africa and the first shackled Africans were led from the holding pens into the cramped holds below deck.ﾀﾀ