The Geography of Slavery Overview

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The Geography of Slavery Overview

Most people associate slavery with the American South. However, slaves were utilized in the Caribbean, as well as in all parts of the original colonies and territories that later became the United States. From the time Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) arrived in the Caribbean in 1492, Caribbean Indians were enslaved to work in mines and on plantations. Later, the Spanish began importing African slaves to work the sugar plantations. Because sugar crops required quick processing to avoid spoilage, Caribbean slave life was much harsher than that of slaves in North America. Nineteen-hour days and harsh working conditions led to disease and high death rates. Rather than improve conditions, plantation owners simply increased the number of slaves they imported.

Beginning in the 1600s, Africans were enslaved by Europeans and brought to North America, first with the Spanish and then with the British colonists. British colonists who founded settlements in the New England region did not intend to have a slave-based society. Many Puritans opposed the idea of slavery on religious grounds. Furthermore, because New England did not cultivate labor-intensive staple crops such as tobacco and rice, slaves were not essential to its economy. Nonetheless, slavery did exist in New England for a period of time, with most slaves being used for domestic work and for work in farming, tanneries, saltworks, and iron furnaces. A key difference between slavery in New England and elsewhere is that Northern white males worked alongside African slaves, whereas white males elsewhere considered working with blacks beneath them. In addition, since many people in this region opposed slavery, blacks enjoyed more freedoms than slaves in other colonies, and they also interacted socially with whites at cockfights and fairs, and even at the dinner table. They were permitted to eat the same kinds of food as whites and wore similar clothing, although it was of an inferior quality. After the American Revolution (1776–1783), many Northerners found it intolerable to enslave others in a new country based on principles of freedom, and thus slavery ended in the Northern states before it did in the South.

In the Middle States of Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey, slavery existed as a result of labor shortages, and white farmers and businessmen used slaves alongside free white laborers in order to increase profitability during the colonial and revolutionary periods. A number of factors led to labor shortages. The availability of cheap land spurred colonists to buy their own land rather than work for wages on another man's land. Furthermore, improved conditions in Europe discouraged immigration, and indentured servants were not drawn to New Netherland (modern-day New York and New Jersey). Thus, African slaves first arrived in the region in the early seventeenth century when New Amsterdam experienced a labor crisis, and the Dutch West India Company requested a shipment of slaves in order to build a strong trading port and expand the colony. These slaves performed the same work that the white settlers did: clearing land and building roads and forts. They also apprenticed in trades such as blacksmithing, shoemaking, and carpentry, helping their artisan masters. Because crops grown in the Middle States had shorter seasons for growing and harvesting, many slaves were hired out by their owners to work in these different trades.

Owners in the Middle States did not need to own multiple slaves, so rebellion was less likely to develop, except in urban areas where there was a higher concentration of slaves. For a period of time, the slave trade was enhanced in this region by the use of ports in Philadelphia, Perth Amboy (located in New Jersey), and New York City as final stops on the transatlantic slave routes. However, a lack of a staple crop kept slavery from becoming a predominant part of the economic system. Because slavery was not essential for economic survival, the institution gradually died out. Quakers and other religious activists in this region worked toward abolition, and where there were plenty of wage earners, abolition did not hurt the economy. By 1804 all three states passed laws to abolish slavery, although full elimination of slavery did not finally occur until 1865.

While slaves in the Middle States performed different tasks than those in the South, treatment of slaves in this region was also harsh. Restrictions on movement and harsh punishments for crimes were common. Masters in this region were permitted to use cruel methods of control, such as whipping, rape, castration, and burning at the stake. The goal was to instill fear in the slaves, ensuring discipline and a controlled workforce.

Although the Northern states' demand for slaves gradually diminished as public sentiment against slavery increased, the success of tobacco and the establishment of large cotton plantations firmly increased the need for slave labor in the Southern states. In Virginia, slavery did not become a large enterprise as long as white indentured servants were profitable. In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, however, slavery became more profitable, as slaves were put to work in Virginia's tobacco fields. In the upper South, which included Arkansas, Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina, masters owned fewer slaves and treated their slaves more benevolently. In Tennessee slaves mostly worked on cotton plantations. Very few slaveholders were planters (masters who owned more than twenty slaves). Slaves had better working conditions there than in the Deep South, and slave owners were required to provide adequate food and clothing.

In the lower South, which included Alabama, Louisiana, South Carolina, Georgia, and Mississippi, the soil and climate allowed crops such as sugar, rice, and cotton to do well, but these crops were very labor-intensive and slave labor was required to make growing them profitable. During the first half of the nineteenth century, many slaves from the upper South were sold to the lower South, which meant that the slave population in the lower South became much higher. This shift occurred because the lower South's agricultural economy depended more heavily on slavery than did that of the upper South. Large plantations were more common in the lower South and thus there were many more slaveholders who qualified as planters. Slave revolts were a greater possibility, and travel in the Deep South was highly restricted for slaves.

The conditions faced by slaves depended on where the slave lived, what their master was like, and the type of work performed. Slavery was strongly entrenched in the lower South because of the labor-intensive crops sugar, rice, and cotton, and slaves worked long hours toiling in the fields. They lived in primitive cabins and had poor diets. They also suffered from diseases such as malaria, yellow fever, typhoid, and cholera due to the climate of the region. By the 1840s and 1850s, slavery began to deeply divide the nation, and the Mason-Dixon Line became the dividing line between the free North and the slave-supporting South. The Midwestern states were divided on slavery, with territories above a certain latitude required to be free states on admittance to the Union. Indiana and Illinois were officially free states, but many of their citizens supported slavery.

                                         Sandra Johnston

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The Geography of Slavery Overview

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