The origins of black slavery, linked with Portuguese explorations in the fifteenth century, predominately originated from sub-Saharan West Africa. The numbers that were forcibly migrated to North American colonies are considered to be much less than that transported to Latin America or any other areas. Despite this North America evolved as the major New World location for black slaves, a direct result of the natural increase that occurred after 1730.
In order to investigate the reasons behind this, it is necessary to look at slave labour conditions and slave owners as to how they may have been responsible for this increase. In addition, this essay shall look at other slave locations in the New World, so as to provide a comparative example of the relation between oppressive labour conditions and population growth or decrease. Finally, other possible reasons for the natural increase in the U. S slave population shall also be looked at.
Slave numbers in North American colonies were in relatively small numbers by 1680, as opposed to other areas such as Brazil and the Caribbean. With crops such as tobacco, indigo and rice, slave numbers had increased by the mid eighteenth century, and by the start of the nineteenth century cotton harvesting increased these numbers further. This increase of numbers did not occur due to importation, the end of U. S involvement in international slave trade ended in 1808, but through Creole born slaves from as early as 1740. In 1640 85% of blacks in the U.S were of foreign origin, however sixty years later this percentage began to noticeably decline. By 1830 the number of foreign born slaves had dropped to under 10%1 However, despite this fall in foreign born slaves, those in slavery increased to make the U. S the main slave owning country, and more importantly the largest Creole born slave population. In order to look at whether slave labour was oppressive in North America, it is necessary to draw in various sources. Primary evidence from slaveholders is often relevant as many openly admit to oppressing their slaves, as was the culture at the time.
In addition, slave testaments and incidences of revolts also provide a useful insight into how oppressive slave masters were considered to be. Later in the essay this shall be compared to levels of oppression outside the U. S as a comparison. There is little doubt that on the whole slavery in the U. S was oppressive, in so far as they were regarded as property and were denied basic human rights such as sanitation, adequate nourishment, clothing and so on. Many British abolitionists used the U. S as an example of how critical labour oppression was in West Indian slavery.
They viewed natural population increase in North American colonies as a result of better conditions in slave labour, which was derived from demographic data. “In 1825 the Anti-Slavery Reporter (the journal of the London Anti-Slavery society) unhesitatingly attributed the difference in rates of natural increase to ‘the superiority of the United States in the physical treatment of their slaves. ‘”2 From this it is evident that many abolitionists felt that labour conditions in the U. S were responsible for the natural increase in the slave population.
The type of work that slaves in North America were entered into also is a major factor in discussing labour oppression. The main areas of slave work was in tobacco, rice and cotton which were all regarded as favourable to that of sugar production. While sugar production existed in North America it was of a small scale and thus many argue labour conditions were less oppressive for this reason. In addition to this, many small plantation owners in the U. S worked alongside slaves which could indicate that on smaller plantations, labour conditions equalled that of a free white man, although evidence to what extent this was true is limited.
One example of favourable labour conditions in the U. S is shown in Frederick Douglass’s narrative. In this, Douglass talks of contract work, where he out with his master’s estate and responsible for earning money to give to his master, and for this receives greater independence and a percentage of his wage as well. It would be inaccurate however to simply suggest that labour conditions, oppressive or otherwise, were responsible for the natural increase of the slave population. U. S Slaves in the south were concentrated in coastal and river-bottom areas of which they were more exposed to insect borne diseases.
This is particularly relevant when looking at slave workers in rice plantations. Theodore Weld rejected the idea that the natural increase was due to better working conditions3. Instead, Weld looks at deliberate slave breeding as to one of the reasons behind why the North American slave population was reproducing. He goes on to say that even in adverse labour conditions, reproduction would still be able to occur. Weld’s argument is further backed up by Robert Fogel, who looks at ‘Pronatalist policies’ between 1500 and 1800 to increase the U. S population in The Rise and fall of American slavery.
In Latin America and the Caribbean, labour was often more oppressive than in North America. In Brazil, sugar plantations were notorious for the high death rates that occurred in their plantations. In addition, slave owners were less concerned about slave welfare after 1697. With the price fall in African slavery, (end of monopoly by the Royal African Company) replacing a slave was regarded as little hardship and thus slaves faced further oppression due to the reduction in their value. The attitude of slave owners towards their slaves is, by today’s standards, inherent racism at the highest level.
They regarded slaves as property and as such, owners were able to provide them with as much or as little resources as was their desire. Whether slave owners regarded their slaves welfare as a priority varies from region and plantation, as there were no set of rules or regulations regarding this. If a slave was killed however, it was difficult to prosecute for many reasons, however the argument that no slave owner can be tried in connection with the death of a slave is from the idea of property. It was perceived that no malice was intended if a slave died as no owner would willingly ‘destroy’ his own property.
From this it can be derived that as slaves were property, it was in the master’s interest to keep them as well as is necessary. Slave diets in the U. S south were better than that in the West Indies. General food shortages in the U. S were overcome by the end of the seventeenth century. Dense slave populations in Virginia, Maryland and South Carolina coincided with the fact that these areas were major exporters of grains and meats before the American Revolution. Thus it can be argued that this excess meant slaves would have access to these commodities.
Abraham Lincoln, in his address at the Cooper Institute in 1860 stated that: “Much is said by southern people about the affection of slaves for their masters and mistresses… a plot for an uprising could scarcely be devised and communicated to twenty individuals before some of them, to save the life of a favourite master or mistress, would divulge it. “4 There is however generally very little evidence to suggest that slave welfare was a priority of slave masters. In 1669, A Law of the colony of Virginia passed an act about the casual killing of slaves, which protected the master from molestation (prosecution) if he had killed his slave.
From this we can see that the welfare of the slave was regarded as below the laws and constitution, which effectively turned slaves into sub-humans, and more like cattle. Before the Civil war mortality rates among slaves were noticeably higher than that of the white community. The neonatal mortality rate per thousand for slaves was 350 as opposed to 179 for the rest of the U. S. In addition, between the ages of one and four 201 deaths per thousand slaves compared to that of 93 for the remainder of the U. S population. Beyond the age of four, slave mortality continues to be above that of the non-slave population.
The reasons for this high mortality rate can be linked to the failure of slave owners to protect the welfare of pregnant slave women. Many were malnourished and worked right through pregnancy and also during the week of birth as well, which increased the likelihood of infant mortality. On balance it seems fair to say that slave welfare was not a priority among masters, as there is clear evidence of high mortality rates. Indeed due to the births and deaths registration process, many infant deaths were not recorded as they had not been baptised and thus were unrecorded as ever being born.
If labour conditions and slave welfare did not cause a natural increase in the U. S slave population after 1730 it is necessary to find out what did actually cause it. There have been many interesting theories as to why a natural increase of slave population occurred in the U. S. Abolitionists regarded the fact that there were few sugar plantations in the North America, which resulted in many slaves living longer. Expanding on this, as both male and female could do the labour in the U. S, it could be that there was a closer number of women to men ratios than that of other areas where it was two to one.
It has also been argued that the climate of the U. S had an effect on reproduction. It is believed that temperate climates in the U. S and Barbados promoted natural increase as opposed to tropical climates elsewhere. Another important factor in determining why natural increase occurred in the U. S may be the U. S itself. One instance of this is that it was not until the 1840s that the black U. S slave rates natural increase exceeded that of U. S whites. This indicates that slaves in the U. S were merely following the national trend of natural increase that was occurring at the time. Some historians have also looked into the physical reasons as to why black U. S female slaves reproduced more than other slave colonies. They examined the fact that female U. S slaves breast-fed their children for only one year as opposed to women in other colonies who breast-fed their offspring for two years.
This is important, as those U. S slaves who breast- fed their children for one year became more fertile than women in other slave colonies, which increased the birth rate in the U. S. The following statement clearly shows to what extent natural increase had increased the slave population in the U. S: “The United States and Brazil both began the 19th century with a slave population of one million each. Brazil imported over 1 million slaves in the nineteenth century and had a resident slave population of only 1. 7 million in the late 1850s, whereas the United States imported a few hundred thousand slaves and ended up with a resident population of 4 million slaves on the eve of the Civil War. 6 This statement shows that the U. S slave population, compared to Brazil, was clearly reproducing to sustain numbers. However, it also looks at mortality rates that were higher in Latin America for several reasons.
As Brazil relied on replenishing their slave population (with a majority of males as women and children were not in as much demand which also affected reproduction) with imports of slaves, America used the “few hundred thousand” slaves to reproduce to sustain numbers. The advantages of this were that later generations of U. S slaves did not have to travel on slave ships or schooners, where many slaves died of dysentery or other illness. Therefore, not only did U. S slaves reproduce more, but also due to being Creole they avoided the large mortality rates that other slave colonies faced, and had more women and children in their population, which also assisted the level of natural increases in U. S slave population. In discussing whether the U. S labour system was oppressive, it seems fair to conclude that any form of salve labour renders it oppressive.
As to how this may have assisted natural population increase there exists very little evidence to that effect. While some argue that the few numbers of sugar plantations prolonged life, mortality rates in the U. S were still high, and the work of the slave, especially on larger plantations, was long, hard and without reward. The influence of the slave master in promoting reproduction within slaves is nominal. On the basis, they did little to curb sexual intercourse, and both Theodore Weld and Robert Fogel argue that they promoted the natural increase.
However, slave welfare as a priority among masters cannot be proved. While like any property, they were keen to maximise the use of slaves on their plantations. Yet malnutrition, disease and violence were often part of a U. S slave’s life in the south. They were generally overworked, underfed and lacked the basic human rights that existed at the time. Therefore, while the labour system in U. S slavery was not as oppressive elsewhere, it was still very oppressive and did little to assist natural increase.
The welfare of a slave did not generally extend to the level that would significantly increase the slave population. It is more likely that a natural population increase existed in the U. S after 1730 as they were living in a country which was also experiencing natural increase. Fertility rates were higher in slave women from North America as opposed to other slave colonies, due to breast-feeding methods. Also, due to the family mentality on slave plantations, there was less division or breaking up of families in the U. S.
Also it has been commented that the temperate climate of the U. S allowed natural increase to occur, a fact that is backed up by Barbados’s experience. However, it is important to look at the fact that in other slave colonies slaves were continually being transported, which caused very high mortality rates, both during travel and after as well. Therefore there is little evidence to support the theory that the labour system was not oppressive in the U. S and that slave welfare was a priority, simply by looking at the natural increase of the slave population.