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The Institution of slavery in the North American Colonies

Several factors contributed to the institution of slavery in the North American Colonies. The most important factor was the lack of willing immigrants coming to America. The diminishing amount of available land in the colonies, the improving conditions in England, and the rough conditions of being an indentured servant all contributed to the slowing immigration and the growing need for labor in the New World.

Before the late eighteenth century, the majority of the immigrants coming to the New World were white. A “surplus” population in England and new laws that permitted only the eldest son to inherit land lead to a great migration of the people to the colonies in search for prosperity and land. For these young and penniless men, becoming an indentured servant was a popular option. Indentured servant would pledge about seven years labor for their master in return for free passage to the New World and “freedom dues” at the end of their service time. “Freedom dues” usually consisted of a couple barrels of corn, a suit of clothes, and sometimes a small parcel of land. This was not a bad deal for the first indentured servants. Young men, after some years of labor, would join the ranks of a higher society class and start farming and making profits for themselves. Servant masters also had a good deal of this arrangement. They received years of free labor from their servants and received the right to acquire fifty acres of land for every servant they transported, under the “headright” system. More and more indentured servants started to immigrate to the New World, but troubles soon began to arise. Masters, knowing the number of available servants and not wishing to pay “freedom dues”, often treated their servants harshly. Those servants who did survive to the end of their terms of service found it increasingly harder to obtain land in their “freedom dues.” With limited options once free, many were simply hired by their previous masters for extremely small wages while others attempted to settle on the western fronts where they were susceptible to Indian attacks and far from civilization. A lack of women in the colonies added to the freed servants frustration, adding no family to little or no money and no land, and if that weren’t enough, many were disenfranchised for taking “little interest in the country.” This was too much for the young men to bear and in 1676 a rebellion lead by Nathaniel Bacon chased the Virginian governor from Jamestown and murderously attacked both hostile and friendly Indian tribes. Masters of indentured servants saw this and soon became reluctant in importing more.

The immigration of indentured servants almost completely stopped now. Not only to the declining desire for these workers, but due to improving conditions in England. England had seen new jobs open up and the minimum wage increase and the British prospered. People soon enjoyed higher standards of living in England and didn’t want to give it up for an uncertain future in the colonies. The nothing-left-to-lose attitude that had influence the mass population shift to the colonies had been replaced with the want to shield their new life and fortune in Great Britain.

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With no more indentured servant making their way to the New World, the colonies faced a shortage of labor and there were few solutions. The colonists could enslave the Indian people whom they were at war with, but the European diseases that they would be exposed to would kill them to quickly to be profitable. The colonist’s only practical solution was to start importing slaves from Africa. Although expensive, African slaves were resistant to many of the diseases present in the colonies and were sometimes skilled in harvesting and/or planting crops grown. Importation began and “slave codes” were drawn up. A unique aspect of the colonies “slave codes” was that they made the Africans bought and their children slaves to their buying master. This made slavery more profitable. Fertile women would have children as a result of their own relations or heinous acts of their masters and the slave population soon became self-sustaining. The southern plantations welcomed slavery as an answer to their labor needs and a profitable business in trade and harvest. The institution and spread of slavery was soon imminent.

The establishment of slavery in the colonies was obviously due to their necessity of cheep labor, especially in the large plantations of the south. White indentured servants were hard to be captured if they ran away and the thoughts of discontent servants worried their masters of another rebellion like Bacon’s Rebellion. Also, the conditions in England were increasingly improving, therefore less people were willing to give up whatever they had going for them in England for a new life in the New World. Indians were too susceptible to European diseases to serve as a replacement source of labor and the Africans were immune to many diseases that made them a good dependable labor source. All these factors put together gave the colonies little choice but to enslave the tribes of the West African coast and import them to the New World as a profitable leg of the new triangle trade.

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