Documents Illustrative of the History of the Slave Trade to America Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

“Every such Negroe . . . Is are and be and shall att all tymes hereafter be adjudged Reputed deemed and taken to be and Remayne in Servitude and Bondage . . .”

–An Act for the Encourageing the Importation of Negros and Slaves into this Province, 1671

“There have been already Imported since the 1st of November upwards of 2000 Negroes, and there are some Ships that are still expected from Africa with more . . .”

–Governor James Glen’s letter to the Board of Trade, 1754

Summary Overview

Slavery is part of the history of all the original lands occupied by European colonists in the Americas. These excerpts, collected and published by historian Elizabeth Donnan in the twentieth century, trace the growth and institutionalization of slavery and the slave trade in British North America during the colonial era. Labor shortages and the need for large numbers of workers to make the frail economies of these early colonies a success contributed to colonial measures to encourage and shelter the transatlantic slave trade, particularly in the more agricultural southern colonies. In time, the slave trade became a major commercial endeavor, and enslaved Africans outnumbered free white colonists in places such as South Carolina. Yet this economic dependence on slave labor carried great consequences, especially for those forcibly enslaved and transported across the Middle Passage. Disease and ill treatment killed many even before arrival in the Americas, and legal protection upon arrival was essentially nonexistent.

Defining Moment

Slavery was a part of European settlement of the Americas from the beginning. After Spanish enslavement of native peoples and European diseases led to rapid, massive depopulation, Europeans began importing enslaved workers from West Africa to staff the growing numbers of sugar, rice, and indigo plantations in the New World. West Africa, which had its own cultural tradition of bondage, offered ease of transport, a network of slavers, and a population familiar with the agricultural techniques needed to grow American cash crops. Thus began the triangular trade of raw materials, finished goods, and enslaved humans that linked the Americas, Europe, and Africa.

Imports of enslaved Africans into the Caribbean began as early as the sixteenth century, and the practice may have spread to the nascent English colonies in North America as early as 1619, when African workers began arriving to labor on Virginia’s tobacco plantations. During its earliest years, slavery in North America existed alongside the somewhat more dominant system of indentured servitude, in which white European workers committed themselves to a master for a period of several years in exchange for their passage to the New World. By 1650, for example, records show just four hundred Africans among Virginia’s population of about nineteen thousand; a notable subsection of these Africans were free, and some were even property owners. Within about a decade, however, colonial governments began passing laws that encouraged the dominance of slavery, such as the elimination of the requirement for manumission (freeing) of slaves who converted to Christianity. At the same time, economic changes in England made the prospect of indentured servitude less enticing for poor European workers. Slavery began a period of sharp ascendency.

In total, an estimated ten million to fifteen million enslaved Africans were shipped from their native lands to the Americas between the sixteenth and nineteenth century. English slave traders took on an increased role after 1672 when the Royal African Company was founded, and the number of slaves arriving in British North America on British slave ships grew by nearly tenfold during the first half of the eighteenth century. Although slavery was first formally recognized in the North American colonies in Massachusetts, the agricultural South became the primary hub of slavery on the continent. Slaves often reached the American South after a stopover in the Caribbean, making for a total sea voyage of some sixty to ninety days on cramped, disease-ridden vessels. As many as two million Africans died along the Middle Passage. The US government eventually outlawed the importation of slaves in 1808.

Author Biography

Between the late seventeenth and late eighteenth century, the slave trade in the British North America became a formalized and highly profitable activity. This shift is reflected in the authorship of the documents excerpted in this essay. The earliest document, authored by the Colony of Maryland, reflects the types of laws passed that transformed former African “servants” with a fair prospect of liberty into true black “slaves.” Before long, the English slave trade had increased, and colonists such as James Frisby began to link their economic well-being closely with the transatlantic slave trade. As the rate of imports increased, the overall number of African slaves in the colonies rose greatly. The letters of the governor and Council of South Carolina to their English government overseers show this transition and indicate the economic motives of and benefits for those who relied on slavery. The extent of the slave trade in colonial life may be seen in the numerous anonymous sales notices and news items of the 1730s. Sales took place with obvious regularity and involved a notable quantity of enslaved workers. The quickened pace of the Middle Passage trade led to widely acknowledged illness, death, and burials at sea of those forced to make the journey. The courts also continued to discuss and test the nature of slavery, as seen in the depositions regarding the legal status of one African later in the century.

The excerpts reprinted here were first collected and published in the early 1930s as part of historian Elizabeth Donnan’s four-volume Documents Illustrative of the History of the Slave Trade to America, which presents documents that were originally drafted between the 1440s and 1808. Donnan, a professor of economics and sociology at Wellesley College, gathered the documents on the behalf of the Division of Historical Research of the Carnegie Institute in Washington, DC. To do this, she drew upon formal government records such as those of the Royal African Company and the Colonial Office as well as pertinent legal, commercial, and personal documents. Although these records existed prior to Donnan’s efforts, her work brought together a wealth of information focused on the slave trade for deeper historical study; the information contained within presented largely the ideas and viewpoints of the European and American slave traders, governments, and others profiting from the slave trade, not those of the Africans whom it so directly affected. Donnan’s works, despite their limitations, remain a standard source for firsthand records and accounts of the trade as practiced, and modern historians continue to recognize Donnan as the most knowledgeable scholar of the transatlantic slave trade of her time.

The slave deck of the ship “Wildfire,” brought into Key West on April 30, 1860.

(Library of Congress)
Document Analysis

The size, scope, and nature of the transatlantic slave trade changed greatly in British North America between the early seventeenth century and the mid-eighteenth century. In general, slavery and the slave trade became increasingly important to agricultural colonial economies and thus supported by colonial governments even as slavery grew more and more oppressive for the individuals forced to labor under the institution. The excerpts presented here offer an opportunity to trace this change over time and to determine some of the effects of these changes on white slave-owning society and black enslaved society alike. They also present a chance for analysis of the views of white authorities—African voices are essentially absent—on some of the moral, legal, and economic ramifications of the slave trade.

The first excerpt reproduced from Documents Illustrative of the History of the Slave Trade to America exemplifies the new laws passed in the latter half of the seventeenth century that contributed to the transformation of black servants with a status similar to that of white indentured servants to true, racially defined slaves. The earliest African laborers imported into the Americas reflected traditional English ideas about slavery, which was considered morally acceptable when the enslaved were non-Christians. Thus, enslaved Africans could and did gain their freedom by converting to Christianity. By the mid-seventeenth century, however, the Church of England had begun to embrace the idea that Christians could, in fact, enslave other Christians in a system of lifelong bondage. This idea was influential even among American populations that were not affiliated with the Anglican Church. Both the Quakers—who later led the religious opposition to slavery in the New World—and the Puritans accepted the righteousness of the institution and took part in slaveholding and slave trading.

This doctrinal shift, accompanied by a general social acceptance of slavery by English citizens in Europe and the Americas, was closely followed by legal changes in the colonies. In 1671, the Colony of Maryland passed an “Act to encourage the Importation of Negroes” that freed potential slaveholders from the responsibility of giving an enslaved person his or her liberty upon conversion to Christianity. The purpose of the law was quite baldly stated—”encourageing the Importation of Negros and Slaves into this Province”—although, interestingly, its division of racial Africans and slaves shows that the two groups had not yet become synonymous. Barely a decade after this act was written, however, the terms “Negro” and “slave” had indeed become interchangeable. The need for such a law was also clearly noted. Maryland colonists who had imported slaves had neglected to convert these people to Christianity, much “to the great displeasure of Almighty God” and to the perceived detriment to the immortal souls of the slaves who continued to engage in their native religious practices; other colonists had been reluctant to import slaves at all, presumably because of their concern that this type of religious instruction would liberate their slaves. To encourage the conversion of slaves to Christianity and to soothe the consciences of those who had opted out of the slave trade over the issue, the colony declared that the belief that conversion granted a slave liberty was a “mistake and ungrounded apprehension.” The act then affirmed in strong terms that becoming a Christian was assuredly not a path to automatic manumission, displaying a clear break from earlier moral ideas limiting slavery only to non-Christians. The act also affirmed that slavery was an inheritable condition, noting that the children of enslaved people were also “deemed . . . in Servitude and Bondage” regardless of their own status as Christian or non-Christian.

The colony was also called on in business affairs relating to the slave trade. In 1700, one James Frisby of Maryland petitioned the colony for a financial allowance after twenty-six African slaves he imported for the purpose of the slave trade died during the course of their voyage. This relatively low number of imported slaves was common of the border colonies of Maryland and Virginia; groups of enslaved workers tended to arrive in fairly small groups from the Caribbean rather than in shiploads directly from Africa, as was common in slave-trading hubs such as South Carolina. Although the colony refused Frisby’s request, the matter went unresolved for some time. Donnan noted additional records that showed two London merchants claimed that Frisby had cheated them of £2,700—just over £100 per head—by not paying for the failed delivery. Nor was Frisby’s case an isolated incident. Donnan pointed out that a Peregrine Browne made a similar petition the following year to equally negative results.

Slave owners and slave traders were not the only ones engaged in legal disputes over slavery, however; sometimes enslaved Africans themselves brought their cases before colonial courts. In 1760, for example, Maryland records indicate that an enslaved Guinean named Captain Gray filed a complaint that he had been wrongfully taken into bondage because he was a free man in his native land. According to Gray’s complaint, John Cousins, the captain of the slave ship Edward had “treacherously”—and illegally—stolen him and forced him into slavery. Typically, the crew of slave ships received enslaved Africans from African slavers, who themselves kidnapped and forced people, often from the interior lands, into slavery. In this instance, however, Gray claimed that he had been placed into bondage without the proper process. The governor of Maryland ordered the taking of depositions from “all the Persons that shall be able to give Evidence against [Cousins],” showing that the government was at least willing to make an effort to consider Gray’s allegations.

The depositions that follow detail the events surrounding Gray’s enslavement. A crew member of the Edward, Elias Glover, explained that Gray had been caught stealing aboard the ship and later tried to sabotage it, and the other complainants had been brought onboard the slave ship by African traders as usual. Glover noted that the Africans other than Gray had been paid for in the usual manner and that they had remained onboard the Edward for nearly two months before the ship departed for the Americas without any effort by the African slave traders to fetch them back. This extended wait was in no way unusual. Slave traders docked in harbors along the West African coast sometimes for months as African slavers brought them a slow supply of bodies to fill the hulls; for example, the ship which reputedly transported the slave-narrative author Olaudah Equiano to the New World lingered just off shore for eight months. Thus Glover’s testimony showed nothing unusual about slave trading practices except, perhaps, in the case of the reportedly thieving Gray.

Another crew member, Eneas Loughrig, provided more detail. He stated that the ship had sailed from Liverpool, the leading English slave port of the era, to the coast of Guinea to acquire its human cargo. Loughrig believed that all of the Africans that they had onboard their ship had been legally purchased per usual but offered an explanation for Gray’s claim. Gray, apparently, had worked for a free African along the Guinea coast as a courier of enslaved persons from shore to slave ship; during their long stays along the African coast, slave ships docked a short distance out in the ocean, forcing slave traders to ferry their captives from shore to ship on each transaction. Gray performed this duty and, while onboard the Edward, he stole a coat belonging to Cousins and was caught. Cousins refused to let the thief return to shore but offered him liberty in exchange for another slave, presumably free of charge, from his employer. Gray’s employer, however, refused to bargain with Cousins, calling Gray “a scandal to his Country” and declaring that “they would not give a slave of four feet high for him.” Loughrig further observed that he believed it was the practice of Guineans to punish thieves with enslavement. The court ultimately dismissed Gray’s claims against Cousins as groundless, however, thus showing that one’s status as free or enslaved in the Old World was not a precondition for one’s status in the New World.

Further south, colonial North America was heavily reliant on slave labor to support its economy—so much so that enslaved populations sometimes outnumbered free populations. For example, this was true for much of South Carolina’s early history. In 1709, the government and council of South Carolina wrote a report to their English government overseers detailing the present population of the colony. According to the authors, South Carolina was home to 9,580 people. Within this total population, the authors further broke out the colony’s residents roughly by age, race, free or unfree status, and gender. The total free population of all ages and races was just 3,960—barely over 40 percent of the colony’s citizenry. White indentured servants made up a very small minority of the remaining unfree population. The enslaved black population, at 4,100 persons, outnumbered the combined free and indentured white population by a bare margin. An additional 1,400 American Indian slaves rounded out the population. The authors noted that the enslaved population was growing rapidly, with 1,100 new black slaves arriving on South Carolina’s shores in the preceding five years alone. The high number of annual arrivals, nearly one-quarter of the total enslaved population, thus suggests either an extremely high death rate among the colonial enslaved population or a miscalculation of some type. Otherwise, the enslaved population would presumably have been much larger as the slave trade had been growing South Carolina’s population for nearly a century by this time.

South Carolina’s colonial leadership seems to found this situation something of a mixed blessing. The authors hailed the influx of enslaved laborers for making its free population “the more capable of improving the produce of the Colony.” Yet the authors also noted that the costs of purchasing this great number of slaves were a significant financial drain on colonial coffers, complaining, “The value of [our] imports is greater . . . than our export.” As a result, despite the increase in production made possible by a great deal of enslaved labor, the colony still made little profit. Unmentioned here but certainly a concern of colonial South Carolinians was the possibility of massive slave revolts. Because the enslaved population so greatly outnumbered the free population, whites worried that blacks would eventually rise up and murder them to win their own liberty.

Nevertheless, the slave trade continued to grow. During the 1730s, for example, some seventeen thousand slaves were imported in Charleston, South Carolina, alone. The vast majority of these slaves originated in Africa, sometimes arriving by way of a British Caribbean island. In 1732, a South Carolina newspaper began printing notices of arriving slaves for sale, allowing more accurate tabulations to be made of the frequency and number of such importations. The first of the notices reproduced here notes that slaves were to be sold not for cash, but in exchange for rice or credit until after the harvest, an indication that planters then lacked the ready cash needed to finance such purchases. The system also shows that the slave trade was a profitable enough venture that at least some slave traders were able to extend a lengthy period of credit to their customers and that they expected the colony’s planters to be successful enough that the risk of such a loan was minimal. Yet not all slave merchants were willing to offer such an arrangement. The second notice—printed after the harvest season was underway—calls for “ready money” purchases only. The regular arrival of ships indicates a steady demand for enslaved labor even outside of the traditional agricultural season.

Slave ships carried more than just enslaved humans; they also brought infectious diseases that could devastate both enslaved and free populations after arrival in the New World. From the early eighteenth century, a quarantine system was used off the coast of South Carolina to ensure that imported African slaves did not carry dreaded contagious illnesses with them. Sometimes, though, disease slipped through, as shown in the first news item reprinted here. Quarantine systems grew more sophisticated in time, requiring slavers to send potentially infected slaves to a special sick house or keep them onboard ship, where they could be isolated from the rest of the population. By the 1710s, enslaved arrivals were not permitted to come ashore for a period of several days if their ship had been found to carry infectious disease.

Indeed, most slave ships were incubators of illness. Cramped quarters, nonexistent medical care, and cruel treatment were an environment ripe for deadly diseases to spread from person to person. Slaves were often chained together during the Middle Passage and kept in a small cargo hold with little movement and less fresh air. Sometimes, living slaves remained chained to deceased ones, forced to lie or sit in pools of blood, excrement, or spittle. The crew of the London, however, argued that in this case the smallpox infection that afflicted the slaves who had traveled on it had not been evident while onboard ship. This claim seems more than a little questionable, however, as the acknowledgement that fourteen slaves had died from “Fever and Fluxes” and been thrown overboard certainly indicates that disease was rampant on the vessel. The early symptoms of smallpox include fever and other less visible concerns, so the crew may simply have failed to identify these as indications of smallpox without the telltale skin lesions.

Buoyed by commercial profitability and moral indifference, the slave trade thrived as the eighteenth century progressed. Writing in 1754, the governor of South Carolina, James Glen, informed the English government that more than two thousand Africans had been imported into South Carolina between November 1753 and the following August alone; this figure was nearly double that of the number of imported slaves in a five-year span quoted by the governor and council just fifty years previously. The growing value of enslaved workers in South Carolina was also evident in the rising prices of newly arrived slaves. At the same time, the extent to which those workers supported the South Carolinian economy may be inferred from the fact that earlier in the century, as Glen notes, planters paid for slaves with a promise of rice—one of South Carolina’s leading cash crops—to be delivered at a future time. By 1754, however, Glen writes that planters had cash on hand or interest-bearing bonds to use for their transactions and that he knew of “few or no Planters whose Credit is suspected.”

Glen observes that South Carolina’s buyers paid the highest prices for enslaved workers and thus received a steady supply from a variety of willing sellers. He took this as “a plain proof” of the colony’s financial success, a sharp contrast to the concerns expressed by colonial leaders in the early eighteenth century about the financial drain upon the colony caused by the constant importation of slaves. Glen also favorably compares the conditions that enslaved workers faced in South Carolina to those of the Caribbean islands, where, as he rightly notes, mortality rates from overwork or harsh treatment were extremely high. Laws passed in the wake of the Stono Rebellion (1740) had sought to limit some of the harsh treatment of South Carolina slaves by their masters by outlawing workdays in excess of fifteen hours and barring work on Sundays, for example. Along with the physical differences in the labor required to raise Caribbean sugar and South Carolina rice and indigo, these measures helped ensure that slaves at least remained alive. Doing this also helped slave owners renew their supply of workers naturally through childbirth, a process that would become vital to the perpetuation of slavery in the following century after the eventual ban of the slave trade.

Essential Themes

The growth and influence of slavery and the slave trade proved one of the most defining—and divisive—issues in American life with ramifications that continue to shape US society today. The ready availability of unpaid slave labor allowed the South to develop economics that depended heavily on manual force to produce profitable agricultural crops even as economies in the northern and Mid-Atlantic colonies grew economic systems more centered on paid labor of free workers. By the time of the American Revolution, for example, the population of South Carolina consisted of more than 60 percent enslaved black workers. In comparison, the colony of Virginia—also a major cash crop–growing region—had an enslaved population just over 40 percent of its total, and both Massachusetts and Pennsylvania had a negligible enslaved population, measuring 2 percent of their total numbers. These differences contributed to the creation of vastly different economic, social, and cultural systems in the colonial regions that carried significant political ramifications. One of the primary challenges facing the framers of the US Constitution in 1787 involved the determination of how to measure the enslaved population for the purposes of representation, as southern delegates scrambled to ensure that their relatively small free white populations would wield sufficient power in the new Congress to safeguard the continuation of slavery. Mere discussion of the slave trade issue was banned for twenty years’ time due to the controversy it automatically carried. The roots of these issues reached to the seventeenth century and the rise of slave importations to British North America.

Even after the slave trade was legally ended in 1808, its effects shaped the nation. The millions of slaves transported across the Atlantic generated children themselves born into slavery, allowing the institution to persist in British colonies and the United States for generations after the slave trade itself ended. Regional disputes over the spread of slavery dominated US politics during the first half of the nineteenth century, only to worsen as what had begun as fringe voices against slavery during the era of the slave trade grew into a vocal abolitionist movement that began to speak for an ever-larger minority of Americans. The Civil War—a conflict fought over slavery—was the single bloodiest war to affect the nation. Ideas about African Americans formed during the era of slavery and the slave trade shaped public policy for decades to come. Indeed, the myth of the Confederacy drew on the same notions of the moral righteousness of slavery that had encouraged English colonial governments to expand the institution centuries before. Later, the restrictive Jim Crow laws of the post–Civil War South hearkened back to the statutes stripping black colonial residents of their limited freedoms during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Not until the publication of works such as Donnan’s Documents Illustrative of the History of the Slave Trade to America allowed historians to conduct research needed to challenge traditional notions of the “peculiar institution” could revisionist history of America’s long involvement with slavery truly begin.

  • “The African Slave Trade and the Middle Passage.” Africans in America. WGBH Educational Foundation, 1999. Web. 25 May 2012.
  • Berlin, Ira. Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1998. Print.
  • Deyle, Steven. Carry Me Back: The Domestic Slave Trade in American Life. New York: Oxford UP, 2005. Print.
  • Donnan, Elizabeth, ed. Documents Illustrative of the History of the Slave Trade to America. 4 vols. Washington: Carnegie Inst. of Washington, 1930–1935. Print.
  • Eltis, David. The Rise of African Slavery in the Americas. New York: Cambridge UP, 2000. Print.
  • “From Indentured Servitude to Racial Slavery.” Africans in America. WGBH Educational Foundation, 1999. Web. 25 May 2012.
  • Reiss, Oscar. Blacks in Colonial America. Jefferson: McFarland, 1997. Print.
  • Thomas, Hugh. The Slave Trade: The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1440–1870. New York: Simon, 1997. Print.
  • Wood, Betty. Slavery in Colonial America, 1619–1776. Lanham: Rowman, 2005. Print.
Additional Reading
  • Addison, Kenneth N. “We Hold These Truths to be Self-Evident”: An Interdisciplinary Analysis of the Roots of Racism and Slavery in America. Lanham: UP of America, 2009. Print.
  • Bailey, Anne C. African Voices of the Atlantic Slave Trade: Beyond the Silence and Shame. Boston: Beacon, 2005. Print.
  • Gould, Philip. Barbaric Traffic: Commerce and Antislavery in the 18th Century Atlantic World. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2003. Print.
  • Rediker, Marcus. The Slave Ship: A Human History. New York: Penguin, 2008. Print.
  • Wood, Peter. Strange New Land: Africans in Colonial America. New York: Oxford UP, 2003. Print.

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