In the 15th century, Portugal became the first European nation to take significant part in African slave trading. By the 1480s, Portuguese ships were already transporting Africans for use as slaves on the sugar plantations in the Cape Verde and Madeira islands in the eastern Atlantic. (Britannica)
By the 16th century, the Portuguese dominated the early trans-Atlantic slave trade on the African coast. As a result, other European nations first gained access to enslaved Africans through privateering during wars with the Portuguese, rather than through direct trade.
When English, Dutch or French privateers captured Portuguese ships during Atlantic maritime conflicts, they often found enslaved Africans on these ships, as well as Atlantic trade goods, and they sent these captives to work in their own colonies. (LDHI, College of Charleston)
When Portuguese, and later their European competitors, found that peaceful commercial relations alone did not generate enough enslaved Africans to fill the growing demands of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, they formed military alliances with certain African groups against their enemies. This encouraged more extensive warfare to produce captives for trading. (LDHI, College of Charleston)
The Portuguese developed a trading relationship with the Kingdom of Kongo, which existed from the fourteenth to the nineteenth centuries in what is now Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Civil War within Kongo during the trans-Atlantic slave trade would lead to many of its subjects becoming captives traded to the Portuguese. (LDHI, College of Charleston)
The first Africans in Virginia in the 17th century came from the Kongo/Angola regions of West Central Africa. They were part of a large system established by the Portuguese in Africa to capture and supply slaves to the Spanish colonies in Central and South America. (Marks)
The first Africans in English North America were those pirated in 1619 by the White Lion and the Treasurer from the Spanish frigate San Juan Bautista in July, and delivered to Jamestown six weeks later at the latter end of August.
Slave resistance escalated along with colonial struggles for liberty.
In Georgia, a group of enslaved men, women and children took advantage of the confusion created by the Stamp Act by fleeing into the swamps and managed to elude capture for four years – prompting the Georgia assembly to send a detachment of militia after them. (PBS)
By 1775 more than a half-million African Americans, most of them enslaved, were living in the 13 colonies. Both the British and the colonists believed that slaves could serve an important role during the revolution.
African American soldiers served with valor at the battles of Lexington and Bunker Hill.
In April 1775, Lord Dunmore (1732-1809), the royal governor of Virginia, threatened that he would proclaim liberty to the slaves and reduce Williamsburg to ashes if the colonists resorted to force against British authority.
In November, he promised freedom to all slaves belonging to rebels who would join “His Majesty’s Troops … for the more speedily reducing the Colony to a proper sense of their duty….”
Some eight hundred slaves joined British forces, some wearing the emblem “Liberty to the Slaves.” (University of Houston)
In November 1775, the American Congress decided to exclude blacks from future enlistment out of a sensitivity to the opinion of southern slave holders. But Lord Dunmore’s promise of freedom to slaves who enlisted in the British army led Congress reluctantly to reverse its decision, fearful that black soldiers might join the redcoats. (University of Houston)
When the Declaration of Independence was written in 1776, people of African descent made up approximately one-fifth of the population of the new United States of America.
The vast majority of them were enslaved, many by Revolutionaries. Other Revolutionaries, while not holding people as property themselves, profited indirectly from the system. (Museum of the American Revolution)
African Americans played an important role in the revolution. They fought at Fort Ticonderoga and the Battle of Bunker Hill.
A slave helped row Washington across the Delaware.
Altogether, some 5,000 free blacks and slaves served in the Continental army during the Revolution. By 1778, many states, including Virginia, granted freedom to slaves who served in the Revolutionary war. (University of Houston)
Most black soldiers were scattered throughout the Continental Army in integrated infantry regiments, where they were often assigned to support roles as wagoners, cooks, waiters or artisans. Several all-black units, commanded by white officers, also were formed and saw action against the British. (Jamestown)
Unlike the Continental Army, the Navy recruited both free and enslaved blacks from the very start of the Revolutionary War – partly out of desperation for seamen of any color, and partly because many blacks were already experienced sailors, having served in British and state navies, as well as on merchant vessels in the North and the South.
Although Black seamen performed a range of duties, usually the most menial ones, they were particularly valued as pilots. Others served as shipyard carpenters and laborers.
Both Maryland’s and Virginia’s navies made extensive use of blacks, even purchasing slaves specifically for wartime naval service. Virginia’s state commissioner noted that it was cheaper to hire blacks than whites, and that whites could get exemption from military service by substituting a slave.
Many royal naval vessels were piloted by blacks – some of them runaways, other enslaved to loyalist masters, and still others pressed into service.
During the Revolutionary War, most enslaved Africans believed that a British victory would bring them freedom. An estimated 100,000 took advantage of the disruption caused by the war and escaped from bondage, many of them making their way to the British forces. Others fled to Canada, Florida, or Indian lands. Thomas Jefferson believed that Virginia lost 30,000 slaves in one year alone. (PBS)
Possibly a quarter of the slaves who escaped to the British made their way onto ships, some signing onto the ships’ crews or joining marauding expeditions of bandits commonly referred to as “Banditti.” (PBS)
Others ran away to join the patriot militias or Continental army. Washington and other military officers received numerous requests to recover runways who had enlisted.
The American Revolution had profound effects on the institution of slavery.
Several thousand slaves won their freedom by serving on either side of the War of Independence. As a result of the Revolution, a surprising number of slaves were released from slavery, while thousands of others freed themselves by running away.
In the late 1770s, dwindling manpower forced George Washington to reconsider his original decision to ban Black people from the Continental Army. So in 1778, a Rhode Island legislature declared that both free and enslaved Black people could serve. To attract the latter, the Patriots promised freedom at the end of service. (history-com)
In October 1781, as Patriot and French ground forces and the French fleet surrounded Cornwallis’ men at Yorktown, Virginia, the British sent their black allies to face death between the battle lines.
In November 1782, Britain and America signed a provisional treaty granting the former colonies their independence.
Although the rise of the free black population is one of the most notable achievements of the Revolutionary Era, it is important to note that the overall impact of the Revolution on slavery had negative consequences.
In rice-growing regions of South Carolina and Georgia, the patriot victory confirmed the power of the master class. Doubts about slavery and legal modifications that occurred in the North and Upper South never took serious hold among whites in the Lower South. Even in Virginia, the move toward freeing some slaves was made more difficult by new legal restrictions in 1792.
In the North, where slavery was on its way out, racism still persisted, as in a Massachusetts law of 1786 that prohibited whites from legally marrying African Americans, Indians, or people of mixed race.
The Revolution clearly had a mixed impact on slavery and contradictory meanings for African Americans. It failed to reconcile slavery with these new egalitarian republican societies, a tension that eventually boiled over in the 1830s and 1840s and effectively tore the nation in two in the 1850s and 1860s. (Lumen Learning)
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