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Slavery in Colonial North America

Page history last edited by Robert W. Maloy 2 years, 11 months ago


Percentage of colonial population enslaved, 1770


Percentage of colonial population enslaved, 1770


Topics on the Page

Overview of the Atlantic Slave Trade


Slavery in the New England Colonies

  • Rhode Island and the Slave Trade
  • Massachusetts and the Slave Trade


Causes of African Slavery in the American Colonies

The Middle Passage

  • Experience of Women


The Triangle Trade

Free African Americans in the Colonies

  • The Dunmore Proclamation
  • Olaudah Equiano
  • Phillis Wheatley

"The African slave who sailed to the New World did not sail alone. People bought their culture, no matter how adverse the circumstances, and therefore part of American is African."
Henry Louis Gates,Jr.


Focus Questions:


  • What were the causes of slavery in North America?



  • What was the experience of African Americans during the Middle Passage and slave life and how did they respond to their condition?



  • What was the experience of free African Americans in the colonies?



Overview of the Slave Trade





  • For information on the Massachusetts Body of Liberties (1641) and the Massachusetts Bay Colony's legalization of slavery


A Narrative of Uncommon Sufferings, and Surprising Deliverance of Briton Hammon, A Negro Man (1760) is the first slave narrative published by an African American in the New World.

Click here to learn about the wreck of the Henrietta Marie and slavery in the Americas

Click here for information on slave rebellions in the Americas


  • News Article from the Virginia Gazette from 1770 which depicts a slave rebellion in Virginia.

Ted Talk discussing the Atlantic Slave Trade


Interactive timeline that addresses slavery in American history


The National Museum of American History, which contains primary documents of political cartoons and newspaper ads that were used for purchasing slaves



Slavery in New England Colonies



Interactive map of Enslaved Africans Living in Deerfield, Massachusetts in the 18th century.



New England Bound: Slavery and Colonization in Early America. Wendy Warren. Liveright Publishing, 2016


  • Slavery in New England developed through trade networks links New England merchants with West Indian markets.
    • As enslaved Africans came in, New England merchants sent Indian captives out


Rhode Island and the Slave Trade

Teacher Tom Goldscheider provided these notes about Rhode Island and New England's leading role in the slave trade.


  • The DeWolfe family, based in Bristol, Rhode Island, made up the largest slave-holding dynasty in early America. James DeWolfe became the second richest man in America and a U. S. Senator. The family controlled a vertically-integrated business empire that included ships, slaves, sugar plantations, warehouses for storing molasses, distilleries for turning molasses into rum, insurance companies and banks.


  • Nearly everyone living in colonial Rhode Island in the late 1700s was drawn into the slave trading economy.


  • By 1750, there were upwards to 11,000 slaves in New England (in contrast to 800,000 imported to the Caribbean at the time). Slavery had been introduced in New England as early as 1638 and by 1715 one of every five slaves was held in the North. By 1750, one of every nine residents of Rhode Island was a slave; in South Kingston, Rhode Island the ratio was one to three.


  • Four governors, two LT. governors, and numerous assembly members and judges made their fortune in the slave trade as did John Brown, the principal founder of Brown University.


More on Slavery and the Slave Trade in Rhode Island.

Massachusetts and Slavery


  • Massachusetts was the first slave holding colony in America. In 1641, the colonial governor, John Winthrop, helped write the first law legalizing slavery in North America.


  • Slavery continued in Massachusetts well into the 1780's. but it was quickly coming under fire by both abolitionists and slaves themselves. James Otis wrote an influential pamphlet in 1764 stating "The colonists are by the law of nature freeborn, as indeed all men are, white or black." Click here for more information on slavery in Massachusetts.


  • Elizabeth Freeman, better known as Mum Bett, was the first slave to successfully sue for her freedom after her owner beat her with a shovel. The case set in motion the abolition of slavery within Massachusetts.


  • Springfield, Massachusetts has had a long and storied history of abolitionist spirit. Click here for more information that details what exactly the city's role was as it relates to the Underground Railroad.



Causes of African Slavery in the American Colonies 


  • beliefs that Indian slaves were not as good workers as African slaves


  • increase in the trade routes; particularly the triangular trade


  • diseases killed off many Indian populations creating a need for a labor source


  • some colonies were trying to forge alliances with the natives in their colonies


  • African slaves were inexpensive


  • colonists needed more help to keep up with the demand for agriculture and trade


Free African Americans in the Colonies


Lesson plan for the "freedom fever" sweeping the colonies prior to the Revolutionary War


  • To gain further understanding on the lives of free African Americans in the Colonies, their individual accomplishments, and collective engagements, click here


  • Learn about freedom and bondage in the colonial era by visiting this PBS page which provides varying perspectives on slavery.


  • Click here to learn about the Dunmore Proclamation which many enslaved African Americans took advantage of in hopes of a chance at freedom.

Crispus Attucks was a free black man. He is considered to be the first American to die in the American Revolution since he was the first to die during the Boston Massacre. He was a runaway slave.


  • More on Crispus Attucks


Olaudah Equiano, aka Gustavus Vassa, 1789

Olaudah Equiano, aka Gustavus Vassa, 1789

external image Essener_Feder_01.pngOlaudah Equiano


As a boy of 11, Olaudah Equiano was sold into slavery, later acquired his freedom.

In 1789, wrote his widely-read autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African.

Phillis Wheatley, African American Poet
Phillis Wheatley, African American Poet

Learn more about Amos Fortune, an African American slave who later became a free man who lived in Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

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