Slavery in the Colonies

Slavery and Empire

Slave labor and the African slave trade formed the backbone of the American colonial economy.

Learning Objectives

Discuss the historical trend of slavery, the increasing demand for slave labor in the New World, and the various groups that resisted slavery

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The idea that military victors had the right to enslave defeated opponents was commonly held in ancient Greece and Rome.
  • The increasing demand for imported labor in the American colonies turned the slave trade into a large-scale and highly lucrative business.
  • Only a small fraction of the enslaved Africans brought to the New World ended up in British North America, with the vast majority of slaves sent to the Caribbean sugar colonies.
  • In the North American colonies, the importation of African slaves was directed mainly southward, where extensive tobacco, rice, and cotton plantation economies demanded extensive labor forces for cultivation; this created the Southern slave institution in the United States.
  • Poor working conditions, disease, and malnutrition contributed to the high mortality rate among slaves in the Americas.
  • Forms of slave resistance ranged from slow labor paces to violent rebellion.

Key Terms

  • bondage: The state of being enslaved or the practice of slavery.
  • slave trade: An exchange of persons held in bondage; for example the exchange that occurred across the Atlantic ocean from Africa to the Americas from the 16th through the 19th centuries.


Slavery formed a cornerstone of the British Empire in the 18th century. Every colony had slaves, from the southern rice plantations in Charles Town, South Carolina, to the northern wharves of Boston. Slavery was more than a labor system; it also influenced every aspect of colonial thought and culture. The uneven relationship it engendered gave white colonists an exaggerated sense of their own status. English liberty gained greater meaning and coherence for whites when they contrasted their status to that of the unfree class of black slaves in British America. African slavery provided whites in the colonies with a shared racial bond and identity.

Increasing Demand for Slave Labor

Slavery, as a theory, had been a commonly accepted European practice long before the exploration of the New World. Drawing on ancient Greek and Roman history, pro-slavery defenders noted that enslaving prisoners of war was an acceptable alternative to execution—once an enemy had surrendered, it was believed to be the victor's right to claim the life of their enemy through death or enslavement. Hence, when the Portuguese slave traders started exploring the coast of Africa where it was customary for warring indigenous tribes to enslave each other, they began to buy these slaves for export to the New World colonies. Other pro-slavery advocates argued that it was their mission to convert African non-Christians (whom they referred to as "heathens") to Christianity and that slavery allowed them to do this more effectively.

The drawing depicts a European slave trader and an African slave trader discussing the sale of two male slaves who are standing in the background. The slaves' feet are shackled together.

Slave traders in Gorés, by Jacques Grasset de Saint-Sauveur: Depiction of European and African slave traders.

The European demand for New World cash crops, especially sugar, tobacco, rice, and cotton, led to a demand for labor to cultivate these crops. Although the practices of indentured servitude and the enslavement of American Indians was already in place, planters in the southern British colonies quickly came to favor enslaved Africans. Not only were Africans well suited to tropical climates, they also brought special skills and husbandry knowledge for crops such as rice, which the British found useful. Slavery and the African slave trade quickly became a building block of the colonial economy and an integral part of expanding and developing the British commercial empire in the Atlantic world.

Only a fraction of the enslaved Africans brought to the New World ended up in British North America. The vast majority of slaves shipped across the Atlantic were sent to the Caribbean sugar colonies, Brazil, or Spanish America. Throughout the Americas, but especially in the Caribbean, tropical disease took a large toll on the population. Unlike American Indians, Africans had a limited natural immunity to yellow fever and malaria; however, malnutrition, poor housing, inadequate clothing allowances, and overwork contributed to a high mortality rate which further increased the demand for the importation of Africans to replenish the labor supply.

Slavery in the British Colonies

The transport of slaves to the American colonies accelerated in the second half of the 17th century. In 1660, Charles II created the Royal African Company to trade in slaves and African goods. His brother, James II, led the company before ascending the throne. Under both these kings, the Royal African Company enjoyed a monopoly to transport slaves to the English colonies. Between 1672 and 1713, the company bought 125,000 captives on the African coast, losing 20% of them to death on the Middle Passage, the journey from the African coast to the Americas.

In the North American colonies, the importation of African slaves was directed mainly southward, where extensive tobacco, rice, and later, cotton plantation economies, demanded extensive labor forces for cultivation. In contrast to the high mortality rates of the Caribbean sugar plantations, North American slave populations tended to live longer. By the 19th century, many southern farmers found that natural increase was a viable alternative to importation in order to replenish their slave populations.

Slave Resistance

Slaves everywhere resisted their exploitation and attempted to gain freedom through armed uprisings and rebellions, such as the Stono Rebellion and the New York Slave Insurrection of 1741. Other less violent means of resistance included sabotage, running away, and slow labor paces on the plantations. Unlike their counterparts in the Caribbean, however, American slaves never successfully overthrew the system of slavery in the colonies and would not gain freedom until legislative decree made after the United States Civil War.

The Triangular Trade

Triangular Trade was a system in which slaves, crops, and manufactured goods were traded between Africa, the Americas, and Europe.

Learning Objectives

Differentiate between the First and Second Atlantic slave systems

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • An estimated 9.4–12 million Africans arrived in the New World between the 16th and 19th centuries in the Atlantic slave trade. The First Atlantic System refers to the 16th-century period in which Portuguese merchants dominated the West African slave trade—supplying Spanish and Portuguese New World colonies with imported African labor.
  • The Second Atlantic System characterizes the 17th and 18th centuries, when British, Dutch, and French merchants replaced the Portuguese as the major slave traders in the Atlantic.
  • In the Triangular Trade, enslaved Africans were imported from Africa to the American colonies as the labor force needed to produce cash crops, which were exported to Europe in exchange for manufactured goods.
  • European goods were then used to trade with Africans for slaves, who were exported to the American colonies, where the cycle of the trade started again.
  • The Middle Passage was the stage of the Triangular Trade where millions of enslaved people from Africa were shipped to the New World.
  • The mortality rate on slave ships was very high, and an estimated 2 million enslaved passengers died en route from disease, violence, abuse, lack of food or water, or suicide.

Key Terms

  • triangular trade: A system of exchange of slaves, cash crops, and manufactured goods between West Africa, Caribbean or American colonies, and Europe from the late 16th to early 19th centuries.
  • First Atlantic System: The part of the slave trade dominated by the Portuguese and Spanish.
  • Second Atlantic System: The trade of enslaved Africans by mostly British, French, and Dutch traders.

The Atlantic Slave Trade

The Atlantic slave trade took place across the Atlantic Ocean, predominantly from the 16th to the 19th centuries. The vast majority of slaves transported to the New World were Africans from the central and western parts of the continent, sold by African tribes to European slave traders who then transported them to the colonies in North and South America. Most contemporary historians estimate that between 9.4 and 12 million Africans arrived in the New World from the 16th through 19th centuries.

Various African tribes played a fundamental role in the slave trade by selling their captives or prisoners of war to European buyers, which was a common practice on the continent. The prisoners and captives who were sold to the Europeans were usually from neighboring or enemy ethnic groups; sometimes, African kings sold criminals into slavery as a form of punishment. The majority of African slaves, however, were foreign tribe members obtained from kidnappings, raids, or tribal wars.

The First Atlantic System

The First Atlantic System is a term used to characterized the Portuguese and Spanish African slave trade to the South American colonies in the 16th century—which lasted until 1580, when Portugal was temporarily united with Spain. While the Portuguese traded enslaved people themselves, the Spanish empire relied on the asiento system, awarding merchants (mostly from other countries) the license to trade enslaved people to their colonies. During the First Atlantic System, most of these traders were Portuguese, giving them a near-monopoly during the era, although some Dutch, English, and French traders also participated in the slave trade. After the union with Spain, Portugal was prohibited from directly engaging in the slave trade as a carrier and so ceded control over the trade to the Dutch, British, and French.

The Second Atlantic System

The Second Atlantic System, from the 17th through early 19th centuries, was the trade of enslaved Africans dominated by British, French, and Dutch merchants. Most Africans sold into slavery during the Second Atlantic System were sent to the Caribbean sugar islands as European nations developed economically slave-dependent colonies through sugar cultivation. It is estimated that more than half of the slave trade took place during the 18th century, with the British as the biggest transporters of slaves across the Atlantic. In the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars, most of the international slave trade was abolished (although American slavery continued to exist well into the late 19th century).

Slavery in the Americas

European colonists in the Americas initially practiced systems of both bonded labor and indigenous slavery. However, for a variety of reasons, Africans replaced American Indians as the main population of enslaved people in the Americas. In some cases, such as on some of the Caribbean Islands, warfare and disease eliminated the indigenous populations completely. In other cases, such as in South Carolina, Virginia, and New England, the need for alliances with American Indian tribes, coupled with the availability of enslaved Africans at affordable prices, resulted in a shift away from American Indian slavery.

The resulting Atlantic slave trade was primarily shaped by the desire for cheap labor as the colonies attempted to produce raw goods for European consumption. Many American crops (including cotton, sugar, and rice) were not grown in Europe, and importing crops and goods from the New World often proved to be more profitable than producing them on the European mainland. However, a vast amount of labor was needed to create and sustain plantations that would be economically profitable. Western Africa (and later, Central Africa) became a prime source for Europeans to acquire enslaved peoples, to meet the desire for free labor in the American colonies, and to produce a steady supply of profitable cash crops.

Triangular Trade

The term triangular trade is used to characterize much of the Atlantic trading system from the 16th to early 19th centuries, in which three main commodity-types—labor, crops, and manufactured goods—were traded in three key Atlantic geographic regions.


Depiction of the classical model of the triangular trade: The triangular trade was a system in which slaves were transported to the Americas; sugar, tobacco, and cotton were exported to Europe; and textiles, rum, and manufactured goods were sent to Africa.

Ships departed Europe for African markets with manufactured goods which were traded for purchased or kidnapped Africans. These Africans were transported across the Atlantic as slaves and were then sold or traded in the Americas for raw materials. The raw materials would subsequently be transported back to Europe to complete the voyage.

A classic example would be the trade of sugar (often in its liquid form, molasses) from the Caribbean to Europe, where it was distilled into rum. The profits from the sale of sugar were then used to purchase manufactured goods, which were then shipped to West Africa where they were bartered for slaves. The slaves were then brought to the Caribbean to be sold to sugar planters. The profits from the sale of the slaves were then used to buy more sugar, which was shipped to Europe, and so on. This particular triangular trip took anywhere from five to 12 weeks and often resulted in massive fatalities of enslaved Africans on the Middle Passage voyage.

The Middle Passage

The Middle Passage was the stage of the triangular trade where millions of enslaved people from Africa were shipped to the New World for sale. Voyages on the Middle Passage were a large financial undertaking generally organized by companies or groups of investors, rather than individuals. The duration of the transatlantic voyage varied widely, from one to six months depending on weather conditions. An estimated 15% of African slaves died during the Middle Passage; historians estimate that the total number of African deaths directly attributable to the Middle Passage voyage is approximately two million.

African kings, warlords, and private kidnappers sold captives to Europeans who held several coastal forts. The captives were usually force-marched to these ports along the western coast of Africa, where they were held for sale to the European slavers. Once sold to the European traders, African captives were brought to the slave ships for the voyage to the Americas. Typical slave ships contained several hundred slaves with approximately 30 crew members. Captives were normally chained together in pairs to save space and, at best, were fed one meal a day with water. Sometimes captives were allowed to move around during the day, but on most ships captives spent the entire journey crammed below decks.

During the Middle Passage voyage, disease (especially dysentery and scurvy) and starvation were the major killers. Furthermore, outbreaks of smallpox, syphilis, and measles were fatally contagious in close-quarter compartments. The rate of death increased with the length of the voyage as the quality and amount of food and water diminished. While the treatment of slaves on the Middle Passage varied by ship and voyage, it was often horrific. Captive Africans were considered by many Europeans to be less than human; they were instead seen as cargo or goods to be transported as cheaply and quickly as possible for trade. Corporal punishment was very common, with whippings used to punish melancholy or any form of resistance.

Slaves resisted in a variety of ways during the Middle Passage, usually by refusing to eat or committing suicide. In turn, crews and slave traders often force fed or tortured slaves and put nets on the sides of ships to keep slaves from attempting suicide. There are some recorded incidents of coordinated mass slave uprisings; however, most failed and were met with repercussions.


Slave ship: Diagram of a slave ship from the Atlantic slave trade. Slaves were chained together in incredibly close quarters, and overcrowding led to the spread of deadly diseases.

Chesapeake Slavery

The economy of the Chesapeake region revolved around tobacco and relied heavily on slave labor.

Learning Objectives

Discuss how planters in the Chesapeake region increasingly invested in the Atlantic slave trade to support their rural tobacco-based economy

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Chesapeake colonies developed similar agricultural systems based on tobacco, which later diversified to include cotton and indigo.
  • Tobacco required intensive labor for cultivation, and the declining availability of white indentured servants —as well as fear of uprisings from wealthy whites—made Chesapeake planters turn toward African slave labor.
  • The introduction of large-scale cheap labor via slavery allowed for an increase in tobacco exports, which generated significant wealth for whites in the region.
  • The presence of slaves created an economic gap between wealthy and poor Chesapeake farmers, with the wealthy elites dominating the social and political life.

Key Terms

  • Chesapeake region: The colonial regions comprised of Virginia and Maryland.

Slavery in the Chesapeake Region

The Chesapeake region was composed of Virginia—with Jamestown, its first successful settlement established in 1607—and Maryland. Each of these colonies developed a similar agricultural system that revolved around tobacco, which was later diversified with the introduction of cotton and indigo.

During the later part of the 17th century, the development of the Chesapeake region revolved around tobacco cultivation, which required intensive labor. At first, Chesapeake farmers hired indentured servants—men and women from England who sold their labor for a period of five to seven years in exchange for passage to the American colonies—to harvest tobacco crops. However, by the 1680s, fluctuating tobacco prices and the growing scarcity of land in the region made the Chesapeake less appealing to men and women willing to indenture themselves. The scarcity of indentured servants meant that the price of their labor contracts increased, and Chesapeake farmers began to look for alternative, cheaper sources of bonded labor.

As a result, many Chesapeake farmers turned toward imported African slaves to fulfill their desire for cheap labor. Although African chattel slavery was a more expensive investment that white indentured servitude, it guaranteed a lifetime service of free labor. As the demand for Chesapeake cash crops continued to grow, planters began to increasingly invest in the Atlantic slave trade.


Tobacco and slavery: In this 1670 painting by an unknown artist, slaves work in tobacco-drying sheds.

Support for Slavery

A great deal of support for the system of chattel slavery came from the wealthy white's fear of rebellions from the labor force. In the late 17th century, indentured servants made up the majority of laborers in the region. Wealthy whites worried over the presence of this large class of laborers and the relative freedom they enjoyed, as well as the alliances between black and white servants. Replacing indentured servitude with black slavery diminished these risks, alleviating the reliance on white indentured servants, who were often dissatisfied and troublesome, and creating a caste of racially defined laborers whose movements were strictly controlled. It also lessened the possibility of further alliances between black and white workers. Racial slavery even served to heal some of the divisions between wealthy and poor whites who could now unite as members of a “superior” racial group.

While laws in the tobacco colonies had already made slavery a legal institution, new laws were passed toward the end of the 17th century that severely curtailed black freedom and laid the foundation for racial slavery. Virginia passed a law in 1680 prohibiting free Africans and slaves from bearing arms, banning Africans from congregating in large numbers, and establishing harsh punishments for slaves who assaulted Christians or attempted escape. Two years later, another Virginia law stipulated that all Africans brought to the colony would be slaves for life. Thus, the increasing reliance on slaves in the tobacco colonies—and the draconian laws instituted to control them—not only helped planters meet labor demands, but also served to assuage English fears of uprisings and alleviate class tensions between rich and poor whites.

Rural Economy and Society: Slavery as a Social Identifier

The local economy in the Chesapeake was overwhelmingly agrarian, rural, and rooted in the headright system, which guaranteed numerous acres of land to any immigrant who paid their own passage to the New World and settled in the region. The headright system was designed to promote immigrant settlement and the cultivation of key staple crops that increased the prosperity of the Chesapeake region. As the headright system attracted more and more settlers to the Chesapeake, an increasing divide between coastal planters and farmers on the frontier began to emerge, with those in the westernmost areas usually poorer than planters in the east.

With the importation of African slaves, most social and economic divisions between wealthy and poor farmers in the Chesapeake increased. As African slaves were generally more expensive to purchase than indentured servants, the wealthy planters invested heavily in African slaves and agricultural technology and expanded their lands, while poor farmers struggled to maintain their smaller agricultural enterprises.

These wealthy slave-owning planters came to dominate the top of the social and political hierarchy in the Chesapeake, placing pedigree and wealth as significant social identifiers. However, small farmers composed the largest social class in the Chesapeake. These agriculturalists owned small amounts of property and a limited (if any) enslaved labor force. The class division between wealthy planters and small farmers continued well into the 19th century, until the Civil War united these factions against the Northern states.

Slavery in the Rice Kingdom

South Carolina was the first colony founded deliberately on slave labor to support its growing rice economy.

Learning Objectives

Explain why South Carolina was deliberately founded on slave labor

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The colony of South Carolina was one of the first colonies founded with the intention of basing an economy on slave labor.
  • Many of the early planters in South Carolina were wealthy immigrants from Barbados, who brought their African slaves.
  • The principle crop of South Carolinian plantations was rice, which was introduced to South Carolina in 1694 and brought unprecedented prosperity to the region.
  • Slavery was integral to rice cultivation because of its labor intensiveness and because slaves from the rice-producing regions of Africa provided colonial plantation owners with crucial technical knowledge about rice cultivation.
  • Rice production ceased to be profitable after the abolition of slavery because planters could no longer rely on free labor.

Key Terms

  • Joshua John Ward: The largest American slaveholder, dubbed "King of the Rice Planters."
  • cash crop: Any food that is grown for sale rather than for personal use or feeding to livestock.
  • Rice Kingdom: An epithet for South Carolina, so named for its principle cash crop harvested by slaves in the early 18th century.

Overview: Slavery in South Carolina

South Carolina, later dubbed the " Rice Kingdom," was one of the first North American colonies to be deliberately founded on slave labor. In the 17th century, wealthy planters from Barbados, accompanied by their African slaves, immigrated to South Carolina looking for arable lands. The planters were well aware that African slaves had skills and attributes well suited to the semi-tropical environment of South Carolina. Hence, South Carolinian planters began importing Africans in large numbers, and in 1710, African-born slaves outnumbered American-born people. By 1720, South Carolina's population was 65% enslaved. Wealthy planters cultivated rice and other cash crops along the southeastern coast, while backwoods subsistence farmers were pushed out to the Appalachian Mountains and backcountry in the later part of the 18th century. These backcountry farmers, like their counterparts in the Chesapeake, seldom owned slaves.


Ledger of sale in South Carolina: Ledger of sale of 118 slaves, Charleston, South Carolina, c. 1754.

The Rice Economy and the Role of Slavery

The principle cash crop harvested by the South Carolina slave population in the early 18th century was rice, a crop which probably originated in Madagascar and had been introduced into South Carolina in 1694. Once rice was established as the principle cash crop of South Carolina, it brought unprecedented wealth and prosperity to planters and the region. By 1850, a South Carolinian rice planter, Joshua John Ward, was the largest American slaveholder, with an estate that held 1,130 slaves and gave him the title, "King of the Rice Planters."

It is no coincidence that white planters in the region starting importing African slaves when rice cultivation was introduced into the South, as the first English planters in South Carolina knew little about rice cultivation. The planters relied on the expertise of their African slaves imported from the Rice Coast. For instance, enslaved Africans showed planters how to properly dyke the marshes, periodically flood the rice fields, and use sweetgrass baskets for milling the rice quicker than wooden paddles. These innovations increased the efficiency and profitability of cultivation. In later years, water-powered mills, designed by millwright Jonathan Lucas, also helped expand rice cultivation in the South. Rice plantations were larger than their tobacco counterparts in the Chesapeake, and planters expected slaves to cultivate up to five acres of rice a year, in addition to growing their own vegetables to feed themselves and their families.

Rice cultivation in the southeastern United States became less profitable with the loss of slave labor after the American Civil War, and it finally died out just after the turn of the 20th century.

The folk painting depicts a group African-American slaves dancing to banjo and drum music.The Old Plantation, c. 1790. Painting of slaves on a South Carolina plantation.

Slavery in the North

While Northern states had fewer slaves and eventually outlawed slavery entirely, they were still economically dependent on the institution.

Learning Objectives

Explain why the colonial North characteristically had smaller slave populations than the South

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • While slavery was allowed in the North, it was less integral to the North's economy than to the South's, and slave populations were generally much smaller in the North.
  • Even though slavery was not prevalent in the North, northern commercial and industrial centers (particularly textiles industries) had a vested interest in the survival of slavery in the South.
  • The reliance of the Northern textile industry on Southern crops was intensified by the invention of the cotton gin.
  • The concept of "free states" and "slave states" developed by the early 19th century and became increasingly politically charged in the years leading up to the American Civil War.

Key Terms

  • slave state: An area in the 18th and 18th century United States in which slavery was permitted.
  • free state: An area in the 18th and 19th century United States in which slavery was prohibited.

Slavery in the Colonial North

The northeastern and mid-Atlantic states, including Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, had legally permitted slavery in the 17th and 18th centuries. However, during the decades leading up to the American Civil War, almost all slaves in the North had been emancipated through a series of state legislature statutes, creating the northern "free states" in opposition to southern "slave states."

Even though slavery was permitted, northern states characteristically had far smaller slave populations than the South. Few slave ships arrived in New York, Philadelphia, or Boston, which instead became trade centers for manufactured goods. Slaves that lived in the North were often domestic servants or bondsmen to small farmers and rural ironworks. Unlike in the South, northern farms were not large-scale enterprises that focused on producing a single cash crop; instead they were often smaller, more agriculturally diversified enterprises that required fewer laborers. Hence, the need for enslaved bondsmen gradually dwindled—especially as rapid soil depletion and the growth of industry in northern cities attracted many rural northerners to wage labor.

The Gradual Abolition of Slavery

The first U.S. region to abolish slavery was the Northwest Territory under the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. The states created from this region—Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota—were generally settled by New England farmers and American Revolutionary War veterans who were granted land in this area. This territory was entirely slave-free from its inception and separated by the Ohio River from the South, which was pushing for an expansion of legal slavery into the West. The concept of "free states" developed in contrast to these "slave states" by the early 19th century. After the Northwest Ordinance, Massachusetts abolished slavery in its state constitution, and several other northern states followed suit by drafting statutes that provided for gradual emancipation. In 1804, New Jersey became the last northern state to abolish slavery.

Continued Dependency on Slavery

Even though slavery was not a prevalent institution in the North, the commercial urban centers that sprang up in these colonies meant that most northerners had a vested stake in ensuring that American slavery flourished in the South. This is particularly true after the advent of the cotton gin, which supplied the North with the surplus of raw cotton necessary to produce finished goods for export. Northern industry and commerce relied on southern cash crop production; therefore, while slavery was actively abolished in the North, most northerners were content to allow slavery to flourish in the southern states. Indeed, it wasn't until later arguments over the admission and representation of states in the union and the threat of southern states overpowering their northern counterparts because of their higher slave populations, that many northerners began to oppose the expansion of southern slavery.


Free States in 1789: This map illustrates the free states in the United States in 1789, which included Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine. The Northwest Ordinance was also a free territory, though it was not yet incorporated as a state.

Slavery in the South

The rise of large-scale plantations in the South led to the widespread use of slavery to support the colonial economy.

Learning Objectives

Describe the rise of plantation slavery in the southern colonies

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • While every colony had slaves, from the southern rice plantations in South Carolina to the northern wharves of Boston, it was in the large agricultural plantations in the South where slavery took hold the strongest.
  • The Chesapeake region and North Carolina thrived on tobacco production, while South Carolina and Georgia thrived on rice and indigo.
  • The northern part of Carolina—later established as the separate colony of North Carolina—turned toward tobacco production, like its neighbor Virginia, and relied increasingly on slave labor to drive its economy.
  • Unlike the other southern colonies, the colony of Georgia was originally founded under James Oglethorpe 's vision that slavery be banned. However, colonists who relocated from other slave-holding colonies largely disregarded this prohibition.
  • Despite its proprietors’ early vision of a colony guided by Enlightenment ideals and free of slavery, by the 1750s, Georgia was producing quantities of rice grown and harvested by slaves.

Key Terms

  • Chesapeake: A region of colonies in British colonial North America consisting of Virginia and Maryland.

Slavery in the Southern Colonies

Slavery formed a cornerstone of the British Empire in the 18th century. Every colony had slaves, from the southern rice plantations in Charles Town, South Carolina, to the northern wharves of Boston. However, it was in the large agricultural plantations in the South where slavery took hold the strongest. Early on, enslaved people in the South worked primarily in agriculture —on farms and plantations growing indigo, rice, and tobacco. Cotton did not become a major crop until after the American Revolution. The invention of the cotton gin in 1793 enabled the cultivation of short-staple cotton in a wide variety of areas, leading to the development of large areas of the Deep South as cotton country in the 19th century.

Tobacco was very labor-intensive, as was rice cultivation. The Chesapeake region and North Carolina thrived on tobacco production, while South Carolina and Georgia thrived on rice and indigo. The rapid expansion of large-scale plantations and single-crop agriculture in the Deep South greatly increased demand for slave labor, and slavery became the backbone of the British colonies.

North Carolina

While the southern part of Carolina produced thriving economies on rice and indigo (a plant that yields a dark blue dye used by English royalty) throughout the 18th century, the northern part of Carolina—later established as the separate colony of North Carolina—turned more toward tobacco production, like its neighbor Virginia. North Carolina continued to produce items for ships, especially turpentine and tar, and its population increased as Virginians moved there to expand their tobacco holdings. Tobacco was the primary export of both Virginia and North Carolina, which increasingly came to rely on slave labor from Africa.


In the 1730s, Enlightenment principles prompted the founding of a new colony: Georgia. James Oglethorpe, a member of Parliament and advocate of social reform, sought to create a colony for England's "worthy poor" to start anew. To encourage industry, he gave each male immigrant 50 acres of land, tools, and a year’s worth of supplies. In Savannah, the Oglethorpe Plan provided for a utopia: “an agrarian model of sustenance while sustaining egalitarian values holding all men as equal.”

Unlike the other southern colonies, Oglethorpe’s vision called for slavery to be banned. However, colonists who relocated from other colonies, especially South Carolina, disregarded this prohibition and brought with them their slaves. Despite its proprietors’ early vision of a colony guided by Enlightenment ideals and free of slavery, by the 1750s, Georgia was producing quantities of rice grown and harvested by slaves.

Portrait of James Edward Oglethorpe

James Edward Oglethorpe, by Alfred Edmund Dyer: James Oglethorpe was a British general, Member of Parliament, and philanthropist, as well as the founder of the colony of Georgia. Unlike the southern colonies around him, Oglethorpe originally envisioned Georgia to be a slave-free society.

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