It is hard to pinpoint the exact beginnings of slavery in the United States. It is known, for example, that the Native Indians practised some forms of slavery in small minorities. However the Atlantic Slave Trade, begun in the late 1500s

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What is Slavery?

Slavery, simply defined means 'the state of a person who is a chattel of another'. But slavery is much more than this. It is the basic denial of human rights, the oppression of one person due to another, an 'inhumane form of legalised inequality'. In America, Africans had suffered this inhumanity for centuries, under the coercion of white Americans. They were forced to work on the Southern plantations, harvesting crops such as cotton, for little or no pay, without any basic rights. Families were torn apart, slaves were regularly beaten and killed; but regardless of this cruelty, slaves still managed to harvest a life for themselves, constructing their own culture - music, religion, songs. It was not until the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 that slavery was finally on its way to extinction in America.

It is hard to pinpoint the exact beginnings of slavery in the United States. It is known, for example, that the Native Indians practised some forms of slavery in small minorities. However the Atlantic Slave Trade, begun in the late 1500s in England, was responsible for the large-scale importing of slaves into America; slaves who for generations to come would be integral to the economy of the South and who would divide and segregate the country.

The Atlantic Slave Trade worked on a basic principle, collecting and enslaving people from Africa and forcing them to work in America. The slave trade lasted 245 years, during which time 11, 000 voyages were made, importing over 3.3 million slaves from Africa to America. It was an extremely risky business; the voyages normally took between 12 and 18 months, the majority of that time spent capturing slaves in Africa and then selling and getting payment for them in America. On average, during the 'middle passage', where ships from the ports went directly to the Americas, one sixth of slaves died, either from disease or onboard rebellion. Even so, this barbaric practice was extremely profitable; goods such as sugar, tobacco, precious metals, ivory, dyewoods, and gum were also traded, and made considerable profits for those involved. Therefore in the 18th century, when trade slaving was at its peak, most of the voyages were financed or sponsored by private sources, desperate to get their share in this lucrative business.

The Atlantic Slave Trade was eventually abolished in 1808, but this did not stop the system of slavery. In fact, the slave population continued to grow. According to the 1860 Census 4 million people were slaves out of a total population of 12.3 million in the 15 slave states. This was due to the fact that most slaves were American-born. The importation of slaves was still illegal, but those born into slavery had little choice about the life they led.

Slavery, euphemistically known as the 'Peculiar Institution', was a system based on paradoxes. The US constitution stated that all men should be treated equally, paradoxically going against the basic principles of slavery. Slaves were fully legal citizens of the United States; they were expected to follow their master's religion, which surely proved their humanity; the law stated that men should be treated as equals, clearly the laws should include them too? This is where the logic begins to break down, and the paradox becomes more apparent. Slaves were considered the property of their masters, as US citizens their rights were little above those of a dog. By being a slave, they were somehow exempt from the laws of the Constitution. This paradox caused an internal conflict for the slaves too; they had to be seen as subservient, apolitical, willing to work in order to survive, but at the same time these attributes meant an acceptance of their situation, the denial of a proper life. Should they resign themselves to a life of servitude, they had no rights, no money, no liberty; or should they rage and rebel against their servility? Slavery was a complex and contradictory system, but was too profitable to abolish. White men profited from the domination of the African-Americans, a powerful example of white supremacy.
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Life of a Slave

"It was work hard, git beatins and half fed ... The times I hated most was pickin' cotton when the frost was on the bolls. My hands git sore and crack open and bleed."

Mary Reynolds, Slave Narrative from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1938

There were a small number of slaves who held specialised positions, such as artisans, skilled labourers or factory workers. Some would work for their slave family in the house, as cooks or butlers or maids. However about half of slaves worked on plantations, picking cotton or harvesting ...

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