The first slaves in the American colonies were brought to Jamestown, Virginia in 1619 by Dutch traders. Slavery in America lasted until 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation setting slaves free. Initially, slaves were not considered slaves but indenture servants who joint other white Europeans who also worked as indenture servants. After a period of time most of them would be freed by their masters becoming landowners themselves or work for them as paid employees. However, there was no law regulating indenture servants. In 1655 the courts of Jamestown, Virginia for the first time legally recognized slavery for life. His name was John Casor and he sued his master Robert Parker, who had been an African indenture worker himself, for holding him beyond his term. The court ordered Casor to return to his master and serve for life.
From the 16th to the 19th centuries 600,000 African slaves were shipped to the American colonies. The majority were sent to the south to work in labor intensive cotton, rice, tobacco and sugar plantations. Others worked doing house work. A larger number of African slaves were also brought to the West Indies and Brazil as part of the Transatlantic slave trade. Their transport across the Atlantic is known as the Middle Passage, traders tried to fit as many slaves as they could fit in a ship and were kept in inhumane conditions. The mortality rate was 12%.
Slavery in America was gradually institutionalized. The development of the Virginia slave code is a good indication of the development and growth of slavery in the country.
Virginia Slave Laws
1640 – Blacks could not possess arms.
1660 – If a white person helps a slave escape, he should serve time in the absence of the slave.
1662 – Children born to a slave shall be held bond or free only according to the condition of the mother.
1667 – Any children born from slave mothers and baptized should not be made free.
1668 – Corporal punishment allowed to runaway slaves.
1669 – If a slave died due to corporal punishment, his death is not accounted as felony. The reason is that owners of slaves will not destroy his own estate.
1670 – Baptized free blacks and Native Americans could not own Christian servants.
1680s – Legal code to trial procedures and punishment was developed for the trial of slaves.
1691 – Any white person married to a black, mulatto or Native American is banned from the colony.
1705 – All slaves are considered real estate.
By the 18th century a U.S slave law was created based on the English common law of property. Colonies had different laws regulating slaves. Southern colonies identified slaves by their skin color and the masters had absolute power over them. Virginia considered those with a quarter or more black ancestry as black, therefore a slave. Children of slave mothers automatically became slaves owned by the owner of the mother. Some native Indians also became slaves.
Slaves were freely bought in the open market and there were laws regulating their trade. Professional slave traders sold slaves as commodities in auctions and estate sales, their prices reflected their economic value, age, health, supply and demand. The shortage of labor made trading slaves profitable from the buyer and the seller sides. Their economic value rose as prosperity created fortunes in the south.