Nearly always missing in a discussion of slavery in North America is the question of how Africans arrived and who conveyed them – and it was not slave ships flying the Confederate Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia.
The responsibility for African slavery begins with the African tribes themselves who enslaved each other, then the Portuguese, Spanish, French and British who needed labor for their New World colonies, and the New England slavers who ruled the transatlantic slave trade in the mid-1700s. By 1750, Providence, Rhode Island had surpassed Liverpool as the center of slave-ship construction, with the latter departing for Africa’s west coast laden with rum and Yankee notions, trading these for already-enslaved men, women and children, transporting them to the West Indies to be traded for molasses, and then returning to New England to distill more rum from the molasses. Add to this New England’s textile mills of the early 1800s whose fortunes depended upon slave-produced cotton.
African Slavery in America
“There are three important points to keep in mind in the study of the African-American population of the 1850s. First, we should avoid presentism. Attitudes toward working people of all races were different at that time than those we find acceptable today.
The Dutch did keelhauling of sailors as late as 1853 and the British did no ban the flogging of soldiers until 1860. The working classes in industrialized areas such as Manchester, England, worked under conditions that left many crippled and maimed from injuries of breathing dust from textile mills and mines. This left most unfit for work at 40 years of age and almost none at 50. Children as young as 7 or 8 worked up to 12 hours [a day], some “seized naked in bed by the overlookers, and driven with blows and kicks to the factory.”
Second, regardless of good treatment, being a slave has many costs which few of us would be willing to pay. Third, trying to have a realistic understanding of slavery is not an apology. It is a mistake to oversimplify slavery to chains, whips, and division of families; it is likewise a mistake to say that they were better off as slaves. The objective should be to understand as best we can.
A difficulty is finding objective writings at a time when Northern writers emphasized the horrors of slavery in a continuing regional attack, Southern writers emphasized slavery’s benefit to the African, and the bonded people themselves left few written records. The slave narratives collected by the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930s offer the best testimony we have by the slaves themselves, although, of course, memories of 70 years ago have problems of certainty.
Many Americans, including Abolitionists, advocated that Africans be sent to Africa or some place in the New World where they would be removed from American society. Toward this goal, the American Colonization Society, to which many prominent Northern and Southern Americans belonged to, established the western African nation of Liberia.
The attitude of most Americans of the time was summed up by Abraham Lincoln during the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, “I will say, then, that I am not, nor ever have been, in making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people . . . I, as much as any other man, am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”
It would not be until January of 1863 that the North would allow black men to serve in the Union army, and then in segregated units at lower pay and with white officers. U.S. “Colored Troops” were often used as labor or in “forlorn hopes,” such as fighting at the Crater and Battery Wagner.”
(Characteristics of the African-American People During the 1850s: American History for Home Schools, 1607-1885, with a Focus on the Civil War, Leslie R. Tucker, Society of Independent Southern Historians, 2018, excerpts Chapter 10)