Plantation owners in Virginia and other Southern states originally used indentured servants to work in the fields. After Bacon’s Uprising, plantation owners realized that freed indentured servants posed a risk. They began importing slaves from Africa to work on their plantations.
The idea of slavery wasn’t new. Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans all kept slaves. In fact, slavery has been practiced all over the world for thousands of years. Slavery was a common part of life in Africa, where slaves were treated relatively well. They could marry, gain an education, and interact in everyday society.
Ironically, slavery in America allowed the young country to prosper economically and achieve freedom from Great Britain. Many of the Founding Fathers kept slaves. Of course, the benefits of freedom weren’t extended to the slaves themselves, who often suffered terribly.
In the 1600s, Europeans brought slaves to the New World. Many of these slaves were kidnapped by African slave traders. The terrified men, women, and children walked hundreds of miles across Africa to the Gold Coast in north-western Africa.
They were then chained and loaded so tightly onto boats that they could barely move. As many as 25 percent – approximately 2 million Africans – died during the voyage. Many became sick and died from disease. Others jumped overboard.
The ships sailed from Africa’s coast to the West Indies in the Caribbean Sea. Here, the slaves were inspected to make sure they were healthy. They were trained and sold in auctions. They were then loaded on boats bound for America.
Europeans traded salted fish, guns, rum, and iron bars used as money for the slaves.
Most of the slaves brought to America lived in the South, many of them on plantations. Field hands worked long hours under grueling conditions on the plantations. Household slaves had it better. They cooked, cleaned, sewed, and kept the gardens. Some slaves learned trades, such as carpentry or tanning. Some slave owners were kind, but many were very cruel.
Slaves in New England were usually treated better, although they weren’t free.
As the numbers of slaves in America grew, slave owners worried about uprisings. They made laws stating that slaves were to be treated as property. Slaves weren’t allowed to marry, although many did. Their children and spouses could be ripped away from them. It was against the law for a large group of slaves to gather in one place.
Slaves tried to keep their own culture alive. They created gospel music by mixing traditional African rhythms with Christian themes. They told stories and made art.
1. Prosper: to thrive, flourish, do well
2. Benefit: an advantage or gain
3. Grueling: exhausting
Questions and Answers
Question: Why didn’t the Founding Fathers and early colonists understand that slavery was wrong?
Answer: That’s a good question with a complicated answer. First, some colonists did believe slavery was wrong but felt powerless to stop it. Unfortunately, slavery and other forms of oppression were common in many cultures. For hundreds of years in Great Britain, people lived under a feudal system, in which a few people owned most of the country’s land and wealth while the rest of the people lived in poverty. Children and women had few rights and were often poorly treated. Human life, in general, wasn’t highly valued. Slave traders and plantation owners were blinded by their own greed.
Visit Scholastic to learn more about what it was like to be a slave.
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