Slavery in America


More than 12 million Africans were abducted, enslaved, forced onto slave ships, and shipped in horrific conditions to the Americas. Nearly two million of them died during the brutal journey. Above, imprisoned men in Malawi are packed into a jail “like slaves on a slave ship.” (Joao Silva/The New York Times/Redux.)

Beginning in the 17th century, more than 12 million black men, women, and children were kidnapped, enslaved, and transported across the Atlantic Ocean to South America, Central America, and North America under horrific conditions that frequently resulted in starvation and death. In the Transatlantic Slave Trade, kidnapped Africans were bought by traders from Western Europe in exchange for rum, cotton products, guns, and gunpowder. Nearly two million Africans are estimated to have perished during the brutal voyage known as the Middle Passage.

When the first Africans were brought to the British colonies in 1619 on a ship that docked in Jamestown, Virginia, they had the legal status of a servant. But as the region’s economic system became more ingrained in the social culture, the institution of American slavery developed as a permanent, hereditary status centrally tied to race. The system of American slavery grew from and reinforced racial prejudice. The racialized caste system of American slavery that originated in the British colonies was unique in many respects from forms of slavery that existed in other parts of the world. In Spanish and Portugese colonies, for example, slavery was a class category, a form of indentured servitude, or an individual status that could be overcome after a completed term of labor or assimilation into the dominant culture.

The reality of American slavery was often brutal, barbaric, and violent, and an elaborate and enduring mythology about the inferiority of black people was created to legitimize, perpetuate, and defend slavery. This remained true throughout the Civil War, the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, and the 1865 adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment.