How slavery came to America

Published 10:33 am Friday, August 3, 2012

by Jon Pyle

Prior to the arrival at Plymouth Rock of the refugees from the Old World religious and political percussion, the Indians roamed the New England forest — free and unafraid.

That these natives became the victims of the newcomers to their lands is the start of a revolting chapter and the start to the American slave trade.

The war agents — the Pequots Indians — opened a new field for profit; the Pilgrims proceeded to capture and enslave the natives. With typical English industry set about to find a market, a market in which human chattels were exchanged for moneys. They located one in the West Indies.

Indian men, women and children, long accustomed to roaming their own lands in peace, were doomed to spend their remaining days as slaves. It is not a pretty story, and with the Indians sold off, these New Englanders were free to claim their lands and claim they did.

These thrifty sons of New England were always on the lookout to improve their own personal wealth. Rumors blew in on the winds from across the Atlantic Ocean of fabulous wealth in the import of African slaves.

They took prompt action. The shipbuilders of Marblehead, Mass., were soon launching the first slave ships built in the American Colonies. This vessel brought to Massachusetts in 1638 had the first cargo of African slaves. The ship’s name was The Desire.

The type of ships used in the New England slave transport had a 50-ton displacement. It was 60 to 70 feet in length. The space between decks, occupied by the human cargo on the one- or two-month voyage to their new world, was 3 feet, 6 inches to 3 feet, 10 inches.

All through the voyage, except for limited periods in daylight when trustees were brought above deck for fresh air and exercise, the shackled slaves had to sit or lie down. It is no wonder that during that “middle passage,” passenger mortality averaged eight to ten percent.

Considering the close confinement, the cramped quarters, the duration of the passage, the seasickness, the horrid unsanitary surrounding, the imagination was stretched to its limits to grasp the suffering of those involved.

Blood money it was, but it was also easy money, and the profit was enormous.

The lure of profit changed these people who fled England to be free from oppressive rule into the very same type of persecutor they had fled their old world homes for.

A New England historian recorded that the Puritans of Massachusetts carried on a large trade in Negroes with the Guinea chiefs. He quoted the Boston News Letter as stating that during 1755 to 1766, these importers landed on the shores of Massachusetts with fewer than 23,000 slaves. Massachusetts alone in 1750 used in traffic 15,000 hogshead of rum. One hogshead barrel equals 35 to 150 gallons.

It might well be imagined that the New Englanders who traded in slaves would be the unsavory and unscrupulous. Far from it. The most respectable and affluent families belonging to the social register were lured into the easy flood of gold.

As early as 1816, John Randolph of Virginia witnessed that the slave trade was in full swing in Washington, D.C. It was not uncommon for visitors to the Capitol building to look out upon lines of blacks handcuffed together.

Twenty years later, the traffic in slaves had grown to even larger proportion. The nation’s capitol had become the chief center of the slave market in America.

A leader of finance in New York City calculated the cost and the income of a proposed African venture. The overall cost he figured to build a ship and provide a captain with a crew and supplies of molasses to sell or rum to trade was $300,000.

According to his estimates, the expedition would bring back more than 1,200 slaves. These would sell in the market at an average price of $650.

The return would total $780,000. Thus, the net profit reached $480,000. With the eye-dazzling profits to be made per ship, there is no wonder the wealthy merchants of Boston, New York and Philadelphia scrambled to build new ships to carry what they called “black gold.”

We in the South cannot escape our share of responsibility for slavery, but that is history and it cannot be changed.

What surprised me in my research on where, when and why slavery started in America.

Where: New England States.

When: As soon as the first pilgrims arrived on Plymouth Rock.

Why: The root of all evil, easy money.