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The United States of America: A History
Book 1: Chapter XI - Slavery


In the month of December 1620, the Pilgrim Fathers landed from the .JIa1jjlower. Their landing takes rank among our great historical transactions. The rock which first received their footsteps is a sacred spot, to which the citizens of great and powerful States make reverential pilgrimages. And right it should be so. For the vast influence for good which New England exerts, and must ever exert, in the world's affairs, has risen upon the foundation laid by these sickly and storm-wearied Pilgrims.

A few months previously another landing had taken place, destined in the fulness of time to bear the strangest of fruits. In the month of August a Dutch ship of war sailed up the James river and put twenty negroes ashore upon the Virginian coast. It was a wholly unnoticed proceeding. No name or lineage had these sable strangers. No one cared to know from what tribe they sprang, or how it fared with them in their sorrowful journeying. Yet these men were Pilgrim Fathers too. They were the first negro slaves in a land whose history, during the next century and a half, was to receive a dark, and finally a bloody, colouring from the fact of Negro Slavery.

The negro slave trade was an early result of the discovery of America. To utilize the vast possessions which Columbus had bestowed upon her, Spain deemed that compulsory labour was indispensable. The natives of the country naturally fell the first victims to this necessity. Terrible desolations were wrought among the poor Indians. Proud and melancholy, they could not be reconciled to their bondage. They perished by thousands under the merciless hand of their new task-masters.

1542 A. D.

Charles V. heard with remorse of this ruin of the native races. Indian slavery was at once and peremptorily  forbidden. But labourers must be obtained or those splendid possessions would relapse into wilderness. Spanish merchants traded to the coasts of Africa, where they bought gold (lust and ivory for beads and ribands and scarlet cloaks. They found there a harmless idle people, whose simple wants were supplied without effort on their part, and who, in the absence of inducement, neither laboured nor fought. The Spaniards bethought them of these men to cultivate their fields, to labour in their mines. They were gentle and tractable; they were heathens, and therefore the proper inheritance of good Catholics ; by baptism and instruction in the faith their souls would be saved from destruction. Motives of the most diverse kinds urged the introduction of the negro. At first the traffic extended no further than to criminals. Thieves and murderers, who must otherwise have been put to death, enriched their chiefs by the purchase-money which the Spaniards were eager to pay. But on all that coast no rigour of law could produce offenders in numbers sufficient to meet the demand. Soon the limitation ceased. Unoffending persons were systematically kidnapped and sold. The tribes went to war, in the hope of taking prisoners whom they might dispose of to the Spaniards.

England was not engaged in that traffic at its outset. Ere long her hands were as deeply tainted with its guilt as those of any other country. But for a time her intercourse with Africa was for blameless purposes of commerce. And while that continued the English were regarded with confidence by the Africans. At length one John Lok, a shipmaster, stole five black men and brought them to London.

1557 A.D.

The next Englishman who visited Africa found that that theft had damaged the good name of his countrymen. His voyage was unprofitable, for the natives feared him. When this was told in London the mercantile world was troubled, for the African trade was a gainful one. The five stolen men were conveyed safely home again.

This was the opening of our African slave-trade. Then, for the first time, did our fathers feel the dark temptation, and thus hesitatingly did they at first yield to its power. The traffic in gold dust and ivory continued. Every Englishman who visited the African coast had occasion to know how actively and how profitably Spain, and Portugal too, traded in slaves, lie knew that on all that rich coast there was no merchandise so lucrative as the unfortunate people themselves. It was not an age when such seductions could be long withstood. The English traders of that clay were not the men to be held back from a gainful traffic by mere considerations of humanity.

1562 A.D.

Sir John Hawkins made the first English venture in slave- trading. lie sailed with three vessels to Sierra Leone. There, by purchase or by violence, lie possessed himself of three hundred negroes. With this freight be crossed the Atlantic, and at St. Domingo he sold the whole to a great profit. The fame of his gains caused sensation in England. lie was encouraged to undertake a second expedition. Queen Elizabeth and many of her courtiers took shares in the venture. After many difficulties, Hawkins collected five hundred negroes. His voyage was a troublous one. He was beset with calms. Water ran short, and it was feared that a portion of the cargo must have been flung 'overboard, "Almighty God, however," this devout man-stealer, "who never suffers his elect to perish," brought him to the West Indies without loss of a man. But there had arrived before him a rigorous interdict from the King of Spain against the admission of foreign vessels to any of his West Indian ports. Hawkins was too stouthearted to suffer such frustration of his enterprise. After some useless negotiation, he landed a hundred men with two pieces of cannon; landed and sold his negroes; paid the tax which he himself had fixed; and soon in quiet England divided his gains with his royal and noble patrons. Thus was the slave-trade established in England. Three centuries after, we look with horror and remorse upon the results which have followed.

In most of the colonies there was unquestionably a desire for the introduction of the negro. But ore many years the colonists became aware that they were rapidly involving themselves in grave difficulties. The increase of the coloured population alarmed them. heavy debts, incurred for the purchase of slaves, disordered their finances. The production of tobacco, indigo, and other articles of Southern growth, exceeded the demand, and prices fell ruinously low. There were occasionally proposals made—although not very favourably entertained—with a view to emancipation. But the opposition of the colonists to the African slave-trade was very decided. Very frequent attempts to limit the traffic were made even in the Southern colonies, where slave labour was most valuable. Soon after the (1787 A.D.) Revolution, several Slave-owning States prohibited the importation of slaves. The Constitution provided that Congress might suppress the slave-trade after the lapse of twenty years. But for the resistance of South Carolina and Georgia the prohibition would have been immediate. And at length, (1807 A.D.) at the earliest moment when it was possible, Congress gave effect to the general sentiment by enacting "that no slaves be imported into any of the thirteen United Colonies."

And why had this not been done earlier? If the colonists were sincere in their desire to suppress this base traffic, why did they not suppress it? The reason is not difficult to find. England would not permit them. England forced the slave- trade upon the reluctant colonists. The English Parliament watched with paternal care over the interests of this hideous traffic. During the first half of the eighteenth century Parlia- ment was continually legislating to this effect. Every restraint upon the largest development of the trade was removed with scrupulous care. Everything that diplomacy could do to open new markets was done. When the colonists sought by imposing a tax to check the importation of slaves, that tax was repealed. Land was given free, in the West Indies, on condition that the settler should keel) four negroes for every hundred acres. Forts were built on the African coast for the protection of the trade. So recently as the year 1749 an Act was passed bestowing additional encouragements upon slave-traders, and emphatically, asserting "the slave-trade is very advantageous to Great Britain." There are no passages in all our history so humiliating as these.

It is marvellous that such things were done—deliberately, and with all the solemnities of legal sanction—by men not unacquainted with the Christian religion, and humane in all the ordinary relations of life. The Popish Inquisition inflicted no suffering more barbarously cruel than was endured by the victim of the slave-trader. hundreds of men and women, with chains upon their limbs, were packed closely together into the holds of small vessels. There, during weeks of suffering, they remained, enduring fierce tropical heat, often deprived of water and of food. They were all young and strong, for the fastidious slave- trader rejected men over thirty as uselessly old. But the strength of the strongest sunk under the horrors of this voyage. Often it happened that the greater portion of the cargo had to be flung overboard. Under the most favourable circumstances, it was expected that one slave in every five would perish. In every cargo of five hundred, one hundred would suffer a miserable death. And the public sentiment of England fully sanctioned a traffic of which these horrors were a necessary part.

At one time the idea was prevalent in the colonies that it was contrary to Scripture to hold a baptized person in slavery. The colonists did not on that account liberate their slaves. They escaped the difficulty in the opposite direction. They withheld baptism and religious instruction. England took some pains to put them right on this question. The Bishops of the Church and the law-officers of the Crown issued authoritative declarations, asserting the entire lawfulness of owning Christians. The colonial legislatures followed with enactments to the same effect. The colonists, thus reassured, gave consent that the souls of their unhappy dependants should be cared for.

Up to the Revolution it was estimated that 300,000 negroes had been brought into the country direct from Africa. The entire coloured population was supposed to amount to nearly half a million.


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