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.
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.
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
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.