The development of slavery in the Chesapeake was due solely to the economic needs of white settlers. Do you agree?
History can never adequately provide answers regarding the motives of men and women throughout recorded history; what it can do, however, is to provide a prism through which to gauge the consequences of their actions. With regards to slavery, the consequences of the Southern United States’ intrinsic involvement in the practice of slavery were truly seismic, resulting in the American Civil War and the cementation of the world’s most powerful economic and military force. The role of the Chesapeake in this tumultuous domestic conflict should not be underestimated – such was the deep seated nature of the region’s association with slavery. Certainly, economic necessity appears to be at the forefront of this historical fact with the rich tobacco and other grain industries flourishing in the South as a direct result of the burgeoning slave trade. Indeed, as Fogel (2003) underscores, even the slaves themselves could be traded amongst white settlers for economic profit.
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For the purpose of perspective, the following analysis into the development of slavery in the Chesapeake region must adopt a critical stance attempting to show that economic reasons were indeed the dominant paradigm in the region’s development of a sophisticated slave trade while also underscoring the complex and diverse nature of the early American slave trade. First, however, a conceptualisation of the issue must be attempted. It is important to note that Chesapeake differed markedly from the slave trades operating in the Georgia Low Country after the first arrival of enslaved African workers in the early seventeenth century (transported by Dutch merchants to replace a dwindling European labour force in the North American colonies). Unlike in other English colonies, the Chesapeake was a locale that was only colonised for economic reasons with a sparse colonial population in the days immediately prior to the introduction of slavery. Likewise, the differences within the Chesapeake itself highlight the way in which the values of trade, profit, production and the economy were central to the genesis of slavery in the region, as Philip Morgan (1998:9) details.
“By the late seventeenth century, Virginia had a plantation economy in search of a labour force, whereas South Carolina had a labour force in search of plantation economy.”
From the very beginning, therefore, a symbiosis began to form between the determining economic factors of the white settler communities and the introduction of large numbers of slaves into the colonies, with the number of African workers increasing from 13000 to 250000 in the Chesapeake Bay area between 1700 and 1770. The fact that this unprecedented level of African recruitment was accompanied by a drive to attract more female slaves to the colonies so as to increase the plantation population is testimony to the economic imperative at the heart of slave development in the Chesapeake. If slavery were a temporary measure to increase population levels in the area then the imposition of female slaves would not have occurred; only because of the permanence of the economic necessity for slaves did this phenomenon occur.
Furthermore, the sheer expanse of the New World landscape required the development of slaves to even begin to cultivate the land for economic production. After the introduction of rice crops in the 1680’s, Boyer (2003:85) estimates that a farmer planting 130 acres of the crop would require at least 65 slaves to do so. With the rapid reduction of the white indentured slaves after the turn of the eighteenth century, the absolute economic need for African slaves in the Chesapeake further increased so that the white plantation owners were utterly dependent on slave manpower in order to function as viable enterprises, competing with highly productive colonies such as the West Indies. Without the slave trade, the Chesapeake region of America – particularly the states of Virginia and North Carolina – could never have emerged as a major player in the expanding trans‑Atlantic trade system.
It was not just for economic reasons that slaves were seen as integral to the rise of the Chesapeake. Health imperatives likewise played a part in the development of slavery during the early years of the colonial era. The African workers were immunised against the malaria that came with the imported rice and grain crops – a disease that rendered white workers obsolete during the formative years of the Chesapeake’s economic development. Moreover, the hot and humid climate of the Chesapeake was wholly alien to the white settlers from the colder European climate while the African workers imported to work on the plantations were much better equipped to cope with the working conditions in the New World, though Oscar and Mary Hadlin (1950:199-222) refute this claiming that it is unjust to blame nature for barbaric human institutions.
It is also important to recognise, as Edmund Morgan (2003:314-344) points out, that the slaves were important for sociological and cultural reasons, helping to underpin the rigid class structure that flourished in the southern American states. By taking away the need for a white working class, the slaves of the Chesapeake performed the task of cultural underdogs, which was an integral part of the economic rise of the region as a world exporter.
Despite the diverse range of cultural and sociological factors prevalent in the development of slavery in the Chesapeake there is no escaping the pre‑eminence of economic imperatives. Indeed, the manufacturing of the term ‘slave trade’ implies the significance of economic issues in all parts of America that indulged in slavery with the transaction of human beings working in tandem with the production of profits garnered from the rich plantations. As Winthrop Jordan (1976:110-115) details, the underlying prejudice of the white settlers – incorporating a profound sense of racial and ethnic superiority – facilitated the evolution of slavery as a comprehensive way of life in the Chesapeake. The fact that the Chesapeake was willing to go to war with the Yankees for the perpetuation of the profits generated by the slave trade proves beyond doubt that economic reasons were the catalyst behind the development of slavery in the region.
Boyer, P.S. et al (2003) Enduring Vision: a History of the American People: Fifth Edition New York: Houghton Mifflin
Breen, T.H. (Ed.) (1976) Shaping Southern Society: the Colonial Experience Oxford: Oxford University Press
Fogel, R.W. (2003) The Slavery Debates, 1952-1990: a Retrospective Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press
Morgan, E.S. (2003) American Slavery, American Freedom London: W.W. Norton & Co.
Morgan, P.D. (1998) Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth Century Chesapeake and Low Country Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press
Jordan, W. (1976) Unthinking Decision: Enslavement of Negroes in America to 1700, quoted in, Breen, T.H. (Ed.) Shaping Southern Society: the Colonial Experience Oxford: Oxford University Press
Hadlin, M.F. and Hadlin, O. (April 1950) Origins of the Southern Labour System, quoted in, William and Mary Quarterly, Volume 7, Number 2