Slavery and Racism in Colonial America

For centuries, the strong have preyed on the vulnerable. The origins of slavery date back to ancient times, and the concept was certainly not new when American colonists began enslaving Africans to work on their thriving and expanding plantations. However, in America, slavery was not only a longstanding institution, it was essential to the colonies’ early success, and consequently to the establishment and rise of the nation as a whole. Despite the abolition of slavery after the Civil War in the 1860s, famous African-Americans such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks were still fighting against racial segregation in the mid-20th century.

There is no question that Americans have acknowledged the past wrongdoings and mistakes and have tried to correct them, but even today racism has not been entirely eradicated. The historical debate rages on as to whether racism was the cause or effect of slavery. Between the laws and codes of the colonies and the mistreatment of white indentured servants, there is more evidence to support the claim that racism evolved from slavery. The content of the laws and codes over the colonial time period shows a trend of a change in viewpoint towards black slaves after the early 18th century, when their population increased substantially.

In New York, only three statutes were passed in the 1600s. The first, in 1652, even forbade whipping a slave, attempting to prevent their mistreatment, and the second officially legalized slavery in 1664. However, it is not until around forty years later, when their numbers grew, that a multitude of laws and codes were written regarding prohibition of blacks from certain activities and their punishments. Laws in Virginia passed before 1700 detailed punishments for English servants aiding or running away with slaves, suggesting that there were instances of camaraderie between them at that time. In case any English servant shall run away in company with any negroes…shall serve for the time of the said negroes absence as they are to do for their owne by a former act. ” Once again, after 1700, there is an upsurge of laws and acts dealing with defining slavery, restrictions to ensure that their slaves stayed on their plantations, and detailing punishments for slaves. An example of the latter is seen in a fairly lengthy act passed in October of 1748 concerning the theft of hogs.

It is long because it clearly distinguishes between punishments for “any negroe, mulattoe, or Indian, (not being a christian)” and for “any person not being a slave”. It is apparent that a distinction between races was established when slavery became widespread in the colonies. Those who argue that slavery developed as a result of racism could point out that the white indentured servants commonly used for labor in the early days had privileges and rights that black slaves did not. Landowners contracted them to work for an established amount of time, and then they received “freedom dues,” including acres of land, and were freed.

It appears to be a good opportunity and a fair, even appealing exchange to people in Europe who were persecuted for their religion or dismayed with their social status. However, Gottlieb Mittelberger, a German man who arrived in Philadelphia in 1750, had something different to say. He wrote regarding the sea voyage to America, “the people are packed densely, like herrings so to say” and “there is on board these ships terrible misery, stench, fumes, horror, fever…and the like, all of which come from old and sharply salted food and meat, also from very bad and foul water, so that many die miserably. The image of people living on board packed like fish is reminiscent of the famous drawings of how slaves were kept on ships, and the unsanitary living conditions and insufficient rations are examples of how badly they were treated. Moreover, upon arriving on the continent, indentured servants were bought by a master who often treated them worse than black slaves. Their terms would have expired in a short time, and he would have wanted take full advantage while the labor was available to him.

Those who were treated poorly sometimes ran away from their masters, who would post advertisements with rewards for their return, and their terms of service would be extended if they were caught. Perhaps most importantly, in certain areas of the South, all servants were at first treated similarly. Some blacks were freed after a few years and themselves became landowners and slave owners. It was only in the early 1700s, when the population of black slaves began increasing exponentially and European immigration declined significantly, that a clear distinction was formed.

Evidence points to institutions of servitude and slavery beginning not with racism, but as a separation by social status, a division between the powerful and the weak. People who were not considered to be on the same level were treated as subhuman, no matter the color of their skin: “I witnessed . . . misery in no less than 32 children in our ship, all of whom were thrown into the sea. The parents grieve all the more since their children find no resting-place in the earth, but are devoured by the monsters of the sea. ”