Preparation for War to defend Commerce, Birch's Views of Philadelphia, Published by W. Birch, Springland Cot. near Neshaminy Bridge on the Bristol Road; Pennsylvania. Decr. 31st 1800., Plate 29
Slavery in the North
by Douglas Harper
Northern slavery grew out of the paradox the new continent presented to the arriving Europeans...Workers were needed in the new continent to clear the land, work the soil, build the towns. Because of this acute labor shortage, all the American colonies turned to compulsory labor. In New Netherland, (the Dutch colony along the Hudson River & the lower Delaware River. By 1669, all of the land was taken over by England) in the 1640s, a free European worker could be hired for 280 guilders a year, plus food & lodging. In the same time & place, experienced African slaves from the West Indies could be bought outright, for life, for 300 guilders...
Early in the 17C, African slave status in the British Americas was not quite absolute bondage. It was a nebulous condition similar to that of indentured servants. Some Africans brought to America were regarded as "servants" eligible for freedom a certain number of years. Slavery had been on the decline in England, & in most of Europe generally, since the Middle Ages. That may be why the legal definition of slavery as perpetual servitude for blacks & their children was not immediately established in the New World colonies.
The first official legal recognition of chattel slavery as a legal institution in British North America was in Massachusetts, in 1641. Slavery was legalized in New Plymouth & Connecticut when it was incorporated into the 1643 Articles of the New England Confederation. Rhode Island enacted a similar law in 1652. That means New England had formal, legal slavery a full generation, before it was established in the South. Not until 1664, did Maryland declare that all blacks held in the colony, & all those imported in the future, would serve for life, as would their offspring. Virginia followed suit by the end of the decade. New York & New Jersey acquired legal slavery when they passed to English control in the 1660s. Pennsylvania, founded only in 1682, followed in 1700, with a law for regulation of servants & slaves.
Slaves participated in cutting & hauling the raw materials as well as building & launching ships in 18C New England
Roughly speaking, slavery in the North can be divided into two regions. New England slaves numbered only about 1,000 in 1708, but that rose to more than 5,000 in 1730 & about 13,000 by 1750. New England also was the center of the slave trade in the colonies, supplying captive Africans to the South & the Caribbean islands. Black slaves were a valuable shipping commodity useful at home, both in large-scale agriculture & in ship-building. The Mid-Atlantic colonies (New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania) had been under Dutch rule before the British conquered them in 1664. African slavery in the middle colonies had been actively encouraged by the Dutch authorities, & this was continued by the British.
Ships built in the colonies often required free & slave laborers. Naval stores of pitch & resin for tar & turpentine were produced. Loggers cut sturdy oaks & tall firs for masts & transported them to sawmills. Shipwrights (carpenters) & their assistants used the processed lumber for hulls, keels, & masts. Hemp was grown for sail-cloth, & ropes were produced. Blacksmiths made nails & iron fittings for each vessel. Barrels had to be made from staves, iron hoops, & bungs, before they could be filled to put aboard ship. In 1769, 389 ships were built in the colonies (1/3 in Massachusetts shipyards).
Both the Dutch & English colonists in the North preferred to get their slaves from other New World colonies rather than directly from Africa. Direct imports from Africa were considered too dangerous & difficult. Instead, the middle colonies sought their African slaves from Dutch Curacao & later from British Jamaica & Barbados. These slaves were familiar with Western customs & habits of work, qualities highly prized in a region where masters & slaves worked & lived in close proximity. Having survived one climate change already, they also adjusted better to Northern winters, which incapacitated or killed those direct from Africa. Both causes contributed to the adjective often used to advertise West Indies slaves being sold in the North as "seasoned."
By the late colonial period, the average slave-owning household in New England & the Mid-Atlantic seems to have had about 2 slaves. Estates of 50 or 60 slaves were rare, though they did exist in the Hudson Valley, eastern Connecticut, & the Narragansett region of Rhode Island. But the Northern climate set some barriers to large-scale agricultural slavery. The long winters, which brought no income on Northern farms, made slaves a burden for many months of the year unless they could be hired out to chop wood or tend livestock. In contrast to Southern plantation slavery, Northern slavery tended to be urban.
Slaveholding reflected social as well as economic standing, for in colonial times servants & retainers were visible symbols of rank & distinction. The leading families of Massachusetts & Connecticut used slaves as domestic servants, & in Rhode Island, no prominent household was complete without a large staff of black retainers. New York's rural gentry regarded the possession of black coachmen & footmen as an unmistakable sign of social standing. In Boston, Philadelphia, & New York the mercantile elite kept retinues of household slaves. Their example was followed by tradesmen & small retailers, until most houses of substance had at least one or two domestics.
There is debate among historians about the economic role of Northern slaves. Some maintain that New England slaves generally were held in situations...without economic justification, working as house servants or valets. Even in Pennsylvania, the mounting Pennsylvania Quaker testimony against slavery in the 1750s & '60s was in large part aimed against the luxuriousness & extravagance of the Friends who had domestic slaves. But other historians...make a forceful case for slave labor being an integral part of the New England economy.
Note from BWS: While the northern states gradually began abolishing slavery by law starting in the 1780s, many northern states did not act against slavery until well into the 19C, & their laws generally provided only for gradual abolition, allowing slave owners to keep their existing slaves & often their children. As a result, New Jersey, for instance, still had thousands of persons legally enslaved in the 1830s, & did not finally abolish slavery by law until 1846. As late as the outbreak of the Civil War, in fact, there were northern slaves listed on the federal census
1. Edgar J. McManus, Black Bondage in the North, Syracuse University Press, 1973, p.17.
2. Herbert S. Klein, The Atlantic Slave Trade, Cambridge University Press, 1999, p.46.
3. McManus, op. cit., p.20.
4. McManus, pp.41-42.
Douglas Harper, a graduate of Dickinson College, is a historian, author, journalist, & lecturer based in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He is the founder & maintainer of the Online Etymology Dictionary. Harper is the author of 4 books on the history Chester & Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.