Even though slavery had existed among African peoples prior to the European slave trade, its conditions were significantly different when comparing these two regions. People mainly from Spain and Portugal took a lead in transporting Africans to the mainland of America because its local people needed cheap labor for working in the fields and farms. Captive African slaves became a solution, but attitude towards them was always discriminatory, which was affirmed by the corresponding acts and laws.
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Slavery existed in Africa long before the first transatlantic trip took place. Its expansion was evident when Islam was spreading across Africa because Muslims started to conquer lands and capture the non-Muslims. In African and Muslim societies, the status of slave was not the same as the abolishment of freedoms and deprivation of human rights. On the contrary, enslaved people possessed some legal rights and social benefits (Eltis & Richardson, 1997).
People in slavery were treated as servants rather than property. When the first Europeans came to explore Africa, they were interested in minerals. However, increasing demand for cheap labor in America promoted the idea according to which Africans were captured and sent to the West Indies. European traders were confident that a solid cooperation was established between the eastern and western ports of the Atlantic Ocean (Eltis & Richardson, 1997). Therefore, with each coming year in the 1500s and 1600s, the number of transported people was constantly increasing.
During the initial stage of this slave influx, black people were seen as servants who could be released later. The length of service for slaves was five years – Africans were freed when this period was over. Africans were primarily working in the fields and plantations because their physical conditions were characterized by great stamina and resistance to the diseases of white people. However, such conditions were not satisfactory for the enslaved people, so they organized rebellions, assaulted whites and Hispanics, and often ran away from their masters. The 1642 Virginia Act against runaways introduced harsh punishments for those who escaped (Hening, 1819). Further laws imposed more severe restrictions on Africans: black face guaranteed life servitude, which meant that there were no exit options from bondage.
A series of other laws adopted in 1660-1680s imposed more limitations on black slaves. Some changes concerned children who directly depended on their mother’s social status. Those who were born to an enslaved woman immediately obtained a slave status as well (Hening, 1819). Moreover, some severe restrictions concerned religious status, marriage, and other freedoms. Previously, slaves had an opportunity to be liberated by adopting Christianity, but from 1667 this condition was no longer valid. Furthermore, Virginia’s General Assembly proclaimed that slaves could not gather at public meetings and carry arms. Those who intended to get married to black slaves had to pay enormous fees.
The Act of Slavery introduced in 1705 had transformed black, Indian, and mulatto slaves into the master’s property. Its main articles revealed that both free and enslaved blacks could no longer testify as witnesses in the court, serve in the militia, and hold public office (Hening, 1819). Furthermore, the Act of Slavery of 1705 was associated with greater penalties in case of interracial marriages. Apparently, such laws embody the essence of discrimination and inequality in American society, which formed a foundation for further segregation.
Even though slavery was evident in Africa many centuries before the discovery of America, conditions were much more humanistic for the captive people. In the West Indies, black people were necessary for work in the fields and farms. They were initially seen as servants released after five years, but later the laws dictated life servitude accompanied by the abolishment of basic human rights and transforming all slaves into a property.
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Eltis, D., & Richardson, D. (1997). West Africa and the transatlantic slave trade: New evidence of long‐run trends. Slavery & Abolition, 18(1), 16-35.
Hening, W.W. (1823). The statutes at large. New York, NY: R. & W. & G. Bartow.