The Origins of American Slavery Betty Wood

Published: 2021-06-29 06:53:01
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Category: American History

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The Origin

In her book, The Origins of American Slavery, Betty Wood explains the development of slavery in the colonies that were being created in the new world. Wood takes a close look at what caused West Africans to become the labor force that would build the foundations of America. She links the use of West Africans as slaves in America primarily to racial and economical reasons.
One of the primary reasons why West Africans were used as slaves in English America was due to the racist attitudes that were formed in Europe towards West Africans. This racism would sprout out of the differences between the European people and the West Africans. The most obvious and significant difference between the Europeans and the West Africans was skin color. The darkness of the West Africans both fascinated and scared the Europeans. This first impression of West Africans would not be a good one as Betty Wood states in her book, "The negative connotations that the English had long attached to the color black were to deeply prejudice their assessment of West Africans. If, as the English believed, the color black epitomized sin and evil, then presumably those same defects must attach to the black-skinned person." (Wood 23) The skin color of the West Africans would also pose a threat to the established Christian theology of the time which said that all humanity descended from Adam and Eve, who were thought to be light skinned. The English would explain this biblically arguing that West Africans were the decedents of Ham who sinned against his father Noah, who in return cursed Ham's son Canaan and his descendents to a life of slavery. (Wood, 24) The verses the English used to argue this point come out of Genesis in the Old Testament, "When Noah awoke from his wine and found out what his youngest son had done to him, he sad, 'Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers.' He also said, 'Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem! May Canaan be the slave of Shem." (Genesis 9:24, NIV) These verses are interesting considering the curse is put on Ham's decedents by a possibly hung over Noah. The curse is a punishment for Ham looking upon the naked body of Noah after he had passed out the previous night naked because Noah had drank to much wine. This Punishment is a harsh one condemning a whole lineage to being the slaves of slaves. Also as Betty Wood explains, "The English could therefore conclude that slavery had originated as a divine punishment for sinful behavior." (Wood, 24) Combined with the English association of black with sin, this explanation of their origins further connected the West Africans with sin and slavery. If this was not enough for the European's to cast judgment then the customs and culture of the West African people finished the job. In the eyes of the English, always proud of their civilization and customs, the West African people left much to be desired especially when it came to religion. The West African people seemed to have nothing in their culture or beliefs that could redeem them in the eyes of the Europeans who encountered them and would relay their opinions back to Europe. To the Europeans the only difference that was as obvious as skin color was the West African's lack of organized religion specifically Christianity. This would prove to be the final nail in the coffin for the West Africans as Wood explains, " What English observers depicted as the superstitious, magical beliefs and practices of West Africans, and their apparent unwillingness to embrace Christianity, marked them out in the English mind as not only different but also decidedly inferior. Eventually the English, like other Europeans, would cite the heathenism of West Africans as one of the justifications for their enslavement." (Wood, 24) The English found in West Africa what they considered to be the antithesis of civilized English values. The accounts of explorers and merchants that visited West Africa described the people of West Africa as little more than animals, already calling into question their very humanity. The English did not really object to the enslavement of non Christians so when the need for a workforce arose in the new world the English did not care that their greed was the cause of West African enslavement. The Racism against West Africans is what the slave trade would be built on and eventually English America would be built on the same principles.
The other primary reason that slave labor came to be in English America is that it became the most profitable economical solution to solving the labor problems that occurred in the English American colonies. The model for the use of West African slave labor started in the Caribbean with Spanish and Portuguese planter colonies. These colonies focused on producing the staple cash crops in the area which were sugar and tobacco. Beginning in the mid 1620s the English started to create colonies in the Caribbean with the objective of mirroring the economic success of Iberian colonies in the area. As Wood states in her book, "They realized first that commercial agriculture, the production of a range of highly prized staple crops was one way of securing riches in this part of the New World and, second, that these riches were associated with the employment of a particular kind of workforce, enslaved West Africans." (Wood, 42) Originally the English did not decide that the best economical move was to buy West African slaves but instead to copy one of their own models, Virginia. The Chesapeake colonies In Virginia during the 1620s employed indentured servants from Europe to produce tobacco. The logic behind the use of Indentured Servants at this time compared to African slaves was purely economic. It was cheaper to pay for the passage of a Indentured servant who may or may not out live the terms of servitude, where a slave was

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