A Brief History of Slavery: Part II – The “Middle Passage” in North America

The development of this universal  institution throughout British North America in the 17th and early 18th century was part and parcel to the successful establishment of a self-sustaining colony. We have been conditioned to react reflexively towards any discussion over the development of slavery in America. Why were they brought here? What was the purpose? How widespread was the practice? These questions are used as either cudgels to hammer us into a guilty submission or reflexively dismissed as part of a retcon that we have had to reinterpret our own history through: (“Rainbow Confederates,” “muh black rebels,” “we freed the slaves,” “it was only tariffs,” etc).

All of this was a dance concocted in the wake of 1965 and post-Civil Rights to either hammer home the message of white self-flagellation, particularly in the case of Southern whites; or, to provide a cognitive dissonance that would ignore the circumstances around secession and the development of slavery to pretend nothing ever happened.

Slavery became established in colonial North America as the great devil’s bargain to deal with the chronic shortage of manual labor to sustain those early colonial settlements. The same soul that made a fertile environment for tobacco in the Chesapeake was also host to a myriad of New World diseases and hostile natives who contended with the European settlers. The necessity to have a sufficient labor force to work the land and provide the infrastructure for building sustainable colonial settlements was provided by the slaves.

Slavery in North America represented that crucial cog in the famous “triangular trade” we all remember from High School: molasses for rum for slaves. This system incorporated every single colony in North America in the “middle passage” and the practice of slavery. New York City of the mid 18th century had a slave population of approximately 3,000 of it’s 11,000 inhabitants at the time. Only Charleston had a higher percentage (58 to 42 percent). While numerous certain (((families))) had a disproportionate representation in both the slave trade and secondarily in merchant shipping and plantation agriculture – this was primarily an English institution by the mid-18th century.

Slavery in the North developed as semi-skilled artisans and manual labor in towns and cities, as well as, the yeomanry farms that also would typify Appalachia. The development of the plantation system and large scale cash crop agriculture became a feature of Chesapeake Bay (with tobacco) and the Carolinas (with rice, indigo and sugar). In the Carolinas, surplus white planters from Barbados imported their particular style of Caribbean plantation agriculture, as well as, a preference for Angolan slaves (having shown a proclivity of rice cultivation in Africa). It was from colonial South Carolina that we get one of the earliest fully formed slave codes.

Slavery in the 18th century was the necessary measure to create the sustainable colonial infrastructure that allowed British North America to survive and thrive. There was not the thought of creating a measure of equality with those whose labor you needed to build and sustain yourself. As Jefferson, speaking for many of his contemporaries would say and borrowing an old Roman proverb: “We have a wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.

In the era of revolution and insurrection to follow; Jefferson’s words would prove prophetic.

-By William Poole


  1. At what point do you stop calling it slavery and just call it domestication.

    Also, never forget it is only slavery to the slave. From our perspective we should call it mastery.

  2. Thought I’d throw this in for the reader’s convenience as well.

    Leviticus 25:44
    As for your male and female slaves whom you may have: you may buy male and female slaves from among the nations that are around you.