Many Americans believe slavery only involved white people owning black people. They believe the master race was white and the slave race was black. North American slavery actually involved relatively rich people,[e.g. land owners] owning poor people who might or might not be of the same color.
There were two types of forced laborers brought to North
America: indentured servants and permanent
slaves. Most of the primarily Irish indentured servants
were forced to travel to North America, but some were
volunteers. The first Africans were treated as indentured
servants but were eventually treated as permanent slaves.
Members of the two groups worked together and the historical account
indicates there was sufficient sexual contact between the two to
produce a hybrid group of permanent slaves whose members could
be called "black Irish".
Unfortunately,the fact that most slaves were black and most
owners were white led to a belief among some whites that this
situation meant blacks are inferior to whites. This
belief began during the slave era in part as a way to justify
treating some people as slaves in an otherwise free country.
The first Africans
arrived in Jamestown
in 1619 only 14 years after the founding of the
settlement. During the two centuries of the
Atlantic slave trade only about 500,000 additional
Africans were imported into North America. Britain led
the way to ending the Atlantic
slave trade in 1807 and the United States quickly followed to
the importation of slaves without prohibiting the internal slave
Initially North American forced laborers were white temporary slaves
servants" who served for a specified term such as 5-10
years. The first Africans who arrived at Jamestown were
treated as indentured servants
. Anthony Johnson arrived in 1620 and received some land from
the Virginia colony after he was freed. In 1651
he owned five indentured servants (four white and one
black. man named John
Casor, who was considered a permanent slave).
The term "indentured servant" is deceptive because during their
period of indenture "servants" could be brutally mistreated
like regular slaves. Some owners treated much cheaper
Irish indentured servants worse than ;lifetime slaves.
Africans cost from 20-50 pounds Sterling compared to about 5 pounds
Sterling for an Irishman.
Owners could even choose who servants would mate with
like they were breeding
horses. Owners might use whites to breed lighter colored
slaves to be sold. Raising slaves for sale would become
a signaficant part of the plantation economy. Light colored females
would eventually be sold as "fancy
slaves" to be prostitutes or concubines who might command a
higher price than a prime field hand.
Many servants were children
picked up from London streets. The exploitation of
children in the North American workplace would continue into the
Europe didn't have a large enough population to support large scale
agriculture in the Western Hemisphere when colonization began.
The British used the colonies to relocate the Irish, but Ireland
only had a population of 1.5 million. The Spanish
use of African slaves had begun before the discovery of land
available for settlement in the Western Hemisphere.
Africans had been capturing, enslaving and selling each other for
thousands of years before Christopher Columbus discovered a
huge new market for African slave traders. Africans
continued to enslave each other after the end of North American
slavery. There are reports that Africans still practice
The career of Englishman John Newton
demonstrates not only that whites could be slaves, but that those
who engaged in the slave trade could also be slaves.
Newton was a sailor on a slave ship whose shipmates sold him to a
West African slave trader because they didn't get along with
him. A friend of Newton's retired ship captain father
arranged to free Newton. Newton evenstually got a position as the
captain of a slave ship. A religious experience convinced
Newton to become a Christian minister and become active in the
movement to abolish slavery. He wrote the popular hymn
"Amazing Grace" which according to gospel singer Larnelle
Harris uses a west African sorrow chant for the melody.