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Slavery In The Americas

Updated: Jan 18

Slavery has existed for thousands of years, with the earliest sightings and documents of slavery being in 3500 B.C. in Mesopotamia. In the Americas, slavery was used as early as the 16th century. Slavery is the act of forcing another person to do labor, chores, etc… without pay and with horrific treatment. Slaves were generally Africans who were brought to the Americas, but white indentured servants were also considered slaves. White indentured servants were eventually freed after they paid their debt with the labor that they did. However, African slaves were generally not freed from slavery.


North America


Canada

Two slave women doing labor under the eye of an overseer. This exact image is said to have “taken place” at the end of the 18th century. (Image Source: Canadian Museum Of History)

The first major settlement in what is now known as Canada was the colony of New France. The New France colony was founded in 1534, and slavery was a common practice there. In 1834, Canada was conquered by the British Empire. In the same year, the British Empire abolished slavery in all of its territories.


Historian Marcel Trudel reported that there were about 4,200 slaves in Canada between 1671 and 1834. Two-thirds of slaves were native persons and one-third of slaves were black. Six out of the 16 members of the first Parliament of the Upper Canada Legislative Assembly owned slaves or had family members who owned slaves.


In 1793, Upper Canada (Ontario) passed the Anti-Slavery Act, which forbade slavery for persons over the age of 25 and made it illegal to bring enslaved persons into the country.


From about the 1850s through the 1860s, Canada became a refuge for slaves fleeing from the horrors of their predicament in the southern United States. 30,000 slaves fled to Canada from the United States. However, potentially more than 100,000 black persons escaped to Canada via the Underground Railroad.


The United States Of America

This chart displays the slavery percentage within each of the 13 colonies. (Image Source: Wikimedia)

The arrival of the first captives to become slaves in the Jamestown colony happened in 1619. Eventually, the British expanded into what was known as the 13 colonies. Every single one of the 13 colonies had slavery to a certain percent. After the 13 colonies rebelled from British rule and formed The United States Of America, there was still slavery.


The USA’s original constitution (still to this day, without considering amendments) states that black persons count as 3/5ths of a white person in census counts and cannot vote or hold a political office. As the US continued to expand, the southern states became known as slave states, and the northern states became known as free states. In free states, no one could be held as a slave and had to be given some form of compensation for labor. In slave states, no compensation was needed and slavery was in full effect.


Sadly, if a slave escaped from slave to free states, they could still be returned to slavery. For decades, as new states started to form, a question was asked: Would this territory be a slave or free state?


The issue became so big that it sparked the American Civil War. After the election of President Abraham Lincoln, 11 southern slave states seceded from the United States and formed The Confederate States of America. The remaining states, which consisted of the 20 northern free states and 5 border slave states, formed the Union Army under President Lincoln. On January 1st of 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves in the Confederacy. However, it did not free slaves in the border states or in parts of the Confederacy that had already been returned to Northern control. It also was contingent on the Union winning the war. Slavery was officially abolished in the US when the 13th amendment was issued in 1865.


Mexico

Native Americans in Mexico being captured and trying to flee from Spanish Conquistadors in 1595. The Spanish colonists were led by Francisco de Montejo. (Image Source: Brown University)

In 1524, the Aztec Empire had already been enslaved and became the lowest class of peoples within Mexico. At this time, Mexico was a colony under the Spanish Empire. Mexico also captured many prisoners of war and made them slaves. Slaves were actually given some form of compensation.


The new Viceroy set some standards of treatment for slaves. No slave could be forced to carry a load of more than 100 pounds. Government officials and priests were tasked with distributing wages to slaves to make sure they received compensation.


In 1811, the Spanish Empire abolished slavery, including in all of its colonies.


The Caribbean


Cuba

An illegal slave auction occurring in Havana, Cuba in 1837. An auctioneer is pictured letting a potential buyer take measurements of the slaves. (Image Source: Listen2Read)

Even though the Spanish empire abolished slavery in all of its colonies, one of its colonies rejected the ban on slavery and continued to practice it: Cuba.


The ban of slavery within the Spanish empire took place in 1811, but slavery in Cuba did not end until 1886.


In Cuba, the native Taíno and Guanahatabey peoples of the island were enslaved on a very large scale. Cuba’s original native population was eventually completely destroyed due to lethal forced labor. One million African slaves were brought to Cuba. As many slaves died out due to the hard strain of labor, 100,000 Chinese indentured workers were brought in as well.


In 1886, when slavery in Cuba ended, these former slaves were still treated horribly, and the improvement of their treatment did not occur until the 20th century.


Haiti

Slaves in Haiti being depicted harvesting and growing sugarcane. The sugarcane industry was enormous in Haiti especially with the usage of slave labor. (Image Source: LANIC)

When Haiti was originally colonized in 1492, so did slavery begin within the country. The indigenous population of Haiti was dying due to abuse from slavery and disease from the Europeans, so African slaves were brought in. By 1517, the first 15,000 African slaves were imported.


Slavery was very bad everywhere, but especially within Haiti. It was so bad that enslaved persons formed a revolt in 1791. The Haitian Revolution ended in 1804 and it was and still is the only successful slave revolt in human history. This led to the establishment of an independent republic. This revolution was so horrifying that it ended slavery in Saint-Domingue and in all French colonies.


While slavery “officially” ended in Haiti in 1804, slavery within Haiti still exists today. According to the 2018 Global Slavery Index, Haiti still has an estimated population of 59,000 enslaved persons.


South America


Brazil

A slave in 19th century Brazil being punished by a white overseer. This piece was made by Jean-Baptise Debret. (Art Source: Jean Baptise Debret)

Slavery in Brazil under the rule of the Portuguese empire was ruthless. Starting in 1530, over 4,000,000 African slaves were sent to Brazil during the entire slave period of the nation. This was larger than any other location within the Americas or the Caribbean.


Afro-Brazilians were treated horribly. Slavery in Brazil ended in 1888 when Princess Isabel of Bragança signed Imperial Law 3,353. However, the official ending of slavery did little to change the lives of former slaves. Brazil was the last country in the New World to abolish slavery.


Due to “whitening”, a process to breed out the darker skin tones of Afro-Brazilians, racism was an enormous problem. The lighter skin tone you were, the easier it was for you to succeed in society. This racism was a problem within Brazilian society for a long time.


Peru

An image of Chinese laborers/slaves in Peru picking cotton on a field. Using Chinese slaves and/or indentured servants was a common practice alongside using African ones. (Image Source: Brown University)

Peru and many other South American and Caribbean countries would enslave whomever they could. Slaves of all varieties formed the heart of Peru’s plantation labor force.


The slave trade was ordered to be stopped in Peru in 1821 by José de San Martin. San Martin is referred to as the “liberator” of Peru as he went against the wishes of local plantation owners to order the stopping of the slave trade. However, slavery itself did not end in Peru until 1854.



Overall


Slavery has been a problem for a very long time. Sadly, slavery is still a problem that exists today within countries like Haiti in The Caribbean and Mauritania in Africa. However, the fight to end modern-day slavery still exists today. Remember that slavery can also involve various amount of other topics such as human trafficking, child labor, etc... Organizations such as Anti-Slavery International, Abolish Human Trafficking, and more are all continuously fighting to end slavery and deserve your recognition. The enslavement of other peoples is not right and needs to end.

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