Life as a Slave in the North American Colonies

Slaves working in a field.
A whip.
Enslaved African American family in South Carolina photographed in 1862.
Slave auction in Virginia. A black woman is being auctioned off.

The first African slaves were brought to North America in 1619, about a decade after the first Englishmen arrived. The newly-arrived blacks in 1619 were then auctioned off to the English colonists, who immediately put them to work. The same procedure of selling newly-arrived slaves and forcing them to work would thereafter repeat itself innumerous times as countless slave ships arrived on the North American shores over the next two hundred years.

Being a slave in North America, whether in 1619 or two hundred years later, meant being somebody’s property, and you had to obey whomever owned you. Generally, you were forced to sow, harvest or tend to animals on your master’s plantation, although some slaves worked as maids in the slave owners’ houses or as carpenters in the yard. Work was often hard, the hours were long and pay non-existent. You lived in or around your master’s house, but at any point, you could be sold off like livestock to somebody else.

Whippings, beatings and rape

Enabling the selling of black people like livestock, as well as other forms of exploitation, was a strictly hierarchical social caste system, with whites at the top and blacks at the bottom, maintained through systematic physical abuse or fear thereof. Whipping, beating and rape of slaves, consequently, occurred regularly and were legally accepted, and slave owners could often even get away with murdering their subjects. However, if someone other than the slave owner killed a slave, reparations would have to be paid to the owner.

Still though, amid all the abuse, there were slave masters who treated their slaves somewhat better. These masters typically abstained from beatings and made sure that their slaves were properly fed and clothed. Lucky slaves, moreover, could even get Sundays off to rest and their own small plot of land to grow crops on. The ultimate gesture of gratitude from a slave owner’s point of view — though a seldom occurrence — was then for the slave master to set his slaves free, upon his own death, by including a freedom clause in his will.

A few blacks were free

Apart from the few slaves who had been freed in slave owners’ wills, a small number of other blacks also lived as free individuals. This group included slaves who had been bought out, old or sick slaves who had been tossed aside, mixed-race people born by white mothers and those few African Americans who had arrived in North America as free people from the Caribbean. Playing into at least part of society’s race-based social caste system, quite interestingly, on rare occasions these free blacks themselves held black slaves.

Another non-white group of people in North America, who just like African Americans on rare occasions had individuals in slave master positions, was Native Americans. Native Americans were also sporadically forced to toil as slaves, but their often insubordinate character made them difficult to handle, which is why slave owners, as a rule, chose to engage blacks as slaves over trying to contain Indians.