New World Slave Systems

In North America, South America, and the Caribbean

Defining Key Characteristics

In order to thoroughly understand slavery in the Americas, it is imperative to define key characteristics of slavery from correlating geographic locations. The rise of plantation economies is a deeply embedded theme attributing to slavery in the Americas and one that sustained a global economy. Slavery in North America, South America, and the Caribbean all hold distinct characteristics that defined slavery and contributed to a historical phenomenon. Although there were rises and falls, slavery exemplified a vast human experience that comprised key characteristics all its own.

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North America

The institution of slavery in North America is one of misconception and intrigue. Slavery was an historical institution that continuously changed over time and differed from place to place. A common misconception stems from slavery being thought to be distinctively a Southern institution prior to the American Revolution. Slavery was not isolated to the South, as this development didn’t occur until after the American Revolution. Slaves were in fact sold in American colonies since 1619, but slave labor only came to represent a compelling percentage of the labor force until the last quarter of the 17th century. By 1776, African American slaves composed around 20 percent of the population in the 13 colonies.

The North American mainland was a small destination on the global scale of slave-trading. Less than 4% of all African Slaves were delegated to North America. The bulk of enslaved individuals ended up in strong sugar yielding regions like the West Indies and Brazil. Setting themselves apart from the middle and New England colonies, the Southern colonies exported labor-intensive crops like rice, indigo, and tobacco which were very profitable. By the American Revolution, slaves encompassed 60 percent of South Carolina's entire population and around 40 percent of Virginia's. Many slaves in the Chesapeake worked on smaller farms, while those in the South labored on large plantations.

It is factual that large percentages of slaves were found in the South, although slavery still very much existed in the Northern and middle colonies. Cities and towns were also able to utilize slaves in different capacities as sailors, servants, artisans, craftsmen, coachmen, and laundresses. Whatever the labor, slaves were considered property that could be purchased and sold. One aspect of American slavery that is so fascinating stems from the battles with Britain during the 1760s and 1770s. The American Patriots argues that taxing the colonies without consent was diminishing the colonists to slave status. This was extremely contradictory as most of the colonists owned slaves, and once they started protesting their own enslavement, it was hard to deny the fundamental inconsistency that slavery entrenched. This inconsistency compelled white Americans to look at slavery in a new light.

During and after the American Revolution many individuals in the North and South took these new revolutionary ideals earnestly and came to realize slavery was unjustified. Each state decided for itself how to go about handling the issue and many passed laws, executed judicial rulings, and began paving the road for gradual extinction. It was a bit different in the South, as Southern states had deeper economic investments and roots d in slavery. This led to a prominent fork in the road which created sectional divisions and climaxed to the coming of the Civil War.

South America and the Caribbean

During the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, an overwhelming number of slave imports were taken to South America and the Caribbean. There was a harsh reality waiting for the slaves in areas such as Bolivia, Colombia, and Brazil. Slavery existed in South America before the African slave importation altered the regions landscape. Much of South America was divided between the Portuguese and the Spanish in 1941 with the Treaty of Tordesillas. When the Europeans did arrive in South American they enslaved the native inhabitants and forced them into free labor. The native inhabitants were forced to work on mines, and on cotton, sugar, tobacco, and sugar plantations that were being developed. With the arrival of Europeans came diseases such as influence, measles, mumps, typhus, and small pox that proved devastating to the inhabitants of South America. Between disease and forced labor, it is estimated that 90% of the native population had died. This is a major characteristic of South American slavery, as it has been described as one of the greatest demographic disasters in history. The tragic loss of the native inhabitants also prompted the Europeans of South American to turn to Africa for a new labor force and they served as the backbone if the agricultural economy.

The transportation of the slaves into South American Portuguese and Spanish colonies largely altered the societies in which they were enslaved in. The treatment of the enslaved was diverse depending on the location, but in places like Brazil they experienced an extreme level of brutality that fared worse than even the Southern states of North America. There was a view that slaves were replaceable and essentially expendable which led to the brutality in such areas. It is said that in places like Bolivia the life expectancy of African slaves working in the mines was a minuscule two months. This is a harsh contrast to the Africans working in Latin America, as the conditions were much more diverse economically and socially. It rings true that not all Africans arriving in South America were enslaved, and some gained more freedoms than those in the North American Colonies. Some slaves were even allowed to get married and learn to read and write. Also perplexing, was that Brazil also had some of the highest numbers of slave married during the Colonial period.

The descendants of the enslaved Africans during this period still have a large impact on the landscape of Latin American today. The largest African population outside of Africa prevails in Brazil. They have influenced the way in which the societies of Latin America were shaped. The characteristics of slavery coincide in both North and South America, as the slaves brought with them religions, customs, and traditions which contributed to these cultures long after slavery ended. Religious faiths that emerged from Africa are no longer just confined to people of African origin. Arts and Literature have also been impacted with immense influence from Africa, as many novels and poems display elements of African concepts. It is a powerful characteristic in all geographical locations that slavery touched, and the impact is continually making its presence felt.


Anstey, Roger. The Atlantic Slave Trade and British Abolition, 17601810. Atlantic Highlands, N.J, 1975

Drescher, Seymour, and Stanley L. Engerman, eds. A Historical Guide to World Slavery. New York, 1998.

Eltis, David. The Rise of African Slavery in the Americas. Cambridge, U.K., 2000.

Klein & Vinson, African Slavery in Latin America & the Caribbean, pp. 49-64

Patterson, Orlando. Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study. Cambridge, Mass., and London, 1982.