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Captive Passage: The Transatlantic Slave Trade and the Making of the AmericasSugar Plantations
Tobacco Plantations
Cotton Plantations
Rice Plantations

Captive Passage
has been made
possible in part by:
National Endowment for the Humanities
Recognition of
additional sponsors
for this exhibition
can be found by
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Arrival: Life in the AmericasPreference for AfricansThe Slave Markets
European RewardsSlave Populations in the AmericasThe Ships Return to EuropeEconomics
Sugar IntroductionSlavery in North AmericaReligionSilver Mines of South America

Slavery in North America

During the 17thcentury, the English began to establish permanent settlements in North America, beginning in 1607 at Jamestown in Virginia. Although the early Virginia colonists did not find the gold nuggets they had hoped for, they did find another kind of gold - the tobacco leaf. Importation of sweet Orinoco tobacco from South America made that "gold" even more valuable, and a booming industry was born. Tobacco plantations spread, and the plantation system for growing crops spread as well. Beginning in Virginia, the system spread first to the New England colonies and eventually further south. Crops grown on these plantations, such as tobacco, rice, sugar cane, and cotton were all labor intensive, and the search for a reliable labor source became paramount.

Tobacco Plantation
Tobacco Plantation

Plantation owners tried many types of labor before turning to slavery, but few were successful. Thousands of English men and women arrived in North America as indentured servants, but many of these people fell ill and died before completing their terms of service. Many European immigrants came to America to own their own land and were reluctant to work for others. Convicts were sent over from Britain, but there had not been enough to satisfy the tremendous demand for labor. Planters therefore began to purchase slaves. At first, these slaves came from plantations in the West Indies, but by the late 18thcentury, they came directly from Africa and busy slave-markets were established in areas such as Philadelphia, Richmond, Charleston, and New Orleans.

A View of Charlestown the Capital of South Carolina in North America
A View of Charlestown the Capital of South Carolina in North America

The growth of the slave population revolutionized society in the Southern states. However, slavery proved unprofitable in the Northern states and by the early 19thcentury had disappeared.

A Slave Auction in Richmond, Virginia
A Slave Auction in Richmond, Virginia

Slaves were in the fields from sunrise to sunset and at harvest time they did an eighteen-hour day. On some plantations, Sundays were known as a day of rest, where the workload was lighter. Women worked the same hours as the men, and pregnant women were expected to continue until their child was born, then resume work a few days later.

Harvesting the Rice
Harvesting the Rice

Because the death rate was so high among the slaves, plantation owners began to encourage the slaves to have children to replace losses. Childbearing started around the age of thirteen, and by twenty the women slaves would be expected to have four or five children. To encourage childbearing some plantation owners promised women slaves their freedom after they had produced fifteen children.

A Family Group (Virginia)
A Family Group (Virginia)

Slavery transformed social relations of production. Enslaved Africans became a permanent racial underclass without hope of emancipation. Planters who owned slaves were more affluent than slaveless neighbors. Still, some poor white families were able to hold onto their livelihoods because tobacco could be farmed in smaller units and required a much small initial investment.


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Sugar Plantations