The start of slavery in America can be traced to the history of a system of labor in ancient times, dating back to the Aztec and Inca civilizations. The institution of slavery also represented a common form of labor in Rome, Greece, and Egypt. Slavery in America is also linked to the Portuguese and Spanish, who brought the first African slaves to the Caribbean and Central America to work in gold mines in the 1500s.
As transatlantic trade opened up between the 1600s and 1800s, it connected North America to Europe and Africa, creating a global economy for the United States and other countries. The international trade of rum, lumber, rice, and sugar eventually led to slavery in America because existing trade routes eased the transportation of workers from Africa. Before this time, American colonists preferred to use white indentured servants from Europe as laborers in tobacco fields. Indentured servants represented a more affordable and consistent source of labor than African slaves.
After 1676, indentured servants began demanding concessions; some fled their owners, and others found substitute menial work. They began rising up against upper-class white employers in a revolt referred to as Bacon’s Rebellion. The rebellion was a key factor in the beginning of slavery in America because slaves who escaped were easier to identify because of their skin color and they could not demand land.
Whites decided black slaves were easier to control, since the law defined African people as property for life. From 1680 on, plantation owners began buying slaves from Africa, which defines the actual beginning of slavery in America. In Georgia and the Carolinas, rice became a lucrative crop, with many farmers emigrating from Barbados. They brought almost 100,000 African slaves with them to work in rice fields, which further promoted slavery in America.
As rice production spread to Georgia, the idea of slavery gained popularity throughout the South. In colonies north of Virginia, the concept of slavery in America clashed with ideals of Puritan religion, and the climate proved unsuitable for rice and sugar crops. These factors eventually led to widespread slavery in the South and opposition to the practice in the North.
Southern plantation owners gained concessions after the American Revolution, with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. It allowed slave owners to cross state lines in search of escapees. Owners also pushed for the passage of a law that made each slave three-fifths of a person to gain representation in the Electoral College. The act permitted continued slave trade with Africa until 1808.
After international trade restrictions became effective, plantation owners began trading slaves in America internally as new cotton-growing regions expanded in the South. Anti-slavery groups began forming in the North, culminating in the Civil War, when African-Americans fought alongside white soldiers. The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 freed slaves in America, but slavery wasn’t abolished until the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified two years later.