United States
  Colonial North America figured in the Transatlantic Slave Trade late on in this chapter of history. Unlike the English, Dutch and French, north America never became a major market in the history of transatlantic slavery and north Americans only had around one fifth of the carrying trade. However, slavery deeply shaped the demographic, social, economic and ethnic development of the USA. It was not until the 1730s that north Americans began to significantly import and enslave Africans and it is estimated that the mainland US received only around six per cent of the Africans brought from Africa to the Americas. The majority of Africans were taken directly to North America from West Africa (especially from the late seventeenth century) because the traders believed that the West Indies 'rid' themselves of so-called 'undesirables' by selling them to the mainland. Whereas the English established trading posts or stations in Africa (especially in Gambia and along the lower Guinea coast), from where they exchanged cloth, metal wares, beads, spirits and guns for slaves, American traders had access to English trading posts (in the colonial era), but after Independence they never established their own posts in Africa and continued to trade (largely rum) at English posts. The centre of the American enterprise was Rhode Island and nearly one thousand voyages to Africa can be documented as originating from Rhode Island (transporting over one century, over 100,000 Africans to the Americas). More Africans were imported to southern colonies and states than anywhere else in the US and by 1780 Virginia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Maryland held 85% of all mainland slaves. The suppression of the trade began as early as 1776 when Congress voted that "slaves not be imported into any of the 13 United Colonies". State after State prohibited further importation until 1 January 1808 when further importation of slaves into the US was banned in the US and the domestic slave trade took over. This was the internal movement of slaves from the upper South and eastern states to the cotton and sugar producing regions of the old Southwest. It is estimated that over 1 million American born slaves were transported via the domestic trade. Regular slave auctions were held to cater for the demand and once the slaves had been shipped to their destination, a second auction usually awaited them, in places like Natchez or New Orleans, the latter becoming the main trading centre of the Deep South.



The Amistad
In 1839, Portuguese slave traders abducted a group of West Africans from the region now known as Sierra Leone. They were then transported to Havana in Cuba aboard a slave ship called the Tecora. Once in Havana, fifty three of the Africans were sold to two Spanish planters, Pedro Montes and Jose Ruiz. The men planned to take the Africans to Puerto Principe in Cuba aboard a schooner, called the Amistad (ironically meaning friendship). But the Africans aboard the schooner rebelled and took control of the ship. Led by Sengbe Pieh (Cinque), they ordered Montes and Ruiz to sail them to Africa, but instead they sailed along the coast of the US. The Amistad was seized off the coast of Long Island in New York by the USS Washington, a naval ship. The Spanish crew were freed and the Africans were imprisoned in New Haven on charges of murder. Black and white Christian abolitionists, headed mostly by wealthy New York merchant Lewis Tappan, formed the Amistad Committee, which rallied to raise funds for the legal defence of the Africans. Although the murder charges were dismissed in the lower courts, in 1841 the case went to the United States Supreme Court, where it was defended by former President John Quincy Adams, and the court ruled that the Africans aboard the Amistad had been illegally held as slaves. Later that year the Amistad Committee returned 35 Amistad survivors to Africa. The others had died at sea or in prison while awaiting trial.
Nat Turner

Nat Turner's was the most famous of the uprisings in the southern States of America. It took place in Southampton County, Virginia on 22 August 1831. Nat was born to enslaved parents in 1800 on Benjamin Turner's plantation. He taught himself to read and write and he was encouraged by his master to read the Bible. Then his father escaped to the north, Benjamin Turner died (in 1810) and Nat and his mother became the property of Samuel Turner - Benjamin Turner's son. Nat was put to work in the fields for the first time and his freedom in all senses was stolen from him. A number of instances and happenings in Nat's life moved him towards the bloody insurrection he would finally lead in 1831. Nat had been considered a prophet by other enslaved Africans because he described events that had happened before he was born. He also had a number of visions where 'white spirits and black spirits engaged in battle' and where he saw blood on the corn in the fields and symbols on tree leaves. He became a Baptist preacher and described to slave congregations how the day would come when God would raise the slave above the master and they would be led out of slavery. Despite his deeply religious beliefs, in 1827 local churches refused him permission to baptise a white overseer and his disillusionment grew. In 1831 he was sold to Joseph Travis and it was under this new master that plans for insurrection came to fruition. He waited for a sign from God and he believed an eclipse of the sun to be it. On Monday 22 August, Turner's uprising began in Joseph Travis' house, with just six followers. Then they moved from house to house, killing whites, attracting followers and weapons and they grew to about 60 men on horseback armed with axes, swords, guns and clubs. They killed around 55 men, women and children. News of the insurrection spread quickly and armed bands of whites arrived to put down the rebellion, resulting in the death or dispersal of many of Turner's men. Turner was captured on 30 October. He was tried, found guilty and hanged on 11 November 1831. This insurrection led to Virginia's last serious debate on ending slavery and most southern states as a result eventually passed strict laws to police their slave populations and prevent uprisings.


© Library of Congress

The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad helped enslaved Africans to escape, usually from the southern states to freedom in the north of the USA or Canada. However despite the stories of secret hiding places, exciting rescues and railroad terms such as 'stations', 'passengers', 'conductors', and 'presidents' of the underground line, there was not really a nationally organised system and most enslaved Africans planned and conducted their own escapes with relatively little help. The legend of the Underground Railroad was partly based on fact and some abolitionists devoted themselves (quite openly at times) to helping escaped slaves. For example there were the Vigilance Committees formed in some northern communities who provided food, temporary housing, travel directions and sometimes transportation to slaves who passed through their communities. Often the way stories of the Underground Railroad are told glorifies the role of the white abolitionists - many abolitionists published their memoirs and provided facts for northern newspapers after the Civil War, which highlights their role in the railroad movement. The role of Africans themselves, who were enormously courageous and had made their own daring and clever plans to escape their enslavement, is often overlooked. The Underground Railroad did without a doubt help people to reach freedom, but usually they had completed the most dangerous part of their journey by the time they received help from the Underground Railroad. And apart from those who were rescued by Harriet Tubman's heroic trips into the south, it is important to remember that most slaves did not have the luxury of this kind of help.



Twenty Eight Fugitives Escaping From the Eastern Shore of Maryland by William Still. Still was the son of fugitive slaves and headed the underground railroad in Philadelphia through the 1850s
© University of Virginia Library

The Civil War

The Civil War in the US began after decades of disagreement between Northern states and Southern states. There were many economic, political and social factors that led to this, but slavery was very much at the heart of each factor. By the 1830's southerners believed that slavery was for the good and as a result, slavery flourished in the agricultural South. During the 1840's the national debate around slavery divided the country, with the Southern States believing it was their right to take slaves into the western territories and northerners opposing the expansion of slavery - some on moral grounds and others for economic reasons. Two bills later - the Compromise Bill of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, the slavery issue was causing severe splits in the political parties. As a result the Republican Party was formed and in 1860 Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States. This outraged southern states, many southerners believing that there was no longer a place for them in the Union, which consisted of 34 states at that time. South Carolina became the first state to break away from the Union, followed by six others (Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas). These seven states formed the Confederate States of America and elected Jefferson Davis as President. In 1861 they were joined by four more states (Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina and Tennessee). Lincoln declared that his intention was to protect the Union and in the early days he did not interfere with the institution of slavery - he even ordered his generals to return any slaves who escaped beyond Union lines. But his statement did not satisfy the Confederacy, and on April 12 they attacked Fort Sumter, a federal stronghold in Charleston, South Carolina and the Civil War began. As the War continued Lincoln faced criticism from abolitionists who wanted to make the goal of the War to end slavery. Lincoln was not convinced that black and white people could live together but he felt that Emancipation might be the only way to quiet his international critics and preserve the Union. So on 1 January 1863, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation which granted freedom to all slaves in areas under rebellion, except those occupied by Union troops. Finally the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution was passed in January 1865, which abolished slavery throughout the United States. The Civil War ended on April 18, 1865 when the Confederate army surrendered to the Union forces. The Civil War, also known as the War between the States, the War of the Rebellion, the War of Secession and the War for Southern Independence, was a long and painful struggle. Hundreds of thousands died or were injured and landscapes were devastated. The period that followed was known as Reconstruction. This involved rebuilding the shattered union and creating a new social order.



Rebel Negro Pickets as seen through a field glass. These two men were soldiers in Fredericksburg, Virginia. The author of the accompanying article (published in Harper's Weekly, January 10, 1863) discusses the debate between Southern slave owners and Northerners as to the involvement of slaves in the Civil War. Some Northerners questioned the practice, while many slave owners found "Negroes" to be quite useful. © University of Virginia Library

Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman is perhaps the most well known of all the Underground Railroad's 'conductors' or 'rescuers'. Tubman was born enslaved in Dorchester County, Maryland, around 1820 and her parents had ten other children. At the age of five or six, she began to work as a house servant and seven years later she was sent to work in the fields. While she was still in her early teens, she was hit on the head with a heavy weight while she blocked a doorway to protect another field hand from an angry overseer. She never fully recovered from the blow and often wore a headscarf to hide the scar. Around 1844 she married John Tubman who was a free black man. In 1849, fearing that she and others on the plantation would be sold, Harriet escaped and made her way to Pennsylvania and soon after to Philadelphia, where she found work and saved her money. She returned for her husband John but he had remarried and would not accompany her North. For more than a decade Harriet made numerous trips back to the South to bring slaves to freedom in the North. She armed herself with a rifle and devised clever techniques that helped make her journeys successful. By 1856, Tubman's capture would have brought a $40,000 reward from the South. She became friends with some of the leading abolitionists and took part in anti-slavery meetings. She became known as 'Moses' and abolitionist Frederick Douglass said about her: 'Excepting John Brown - of sacred memory - I know of no one who has willingly encountered more perils and hardships to serve our enslaved people than Harriet Tubman.' John Brown once said that she was 'one of the bravest persons on this continent'. During the US Civil War Harriet worked for the Union in many capacities - as a cook, a nurse, and even a spy. After the war she settled in Auburn, New York, where she focused her energies on women's rights and helping the poor. Because of her religious beliefs she also worked closely with black churches, encouraging donations of clothing and food and she turned a small plot of land which she bought into a home for the poor and elderly in New York State. She lived in New York until her death in 1913.


John Brown

John Brown was a radical abolitionist who was publicly committed to ending slavery. He was born in 1800 as one of six children to strictly religions parents. He grew up in an environment of anti-slavery sentiment and later worked with abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass, who he later told that '…no people could have self respect, or be respected, who would not fight for their freedom'. In 1851 he helped found the League of Gileadites (members of which included progressive whites, free blacks and runaways slaves). The main aims of this radical group were to promote physical resistance towards the Fugitive Act of 1850 and to protect runaway slaves from pursuing slaveowners. He became a hated figure for many proslavery activists and southerners, and at this time such divisions were creating the context for Civil War. He fought against proslavery forces and by the mid 1850s, he had planned a raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry in northern Virginia. It was well stocked with arms and strategically well placed for easy access to the southern states down the Apalachian Mountain range. By summer 1859, Brown had secured financial backing and a group of 21 men. The raid began on the evening of October 16 1859 and 36 hours and 15 deaths later, the raid was over. John Brown was taken to Charles Town a few miles away, tried by the State law for treason and found guilty. He was hanged on 2 December later that year and is remembered and celebrated today as the hero who led the raid which was one of the final catalysts for Civil War. His parting words were 'the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood'.