Explain how and why slavery developed through law and through custom in the British mainland colonies. Why did colonial planters choose to adopt and develop a race-based system of chattel slavery rather than continuing the non-racially-specific system of indentured servitude that defined colonial labor in its earliest years?
Slavery in the British colonies of mainland North America developed both for economic reasons and for cultural reasons. Africans were seen as candidates for chattel slavery for racial reasons, but the system also developed because of the supply of, and demand for, unfree workers in the colonies.
At first, the colonial economy relied much more on indentured servants than on African slaves. However, by the end of the 17th century, the use of indentured servants had dwindled significantly. There were a number of reasons for this. First, the English economy had improved. With this improvement, the prospects for poorer English people improved as well. This meant that fewer people were willing to sell themselves into indentured servitude. Second, the English government removed many restrictions on the African slave trade. This increased the supply of slaves as more British companies and individuals started bringing slaves to the Americas to sell. Finally, the planter elites in the American colonies came to feel that it was bad for their society to have so many indentured servants. The white indentured servants, unlike the Africans, were English and felt that they had rights. This meant that they were often more difficult to control as workers. They also clearly did have the right to get land and to live in the colonies after their indentures were up. The colonial elites worried about changes in the balance of power in the colonies as the number of former indentured servants grew. This was especially true in the aftermath of Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia in 1676. This was largely a class-based rebellion and it frightened the planter elites. In these ways, indentured servitude became less viable as a source of unfree labor in the colonies.
At the same time, blacks came to be seen as a good source of labor. In addition to the factors mentioned above, there was a strong sense among most white colonists that Africans were inferior to whites. This feeling of racial superiority justified treating Africans differently than whites were treated. When combined with economic necessity/convenience, this meant that African chattel slavery seemed both necessary and justifiable. Over the years, a system of chattel slavery arose. It became embedded in colonial law because the colonists needed the system to be stronger and more stable. This is why, for example, laws were passed that said that the children of slave mothers would also be slaves. It is also why laws were made to stipulate that slaves who converted to Christianity would still be enslaved. In other words, the colonists gradually created a body of laws that set up a system of African chattel slavery.
Slavery developed in the mainland British colonies for economic and cultural reasons. The supply of slaves increased while the supply of indentured servants decreased. At the same time, cultural/racial considerations made the use of African slaves more attractive than the use of white indentured servants.