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The American History Series

African Americans in the Colonial Era: From African Origins through the American Revolution

Fourth Edition

Donald R. Wright

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For Doris


An exceptional group of historians performed the careful investigation, lived with the primary sources, and wrote the studies over the last half century that make this synthesis possible. It would be a mistake for one to read this book without examining its Bibliographical Essay and noticing the wealth of outstanding historical study upon which it is based. As always, my biggest debt, by far, is to the authors of these books and articles.

As with each of the previous editions, Andrew J. Davidson was instrumental in this book's coming into being. For a quarter of a century, Andrew has given me confidence, inspiration, careful editing, and close friendship, and for these I am grateful. My wife Doris has given me these, too, and some other stuff. This book is for her.


When I began writing the first edition of this book in the late 1980s, study of the lives of African Americans in slavery was out of temporal and geographical balance. Chattel slavery existed as a legal institution in this country for about two hundred years, roughly from the middle of the seventeenth century to the middle of the nineteenth century. Most of that time—about two-thirds of it—was the colonial period of American history. From before 1650 to after 1790, slavery was a viable institution on plantations and smaller farms around the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia and Maryland; throughout the coastal Low Country of South Carolina and Georgia; along the lower Mississippi River; and in cities and some rural areas of New England, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, and Pennsylvania. In only the last fifty years of its existence in this country did slavery move into the lands of the Deep South and undergo a switch from use predominately in tobacco and rice production to that of cotton, as the institution disappeared north of the Pennsylvania–Maryland border and the Ohio River. Yet the focus of the study of American slavery—and indeed of the history of all African Americans before the Civil War—back to the time of Ulrich B. Phillips's American Negro Slavery (1918) had been on the institution as it operated in the Cotton South between 1830 and 1860. As late as the 1980s, the best-known books on slavery or slave society in America were Kenneth Stampp's The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Antebellum South (1956), John Blassingame's The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South (1972), and Eugene Genovese's Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (1972), each an examination of antebellum slavery with its center in the Deep South.

Naturally, this skewed the nation's image of slavery. When considering the subject, most Americans thought of enormous plantations in Alabama or Mississippi; of black men, women, and children living in quarters resembling small villages; of slaves working in gangs picking cotton; and of their efforts to escape toward the free states in the North. All of these were concepts pertinent to the situation in the middle of the nineteenth century, but they did not reflect the lives of African Americans during the two hundred years before the Cotton Kingdom. Thus, the first edition of this book was an effort to right this imbalance by examining the experience of African Americans throughout the colonial era in all of England's mainland North American colonies.

Ten years later, when the book's second edition appeared, the imbalance was no longer so great. Not only in textbooks, which had come a long way, but also in such elaborate television productions as the six-hour Africans in America, which aired on PBS in 1998, the experience of persons of African descent in America's earliest centuries began to get its due. This allowed the second edition of this book to have less of a corrective tone and, following new scholarship, to emphasize how slavery differed regionally and temporally over the colonial period and to offer greater detail on the lives of the Africans and African Americans, in and out of slavery, who lived through the period.

The second edition also appeared at a time when historians were beginning to view the past through a wider lens. For early American history, this meant placing experiences in the context of an Atlantic-centered world. Graduate students working on colonial American topics were encouraged to cast their eyes to the whole Atlantic rather than to one discrete North American colony and its “mother country” for its major influences. This produced studies offering a sense of United States history not so much as something exceptional and more as something fitting broader patterns of thought and action at the time.

Following this scholarship, the third edition (2010) emphasized the experience of African Americans in North America more as their contemporaries recognized them: as elements of a vast, vibrant, complex Atlantic world where people from four continents interacted over a period of 180 years to create an economy that fit into the grander patterns of Atlantic commerce, a society that reflected the mix of Atlantic cultures, and eventually a polity that used current European ideas to support creation of the best situation possible for those who emerged with the greatest benefits from their colonial circumstances. Those who came from Africa and their descendants, while adding greatly to the economic and cultural viability of these colonies, ended up in 1789 with the least possibility of benefit from the nation they helped bring into existence. This same circumstance existed then and long afterward in lands bordering the Atlantic.

Now, perhaps as proof of the maturation of this long line of scholarship, this fourth edition relates the story with fewer points of departure from past interpretations. With a few exceptions, books and articles published since 2009 tend to follow directions sketched out over the previous decade, adding valuable nuance and detail, indeed, but not taking study of African American history in colonial times along entirely new paths or viewing it from greatly different perspectives. If there are exceptions to this rule, one may be the recent emphasis on the commodification of Africans. For some years, a body of historians have tried to determine when and how persons born fully human in Africa became nameless parts of cargoes arriving in American ports, where they would be marketed (as “prime field hands” or “good breeders”), sold, and resold to the highest bidders for lifetimes of toil, and even sometimes lent, leased, or used as collateral for a loan. Consideration of the consequences of seeing humans originating in Africa as commodities has offered insight into how people lived and how racial attitudes formed, at the time and long afterward. A second exception may involve a rethinking of the level of agency enslaved men and women had—argued for some time to be a significant amount—with more emphasis now on the lack of autonomy the slave system offered them in daily circumstances.

As with prior editions, this book integrates into the narrative ideas and perspectives from recent scholarship. Of the books and articles noted in this book's Bibliographical Essay—which, by necessity, is more selective than its earlier versions—103 have been published over the past decade. Collectively, these publications continue to aid our understanding that the African-American experience in Colonial America was not in most ways exceptional, but instead fit with the experiences of Africans and persons of African descent living up and down the African and American sides of the Atlantic.

Some ideas continue to deserve the emphasis placed upon them in the book's initial edition. One is simply that a wide variety of experiences characterized the lives of blacks between the time of their existence in Africa and their living as African Americans in the United States near the end of the eighteenth century—experiences that, again, differed considerably over time and across space. Where possible, this study emphasizes their temporal and geographical variety. Still more than before, it directs attention to the fact that it was a broader Atlantic context, rather than only a North American one, in which colonial African-American history took shape.

Another idea still worth emphasizing is that blacks in West Africa through the slave trade years and blacks in America through colonial times were different sorts of people than older, racist, or romantic portrayals led people to believe. These African and African-American men and women were neither perpetual candidates for the objective case, always being done unto and never doing, nor all a bunch of wily calculators, constantly thinking, whether out of necessity or revenge, of ways to dupe their masters. They were normal human beings with a range of personal qualities who made rational decisions under varied and difficult circumstances. Simply recognizing this enables one to appreciate that blacks had a hand in many of the good things, and some of the bad things, that happened to them and to others throughout their history. Certainly, as we approach the end of the second term of the first African American elected to the presidency of the United States, it is more appropriate than ever to step away from stereotypes, exaggerations, and oversights so we can emphasize black humanity and agency, and to turn away from efforts to make either whites or blacks into heroes or villains so we can work toward developing a clearer picture of the human interaction, albeit in unequal circumstances, that forged and shaped American life and society, as it existed then and as it exists today.

Two more somewhat-related ideas come from recent scholarship. One is that both the character of individual black men and women and the nature of African-American culture in its various forms around the North American mainland were far more complex than previously recognized. The other is that race was an important determinant for the experience of blacks in Colonial America, but only one of many. The more we consider these matters, the more it becomes apparent that an overriding focus on race was more characteristic of the thinking of wealthy white men than it was of common folk, of whatever physical makeup, and women. That we have emphasized the importance of race in colonial African-American history may speak more about American society today than American society over two centuries ago.

Finally, the book's conclusion has not changed over the twenty-six years of its existence. It is that through the long period of the evolution of slavery and black society in the colonial period, the course for much of the subsequent history of African Americans was set. By 1790 the basic American institutions and attitudes concerning slavery and racism were established, and by that time forces were in motion that would lead to the expansion of slavery, the struggle that would fuel sectionalism and help bring on the Civil War, and the rapid move toward second-class citizenship for African Americans following slavery's end in 1865. Also, by 1790 the most important elements of African-American culture—family, religion, a spirit of resistance, and a host of truly distinctive ways of living—already underlay a stable black community. From this base, African-American community and culture would evolve through the next two centuries, over which time they would provide black Americans a group identity and help them cope with a hostile world. Thus, in the broadest sense, the colonial era encompassed the truly formative years of the African-American experience.