Enslaving Colonial North America
No African experience in the colonies was exactly the same. African people found themselves in different physical and social environments in the Chesapeake, the Lowcountry, Louisiana, and the Northern Colonies. Africans asserted new identities, created their own cultures, and resisted enslavement, while helping to build the physical, cultural, and intellectual foundations of colonial North America. By the end of the colonial period, race-based slavery was the law of the land and the basis of the economy. Africans were enslaved for life.
Malachy Postlethwayt was an economist and advocate of the slave trade. The author of The Universal Dictionary of Trade and Commerce in 1757, Postlethwayt was also employed by the government-sanctioned slave trading enterprise known as the Royal African Company. In 1745 Postlethwayt declared, “Are we not indebted to those valuable people, the Africans, for our Sugars, Tobaccoes, Rice, [and] Rum,” shedding light on the demand for and contributions of enslaved African people in the Western Atlantic World.
[A] colony of half-breeds who are natural idlers, libertines, and more rascally than those of Peru.
Antoine-Simon Le Page Du Pratz, 1758
Roots & Routes: Forced Migration to Louisiana
Africans were shipped to Louisiana in great numbers between 1727 and the 1740s. They came largely from Bambara, Gambian, Akan, and Kongolese peoples. Disease, harsh conditions, and a poor economy undermined the colony. Migration from Europe and Africa mostly halted until 1776, creating an isolated and highly interdependent set of cultures.
Africans Transported into the Gulf Coast from:
Louisiana: Converging Cultures
French and Spanish Louisiana was one of the most diverse and chaotic colonial settings on the North American continent. People of different cultures encountered one another on plantations, in markets, and in the uncharted swampland. The interactions among Europeans (mostly French and Spanish), Native Americans (mostly Natchez and Choctaw), and enslaved Africans (mostly Bambara, Fon, and Yoruba) shaped the territory. Enslaved Africans navigated these cultural crossings by establishing their own economy and resisting slavery.
Landscape of Slavery
The rich coastal wetlands of the Mississippi River Delta would have been a familiar landscape to west Africans, whose histories were steeped in long traditions of shipbuilding and river transport. Louisiana plantations sat in the cypress swamps, clustered in uncleared forest along the banks of the Mississippi. Enslaved people ran away, and neither enslavers nor overseers were eager to enter this difficult environment. Africans used their knowledge of complex riverways to their advantage, establishing trade with Europeans and Native Americans and even forming maroon communities.
Work in Louisiana
Before the American Revolution, French Louisiana had few cash crops. Yet this did not crush the desire to enslave people, including Africans and Native Americans. Enslaved Africans were present in every North American colony, with or without a plantation system. In Louisiana they cleared land, harvested wood, and grew food crops that their enslavers sold to the French Caribbean. Africans responded creatively to these circumstances and established their own markets. This bit of independence generated cash to purchase property and sometimes freedom.
Life in Louisiana
In French colonial Louisiana, Native Americans, Europeans, and Africans built a complex frontier society. An estimated five Inoca (or Illinois) tribes lived along the Mississippi River Valley in 1750, including the Chitimacha who hunted, fished, and farmed in Louisiana long before Europeans arrived in the area. In 1706 the French initiated a 12-year war with the Chitimacha and enslaved many men, women, and children. Shortly thereafter, French enslavers forced enslaved African people to the region connecting them with Native Americans all along the southwestern bayous. The two groups hunted together, traded, shared knowledge about the forest and fisheries, intermarried, and resisted enslavement. Enslaved Africans built an independent economy based on their trade with Native Americans.
Los Adaes, Louisiana
Los Adaes sat at the crossroads of Spanish, French, and Native American empires, allowing extensive trade networks to crisscross colonial Louisiana. It served as a vital military outpost connecting the Red River to Mexico City. Traversing river and road, the people of Los Adaes conducted illegal trade by crossing Caddo, Spanish, and French imperial boundaries. In places like Los Adaes, people of African descent moved within and between societies to secure a measure of freedom. The multicultural space required cultural dexterity for survival and to build alliances.
Across all levels of society, people in colonial Louisiana had to rely upon one another. Largely cut off from European trade networks, communities of free and enslaved west Africans and Europeans had to sustain themselves. They learned hunting techniques from Native Americans and traded to their advantage. The artifacts shown here were recovered from Los Adaes.
It was not practiced and not the custom for the negroes to ask the permission of their masters for what they should do.
Charles Joseph Loppinot, 1774
The most important work for enslaved African people happened during their free time. They rented out their labor and cultivated their own food for survival. They also traded widely in local markets—selling baskets and sifters made from willows and reeds and offering berries, palmetto roots, sassafras, and game. Enslaved people and maroons met regularly in the cypress swamps to trade, cultivate food, and extend community networks.
In 1565 the Spanish settled St. Augustine in present-day Florida. To wrest territory from Native Americans, they employed Catholic missions, military occupation, and a system of forced labor known as the encomiendo. Their empire stretched from Florida to California. In an effort to destabilize the other European colonies, the Spanish granted freedom to people of African descent who made their way to the region. The promise of freedom to the self-liberated was conditional based on conversion to Catholicism and the expectation of serving as the frontline defense against other colonial powers. Africans in Spanish Florida lived in St. Augustine, more specifically Fort Mose, established by the governor as a Black space. This map, oriented with north at the right, shows the land between Fort Mossy (Fort Mose) on the bottom left and St. Augustine. Colonial Florida represents a space of cultural blending among Europeans, Africans, and Native Americans.
Escape from Slavery
The Code Noir was a 1685 decree by France’s King Louis XIV that detailed the “acceptable” conditions for enslavement and freedom. It legitimized enslavers' authority in French Louisiana, but also allowed enslaved people certain rights, though they were rarely enforced. Recaptured runaways justified their flight by appealing to the code, explaining that they were overworked, underfed, threatened, assaulted, and maimed by their enslavers. During the colonial period, the Louisiana Territory had the largest maroon, or runaway, settlements in North America. Escaping into the protection of swamps and bayous, enslaved Africans, and often Native Americans, created societies apart from colonial governments. Usually well-armed, enslaved people and maroons from various plantations met regularly in the swamps to exchange trade goods and news. By the time the American Revolution was drawing to a close, the maroons controlled vital parts of the Louisiana Territory.
A Voice from Louisiana: Marianne (Brion) Dubreuil
A successful New Orleans businesswoman, Marianne Dubreuil (1735–1818) lived under three imperial powers. She was born enslaved under the French (1735), emancipated under the Spanish (1772), and protected her extensive land holdings under the Americans (after 1803). Like many other people of African descent, she gained rights through the church that the imperial laws denied her. A clever entrepreneur, Marianne Dubreuil switched between her birth name, Dubreuil, and her former enslaver’s name, Brion, to secure the best real estate deals. Free women of color in New Orleans owned more property than any other group besides white men. Anticipating the city’s growth, many women, including Dubreuil, wisely purchased properties facing the marketplace. This place would become Congo Square, or Place Publique, one of the nation’s largest and most well-known Black public spaces.