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.
It rather hurts an Europian eye to see so many negro slaves upon the streets.
Patrick M’Robert, 1774
By the mid-1700s, the Northern Colonies were deeply invested in slavery. New York, one of the largest colonies, had one of the largest slave ports in all of colonial North America. Enslaved people were sold throughout the colony including from Waal Street—modern-day Wall Street. Rhode Island grew wealthy from the slave-based economy, with port cities receiving and dispatching slave ships and agricultural commodities. Enslaved Africans and indentured servants cleared the land and built cities, served on the docks and as craftspeople, and cultivated crops on small farms in the North, including in New York City, once known as New Amsterdam. A cruel irony existed in the fact that their forced labor contributed to the expansion of the enterprise of slavery, creating luxurious lifestyles for the aristocratic enslaving class.
By 1664 New York City had more enslaved residents than any other city in North America. As new markets opened up trade with the Caribbean, enslaved African people in more rural areas labored alongside yeoman farmers, indentured servants, and Native Americans on small provisioning farms. They crafted supplies and cultivated food that sustained enslavers and the people they enslaved on plantation sites in the Caribbean, where all available land was dedicated to profitable crops—most significantly sugar.
Forty-three percent of the city’s households depended upon enslaved domestic servants, craftspeople, and laborers. The urban landscape and society provided unique opportunities for cross-cultural collaboration, exploitation, and rebellion.
In northern cities, many free Black people worked as skilled laborers—seamen, cobblers, carpenters, seamstresses, coopers, and in other trades. Enslaved and free Africans who worked on the docks or as seamen had access to news from throughout the Atlantic World, including news of resistance. In urban areas, enslaved Black people often lived apart from their family members and near free people of African descent. Such close proximity afforded the opportunity for gathering and sharing news. In rural areas, enslaved Black people worked beside indentured servants and Native Americans as domestic workers, tradespeople, and field laborers. This allowed them to learn new skills, develop trade contacts, and possibly find avenues to freedom.
Lucy Foster was enslaved in Andover, Massachusetts, as a child. After Massachusetts abolished slavery in 1783, Lucy continued to work for the enslaving Foster family as a domestic. In her will, enslaver Hannah Foster bequeathed Lucy $150, an acre of land, and a cow. Lucy made a place for herself in the business community of Andover, taking in sewing work and also possibly running a tavern for travelers.
Domestics and seamstresses were the majority of the enslaved workforce in New York. They lived and worked with enslavers, often in the same household, and they were vulnerable to sexual assault.
In the Northern Colonies, enslaved Africans lived and worked in closer proximity to one another than in rural settings. They lived in tight quarters, including in attics, under stairs, and in kitchens.
This group of objects including gingham cloth, pins, a cowrie shell, and blue beads was found under the attic floorboards of a colonial-era home in Newport, Rhode Island. Nkisi are bundles of objects that are believed to hold spiritual power and reflect the beliefs of the Bakongo people of western Central Africa. Often found buried near dwelling sites of enslaved people, the objects shed light on early faith practices and cultural continuity among African people.
Most urban enslavers possessed only a handful of enslaved people; family members were owned by different households and often lived apart. The closeness of enslaved and free African Americans enabled them to create an urban Black community. They worked, lived, and maintained cultural connections together—much to the dismay of the enslavers.
The African Burial Ground in Lower Manhattan is a site of memory for the 15,000 African souls buried there. Burial grounds are considered one of the first African American institutions in colonial North America because they were among the few public spaces where Africans could openly congregate and continue religious traditions. The African Burial Ground was rediscovered in 1991, and the color-coding in this image depicts the diverse ethnicities of enslaved and free Africans buried at the site. Today the site serves as a memorial, a national monument, and a space for learning more about the lives of enslaved Africans in colonial New York.
Born in Guinea, western Africa, Broteer was the son of a wealthy prince. He was captured as a child and marched over 1,000 miles to the British Fort William in Anamabo. In 1739, he was forced on a ship sailing for Barbados. Most of his fellow captives were sold on the island, but he was taken to Rhode Island, where he was purchased and renamed Venture. Enslaved on Fishers Island, New York, he met and married an enslaved woman named Meg. The couple had four children: Hannah; Solomon, who died at sea; Cuff; and their youngest child, also named Solomon.
Sold several times, Broteer (Venture) bought his freedom in 1765 for 71 pounds and two shillings. He also purchased the freedom of his wife and children and went on to become a successful landowner and businessman in Haddam Neck in Connecticut. In 1798 he dictated his biography, chronicling his slavery and freedom.
Enslaved Black people escaped to and from the Northern Colonies. British colonists encouraged them to flee to undermine the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam. Free Black farmers harbored fugitives as they made their way to French Canada or to live among Native Americans. Slave ads provided detailed descriptions of Africans, including their abilities, intellect, languages spoken, demeanor, and physical stature. To prevent escape, laws banned enslaved Africans from gathering and from galloping on horses.
Dorothe Angola was one of the first Black women in New Amsterdam, modern-day New York City. Her last name indicates a direct connection to Africa. She was also nicknamed Dorothy Creole, as the word Creole was applied to people from culturally blended societies.
In 1643 she became the godmother to Anthony van Angola. After Anthony’s parents passed away, she and her husband raised him as their own. By 1644 a group of enslaved people petitioned the Dutch Council in New Amsterdam for their freedom. Granted half freedom, they paid a yearly tax and worked for the colony, but their children remained enslaved. They created one of the first free Black communities in North America. In 1661 Dorothe and her husband petitioned the state to declare Anthony a free person once he reached majority age. Dorothe and Anthony’s story is one of the first in which public records show the people of New Amsterdam’s Black community caring for one another.
We have no property! . . . We have no city! No country! [But] in common with all other men, we have a natural right to our freedom.
Felix, Enslaved Petitioner, 1773