Hidden Connections: North America and the United States

The transatlantic trade and seeds of abolishment

In North America the first African slaves were landed at Jamestown, Virginia in 1619. These first slaves were subjected to limited servitude and had the status of indentured labourers but as their numbers increased they lost this status.

By the time the first American census was taken in 1790, African Americans numbered about 760,000 or nineteen percent of the total population. By 1860, just before the start of the American Civil War, the African American population had increased to 4.4 million, the vast majority of them slaves employed on plantations in the southern states labouring on the production of cotton, tobacco and rice.

In the early 1800s in the United States slavery appeared to be declining but Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin made it possible to harvest more cotton more quickly and the need for slaves increased again so that by 1860, in the south there were four million slaves and in some states there were as many slaves as there were free people.

Meanwhile, particularly in the northern states, the campaign to abolish slavery intensified from the 1830s onwards with northerners taking the view that slavery was immoral and that one person should not be allowed to own another.

The southerners on the other hand argued that slavery was an economic necessity and that they could not afford to grow enough cotton to meet the demand without the use of slave labour. They also argued that their use of slaves was similar to the system of paying low wages to workers in northern factories, and also that as well as being provided with food, shelter and clothing the slaves were allowed to become Christians.

In the presidential election of 1860, Abraham Lincoln ran on stopping the spread of slavery while his principal opponent Stephen Douglas ran on the issue of popular sovereignty. The opposition vote was split and Lincoln became the 16th President of the United States.

The south had threatened to secede if Lincoln were elected and shortly thereafter the South Carolina legislature voted to leave the Union. Nine other states soon followed and by February 1861, a new nation was declared, the Confederate States of America, and the American Civil War began.

Following four years of conflict the Confederacy surrendered and in 1865, Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution forbidding slavery in the United States or any other place where it had jurisdiction.

The effect of this long-term economic exploitation of millions of black slaves has had a profound effect on the history of the New World. Most fundamentally it produced deep social divisions between the rich white and poor black communities, the consequences of which still haunt American society today, many years after emancipation.

Deed of Sale

A deed of sale of a Negro slave named William
A deed of sale of a Negro slave named William, aged 10 or 12 years who was sold for $245 to the highest bidder, Samuel Ferguson (originally from Ulster), at a public auction in Fayetteville, North Carolina, USA, on 10 July 1830.

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PRONI Reference D/1918/3/3 

J. B. Hamilton diary, 1859 

Extracts from a diary written by J B Hamilton, Ballymoney, Co Antrim, in which he describes his journey to America and his stay on his uncle’s plantation in North Carolina. He witnessed the working and living conditions of his uncle’s slaves and records his observations in the diary.

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PRONI Reference D/1518/1/5 

Letter to Vere Foster from [William] Dilworth, 23 January 1855

Vere Foster, philanthropist and advocate of emigration as a likely solution to nineteenth century Irish economic problems was seeking employment opportunities for Irish female servants in Florida. Dilworth informs him that ‘all our domestic servants are African slaves… [a] system that is truly paternalistic’.

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PRONI Reference D/3618/D/8/8

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