Slavery in Columbian Exchange up to Civil War

Subject: American History
Type: Descriptive Essay
Pages: 5
Word count: 1368
Topics: Civil War, Columbian Exchange, Slavery


European promoters of colonization claimed that America had many resources. This notion became interwoven among the colonies, and they did not want to be left behind.  However, the need for workers and violence in America drove the practice of slavery and forced labor. Although it was not the intention, colonialists in the New World gave rise to slavery. With increasing colonies, slavery evolved to a great extent. The earliest Africans in Jamestown were treated as indentured servants, whose contract had a fixed term of service. However, their legal status evolved to slavery driven by economic need and free labor. This paper describes the beginning of slavery during Columbian exchange to end of slavery during Civil War.

Columbus Exchange and the beginning of Slavery

Europeans trade with the New World resulted in a global exchange of people, goods, ideas, technology and diseases. This transfer is called the Columbian Exchange. There was a dramatic exchange that led to the introduction of new things between New World and Old World and slaves was one of them. The new resources introduced changed the way people lived throughout the world. For instance, there was introduction of new foods to Asia and Africa from Europe such as bananas and coffee, which lead to an increase in population. Unfortunately, it also led to spread of diseases such as smallpox, measles, influenza and syphilis that had never existed among the Native Americans (Nunn and Nancy 164). They had no treatment for these diseases and as a result, death rose largely.

Slavery was common among various Pre-Columbian indigenous peoples of the Americas. When the Europeans started bringing slaves to the New World, they gained new colonies. As the demand for labor increased, Spain granted encomiendas, native rights to legal labor.  However, the natives resisted labor obligations and the labor system was accompanied by violence. Las Casas denounced brutality and lobbied legislation to eliminate slavery through his writing, which inspired Black Legend; the notion that Spaniards were cruel and intolerant. Columbian Exchange made it easier for slaves to travel to the New World and in great numbers. It also led to the introduction of sugar cane business in America by the Spaniards who were specialist in producing sugar (Klein 32).

The majority of natives died from new diseases such as smallpox, measles and influenza and thus they turned to African slaves. Like Europeans, African slaves had immunity to smallpox and measles. Africans also had strong built (Clark 57). Extensive death rates caused by smallpox and measles led to the rise of Slave trade for other goods.

Europeans perceived Africans to be non-Christians, and thus the European used it to justify African enslavement. The slaves lived in poor conditions and they had no freedom over what they do. In case they resisted they were physical, mentally and sexually abused as a way to threaten them from resisting. Most of the slaves performed manual work and were responsible for growing, harvesting and processing sugarcane. Every step in sugar processing is labor-intensive.

Transatlantic Slavery

During the period of the trans-Atlantic slave trade between 16th and 19th century, approximately 12.5 million Africans had become slaves in America. However, the first Africans to work in America were shipped from Europe in the early 1500s. Many of the slaves were not exported and thus the probability of being enslaved was higher. During this period, slavery was more common in Africa than in any other part of the world.

In Africa, the process of obtaining slaves was associated with war, unlike other parts of history where it was a by-product of wars. The Europeans and the locals fought over the acquisition of slaves. However, smaller operation, raids and kidnappings inflicted damages, which increased as slavery evolved to be a key component in African societies (Nunn and Leonard 4). In fact, slave trade became a vital economic activity for most of the African states (Mokyr 504).

Europeans bought slaves and transported them to America to take care of the sugar and tobacco plantations. The slaves were moved to European fort in West Africa, as they waited to be traded and forced to board a ship destined to America. Portuguese were responsible for transporting slaves across the Atlantic and sold slaves to other Europeans in the Americas, especially in areas where sugar was a primary export. By late 1500, slavery was a key component of the European economy. Although slave trade was still practiced in Africa, the willingness of Africa to cooperate with Europeans in the slave trade and growing demand for labor increased slavery in the 16th century. By mid-16th century, Spanish and Portuguese were bringing thousands of African slaves to America. However, the condition of the slaves was miserable. The slaves were maltreated and their masters beat them. After the Columbian exchange, the slaves were exchanged between Europe, Africa and the West Indies. Europeans traded arms, gin and gunpowder for slaves from West Africa for slaves. The slaves were later sold to West Indies in exchange for sugar, coffee and indigo before these products sent to European countries. By the 18th century, Portuguese and British were the main slave traders accounting for about 70% of the trade between 1775- 1800. In fact, during this period, British could move 30,000 Africans to America (Eltis 128).

In 1807, British passed the Slave Trade Act, which banned the importation of slaves. The government employed various strategies such as navy to interdict vessels and negotiating treaties with other nation to end the slave trade. Some of the proponents of the abolition of slave trade argued that slave trade was no longer profitable by 1807.  One of them was William Wilberforce, who initiated a successful political campaign to abolish the slave trade.  He drew upon the work of Thomas Clarkson and documented evidence and effect of the trade. It took about 15 years, and the slave trade was formally abolished in 1807.  However, it did not cover all countries and thus slave ship under flags of Mexico, Russia, Sardinia and Argentina.  As long as these countries allowed their flags to be used and Cuba and Brazil remained open to slave arrival from Africa, the transatlantic slave trade would continue. In fact, slavery continued under the U.S. flag, for slave traders outside North America (Eltis 347).

Anti-slavery and Civil War

Civil War was significant in ending slavery in America. Indeed, it took a war to end the transatlantic slave trade.  The primary cause of American Civil War was slavery, which as opponents in the North but prominent in the South. The North wanted the slaves be set free, while the South was against the idea since they owned a large plantation and thus depended on free labour to make huge profits, and thus they believed slavery should continue. Neither North nor South was wrong, and thus the war was inevitable. The South had right to defend their life and the North wanted to preserve the union, but reconciliation without war was not possible.

The question of slavery dominated the Presidential election of 1860 where Abraham Lincoln was the Republican Party presidential candidate and advocated for the abolishing of slave territories. However, the Democrats advocated for the protection of slavery. However, won the election and was overwhelm voted by Northern states and the western states, although he did not receive votes from Deep South states.  The Southern states voted to secede and elected Jefferson Davis as its president. Lincoln wanted to achieve a peaceful solution to the problem; however, he sent it U.S. army troops to Charleston Harbor in 1861. The Southerners realized that civil war was upon them. Lincoln called upon 75,000 volunteers, most of them were slaves to put down the rebellion prompted south to join the Confederacy.


The expansion of slave trade took place during the Columbian Exchange that enabled the exchange of resources from Old World to New World, including slaves. When the Europeans acquired new colonies, it created a need for new avenues of labor. Low-cost slave trade enabled the Europeans to buy more slaves from Africa to work in plantations in the New World. It is clear that slavery was inevitable in the United States. It emerged out of economic necessity; however, it became a racial issue when the demand for labor required justification.

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  1. Bartolomé de las Casas . “The Black Legend.” Digitalhistory, Accessed 30 June 2018.
  2. Clark, Gregory. A Farewell to Alms. Princeton University Press, 2007.
  3. Eltis, David.”The U.S. Transatlantic Slave Trade, 1644–1867: An Assessment.”The Kent State University Press, vol.54, no. 4, 2008, pp.347-378.
  4. Eltis, David. “Was Abolition of the U.S. and British Slave Trade Significant in the Broader Atlantic Context?”Humanitarian Intervention and Changing Labor Relations vol.7, 2010, pp.115- 140.
  5. Klein, Herbert. The Atlantic Slave Trade. 2nd ed., Cambridge University Press, 2010.
  6. Mokyr, Joel. The Oxford encyclopedia of economic history. Oxford University Press, 2003.
  7. Nunn Nathan and Leonard Wantchekon. The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and the Evolution of Mistrust in Africa: An Empirical Investigation, Working Paper No. 100, 2008.
  8. Nunn, Nathan and Nancy Qian. “The Columbian Exchange: A History of Disease, Food, and Ideas.”The Journal of Economic Perspectives, vol.24, no.2, 2010, pp. 163-188.
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