Academic Minute Podcast

Lou Roper, SUNY New Paltz – Making Slavery ‘Normal’ in English America

On SUNY Distinguished Professor Week: The history of slavery should continue to be talked about.

Lou Roper, SUNY distinguished professor of history at SUNY New Paltz, explains why.

Lou Roper is SUNY Distinguished Professor of History at the State University of New York—New Paltz (USA) and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and the New York Academy of History. A recipient of a SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Scholarship, he is the author or editor of seven books including, most recently, Advancing Empire: English Interests and Overseas Expansion, 1613-1688 (Cambridge University Press, 2016) and The Torrid Zone: Caribbean Colonization and Cultural Interaction in the Long Seventeenth Century (University of South Carolina Press, 2018).

Making Slavery ‘Normal’ in English America

Enslaved Africans and Native Americans labored on tobacco plantations on the Essequibo River in Guyana by the mid-1610s. This practice was extended to Bermuda and Virginia by the end of that decade and to St. Christophers and Barbados in the 1620s. The problem for prospective purchasers of enslaved Africans was supply.

Until the Dutch expelled the Portuguese from the Gulf of Guinea in 1637, pirates and smugglers carried enslaved human beings to English markets as in the case of the twenty Africans brought to Jamestown in 1619. The first recorded English slaving voyage to an English colony, though, occurred in 1626.

The opening of “Lower Guinea” opened the Guinea trade and what might be termed a ‘slave rush’ ensued as an array of operators pursued the opportunity to acquire human beings as well as ivory and gold. The potential profits—between £17-20 sterling per enslaved person—were worth the hazards to traders who gave no thought to the morality of what they were doing. By the mid-1640s, the Guinea Company had established a base at Cormontine on the Gold Coast where its agents—who could be compensated in slaves—traded Swedish iron and Asian fabrics and shipped increasing numbers of enslaved Africans by an established route to Barbados to meet insatiable colonial labor demands.

This island, the most populous seventeenth-century English colony, served as the unwanted new home for tens of thousands of Africans as well as a transshipment point for enslaved Africans to other locations. It also created the model by which Anglo-American societies “ordered” those enslaved by providing punishments such as gelding for those caught escaping or devising other ways of rebelling against their situations.


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