Revisiting American History: Origins of Racism

Warning: The following article wrestles with a difficult topic in American history, and that topic contains some horrid depictions of human suffering.

This article is a continuation of the Revisiting American History Series, where every month, I revisit a section of American history with a critical eye for the different groups of people involved in that history, telling stories not of America as a collective group pursuing a national interest shared by all of its individuals, but as a variety of groups all with competing interests. While this series typically does not delve deeply into current events, I hope that it does help put a lot of conflict rampant in America today into context. I’m mainly following along with A People’s History of the United States, by Howard Zinn, rereading, annotating, and distilling the content into quick summaries for you here. Remember, any story from history contains bias. Howard Zinn is not exempt from that bias and neither am I. Also, if you ever want more information or perspective, I highly recommend reading the book for yourself!

This article focuses on an exploration of the different groups involved in the institutionalization of racism through human trafficking (slavery) in America’s early colonial period. I purposely use the words “human trafficking” and “slavery” interchangeably, as I’ve become a little too used to talking about “slavery” as just a fact of history, rather than a disgusting treatment of human beings. By using the wording of “human trafficking”, I hope to return to the people abused by this system some of their humanity, and myself a reminder that these were, in fact, humans, just as you and I.

A Black American writer from the 1900s, J. Saunders Redding, describes the arrival of a ship in North America in the year 1619:

Sails furled, flag drooping at her rounded stern, she rode the tide in from the sea… The flag she flew was Dutch; her crew a motley. Her port of call, an English settlement, Jamestown, in the colony of Virginia. She came, she traded, and shortly afterwards, she was gone. Probably no ship in modern history has carried a more portentous freight. Her cargo? Twenty slaves.

We can trace the origins of human trafficking in America back to this first ship. Racism has been embedded into America’s history since its infancy. While some historians think the first black people to arrive in Virginia were considered servants, like the white indentured servants from Europe, the strong probability is that even if they were listed as “servants”, they were seen differently, treated differently, and ultimately, were slaves.

To understand why the American colonists were so open to human trafficking as a means of acquiring labor, we have to understand the conditions in which they made that decision. The first white settlers of Virginia were utterly unprepared for the harsh challenges associated with making a new life for themselves in America.

Many Virginians had suffered through the “starving time” from 1609-1610. By 1609, the population had grown to five hundred colonists from the original one hundred founders. At that point, the colony could no longer support its massive population. Colonists went from eating one small ladle of barley per meal to roaming the woods for nuts and berries, and eating the corpses of those less fortunate. As the Journals of the Burgesses of Virginia, a document from 1619, recounts the story:

… driven thru insufferable hunger to eat those things which nature most abhorred, the flesh and excrements of man as well as of our own nation as of an Indian, digged by some out of his grave after he had lain buried three days and wholly devoured him… one among them slew his wife as she slept in his bosom, cut her in pieces, salted her and fed upon her till he had clean devoured all parts of her head…

By the end of that “starving time”, starvation had reduced five hundred colonists to sixty.

After enduring that traumatic experience, the Virginians were ready for a way out. They needed labor to grow corn for their own subsistence, and tobacco for export. They had just sent out the first batch of tobacco out in 1617, and found it quite profitable. They needed food, and they needed money.

These colonists were searching desperately for a source of cheap labor. There weren’t enough white servants to do the work, and they came with a massive downside. Once their contract expired after a few years, they would have paid off their debts for the voyage to the New World. At that point, a servant was no longer a source of free labor, but just another mouth to feed. The free white settlers in the colony were primarily skilled craftsmen, with a few even being “men of leisure”, who were not so inclined to work for John Smith, who had to organize them into work gangs and force them into the fields for their survival.

In their search for gold in the Carribean, the Spaniards slaughtered and enslaved the Arawaks. Why didn’t the American colonists do the same to the Native Americans in their search for cheap labor? The fact of the matter is that the desperate and starving American colonists were no match for the resourceful Native Americans defending their home. 

Edmund Morgan, writer of American Slavery, American Freedom, a book from 1975, focuses on the frustration and dissonance these colonists must have faced, enraged that even though they had superior firepower, and a supposedly superior way of life, they just couldn’t win against the natives. As Morgan writes:

If you were a colonist, you knew that your technology was superior to the Indians [Native Americans]. You knew that you were civilized, and they were savages… The Indians [Native Americans], keeping to themselves, laughed at your superior methods and lived from the land more abundantly and with less labor than you did… And when your own people started deserting in order to live with them, it was too much… So you killed the Indians [Native Americans], tortured them, burned their villages, burned their cornfields… But you still did not grow much corn…

For all of their pain, suffering, and violence, the colonists gained nothing. Their aggression against the natives resulted only in more of their own suffering. The colonists’ own hubris and arrogance made enemies of the natives who were knowledgeable in survival and might have otherwise helped the colonists survive. Unfortunately, this relationship only grows more strained as America’s history marches forward.

At this point, the colonists were focused on survival, and they needed labor. Unable to get the necessary labor out of the servants and freeman among them, or the natives nearby, they turned to the human trafficking of African peoples.

Even if the institution of slavery had not been regularized and legalized in the colonies at this point, it would be difficult to presume that those first black people forcibly taken to Jamestown and sold to colonists as objects, were anything but slaves. By 1619, a million black people had already been brought from Africa to South America and the Carribean, the Portuguese and Spanish colonies, to work as slaves. Europeans had branded African people as slave labor for a hundred years by this point.

Since slavery had existed in the African states, Europeans sometimes tried to use it as a means of justifying their own slave trade. However, that’s not quite a fair comparison, as the “slaves” of Africa were more like the serfs of Europe. According to Basil Davidson, author of The African Slave Trade, points out that while African slavery was a harsh servitude, the humans enslaved were “altogether different from the human cattle of the slave ships and the American plantations.” One observer from the Ashanti Kingdom of West Africa noted that “a slave might marry; own property; himself own a slave, swear an oath; be a competent witness and ultimately become heir to his master… An Ashanti slave, nine cases out of ten, possibly became an adopted member of the family, and in time his descendants so merged and intermarried with the owner’s kinsmen that only a few would know their origin.”

While African slavery isn’t something to be praised, it is altogether far different from American slavery, which was lifelong, morally crippling, desctructive of family ties, without hope for a future. What made American slavery the most cruel form of slavery in history was the combination of the frenzy for limitless profit that comes from capitalistic agriculture, and reduction of the slaves to less than human status, where white was master, and black was slave.

These African people who had been ripped from their land and culture were in an especially vulnerable position in America. The colonists were in their own European culture, and the Native Americans were in their own land and culture. The African people had to fight with sheer extraordinary persistence just to hold onto whatever they could of their heritage of language, dress, custom, and family relations.

Oftentimes, these African people were kidnapped in the interior of Africa, forced to march to the coast, sold, shoved into pens with people from various African tribes, and shipped off to be sold in the European mainlands or one of its colonies. These marches were death marches, sometimes reaching one thousand miles. The enslaved people were shackled around the neck, and marched under whip and gun. Two of every five of them died during these marches. John Barbot, at the end of the seventeenth century, described the cages on the Gold Coast.

As the slaves come down to Fida from the inland country, they are put into a booth or prison… near the beach, and when the Europeans are to receive them, they are brought out onto a large plain, where the ship’s surgeons examine every part of everyone of them, to the smallest member, men and women being stark naked… Such as are allowed good and sounds are set on one side… marked on the breast with a red-hot iron… The branded slaves after this are returned to their former booths where they await shipment, sometimes 10-15 days…

Olaudah Equiano, c. 1745-1797 , an African man who survived through the slave trade and escaped in 1766, describes his experience seeing a slave ship for the first time in his autobiography. 

The first object which saluted my eyes when I arrived on the coast was the sea, and a slave ship, which was then riding at anchor and waiting for its cargo. These filled me with astonishment, which was soon converted into terror when I was carried aboard. I was immediately handled and tossed up to see if I were sound by some of the crew; and I was now persuaded that I had gotten into a world of bad spirits, and that they were going to kill me… Indeed such were the horrors of my views and fears at the moment, that, if ten thousand worlds had been my own, I would have freely parted with them all to have exchanged my condition with that of the meanest slave in my own country.

Given the opportunity, many of these people chose to jump overboard and drown themselves rather than continue their suffering. Olaudah Equiano describes one such incident as follows.

One day, when we had a smooth sea and moderate wind, two of my wearied countrymen who were chained together (I was near them at the time), preferring death to such a life of misery, somehow made through the nettings and jumped into the sea: immediately another quite dejected fellow, who, on account of his illness, was suffered to be out of irons, also followed their example; and I believe many more would very soon have done the same if they had not been prevented by the ship’s crew… two of the wretches were drowned, but they [the slavers] got the other, and afterwards flogged him unmercifully for thus attempting to prefer death to slavery.

One of every three African slaves died overseas. Despite the horrific nature of human trafficking, the huge profits, oftentimes double the investment made on one trip, justified the act in the eyes of the slavers. 

By 1800, ten to fifteen million Africans had been forcibly transported to the Americas as slaves, representing perhaps a third of those kidnapped from Africa. As Zinn puts it:

It is roughly estimated that Africa lost fifty million human beings to death and slavery in those centuries we call the beginnings of modern Western civilization, at the hands of slave traders and plantation owners in Western Europe and America, the countries deemed the most advanced in the world.

And thus, the stage was set for the history around race in America. Remember that when we talk about racism and our modern day understandings of race in America, this was where it started. I don’t believe this to be the roots of racism across the world, but it’s certainly the roots of racism in American culture. This article helps illustrate why human trafficking based on race become so integral to American history from its roots, and begins to explore what this actually meant for the African humans caught in the midst of this system.

Next month, I plan to focus on the history surrounding African American resistance to slavery, and the instutionalization of racism as a means of suppressing class conflicts. As the institution of slavery spread thoughout the colonies, so did resistance to the oppression of the black and white lower classes alike. Fearing widespread civil unrest, the landowning elite of America found means of suppressing both while giving up as little as possible in return.


  1.  A People’s History Of The United States by Howard Zinn

I’m citing this source again because of how extensively I’ve used it to write this article. Many pieces of this article are either direct quotes or paraphrased paragraphs from Zinn that aren’t explicitly called out. Part of this is due to his unique style of writing I hope to capture in this article, how well he articulates certain ideas, so that I can be certain I’m not misrepresenting any facts presented by Zinn, and to not disrupt the flow of the writing.

  1. The Interesting Narrative Of The Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African. Written By Himself.

This was an incredible autobiography of Olaudah Equiano, c. 1745-1797, an African man who survived and escaped from slavery. He wrote his autobiography specifically to advocate for the abolition of slavery in Britian, and he recounts his journey across various parts of the world and his experience as an African slave.

  1. American Slavery, American Freedom by Edmund S. Morgan

I mainly checked the date the book was published to provide more context to Zinn’s quotation from the book.

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