American settlers soon found tobacco to be a profitable export crop. It was popular in Europe where tobacco-smoking and snuff-taking had become fashionable. In states such as Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina, vast areas were given over to tobacco. Gad Heuman and James Walvin, the authors of Origins and Development of Slavery in the Americas (2003) have argued: "Tobacco transformed everything. Though labour was organised initially around imported European indentured labour, by the end of the seventeenth century tobacco had been effectively taken over by slaves. As tobacco exports boomed, the number of African slaves increased."
Henry Clay Bruce worked on a tobacco plantation at Keytesville, "Judge Applegate's I was kept busy every minute from sunrise to sunset, without being allowed to speak a word to anyone. I was too young then to be kept in such close confinement. It was so prison-like to be compelled to sit during the entire year under a large bench or table filled with tobacco, and tie lugs all day long except during the thirty minutes allowed for breakfast and the same time allowed for dinner. I often fell asleep. I could not keep awake even by putting tobacco in my eyes."
Plantation owners imported large numbers of slaves to cultivate it, dry its leaves and pack it to be transported to market. When prices fell in the middle of the 17th century, some planters turned to producing rice and sugar cane.
Slavery in the United States (£1.29)
My father and mother were left on the plantation; but I was taken to the city of Richmond, to work in a tobacco manufactory, owned by my old master's son William, who had received a special charge from his father to take good care of me, and which charge my new master endeavoured to perform. He told me if I would behave well he would take good care of me and give me money to spend; he talked so kindly to me that I determined I would exert myself to the utmost to please him, and do just as he wished me in every respect. He furnished me with a new suit of clothes, and gave me money to buy things to send to my mother. One day I overheard him telling the overseer that his father had raised me - that I was a smart boy and that he must never whip me. I tried exceedingly hard to perform what I thought was my duty, and escaped the lash almost entirely, although I often thought the overseer would have liked to have given me a whipping, but my master's orders, which he dared not altogether to set aside, were my defence; so under these circumstances my lot was comparatively easy.
Our overseer at that time was a coloured man, whose name was Wilson Gregory; he was generally considered a shrewd and sensible man, and, after the orders which my master gave him concerning me, he used to treat me very kindly indeed, and gave me board and lodgings in his own house. Gregory acted as book-keeper also to my master, and was much in favour with the merchants of the city and all who knew him; he instructed me how to judge of the qualities of tobacco, and with the view of making me a more proficient judge of that article, he advised me to learn to chew and to smoke which I therefore did.
In January, 1846, with my older brothers I was hired to Judge Applegate, who conducted a tobacco factory at Keytesville, Missouri. I was then about ten years old. At Judge Applegate's I was kept busy every minute from sunrise to sunset, without being allowed to speak a word to anyone. I was too young then to be kept in such close confinement. It was so prison-like to be compelled to sit during the entire year under a large bench or table filled with tobacco, and tie lugs all day long except during the thirty minutes allowed for breakfast and the same time allowed for dinner. I often fell asleep. I could not keep awake even by putting tobacco in my eyes. I was punished by the overseer, a Mr. Blankenship, every time he caught me napping, which was quite often during the first few months.
My master had about 100 slaves, engaged chiefly in the cultivation of tobacco, this and wheat being the staple produce of Virginia at that time. The slaves had to work very hard in digging the ground with what is termed a grub hoe. The slaves leave their huts quite early in the morning, and work until late at night, especially in the spring and fall. I have known them very often, when my master has been away drinking, work all night long, husking Indian corn to put into cribs.
The English settlement of the colonies in the Chesapeake saw slaves introduced from the earliest days, but, as in Barbados, slaves did not become vital until much later. Tobacco transformed everything. Though labour was organised initially around imported European indentured labour, by the end of the seventeenth century tobacco had been effectively taken over by slaves. As tobacco exports boomed, the number of African slaves increased. In South Carolina, the introduction of rice cultivation (like sugar, hard, unpleasant work in difficult conditions) saw a similar drift to African slave labour. By the mid-century, there were about 145,000 slaves in the Chesapeake and 40,000 working in the rice fields. Shortly after Independence, there were 698,000 slaves scattered throughout North America. Though concentrated mainly in the old South, slavery had slipped into all corners of North American life." Slavery in North America was a remarkable institution. It differed greatly between colonies, between town and country, and especially between crops. The slave experience was, then, much more complex than we might initially imagine.
Of course, North American slavery is most popularly associated with the cotton states of the nineteenth century. On the eve of the Civil War, cotton was the most valuable US export, flooding world markets. It was cultivated overwhelmingly by slaves. By then, American cotton planters, unlike their sugar, rice or tobacco forebears, had no need of a transatlantic slave trade for their supplies of slaves. The United States developed its own internal slave trade, with slaves moving from the eastern slave states towards the south and the advancing western frontier. One million slaves were moved in this way, to work and live on the new cotton plantations. Though it may have lacked the oceanic horrors of crossing the Atlantic, this migration had its own pains and sufferings (notably family break-up and separations).
The slave population of the United States was quite different from most other societies. It was, most crucially, a population which expanded. Though half a million Africans had been imported into North America, by the 1860s there was a slave population of almost 4 million.