Chronology of Slavery in the United States

American Slavery, Edward Williams Clay, 1841

American Slavery, Edward Williams Clay, 1841

In every human Breast, God has implanted a Principle, which we call Love of Freedom; it is impatient of oppression, and pants for Deliverance. … The same Principle lives in us. 

—  Phillis Wheatley, 1774

Wheatley was an enslaved colonial American-born African poetess who captured the feelings of the American-born Africans.

Some five hundred years ago, ships began transporting millions of enslaved Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas. Slavery would continue for more than 200 years in the United States until it became a primary cause of the Civil War and ended only when the North was victorious over the South in 1865.

Notable events in the history of African slavery

Before 1400

Evidence of slavery predates written records, and is thought to have began sometime after the invention of agriculture about 11,000 years ago. Slavery existed in almost every ancient civilization including Egypt, China, Indian, Greece, the Roman Empire, and the pre-Columbian civilizations of the Americas. These slavery practices were a mixture of debt-slavery, punishment for crime, the enslavement of prisoners of war, child abandonment, and the birth of slave children to slaves.

In Europe, slavery existed from Classical times and did not decline until the collapse of the Roman Empire. Slavery remained in Europe throughout the early medieval period, but, became increasingly uncommon in Northern Europe and by the 11th and 12th centuries, had been effectively abolished in the North. In Southern and Eastern Europe, slavery remained a normal part of the society and economy and trade across the Mediterranean and the Atlantic seaboard meant that African slaves began to appear in Italy, Spain, Southern France, and Portugal well before the discovery of the New World.

From about the 8th century onwards, an Arab-run slave trade also flourished. In addition, many African societies, themselves, had forms of slavery.


Start of European slave trading in Africa. The Portuguese captains Antao Gonçalves and Nuno Tristao capture 12 Africans in Cabo Branco (modern Mauritania) and take them to Portugal as slaves.

Slave Market, Gustave Boulanger

Historic Slave Market, by Gustave Boulanger


The Portuguese negotiate the first slave trade agreement that also includes gold and ivory. By the end of the 19th Century, because of the slave trade, five times as many Africans (over 11 million) would arrive in the Americas than Europeans.


Spanish and Portuguese bring African slaves to the Caribbean and Central America to replace Native Americans in the gold mines.


The start of the systematic transportation of African slaves to the New World begins when King Ferdinand of Spain authorizes a shipment of 50 African slaves to be sent to Santo Domingo.


Spanish in St. Augustine, Florida import enslaved Africans.


The first English colony in what will become the United States is established at Roanoke Island (North Carolina).

Did You Know??…..

An estimated 1-1.25 million Europeans were captured by Barbary pirates and sold as slaves in North Africa and the Ottoman Empire between the 16th and 19th centuries.

The Africans called the trip across the Atlantic Ocean “Middle Passage.”


A Dutch ship transports 20 Africans to Jamestown, Virginia. Initially, they appear to have been indentured servants; but, the institution of hereditary lifetime service for enslaved African-Americans soon develops.


The Massachusetts Bay Colony legalized slavery.


Rhode Island declares an enslaved person must be freed after 10 years of service.


The practice of slavery becomes a legally recognized institution in British America. Colonial assemblies begin to enact laws known as slave codes, which restrict the liberty of slaves and protect the institution of slavery.


Virginia legalizes slavery.


A Virginia court decides a child born to an enslaved mother is also a slave.


The King of England charters the Royal African Company, thereby encouraging the expansion of the British slave trade.


Nathaniel Bacon (Bacon’s Rebellion) appeals to enslaved blacks to join in his cause.

Slavery is prohibited in West New Jersey, a Quaker settlement in current day South New Jersey.

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