The Making of an Institution
The most familiar images of Southern slavery relate to the fully fledged mature institution of the last generation before the Civil War. A certain timeless, changeless, static quality has attached itself to those images. But slavery had not always been like that; the peculiar institution had its own peculiar history. The slave South was not a fixed point but a changing historical process. The two centuries from 1619 to the 1820s shaped the character of both Southern slavery and the black American experience.
Differences of time and place etched a variegated pattern into the history of slavery during the colonial period, as Ira Berlin in particular has emphasized.1 The decades on either side of 1700 mark a crucial turning point between the first long phase of slow and uncertain evolution during the seventeenth century and the firm consolidation and rapid expansion of slavery in the eighteenth century. Geographically, there were three distinct areas where slavery took shape (and, in two of them, took root) in the British North American colonies. First in time, numbers, and importance was the Chesapeake Bay region of Virginia and Maryland, where tobacco was the main staple crop. Second, from the 1670s onward, were the coastal settlements of the Carolinas (especially South Carolina), and later of Georgia, where heavy concentrations of slave labor were used in the cultivation of subtropical crops such as rice and indigo. Third, it must not be forgotten that slaves were far from unknown in some of the Northern colonies. There the slave population was much more scattered, but at their eighteenth-century peak in New York, slaves and free blacks numbered up to 15 percent of the total population.
There is nothing clear-cut about the beginnings of slavery on the