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Friday, April 12, 2013

The Slave Trade as a Commercial Enterprise in Richmond, Virginia

The presence of slavery and the business of buying and selling bondsmen was an essential element in Richmond’s development as one of the preeminent cities in the south during the antebellum period. The city’s pivotal location in proximity to the agricultural fields of Tidewater and Southside Virginia, and North Carolina, the natural power source provided by the falls on the James River, and its accessibility as a shipping port and later as a railroad hub made Richmond an ideal place for manufacturing and exporting operations. Processing, marketing and exportation activities were concentrated near the James River around Shockoe Creek where Richmond was founded. Tobacco processing, flour milling, and iron production were prominent industries and the coalfields of Midlothian contributed yet another facet to the city’s wealth. In 1780, the Virginia state capital was moved from Williamsburg to Richmond further solidifying the city’s status as an industrial, political and economic center. Often overlooked in discussions of Richmond’s economic success in the antebellum period is the impact of the slave trade as a commercial enterprise. “In the 1850s, Richmond’s biggest business by dollar volume was not tobacco, flour, or iron, but slaves.”

The first Africans arrived in the British colonies in 1619 at Jamestown, Virginia. The great majority of imported slaves came directly from Africa but some were brought into the colonies from the West Indies. Their exact status as slave (lifetime service and inherited status) or servant is unclear but between 1640 and 1660 there is evidence of enslavement and by 1660 the concept of slavery was being solidified in the statute books of the colonies. “In the Chesapeake area (Virginia and Maryland) more than anywhere to the northward, the shortage of labor and the abundance of land…placed a premium on involuntary labor.” The cultivation of tobacco in this region “required labor which was cheap but not temporary, mobile but not independent, and tireless rather than skilled.” In 1649, it was estimated that there were 300 slaves in Virginia. The number had grown to 2,000 in 1671 and by 1721, slaves accounted for over 50% of Virginia’s total population. The 1780 United States census enumerated 292,627 slaves in Virginia.

Date of Report: April 2, 2013
Number of Pages: 13
Order Number: G1343
Price: $5.95

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