Richmond Slave Trail
Spanning nearly 350 years, the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade displaced over 12 million Africans from their native lands to foreign soils. European traders eager to fill the labor vacuum in the New World participated in the capture and sale of African men, women and children. The victims experienced unimaginably inhumane, horrific circumstances as they crossed the Atlantic Ocean, a journey known as the Middle Passage. Their destination: the New World, primarily Brazil and the Caribbean. Roughly 4 percent-more than 480,000 -of Africans who had been torn from their homeland stepped on to the North American seaboard. Although the early Chesapeake colonists of Maryland and Virginia initially relied on the indentured servitude of young white Europeans to fulfill their labor needs, the personal gain of a few wealthy land owners determined the fate of thousands. By the dawn of the 18th century, Virginia was wholly committed to the practice of slavery.
The first African captives to arrive in Virginia were most likely transported by English traders and sold to Virginians in the early 1600s. Many worked as indentured servants and tilled the fields side by side with whites of the same status. In the early years of colonization, a person's race did not automatically determine their legal status. Indentured servants of African descent often received the same treatment as those who were white, fulfilling their labor obligations and achieving freedom. Once free, some purchased land and enslaved people, carried out business transactions with whites, and prospered as fully recognized members of this new Anglo-American society.
By 1665, Europe's increasing demand for tobacco combined with a scarcity of English immigrants caused the owners of Virginia's larger tobacco plantations to seek another source of labor. They wanted a plentiful supply of cheap workers from a reliable source and initially looked to the plantations in Barbados for their solution. Although established twenty years after the first North American colonies, these plantations operated under the system that would one day define American plantation-style slavery, including an essential reliance on imported African labor. Virginia plantation owners knew that the cost of an enslaved African was far less than that of an English servant, and that they could take advantage of the established trade routes between Africa and the New World. In addition, Africans came from a highly organized agricultural society and were known to be disciplined workers who were often very skilled in the crafts of metalwork and textile production. By 1670, the first direct shipments of African captives began arriving at the Virginia colony to labor on large tobacco plantations.
The journey between the coast of Africa and ports of the New World required several months on the open seas and often claimed the lives of one in eight of the captured Africans on board. Bound beneath the ship's deck, this cargo of men, women and children were routinely deprived of adequate food and water and subjected to savage treatment as the slave ships hurled and lurched towards an unknown fate. Upon reaching the Chesapeake, ships would sometimes travel up rivers and sell African captives directly to the plantation owners. When Richmond became an active point of transfer in the early 1800s, enslaved Africans transported within Virginia would arrive on smaller boats at Rockett's Landing on the north side of the river or here, at Manchester Docks.
Sources: David Brion Davis; Inhuman Bondage
and Slaves in the Colonial Chesapeake
; Hugh Thomas; The Slave Trade: The story of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1440-1870
; Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave trade database
About the Trail
Designed as a walking path, the Richmond Slave Trail chronicles the history of the trade in enslaved Africans from their homeland to Virginia until 1778, and away from Virginia, especially Richmond, to other locations in the Americas until 1865. The trail begins at the Manchester Docks, which, alongside Rocketts Landing on the north side of the river, operated as a major port in the massive downriver slave trade, making Richmond the largest source of enslaved blacks on the east coast of America from 1830 to 1860. While many of the slaves were shipped on to New Orleans and to other Deep South ports, the trail follows the footsteps of those who remained here and crossed the James River, often chained together in a coffle. Once reaching the northern riverbank, the trail then follows a route through the slave markets and auction houses of Richmond, beside the Reconciliation Statue commemorating the international triangular slave trade and on to the site of the notorious Lumpkin's Slave Jail and leading on to Richmond's African Burial Ground, once called the Burial Ground for Negroes, and the First African Baptist Church, a center of African American life in pre-Civil War Richmond. - Richmond Slave Trail Commission - 2011 -Title image: "After the Sale: Slaves Going South", 1853, Painted from live by Eyre Crowe, courtesy the Chicago History Museum