The history of the living conditions, situations and circumstances in which African Americans have lived through the centuries are described in articles in this section. There are also articles on Africa and its history and traditions.
African Americans and the Exploration of the New World
Africans had settled in the New World long before the colonists arrived from England. It is possible they may have been explorers themselves. It is known they were on the ships of Spanish and Portuguese explorers. The majority of Blacks were slaves or servants. A few were free.
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Pedro Alonzo Niño, who sailed with Columbus in 1492 is thought to be the first Black man to reach the shores of the West Indies. Initially, settling in the West Indies as free men or run-away slaves, Blacks outnumbered the Europeans in Puerto Rico, Cuba and along the coast of South America. They mixed with the native people and the Spaniards.
In 1565 the Spaniards established their first permanent settlement at St. Augustine, Florida. By that time Blacks and their descendants were living in the interior areas of what is now the United States. One of the most famous Black explorers was Esteban or Little Stephen. His exploration of New Mexico and Arizona prepared these areas for the Spanish conquest of the Southwest.
The French explored the region now known as Canada. Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, a French-speaking Black man, erected the first building in what is now Chicago, Illinois.
Indentured Servants to Slaves
The history of African Americans in the colonies began in Jamestown in 1619. The first group of West Africans were indentured servants. They had the same status as Europeans who were brought to this country as laborers. As the economy of the colonies grew, there was a greater demand for labor. After their period of indenture, skilled laborers demanded more money. The colonists needed cheap labor. Since there weren’t enough Europeans to bring over as indentured servants, they decided to enslave Africans – bondage as cheap labor.
Africans were brought to the colonies packed into small spaces in the holds of slave ships. The trip could last from fifteen days to four months, depending on their destination and the weather conditions at sea.
Once a day, weather permitting, slaves were brought up on deck so the hold could be cleaned. The slaves were forced to exercise so they would look healthy when sold. This “forced” exercise was in the form of dancing. Music was provided either by crew members hired for the purpose or by slaves.
The enslaved West Africans were artists: carpenters, metalworkers, potters, sculptors, and weavers. They were rented out or apprenticed to white craftsmen as goldsmiths, silversmiths, cabinet makers, printers, and portrait painters.
To keep Africans in bondage, the colonists attempted to suppress their spirituality and creativity. It was difficult to maintain their traditions, but some traditions survived and new ones were developed.
The primary concern of slaves was survival. They were not free to express themselves creatively in their art. Their work was in response to the dictates of their master or to the person to whom they were apprenticed. These artists and craftsmen created a variety of items, many of which have survived to this day. Examples of their skills as artisans can still be seen in the architecture of Southern homes.
Slavery in Canada
Blacks who settled in Canada came as explorers, slaves or run-away slaves. Jacques Cartier, the French explorer who discovered the St. Lawrence River, had a Black man on his expedition. Mathieu da Costa served as an interpreter for the governor of Arcadia to the Micmac Nation.
The first Black directly imported from Africa to Canada is believed to have been a child. The child was sold to a local resident in Quebec and records show he was baptized in 1633 and named Olivier Le Jeune.
Slavery was legalized in Canada in 1762. Most of the slaves brought into Canada were purchased in the American colonies. After the French and Indian War, won by the British, slavery increased in Canada. This increase is also attributed to British loyalists fleeing the colonies and bringing their slaves with them.
The slave codes of the French were more lenient than those of the British. Slaves were allowed to marry, to own property, to keep their children and to learn to read and to write.
Canada refused to return fugitive slaves to the United States. The legislature of Lower Canada (Quebec) declared in 1829 that every slave entering the Province would be freed immediately. The formation of the Underground Railroad was based on this policy.
Upper Canada (Ontario) was the first territory in the British Empire to abolish slavery, which it did in 1829. Effective August 1, 1934 the British Parliament abolished slavery throughout the empire.
Prior to the Civil War in the United States there were about 55,000 Blacks living in Canada. After the Civil War, white Canadians fearing Blacks imposed discriminatory practices in education and employment. Many Blacks returned to the United States.
The term African Canadian is now being used by Black Canadians of African descent.