Issues of Experiences of Africans in the Colonial Period


Questions of race and national identity are of crucial importance for the existence of the mankind in the modern world. Recent positive changes in respect of racial tolerance and decrease of discrimination are good signs but there still remains much to be done in this field. Race as one of the leading concepts in the human society has to be treated with special attention because any conflict or misunderstanding in it can result in interracial conflicts that sometimes can develop into armed ones. Needless to say that the up-to-date questions of race and identity had even greater importance in the past when the discrimination based on racial factors was an ordinary process. The history of the whole mankind is full of examples of the facts when one race decided that it was superior over all other races and tried to establish its dominance over others, and the events that took place in the Northern America during the centuries before the War of Independence is one of these examples (157).


Racial discrimination in America of the 18th century concerned mostly the African population of this land. In the majority of cases, this population was not native in the area, and consisted of slaves who were brought to America to work. It was a usual order when people of color, and Africans among them, were turned into slaves and sold at markets like usual goods but not people. The lives of those people in slavery were also unbearable. Thus, the experiences of the African people in America during the Colonial Period are the subjects of the current paper. In this work I will examine the documentary evidence and essays by modern authors so that to study the facts about the state of national identity of African Americans during the period of slavery (157).

The history of the African American people is a rather interesting matter but it was full of sad pages. Slavery and the colonial period are the most tragic stages in the development of this people but, at the same time, they marked the birth of this nation that earlier existed as the total of Angolan and West Indian slaves who were sold to the American slave owners (166). However, the process of national formation and establishing of national identity of this ethnic group was accompanied by numerous acts of oppression that included slave trade, enforced adjustment to the European culture, enforced conversion to Christianity, exclusion from the social stratification and various kinds of separation and segregation. As far as the importance of this topic can not be doubted, I will consider it in the following paragraphs paying special attention to the evidence presented in the textbook by Holt and Brown (166).

The phenomenon of slave trade can not be accepted nowadays, but in the time considered in the current paper it was a usual process. The Story of Tom, given as the first document in the Holt textbook, is the historic evidence of the existence of this practice. This document is a kind of autobiography of a creole man who worked as an interpreter and witnessed slave trade and all its peculiarities. The document depicts the initial stages of slave trade when certain contacts of African people with Europeans existed and kings of African nations sent ambassadors to the King of England to express friendship and respect (158). At the same time, actual intentions of European states in relation of Africans can also be seen from this document. For example, this can be observed in the statement of the King George in respect of slaves: “…but if he returned quickly, and came with never so large a Ship, she could be instantly filled with Slaves, with which he might do what he thought proper.” (158).

It goes without saying that such a violent attitude towards the African slaves, and their terrible living conditions could not satisfy them and provide for the development of their own national identity. In these circumstances, the only way out for the rage and dissatisfaction of the African people with their social status and overall position in the society, were rebellions against slave owners. These aspects of the African American history are disclosed in the following five documents of the Holt textbook (160). Some of them discuss the slave rebellions from the point of view of slave owners and the newspapers controlled by them, like the document 2 telling about the rebellion in South Carolina in 1739. Other documents, like for instance, the 1775 proclamation by Lord Dummore, are the expressions of the British military point of view. The fourth and fifth documents are the petitions of the slaves to the Government about their freedom, and the document 6 is the view of the situation in the slave owner society by a non-biased traveler Crevecoeur (160 – 166).

The document depicting the rebellion in South Carolina is a rather biased source of information as the rebels are presented in negative light as killing men, women and children, firing houses and robbing criminals. Nevertheless, even from this depiction it can be seen that African Americans could not stand the suppression any more and took all possible measure to get rid of it. It goes without saying that the horrors enumerated in the document are made up to a certain extent because the British propaganda was to stop the rebellion and not to allow joining of Africans by whites who opposed slavery (160). The next document presented by Holt (2000) is the logical continuation of the previous one. It is a proclamation by a British general Dunnmore aimed at stooping the rebellion and joining the British troops by all armed rebels before they were punished by the regular army. This is a bright example of suppression of national identity carried out by the Colonial government in respect of African American population. This document evidences without any doubt that the adjustment of African slaves to the European, and British in particular, culture was conducted by military force when usual methods of oppression failed to help (162).

The following documents are “petitions for freedom” (163) from African Americans to the Government. They prove once again that national identity of African Americans existed in that time and they fought for their rightful place in the society by all means. The essence of the current petition is the request of freedom from the government. The slave named Saul enumerates his services during the war of Independence and asks to give him freedom and “not to suffer him any longer to remain transferable property” (163). The same can be said about the fifth document which presents the same kind of petition but from a group of people of color who supported their request of freedom by references to legislative acts adopted by the US government in 1740 and further on (163 – 164). The African Americans state their right to be members of the American society and prove it by their numerous achievements during the war of Independence and other social activities in the state of South Carolina (164). The sixth document presented in the Holt textbook is the depiction of the horror of slavery as seen by a French traveler. This document is not biased and presents purely objective information because the traveler had use in taking side of neither of slave owners nor of slaves. He just portrayed everything as he saw it, and it proves once again how hard it was for African Americans to preserve their national identity under such terrible circumstances: “…I perceived a Negro, suspended in the cage, and left there to expire! I shudder when I recollect that the birds had already picked out his eyes, his cheek bones were bare;…Then I heard that reason for his being thus punished, was on account of his having killed the overseer of the plantation.” (166).

The essays that are presented further in the book continue the topic of national suppression and attempts to preserve identity of African Americans. The essay by Ira Berlin is dedicated to the cultural conversion of the African slaves brought to America for work. The leitmotif of the essay is the practice of name change that took place at numerous plantations, like for example at Carter’s plantations in Virginia (166). The essence of this process was to give English names to Africans so that they forgot their cultural heritage and lost national identity. Very often, these names were offensive so that to show the whole range of disrespect towards Africans and their being goods but not people for slave owners (167). Moreover, the essay by Kulikoff presents information about the language and cultural adjustment that took place among the African Americans who had been born from African parents but already in America (182). The author considers the historical evidence according to which the African American communities by the end of the 18th century took up a lot of customs and English language thus becoming a part of the American culture, although the process was quite slow and was accompanied with certain problems like rebellions and uprisings of slaves (184).

Thus, it can be clearly seen that the issue of preserving national identity has always been of crucial importance for African Americans. From the earliest times this people was oppressed and had to fight the violent attempts to destroy it. In this paper, I have considered the documentary evidence from the book by Holt and Brown and proved once again that the conditions of life and work for the African Americans were horrible in the Colonial period of the US history. The essays presented in the same textbook support the documents mentioned above and develop the topic of preserving the national identity of African Americans. All the sources are credible and demonstrate the importance of issues of race and identity.


Thomas C. Holt and Elsa Barkley Brown, eds., Major Problems in African-American History, volume 1: From Slavery to Freedom, 1619-1877. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 2000.