How did slave societies in the Americas work?

Around 12 million Africans were forcibly moved to the Americas as slaves during the transatlantic slave trade. Here, African people entered another world where they continued to be dehumanised by white slave owners. What was the typical experience of African slaves in the Americas? And how did these slave societies work?

You can download the worksheet for today’s lesson here. If you are unable to download the worksheet, complete the tasks in the yellow boxes below.

– I can describe the typical experience of an African slave in the Americas.
– I can explain how white slave owners kept control of their slaves in the Americas.
– I can synthesise my learning to answer an exam-style question.

The Americas = The American continent, including North America, South America and the Caribbean. Slaves were sent to all parts of the Americas. Britain sent most of its slaves to the Caribbean.
Emancipation = To become free of something.
Freeman/Freemen = Someone that has been emancipated from slavery, and becomes ‘free’.

Think back to our last lesson:
a) Think of one group of people that benefited as a result of the transatlantic slave trade. Who were they? Why did they benefit?
b) Think of one group of people that suffered as a result of the transatlantic slave trade. Who were they? Why did they suffer?

TASK ONE: What happened to African slaves in the Americas?

Read the information below and answer the following questions:

1) What were the two most common types of slaves, and what did each type have to do for work?
2) Look at Source A – none of the names of the slaves are traditional African names. Why might these slaves have been given English names?
3) Watch the video – write down three things you learn about what life was like on the plantation.
4) Why did slave owners put out rewards for runaway slaves?
5) Why might it be that most slaves decided not to run away?
6) Why were so few slaves able to become freemen?

What happened to African Slaves in the Americas?

After travelling in horrendous conditions on cargo holds across the Middle Passage, Africans were presented with their new lives – the life of a slave in the Americas.

Upon arriving in the Americas, the slaves would be sold. Some were sold directly from the ship owners to slave owners; others were sold at auction to the highest bidder. After a slave was sold, they were taken to complete their respective jobs. As you can see from Source A, slaves performed a wide variety of jobs, but most became either field slaves (slaves that worked in the fields on plantations) or domestic slaves (slaves that worked in the household for their owner). Field slaves were mostly men, whilst domestic slaves were mostly women.

Source A: An advertisement for a slave auction in the USA in 1856. Slavery was not abolished in the USA until 1865.

The work of a slave was intense. Slaves were usually expected to work from sunrise to sunset (around ten hours) every single day. Watch the video below to understand what conditions were like on the plantations.

Unsurprisingly, there were instances of attempts to escape. Some slaves attempted to break free and run from the plantations. In response, slave owners usually put rewards in local newspapers for the return of the slave – the slaves were too profitable for the slave owners to let them escape. It was usually easy to see where a slave had come from, as slaves were usually branded by a hot iron when bought by their owners with details of where they work.

These slaves were usually caught by local people, and the punishments could be severe. Slaves could have been starved, whipped, shackled, beat, imprisoned, or even mutilated (a part of the body cut off), raped or killed by their owners.

Once a slave, it was extremely difficult to become emancipated. Most people were slaves their whole lives, and any children of slaves were born into slavery. It was possible to become a freeman if a slave owner permitted it; they would usually require money from the slave to make this happen. Yet, most slaves earned no money at all, so the ability to do this was almost impossible.

TASK TWO: Exam style question

The following question is an exam style question. I would like you to think about what you have learnt in this lesson and in the previous lessons to answer it. Use the sentence structure below to help you.

Explain why transatlantic slavery was so devastating to the lives of West Africans [12 marks].


This question expects you to think of three reasons as to why slavery was devastating for West Africans and explain why they were devastating.

This means that you will need to write three separate paragraphs to answer the question. The structure guide and model answer on your worksheet will help you answer this question.

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