1700s West Africa

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Photo: Frontier Culture Museum.

During the 1600s and 1700s, nearly 250,000 Africans were brought to colonial America to serve as enslaved agricultural workers, domestic servants, and artisans. Although captives were taken from a vast area of the African continent, and from many different ethnic groups, the great majority were members of West African cultures that lived in the hinterlands of the Atlantic coast. Africans lived in all of Great Britain’s North American colonies, though their population was highest in South Carolina and Virginia.

Beginning in the early 1700s, Virginia tobacco planters imported increasing numbers of captive Africans to work their plantations. The shift from white indentured servants to enslaved Africans in the colony’s tobacco economy had far-reaching repercussions. Race-based slavery soon became a central feature of life in Virginia, and Africans and their Virginia-born descendents would be treated as property, and denied the freedom and opportunities of white colonists. As settlement expanded westward, enslaved Africans and African Americans were among the settlers in backcountry areas. Nearly 40% of the Africans imported into Virginia during this time were brought from a part of the West African coast called the Bight of Biafra. Many of these captives were Igbo, a people living in the upland area north of the Bight of Biafra in what is now the nation of Nigeria. The West African Farm represents life in a free Igbo household in the Biafran hinterlands in the 1700s.

Contributions to American Culture

The African captives who were brought to the American colonies carried knowledge and skills with them that they used to cope in their new conditions and passed on to subsequent generations of Americans. Wherever Africans settled in the colonies they contributed to the growth and success of the local economy and the wealth and status of their owners with their labor. When permitted, they influenced the form and function of pottery, basketry, wood-working and textiles they produced for others. Their most notable and enduring contributions to American culture are found in foodways, music, folklore, and religious worship. Okra and black-eyed peas are among the most common items in the American food supply that were introduced by Africans. The banjo and particular musical forms such as Blues and Jazz grew from African ideas brought to America. American folklore shows African influences, especially stories involving animals speaking and behaving like humans. Finally, the enthusiasm and spirit of Christian worship among many Protestant denominations in America is believed to have originated in early African and African-American worship services.