In the nineteenth century, the majority of slaves in the British Caribbean and Brazil were born in Africa. In contrast, by 1850, most US slaves were third-, fourth-, or fifth generation Americans. Slavery in the United States was distinctive in the near balance of the sexes and the ability of the slave population to increase its numbers by natural reproduction. Unlike any other slave society, the United States had a high and sustained natural increase in the slave population for more than a century and a half.
American plantations were dwarfed by those in the West Indies. In the Caribbean, slaves were held on much larger units, with many plantations holding 150 slaves or more. In the Americas, in contrast, only one slaveholder held as many as a thousand slaves, and just 125 had over 250 slaves.
In the Caribbean, Dutch Guyana, and Brazil, the slave death rate was so high and the birth rate so low that they could not sustain their population without importations from Africa. Rates of natural decrease ran as high as 5 percent a year. While the death rate of US slaves was about the same as that of Jamaican slaves, the fertility rate was more than 80 percent higher in the United States, as records show.
There were few instances in which slave women were released from field work for extended periods during slavery. Even during the last week before child birth, pregnant women on average picked three-quarters or more of the amount normal for women.
Infant and child mortality rates were twice as high among slave children as among southern white children. Half of all slave infants died in their first year of life. A major contributor to the high infant and child death rate was chronic undernourishment.
Most infants of enslaved mothers were weaned within three months. Even in the eighteenth century, the earliest weaning age advised by doctors was eight months.
After weaning, slave infants were fed a starch-based diet, consisting of foods such as gruel, which lacked sufficient nutrients for health and growth.
Slaves suffered a variety of miserable and often fatal maladies due to the Atlantic Slave Trade, and to inhumane living and working conditions.
Common symptoms among enslaved populations included: blindness; abnormal swelling; bowed legs; skin lesions; and convulsions.
Common conditions among enslaved populations included: beriberi (caused by a deficiency of thiamine); pellagra (caused by a niacin deficiency); tetany (caused by deficiencies of calcium, magnesium, and Vitamin D); rickets (also caused by a deficiency of Vitamin D); and kwashiorkor (caused by severe protein deficiency). Diarrhea, dysentery, whooping cough, and respiratory diseases as well as worms pushed the infant and early childhood death rate of slaves to twice that experienced by white infants and children.
The domestic slave trade in the US distributed the African American population throughout the South in a migration that greatly surpassed in volume the Atlantic Slave Trade to North America. Though the US Congress outlawed the African slave trade in 1808, domestic slave trade flourished, and the slave population in the US nearly tripled over the next 50 years.
The domestic slave trade continued into the 1860s and displaced approximately 1.2 million men, women, and children, the vast majority of whom were born in the United States. To be “sold down the river” was one of the most dreaded prospects of the enslaved population. Some destinations, particularly the Louisiana sugar plantations, had especially grim reputations. But it was the dislocation and destruction of family that made the domestic slave trade so terrifying.
Prices of slaves varied widely over time, due to factors including supply, and changes in prices of commodities such as cotton. Even considering the relative expense of owning and keeping a slave, slavery was very profitable.
In order to ensure the profitability of slaves, and to produce maximum “return on investment,” slave owners generally supplied only the minimum food and shelter needed for survival, and forced their slaves to work from sunrise to sunset.
Although young adult men had the highest expected levels of output, young adult women had value over and above their ability to work in the fields; they were able to have children who by law were also slaves of the owner of the mother.
Therefore, the average price of the female slaves was higher than their male counterparts up to puberty age. Men around the age of 25-years-old were the most “valuable.”
During the American Civil War, roughly 180,000 black men served in the Union Army, and another 29,000 served in the Navy. Three-fifths of all black troops were former slaves.