What Africans Brought to America

African in American Ironwork
by Rashid Booker
from Noir Tickets

“African men with iron making skills were brought to the Chesapeake region of Maryland and Virginia to work as blacksmiths on plantations and in the developing iron industry of 18th century Colonial America.

“By 1775, the colonies were the world’s third largest producer of iron, a dominance built largely on slave labor. Those in the Chesapeake were the most privileged of African and African American workers. The most skilled worked independently in positions of authority, even paid for work done on their own time.”

Most people think of slaves as mere cheap labor. But the reality is that enslaved Africans included people who were in many cases highly trained and educated. 

They brought their knowledge, skills, and culture to colonial America and it became part of colonial society. The slaveholders had the military and political power to enslave others, but they lacked many practical abilities. These slaveholders were reliant on enslaved Africans in more ways than just manual labor. 

Like ironwork, rice cultivation was developed independently in West Africa. This rice cultivation, unknown to Europeans, involved a particular set of skills and knowledge embedded in a particular cultural social order. Slaveholders incorporated this, among many other things, into the plantation system.

Few Americans today realize how influential slaves were. Colonial America wasn’t just an English society, but a hybrid society.

4 thoughts on “What Africans Brought to America

  1. I was thinking about this topic again. I was ‘debating’ a race realist.


    He pointed to the stereotype of Africans as savages who committed cannibalism and human sacrifice. Obviously, the guy doesn’t know that European tribal people did horrific things as well. Spartans through their babies off cliffs. Human sacrifice victims and mass graves can be found all across Europe.

    I’m sure the list could go on and on. But it just seems like a stupid basis for dismissing and entire people.

    Besides, the African continent is huge and contains more genetic and cultural diversity than probably any other region in the world. It is nearly impossible to make a generalized statement about all Africans. There are some broad cultural patterns like any region, but I’m sure the differences far outweigh the similarities.

    Anyway, I want to take note of a few things here in the comments, for future reference, but for now I’ll just take note of some books relevant to the topic. There are a number of books I have about African cultures and societies, both in relation to Africa itself and in relation to Africans being brought elsewhere as slaves. Here are some of the books I own or would like to own:

    Savage Constructions: The Myth of African Savagery
    by Wendy C. Hamblet

    Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas
    by Judith A. Carney

    In the Shadow of Slavery: Africa’s Botanical Legacy in the Atlantic
    by Judith Carney and Richard Nicholas Rosomoff

    Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800
    by John Thornton

    Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made
    by Eugene D. Genovese

    Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South
    by Albert J. Raboteau

    Rituals of Resistance: African Atlantic Religion in Kongo and the Lowcountry South in the Era of Slavery
    by Jason R. Young

    The Spirituality of African Peoples
    by Peter J. Paris

    Black Majority
    by Peter Wood

    The African Diaspora: A History Through Culture
    by Patrick Manning

    Reversing Sail: A History of the African Diaspora
    by Michael A. Gomez

    Exchanging Our Country Marks: The Transformation of African Identities in the Colonial and Antebellum South
    by Michael A. Gomez

    Slavery and African Ethnicities in the Americas: Restoring the Links
    by Gwendolyn Midlo Hall

    Africans in Colonial Louisiana: The Development of Afro-Creole Culture in the Eighteenth-Century
    by Gwendolyn Midlo Hall

    Life in Black and White: Family and Community in the Slave South
    by Brenda E. Stevenson

    Becoming Black: Creating Identity in the African Diaspora
    by Michelle M. Wright

    Slavery and Social Death
    Orlando Patterson

    The Birth of African-American Culture: An Anthropological Perspective
    by Sidney Wilfred Mintz

    Reading Africa into American Literature: Epics, Fables, and Gothic Tales
    by Keith Cartwright

    The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African American Literary Criticism by Henry Louis Gates Jr.

    Diasporic Africa: A Reader
    by Michael A. Gomez

    The Akan Diaspora in the Americas
    by Kwasi Konadu

    Strange New Land: Africans in Colonial America
    by Peter H. Wood

  2. European people, before the imperialism introduced by Rome and later empires, were primitive and often violent tribal societies. This included infanticide, human sacrifice, mass graves, and such. There is no evidence that African tribal people were more violent than any other tribal people.

    The African societies that existed during the colonial era had experienced massive amounts of violence, oppression, and demographic change. There were the Arab and European invaders, slave traders, wars and conflicts, etc. You can’t fairly and accurately say much about these people under such stressful conditions.

    Let me give two comparisons.

    First, some scientists have attempted to extrapolate human natural human behavior by studying chimpanzees. The limitation of this is severe. The chimpanzees that have been studied have existed in unnatural conditions, in a zone of human war and conflict where there is a high degree of poaching and environmental destruction. Unsurprisingly, under these violently stressful conditions, they have found that chimpanzees are violent. But does this say much about chimpanzees or does it say a lot more about what humans are doing to chimpanzees?

    Second, consider the Plains Indians. They were a violent warrior people who regularly raided and killed other people. It would be wrong, however, to consider them representative of Native American culture. The Plains Indians formed from the remnants of other tribes that had been wiped out from disease and conflicts caused by European contact. The survivors formed new tribes with an apocalyptic religion that fit the apocalyptic destruction the Europeans brought. The Plains Indians were the result of violence and, in desperation, they spread violence. Their existence only represents the violence of the times, not Native American culture.

    So, if I was going to make comparisons, I would want to know how violent or non-violent various African people were before contact with outsiders. When they were left to their own devices, living under normal conditions, what was their behavior like and how did they relate to others?

    I would also add that not all Africans were even tribal. Many of the Africans that Europeans first interacted with were members of kingdoms and empires. Civilization existed in Africa long before Europe. As the above post shows, African society was quite developed during the slavery era. The slaves weren’t just strong brutes enslaved to do manual labor. These people had skills and knowledge.

    I would conclude that it is near impossible to make generalizations about any large population, especially when it includes vast ethnic diversity across a vast continent.

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