The North American “new world” economy was built on slavery. From about 1450 to 1850, an estimated seven million Africans were forced across the Atlantic Ocean and sold into labor. Shipwrecks and inhumane conditions killed many others at sea.
By 1790 the rising value of cotton made a trade in slavery profitable internally, in the states. By 1860, four million people–or fifteen percent of the country’s population–lived in slavery. Although some purchased their way out of slavery, others sought freedom by escape and flight into Canada.
People in bondage had always escaped, but by 1830 more organized efforts were supported by expanding free black communities, abolitionists in the United States, and the prohibition of slavery in Canada and the Caribbean. This led to a growing network for escape in the states known as the Underground Railroad. Sustained by ideals of the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” and from the Bible, “remembering those in bonds as bound with them,” people both black and white established routes to freedom.
Historians estimate as many as 28 million people were taken from Africa and forced into slavery in South America, the Caribbean, and North America. Leg irons bolted to ship hulls kept slaves from revolt during months-long voyages.
Slavery is the next thing to hell. I have seen hundreds of escaped slaves, but i never saw one who was willing to go back and be a slave. – Harriet Tubman
So compelling were the rescues of slaves by activist Harriet Tubman that after the Civil War, both whites and blacks began to connect her work and stories of escapes with those dedicated to abolishing slavery and routes to freedom.