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The transatlantic slave trade began to flourish in the 16th century. It quickly became a major enterprise for Portuguese, British, Spanish, French, and Dutch traders.

Detail, “Stowage of the British Slave Ship Brookes” Thomas Clarkson, The History ... Of The African Slave-Trade, 1808 Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia.
Detail, “Stowage of the British Slave Ship Brookes” Thomas Clarkson, The History ... Of The African Slave-Trade, 1808 Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia.

They established posts along the African coast and allied with local leaders to capture people from the interior, often the victims of war and political conflict. European slave traders provided guns, cloth, and other manufactured goods in exchange for captives.

These enslaved men, women, and children endured the brutal “Middle Passage” across the Atlantic Ocean. They were shackled and crammed into the hold of a ship alongside hundreds of others. Crowded conditions and inadequate hygiene facilities meant that disease and malnutrition were rampant. Many did not survive the nightmarish journey. Those who did were sold at ports in North America, the Caribbean, and South America. 

The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable.

- Olanduh Equiano's description of the middle passage, 1798


Sugar and Slavery

Demand for sugar fueled the slave trade. A wildly popular product in 18th-century Britain and its colonies, sugar was used to sweeten hot beverages and make rum and molasses. On plantations in the Caribbean, enslaved Africans worked up to 18-hour days in dangerous conditions to harvest and purify sugar cane. In the mills and boiling houses where they processed sugar, laborers often suffered burns, lost limbs, and fatal accidents. Each year, slave traders imported thousands of newly captured African people to expand the operations and replace those who perished.

If a Mill-feeder be catch’d by the finger, his whole body is drawn in, and is squees’d to pieces, If a Boyler gets any part into the scalding Sugar, it sticks like Glew, or Birdlime, and ‘tis hard to save either Limb or Life.

- Description of a sugar plantation in Barbados, 1727

“Interior of a Boiling House” William Clark, Ten Views in the Island of Antigua, 1823, Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.


In 1766, after Tom attempted to run away, George Washington sold him to Saint Kitts in the West Indies. In return, Washington received 66 gallons of spirits (liquor), 10 pounds of sweetmeats (candied fruit), and several silver and gold coins. Tom probably ended up on a sugar plantation, known for especially brutal and dangerous working conditions.

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“We had rum punch, brought us by a servant.”

- Amariah Frost, Mount Vernon visitor, 1797


The popularity of sugar and sweet beverages inspired a variety of associated tableware. The Washingtons used fashionable pieces to consume drinks like rum punch, coffee, tea, and chocolate—all sweetened with sugar. Enslaved household staff, like butler Frank Lee, prepared and served the beverages.

Enslaved People in Portraits

Artists of the 18th century often included enslaved people in the background of portraits. As valuable property, a slave served as a symbol of prosperity, just as a portrait subject might wear a costly silk gown or pose in an expensive mahogany chair. The figure in Edward Savage’s painting of the Washington family provides a reminder of slavery’s importance to Washington’s daily life and the future of the new nation.

Who is the man in the background?

His identity is unclear. He may represent William Lee, Washington’s longtime personal valet, or Christopher Sheels, a waiter during the presidency. Both men would have worn a white-and-red livery suit, as the man in the painting does. The figure may be symbolic, rather than a specific individual from Washington’s household. When finishing the painting in England, Savage hired John Riley, the free black valet of the American ambassador, to pose for him.

The Washington Family, by Edward Savage, 1789-1796, Gift of the Robert E. Wright Family, in memory of Dorothy Walton Wright and Robert Edward Wright, 2012, (W-5298).

Slavery at Mount Vernon

At the time of George Washington’s death, the Mount Vernon estate’s enslaved population consisted of 317 people.

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The content on this page was adapted from Lives Bound Together: Slavery at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, an exhibition on view in the Donald W. Reynolds Museum & Education Center from 2016–2020.

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