As of December 31, 2014, I retired from full-time teaching in Humboldt State University's Department of History. While this website will remain online, it is no longer maintained.
History 110 - Dr. Gayle Olson-Raymer
The Enslaved - What They Endured
Today we will complete our Unit I discussion of "Intrusions into an Old World and the Beginnings of a 'New World'" by focusing upon the experiences of those who involuntarily came to the North American colonies in the 17th and 18th centuries - African slaves. But before we enter into this historical discussion of slavery, we need to go back to the first question we discussed in this class - why does this matter? Almost always in the course of this class a student will ask why we continue to talk about an issue that has been dead in America since the end of the Civil War. The answer is harsh but true - we must study the history of American slavery because it will provide a backdrop for the contemporary issue of global slavery. Indeed, as the map below indicates, in the 21st century, at least 27 million people are enslaved.
While this video shows us that contemporary slavery is certainly more prevalent in the Far East, Asia, and Africa, slavery still exists in North America. We must keep this in mind as we delve into the history of slavery in colonial North America.
Goal #1: To discuss the African origins of slavery in the British colonies
All too often, studies of American slavery fail to examine the life which the Africans were forced to leave behind. Therefore, we will begin our analysis of slavery by asking two questions:
From where did the slaves originate? As the above map of "Negroland" indicates, slaves were kidnapped mainly from western Africa, or what many have called The Slave Coast - the coastal areas of present-day Togo, Benin (formerly Dahomey) and western Nigeria. In the pre-colonial time this was one of the most densely populated parts of the African continent. It became one of the most important export centers for the Atlantic slave trade from the early 16th century to the 19th century.
As the map below indicates, between 1650-1860, as many of 15 million Africans were kidnapped and forced into slavery. While the vast majority were transported to South and Central America and the West Indies, about a half million came to North America. You can see that most slaves were kidnapped from southwest Africa, where they lived largely in tropical rainforests, or areas that had no geographical similarities to where they were transported in North America.
What kind of culture and lifestyle did the Africans leave behind after being forced into slavery?
As we begin our analysis of slavery in America, it is important to emphasize that we know a great deal about the evolution of African slavery in American society because slaves were property and as such, records were kept on everything that was owned.
- And what is the single identifying social, political, and economic indicator of success in all the colonies? Property.
- Thus, property in slaves was highly documented from the time slaves were captured and through their transportation to America. Documentation continued from their sale and through their entire lives on the plantations where they lived.
Goal #2: To examine the process by which slavery became a political institution in the "New World"
As the chronology below indicates, slavery gradually became institutionalized in the British colonies of North America.
Goal #3: To discuss the characteristics of slavery as it developed in the American colonies
"There are two ways in which a man can be enslaved. One is through force. He can be penned behind fences, guarded constantly, punished severely for breaking the slightest rule, and made to live in constant fear. The second is to teach him to think that his own best interests will be served by doing what his master wishes him to do. He can be taught that he is inferior and that only through slavery will he eventually rise to the 'level' of his master.
The southern slave owner used both. The first was the way of the whip, the threat of the auction block, and murder. Its aim was to make the slave live in constant fear ... The second way was more subtle. Its aim was to brainwash the slave, to destroy his mind and replace it with the mind of the master. In that way the slave would enslave himself and there would be no need to police him. A slave should have no sense of himself that was separate from the self the master wanted him to have. Thus it was that no black had a name of his own. He was given the surname of his owner, no matter how many owners he might have during his life.
... Julius Lester, To Be a Slave, 1968: pg. 76
Characteristics of Slavery
"Hearken, ye servants! Give strict heed unto my words. You are rebellious sinners. Your hearts are filled with all manner of evil. 'Tis the devil who tempts you. God is angry with you, and will surely punish you, if you don’t forsake your wicked ways. Instead of serving your masters faithfully, which is pleasing in the sight of your heavenly Master, you are idle, and shirk your work. God sees you. You tell lies. God hears you. Instead of being engaged in worshipping him, you are hidden away somewhere, feasting on your master’s substance; tossing coffee-grounds with some wicked fortuneteller, or cutting cards with another old hag. Your masters may not find you out, but God sees you, and will punish you. O, the depravity of your hearts! When your master's work is done, are you quietly together, thinking of the goodness of God to such sinful creatures? No, you are quarrelling, and tying up little bags of roots to bury under the door-steps to poison each other with.* God sees you. You men steal away to every grog shop to sell your master’s corn, that you may buy rum to drink. God sees you. You sneak into the back streets, or among the bushes, to pitch coppers. Although your masters may not find you out, God sees you; and he will punish you. You must forsake your sinful ways, and be faithful servants. Obey your old master and your young master - your old mistress and your young mistress. If you disobey your earthly master, you offend your heavenly Master. You must obey God’s commandments. When you go from here, don’t stop at the corners of the streets to talk, but go directly home, and let your master and mistress see that you have come.”
* The minister is preaching against the established African American cultural practices of using coffee for divination, cards for conjuring, and making balls filled with roots for both divination and conjuring. This was part of the Kongo civilization which was kept alive and well by many slaves in America.
3. Slavery was not just a regional problem in the south; rather, it was a national problem that shaped the lives of all colonial residents, northerners and southerners, rich and poor, black and white alike. Furthermore, most of the slave traders landed their ships in the New England and Middle Colonies, as well as auctioned them off in both regions - as can be seen in the poster below, advertising the arrival of slaves to be auctioned in the 1780s.
4. Slavery affected all of the colonies by nurturing the growth of several major social divisions that affected all of colonial America. These divisions, explained below, provide a clear message that American society was divided - racially between the white, black, and red peoples of North America; socially between the more privileged and less privileged of white and black society; and economically between rich and poor. There were at least four social divisions:
- Between the small percentage of wealthy plantation owners who owned the vast majority of the slaves, and the large percentage of Southern whites who owned very little land and few, if any, slaves.
- By 1860, only 2.7% of southern slave holders owned more than 50 slaves and only 0.1% owned 200 or more. These 2.8% of whites owned one quarter of all the slaves in the South.
- Another quarter of all slaves lived on plantations with between 1-9 slaves, and half on plantations with between 10-49 slaves.
- Among black slaves accorded hierarchical positions at the plantations.
- Between all whites and all blacks.
- Among the discontented classes of Americans - white and black alike. As Zinn reminds us in People's History of the United States , “Only one fear was greater than the fear of black rebellion in the new American colonies. That was the fear that discontented whites would join black slaves to overthrow the existing order.” (p. 37).
- In Ronald Takaki’s analysis of slavery in America, he finds white and black laborers in Virginia “occupied a common social space - a terrain of racial liminality that had not yet developed rigid caste lines. White and black, they shared a condition of class exploitation and abuse: they were all unfree laborers.” (A Different Mirror, Takaki, 55.)
- In Virginia, by the early 1660s, a discontented class existed of white and black indentured servants, slaves, and landless freemen - what the planter elite called “a giddy multitude.”
- Thus, the Virginia legislature - followed by others - took measures to deal with such fear, especially the legislative proclaimation that white men were superior to black; and offered white lower class members benefits previously denied to them which made them economically superior to lower class whites. Dividing and conquering.
5. Slaves resisted slavery, both by means of active plots and rebellions, abolition support, enlisting with the North during the Civil War, as well as passive resistance to the day-to-day toil of slavery. Slaves in the Americas rebelled against their masters from the very beginning of the institution. As early as the summer of 1526, 500 Spaniards and 100 black slaves founded a town near the mouth of the Pee Dee River in what is now South Carolina. By November, the slaves rebelled, killed some of their masters, and escaped to join the local Indians. The 150 Spaniards who survived fled to Haiti without any slaves. Thus, the first non-Native settlers in the United States were blacks - blacks who rebelled against slavery from the very first. Following are the types of resistance regularly witnessed in North America.
6. Despite the physical and emotional brutality of slavery, many slaves retained their African ways, some of their African and Muslim traditions and family names, and their human dignity. As Historian Gary Nash has written:
- Plots, rebellions, and riots. Historian Richard Maxwell Brown found from 1663-1866, 45 significant actual or aborted slave revolts, plots, or uprisings.
- Winthrop Jordan’s (1993) study of diaries, census data, and plantation records from Adams County, Mississippi at the beginning of the Civil War uncovered a slave conspiracy to organize a large-scale revolt. After the plot was uncovered, slaves were hanged and another 40 arrested and beaten.
- Herbert Aptheker chronicled about 250 incidents where at least 10 slaves joined in a revolt or a conspiracy.
- Individual resistance. Paul Blassingame (1972:107) argued that resistance was not limited to planned or aborted uprisings. Indeed, “hundreds of slaves...ran away from their masters, assaulted, robbed, poisoned and murdered whites, burned their master’s dwellings,” and “hundreds more fought whites in self defense.” Zinn argues that individual resistance began in Africa, and was also common in the Spanish Caribbean colonies prior to English colonization.
- Guerrilla war. Brown and others provided evidence of "Maroon bands" of runaway slaves who conducted “a guerrilla war against their erstwhile white masters.” Herbert Aptheker found that between 1672 and 1864, at least 50 maroon communities existed in the United States, primarily in the forested, mountainous, and swampy regions of South Carolina, Northern Carolina, Virginia, Louisiana, Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama.
- Abolition efforts. Ripley, et. al. (1993) wrote 5 volumes that include documents selected from thousands of newspaper and manuscript collections from the United States, Great Britain, and Canada that illustrate the efforts of black persons - both free and slaves - to abolish slavery and fight racism.
- Enlistment in the Civil War. Berlin, et. al. (1993) documented the enlistment and military service of almost 200,000 black soldiers and sailors, most of whom were former slaves.
"Though slaves were kept in bondage, slaves were far from passive. They were not stripped of their identities; they were rarely emotionally attached to their masters; they seldom forgot their African culture. Instead, they were locked into a dynamic relationship with their owners in which, despite the grotesquely uneven distribution of power, they demonstrated extraordinary ingenuity in setting limits on the master’s ability to coerce them. However brutal the power held over them, slaves were actively and continuously involved in carving out psychological “space” for themselves. Survival was their immediate goal, but freedom was their ultimate hope...Slaveowners could not obliterate slave family life without threatening the efficient and profitable management of the plantation. Often they encouraged slaves to live together and take up the role of parents, for masters found that slaves were more dutiful and productive when tied to spouses and offspring. If not concerned about the morality of their slaves, they were interested in maximizing the output of labor and minimizing insubordination. Also, slaves themselves refused to give up the right to family association. Though strictly confined within “the peculiar institution,” they still managed to forge affective ties. Overcoming formidable obstacles, slaves fashioned intimate bonds between man and woman, parent and child." (Nash, 1979)
7. Slavery not only oppressed whites and enslaved blacks, it also endangered the rights and liberties of American citizens.
- By 1790, slaves comprised 35% of the entire southern population. By 1800, the institution of slavery completely dominated Southern life. White masters socialized young black children to become slaves and, at the same time, socialized white boys and girls to become masters and mistresses. The psychological effects were enormous.
- One of the primary psychological influences of slavery, then, was fear - fear within the black population of their master, as well as fear within white society of an enlarged, enslaved, and unempowered black population. Eaton’s (1940) analysis of primary documents found that slaveholders had a "pathological fear of their slaves," were haunted by images of "the black terror," and lived in melodramatic and phobic fear of "imagined insurrectionists."
- Frances A. Kemble, the wife of a Georgia planter, wrote that slaves were "a threatening source of constant insecurity" and that "every southern woman lived in terror of her slaves." A Louisiana slaveholder wrote of tense times "when there was not a single planter who had a calm night's rest" and when every master went to bed with a gun at his side.(As quoted in Takaki, p. 114)
“The Enslaved - The Origins of Slavery”
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