Colonial Slavery – An American Holocaust

Black Slavery in America was considerably different from the slavery which had historically existed in Europe and the Middle East. (The word slave is a corruption of Slav, the Slavic people of Eurasia who were often enslaved by the Romans). Roman and Greek slaves were typically prisoners of war who had the misfortune of being captured. There was no pejorative connotation, and slaves were frequently manumitted. Slaves were entitled to own property in their own right, and many owned slaves themselves. There were no defining characteristics based on race; in fact Germanic and African slaves were often desirable because of the uniqueness of their appearance.

In contrast, American slavery was reserved exclusively for non-Europeans. The first American slaves were American Indians; however this did not prove feasible, and as a result, black slaves became the norm. American slavery was based solely on economic grounds, and became the foundation of the economy in the Southern colonies and later the Southern states. Although the occasional slave was put to work as a house servant or craftsman, the overwhelming majority of slaves were used for manual labor in plantation fields. Indeed with the demise of indentured servitude, slavery became the sine qua non of the large Southern plantations producing staple crops. The status of slave was a legal one, below that of a convicted felon. One had no right to life or liberty, and owned property only with the consent of the master. Children born to slaves were themselves slaves. If only one parent were a slave, the status of slave devolved upon the child, regardless of the gender of the free parent.

Slavery also became the defining characteristic of social stratification: slaveholders were at the top of the social ladder; persons who did not own slaves, free and bondservant, often aspired to become slaveholders) and slaves were at the bottom. Slaveholders exercised considerable political and economic power. Sadly, slavery was also the defining element in racial division, since all slaves in America were black. Blackness and whiteness were not necessary distinctions as long as the institution existed. Historians have hotly debated the relationship between slavery and race; whether black people were enslaved because of a preexisting racial prejudice by Europeans, or if slavery was the cause of resulting racial distinction. One fact is unmistakable: the relationship between black slavery and racial attitudes by those of European ancestry is undeniable; in fact the attitudes of Europeans and those of European ancestry towards non-Europeans is also undeniable. The following quote from America, A Narrative History is indicative:

The English associated the color black with darkness and evil; they stamped the different appearance, behavior, and customs of Africans as "savagery." At the very least, such perceptions could soothe the consciences of people who traded in human flesh. On the other hand, most of the qualities that colonial Virginians imputed to blacks to justify slavery were the same qualities that the English assigned to their own poor to explain their status: their alleged bent for laziness, improvidence, treachery, and stupidity, among other shortcomings. Similar traits, moreover, were imputed by ancient Jews to the Canaanites and by the Mediterranean peoples of a later date to the Slavic captives sold among them. The names Canaanite and Slav both became synonymous with slavery—the latter lingers in our very word for it. Such expressions would seem to be the product of power relationships and not the other way around. Dominant peoples repeatedly assign ugly traits to those they bring into subjection.

Perhaps the best definition of slavery is provided by a former slave himself. In January 1865, at the end of the Civil War, General William T. Sherman and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton met with a group of former slaves in Savannah, Georgia. When asked what slavery meant, one Garrison Frazier, a Baptist minister recently freed, said, "Slavery is receiving by the irresistible power the work of another man, and not by his consent. By its very nature, slavery rested on force and the ability to exercise violence to preserve it. Slaveowners—understandably—preferred the title "Master."

The slave was, first and last, the property of his owner. The "master" exercised absolute power over him, often including the power of life and death. A resolution of the Virginia Legislature in 1669 offers the following:

Whereas the only law in force for the punishment of refractory servants resisting their master, mistress, or overseer cannot be inflicted upon Negroes, nor the obstinacy of many of them be suppressed by other than violent means, be it enacted and declared by this Grand Assembly if any slave resists his master (or other by his master's order correcting him) and by the extremity of the correction should chance to die, that his death shall not be accounted a felony, but the master (or that other person appointed by the master to punish him) be acquitted from molestation, since it cannot be presumed that premeditated malice (which alone makes murder a felony) should induce any man to destroy his own estate.

The ramifications of slavery historically and in contemporary America are matters of intense debate. It must, however, for purposes of this discussion, be considered in its historical context. Onerous as it may be, slavery was a legal institution with the support of the law. Those who owned slaves and engaged in the slave trade during its early years suffered from no compunction about its legality or morality. In fact, John Newton, the Anglican Vicar who wrote Amazing Grace was the captain of a slave ship before and after he wrote that hymn, composed as a result of divine intervention during a storm at sea. The largest port for slave vessels engaged in the trade was Newport Rhode Island, and was operated by the Brown Brothers, who were Quakers. One brother later recanted the practice; but not his fortune made from the trade. Profits from the Slave trade were used to endow Brown University.

An example of the attitude of Europeans toward the slave trade is provided by John Pinney, an Englishman living in the Bahamas in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. In a letter dated 1765, he wrote:

Since my arrival I've purchased 9 Negro slaves in St Kitts and can assure you I was shocked at the first appearance of human flesh for sale. But surely God ordained 'em for the use and benefit of us' otherwise his Divine Will would have been made manifest to us by some particular sign or token"

Attitudes towards slaves as property changed during the mid eighteenth century when a particularly inept captain, carrying a cargo of slaves to Jamaica, overshot the Island. Since the prevailing winds made a return voyage to the island difficult, and since he stood to lose money by reason of late delivery, he ordered the slaves thrown overboard, thus murdering several hundred men, women, and children. His reason for doing so was that, by claiming "loss of cargo," he could file a claim with the ships insurers in London. The claim was denied by the insurance company, and the case appealed to the House of Lords which held, for the first time, that slaves were human beings, not chattel property, and as such his actions were homicide. Since homicide is an illegal act, the insurance claim was denied.

A common misconception is that slavery was exclusively a Southern practice. During the colonial period, slavery was legal—and existed—in all thirteen colonies. The first colony to legalize the "peculiar institution" was Massachusetts. Although Charleston, South Carolina is often mentioned as a primary port for slave importation, it was exceeded by Providence, Rhode Island. Ships sailing from Portsmouth engaged in the slave trade more than ships departing from any other port in the colonial United States. The Brown brothers, who later were responsible for the founding of Brown University, were operators of one of the larger slave transport operations in the Colonies.

The origins of slavery date to the Crusades, an attempt by Christian Europe to wrest the Holy Land from the Muslims. Crusaders in the area were exposed to numerous products of commercial value, including silk, spices, oranges, but most importantly, sugar. Unknown in Europe at the time, sugar proved to have an elastic demand; those capable of importing it found a market that could not be saturated. The Sugar Revolution was largely responsible for plantation agriculture, in which large areas were planted with a single cash crop. Sugar cultivation began in Cyprus, and gradually migrated westward. With the discovery of North and South America, sugar cultivation began in earnest in the tropical climates of the Caribbean where it was well suited. Since sugar requires a quick turnaround from harvest to processing, its cultivation is labor intensive. Slave labor was the most efficient way to bring a large sugar crop in from the field.

African slavery had existed on the continent for many centuries. Warring tribes often enslaved captured enemies. When contact with Europeans became routine, slaves became yet another commodity which could be traded for European manufactured goods. Eventually, war parties were organized with no purpose other than to capture slaves for sale to European merchants.

The Slave Trade

The slave trade itself was a tremendously profitable commercial enterprise. Many seafaring nations which did not found colonies in the Americas, including the Danes, engaged in the trade for its commercial profit. In England, Joint-Stock companies were formed for the sole purpose of slave trading, In 1662, Parliament granted a charter to "The Company of Royal Adventurers Trading in Africa." The company was not successful, and was later succeed by the Royal Africa Company in 1672 with the exclusive right to engage in the slave trade.

An example of the conduct of the slave trade in Africa is illustrated by a list of cargo carried by a slave ship for the purpose of trading:

"An estimate for a cargo to purchase 250 Negroes at Bonny"

· 80 rolls of blue chintz cloth

· 100 rolls of cotton cloth with fine small stripes (small)

· 100 rolls of cotton cloth with fine small stripes (large)

· 100 cotton rolls with red and blue mixed stripes.

· 30 cloths blue and white checked

· 300 muskets bright barrels

· 300 muskets black barrels

· 40 pair common large pistols

· 2 tons lead in small bars

· 14 tons iron 1000 copper rods

· 80 cases bottles of brandy

· 5 cases pipe beads

Slaves were held in holding forts on the coast until slave ships arrived to transport them across the Atlantic Ocean.

The Middle Passage

The voyage that carried Africans into slavery across the Atlantic Ocean was called the 'Middle Passage'. Having arrived at the African coast captains were anxious to make their stay as short as possible to avoid disease and mutiny. Slaves were taken from the holding forts, shackled together in pairs with leg-irons and carried to the ships in dugout canoes. Once aboard they were branded with a red-hot iron, like cattle, to show who owned them and their clothes removed. Slaves were housed in the ship's hold like any other cargo. The men were kept in chains while women and children were allowed to go free. Slaves lay on specially built shelves with about 0.5 metres of vertical space, the men still fettered in pairs. As long as they were in the hold slaves had to remain lying flat on their backs. Once the available spaces were filled the captains would set sail.

Once at sea, the slaves were brought up out of their steamy dungeon each morning. The men's' leg-irons were linked to a chain running down the centre of the ship's deck to prevent them jumping overboard. On some ships they were made to dance for exercise. The slaves would receive their meal, usually a kind of porridge made from maize or millet. A second meal might be provided in the afternoon, usually the same as the first. While on deck a good captain had the slaves washed down with warm vinegar and scrubbed. Some did not bother and in rough weather the slaves would not be allowed out at all.

Shackled in darkness and filth, seasickness and disease were rife. The heat in the hold could be over 30°c and the slaves would have no access to toilets or washing facilities. So foul was the smell of slave ships that other vessels took care to steer well away from them. In such conditions disease spread, and many slaves died. It was not rare for hundreds to die in an epidemic; occasionally every African on board was dead by the time the ship entered Caribbean waters. Their bodies would be thrown overboard. Slaves were valuable cargo so a good captain would do his best to keep as many alive as possible. But many slave captains were notorious for their cruelty. The actual voyage could take from 6 weeks to three months. It has been estimated that between 9-11million people were taken from Africa by European traders and landed alive on the other side of the Atlantic. But as the average loss was 1/8 of all slaves it can be estimated that a further 1½ million Africans are buried in the Atlantic Ocean between Africa and the Americas. At the end of the voyage came the 'sale' of the cargo. Africans were inspected for physical faults and auctioned like meat in a meat-market. Families were split up forever and life as a plantation slave would begin. Meanwhile, the captains totted up the profits and the crew began cleaning out the ship to take on a cargo of colonial produce, which had to be carried in better conditions than the slaves had endured.

The conditions in which slaves were kept during the middle passage is described by Alexander Falconbridge, a Ship’s Surgeon aboard a slave ship in 1788:

In each of the apartments are placed three or four large buckets, of a conical form, nearly two feet in diameter at the bottom and only one foot at the top and in depth of about twenty- eight inches, to which, when necessary, the Negroes have recourse. It often happens that those who are placed at a distance from the buckets, in endeavoring to get to them, tumble over their companions, in consequence of their being shackled. These accidents, although unavoidable, are productive of continual quarrels in which some of them are always bruised. In this distressed situation, unable to proceed and prevented from getting to the tubs, they desist from the attempt; and as the necessities of nature are not to be resisted, ease themselves as they lie. This becomes a fresh source of boils and disturbances and tends to render the condition of the poor captive wretches still more uncomfortable. The nuisance arising from these circumstances is not infrequently increased by the tubs being too small for the purpose intended and their being emptied but once every day. The rule for doing so, however, varies in different ships according to the attention paid to the health and convenience of the slaves by the captain.

The Return Voyage: Having loaded the ships with sugar, tobacco and rum paid for from the proceeds of the sale of slaves, the captains would try to set sail for England on the final part of their triangular voyage before the 'Hurricane season' began in mid-July. This was to avoid much higher insurance rates which were demanded for ships leaving at more 'dangerous' times of year. Captains would always wish to be fully loaded, to ensure greater profit, but this might not always be the case if time was short.

NOTE: It should be remembered that African slavery existed in the Americas long before the formation of the Joint Stock Companies. The first Africans in America were delivered to English America by a Dutch Man-of-War in 1619, as noted in John Rolfe’s Journals.

Slavery in North America

The first Africans in America, noted in Rolfe’s journals, arrived at Jamestown in 1619; twenty indentured servants who served for a term of years. No distinction was made between black and white indentured servants. After having worked their tenure, they were awarded fifty acres of land, and often themselves acquired indentured servants or slaves. Over time, differences in color, and absence of Christianity on the part of the Africans led to life servitude, in which persons were held in "chattel slavery," that is they were the personal property of the owner, as were their offspring.

Originally, Indentured Servants were used for agricultural labor in both North America and in the Caribbean, where many wealthy Englishmen owned plantations. However the servants were not accustomed to the climate or diseases, and often died like flies in the Caribbean. In America, the use of indentured servants fell out of favor following Bacon’s Rebellion. Bacon had been an indentured servant, and his rebellion indicated to plantation owners the problems that could result if laborers had any hope of becoming landowners. Additionally, as desirable land became more and more scarce as plantations grew, landed planters became increasingly reluctant to invest in servants who would eventually be entitled to land of their own. African slavery seemed the proper solution.

NOTE: Africans were not the first slaves in the Americas. The Spanish had routinely enslaved Indians, particularly those of the West Indies. However the West Indies natives had not mastered the art of growing crops or herding animals. In those areas where crops were grown, it was women’s work, degrading for men. When forced to work day after day under harsh discipline, Indian slaves soon grew sick and died. Africans were skilled farmers as well as miners and craftsmen. In fact, the cultivation of rice in South Carolina would not have been possible were it not for the knowledge of Africans who knew how to grow it.

The vast majority of slaves transported were delivered to sugar plantations in the Bahamas and Central America. Less than five per cent of total slave imports to the Western Hemisphere during the 300 years the slave trade existed. (Roughly 400,000 out of over 10 million transported). Those who landed in the Sugar Islands had a life expectancy of seven years or less. They were literally worked to death, and then replaced. In North America, slaves lived longer and multiplied, such that by the end of the colonial period, one of five Americans was either an African or the descendant of an African.

Although slavery was legal and existed in all thirteen colonies, it flourished in the South where large plantations and the production of staple crops made free labor invaluable. It has been estimated that at one time, 40 per cent of slave traffic into the United States passed through Sullivan’s Island in Charleston, S.C. Through most of the eighteenth century, South Carolina had a slave majority, a fact not lost on the white minority, who lived in constant fear of slave revolts. News of a massive slave revolt in Haiti reached the colonies, and exacerbated the fear of a similar revolt. To prevent similar occurrences, any attempt at rebellion in the colonies was put down harshly.

    The Stono Slave Rebellion:Fear of a slave revolt was exacerbated by the Spanish in Florida, who in 1739 offered freedom to any slave who escaped and converted to Catholicism. This information and rumors of a former slave who had became governor of a small outpost north of St. Augustine  gave rise to the most violent slave uprising in the 14 colonies, the Stono Rebellion  It began on a Sunday morning, September 9, 1739, when a force of 20 slaves attacked a store at Stonoe (south of Charleston) and killed the owner. They seized weapons, and then attacked other houses and were joined by other slaves along the way. They killed 25 settlers in one day as they made their way to Florida and almost captured South Carolina's Lieutenant Governor William Bull who was riding by. He barely managed to get away. Just outside Edisto, South Carolina, the colonial militia, alerted by a loyal slave, caught up with the rebels, who had raised a banner and shouted "Liberty," in hopes of creating a general uprising. The militia killed two thirds of the rebels. A contemporary account of the Stono Rebellion indicated the extreme violence of revolting slaves, apparently fueled by rage and hatred, and the ruthlessness with which revolts were put down:

"September 20th a Negro came to the General and told him that was said of the Negroes rising in Carolina was true and that they had marched to Stono Bridge, where they had murdered two storekeepers, cut their heads off and set them on the stairs, robbed the stores of what they wanted and went on killing what men, women and children they met, burning of houses and committing other outrages and that one hundred planters who had assembled themselves together pursued them and found them in an open field, where they were dancing, being most of them drunk with the liquors they found in the stores. As soon as they saw their masters, they all made off as fast as they could to a thicket of woods, excepting one Negro fellow who came up to his master. His master asked him if he wanted to kill him. The Negro answered he did, at the same time snapping a pistol at him but it missed fire and his master shot him through the head. About fifty of these villains attempted to go home but were taken by the planters who cut off their heads and set them up at every mile post they came to."

Not all slaves revolted, but many resisted captivity, particularly "salt water" slaves, who often broke tools, sabotaged machinery, and resisted work orders. Because of their familiarity with herbs and various plants and their medicinal (or perhaps lethal) properties, poison became a favored method of slaves to murder a hated master. More than one South Carolina planter met his maker because his slave cook added a lethal potion to his food or win

Although Africans in America came from a wide diversity of backgrounds, they forged a culture that became uniquely African American. Among their contributions to American society are words such as tabby, tote, cooter, goober, yam, and banana. The Coosaw, Peedee, and Wando Rivers in South Carolina received their names from African slaves.

A more important influence was music and folklore, as well as religious practice. Slaves used stories and sermons to send coded messages, expressing their strong hatred of the institution, and dislike of masters and overseers. Slave religion became a combination of African and Christian religions with a fundamental theme of deliverance; that God would one day free them from slavery and deliver them to the promised land of Heaven. Slave owners, obviously, denied any "liberation" for slaves by reason of their adoption of Christianity. In 1667, the Virginia Legislature passed the following resolution:

Whereas some doubts have risen whether children that are slaves by birth, and by the charity and piety of their owners made partakers of the blessed sacrament of baptism, should by virtue of their baptism be made free, it is enacted and declared by this Grand Assembly, and the auhority thereof, that the conferring of baptism does not alter the condition of the person as to his bondage or freedom; that diverse masters, freed from this doubt may more carefully endeavor the propagation of Christianity by permitting children, though slaves, or chose of greater growth if capable, to be admitted to that sacrament.

Powerful ties of kinship accompanied Africans to America. Slave marriages were not legally sanctioned, but many masters discovered that slaves would work harder and be more content if they were allowed to maintain family relationships. Still, slaves had no inherent legal right of marriage, and a master could—and often did—sell away members of a family at his whim.

Gender roles in slave communities were different than in white society. Many slave women were field hands, along with their husbands. They were also wives and mothers, responsible for rearing children and household affairs. Because they worked in close relationship and proximity with men, they were treated far more as equals than white women. It should be remembered, however, that the most well treated black was afforded considerably poorer treatment than the most ill-used white woman.

Although most slaves were field hands, some became boatmen, interpreters, cattle and swine herders, or lumbermen. Others became blacksmiths, carpenters, coopers, or domestic servants and maids.