History for Kossacks: Slavery comes to America (Special Guest Edition)

Originally posted by Aphra Behn on 11/20/06

Greetings Cave Dwellers! Welcome back to another guest edition of History for Kossacks, and our series on the history and roots of American slavery. In Part One, Unitary Moonbat gave us  slavery in the ancient world; last week in Part Two, we continued with a peek at Roman and Ottoman slavery and the serfdom of medieval Europe. Tonight, our story continue in Africa and the Americas. Join me, aphra behn, your guest host and humble lady scribbler, in colonial Virginia…

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In 1619, a ship named the White Lion arrived at Jamestown, in the English colony of Virginia. From it came “20 and odd” human beings recorded as “Negars,” Angolans purchased from slave traders, who were destined to become the first slaves in English America.

Or were they? The men were recorded as “Servants,” rather than slaves. Did they enter into a system of indenture? What were the English doing with Angolan slaves anyway? The answers lie in Portugal, Africa, and South America…

Sugar and Slaves
In 1400, Africa was home to a wide range of kingdom, countries, and other political and social organizations. North Africa had long ties with Europe; quickly brought into Christendom in the Roman period, it had produced more than one pope, an emperor, several saints, and perhaps the most important father of the early Church: St. Augustine.  In the Muslim era, North Africa served as connector between  Muslim Iberia and the great Muslim kingdoms of the Middle East. These connections helped nourish a vibrant Trans-Saharan trade in a wide variety of goods, including gold, ivory, and slaves. In East Africa,  this trade focused mainly on the Middle East.

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In West Africa, trade linkages were more and more to Western Europe. The Portuguese began trading directly with Africa in the 1400s, after advances in maritime technology (like the stern rudder and a new system of sails that allowed for more flexibility than the old one-sailed vessels) allowed them to sail all the way to West Africa and beyond. They traded for many kinds of valued goods, especially gold.  They also bought a few slaves, beginning in 1441 when the first African slaves were brought directly to Lisbon.

They were not the first African slaves in Europe; as slaves and servants (depending on local laws), small numbers of non-Christian Africans had long made up a  small portion of the serving classes of Europe. But the Portuguese were about to embark on the large-scale importation of African slaves, to be used in agricultural labour. Why did they need these workers?

The answer lies in the eastward voyages that the Portuguese were undertaking simultaneously with their attempts to sail around Africa (and thence to Asia…but that’s another diary). The Portuguese laid claim to the Azores in 1427, and  quickly set up agricultural colonies on these islands and on Madeira through the 1430s and 1440s. Their wine production was impressive, but even more so was their sugar production.

Sugar is so common in our lives today that it’s hard to believe that it was a luxury commodity to most Europeans in the 1400s and 1500s. It had been introduced to Iberia by the Berbers and brought to much of the rest of Western Europe by Crusaders. While Iberia produced a significant amount of sugar in Andalucia and the Algarve, Portugal and Spain both hoped to expand their production in tropical colonies in Africa–or in the West. When Columbus found the “Indies” in 1492, his Spanish masters hoped not only that he would find gold and silks, but perhaps a profitable spot to expand the sugar business. In fact, he brought with him cuttings of sugar cane from the Canary islands.

(Historiorantrix:The sugar was allegedly a gift from his SWEETheart, Beatrice de Boabdilla, the local landlady…SWEETheart, get it? har har. I slay me.)

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Sugar cane requires careful attention during its growth, and requires significant amounts of processing. Further, the crop exhausts the land fairly quickly, necessitating new land be cleared. It’s not the sort of work that many labourers would voluntarily choose. And so the Portuguese were the first of many European nations to turn toward unfree labour in the production of sugar. As non-Christians (mostly Muslim or practitioners of various animistic faith traditions), these Africans were fine to enslave according to the old dictates of the Christian Church. ( Weird Historical Sidenote: Meanwhile, the Christian Africans could be sold to Muslim markets…the Africans really could not win.)

The Portuguese would continue to dominate the slave trade through the 1500s,  trading the first slaves into the Americas in 1518. The Dutch achieved ascendency in the 1600s, and by the 1700s, the British were using their naval superiority to control the trade.

It’s no exaggeration to say that slavery (alongside indenture) made our current western addiction to sugar possible.From the BBC’s Story of Africa series:

Two thirds of all slaves captured in the 18th century went to work on sugar plantations. This reflected the enormous demand for sugar in food and drink at the time. In the 16th century a pound of sugar in Britain cost the equivalent of two days wages for a labourer. By the 17th century the price of sugar fell by half. In the space of 150 years sugar consumption in Britain rose by 2500 percent. By the late 1790’s what had been a luxury only enjoyed by the aristocracy was part of the diet of poor families in Britain. Sugar’s cheapness in the 18th century was made possible by slave labour.

Slavery in Africa
So why would the rulers of West Africa wish to sell their fellow men into this brutal business? It’s important to understand that slavery within Africa was quite different than its counterpart in the New World. In most of West Africa, slaves were a sign of power and wealth, seldom traded for financial gain. Slavery in West Africa might better be termed serfdom, so similar was it to that European institution of half-freedom that we discussed last week; we might also compare it to indentured servitude (which we’ll get to below). As PBS’s Africa in the Americas put it:

  In the Ashanti Kingdom of West Africa, for example, slaves could marry, own property and even own slaves. And slavery ended after a certain number of years of servitude. Most importantly, African slavery was never passed from one generation to another, and it lacked the racist notion that whites were masters and blacks were slaves.

The initial appearance of European traders in West Africa did little to change that. However, as the demand grew from Portuguese and Spaanish traders to supply the vast labour needs of Iberian colonies overseas, African slavetrading shifted to become an important source of profit for many West African kings. The Asanti Kingdom of modern Ghana had long held the tradition of household slaves, but had viewed gold as its main trade commodity in 1500; by the early 18th century, they, like many African kingdoms, began concentrasting on slaves as their main export. As one European slave trader put it:

Concerning the trade on this Coast, we notified your Highness that nowadays the natives no longer occupy themselves with the search for gold, but rather make war on each other in order to furnish slaves. . . The Gold Coast has changed into a complete Slave Coast. 

– William De La Palma
Director, Dutch West India Co.
September 5, 1705

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Benin (the Kingdom of Dahomey) led the way in waging war on its neighbors in order to meet the demand and reap the profits–profits often paid in European-style firearms which helped perpetuate Dahomean military dominance. One of the many tragic side-effects of this, however, was the growing dependence of the Dahomean economy on slavery. As King Gezo put it in the 1840s:

“The slave trade is the ruling principle of my people. It is the source and the glory of their wealth…the mother lulls the child to sleep with notes of triumph over an enemy reduced to slavery…”

The slave trade made some African kingdoms very wealthy and weakened others, encouraging Portugal and, later, other European nations to set up client-kingdoms and even outright colonies on the coasts. Although this interference did not become outright control until the 19th century,  it proved devastating for some nations, such as  Angola, which fought both the Portuguese and the Dutch for control of its rich slaving lands. And the persistance of the slave trade late into the 19th century, long after it was outlawed by Great Britain, actually became a justification for late 19th century imperialism.  It is highly ironic that  European powers, whose demand for slaves had helped to alter the African slave trade so fundamentally, then used its continued existence as a justification for the “Scramble for Africa” in 1870-1900.

The Middle Passage
By the end of the 1700s, perhaps 70,000 people were enslaved and boarded onto ships destined for the Americas. What is now Angola was ravaged by rival slaving parties and slave-driven wars that devastates large swathes of the countryside. At minimum, 12 million Africans were enslaved. African slave-merchants kidnapped isolated adults or children, or took war captives to sell at the coast. Potential slaves had to walk in slave caravans to the European coastal forts, perhaps 1,000 miles away. Poorly fed and chained together, many died on what can only be called “death marches.” Those who could not keep up were killed or left to die. At the trading posts or “slave fortresss,”  they might wait in a  dungeon for months or even a year to be sold in a humiliating fashion to prospective transatlantic traders.

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Propective buyers looked for signs of strength and endurance; different ethnic groups were believed to have different qualities, and, over time, slave traders developed elaborate practices for determining and choosing slave availability. Books were published in Europe giving advice as detailed as licking the sweat of slaves to determine health. It is difficult to imagine learning to grade human being like cattle, but slave traders did so all the time.

Once purchased, slaves were crammed into slave ships that had just been full of firearms, gunpowder, brandy,  and other trade goods. For the voyage back to the Americans, they might be packed 300-400 in a space with 5 feet of headroom and no room to move around or fully lie down. Many were confused, and disoriented, unable to communciate with their slavers. Those who could communicate (many sailors spoke African  pidgin, a mixed language of the West African coast that some African sailors, traders, and fishermen also spoke), they could hardly believe what they were being told. They were destined for agricultural labour?  After all, in Africa, agriculture did not need so many people. What were their kidnappers hiding? Ex-slave Olaudah Equiano, who published his memoirs in the 1790s, gave a possible explanation that many slaves might have believed: cannibalism.

When I looked round the ship too and saw a large furnace of copper boiling, and a mulititude of black people of every description chained together, every one of their countenances expressing dejection and sorrow, I no longer doubted of my fate and quite overpowered with horrow and anguish, I fell motionless on the deck and fainted. . . . I asked if we were not to be eaten by those white men with horrible looks, red faces and long hair? — The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano


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This terrifying journey, called the “Middle Passage,” with its disease, stench, and desapir, prompted many Africans to try to take their own lives. Slavers tried to watch out for this, and would force feed those intent on starvation. From all causes combined, it’s estmated that bout 20% of slaves died on this horrible journey. Was it worth it to import all this labour? Couldn’t the earliest Europeans in the New World have found slaves, servants, or serfs closer at hand? In fact, the Spanish enslaved Native peoples long before they enslaves Africans. Let’s take a quick look at this institution of slavery from a Native American perspective.

Unfreedom in Mexico and Spanish America
Amongst the Aztec, slavery ultimately derived from the practice of taking captives during war. Slavery was not inheritable, and slaves could own possessions and buy their own way out of servitude. Poeple might be sentenced to become slaves as a form of punishment for crimes such as murder or disobedience to one’s parents. (Historiorantrix: That’s gotta be at least as good as the bogeyman for threatening your kids with.)

In order to provide labor for their exploits throughout the Americas, the Spanish conquistadors enslaved many of the native peoples to work on plantations or in the gold and silver mines they developed. Their justification was the “encomienda,” a grant by the Spanish crown that gave conquistadors the right to the labor of the people on lands the conquistadors claimed. If that sounds fmailiar to you, it should. It was essentially the logic of serfdom, transferred to the Americas. The difference was that the conquistadors did not actually get the land, just the claim to control the labour of a certain area.

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In practice, the early years of this slave experience were horrific. Many conquistadors of the early generation wanted to make a quick profit in the New World.The worst of these men demanded heavy taxes, worked slaves to death, and generally treated the poor Natives as less than human.  The horrors of this era resulted in numerous protests, notably from clergyman Bartolomeo de las Casas, about the brutality practiced by conquistadors toward the Natives:

There was a custom among the Spaniards that one person, appointed by the captain, should be in charge of distributing to each Spaniard the food and other things the Indians gave. And while the Captain was thus on his mare and the others mounted on theirs, and the father himself was observing how the bread and fish were distributed, a Spaniard, in whom the devil is thought to have clothed himself, suddenly drew his sword. Then the whole hundred drew theirs and began to rip open the bellies and, to cut and kill those lambs-men, women, children, and old folk, all of whom were seated, off guard and frightened, watching the mares and the Spaniards. And within two credos, not a man of all of them there remains alive.

The Spaniards enter the large house nearby, for this was happening at its door, and in the same way, with cuts and stabs, begin to kill as many as they found there, so that a stream of blood was running, as if a great number of cows had perished.

….The cleric, moved to wrath, opposes and rebukes them harshly to prevent them, and having some respect for him, they stopped what they were going to do, so the forty were left alive. The five go to kill where the others were killing. And as the cleric had been detained in hindering the slaying of the forty carriers, when he went he found a heap of dead, which the Spaniards had made among the Indians, which they thought was a horrible sight. When Narvaez, the captain, saw him he said: “How does Your Honor like what these our Spaniards have done?”

Seeing so many cut to pieces before him, and very upset at such a cruel event, the cleric replied: “That I command you and them to the devil!”  — BartolomĂ© de las Casas: A Selection of His Writings (New York: Knopf, 1971), via Norton’s website

Spanish Slavery in Theory and in Practice
These practices were out of line with Spanish law, which contained provisions for slaves from its old medieval laws. The 13th century Siete Partidas treated slaves as humans, guaranteed protection from abusive masters, and even made provision for them to testify in court against abusive masters. A drive to bring Spanish practices in line with these principles  resulted in the “New Laws” of 1542, which attempted to regulate the encomienda system to moderate the lives of slaves.  They were unpoplar with the encomederos (holders of encomienda), who openly revolted at the attempt to impose these laws in Peru. The gradual introduciton of the hacienda system, which gave rights to landowners, helped institute a system of slavery that looked more and more like serfdom.

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Key to this development was the insistence of the Spanish Church that slaves be Christianized. While forced mass conversions may seem repugnant to us—something out of Focus on the Family’s Christmas wish list (along with a pony, a plastic rocket, and a protestant Papacy for James Dobson )—it was a sort of progress in the 16th century. Becomig Christian guaranteed slaves certain basic human rights in Spanish society. On a human level, Christianization also provided  recognition that the Native Americans were human beings,  posessed of a soul. Furthermore, by bringing the Indians into the Christian fold, the church *in theory* guaranteed that family units would be preserved intact; marriage was a sacrament in the Catholic church and could not be broken by masters. In theory.

Despite the apparent legal advantages enjoyed by these slaves, it is worth noting that Latin American slavery could be incredibly brutal, especially on large sugar and coffee plantations in the West Indies and Brazil, where masters, unchecked by the eyes of the Church or their neighbors, practied brutal floggings and often expected slaves to produce their own food in their free time.  The tragic death of Native peoples due to disease and overwork was a terrible blow to Iberian hopes of using the Native Americans as primary sources of labour. And so the Spanish and Portuguese colonial powers became the first to import large numbers of African slaves for heavy field work in the 1500s.

The mixed system of unfree labour included both Native and African slavery:  Native American slaves usually worked on farms (haciendas) and in households. Ladinos or skilled workers from Spain, were given the greatest freedom and might even work apart from their masters. Most oppressed were African bodales, who did heavy labour on plantations and in mines. Relatively few African women were imported, keeping the African-descended birth rate quite low, necessitating the constant importation of new slaves.

It is estimated that of all the slaves who left Africa over the course of the Atlantic slave trade,  60- 70 percent ended up in Brazil or the sugar colonies of the Caribbean, where slaves might make up 80 to 90 percent of the population. Of course, it’s also worth noting that under Spanish rule, there was considerable mixing between Africans, Natives, and Europeans, so much so that elaborate racial classifications sprang up—mulatto, estizo, octoroon, quintroon and the like–all of which identified a person as a separate “race” based on precise admixtures of European, Native, and African blood.

The English in North America Ireland
Compared to the Spanish, the English were certainly latecomers to the American colonization business. After several abortive colonization attempts, they established a settlement at Jamestown, in the Virginia colony. But that didn’t mean the English had not been about the business of planting colonies. Far from it. They were busy in Ireland, where, Henry VIII (of several wives fame) had instituted a policy under which Irish Lords (of either English or Gaelic descent) could gain Royal protection by surrendering their lands to the crown and then swearing loyalty, getting their lands re-granted in the process.

Henry’s aim was to gradually transform Ireland into an English-style kingdom. Henry’s daughters attempted to continue this process by “planting”  colonies of English farms, which the wild Irish were supposed to look at, admire, and then imitate. It didn’t work that way. The plantations were subject to warfare from disgruntled chiefs and outright rebellion in some cases. The failed Ulster plantation, for example, descended into civil war and mass murders in the 1570s. (Historiorantrix:That only counts as a “successful” colony if you’re Donald Rumsfeld.)

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So, in the 1580s the English shifted their tactics, settling new plantations around extensive fortifications and importing reliable Protestant settlers from England (and, later, Scotland). They did not trust the native Irish, and in fact expected trouble, disloyalty and rebellion. English policy encouraged watchful separation, not intermixing and “civilization” of the natives.  When Ulster again erupted in rebellion in 1698, English settlers fled their fields and retrated to fortresses. It was not an atmosphere that built trust, nor did it make the Irish seem like reliable labourers.

This helpes to explain why the English in North America made relatively little use of Native Americans as labourers, and built large fortifications, mainly keeping themselves separate from the (obviously untrustworthy and rebellion-prone!) Native Americans. Those private persons sponsoring “plantations”(17th century English term for colony) in Ireland were forbiddden from taking Irish tenant farmers; it is little wonder that the English in Ameica did not plan to set up a hacienda-style system with Native peoples labouring on their farms. Instead they shut themselves away from their Native neighbours, always on the lookout.

Slavery and the First Nations of North America
When the English did practve slavery on their Native Americna neighbors, it was most often in retaliation for war; after many major colonial conflicts, Englishmen sold off those Native leaders they deemed responsible for uprisings and rebellion. This was not totally unlike the Native approach. Among many of the First Nations of eastern North America, captives taken in war might face several fates, which ranged from ritual torture (as a means of spiritually avenging the wrongs of fallen warriors) or adoption into the family, perhaps to take the place of the fallen. Somewhere in between, they might become unfree labourers bound to a particular person or family. These tended to be outcasts with few rights. These practices continued amongst the First Nations of the Eastern Woodlands long after cotact with Europeans, and in fact English colonists sometimes found themselves enslaved after being taken prisoners of war. Puritan Mary Rowlandson of Massachusetts was so enslaved during King Philip’s War (1675-1676), and recorded her experiences among the Wampanoag in detail:

This morning I asked my master whether he would sell me to my husband. He answered me “Nux,” which did much rejoice my spirit. My mistress, before we went, was gone to the burial of a papoose, and returning, she found me sitting and reading in my Bible; she snatched it hastily out of my hand, and threw it out of doors. I ran out and catched it up, and put it into my pocket, and never let her see it afterward. Then they packed up their things to be gone, and gave me my load. I complained it was too heavy, whereupon she gave me a slap in the face, and bade me go; I lifted up my heart to God, hoping the redemption was not far off; and the rather because their insolency grew worse and worse..–Mary Rowlandson, The Narrative of the Captivity of Mary Rowlandson

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(Weird Historical Sidenote Rowlandson, like other New England Puritans, especially feared being sold to rival European colonists in New France. Worse than servitude to Native Americans was the prospect of becoming French and Catholic! And talk about payback: at the conclusion of King Phillip’s War, the English colonists of New England sold Phillip’s family and hundreds of his tribesmen into slavery in the Caribbean. )

The English enslaved Native Americans on a regular basis in the Carolinas, where a brisk trade in captured Native Americans was in place by the 1730s. Yet the practice was never as widespread as African slavery as later to be, for two important reasons. First, Native peoples could run away fairly easily and make their way back home. Second, they  seemed  to have a very high death rate when enslaved–dying both from close exposure to European diseases and from ill-treatment from their masters. The English relied on other means of bringing large-scale unfree labour into their colonies…and I’m not talking about race-based enslavement of Africans.

If you learned about indentured labour in school, you may have heard that it was a great way for prospective colonists to make their poor-but-humble way across the Atlantic. An indentured servant would sell his labour to a master in return for passage. For seven years or so (contracts usually ran four to seven years but other lengths of time were possible), the servant worked  in his or her master’s fields or house. At the end of that time, s/he might receive land, gifts, and other lovely things as s/he became a free member of society.

And *sometimes* it actually worked that way.

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As often as not, however, indentured servants might be kidnapped, impressed, or otherwise bamboozled into making the voyage to the New World. (Historiorantrix:see, Bush’s America, military recruiting in.) Especially in the early part of the seventeenth century, Virginia and the Caribbean had a reputation of being malaria-infested death traps; a servant was actually more likely to die than to survive indenture! In some cases, criminals, orphans, the homeless and “wandering vagabonds”  might be “sold” to the enterprising Virginia Company or other colonial joint stock companies in order to help with the labour shortage. (Historiorantrix: I told you last time that you’d better have a pass if you were wandering around Stuart England!)

The Irish got hit especially hard with indenture. 17th century Irish rebels and “troublesome” peasants might be sold into lifetime indenture as a punishment; after Oliver Cromwell re-conquered Ireland in 1649-51, thousands of Irish were sold to colonies in the Caribbean. They are often referred to as “slaves,” and in light of their legal status that’s pretty much correct. It was not an inheritable slavery, however, and, if pardoned, they might live as free men and women. Few achieved such status–they died or rebelled, leading to worse punishments.

It is not surprising that these indentured servants often provided less-than-co-operative labour. One group of servants bound for Virginia found themselves shipwrecked on Bermuda in 1609. Discovering that it was an island paradise requiring little labour to survive, the settlers and the working sailors of the ship, the Sea-Venture, mutinied against their masters in the Virginia company, refusing to leave Bermuda. Although they were eventually forced to Virginia, ponder this:

…during their forty-two weeks on the siland, sailors and others among the “idle, untoward, and wretched” had organized five different onspiracies against the Virginia Company and their leaders who had responded with two of the earliest capital punishments in English America, hanging one man and executing another by firing squad to quell the resistance and carry on with the task of colonization. —Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh, The Many-Headed Hydra:Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutuonary Atlantic

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Weird Historical Sidenote: Didja know Shakespeare was an investor in the Virginia Company? The Tempest may be based partly on his knowledge of this incident and other reports of the islands of the New World.

Getting indentured servants to work obediently was not easy.  And why should it be? Many of the indentured servants did not want to be there. Disease, privation, violence from their fellow servants and from masters were bad enough. Add in the constant threat of Indian attack and you have a recipe for disaster. As one servant wrote his parents in 1623:

This is to let you understand that I your child am in a most heavy case by reason of the country, [which] is such that it causeth much sickness, [such] as the scurvy and the bloody flux and diverse other diseases, which maketh the body very poor and weak. And when we are sick there is nothing to comfort us; for since I came out of the ship I never ate anything but peas, and loblollie (that is, water gruel). As for deer or venison I never saw any since I came into this land. There is indeed some fowl, but we are not allowed to go and get it, but must work hard both early and late for a mess of water gruel and a mouthful of bread and beef. A mouthful of bread for a penny loaf must serve for four men which is most pitiful. [You would be grieved] if you did know as much as I [do], when people cry out day and night – Oh! That they were in England without their limbs – and would not care to lose any limb to be in England again, yea, though they beg from door to door….

…And I have nothing to comfort me, nor is there nothing to be gotten here but sickness and death… —Richard Frethorne, 1623, at History Matters

Africans in English America: Servants or Slaves?
So if we return to our “20 odd” Angolans who landed in Virginia in 1619, we should not be blinded by their “servant” status. Perhas they were not slaves. Perhaps they worked in fields on equal footing alongside the English and Irish servants who laboured with them—but that did not mean they were “free.” Rather, it meant they were equally likely to be starved, beaten, and severely punished for the slightest infraction. Worst of all (from the owner’s perspective) was the problem of running away. The typical English method dealing with runaway servants (in addition to whipping, of course) was additional time on a sentence: servitude might be extended by a  year, two, three, four, or many more…not something most servants could bear thinking about.

The Africans, however, possessed a key trait that their English and Irish counterparts lacked. They were much more resistant to hot-weather diseases. Northern Europeans, little used to heat, malaria, and other nasty tropicana, succumbed to infection and heatstroke far more often than Africans. This mean that a few African servants might do more than just survive. They might be freed and eventually prosper in Virginia. The first of these, one Antonio Johnson,  arrived as a “servant” in 1621. It is unclear what kind of status Antonio Johnson had—was he more of a “slave” as we might understand it, or a servant?

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Whatever has status, he worked producing tobacco, which emerged int he 1610s as Virginia’s major cash crop–not as profitable as the later cotton, but good enough to justify the colony’s continured existence. He survived the harsh labour and Indian attacks, and was even able to wed one “Mary, a Negro.” At some point, they were both freed–the first free blacks recorded in English America. Records show them farming on their own in the 1640s; by the 1650s, they had acquired 250 acres..and several slaves or servants of their own. But a fire in 1653 devastated them and their four children; the Johnsons sold the land and moved to Maryland in 1665, where they rented 300 acres. When Antonio died in 1670, Mary took over the lease and renegotiated it to a 99 year term. Their sons inherited the land and contiued to farm.

A curious addendum to the Johnson story provides us a clue about the changing perceptions of Africans held by English colonists in 17th century Virginia. In August of 1670, several months after “Anthony” Johnson’s death, a jury in a Virginia court decided that ownership of the 250 acres formerly owned by Johnson should be escheated, or reverted, to the crown of England. The reason?

[the jury]…doth declare that the said Anthony Johnson lately deceased in his life tyme was seized of fifty acres of land now in the possession of Rich. Johnson in the County of Accomack aforesaid and further that the said Anthony Johnson was a negro and by consequence an alien and for that cause the said land doth escheat to this . . .PBS’s Africans in America

Hmmm. ..so a “negro” was now automatically an “alien.” Sounds like something’s up, and not something good.

In fact, the middle and later seventeenth century saw shifts in Virginia slavery; by 1640, at least one African servant had been declared a “slave”—forced to endure lifetime servitude in punishment for running away. No European servant in Virginia ever received such a designation (although as we’ve seen, something similar was assigned to the Irish in the Caribbean). This slave seems to have been non-Christian, which may have accounted for his status, but the connection between slavery and skin colour was not far off.

For English slavery did not exist in a vacuum. Although England had no formal statutes relating to slavery, and although its system of serfdom had faded away fairly early in the medieval period, English traders interacted with Spanish, French, Dutch, Portuguese, and other traders quite extensvely. Their world was one in which unfree labour was cheap—and a lot of it was enslaved and African. The first English colony in the present U.S. to pass slave-related statutes was Massachusetts in 1641; Connecticut followed in 1650. While slavery was never extensive in these northern colonies, slaves/servants served as labour on small farms and as household servants.

(Weird Historical Sidenote:One New England slave is somewhat famous to us: Tituba, the West Indian woman who served the household of Minister Samuel Parris during the Salem witchcraft crisis in 1692. Accused of witchcraft herself, Tituba confessed that she had learned the trade from “her mistress” in the West Indies, alluding, perhaps, to the practice of African folk-magic amongst white and black alike in the Caribbean. Or she may have meant something else entirely; some scholars argue that Tituba was Native, not African. Whatever she was, she certainly wasn’t free, and it seems likely that her “confession” was coerced by her master through whipping and other violent punishment.)

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The first statute dealing with slaves was passed in Virginia in 1661; it referred to the punishment of white servants who ran away with black slaves. A 1662 law stated that children would be born bonded or free according to the status of the mother. And, as we saw in the case of Anthony Johnson, “negros” might be defined as foreigners. Despite these changes, Virginia’s courts might side with Africans, who still enjoyed some equal protection under the law:

Philip Cowen Case: At her death in 1664, a Mrs. Amye Beazlye left to her cousin a black servant named Philip Cowen. The will stated that Cowen should work for the cousin for eight years, then be given his freedom and three barrels of corn and a suit of clothes. At the end of the eight years, the cousin extended the contract three years. At the end of those three years, he informed Cowen that another nine years of service was due. In 1675, Cowen petitioned the court for his freedom. The court sided with Cowen, asking the owner to release him from servitude and to pay him the corn and the cost of a suit.
Elizabeth Key Case: The illegitimate daughter of an enslaved black mother and a free white settler father, Elizabeth Key spent the first five or six years of her life at home. Then in 1636, ownership of Elizabeth was transferred to another white settler, for whom she was required to serve for nine years before being released from bondage. At some point, ownership was transferred again, this time to a justice of the peace. When this owner died in 1655, Elizabeth, through her lawyer, petitioned the court, asking for her freedom; by this time she had already served 19 years…Elizabeth was ultimately freed.—PBS,Africans in America

The Growth of Race-Based Slavery in English America
By 1705, however, an important shift had occurred in America. In 1650, there were only about 300 Africans in Virginia, but by 1700  over one thousand slaves entered the colony every year; black labour was increasingly more important than free white indenture. Maryland and the newer Carolina colony also demanded large numbers of slaves to tend their crops. England had aggressively entered the slave trade in 1672 with the formation of the Royal African Company, which held a monopoly on slave trading. In 1698, bowing to the ever-more-powerful merchant lobby, Parliament revoked this monopoly, and English slavers entered into the trade without restriction. The number of slaves transported on English ships soared to about 20,000 a year.

The permeable line between indentured servitude and slavery was sealed in 1705, when Virginia passed the following statue:

All servants imported and brought into the Country…who were not Christians in their native Country…shall be accounted and be slaves. All Negro, mulatto and Indian slaves within this dominion…shall be held to be real estate. If any slave resist his master…correcting such slave, and shall happen to be killed in such correction…the master shall be free of all punishment…as if such accident never happened.

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With this statute, skin colour trumped all else. Even if a slave converted to Christianity in America, that did not affect his or her status. They were now “real estate,” to be killed if a master did so during the course of “correction.” What could  kind of “correction” could slaves face?  For minor offense, like leaving the plantation without permission, they could be whipped, branded, or maimed. Slaves convicted of murder or rape would be hanged; for robbery, they would receive sixty lashes and be placed in stocks, before having his or her ears surgucally removed.(Historiorantrix: Who wrote this thing–Abu Gonzales?) It is probably worth noting that such treatment was not totally out of line from what any criminal might face in England, where pickpocketing could be a hanging offence. Still, the 1705 statute for the first time created crimes that black or Indian slaves–and ONLY those slaves–could commit, such as “consorting” with whites. And slaves lost all rights to sue at court for better treatment; the 17th century world that occasionally gave black servants and slaves a break in the law was gone forever.

Under these new attitudes, slavery expanded in English America, especially in South Carolina, where close connections with the Caribbean ensured a steady stream of new slaves; by about 1715, blacks began to outnumber whites in that area. Certain slaves were highly prized for their ability to produce rice, the first cash crop of the Carolinas. Masters sought out men and women of Sierra Leone and other rice-producing areas in Africa. This acknowledgment that slaves brought with them skills and trades from Africa was not accompanied by a curiosity about other aspects of  slaves’ previous lives, or their personalities. Disobedience was chalked up as evidence of inferior morals or nature, rather than recognized as justifiable anger about the state of unfreedom.

William Byrd, a Virginia slaveholder, recorded this attitude in his diary, which includes frequent, almost casual references, to punishing his slaves:

? June 10, 1709. I rose at 5 o’clock this morning but could not read anything because of Captain Keeling, but I played at billiards with him and won half a crown of him and the Doctor. George B-th brought home my boy Eugene. . . . In the evening I took a walk about the plantation. Eugene was whipped for running away and had the [bit] put on him. I said my prayers and had good health, good thought, and good humor, thanks be to God Almighty.
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? September 3, 1709. . . . I read some geometry. We had no court this day. My wife was indisposed again but not to much purpose. I ate roast chicken for dinner. In the afternoon I beat Jenny for throwing water on the couch. . . .

? December 1, 1709. I rose at 4 o’clock and read two chapters in Hebrew and some Greek in Cassius. I said my prayers and ate milk for breakfast. I danced my dance. Eugene was whipped again for pissing in bed and Jenny for concealing it. . . . —Excerpts from The Diary of William Byrd.

Resistance and Rebellion
Although open rebellions were rare in what is now the United States (a marked contrast to the Caribbean colonies), slaves were prepared to defend themselves and take up arms in the service of freedom if they could. Many in South Carolina were former soldiers, captured in the course of wars between the various Central and West African kingdoms.  A significant number could  speak some Portuguese or Spanish, and many from central Africa  believed in a form of Catholicism, thanks to the 15th century conversion of the royal House of Kongo.

It’s hardly surprising that many of these capable men, trained in firearms and military tactics, decided to run a away from South Carolina and make their way to Spanish Florida, where they could at elast practice their religion and enjoy somewhat better treatment. (Historiorantrix Enslaving military veterans ranks way up there with engaging in land wars in Asia as a Very Bad Idea, historically speaking.) A steady stream of these runaways fled South Carolina in the 1720s, irritating the English in South Carolina to no end:

The Spanish are receiving and harboring all our runaway negroes, they have found out a new way of sending our own slaves against us, to rob and plunder us — they are continually fitting out parties of Indians from St. Augustine to murder our white people, to rob our plantations and carry off our slaves so that we are not only at a vast expense of guarding our southern frontiers, but the inhabitants are continually alarmed and have no leizure to look after their crops.—Arthur Middleton, 1728, Acting Governor of Carolina, from the PBS Africans in America website.

The most spectacular of these runaway attempts came in 1739–the so-called Stono Rebellion. On September 9, 1739, a man named Jemmy, one of these Angolan veterans, led a large group of slaves from Stono, near Charleston, toward Florida. They raided different slaveholding homesteads, gaining rifles and killing a number of slaveholding families (at least one was spared because of his reputation for kindness). Slaves from these plantations joined the march. The 100-strong army, now possessed of firearms, shouting “freedom” and waving a banner, fought a pitched battle against the South Carolina militia, resulting in several deaths. 
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The English colonists executed the rebels whom they managed to capture, and the  South Carolina legislature promptly enacted a Negro Code that forbade slaves from growing their own food, assembling in groups, earning  their own money, or learning to read.  But some of the rebels  escaped and did make their way to Florida. St. Augustine’s Spanish rulers were delighted to have the escapees, and impressed them into the Spanish military forces. The fought alongside Spanish soldiers against English incursions, so bravely that Spanish authorities granted freedom to several of them. They integrated into the black community of St. Augustine, attending Catholic services and praying in Kikongo.

Other runaways joined Native American settlements, or found work in outlaying colonies where no questions might be asked. A significant number joined the community of free black men who made their living as sailors. Pirate crews were particularly unlikely to ask questions; in his essay “Black Men under the Black Flag,” Kenneth J. Kinkor  notes that 20-30 percent of pirate crews prosecuted under English law in the first part of the 1700s were recorded as African or black.

  (Weird Historical Sidenote: He also suggests that Blackbeard might have been  of mixed African and European descent. Arrrrrrr…)

Some slaves might have been plotting more open, more widespread rebellion. One of the great historical mysteries of the colonial era is the alleged New York Plot of 1741. New York City had the highest density of slaves of any northern city (2,000 of the 20,000 inhabitants were black). In the wake of the Stono rebellion, white inhabitants cast a nervous eye on their supposed inferiors. In the winter of 1741, a serious of mysterious fires broke out across the city, destroying part of Fort George and several mansions of the wealthy and powerful. Africans and Irish were accused of plotting a vast uprising; the witch-hunt that followed led to accusations against 160 blacks and at least a dozen white servants, mostly Irish Catholics. Thirty-one Africans were killed; 13 were burned at the stake (a punishment for treason of all sorts, including “petty treason” against one’s master or husband). 70 were deported. Four whites were also hanged, in a judicial travesty that far outran the Salem Witch Trials in its fatality.

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Was it all the result of paranoia? Historians are deeply divided over this question. Certainly, the episode reeks of racism and prejudice against servants of all sorts. The English middle class of the 18th century feared their own servants and slaves, with good reason. With somewhat less good reason, they believed that Catholics made up a secret Fifth Column, waiting to strike and murder good Protestants in their beds. (Historiorantrix: We wouldn’t know anything about irrational fears of religious minorities-as-terrorists today, now, would we? ) The hysterical identification of a local Latin teacher as a secret Jesuit agent certainly seems implausible. On the other hand, it’s worth noting that some of the Africans accused were probably ex-soldiers from Angola…exactly the sort of men we might think prone to plotting and executing a sucessful rebellion.

If nothing else, the 1741  episode helps summarize some of the fears and prejudices that underlay the institution of in 18th century English America. There is no simple answer to why Africans became the primary victims of race-based slavery in what is now the United States. Different historians have argued for a wide variety of explanations. Here are a few factors that seem important to the enslavements of Africans and their very powerless status under English law:

* English attitudes about their colonial experiences in Ireland made them uneasy about enslaving a native population in their own land; it was better to send punished slaves away and/or import new slaves from a  different area
* English laws also drew clear dividing lines in legal status by Catholic/Protestant status, contributing to a “them/us” mentality
* English law and custom that granted significant powers of punishment to male heads of household–over wives, children, servants, apprentices and employees
* Contact with African slavery in other colonies, combined with the easy availability of unfree African labour
* Tremendous demand for agricultural labour
* Tradition of violent punishments for unfree labourers in early colonies leading to an acceptance of the worst kinds of punishments for servants
* Skin colour as a convenient marker of unfree (or at least potentially unfree) status
* Superior African resistance to hot-weather diseases
* Superior African knowledge of certain crop cultivation (such as rice)

This is not a comprehensive list, but rather a pointer towards the complexity that was the evolving English colonial system of slavery. With no immediate precedent in English law, slave statutes borrowed from anti-Catholic statutes in Ireland, Iberian precedent, English property laws and classical Roman law. Cultural attitudes reflected wider hostilities toward outsiders and suspicions of servants and landless labourers. For all these reasons and more, English colonists in the mid-to-late 18th century held increasingly racist, negative attitudes towards Africans that made inheritable, race-based slavery easy to justify.

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At the same time, a few tentative English voices began to protest the system, While runaway slaves seized their own freedom, and other slaves throughout North America found myriads of little ways ot protest their unfree state, a few English thinkers expressed discomfort with slavery and the slave trade. Throughout the 18th century their voices would grow. One of the texts that 18th century antislavery advocates claimed as their own was a 1688 novel written by one Aphra Behn (perhaps you’ve heard of her!) While not a protest against the entire system, Oroonoko does paint a sympathetic treatment of an African prince, unjustly tricked into a slave ship. Whatever his skin colour, he is naturally noble, and in no way deserves to be enslaved. As he entreats his fellow slaves to rise up against an unjust system, Behn gave him words that might have been spoken by Jemmy, or any of the smoldering Angolan soldiers who fought so bravely for their freedom:

“And why,” said he, “my dear friends and fellow-sufferers, should we be slaves to an unknown people? Have they vanquished us nobly in fight? Have they won us in honorable battle? And are we by the chance of war become their slaves? This would not anger a noble heart; this would not animate a soldiers soul: no, but we are bought and sold like apes or monkeys, to be the sport of women, fools, and cowards; and the support of rogues and runagates, that have abandoned their own countries for rapine, murders, theft, and villainies. Do you not hear every day how they upbraid each other with infamy of life, below the wildest savages? And shall we render obedience to such a degenerate race, who have no one human virtue left, to distinguish them from the vilest creatures? Will you, I say, suffer the lash from such hands?” —- Oroonoko by Aphra Behn, 1688

Next week, the Moonbat returns as we conclude our series on slavery with yet another collaboration. I’ll relate the story of slavery in the era of the American Revolution while Moonbat takes us to the finish line. This has been yours truly, aphra behn, guesting in the Cave of the Moonbat.


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