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10b. Slavery

Part 1: Slavery in North America

It is not widely known (taught) that soon after the arrival of the first British settlers in Jamestown they were joined by 20 African slaves who had been removed by Dutch pirates from a Spanish ship. [This begs the question as to how the pirates knew the settlers were at Jamestown, but that is another story.]

Before proceeding, it is necessary to define terms: slavery versus “indentured servitude” = a distinction without a difference.  In the pre-Christian era, slavery was common in most cultures. It was, however, almost unknown in post-Medieval Christian Europe. In other words, black Africans were not imported into Europe. The only blacks in Christian-era Europe were the Moors of Spain and an occasional coastal trader from the shores of North Africa.

But slavery took on a different guise in Christian Europe: “indentured servitude”. A person would be indentured to another for a specified period in return for the payment of an agreed upon fee. Parents would often “indenture” (sell off) a child or two to ward off starvation of the rest of the family. Teenaged males were sold as laborers, or in the best of situations, as “apprentices” to learn a trade. Girls were more often sold into “household service” where they were more than likely to be subjected to the sexual predation by the master’s sons if not the master himself. An individual could “indenture” himself whether as a means to ward off starvation for the rest of the family or to repay a debt. With the advent of settlements in America, one could “indenture” himself or his child for the cost of the passage to that new world in hopes of a better life there. This spawned a new type of “indentured servitude”: an unattached male in America would offer the passage to any woman who would agree to marry him – sight unseen. For some young women this was an opportunity to assist their family. But it also became a route of escape from the long arm of the law for offenses committed but not as yet punished.

Many of the earliest settlers, at Jamestown or Plymouth, were indentured servants. The contract for these services usually included the awarding of a parcel of land when the term of service was complete. It was not unusual, however, for the servant to die before that date arrived. Their living situations varied considerably, but for all early settlers they were harsh at best. Assuming that they even survived the passage (a risk taken by the master) they faced starvation and hostilities by the Native Americans whose lands they tried to occupy.

As a side story: there were some situations early on where the Europeans tried to enslave Native Americans but due to a variety of factors this never worked out well. It was not difficult for that individual to escape or for his tribe to rescue him. In reverse, there were situations up through the mid-1800s where whites were enslaved by raiding Indian parties.

Reasons Africa blacks were so desired as slaves is that they: 1) had no home to easily return to; 2) their skin color made them easily recognizable. 

Prior to “importing” blacks to mainland America there was a thriving trade in shipping Africans to the various Caribbean islands and to South America; mainly Portuguese Brazil. The Spanish and the Dutch vied for supremacy in this business for 200 years before those first slaves arrived at Jamestown. It was, in fact, the Portuguese, in the person of Henry the Navigator, who reportedly moved the first shipment to the Caribbean in the mid-1400s. By the early 1700s, however, shipments of “black ivory” were done almost exclusively on English ships. Improvements in the economics in England at the same time made ‘indentured servitude’ less attractive or necessary. This then drove the shift from indentured servants to slaves. There was also one major difference between a slave and a servant. Any off-spring of an indentured servant was, by definition, not indentured; not so for slaves!

The Dutch, having settled the Manhattan area as New Netherlands or New Amsterdam, shipped many slaves there before it was taken over by the English as New York. In the first hundred years of slavery in America (by 1725), there were an estimated 75,000 black slaves across America. Two places where slavery was not found were those controlled by the Quakers and in the newest colony of Georgia where the original charter banned slavery. This lasted until 1750 when that ban was rescinded.

By the time of the American Revolution, thinking men across the country were harboring reservations about this institution called slavery. Vermont formally banned slavery in 1777 and was in fact the only slave-free State in the early Union. In 1783, Massachusetts abolished slavery and the fledgling US Congress banned the importation of new slaves (but had little means to enforce that ban) and banned slavery in the newly forming area near the Great Lakes.

Among the Founding Fathers, 17 were documented to be slave holders – mostly from the southern tier of States. Collectively, they held about 1400 slaves in total. Geo. Washington found himself a major slave-holder when he married Martha Custis who inherited them from her first husband. He did, in point of fact, free them via his will. It was a major point of economics and compromise that slavery was permitted to continue even as Jefferson wrote of all men being “created equal”. Of course, Jefferson himself was a slave-holder and is remembered for his infamous liaisons with Sally Hemings. Even those Northerners who were not directly slave holders often had interests in ships that sailed the “Triangle Trade” route: America to Africa to Caribbean and back to America reaping rich profits in the non-slave exports and imports they carried on the first and third legs of that long journey. Most of the slaves that eventually arrived in America had spent time in the Caribbean. There they learned the language of their masters. Few came directly from Africa.

In the 1770s, one in six inhabitants of America was a slave. Congress finally (and effectively) banned the importation of new slaves after 1808. But slaves continued (with the help of their masters) to beget slaves so that by 1860 there were about 4 million slaves in America; only about 500,000 of them were in the North. In truth, only about one-quarter of the inhabitants of the South held any slaves at all and less than 50,000 owned 20 or more. Slaves, like wealth, were mostly in the hands of a select few. It is somewhat ironic that it was the very fertility of the land in America that led to the use of slaves. Settlers could claim huge tracts of land for farming, but there were too few of them to adequately work and harvest those crops. Hence, the introduction of slaves to do the hard work at minimal expense to the land owners.

No one will ever know just how many slaves departed Africa. The death rate en route was sometimes as high as 50%. High end estimates place the total at about 24 million! More modern (accurate?) estimates are about half that over the course of some 400 years. None the less, the total number of slaves who found their way to the American mainland is estimated to be between 600 & 700,000. Because of the Atlantic winds that controlled the ships of the day, most such voyages went first to a Caribbean island where the slaves were off loaded and “revived” before being trans-shipped northward. It is even suggested that those first 20 who arrived at Jamestown were captured not coming from Africa but while being trans-shipped within the Caribbean.

Even before the American Revolution, economist Adam Smith wrote a scathing condemnation of the economics of slavery, but no one was willing to be the first to test his theories “in the field” (as it were). He was somewhat vindicated by the thriving economic growth in the North, unfettered as it were, from the ‘burden of slavery’ on a large scale. As a justification for the continuance of an institution that they thought critical to the South’s (and their) survival, Southerners turned to the conflict between Noah and his son Ham as quoted in Genesis where Noah curses Ham’s descendants to be slaves. They also added that it was a “pursuit” of white Christians to convert slaves from their pagan rituals into Christianity; not that this changed the fate of any slaves while they remained on Earth!

It is a common historical misconception that the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation “ended” slavery; that is far from the truth. Lincoln’s order applied only to the “areas in rebellion” (the South) and since by definition he had no authority over that area, his proclamation did little to change anything. The Emancipation Proclamation was a symbolic gesture at best. Lincoln, himself, did not believe that he had the Constitutional authority to actually abolish slavery by edict.

Slavery finally ended in the USA in 1865 with the adoption of the 13th Amendment.

There was one unintended consequence of the Emancipation Proclamation. It seemed to codify that the reason for the war was ending slavery and not just preserving the Union. Many Union soldiers came to resent fighting a war (and perhaps dying) for “negro freedom”. It did, however, open the rolls of the Union Army to free-blacks who swelled the depleted army in the latter months of the war.

We cannot leave this discussion without acknowledging that the “traders” on the West African coast who profited most from the slave trade were Arabs who first bought slaves (many of them prisoners of tribal wars) and re-sold them to the Europeans. Later, they removed the middle man and sent expeditions into the interior of the country to buy or capture unwitting inhabitants. These men, of course, received the same payment for all slaves and took no risk (nor interest) in their surviving the sea voyage known as the “Middle Passage”.

Part 2 Freedom & Subjugation

Throughout evolution humans seem to have developed two conflicting, if not opposing, traits. One is the desire to seek freedom; to determine one’s own fate. Hence, the most basic action: to depart from one’s family; adopt a mate and seek one’s own way in the world.

Alongside this is a desire to subjugate others. For most of the cultures and civilizations that have existed on this earth that came in the form of the males subjugating the females; confining them to a ‘lesser’ place in the society. Over the millennia of human civilizations, there have been a handful of Matriarchal societies, but these were seemingly little more than experiments that failed to persist much less dominate their eras.  

A more virulent form of the desire to dominate is seen in the effort to fully subjugate one’s enemies. Rather than slaughter all the members of a rival society, throughout history men have seen fit to enslave the survivors. The institution of slavery has existed in more civilizations than those without it. The desire to dominate and control the fate of others is seemingly about as deeply ingrained in the human psyche as the desire for personal freedom.

There have been but a few instances in history where the ‘enslaved’ have risen up to overthrow their masters. Freedom from their enslavement has been achieved by various means; most of them involving violence. Four examples in relatively recent history are the American and French revolutions and the movement to de-colonize India. African slaves also rose up to cast off their French masters on the island of Hispaniola.

The Bible describes two different episodes where the ancient Jews overcame captivity and achieved their freedom via less violent – more negotiated – circumstances; first from Babylonia and then from the Pharaoh.

But most uprisings of the oppressed have involved the use of weapons and not words. Perhaps one of the most famous such uprisings occurred in the last century of pre-Christian Rome. A Thracian slave, turned famed gladiator, named Spartacus overthrew first his master’s home then slowly freed the slaves in nearby villas. His small army (many themselves trained to fight in the arenas by their masters) roamed the countryside, attacking villages and freeing the slaves. As his fame grew, slaves escaped their masters knowing that they had a place to turn for safety and protection in numbers.

There is nothing in the history of this movement to suggest any larger political or cultural motive than personal freedom. Seemingly, the intent of the now-freed slaves – including Spartacus himself – was simply to escape the peninsula via the Alps. But the Romans saw it as a direct challenge to their world dominance. They could not allow it to stand and violently suppressed the rebellion; killing Spartacus and his co-leaders in the process. Many of the remaining former slaves were crucified as an example to others who would seek to follow their lead. But to even conceive of defying Rome demonstrates the depth of the human desire for freedom from oppression.

[I now enter the realm of Parallel – or perhaps Alternate – history. There will be NOTHING politically correct in the remainder of this essay.]

For decades in the early 1800s, the African slaves in the American south vastly out-numbered their white masters. One can only ponder and postulate as to why this never resulted in a mass rebellion for freedom. Indeed, there were a relatively few slaves whose desire for freedom led them to escape their plantations and undertake a perilous journey northward seeking ‘freedom’. Why is it that there was never a Spartacus-like rebellion in the American South? The one historical figure that attempted to spark such a rebellion was John Brown (a white man). He had envisioned that having ‘liberated’ the weapons at Harper’s Ferry armory, he would be joined by freedom-seeking masses. No such movement occurred!

One can speculate on reasons for such a failure to evoke wider action. Was it that the American plantation slaves were too isolated to know of any such efforts to cast off their bonds? Perhaps, but one only needs to remember that the Spartacus-era slaves were of many nationalities with vastly different languages. American plantation owners intentionally suppressed their slaves’ ability to communicate by outlawing the teaching of reading and writing except to an ‘honored few trusted’ servants.

It is also known that owners undertook a modicum of genetic engineering following the tenets of animal husbandry. They intentionally tried to breed slaves for a greater capacity to work. Seemingly, however, this would have resulted in stronger, more muscular males who would be more of a physical threat to their owners. How could one breed out a desire for freedom while breeding in a stronger worker? Slavery only existed in North America (to include the Caribbean) for something over 200 years. Seemingly this would not have been enough time to permit animal husbandry methods to produce a strong yet docile slave! One must add in the fact here that the importation of new slaves was outlawed in the early 1800s. So in sheer fact, most of the slaves who ever lived in America were bred here!

Neither can one imagine that the conditions under which Afro-American slaves were forced to live could have been more vile or demoralizing (dehumanizing?) than that of the slaves of Rome 1700 years before. So, what could have been in the psyche of the Roman slaves that seemingly was lacking in their African counter-parts? Why was there no major attempt at a Spartacus-like uprising in the USA? 19th century America had a few Gandhi-like men and women of faith and fortitude, but they were unable to evoke a larger following or a major rebellion!

I do not even suggest that I have the answers to these questions. Only the wonderment that humans could be so dehumanized as to lack that basic instinct for freedom! Is there possibly some difference of that magnitude in the psyche of the black Africans that in some way contributed to their assigned fate once enslaved? Is there a possibility that the archetypal “Stepin Fetchit” characterization of American blacks had a basis in fact?

Humans have a third inherent capacity to sub-humanize their enemies – especially those that they fear. Surely slave owners throughout history looked upon and treated their slaves as sub-human. There is nothing unique in this situation about the ways in which slaves in the Americas were treated. There is nothing to suggest that the ‘nurture’ aspect of their situation overpowered their ‘nature’ in a different way than had existed for 1000s of years prior.

One final – non-politically correct – question then: Is the current status of a huge segment of the American black population a product of their ‘nurture’ or their ‘nature’? They still seem to view themselves as victims; demanding to be fed and cared for by society as a whole; assuming no responsibility for their current situation. They continue to see racism at every glance; take offense at inconsequential events; demand that any and all others give in to their perception of transgressions – even to the point of demanding ‘reparations’ for events long passed!

No man or woman alive today in America was a slave held by an American. No man or woman alive today in America was ever a slave holder. Yet, blacks still persist in being offended by almost anything and everything, small or large, that can be even vaguely associated with an institution that has been dead for over 150 years!

Part 3: Slavery or Secession?

Revisionist historians would like to have us believe that the US Civil War was fought over States Rights rather than slavery. Well, that is true, to a point. But the only “right” the Southern states fought the Civil War was over “slaves’ rights” or the lack thereof. 

From the beginning the fledgling US of A struggled with Jefferson’s “all men are created equal” leading to slaves being counted as 3/5 of a person for purposes of Congressional representation. This “compromise” ensured that the slave-holding states would ratify the Constitution. Everyone knew that they were just postponing an eventual confrontation.

In 1807, during the Jefferson Administration, Congress out-lawed the importation of slaves, but fell short of dealing with slaves already present. In point of fact, by the time of the Civil War, the only two things the South produced in abundance were cotton and slaves. Since no more could be imported, slaves needed to produce more slaves. The Dred Scott decision by the Supreme Court codified the concept of slavery in that it likened a slave to a man’s horse which he owned and could treat as he saw fit and take with him wherever he went. The decision was greeted with joy in the South but emboldened the abolitionists. It actually led to the formation of the Republican Party out of the anti-slavery Northern Democrats.

The plight of the slaves in the south was a mixed-bag. Certainly there were slave owners and overseers who treated the slaves harshly. But in general, it was apparent to the slave holders that the slaves were vital to their livelihood. A healthy, “content” slave was a more productive slave. So it was in everyone’s best interest to keep the slaves healthy. Resistant or mutinous slaves were treated much more harshly. Flogging and/or hobbling (chopping off the front of the foot which would effectively prevent the slave from running) was the frequent punishment for runaway slaves. Another form of punishment was more psychological. A resistant slave’s family would be sold off; wife and children usually to different owners. Female slaves suffered a different indignity. Most of the states both north and south had laws about “mingling” of the races. But these were aimed mostly at keeping black men from having relations with white women. Young slave girls were frequently brought into the owner’s household as servants but were expected to provide sexual services as well.

The 1863 Emancipation Proclamation had a negligible immediate effect on the status of slaves. It only applied to slaves held in the Confederate States. Lincoln felt that he had no right to change the status of slaves held in the Union States. But northern slavery was quite different from that in the south. For the most part, northern slaves were family servants — as were Dred Scott and his wife and children. Northern factories were not populated by slaves as were the cotton fields of the south. It became a common practice in the north (especially after the Dred Scott decision) for wills to be drafted that freed the slaves upon the death of the owner. Lincoln saw this as an indication that slavery would simply be eliminated over a period of decades and any direct action by him to alter the status of slaves in the north would be met by resistance. 

At least one-third of the population of the Confederate States was slaves. One of the things that the south feared the most was a massive slave uprising like the one John Brown had tried to incite at Harper’s Ferry.

At the end of the war, the plight of the slaves changed very little in the short run. For the most part, slaves where illiterate and unskilled. After “emancipation” they were ownerless and homeless. Various plans were attempted to provide land for them to farm; most failed. The unintended consequences is that the rich still owned the land and needed help to work it. What developed was the system known as share cropping where the former slave paid his former owner a portion of the crops he harvested. But the freed slaves still found themselves at the mercy of the aristocracy.

The 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments of the Constitution were drafted to reverse the effects of slavery and the seceded States were forced to ratify them in order to regain formal admission to the Union. But throughout the south ways were found to prevent the freed slaves from voting. Freed men flocked to the cities throughout the south but for the most part there were no jobs there. Things would get worse before they got better.

Expansion of the US to the west had largely halted during the war, but post-war, aided by the trans-continental railroad, it now drew much needed capital away from the south. Many blacks found new lives as cowboys. But the life of blacks in the Deep South remained a ‘trial’ for decades to come.

Part 4: the Triangle Trade

An interesting economic phenomenon developed in the early 19th century; in the years just after Independence. It became known as the Triangle Trade route. Ships would sail from New England (as often as not from Rhode Island) to West Africa. There, they would trade with the Arab middlemen to acquire slaves. The purchases were as often made with merchandise as with money. Among the most highly sought after ‘merchandise’ was rum from those New England distilleries.

The second leg of the triangle, also known as the Middle Passage, took that human cargo across the Atlantic to the Caribbean or more likely to Brazil. Few slaves were transported directly from Africa to the US. Those slaves that did arrive in the US prior to the 1808 ban on importation arrived after some period of time in the Caribbean. Some of those were even second (third?) generation slaves bred in the Caribbean. This phenomenon alone created problems for the abolitionists who while they wanted the slaves to be freed they did not want them living alongside them. They advocated for the return of these newly freed persons back to Africa. The problem was, having been processed through the Caribbean, few if any US slaves had any affinity or recollection of their African roots! By the time of the outbreak of the Civil War, the vast majority of slaves were born on US soil.

The triangular voyage was complete when the ships returned to their home ports laden with molasses which could then be distilled into rum to feed the repeat of the triangle. Hence, while many northerners opposed the possession of slaves, they invested in or actively participated in the flow of ‘merchandise’ that facilitated their purchase and transport. The molasses-rum-slave triangle made many northern families quite rich. The mark-up for a slave successfully delivered across the Atlantic was a minimum of 10 times the purchase price. It was quite the lucrative trade link despite Middle Passage ‘losses’.

Part 5: North-South Trade

Another dynamic existed between the Northern States and those that would eventually join the Confederacy. That had to do with the balance of trade. The industrialized north made much more ‘stuff’ than did the south. The economy of the South was almost entirely agriculture-based. “Cotton was King” with literally millions of tons being exported annually. Oddly enough, the inventor of the cotton gin was a northerner from Massachusetts. The simple invention tripled cotton output in just a few years thereby increasing the demand for slaves to grow more! The vast majority of that cotton went to English mills. The rest to New England where it was made into cloth and resold to the south. There was even a mill product called Negro Cloth that was crudely and cheaply made for use as clothing in the south. In fact, King Cotton accounted for as much as 60% of all American exports in the years prior to the war.

Ships carrying cotton to England returned with consumer goods that the lavish-spending plantation owners demanded. They could have bought them from the North, but trade with England was easier. But the lack of industrialization and the reliance on the import of finished products was immediately felt across the Confederacy. One of the more effective acts of war by the ever-growing US NAVY was to blockade the Southern ports. A niche market of blockade runners replaced the pirates of the Caribbean. These small fast ships could make lucrative trips to ports anywhere in the Caribbean where they could trade cotton for European products. But cut off from the English mills, cotton often rotted on the docks. The South’s economy was almost in ruins just when she needed to purchase the weapons of war the most. The few foundries and factories across the South were hard-pressed to meet the demand for war materials. Oddly enough, the slaves that the South was fighting to keep rapidly became a liability when the main product they produced (besides more slaves) was now unmarketable!

But other than cotton, the North had little reliance on the South for any other vital goods. While not designed for export, the North could more than sufficiently meet its demand for food. The North was able to continue its lucrative trans-Atlantic trade. Lumber (both sawn and raw) was in great demand by ship builders and wood artisans alike. The only other ‘natural’ export of any impact was fish of various kinds taken from the North Atlantic; to include whale oil and other whaling by-products. The loss of the consumer product markets in the South was more than counter-balanced by the purchase of war materials by the Union Army. This was one of the reasons the over-confident Northerners thought that the Southern rebellion would be quickly quashed.

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