Ira Berlin, Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1998).
Race is a historical construction. It is continually redefined by various parties and for various reasons. The experiences that defined race in North America were volatile; they changed over the course of two centuries. The definition of race—and of slave—transformed alongside and because of human interaction. Slaves defined their history as much as masters did. Slavery was a “negotiated relationship.” Even though masters maintained a position of dominance over slaves, slave agency constantly forced masters to revise their relationship to slaves. Masters and slaves had to concede power to one another. As the master-slave relationship changed, so did the dynamics of the slave system. The master-slave relationship was always renegotiated and remade, and the power of the master or the slave was always contingent. Therefore, the reality of a slave’s life was different depending upon time and place. No slave experience was the same. Rather than examining the commonalities and continuities of slavery across time and space, this work seeks to emphasize differences and contingencies. Discussions of paternalism in the master-slave relationship have dominated slave studies and reinforced the idea that slave conditions were static and fixed in time. As a result, historians have established misleading tropes. The author seeks to challenge and undo some of those tropes. He seeks to unsettle the master/slave binary opposition by emphasizing the messiness in between. Slavery made class more than it made race. Nevertheless, slave history is irreducible to labor, even if labor is indispensable to slavery. Focusing on the workplace, as this author does, provides insights into the quotidian operations of slave life from place to place and time to time. It reveals, for instance, how slaves resisted their masters through dance and song (among other things). The author separates North American slavery into distinct regions and experiences to suggest the variety of slave experience from locale to locale. A society with slaves is different from a slave society because the former does not depend upon slavery in the economic realm, does not produce as many slaves, and does not press the master-slave dichotomy. The way that societies with slaves transformed into slave societies differed from society to society, but each such society had brutality in common. Labor and the struggle of master and slave over labor are instructive starting points from which to examine slavery in general. The ideals of the Enlightenment, as well as democratic movements in America and elsewhere, gave slaves leverage to challenge their bondage on colonials’ own philosophical terms.
Quote: “Locating the seat of social change in the workplace, rooting those changes in the material circumstances of African-American life, and connecting such material changes to the development of African-American institutions and beliefs offer a structure for historicizing the study of slavery. The struggle over labor informed all other conflicts between master and slave, and understanding it opens the way to a full comprehension of slave society and the integration of the slave experience into the history of the American workingclass. It also provides the material basis for an appreciation of agency within the confines of slavery and how resistance that fell short of revolution could be effective.” (11)
This book strives to avoid a totalizing or essentializing narrative of slavery. It treats slavery on a case-by-case, place-by-place basis.
PART ONE: SOCIETIES WITH SLAVES: The Charter Generations
1. Emergence of Atlantic Creoles in the Chesapeake
Atlantic creoles influenced Chesapeake regions during the charter generations in the seventeenth century. The chapter opens by tracing the story of Anthony Johnson, a Jamestown slave who gained his freedom. Johnson became a successful farmer with slaves of his own, and he sued his neighbors for harboring his runaway slave. He won his case. Berlin uses Johnson to explore various farming and economic practices and conditions in Virginia in the seventeenth century. In the early seventeenth century, black and white servants worked together on plantations, using English agricultural practices. Masters were conditioned by custom to provide food and shelter for their servants. At mid-century, black slaves and white servants shared roughly the same quality of life. Some slaveowners were harsher than others. Some allowed their slaves to be financially independent so long as the slaves paid their own way. This arrangement allowed some slaves to purchase their freedom. Both masters and slaves were cautious about these arrangements. On the whole, slaveowners felt threatened by slaves’ independence. There were many small communities of free blacks in the Chesapeake region in the mid-1600s. Despite the existence of these communities and the fact that free blacks themselves owned slaves, black skin color was stigmatized in most of the Chesapeake. Atlantic creoles participated in everyday economy, as demonstrated by court records. They were as litigious as whites. Interracial marriage was more common and less stigmatized in the mid-1600s than it was just forty years later. In fact, apart from slaveowners, whites and blacks generally got along at this time, at least insofar as they drank, gambled, and celebrated together.
2. Expansion of Creole Society in the North
The northern colonies also began as societies with slaves and not as slave societies. Atlantic creoles established roots in these regions. A lack of plantation life shaped black-white relations in the northern colonies. The northern colonies preferred “seasoned” slaves rather than “new” slaves because the former understood European ways. Slaves arrived in the North in fewer numbers than in the South. The Dutch West India Company was instrumental in the slave trade and in defining slave life in New Netherland. Former slaves’ positions were precarious in New Netherland, but some former slaves prospered there. New York had the highest population of former slaves, and former slaves prospered more there than elsewhere. At this time, almost no northerners objected to slaveowning on principle. Most northern slaves worked in the country. The North could not support plantation life. That fact is reflected in slaves’ living arrangements. In the South, slaves had quarters and homes, but in the North, they were boarded in backrooms and closets. Slaves in the North participated in everyday market trade. Rural slaves lived in close proximity with whites. That arrangement was even more common for slaves in the cities. Slaves in the North therefore had ready access to the ways of European-Americans. Urban slaves “rubbed elbows” with white merchants and sailors and also interacted with middle and upper class whites, especially in religious life. Black corpses were excluded from white graveyards, so black graveyards became the first African-American “institutions.”
3. Divergent Paths in the Lowcountry
Slave conditions in the lowcountry were similar to those in the Chesapeake and North except that here they were taken to extremes. Rice cultivation caused slave conditions in the lowcountry to differ from conditions in other regions. In South Carolina, Atlantic creoles were almost totally excluded from legal life. In Florida, conditions took a different course. There slaves gained freedom and even participated in political life. Slaves arrived in Florida because of Spain’s efforts to bolster her empire. They participated in Spanish military activities. Slaves served in the British military as well. The British were not ready to manumit slaves in return for military service, although such manumission did occur. The lowcountry was vulnerable to outside threat, especially from Natives, so slaves were important for military protection. The lowcountry was also a landscape that made slave escapes easier and more frequent than in other regions. As slaves began to act more financially independent, laws emerged regulating slaves’ financial independence. In the early eighteenth century, a surplus of profits caused slaves to sell their own labor. Laws restricted this, but slaves got away with it because slaveowners, despite their unease with the situation, were often the ones doing the hiring. Unsupervised slaves participating in this system made whites uncomfortable, and slaves often fled to such places as Charles Town, where they could assume a new identity. All of these conditions began to change dramatically after the last decade of the seventeenth-century, when the discovery of new goods and advanced technology called for stricter regulations of slaves. The expanding British influence forced the Spanish to try to “ally” with slaves against the British. Blacks were incorporated into the culture of Florida more readily than in other places—in part because of this military alliance with the Spanish—but they were not necessarily admitted fully into European life.
4. Devolution in the Lower Mississippi Valley
Unlike the other regions discussed, the Mississippi Valley transitioned from a slave society to a society with slaves. The French imported slaves here but did so in one massive swoop rather than piecemeal. These slaves joined with Natives to overthrow planter rule and to prevent a slave society from gaining root. Until 1715, few black slaves entered this region, which, outside the white population, was predominately native. The French Code Noir (first promulgated in 1685 and introduced in Louisiana in 1724) was not favorable to manumission. Nevertheless, it did stop slaves from suing for freedom. Louisiana was dominated by corporate interests. Indentured servants had trouble turning swampland into farmland. The French and the natives formed economic and cultural alliances. The Company of the West and the Company of the Indies—both French—imported slaves from Africa. These slaves replaced the free labor of natives and Europeans. Blacks gradually made up a larger share of the population and labor force, although many died of starvation and disease. Eventually, though, Africans survived “better” than Europeans and natives. New Orleans became the center of African life in colonial Louisiana. Many slaves were shipped from New Orleans up the Mississippi. Slaves were just a portion of the labor market. Indigo and tobacco cultivation made slave conditions harsher. Because of this harshness, some slaves resisted, often by escape. Natives sometimes assisted fleeing Africans. The story of Samba is an example of this phenomenon. Maroon villages were established to trade stolen contraband and to hide escaped slaves. Atlantic creoles in other regions who anticipated the coming plantation economy fled elsewhere to avoid that economy. A few, however, moved toward it. Atlantic creoles faded from North America and with them our understanding of Africans’ cosmopolitanism and culture.
PART TWO: SLAVE SOCIETIES: The Plantation Generations
This generation of slaves did not enjoy the privileges of the previous generations of slaves. This latest generation had little in common, and sought little in common, with Europeans. Plantation culture had transformed slavery altogether. It held together a rigid social order with planters on top. Masters’ power spread through whole societies. Violence maintained social order. Masters had to generate a monopoly on power and weaponry. Slave codes developed that were fraught with racial ideology and that made the plantation system unique from earlier forms of slavery. During this time, the slave trade intensified as Europeans moved deeper and deeper into Africa. Women slaves were valued more than men slaves. This generation of slaves came from less cosmopolitan African cultures. They came, instead, from cultures committed to the village, clan, and home. They spoke different languages and had different customs. These developments caused slaves and slavery to take on new identities. The plantation economy required thousands of slaves, but the massive importation of slaves occurred gradually.
5. The Tobacco Revolution in the Chesapeake
During the last decades of the seventeenth-century, there developed a new order based in African slavery. The lives of plantation slaves changed dramatically. The demand for slaves surged. Europeans did not understand the culture and customs of the new slaves. Slaves were exhausted from the trek across the Middle Passage. Slave conditions worsened and masters became harsher. Masters stripped slaves of their history and identity. Blacks and whites no longer mingled as they once had. Only raw power could sustain this new system of slavery. Masters had absolute sovereignty over slaves, who now generally worked harder than previous generations of slaves. Slaves worked so hard for masters that they had no time to work for themselves, and thus the slaves’ personal economies rarely reached beyond their masters’ property. Although this system was sustained by violence, it was also challenged by violence. The younger generation of slaves had little in common with the older generation. Slave codes arose to regulate slave life and ensure masters’ dominance. By the mid-eighteenth century, African Americans made up four-fifths of the Chesapeake population. Colonists began the systematic demolition of African cultures and traditions. The definition and understanding of race began to shift at this stage. Slaves learned to make a “right” out of domestic relations so that masters felt compelled to allow family bonding. Slaves even gained some access to privacy from their masters. Slave families nevertheless remained fragile institutions. Slaves managed to stabilize the work day and even secured something of a weekend. New developments in agriculture led to the declining productivity of tobacco farms, the rise of grain production, and the growth of towns. Slaves began to flee in greater numbers.
6. The Rice Revolution in the Lowcountry
The shift to a plantation economy came just after the same such shift occurred in the Chesapeake. A population shift to the lowcountry meant that blacks outnumbered whites there. Plantation slavery in the Lowcountry followed the patterns of plantation slavery in the Chesapeake, except that the demand in the Lowcountry was greater, the slaves more numerous, the conditions harsher, and the process faster. Slaves remained separate, both physically and culturally, from European colonials. During the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, rice changed the lives of slaves and masters just as tobacco had years before. Slaves became essential to the economy. Native slaves vanished and were replaced by Africans. Plantations grew in size. Masters pressed slaves to increase production. Indigo became a promising new crop. Masters tore away at slaves’ African identities. The state or government was made up of the planter class itself. Insurrections served to counter masters’ dominance. These insurrections generally were not successful. Planters ruled from the top of a long chain of command. They ruled from the countryside and implemented the task system whereby slaves’ work was evaluated according to work requirements rather than work time. To ensure their power, masters intervened in slave relations and played judge to settle slave disputes. No single black society emerged here as it did in the Chesapeake. Slaves were central to the mercantilist economy and port life. Urban slaves often lived apart from masters and kept a cautious distance from the countryside. Masters frequently had sexual relations with female slaves. Most plantation slaves were alienated from their masters. Slaves on plantations created small communities of their own. They formed family and village life on the plantation. Slave families both benefited and threatened masters. Masters eventually allowed slaves to accumulate property because doing so would make slaves more attached to their plantation home. Planters bartered with their slaves. The position of slave driver emerged to keep the slave population under supervision. Natives helped marooning slaves. Slaves were Christianized and stripped of their African culture. Slaves in the lowcountry retained African traditions more often than did slaves in other regions. Some slaves lived side-by-side with whites and, by the Revolution, were accustomed to European ways and tried to use their familiarity with whites to gain advantages.
7. Growth and the Transformation of Black Life in the North
In the second quarter of the eighteenth-century, slave life began to change in the North. Slavery grew in this region until the region became a slave society—one not as extreme as the Lowcountry. The slave population expanded, and blacks suffered from high mortality rates, long work hours, and harsh living conditions. In some places, the slave population outnumbered the white population. The slave population expanded as the economy expanded. The commitment to slavery began in cities and gradually moved outside cities as slave numbers increased. Slavery moved from household to artisan work. Many white workers criticized slavery because they could not compete for jobs with people whose labor was free. Eventually slavery in the countryside eclipsed slavery in the cities. Many slave women worked in the domestic sphere rather than in the fields. As the demand for slaves increased, and as more slaves were imported into the region, whites began to notice cultural differences among the African population. Disease killed many new African arrivals. As the mortality rate rose among Africans, the fertility rate fell. These rates had an impact on the domestic and family life of slaves. Manumissions were restricted, and the population of free blacks decreased. Northern states incorporated many aspects of the slave codes that Southern states had implemented. Northerners sought to Christianize Africans, Westernize African names, and eliminate African traditions such as polygamy, which nevertheless persisted. Newly arrived Africans resisted Christianity. Slaves used certain holidays to celebrate their African heritage. Northern slaveholders stiffened their opposition to abolitionism, and slaves as a result began to appeal to the British. The North gradually began reversing course and becoming once again a society with slaves, rather than a slave society. This change had to do in part with the fear that slaves would join ranks with the British.
8. Stagnation and Transformation in the Lower Mississippi Valley
There was in this region, as soon as the slave trade ended, a rush to build plantation life, and this rush resulted in the institutionalization of slavery. This institution was self-perpetuating in that newer slaves were native-born and not imported. Slaves had some independence to become involved in the exchange market. Some of this independence was the result of slave support for, and participation in, French and Spanish militaries. By fighting for the Europeans against the Indians, slaves secured a position in European society. The slave population did not dramatically increase here until the 1780s. Slaves were allowed to marry, and they frequently did so. A bad export economy meant that plantation life did not arise as it had in the Lowcountry. New Orleans became the center for slave life. Slaves found employment as lumbermen and boatmen. Planters encouraged the slave economy and all that came with it—African independence from whites, African churches, African communities—but they also feared the slave economy for that reason. New municipal laws began to further restrict African freedom. But these laws were often ignored, and masters would enforce them selectively. Masters allowed slaves enough freedom to serve masters’ own interests. Slaves earned property and in some cases modest prosperity. They worked in close proximity to whites in the market. White men and black women frequently engaged in sexual relations. New Orleans was a more “sexually open” space. White men of high and low standing participated in the sexual economy of New Orleans. White men intermarried with black women and even launched some black women into prestigious places in society. Creoles began establishing their own unique culture. They mixed French, African, and Native-American languages to create their own dialect. They created new religious practices based in African custom. Whites began to fear slaves’ independence and mobility. Black alliances—military or otherwise—with the Spanish under Spanish rule resulted in more manumissions and freedoms. Slaves were more frequently allowed to purchase their freedom. Females gained freedom at higher rates than males. The increased number of free slaves created tensions between the black population—between the free and the unfree.
PART THREE: SLAVE AND FREE: The Revolutionary Generations
9. The Slow Death of Slavery in the North
The events of the Revolution had the most effect on the northern colonies. During and after the Revolution, the population of free blacks in the North soared. The North gradually became a society with slaves, rather than a slave society, and then it became, more or less, a free society. African Americans built institutions and communities of their own; they cultivated a distinct black culture that itself was split into distinctions between urban and rural, slaves and former slaves, and so on. The libertarian ideals of the Revolution triggered opposition to slavery. Emancipation in New England came quickly and in massive numbers. Many black men and women from other regions fled bondage and sought refuge in the North, often as soldiers for the Revolutionary Army. Some, however, enlisted with the British. Many slaveowners resisted this trend toward emancipation, and Revolutionary libertarianism provided logic against which they crafted proslavery arguments. Acts providing for conditional emancipation gradually led to full emancipation. Slaves sometimes thrived in the countryside. As many whites called for emancipation, legislators called for stricter slave codes. Freed blacks often found themselves living in conditions similar to those they had lived in as slaves. Because emancipation in the North happened in fits and starts, blacks could not establish political agency, their family life was broken up, and black stereotypes gained currency among whites. Blacks made the best of their newfound freedom, taking their own names, securing their own postal addresses, and so on. An influx of population—including former slave population—to urban centers led to a bias against country life. The black female population in the North generally was higher—and younger—than the black male population. Employment opportunities were slim, so black men took to the sea or found jobs cleaning, driving, hair-cutting, or fixing things. Financial independence for blacks led to some family security. Black neighborhoods developed. New black institutions and leadership opportunities emerged, including in the churches.
10. The Union of African-American Society in the Upper South
Revolutionary ideals challenged slavery in the region formerly known as the Chesapeake, now the Upper South. But slavery remained strong in this region. Many slaves did become free, but the increasing black population and new racial ideas held slaves back from emancipation. The Upper South saw the simultaneous eruption of discourses about freedom and slavery. Blacks understood the importance of Revolutionary discourse to their status. Many slaves offered their military service in exchange for freedom. But the Revolution did not have as great an impact on the Chesapeake as it did on the North. Some slaveholders acknowledged the hypocrisy of extoling liberty and slavery at once. Some slaves joined with the British. The Patriots were slower than the British to recruit slaves to their ranks. During the war, slavery could not proceed as usual. Planters had to rethink the way they harvested and cultivated crops. Slaveowners drove slaves to work harder and longer. The British confiscated several slaves after the war. The slave population began to increase. In the Chesapeake, unlike in the lower South, slaves almost became too many for the available work, and thus slaveowners sought for the abolition of the international slave trade in order to maximize profits in the internal (or domestic) slave trade. This latter slave trade intensified such that slave families were easily and often broken up. Land cultivation took place with the plow, no longer the hoe. Slaves became more mobile in that they were either sold further South, or employed in a variety of tasks from place to place. Slaveowners reclaimed their prewar prerogatives over slaves. Slaves resisted their new conditions and formed slave communities. Slaves tried to train their children in a special skill or trade. The revival religious movements emphasized egalitarianism in a way that recalled Revolutionary ideals. Antislavery preachers popped up here and there and eventually faded into obscurity. Black preachers gravitated toward urban centers. Urban slavery expanded with the growth of new towns. The growth of new towns ushered in the growth of new industries. The number of free blacks dwindled. Some slaves served in place of their owners in the Revolution. The ideals of the Declaration also protected property rights, so slaveowners recast its meaning in those terms. A few slaves took freedom lawsuits to court. The enlarged black population helped secure freedom for many slaves because fugitives could be disguised and accomplices could be secured. As slaves, blacks were fully integrated into society; as freed people, they were ostracized and discriminated against. Free blacks cultivated new black identities. Economic opportunities for blacks were greater in towns and cities. Distinct African-American communities began to take shape.
11. Fragmentation in the Lower South
The Revolution may have disrupted slavery in the South, but Patriot victory ensured the perpetuation of slavery there. The Lower South became a slave society and lost all semblance of a society with slaves. The Revolution was virtually a Civil War in the Lower South. Slaveowners took measures—such as separating men from women—aimed at reducing insurrection or insubordination. Rumors of revolt abounded. Many slaves fled north. Thousands sought to join with the British. Escaped slaves assumed new and false identities. Slave kidnappers frequented the cities. Many slaves were commissioned into the military, and some refused to give up their weapons after completing their service. The Royal Army tried to implement its own version of plantation society. The British, then, were unreliable “allies.” Some escaped slaves formed roving gangs. After the Revolution, slaveowners could not maintain discipline as they had before the war; thus, they began to cave to slaves’ demands. Some slaves celebrated the return of their masters from war. Slaves who boarded British ships were not guaranteed a life of freedom overseas. The slave population reduced in the Lower South during the War. After the war, plantation life was in shambles. Violence on plantations became more common. Planters organized militia to combat slave insurrection and to round up black maroons. Rice crops revived quickly; indigo did not. Planters reconsolidated power and gathered former slaves. The interstate slave trade created a new demand for slaves. Increasingly, plantation life and agriculture were restored. The task system gave slaves control over their labor. Cotton changed the face of slavery, necessitating gang labor and allowing masters to maintain a certain distance from slave life. From their removed setting, masters ensured that slaves worked the cotton industry, which did not require particular skills as did jobs in urban areas. Slaves who had participated in market activities before the Revolution were no longer able to access the market. Planters undercut slave economic productivity by creating plantation stores. Slaves could no longer keep property they had gained before the war. New arrivals of slaves brought about cultural clashes and a population unfamiliar with the rights blacks had gained previously. Nevertheless, newly arrived Africans were quickly integrated into black society. Slaves married across plantation lines. Planters retreated to cities; plantations were run despite absent masters. Slaveowners found a market for selling slaves for hire. Black communities in cities such as Charleston began to fall apart. Black Christians were successful at converting other blacks to Christianity. The number of free slaves dwindled. Manumission in the South was selective and uncommon. Former slaves tended to live close to former owners. Freed slaves felt security with, and dependency on, slaveholders. Whites did not treat freed slaves as equals. Freed slaves mimicked their former masters’ manners and customs to climb the social ladder.
12. Slavery and Freedom in the Lower Mississippi Valley
In Louisiana, there developed a sharp division between slaves from Africa and urban creoles. Despite the expansion of free black communities in this region, slavery grew at the same rate as it did in the Lower South. Plantation life took hold in Mississippi, and the Spanish reopened the international slave trade. Urban creoles obtained freedom more easily than African slaves, who often lived on plantations or in the countryside. The ideals of the Revolution brought the threat of slave rebellion to the region. Just before the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there was an influx of slaves from overseas. Maroon settlements flourished during the War. These settlements maintained regular contact with plantation slaves. Maroons welcomed the influx of fugitives. Some slaves secured freedom in towns and cities during the War, most of them having served in the Spanish military. The Spanish relied heavily upon black militias. Slaveholders set the terms of manumission. After the War, slaves benefitted from an increase in commerce, and the free population expanded around New Orleans. The Louisiana Purchase brought about several manumissions. Masters were selective about which slaves they freed. Most of the free population in the lower Mississippi Valley was urban and female. Former slaves worked together to secure freedom for slaves. Free blacks tended to be urban and to maintain ties with whites. The European and American population increased in the Lower Mississippi Valley after the Revolution. The influx of whites meant a tightening of laws regulating blacks. From 1784 to 1796, the slave population rose as slaves were “imported” through Floridian and other routes. Planters revived the plantation lifestyle by putting slaves to work in the rice and indigo industries. These crops began to fail, and sugar became the new staple crop. Cotton production eventually caught on and brought about an increase in slave jobs and numbers. To generate success, slaveowners had to ensure a disciplined labor force. At this time, the number of slaves from Africa rose exponentially. New arrivals of slaves carried sickness, but that did not necessarily reduce their value or demand. Planters sought state-backed systems of punishing and regulating slaves. They introduced gang-based labor. Slaves began to work longer and harder. Laws forbade certain commercial interactions between slaves and Natives. Masters favored European-looking slaves over new arrivals of Africans. The former were manumitted at higher rates. Revolutionary republicanism spread quickly throughout the region during the last decade of the eighteenth-century. The principles of freedom generated a clash between French and Spanish ideals. The celebration of liberty often meant more trouble than promise for slaves who embraced it. Planters were threatened by the ideas emanating from the Revolutionary era. Some slaves sought freedom through law; others sought freedom through force. Several conspiratorial plots undermined planters’ authority and increased planters’ paranoia. Generally, though, slaves avoided insurrection and all the consequences that that entailed. Planters gained more power under American rule than under French or Spanish rule. Although the Revolution ushered in signs of change for slaves, planters after the Revolution were able to secure a slave society.