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What We Didn’t Know About Slavery

Several distinguished works on slavery in the English colonies have also exploited demographic and geographical factors in explaining contrasts between the slave systems that developed in the Caribbean and on the mainland. Among the best is Richard Dunn’s Sugar and Slaves, a remarkable account of the rise of the planter class in the West Indies. Struck by the rapidity with which the English planters of the islands developed an altogether different way of life from their brothers who headed for the Chesapeake and Massachusetts bays, Dunn, in explaining it, cannot call on the influence of prior ideas on religion, politics, or common law, for they were shared ideas. But because of economic and geographic circumstances the islanders quickly became “far richer than their cousins in the North American wilderness. They lived fast, spent recklessly, played desperately, and died young.”

By 1700 the planters of the islands had become as different from their fellows on the mainland as the English were from the Portuguese. They owed both their financial success and their social disaster to the early discovery that instead of growing mediocre tobacco they could raise sugar cane, a product Europe sought more eagerly than even first-rate tobacco. By 1640, within fifteen years of settlement, the planters of tiny Barbados had already begun to switch to cane, and within another twenty they had evolved a master class bent on riding the sugar boom to wealth and power. There were disastrous social costs.

Today’s holiday visitors to the islands in the sun may find it hard to conceive the physical hardships endured there in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: insect pests, extremes of heat and cold, and ferocious storms defined life as a chancy affair. White indentured servants with a choice in the matter were not tempted to leave England for a place that was called “hell on earth,” and those who came found conditions of labor outrageous by home standards. They became restless, unmanageable, and finally undesirable laborers.

Slavery filled the void like a flood, and on slaves and sugar the Barbadians rode to their fortunes. “Virginia might be the Old Dominion and Massachusetts the Bible Commonwealth, but Barbados was something more tangible: the richest colony in North America.” From Dunn’s skillful use of a 1680 census, and lists of persons permitted to leave Barbados, a much clearer picture emerges than we have had before of an island crowded to the gunnels with 40,000 slaves, 2,300 white servants, a negligible number of “householders” and freemen, and dominated from the top by 175 great planters who held all the important offices and had no trouble keeping one thousand smaller planters in line. Dunn’s is rich social history, based on factual data brought to life by his use of contemporary narrative accounts, which describe life in a tropical paradise becoming uninhabitable through overcrowding.

The sugar-slave formula took easily to export, first to the Leeward Islands, and then to Jamaica, fast becoming the buccaneering capital for the English. It was, according to one explicit visitor, the very “dunghill of the Universe,” swarming with prostitutes, drunks, convicts, and pirates. But soon its matchless agricultural possibilities drew from Barbados and the Leewards the less affluent whites, who fought, first with the Spanish, then with the fugitive slaves who had established themselves in maroon colonies in the hills, and then with the buccaneers, for the chance to accomplish in Jamaica what the Barbadians had achieved a generation earlier. By 1713 the “sugar and slave” system had developed in classical proportions, and could be seen “in its starkest and most exploitative form.” By the close of the seventeenth century the English planters of the West Indies had brought to six small islands a quarter of a million slaves, “and branded them as perpetual bondsmen.”

Dunn deals mercilessly with the emergent planters, their “nouveau riche” vulgarity, and their slave system, “one of the harshest systems of servitude in Western history.” The slaves reacted when it was possible and intelligent to do so, with the fury of desperation. Their revolts coincided practically with the possibilities of success. Few occurred in Barbados, which was thickly settled, with few places for slaves to gather and hide, but in Jamaica, with its hills and woods, there were frequent revolts between 1650 and 1700. There were six major uprisings in the last quarter of the century, and several lesser ones thereafter.

But if real revolts matched opportunities, plots and rumors coincided neatly with white fear. Barbados had plenty of that, and of courage the blacks had enough. “If you Roast me today,” cried the slave Tony, about to be burned for his part in a Barbadian plot uncovered in 1675, “you cannot Roast me tomorrow.” As others before him have observed, Dunn sees a correlation between the tendency to revolt and the numbers of native Africans in the population, which would be one way to explain the high incidence of slave revolt in Jamaica. But he thinks this factor was less significant than the superior opportunities Jamaica afforded for success.

The islands became “a demographic disaster area,” writes Dunn, because the slaves were

overdisciplined and underfed, while their masters were underdisciplined and overfed. The blacks, male blacks in particular, were shocked into early death by captivity, forced labor, and neglect. The whites, the male whites in particular, catapulted themselves into early death by their strident, showy mode of behavior. The specter of death helps to explain the frenetic tempo and mirage-like quality of West Indian life—gorgeously opulent today, gone tomorrow. No wonder the blacks looked forward longingly to their afterlife in the pleasant mountains of West Africa. No wonder the whites looked forward longingly to an early retirement in England.

Dunn writes well. For all his severity in handling the planters of the West Indies, he seems clear in attributing their greed and cruelty to economic factors when he writes that “the initial difference in the two sectors of English America is that the island colonists plunged into the slave business and the mainland colonies inched into it.” To the extent the West Indian planters wanted to build homes as well as get rich, Dunn’s criticisms are justified; to the extent their collective aim was only to get rich, they could only be criticized for wanting the wrong thing.

A traveler coming from the West Indies to Virginia at the close of the seventeenth century would have encountered striking contrasts. As Wesley Frank Craven informs us in White, Red, and Black, the plantation system was just forming there, and the racial distribution reflected that fact emphatically. By 1713 there were four blacks for every white in the English islands, but on the mainland there were six whites for every slave. Life in Virginia was still raw, even the rich were not “opulent,” and white indentured servants were still doing most of the hard labor for the larger landowners. Whites of the “middling sort” were doing their own. But Craven’s fine study of the Virginia population reveals that the Virginians were inching along just a little faster by 1700, and that the slave population more than doubled in the last two decades of the century. Craven’s figures are somewhat lower than those of several of his predecessors, but they result from a careful study of the assignment of head-rights in land to those who imported labor, black or white, into the colony.

By studying the names of the imported slaves Craven concludes that two-thirds of the slaves were men, that they were imported in small lots, that they were still a minority among the more than 60,000 whites. Although the disparity between the sexes was even greater among the whites, Craven believes “there were enough Englishwomen present to determine social conventions,” and public policy discouraged miscegenation. The slave population did not expand rapidly in the seventeenth century, not because of an excessive mortality, but because of the scattered arrangement of the farm settlements in the back quarters and sexual imbalance. Masters did not encourage childbearing because women in the field were more immediately useful than a woman in confinement or nursing a baby. It does the work of Craven a disservice to summarize thus briefly his findings concerning the slave population. Verifiable evidence on seventeenth-century Virginia is discouragingly small, and the careful attention this distinguished scholar has given to the fragmentary record has produced in one concise essay as much as we are likely to know about the seventeenth-century black population.

Our imaginary colony-hopper in train from the West Indies via Virginia to South Carolina in the year 1700 would have found himself at his last stop in a society halfway between the maturity of the plantation economy of Barbados or Jamaica and the raw beginnings in Virginia. South Carolina had by then a population composed in nearly equal proportions of blacks and whites, in the characteristic frontier distribution of more numerous males than females of each color. In 1700 the settlement at Charles Town was only thirty years old, and showed the unmistakable imprint of Barbadian immigrants on its foundation. Their baggage included not only their West Indian chattels but the Barbadian slave code as well.

Like the Jamaicans, the Carolinians had been a part of the general movement out of the tiny island after the best lands had been taken up; and like the Jamaicans they too emigrated in the hope of establishing prosperous plantations. Thus, writes Peter Wood, in Black Majority, South Carolina was “a colony of a colony.” As the Barbadians had found sugar after some experimentations, the Carolinians in 1695 found rice. Within two decades the culture took firm hold and the demographic pattern shifted to accord with the increased demand for labor. Blacks drew abreast of whites, and then surpassed them in numbers, producing early in the eighteenth century a “black majority,” and with it the racial tensions that had already become acute in the islands. Wood, in tracing this development in rich detail down to the year 1739, the year of the Stono revolt, accomplishes as fine a piece of social history as the study of slavery has yet produced.

The two most striking aspects of Black Majority are Wood’s care to illustrate the active role of blacks from the first settlement, and his steady and fruitful concentration on change itself. He rightly rebukes American historians for their tendency to deal with slavery thematically rather than chronologically, which has left an inaccurate impression that this institution, unlike all others, remained static throughout its 250-year history. By reading backward, the unwary could assume that slavery was always what it became in the last two decades of its existence. Wood writes that in the period between 1690 and 1720, the approximately 15,000-strong black majority “to a degree unique in American history—participated in—and in some ways dominated—the evolution of that particular social and geographical frontier.”

The blacks were able herdsmen of cattle, the first enterprise of the colony, and they were especially important, if Wood’s informed guess is true, in conquering the mysteries of rice cultivation, a crop with which the English had no experience. There is evidence from slave advertisements that Africans from the rice-growing areas of Africa were especially prized for their expertise. The blacks also brought with them from their African homeland a greater resistance to malaria, and Wood’s careful summary of what we know about sickle-cell anemia and its relationship to malaria resistance is an impressive piece of medical history.

The Africans appear here as carriers of their own culture, which they had a better opportunity to preserve in South Carolina than anywhere else in the mainland, because of the speedy rise in their numbers once the colony turned to rice, and the regular reinforcement of new arrivals from Africa. Exploiting such a versatile population under the kind of caste system that evolved later in the eighteenth century was impossible, and in any case entirely unsuitable. Take, for instance, the grandfather of the Revolutionary general Peter Horry, who founded the famous Huguenot family line in this country. He reports that he “worked many days with a Negro man at the Whip saw,” presumably clearing the lands that became the seat of his estate. The evolution of a caste system based on color, with its “brutal enforcements,” had to await a safer time; until then the “crude and egalitarian intimacies of the frontier” prevailed.

But the steady increase in the slave population introduced the inevitable tensions. From 1717, when the first law prohibiting miscegenation was passed, the status of blacks, free and slave, was steadily depressed. After the bloody Stono revolt of 1739 the legislature enacted a general “Negro Act” lumping free blacks and slaves into one category, and prescribing speedy second-class justice for both. Private manumissions were now forbidden, and South Carolina was on the way to an unenviable reputation as the mainland colony with the harshest slave code.

Wood’s work on South Carolina is an excellent demonstration of how sociology and anthropology as well as demography can come to the aid of history. His emphasis on the importance of the kind of work people do, in spite of their status, in shaping their view of their world and their style of accommodation or resistance to their condition, is most illuminating. Fortunately Gerald Mullin’s Flight and Rebellion: Slave Resistance in Eighteenth-Century Virginia exhibits these virtues too. Mullin’s work is especially remarkable for its psychological insight into the stresses of the acculturation process for the slaves. Employing the advertisements for runaway slaves as a means of separating “New Negroes” from the acculturated ones, he discovers distinct styles of resistance, that of the former being inward-directed and sometimes self-destructive, and that of the acculturated slave being more successfully directed toward the specific goal of freedom. Africans planned their running away in groups, the acculturated slave ran off alone.

Although the legal status of slavery in Virginia had been fixed firmly as early as 1660, the conversion of the institution into a rigid color-based caste system required longer than it did in South Carolina. Even though Mullin’s eighteenth-century Virginia had moved rapidly away from the world Craven described, and could now sport numerous tidewater aristocrats in their Georgian mansions, slavery remained, throughout the century, he maintains, “remarkably flexible and unstructured in part because society itself was unstructured, rapidly growing and insecure.” Tobacco had not yet become the intensive monoculture sugar had become and rice was becoming, and the Virginia colonists were engaged in a variety of enterprises, agricultural and mercantile. For the slaves the important consequence was that they were still scattered about on small farms and upland “quarters” and in small units. Those who learned English and English ways were set to every sort of occupation, trained to crafts, and often assigned responsibilities that involved geographic mobility. They traveled about, learned about the country and the people, and some improved their lot by escaping.

Actually, as Mullin discovered, the Virginian colonists, though not getting rich in the Barbadian style, were striving for what William Byrd of Westover called “a kind of Independence on Everyone but Providence,” making clothes at home for everybody but the lord and lady, tools for the farm, furniture, food for all, and building their houses with bricks made on the plantation. Ironically, as Mullin discovered, everything that was done to achieve this independence depended on creating among the slaves themselves a class of resourceful and mobile artisans, poorly suited to accept slavery, restless, and far more capable of resisting the coercions of the master. Their description reminds the reader of Degler’s mulattoes, with the important difference that these acculturating slaves were a part of a minority, and defined “out” of the white world.

What Stono was to South Carolina, the Gabriel plot became for Virginia. In the century out of the American Revolution some of Virginia’s sons of the Enlightenment deluded themselves for a time in the hope that slavery could be ended peacefully, but the hope was doomed by the tensions that inevitably mounted with the numbers of the black population and especially of free blacks. If Gabriel’s revolt had materialized it would have been more sanguinary than any that ever came off in this country, and it did not pass unnoticed that among the prominent leaders the slave artisans, particularly those with geographic mobility, figured largely. Taking alarm, Virginia settled down with slavery, attempted by law to fix slaves as firmly as possible to agriculture, and to hinder liberal-minded masters in any private effort to emancipate their slaves.

In stressing the paternalism of the eighteenth-century slaveowners Mullin may be generalizing too much from men like Landon Carter, fusty and neurotic, concerned about everybody’s health, including that of his slaves, and attentive to small details. Paternalism does not, of course, have to be benevolent, for all “fathers” are not kind. Yet one expects of it some faint resemblance to relations the masters had with their children, and the eighteenth-century record is speckled (far more than the nineteenth) with accounts of outrageous punishments, indifference to housing and clothing and proper nourishment. Few seem to have had any concern about the religious instruction of their chattels. Improvement in these respects in the nineteenth century undoubtedly owes something to the suppression of the slave trade and the general gentling of life in an older slave-holding region. But Mullin’s work is nevertheless an insightful study of the interpersonal relations of slavery, informed, lively, and judicious, the best book yet on slavery in Virginia when the institution was on the eve of an important transition.

The most noticeable shift the newer works signalize is a reluctance to make moral judgments apart from the geographical and demographic pressures experienced by the total slave-holding society. Even Dunn, in excoriating the world the planters of the West Indies created for themselves, informs the reader completely about those pressures. Even so, geography and demography cannot alone explain the divergences in the post-emancipation patterns in the Western hemisphere. Degler’s understanding of the “mulatto escape hatch” fits comfortably with what we know about Brazil and the United States, but not quite so well with what Dunn saw in the British Caribbean, where the demographic proportions (blacks to whites, men to women) were more like those of Brazil than in the British mainland, but did not produce the same result.

But in emphasizing the interplay of those forces over the passage of time the authors are showing how sociology can best serve historical explanation. Degler, Wood, and Mullin are to be congratulated particularly in their success at that most elusive task of extracting from an unwilling record the part blacks themselves played in our total history. In all this there is hope that eventually moral judgments, the inescapable ultimate task of the social historian, may be made with more accuracy, grace, and compassion.

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