European society (and by extension, American society) in the 17th and 18th Centuries was patriarchal. Women had no independent existence, they were defined through their relationship to the men in their lives (they could only be wives, daughters, sisters or mothers). Women were encouraged to learn how to read (for the sole purpose of reading the Bible). But colleges and any form of higher education were barred to women.
The most disturbing thing to modern Americans regarding women in the colonies would be their near-total lack of basic rights: to themselves, to their children, to their property. A husband could dispose of his wife’s property or spend her money however he saw fit. Women could not initiate a divorce on their own and if their husband divorced them, custody almost automatically went to the man. Finally, a married woman could not say “no” to her husband, in anything, including sex. The concept of marital rape was unknown.
The Southern colonies were founded with the goal of making money. The colonists were making that money by growing crops like tobacco, which could be sold in England for lots of money but which requires lots of labor to grow and harvest. How best to supply the labor? The cheaper the labor, the higher the profit for the plantation owners. But if you hire a free man to do your work – in America, he always has the option of leaving for the western frontier where land is cheap (or free). And if you pay him too little or treat him badly, he will leave. However – a servant bound by a contract or a slave have no ability to leave the plantation. Slaves and servants give the plantation owning aristocrats low-cost, reliable labor compared to hiring free men.
Half of all immigrants to the English colonies in the 18th Century were indentured servants. They almost always came over individually; they almost always came from the cities and while most were English, the next biggest group came from what is now Germany. They did not possess the same rights as servants that their masters had. They couldn't’t vote or hold office or serve on juries. While they could sue their masters for poor treatment, the courts were biased in favor of the master class. After the indenture was over, the servant was free. But where to go? They ended their indenture with little or no money. Many left for the western frontier and the promise of cheap land. Others, sadly woth no other options, would sell themselves into another period of servitude.
Servitude resembled slavery in that servants had their contracts (their indentures) auctioned off publically. Like slaves, servants were not allowed to marry without their master’s consent. As the two systems (slavery and servitude), evolved alongside of each other, the aristocratic owners became concerned about slaves and servants working together. After all, they had common causes and common complaints – if they ever united in revolt, they would be powerful. As the 17th Century transitioned into the 18th, aristocrats in the Southern colonies passed laws that made contact between servants and slaves illegal and subjected the violators to heavy punishments.
This primary source demonstrates how difficult the passage to America could be in the 18th Century. Imagine spending six weeks on a boat half the size of my trailer in conditions like this! While not as horrible as the conditions suffered by slaves (the Middle Passage), the lot of the servants was only marginally better.
Pictured here is a young George Washington, a member of the Virginia planter aristocracy. The money made on the plantations stayed with the families of the plantation owners as the slaves and servants were paid no wages, no bonuses. The plantation owners didn’t even spend their money locally – they tended to buy as much as they could directly from England. As a result, there is income inequality – especially in the Southern colonies – with a very few wealthy families controlling all the land and everyone else either a slave or a servant. In the case of North Carolina, this inequality is built into the original state constitution (written by none other than John Locke!).
Pictured here on the left, the typical clothes of an 18th Century American aristocrat (complete with powdered wig). On the right, the more functional clothing of an American colonist on the western frontier. How did a very small aristocracy maintain total economic and political control over a large number of slaves and servants? First, they kept the slaves separated from the servants. They encouraged the white servants to consider themselves superior to the black slaves. The aristocrats emphasized beliefs, like religion, held by both the wealthy and the servants. And the constant threat of Native attack (or slave revolt) meant that both the rich and the poor had a common enemy – and the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
One of the biggest lessons in this class is that the way slavery was handled In America was far different from how slavery was practiced in other places and at other times. “Slavery” doesn’t mean the same things throughout history. Slavery in ancient Greece or Rome was generally a fate that befell prisoners of war. Greek and Roman slaves had certain legal rights and could usually not be summarily executed by their masters. Greek and Roman slaves could easily buy their freedom, if they had the money and once free, were not subject to racism or prejudice. The famous philosopher Plato was actually captured in war, sold into slavery and then had his freedom bought by his friends back in Athens. Slaves in ancient Greece or Rome could own their own businesses and could even own ther own slaves. Much different from how slavery was practiced in America! In the Fifteenth Century, as the Portuguese and the Spanish began exploring around the coast of Africa, African slaves started being transported to large plantations in the Caribbean and the Americas.
African slaves possessed the sickle cell trait which confers a partial immunity against malaria, a deadly disease of the tropics. This meant African slaves lived longer than Europeans in hot, American climates (like the Carolinas and Georgia). Slaves were more expensive than servants – but slaves were enslaved fever and their children would also be slaves. Economically, this gave slaves a long-term advantage over servants in the eyes of the wealthy planter class. And over time, slavery supplanted servitude in the American colonies. Technological advances in the 18th Century made transportation less expensive and destroed the primary reason for poor English people entering into an indenture contract. By the late 1700’s, slavery had replaced indentured servitude – and the English, with their dominant navy, controlled the world’s slave trade.
Slavery in Africa, especially West Africa (where most of the slaves sent to America came from) was very different from how slavery was practiced on American plantations. As you can see from the quote, slaves were considered to have basic human rights and were considered part of the family. Contrast this with how slaves in America were treated – like domesticated animals or machines, with no rights, with no acknowledgement of their humanity. Here’s another passage from a British explorer who encountered slavery in what is now Nigeria: “the owner and the slave work together, eat the like food, wear the like clothing and sleep in the same huts. Some slaves have more wives than their masters. It gives protection to the slaves and everything necessary for their subsistence- food and clothing. A free man is worse off than a slave; he cannot claim his food from anyone.”
In the beginning, slavery was not regulated or controlled in the colonies. But there is early evidence that Africans were treated as sub-human by the colonial legal system: “The evidence, from the court records of colonial Virginia, shows that in 1630 a white man named Hugh Davis was ordered "to be soundly whipt... for abusing himself... by defiling his body in lying with a Negro." Ten years later, six servants and "a negro of Mr. Reynolds" started to run away. While the whites received lighter sentences, "Emanuel the Negro to receive thirty stripes and to be burnt in the cheek with the letter R, and to work in shackle one year or more as his master shall see cause."
The first African slaves arrived in Jamestown by the 1620’s and by the late 1600’s, almost every American colony (North, South and Middle) had some African slaves. In the Northern and Middle colonies, these African slaves were mainly used as household servants or as artisans. In the South however, African slaves were used primary outside on plantations growing cash crops like tobacco, rice and by the late 1700’s, cotton. African slaves were a vital part of the economy of the Southern colonies – these plantations would not have been profitable without slaves. Over time, slavery in the Northern colonies declined while in the South, slavery (because it was tied to profit) increased rapidly. By the 1750’s, slaves were a majority of the population in South Carolina and made up one-third to one-half of the population of the other southern colonies.
The Southern aristocrats lived in fear of slave revolts. It’s one reason they organized volunteer militias that met regularly and could be summoned at a moment’s notice (the other reason for militias was fear of Native attack). The best estimates say that roughly once a year in the Southern colonies ten or more slaves openly revolted against their masters. Consequences were always harsh – every rebel slave was usually killed, along with their families. Each revolt led to tougher laws that restricted the ability of slaves to move about, to become literate, to receive their freedom.
A sad illustration of the connection between slavery and profit in the American colonies can be seen in the horrible conditions slaves had to endure on the “middle passage” from Africa to America in the cargo hold of a slave ship. Since the African slaves weren’t considered fully human by the European slavers, they did not possess any rights. This meant that profit and loss became the only concern of the slavers. Since slaves could be re-sold in America at roughly double the cost of their purchase in Africa, slaves could be crammed into such small spaces that half didn’t survive the trip – and still, the slaver could make a profit.
It is called the “Middle Passage” because it represented the middle part of three trade routes. First, ships sailed from England with trade goods like metal tools, alcohol and horses. They traded this cargo in Africa for slaves. They then took the slaves to America, where they were traded for tobacco, rice, rum and coffee which was then sent back to England and traded for metal tools, horses etc. and the process began again. This Triangular Trade system guaranteed the most efficient use of the most expensive resource: the ocean-going ships, which never sailed empty of valuable cargo.
blog comments powered by Disqus