What Slavery Was Really Like

Gordon S. Wood – The New York Review of Books

One of the greatest achievements of historical scholarship during the past half-century has been the imaginative recovery of at least some of the realities of slavery in the New World. Indeed, in the past several decades we have acquired knowledge of the size of the African diaspora and the nature of slavery in the Americas that was not even imagined by earlier generations of historians. Between 1500 and the mid-nineteenth century at least 11 or 12 million slaves were brought from Africa to the Americas. It is evident now, if it never was before, that the development and prosperity of the European colonies in the New World depended upon the labor of these millions of African slaves and their enslaved descendants. Slavery existed everywhere in the Americas, from the villages of French Canada to the sugar plantations of Portuguese Brazil.
Thanks in particular to the records of slave voyages collected and digitized by the Du Bois Institute at Harvard, representing perhaps 70 percent of all slaving voyages, we now have a much more precise and detailed knowledge of the transatlantic slave trade than we ever thought possible.[1] The international slave trade, which David Brion Davis and Robert P. Forbes have called “the largest involuntary movement of human beings in all history,” involved all the maritime powers in Europe; they exchanged a wide variety of consumer goods with hundreds of African states and chiefdoms for millions of African slaves, most of whom ended up in the New World.
The Du Bois “dataset” not only gives us more accurate information about this slave trade, tracing, for example, 27,233 Atlantic slaving voyages, three quarters of which succeeded in bringing slaves to the Americas; it also throws new light on old issues concerning the mortality of the Middle Passage, the frequency of shipboard insurrections, and the ethnic origins of the enslaved Africans. All this new information about the slave trade is now available in a single source, a CD-ROM, published by Cambridge University Press.
Although the Du Bois Institute digital archive is an extraordinary resource that will generate new questions and new knowledge about the slave trade and slavery itself for decades to come, much of this new knowledge will necessarily be statistical. And important as numbers are, they do not tell us much that we want to know about slavery—the day-to-day lives of the slaves in the New World, for example, and their relationship to other slaves and to their masters. For that kind of information we need other sources, and in the absence of direct testimony by the slaves, personal and detailed writings by the slaves’ masters will have to do.
In the case of the two excellent books under review, which are based on the extensive diaries of two very different eighteenth-century British slave masters, Thomas Thistlewood of colonial Jamaica and Landon Carter of colonial Virginia, we have as intimate a picture of African slavery in British America as we are ever likely to get. In fact, the remarkable diaries of these two slaveholders are probably the most important source we have for revealing the nature of the master– slave relationship in the eighteenth-century English-speaking world. These colonial diaries are especially important because most of our knowledge of slavery has come from the antebellum period of the United States. The nearly simultaneous publication of these two diary-based histories written by two superb scholars, Trevor Burnard, recently appointed professor at Sussex University in England, and Rhys Isaac, professor emeritus at La Trobe University in Australia, marks an important moment in our efforts to understand the character of slavery in the British colonial world…
… it was not just the different levels of wealth in the two slave societies (Jamaica and Virginia) that distinguished them from one another; it was the different proportions of whites to African slaves that mattered more. Indeed, the extreme racial imbalance in Jamaica affected everything in the society. With whites making up only one in nine of the population, Jamaica was one of the most extensive racially based slave societies in history. During his first year on the island, Thistlewood lived in an almost exclusively black world. For weeks on end he saw no white people at all. Later he settled in the rural western end of the island where the proportion of slaves to whites was as high as fifteen to one.
Consequently, whites like Thistlewood lived in an Africanized society that rested on white fear, white equality, and white brutality. With almost no restraints placed on their personal freedom, whites ruled their slaves with a degree of violence that left outside observers aghast. Thistlewood routinely punished his slaves with fierce floggings and other harsh punishments, some of them sickeningly ingenious. One of his favorites was “Derby’s dose,” in which a slave was forced to defecate into the offending slave’s mouth, which was then wired shut for four or five hours.
Thistlewood was not an unenlightened man. He was a prolific book buyer and reader; he practiced medicine on his slaves and was something of an expert in botany and horticulture—in other words, he was quite civilized by Jamaican standards. Although Trevor Burnard at one point calls Thistlewood “a brutal sociopath,” he generally suggests that Thistlewood’s treatment of his slaves was not that unusual. Unlike Landon Carter and other rich eighteenth-century Virginia planters, who often developed a paternalistic attitude toward their slaves, most Jamaican whites were convinced that only the severe application of brute force could keep the numerous African slaves under control…
…Thistlewood arrived in Jamaica in 1750 at age twenty-nine with very few possessions. He was immediately sought after as an overseer and his wages rapidly rose to three figures a year, an enormous sum when compared to the average salaries of white British or North American workers…
…Not only were whites in short supply but their sex ratio was skewed, with 3.1 adult men to one adult woman. Thistlewood never married an Englishwoman but satisfied his quite formidable sexual drive by exploiting the slaves who were all around him. During his thirty-seven years in Jamaica he dutifully entered into his diary his 3,852 acts of sexual intercourse with 138 women, nearly all of whom were black slaves…
…Despite the brutality of Jamaican slavery, Jamaican slaves possessed an economic power and a degree of autonomy that the slaves in the Chesapeake and elsewhere did not have. Along with producing the sugar that made the island so wealthy, the slaves maintained “provision grounds,” independently owned plots of land that supplied the fruits and vegetables that fed both themselves and much of the white population. In colonial Virginia masters preferred to feed their slaves and themselves from rations produced on their own plantations, thus preventing their slaves from developing any substantial economic independence. By contrast, Jamaica’s provision-ground system tended to free the slaves from the tight economic control of their masters and to turn them into proto-peasants committed to maintaining their own property while being property themselves. Thus during Tacky’s rebellion, the most significant Caribbean slave revolt before the Haitian Revolution of 1791–1804, Thistlewood could arm his slaves, knowing that they would remain loyal to him out of concern for protecting their own patches of land…
…Compared to slaves in the West Indies, who were generally concentrated in large sugar plantations with horrendous rates of mortality, most Chesapeake slaves had normal life spans spent on small farms with four or five slaves; their extended families were often within walking distance. In Virginia there was a great deal of passive resistance, much withholding of labor, and many runaways, usually slaves taking “vacations” for a few days or weeks, since as yet there were no free states to run to; but before the Revolution there were no major slave rebellions in eighteenth-century colonial Virginia…
…Although Thistlewood did not express much interest in the American Revolution, Carter immediately sensed its radical implications for his patriarchal world. In November 1775, Lord Dunmore, royal governor of Virginia, fearful of the growing power of the patriot militia, promised freedom to all slaves who would flee their masters and rally to the King’s cause. In June 1776 eight of Carter’s slaves ran away to join the royal governor’s forces. There was a new day dawning, and Carter, though an American patriot, dreaded it, foreseeing a threat to all forms of patriarchal authority. The revolutionary talk of liberty could not be confined to white men, but necessarily spilled over and affected all social relationships, especially that of master and slave. Suddenly, Carter, who, like masters for thousands of years, had taken slavery for granted, now had to justify it as he never had to before. “Slaves are devils,” he wrote a few months before his death in 1778, “& to make them otherwise than slaves will be to set devils free.” But free they would be…


http://www.nybooks.com/articles/17565

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *