History of Black Americans

From Africa to the Emergence of the Cotton Kingdom
Philip S. Foner

Slaves and Free Blacks in the Southern Colonies


When Hector Saint Jean de Crèvecoeur asked, “What then is the American?” in 1782, he answered, “He is either an European or the descendant of an European.” To this French observer of the new nation formed from the English colonies, whose amalgamation of various races and nationalities he praised, the Negro was not and never had been an American. Yet black men and women from Africa were present in America long before most of those whom Crèvecoeur described as “the American” arrived—certainly before the historic landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock.

Some historians hypothesize that the appearance of Negroes in the territory that later became the United States predates the casual passage in John Rolfe’s journal for 1619: “About the last of August came in a dutch man of warre that sold us twenty Negars.” Apart from the fact that Rolfe does not say that the Dutch ship brought the first Negroes to Virginia, and apart from the theory that Negroes were in the New World before Columbus, there is evidence that the first black slaves arrived with Lucas Vasquez de Ayllon, a Spanish colonizer, who founded a town in what is now South Carolina, at the mouth of the Pedee River, in 1526. The Negroes rebelled, marking the first slave revolt within the present borders of the United States; the colony failed, and the whites sailed away, leaving the blacks behind, who thus became the first permanent immigrants to this country, predating the Virginia settlers by almost a century.

Since we lack substantial recorded evidence of these events, we shall use the 1619 date as the point of our beginning of the history of the Negro in the United States. As every American schoolboy knows, it is a date with a double significance. On 30 July 1619, after the directors of the Virginia Company of London, which settled the colony of Virginia, had granted the colonists the right to hold an annual general assembly, its members to be freely elected by the inhabitants, the New World’s first representative assembly (later known as the House of Burgesses) met at Jamestown. A month later, in the same town, the Dutch vessel left the twenty Negroes. These two concurrent events set the pattern of the contradictory nature of American democracy: the establishment of representative government on the one hand, and the institution of forced labor on the other.

Who were the Negroes who arrived in Virginia in 1619? From where did the “dutch man of warre” come? Little is known definitely about so important an event in American history. It appears from available records that in the summer of 1618, the Treasurer, an English vessel, sailed from Virginia “under pretense of getting salt and goats for the colony.” But its equipment clearly showed that it was a privateer bound on a marauding expedition directed against Spanish galleons with gold and silver from Mexico and Peru. Somewhere off the coast, the Treasurer joined forces with a Dutch vessel, and the two ships came upon and captured one of the few Spanish frigates directly engaged in the slave trade, loaded with Africans destined for the Spanish West Indies. Finding no gold or silver, the captors seized the slaves, transferred them to their own hatches, and set sail for Virginia. Adverse winds overtook them, and when the provisions ran out, a number of the Negroes died. Violent storms then caused the ships to lose one another, and the Treasurer may even have landed one of several Africans in Virginia before the Dutch vessel arrived. Finally, in the latter part of August 1619, after several weeks at sea, the Dutch man-of-war came to Jamestown with twenty survivors of the hundred or so Africans she had transferred from the Spanish frigate.

Captain John Smith, who came to Jamestown, Virginia, in May 1607, once wrote of colonial America: “Nothing is to be expected thence but by labor.” In North America there were no fabulous cities ripe for looting like those in Mexico and Peru. Whatever wealth there was in this part of the New World would have to come from the hard labor of mining, cutting down forests, planting and harvesting crops. America would bring great profits, the Virginia Company of London wrote, in the winter of 1616–1617, in a broadside to prospective investors, as soon as there were “more hands” in the New World to exploit its resources.

But where would these hands come from? Attempts to use the Indians as laborers were unsuccessful; the Indians, to preserve themselves, took to the warpath. In 1622 an Indian attack almost wiped out the entire colony, and the General Assembly of Virginia urged the colonists to wage “purposeful war—without mercy” against the Indians, except that they should preserve “the younger people of the race whose bodies may by labor and service become profitable.” But soon the colonists found even these Indians “of little economic benefit,” since, being on their home ground, they were difficult to keep enslaved. When they ran away to their tribes, as they often did, they were difficult to recover. Those who stayed were often so debilitated by the white man’s diseases, to which they had developed no natural resistance, that they were almost useless for steady agricultural labor.

The colonial financiers launched a vast propaganda campaign to induce the poor of Europe to emigrate. The Virginia Company circulated a coin in 1630 bearing the following terse inscription:

In England land scarce and labour plenty,

In Virginia land free and labour scarce.

Despite the labor shortage, only a few Negroes were imported by Virginians in the first thirty years after 1619. This was not because of any reluctance to use black labor, but rather because the Virginia planters had to accept the white indentured servants furnished by the Virginia Company, which cooperated with the government in ridding England (erroneously considered to be overpopulated) of “undesirable elements” such as convicts and beggars. Then again, the supply of Africans for Virginia was limited since the Dutch, who at this time virtually dominated the slave trade, obtained higher prices for Africans in the Spanish West Indian colonies. In 1625 there were only 23 blacks in the whole colony of Virginia, and as late as 1671, Virginia counted only 2,000 Negroes in a population of 40,000.

But about 1612, John Rolfe had begun experimenting with the growing of tobacco; within four years it had become a staple crop that was planted even in the streets and marketplace of Jamestown. Unlike sugar, tobacco did not requre a large capital to operate plantations and refineries. It needed only land and cheap labor, and the returns from labor invested were high. Land was plentiful in Virginia, although the extraordinary rapidity with which tobacco, unlike sugar, wore out the soil, made it necessary to acquire ever more land for raising the weed. Labor was the major problem. As tobacco plantations increased both in number and size, the need for labor became much greater than the supply. White indentured servants alone could not meet the demand. A servant had to be replaced every seven years or even earlier, since many white servants simply ran away to free land on the frontier before their contract was ended. Moreover, the flow of servants from abroad declined after 1660, when the widely held theory that England was overpopulated was abandoned, until, by 1689, there were few new arrivals. With the development of large-scale plantation agriculture toward the latter part of the century, the need for forced, regularized labor increased, and, with the ending in 1698 of the Royal African Company’s monopoly of the slave trade and the throwing open of the traffic to the public, Negro slavery grew rapidly. At the end of the century there were about 6,000 Negroes in Virginia, and others were being brought in at the rate of 2,000 a year. During the next thirty years, the number of blacks multiplied five or six times, much faster than the number of whites. According to a report of Governor William Gooch, the slaves in Virginia numbered 30,000 in 1730 and represented a quarter of the population. By the eve of the Revolution, slaves represented 47 percent of the total—300,000 whites and 200,000 blacks. The pattern of growth was not identical throughout the colony. In 1756 only 5 percent of the inhabitants of the Western Valley of Virginia were slaves. On the other hand, there were vast concentrations of slaves in the Tidewater and Piedmont counties lying between the James and Rapphannock rivers and extending from the Chesapeake Bay to the foothills of the Blue Mountains.

White servitude did not disappear with the rapid growth of black slavery, but its relative importance as a source of unfree labor diminished when compared with black slavery. As the Reverend Peter Fontaine wrote in 1757:

To live in Virginia without slaves is morally impossible. Before our troubles you could not hire a servant or a slave for love of money, so that unless robust enough to cut wood, to go to mill, to work at the hoe, etc., you must starve or board in some family where they both fleece and half starve you.…This of course draws us all into the original sin and curse of the country of purchasing slaves.

The “troubles” referred to those ”that came with the French and Indian War.”

One might think that the setting of the exact date of the origin of Negro slavery as an institution in the American colonies would be a simple matter. But such is not the case. American historians differ widely on this point. Some historians beliève that slavery may have existed from the very first arrival of the Negro, but others are of the opinion that the institution did not develop until the 1660s and that the status of the Negro until then was that of an indentured servant. Still others believe that the evidence is too sketchy to permit any definite conclusion either way. Ulrich B. Phillips stated the second theory several decades ago in this way: “The first comers were slaves in the hands of their maritime sellers; but they were not fully slaves in the hands of their Virginia buyers for there was neither law nor custom then establishing the institution of slavery in the colony.” More recently, Oscar and Mary Handlin have argued that “slavery was not there from the start.…It emerged rather from the adjustment to American condition of traditional European institutions.” According to the Handlins, the enslavement of Negroes in Virginia began only several decades after 1619, and during these decades the lot of the black servant hardly differed from that of the white bondsman. “The status of Negroes was that of servants, and so they were identified and treated down to the 1660’s.” Then, as it became more difficult to attract white servants, their conditions were made more favorable than those of Negroes, whose status began to deteriorate until, with the development of large-scale plantation economy, the economic necessity for a permanent servile labor force brought about the reduction of the Negro servant into the status of a slave.

Today most historians agree that although the history of the Negro in Virginia begins in 1619, the history of the Negro as a slave did not begin until later. They differ, however, on the exact status of the Negro during the time lag before slavery was established, and they argue over the date when enslavement took place.

The fact that the early Negroes imported into Virginia held the status of indentured servants is shown by the records of some Negroes’ receiving the customary “freedom dues” in the form of land at the end of their term of service. Some obtained land after becoming free by importing servants under the “head-right” system, by which they obtained fifty acres for each servant imported. A small number of Negro landowners not only held black servants, but were sufficiently prosperous to pay the transportation costs of white indentured servants, through each of whom they could obtain fifty acres of land. Anthony Johnson, who was imported into Virginia in 1622, accumulated property after he ended his indenture period, and even though he lost all his holdings in a fire, was able by 1651 to import 5 black servants into the colony, for which he was granted 250 acres in Northampton County. About 1650 Benjamin Dole, a Negro, was granted 300 acres of land in Surry County for having imported 6 servants. Another Negro was granted 550 acres after importing 11 people.

Anthony Johnson was “the black patriarch” of the first community of Negro property owners in America established along the banks of the Pugoteague River. Although their number was relatively small, the very existence of Negro property owners in seventeenth-century Virginia reveals that for an early period of time, blacks were financially able either to pay for the transportation of indentured servants from Europe or Africa or both, or to purchase property from native Virginians.

But even while these rights were enjoyed by some blacks, even when there were only few blacks in the colony and white servants still formed the backbone of the labor force, there were distinctions between black and white. This distinction existed in the servant status itself, for although the black servant often was capable of contracting, Negroes usually did not, like white servants, have the benefits of written indentures defining their rights and limiting their periods of service. This lack of labor contracts facilitated their permanent enslavement. The colonists drew other distinctions. In September 1630, when there were only two hundred Negroes in Virginia, the General Court ordered “Hugh Davis to be soundly whipped, before an assembly of Negroes and others for abusing himself to the dishonor of God and the shame of Christians, by defiling his body in lying with a Negro.” In other words, a white man was accused of dishonoring himself and defiling his body because he had sexual relations with a Negro woman. (Winthrop Jordan points out that it is unclear if the crime was fornication or interracial sex, but the evidence would seem to lead to the latter interpretation.) Then, in January 1639, the Assembly made an even clearer distinction between black and white by providing that “all persons except Negroes [are] to be provided with arms and ammunition.” Only Negroes—no one else—were prohibited from carrying guns.

Servitude for life, one essence of slavery, occurred in July 1640, in a case involving three runaway servants—two white and one black. The white servants, a Scot and a Dutchman, were required to serve an additional four years “after the time of their service is expired…; the third being a Negro named John Punch,” was ordered to serve “his…master or his assigns for the time of his natural life.” Lifetime service—in effect, slavery—was instituted for the Negro, not the whites, even though all three were guilty of the same offense.

Some Negro servants were forced to serve for life by masters who simply refused to acknowledge that the period of indenture was completed. A precedent-setting case was that of Johnson v. Parker (1654) in Northampton County, involving John Casor, the black servant of Anthony Johnson, Virginia’s first free Negro and first black landowner. In November 1653 Casor complained to a white planter visiting his master that although he had been indentured for seven years, Johnson had kept him “seven years longer than he should or ought.” Johnson insisted that he had “ye Negro for his life,” but after being warned that unless he released his servant, the latter could recover his master’s cows as damages, he freed Casor, who then bound himself to the white planter. Johnson petitioned the Northampton County court for the return of his servant, and in March 1654, the court ordered Casor returned to Johnson and handed down the judgment that Casor was Johnson’s servant for life, that is, his slave.

Other evidence that Virginia Negroes were serving for life in the 1650s is the fact that in 1660, in an act concerning runaways, the Assembly stated that “in case any English servant shall run away in company with any Negroes who are incapable of making satisfaction by addition of time…[he] shall serve for the time of the said Negroes absence.” While it does not say so in so many words, the statute indicates quite clearly that Negroes served for life and hence could not make “satisfaction” by serving longer once they were recaptured. This phrase gave legal status to the already existing practice of lifetime enslavement of Negroes.

But what was the status of the offspring of Negro slaves? The English common law gave a child the status of his father. But already the colony’s mulatto population was increasing, and to follow the common law would grant their offspring the status of the white father. The Virginia Assembly solved this problem for the plantation owners in 1662 by declaring that “whereas some doubts have arisen whether children got by any English man upon a Negro woman shall be slave or free, Be it enacted …that all children borne in this country shall be bond or free only according to the condition of the mother.” By this legislation, lifelong servitude was made self-perpetuating, and Negroes could be born into slavery. Indeed, the Assembly stated that the children of slave mothers were property in the same manner as the natural increase “of livestock or other chattels.”

The question of the Negro slave who was a Christian posed a knotty problem for the Virginia colonists. British common law required that slaves who became Christian be freed, and the Virginians, too, adhered to the principle that conversion of baptism could provide grounds for relief from life servitude. In 1644 a case occurred in which a baptized mulatto servant, although acquired “as a Slave for Ever,” was declared by the court not to be a slave “but to serve as other Christian servants do.” In January 1655 Elizabeth Key, daughter of a slave woman, successfully brought suit for her freedom on the ground that her baptism entitled her to this status. It it likely that other slaves brought similar suits. Not surprisingly the Virginians were reluctant to have their slaves baptized and given Christian instruction lest they be required to set them free. So by an act of September 1667 the General Assembly declared that in the case of “children that are slaves by birth…the conferring of baptism doth not alter the condition of a person as to his bondage or freedome; that divers masters freed from this doubt, may more carefully endeavour the propagation of Christianity.” At the same time, to make doubly certain that they would not be troubled with suits claiming baptism as a reason for changing a black’s status from slave to servant, or for his outright release, Virginians denied blacks access to the courts. In these ways the Virginia slave-holders could now accommodate their religion to the emerging system of Negro enslavement.

Although Christianization of Negroes no longer threatened to deprive them of their “property,” Virginia slave-holders continued to be reluctant to convert new arrivals from Africa, believing it would weaken the view that Africans were strange, barbaric, and inferior people whose enslavement was throughly justified. In 1699, thirty-two years after it was legally established that conversion did not bring freedom to the slave, English officials asked the Virginia House of Burgesses for passage of a law speeding up the conversion of Negroes. The legislature replied “that Negroes borne in this Country are generally baptized and brought up in the Christian Religion but for Negroes Imported hither the Gros Barbarity and rudeness of their manners, the variety and Strangeness of their Languages and the weakness and Shallowness of their minds renders it in a manner impossible to attain to any Progress in their Conversion.”

Actually, many slave-owners in Virginia, as well as in other colonies, were reluctant to convert their slaves for more practical reasons. For one thing, once converted, the Negroes would have to attend church on Sunday and thus could not be worked seven days a week. Then again, Christianized blacks might assume that they were equal in status and acquire airs. Peter Kalm, the Swedish botanist, who traveled through the colonies in 1758, reported masters telling him of their fear of baptized Negroes’ “growing too proud, on seeing themselves on a level with their masters in religious matters.” Finally, masters feared that baptism would cause obstacles to their selling part of the slave family.

By 1667 the most essential features of chattel slavery had been established for Virginia Negroes. Two years later, the Assembly made it even clearer that bondage for life had become the accepted rule for the Negro. The statute, passed in October 1669, entitled “An act about the casuall killing of slaves,” opened with the statement that the “only law for the punishment of refractory servants resisting their master, mistris or overseer cannot be inflicted upon Negroes,” who, after all, in bondage for life, could not have an additional term of service; therefore the master could use corporal punishment “if any slave resist.” And if “by the extremity of coercion” the slave should chance to die, his death should not be counted a felony, but his master should be “acquitted from molestation” since it could not be presumed that “malice” would “induce any man to destroy his owne estate.” Thus the Negro was not only deprived of his right to life, a safeguard enjoyed by white servants, but he was part of his master’s “owne estate”—a chattel, rather than one whose labor only was the property of his master.

In 1670 the Assembly explicitly provided for slave status for life for “all servants not being Christians imported into the colony by shipping,” but set a term of service of twelve years for men and women, and up to thirty years of age for boys and girls who were brought in by land. Since almost all Africans came by sea, it is clear that they were to be slaves. Then, twelve years later, in November 1682, the Assembly, after recounting the hardships endured by slave merchants because of the ambiguity between sea and land importations, enacted a new law that stated that “all servants imported or brought into this country, either by sea or land, whether Negroes, Moors, Mollatoes, or Indians, who and whose parentage and native country are not Christian at the time of the first purchase…by some Christian…hereby shall be adjudged, deemed and taken to be slaves.…” From now on, in addition to Negroes already existing in Virginia, all blacks brought into the colony “by sea or land” were to be slaves for life; the children of the Negro slave mothers were also to be slaves, and conversion to the Christian faith would not change their status.

These then are the essential features of the evolution of the Negro servant into a slave in colonial Virginia. By 1641 some Negroes were already serving a lifetime of bondage; by 1661 this number had increased; and by 1670 all of the essentials of slavery were definitely established. Between that time and 1705, whatever rights and privileges were retained by the Negro slave, such as that of suing in court, serving as witnesses, even, on occasion, owning property, and the right of marriage, were removed by a series of laws. Thus in April 1692 the Assembly inaugurated separate courts for the trial of slaves charged with a capital crime, and deprived them of the right of a trial by jury, thereby denying slaves the legal guarantees accorded free men.

In 1705 all of the numerous existing laws dealing with Negroes were consolidated into a single act that might be called a slave code. This “act concerning Servants and Slaves” fastened the chains of bondage on Negroes more tightly. Thus the section defining “who shall be slaves” contained a new clause stating that servants who could not “make due proof of their being free in England, or any other Christian country: were to be accounted slaves.”

In 1677, in the case of Butts v. Penny, slavery was recognized in English law, the court declaring “that Negroes being bought and sold among merchants of merchandise, and also being infidels, there might be property in them sufficient to maintain trover.” But in the case of James Somersett, the runaway Negro slave, Lord Mansfield ruled on 22 June 1772 that “by the Common Law no man could have property in another man and that as soon as a Negro came to England he is free; one may be villein in England but not a slave.” The case began in 1769 when Charles Stewart and his slave Somersett sailed from Boston to England where the black, refusing to serve his master, ran away. When he was captured and about to be shipped out of the country for sale in Jamaica, anti-slavery friends of Somersett took court action. “It [slavery],” declared Lord Mansfield, “is so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law. Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from the decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore the black must be discharged.” While Lord Mansfield ordered the slave released, he did not, contrary to a widely held view, emancipate and give immediate freedom to any other Negroes on British soil. Virginia took care that the decision should not affect the status of its black bondsmen by adding a section to the 1705 code which provided that “a slave’s being in England shall not…discharge him from his slavery.”

The 1705 code also consolidated previous repressive laws designed to keep the Negroes under control. Such laws had declared assemblies among slaves illegal, prohibited them from carrying any weapons, and forbade them from leaving plantations without the written permission of their masters. But the 1705 code also increased punishments for slaves by providing that for petty offenses slaves were to be whipped, maimed, or branded; for robbing a house or a store a slave was to be given sixty lashes by the sheriff, placed in the pillory with his ears nailed to the posts for a half-hour, his ears then to be severed from his head; slaves found guilty of murder or rape were to be hanged, and their masters were to be compensated by the colony. Another important feature of the 1705 code dealt with Maroons, runaway slaves who lived in nearby forests. Previously only persons designated by lawful authority to recapture fugitives were authorized, and then only in case of resistance, to kill them. But by the code of 1705 it was made legal “for any person or persons whatsoever, to kill or destroy such slaves…without accusation or impeachment of any crime for the same.” For the first time, too, the law prescribed the castration of recaptured fugitive slaves. (Still later, in 1727, slaves found guilty of running away or even of simply “going abroad” in the night were to be castrated or executed.) Some of the corporal punishments meted out to slaves, such as maiming, branding, and whipping, were also inflicted on white indentured servants, but castration was only practiced on blacks.

When a slave fled, the justices of his county issued a proclamation against him, which was read on two Sabbath days at the parish church. If he did not return after such proclamation, it was lawful for anyone to kill him by any means. That runaway slaves could be legally killed in their apprehension is clearly illustrated in the following notice that appeared in the Virginia Gazette in 1767:

Run Away from the subscriber in Norfolk…two young Negro fellows, viz. Will, about 5 feet 8 inches high, middling black, well made, is an outlandish fellow, and when he is surprised the white of his eyes turn red.…Peter, about 5 feet 9 inches high, a very black slim fellow.…They are both outlawed; and Ten Pounds a piece offered to any person that will kill the said Negroes, and bring me their heads, or Thirty shillings for each if brought home alive.

With the enactment of the 1705 code Virginia now had a fully developed system of chattel slavery by which black men and women were reduced to a status of abject degradation as complete as anywhere in the world. Laws and concurrent court actions had not only regulated slavery, but perpetuated and strengthened the institution. The basic features of chattel slavery had been established, and it was to continue fundamentally unchanged for more than a century and a half.

The year 1705 is important in still another sense in tracing the permanent enslavement of the Negro, for in that year a statute permitted contracts between white servants and their masters if approved by a court, while, at the same time, the Negro slave was forbidden the privilege of trade and marriage because as property he could not enter into contracts. Thereafter the Virginia courts refused to enforce contracts between slaves and masters even where the slave had completely performed his part of the agreement.

Having enslaved the Negro, the Virginians took steps to make sure that he could not easily escape his bondage through manumission. The difference between the Spanish-Portuguese and the Anglo-Saxon approach to manumission of slaves, a feature that was to make American Negro slavery one of the harshest slave systems in history, made itself apparent as early as 1691 in Virginia. A handful of Negroes had been previously manumitted by will, and the General Court even set free Negroes who had been promised freedom upon the death of their masters but still continued in bondage. But lest this practice grow, the Assembly, in an act of April 1691, declared “that no Negro or mulatto be…set free by any person…whatsoever, unless such person…pay for the transportation of said Negro…out of the country within six months” or forfeit ten pounds sterling so that the church wardens might have the Negro transported. But even this legislation was not stringent enough to satisfy those who opposed and feared an increase in the free Negro population, and in 1723 the Assembly decreed that not “upon any pretence whatsoever, except for some meritorious services…adjudged and allowed by the governor and council,” should any slave be freed. If any slaves were set free in violation of the act, they were to be seized and sold at public auction.

Winthrop D. Jordan has characterized slavery as the product of “an unthinking decision,” but the evidence presented above indicates that a good deal of deliberate planning went into its establishment. With considerable forethought Virginians closed the few legal routes by which blacks could escape their bondage, thereby relegating them to the lowest ranks of colonial society.

The development of black slavery led to the deterioration of the status of the free Negro. Until 1670 there was no legal restriction on the purchase of white servants by free Negroes. In that year, however, a statute was enacted to the effect that “noe negroe or Indian though baptised and enjoyned their owne freedome shall be capable of any such purchase of Christians, but yet not debarred from buying any of their owne nation.” Again in 1705 a statute was passed forbidding Negro ownership of white Christian servants and also declaring automatically free any white Christian servant whose master married a Negro. A similar act was passed in 1753.

Free Negroes in Virginia charged with a crime were entitled to trial by jury. But they were deprived of a trial by their peers, for they were forbidden to serve on juries and to be witnesses in any case whatsoever. Then in 1723 the Virginia Assembly disfranchised the free Negro. When the Board of Trade in England asked for an explanation for this action, Lieutenant Governor William Gooch of Virginia justified it on the ground that it was necessary “to make the free-Negroes sensible that a distinction ought to be made between their offspring and the Descendants of an Englishman, with whom they never were to be Accounted Equal.” Governor Gooch further noted that the action of the Assembly came on the heels of a slave conspiracy, and that it was necessary to punish the free blacks even if there was no evidence proving that they were involved in the plot, since the Assembly knew “they always did, and ever will adhere to and favour the slaves.… ” Satisfied with this explanation, the Board of Trade agreed to let the legislation stand, and free blacks now knew that in the eyes of Englishmen they could never become equal in this country to whites.

Nothing said above about the transition from black servitude to slavery or about the status of free blacks is meant to imply that the white indentured servant led a pleasant life in colonial America. Virginians quickly gained a reputation that they “abused their servants there with intollerable oppression and hard usage,” and Edmund S. Morgan has noted that this harsh treatment of servants was a step in the direction “toward a system of labor that treated men as things.” There are hundreds of advertisements seeking fugitive white servants in the early colonial press, which reveal that this harsh treatment was not confined to Virginia. Yet the system of indentured servitude differed in important essentials from Negro slavery. According to Richard B. Morris:

In the first place, the colonial settlers did not consider the servant inferior as a human being, but recognized him as a fellow Christian, not differentiated by race. A slave had only those rights which were granted by law. A bound servant enjoyed all rights, whether political or legal, except those specifically denied him by law or contract. His mobility, his freedom of occupational choice, and certain personal liberties were curbed merely for a term of years whereas a slave was bound for life, and his children inherited his unfree status.

Just as there is a historiographical dispute over the status of the Negro prior to his enslavement, so, too, there is controversy over the question of whether the reduction of the Negro servant to the status of the chattel slave was the cause or the effect of white American prejudice against the Negro as an inferior, degraded race. It was long accepted that racial prejudice was an outgrowth and rationalization of slavery, and Oscar and Mary Handlin have recently argued that “since slavery as an institution was not readily shaken off, it was necessary to justify the exploitation involved in it; and that led many earnest men along a line of thought few regarded with favor yet not many could resist.” The “line of thought” was, of course, the belief in Negro inferiority. “Color,” the Handlins conclude, “then emerged as the token of slave status; the trace of color became the trace of slavery.” In short, discrimination developed because of the institutionalization of slavery.

On the other hand, Carl Degler argues that slavery was a product of innate white discriminatory attitudes, of the white man’s prejudice against the African as a different, pagan, and inferior race. Instead of slavery “being the root of the discrimination visited upon the Negro in America, slavery was itself molded by the early colonists’ discrimination against the outsider.…Thus legal slavery in the English colonies reinforced and helped to perpetuate the discrimination against the Negro which prevailed almost from the beginning of the settlement.” Racial prejudice led to discrimination between Negro and white servants, and discrimination led to slavery. Degler also insists that long before slavery became an important part of Virginia’s economy, and even before black labor was “as economically important as unfree white labor, the Negro had been consigned to be a special discriminatory status which mirrored the social discrimination Englishmen practiced against him.” Winthrop Jordan has taken a middle position on this question, noting that “rather than slavery causing ‘prejudice,’ or vice versa, they seem rather to have generated each other.…Slavery and ‘prejudice’ may have been equally cause and effect, continuously reacting upon each other, dynamically joining hands to hustle the Negro down the road to complete degradation.”

This controversy has important implications for the contemporary race problem. Many white liberal historians long favored the viewpoint that race prejudice was a late growth, not an early and deeply rooted characteristic of American life. Prejudice toward Negroes, according to this school of historical writing, was an unhappy product of slavery, and slavery was a gradual development that fostered prejudice. The inference is that prior to his enslavement, the Negro was treated as an equal to whites in servitude, and that only reluctantly did the colonists adopt racial prejudice, in order better to justify their enslavement of the Negro.

But, as Winthrop Jordan has established, the roots of race prejudice were present in England a half-century before the first American settlements, and “from the beginning white Englishmen met black Negroes on a footing of inequality.” Jordan sees both slavery and discrimination as part of a worldwide debasement of the Negro. Yet slavery also strengthened the already existing racial prejudice. As the only group in American society to be permanently enslaved, the Negroes became the object of an even more virulent prejudice than that which preceded their enslavement. In any event, the evidence indicates that racism has always existed in this country, and its roots can be found in our earliest history. After all, from the 1440s to 1607—for a century and a half—Europe had participated in and witnessed the slave trade and all its horrors. Is it possible to believe that this experience did not generally engender ideas of the racial inferiority of blacks in the white European mind? And it was white Europeans who settled Virginia and the other English colonies in America.


In 1634 Maryland began its existence as a colony with the establishment of the town of Saint Mary’s. Behind the Maryland enterprise was Cecilius Calvert, the second Lord Baltimore, a Catholic who sought to establish a haven of refuge for his coreligionists while at the same time increasing his worldly fortune. According to the charter granted him in 1632 by Charles I, Lord Baltimore was empowered to sublet lands to vassals, erect manors, bestow titles of honor, create manorial courts, hear cases, and establish towns. He decided to institute a feudal principality in Maryland with himself as lord proprietor.

But since few settlers would come to a feudal domain in America, Lord Baltimore found it necessary to abandon the practice of issuing patents creating manorial rights. Instead, the early settlers in Maryland functioned more or less like those in the neighboring colony of Virginia, and like their neighbors they turned increasingly to the production of tobacco. The two Chesapeake colonies—Virginia and Maryland—were almost one community, although separated politically. In both colonies, joined by waterway communications, tobacco was the main crop, and the bulk of the workmen were employed in planting the weed. By 1664 the settlements that bordered Chesapeake Bay were producing 25 million pounds of tobacco annually.

Although Virginia and Maryland shared the tobacco system, commerce and general farming were more diversified in Maryland. Indentured servitude lasted much longer in Maryland—the colony was a leading importer of convict labor—and term rather than perpetual service for blacks was more common than in the neighboring colony. For a number of years lower-class whites and blacks cooperated much more in their work and social activities in Maryland than elsewhere.

The Chesapeake Bay area planters also used some Indian slaves who were taken in war. But increasingly, by the middle of the seventeenth century, the tobacco plantations had come to depend more and more on laborers imported from Africa. Some who came into the colony with a specific contract obtained their freedom after the contract expired. (Even after slavery was fully established, Africans imported under contract were able to gain their freedom at the end of the specified period.) But most blacks had no contract; hence they were not protected by custom or legislation that applied to servants imported under contract. Consequently, the majority of the Africans were brought to Maryland as life servants. In 1663 Maryland enacted a law that in case a white indentured servant should run away in company with “any Negroes, who are incapable of making satisfaction by addition of time,” he must serve for the Negro’s time as well as his own. Clearly, apart from those who came into the colony with a contract, Maryland treated Negroes as perpetual servants for some time prior to the legal adoption of chattel slavery.

Black slavery had been recognized at least since 1639, in a statute entitled “An Act Concerning Negroes and other Slaves.” Then in 1664 the Colonial Assembly passed a law that stated categorically that “all Negroes or other slaves already within the Province, and all Negroes and other slaves to be hereafter imported into the Province shall serve Durante Vita [for life].” The “other slaves” were Indians. The Maryland statute of 1664 preceded Virginia’s law imposing lifetime slavery on offspring of blacks. However, through some oversight, Maryland incorporated in the law of 1664 the English custom of accepting the father’s status for the child. (“And all children,” the law read, “born of any Negro or other slave shall be slaves as their fathers were.”) Before long, realizing that this would reduce the number of slaves by freeing the offspring of white masters who had impregnated their female slaves, Maryland reversed itself and in 1681 enacted a new statute defining the children as slaves or free according to the status of the mother. This legislation, interestingly, was entitled an act to encourage the importation of Negroes, since it stated that “the good people of the Province” had been discouraged from importing Negroes because the children of slave mothers became free.

The law of 1664 also reflected the existing racist attitude toward blacks. It fixed the status of slavery on the offspring of any “freeborn English woman” who, “to the disgrace of our nation, marry Negro slaves.” The white woman was required to “serve the master of such slave during the life of her husband.” The purpose of the legislation was to deter the practice of intermarriage between white servants and slaves, a practice that had grown up during the colony’s first century, when black and white laborers worked together and intermingled socially. However, it was soon discovered that the law to prevent white women from entering into “such shameful matches” encouraged plantation owners to force indentured female servants to marry slaves in order to obtain the extended servitude of the woman and the slave labor of the offspring of such marriages. So “the good people of the Province” modified the 1664 law, and in 1692 passed legislation providing that any white woman marrying a Negro would become a servant for only seven years. But the Negro husband, if free, would become a servant for the remainder of his life or be reenslaved. A law of 1699 applied the same penalty to a white man who married a Negro woman—servitude for seven years—but if the black woman was free, she was to become a servant for the remainder of her life.

Like Virginia, Maryland passed a law reassuring masters that conversion of their slaves did not necessitate manumission. A law of 1692 provided that if a woman slave became a Christian and received the sacrament of baptism, her offspring “shall at all times hereafter be and remain in servitude and bondage as they were before baptism.…” This legislation, too, was entitled an act to encourage the importation of Negroes, since Marylanders had been discouraged from bringing in Africans because performing their religious duty of converting them to Christianity had released the slaves from bondage.

Prior to 1660 slave labor was relatively unimportant in Maryland, partly because the plantation type of economy had not yet developed, and partly because the Chesapeake planters found it difficult to obtain Negroes. The traffic was in the hands of the Dutch, who were accustomed to take their “merchandise” first to the West Indies and then, if any were left over, to Virginia and finally to Maryland. Under these circumstances, few slaves were obtained by Maryland planters. After 1660, however, English merchants became active in the slave trade and were able to supply Chesapeake tobacco growers with a steady stream of slaves. By 1712 there were 8,000 Negro slaves as compared to 38,000 whites, and Negroes made up only slightly more than 20 percent of the population. But already in three of the southern counties, the blacks far outnumbered the whites. By the mid-eighteenth century, the Negro population had outstripped many times the white laboring class—46,356 Negroes to 6,781 white servants. In 1775 the black population of Maryland was 65,000 while the whites numbered 150,000.

As the slave population grew in number, stringent laws were passed to control blacks. In 1723 a law was enacted that any slave who ran away and resisted recapture might be killed without any penalty being imposed on the pursuers. An act of 1751 extended this freedom from prosecution to any person who might kill a slave who had been judged guilty of a serious offense and resisted arrest. The owner was to be compensated by the colony for the loss of his slave. Other laws specifically dealing with slaves provided for their punishment if found guilty of murder, arson, larceny, association with whites, insolence, and similar offenses. The punishments ranged from death and branding to whipping. By the end of the colonial period, these laws gave Maryland a fully developed slave code.

Although nearly all of Maryland’s blacks were slaves, a tiny free Negro population emerged during the colonial period. (In 1752, in the entire area encompassing what is today Baltimore and Harford counties, there were only eight free Negroes.) Unlike Virginia, Maryland placed no real restriction on manumission; indeed, in 1715 a move by the Council to forbid manumission was defeated in the lower house. In 1752 Maryland regulated the form of manumission by specifying that the granting of freedom had to be in writing, certified by two witnesses, and endorsed by a justice. Moreover, manumission by will or otherwise during the last illness of a master was declared null and void since it was considered a hasty action. Finally, to prevent masters from using their slaves as long as they were profitable and then manumitting them and turning them adrift, the law specified that slaves to be manumitted must be sound in body and mind, capable of labor, and not over fifty years of age. But these restrictions did not make it too difficult for a master to manumit a slave. Moreover, the free blacks in Maryland faced fewer restrictions than those in Virginia. Nevertheless, a number of the special laws that provided for the punishment of slaves, such as the law of 1695 that prevented frequent meeting of blacks, applied to free Negroes as well as slaves. Moreover, in Maryland, as elsewhere in colonial America, color created the presumption that a man was a slave, and the burden of proof of freedom—usually the possession of a certificate of manumission—rested on the black.

Free blacks in colonial Maryland were obliged to indenture themselves as servants for five to seven years to earn a living. Jupiter, a free Negro whose career has been traced in the judicial records of the colony, indentured himself several times after he was manumitted in 1690; in one case, his period of service was extended, and he was forced to petition the provincial court, complaining that he was being kept as if he were a slave. The court released him from service, but Jupiter was never able to obtain damages for the extended period of servitude.


In 1663 Charles II granted to eight of his friends, who had been instrumental in placing him on the throne, a vast area that extended from the southern boundary of Virginia to the borders of Spanish Florida, and as far westward as the continent itself. The colony was called Carolina. In 1668 the libertarian John Locke, whose writings on political and religious freedom directly influenced the philosophy of the fathers of the Constitution of the United States, was engaged to assist the Earl of Shaftesbury in devising a framework of government for the colony. The result was the document, dated March 1669, known as the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina. The document has often been characterized as a rather naïve effort to transplant feudal practices and customs into America with seignories, baronies, and manors, and as more suited to Europe than to the New World. Moreover, it has been frequently noted that by the end of the seventeenth century, the Fundamental Constitutions had been superseded in practice.

Several provisions in the document, however, remained operative both in theory and practice. One read: “Every freeman of Carolina shall have absolute Power and Authority over his Negro Slaves, of what opinion or religion soever.” Other provisions invited the introduction of slave labor by offering inducements for the importation of Negroes, and two articles (107 and 110) defined the master’s authority over the slave in absolute terms and asserted that the Negro’s conversion to the Christian religion did not alter his status as a slave; he was to “be in all things in the same state and condition he was in before.” Thus Carolina from the beginning of its history dispensed entirely with the process of transforming the Negro from a temporary servant to a perpetual servant and legally into a slave. Since several of the lord proprietors had made their fortune in sugar-growing in Barbados, it was a simple matter to include in the Fundamental Constitutions the slavery practices that already existed in that island. (There is even evidence that Locke himself studied the system of slavery in Barbados while he was preparing the document.) Finally, four of the proprietors of the colony were members of the Royal African Company, and they saw in their colony, already recognized to contain some of the best lands in the. New World, a potential gold mine from the slave traffic alone.

The inducements offered in the Fundamental Constitutions to encourage the importation of Negro slaves were soon put into practice. Since England now forbade the migration of skilled artisans, the proprietors sought settlers among Barbadians, small planters who had been squeezed off the land by the growth of the great sugar plantations in the island. In 1669 they guaranteed to every planter migrating from the West Indies with his “Negro Slaves” that he would not lose the “Power and Authority” he held over them. They also offered twenty acres for every Negro male slave and ten acres for every Negro female slave brought into the colony in the first year, or ten and five acres, respectively, for every slave imported within the first five years. The first settlement under the Fundamental Constitutions was begun in March 1670, off Port Royal South. In 1671 Sir John Yeamans brought a group of slaves from Barbados to cultivate his plantation in Carolina. These were the first Negroes in the colony. Their number grew slowly at first, for most of the early colonists were subsistence farmers or engaged in the production of naval stores. But soon the Negro population increased at a fantastic pace. By 1708 the population of South Carolina (as the colony was now called) already included more Negroes than whites. In 1715 the Negroes outnumbered the white 10,500 to 6,250; after 1730, planters began to import slaves at the rate of 2,500 a year. After a decade, Negroes outnumbered whites 39,000 to 20,000. By the eve of the American Revolution, the black population outnumbered the whites by more than 2 to 1—90,000 to 40,000!

This incredible increase was the result of the growth of two marketable staples on South Carolina’s plantations—first rice and later indigo, both crops requiring a large labor force. The cultivation of rice, which was first introduced from Madagascar during the last decade of the seventeenth century and became widespread after 1695, required considerable capital and cheap labor. Indian slaves there were aplenty; in fact, South Carolina enslaved more Indians than any other colony. But the tribes of the southeast were strong in numbers and unified by confederation, so that the captured Indians were most often shipped out of the colony and sold in the West Indies or exchanged for Negro slaves in Jamaica. Colonial South Carolina, John Donald Duncan points out, was “preeminent in the use and exportation of Indian slaves.”

White indentured servants were also widely used until the supply from Britain and the rest of Europe dried up or was directed to other areas by 1750. Negro bondsmen were imported in ever-increasing numbers. During its first century of existence, South Carolina imported about 100,000 black slaves, more than any other English continental colony. The planters and their allies argued that only Negroes were fitted physiologically to labor in gangs in the rice swamps under the hot sun. Reverend Alexander Hewat, writing in 1779, summed up the scores of pages devoted to this subject in a single sentence: “The low lands of Carolina, which are unquestionably the richest grounds in the country, must long have remained a wilderness, had not Africans, whose natural constitutions were suited to the clime and work, been employed in cultivating this useful article of food and commerce.”

The truth is that blacks died in the malaria-infested swamps just like white men. But they showed proficiency in the performance of all the tedious operations involved in rice cultivation: hand-weeding, harvesting by sickle, threshing by hand flail, and sifting and polishing grains.

With the successful cultivation and processing after 1740 of indigo —extensively used as a blue dye—South Carolina obtained a second staple. The new enterprise, aided by a Parliamentary subsidy, advanced rapidly, and as indigo production declined in the West Indies, the demand for the mainland product increased. Since the indigo crop’s sowing and harvesting seasons complemented those of rice, a planter could use one labor supply for both crops. As in rice, the labor involved was arduous and unhealthy, and hence judged to be suited only for Negroes.

From the beginning, rice and indigo production were profitable enterprises. A 40 percent return on rice was not infrequent, and indigo netted substantial profits ranging from 33 percent to 50 percent. These profits enabled the large landholders to live sumptuously as absentee landlords in Charleston. What did it matter then that the swamps and stagnant waters took an enormous toll of Negro life? The Royal African Company and private slave-traders were always ready to meet the ever-increasing demand for blacks. Small wonder that the number of Negroes, despite the high mortality rate, soared in South Carolina.

Indian contributions to the development of South Carolina did not entirely disappear as the number of Indians declined. For it was the blacks, through this close contact with the Indians, who assimilated the largest share of Indian knowledge of how to survive and flourish in the environment of the New World. Supplementing the knowledge they brought with them from Africa with Indian lore, black slaves rapidly became important as guides to their masters, transporting goods to market by land and water, ferrying passengers and livestock, and transmitting messages and letters. Moreover, the Africans supplied both themselves and their owners with fish, using techniques familiar in Africa. They also tended livestock, providing enough profit from livestock production for the whites to enable the latter to increase their holding in black slaves. Indeed, the first “cowboys” in America were the black slaves in colonial South Carolina, who were stationed at cowpens to herd the stock.

But perhaps the most important contribution black slaves made to South Carolina’s development was in the production of rice. Whereas the Europeans knew little of rice planting, Negroes from the west coast of Africa were quite familiar with the operation. Hence it is not surprising that advertisements for slaves in colonial South Carolina often stressed the fact that the blacks who were to be sold “were accustomed to the planting of rice.” Since those who were familiar with planting and cultivating rice also knew how to process it, the African contribution to South Carolina’s rice production was considerable.

Although Locke’s provisions had assured the future slave-owners of Carolina that nothing would interfere with their ownership of slaves, not even religion, the masters made certain of this by specific legislation. The South Carolina statute of 1712 provided that it is “lawful for a Negro or Indian slave…to receive and profess the Christian faith, and to be therein baptised, and that thereby no slave shall be deemed manumitted.” Then too, although Locke had assured the masters of domination over their slaves, this was small comfort to a society in which the mounting size of an oppressed population created increasing apprehension. Fear of rebellious slaves led to the passage of an act in 1693 that barred the importation of Negroes who had taken part in the recent slave uprising in Barbados. In 1696, a year after the planters began to cultivate rice successfully, the South Carolina Assembly passed an especially barbaric slave code that established a despotic control over every aspect of the slave’s life. The Assembly simply incorporated into its law the preamble of the Barbados slave code of 1688 and three-fourths of its provisions for policing the slave population, and added others from the Barbadian code for the prevention of slave crimes and the trial of slaves accused of them. Finally, the South Carolina Assembly added provisions adopted by the body in 1690—which had been disallowed by the proprietors—and a new provision dealing with potentially dangerous gatherings of slaves. The total added up to what Winthrop Jordan describes as “the most rigorous deprivation of freedom to exist in institutionalized form anywhere in the English continental colonies.”

In general, the code stipulated that slaves needed written permission to leave their masters’ residences; slave-owners were required to make regular searches of slave quarters for weapons; and slaves who ran away or struck their masters faced severe penalties, among which were whipping, branding, slitting the nose, and castration. More specifically, no master or overseer was allowed to give his slaves leave on Sundays, fast days, holy days, or at any other time to go out of his plantation without a pass, unless the slave wore a livery; and any person seeing a slave out of his master’s plantation without a pass was empowered to correct the miscreant by whipping, not exceeding twenty lashes. An overseer who found a strange Negro on his master’s plantation without permission, and did not seize and whip him, forfeited twenty shillings. Justices of the peace had power at all times to search for guns, pistols, swords, and other “offensive weapons” in Negro quarters, and to seize them, unless the slave had permission from his master allowing him to hunt, which license had to be in writing and had to be renewed every month. But no master could allow more than one Negro on one plantation the privilege of hunting. Patrols had full power and authority to enter any plantation and break open Negro houses or other places when slaves were suspected of keeping arms; to punish runaways or slaves found outside of their masters’ plantations without a pass; to whip any slave who should affront or abuse them in the execution of their duties; and to apprehend and take any slave suspected of stealing or other criminal offense, and bring him to the nearest magistrate.

Special courts to try slaves were set up, and if a Negro was found guilty of murder, burglary, robbery, willful burning of dwelling houses, barns, stables, or stacks of rice, or any other capital offense, he was to be sentenced to death in a manner to be determined by the court. For lesser offenses, such as stealing or killing cattle, sheep, or pigs, for the first offense the slave was to be branded with an “R” on the right cheek; for the second, with an “R” on the left cheek and whipped up to forty lashes; for the third offense, he would be executed. For every offense for which a white man was punished by having his hand burned, the slave was to be burned with the letter “R” on the forehead; and for the second offense, executed. If a slave struck a white person, for the first offense he was to be severly whipped and have his right ear cut off, and for the second, any punishment might be prescribed except death.

No master was liable to any penalty if his slave was killed during punishment for running away or for other crimes or misdemeanors. Although the willful killing of a slave could bring a fine of fifty pounds sterling, any slave found stealing or robbing, and resisting or refusing to submit, could be killed without the slayers suffering any punishment.

In one respect at least, the South Carolina slave code was even more barbarous than the law in Barbados from which it was borrowed. It required a master to castrate a slave who ran away for the fourth time (and stayed away for thirty days), under pain of forfeiting ownership of the slave to the first white informer.

The act of 1696 remained, with some slight amendments, the slave code of South Carolina until 1740. On 9 September 1739 an insurrection of slaves occurred near the Stono River, which resulted in the death of forty Negroes and twenty whites and the burning of several houses. This and other examples of slave resistance in colonial America will be discussed below. It is worth noting here that the uprising led to the enactment in May 1740 of a new slave code. The assembly reenacted all the old provisions regulating the slave’s conduct and added new ones. Some attention was paid to the slave’s welfare through provisions designed to prevent owners and overseers from “exercising too great rigour and cruelty over them.” The law forbade masters to work their slaves on Sunday, or more than fourteen or fifteen hours a day during the week. Owners were required to provide sufficient food and clothing. If a white man was accused of killing or maiming a slave, he was to face a jury trial, and if found guilty, he could be fined up to a hundred pounds sterling. However, a master who willfully killed his slave had only to pay half the amount if the murder was committed “on sudden heat and passion.” In any case, since slave testimony was barred from the courts, it was usually impossible to prove that a master or overseer had killed or maimed a slave.

The major provisions of the new slave code were directed to making sure that the slave “be kept in due subjection and obedience.” The law outlawed all assemblies of slaves, forbade the sale of alcohol to them, and prohibited them from learning to write so as to curtail forged passes. (These were additions to the existing slave code of 1696 and amendments to it enacted before 1740.) At the same time that the assembly passed the new slave code, it strengthened the patrol system by vesting responsibility for it in the militia; and it tried to reduce the number of Negroes being shipped to the colony, thus reducing the numerical ratio of slaves to white men, by raising the import duty. The assembly’s concern over the ratio of blacks to whites in certain regions of the colony was also reflected in a provision in the law relating to slave patrols, which exempted those “townships lately laid out in this Province, the white inhabitants whereof are much superior in [numbers] to the negroes there, so that the riding patrol there may not be necessary.”

This was not the first time that legislation had been enacted to decrease the disparity in the ratio between the white and the Negro population. In 1716 a law was passed requiring a planter to have 1 white servant for every 10 Negro slaves, and a bounty of £25 was offered for every white servant brought into the colony. In 1719 a duty of £10 per head was levied on all Negroes imported from Africa, and £30 on all imported from the islands. But the high rate of profits in the sale of rice had rendered the legislation fruitless. The greatest increase in the Negro population actually occurred soon after the last law was passed.

The slave code of 1740 has a special significance in the history of slavery in South Carolina, for it was the first legislation in that colony to establish the Negro slave as a chattel. Prior to 1740, slaves had been legally defined as freehold property and not chattel property. Freehold property was attached to a landed estate and could not be moved, and was therefore similar to serfdom, whereas chattels were the owners’ personal belongings, which he could dispose of as he pleased. Under freehold slavery, it was implied that a master had a right to the slave’s services rather than, as in chattel slavery, to the slave himself. Although by custom, as in the early years in Barbados, South Carolinians had been treating their slaves as personal chattels, it was not until 1740 that they were so defined legally. The distinction before and after 1740 may be miniscule, but it was important in establishing the legal status of bondage in South Carolina as chattel slavery. In 1725 Arthur Middleton, acting governor of the colony, declared flatly that slaves “have been and are always deemed as goods and Chattels of their Masters.”

As might be expected in a colony with such harsh legislation, the position of the free Negro was hardly much better than that of the slave. Manumission was severely restricted and the few blacks able to obtain their freedom were required to leave the province unless permitted to remain by special act of Assembly. (Usually this occurred when a slave was manumitted for having informed on his fellow slaves.) South Carolina equated the Negro with the slave; if free, the burden of proof lay with the black man. The 1740 slave code declared “that every negro, Indian, mulatto and mustezo is a slave, unless the contrary can be made to appear.”

In the middle of the seventeenth century, a number of settlers from Virginia, experienced in growing tobacco, brought their Negro slaves with them to the Albemarle Sound region of North Carolina. The institution of slavery was thus established early in colonial North Carolina. As tobacco-growing increased and moved westward, as rice cultivation began, and as the naval stores and some rice cultivation developed, the slave population grew rapidly. By 1764 North Carolina contained approximately 114,000 white residents and 30,000 black slaves. Indian prisoners of war who were sold into slavery also constituted part of the labor force, as did white indentured servants, whose number also increased. In Bertie County, a tobacco and mixed farming area, the tax records for 1764 show 159 white servants—and these were only males 16 years old or more—compared with 800 male and female black slaves, 12 years or more. In short, black slavery did not replace white indentured servitude in colonial North Carolina, although it became the major unfree labor force in the economy.

New Hanover County, which had an important naval stores industry, had more slaves than any other county in the colony. The tax records of the county for 1767 reveal the presence of 714 black male slaves, 678 female slaves, and 52 slaves who were boys. But the slave population was larger than these statistics would indicate, since the tax records do not include Negro slaves under the age of 12. The tax records for Pasquotank County, a tobacco-growing section in Albermarle, disclose that slave-owners ranged from 118 householders who had 1 slave, to 16 who had 5, and 2 individuals who had 21 and 38 respectively.

The earliest slave laws of North Carolina were drawn from the code of Virginia. In 1715 the colony adopted its first slave code. Under it, slave offenders were tried by special courts called either “slave courts” or “negro courts.” The code lasted until 1741, when a harsher set of laws, inspired largely by the Stono revolt near Charleston, South Carolina, prohibited slaves from owning property, carrying arms, moving about without permission, or transacting business with whites. Castration of slaves as a common punishment for many offenses was introduced and continued through 1764. Castration was normally performed by sheriffs, and the court records reveal that slaves often died during the surgery. In such cases, the owner was compensated by the provincial government.

The law of 1715 prohibited the master from setting free any Negroes who had been “Runaways or Refractory,” but he still could set his Negro free “as a Reward for…honest and Faithful Service, provided that such Negro depart the Government within six months after his freedom.” The law of 1741 stipulated that no slave was to be set free except for meritorious service and only after approval by a county court. The slave thus manumitted had to leave the colony within six months.

Since the free Negro population continued to grow, it is clear that the provision about leaving the colony was not strictly enforced. Free Negroes continued to be listed in increasing numbers on the tax returns, and several even owned slaves. The tax records of Bertie County for 1764 list a few free blacks who owned one or two slaves, and two free mulattoes who had eight slaves each. They may have been members of the family of the free blacks who feared that emancipation might force them to leave the colony.

Evidently, free Negroes could vote before 1715, for the law enacted that year specifically banned Indians, Negroes, or mulattoes from voting for a member of the Assembly, which was the only elective civil office in the colony. This law was disallowed by the King in 1737. After 1760, if a Negro was freeholder—a person who held in fee simple or for life an estate of fifty acres—he could vote in colonial North Carolina. How many Negroes actually voted, however, is difficult to determine.

A major grievance of the free Negroes was that as a group they were taxed more severely than whites: all free blacks, male and female, had to pay the poll tax, or head tax, from the age of twelve, whereas only white males from age sixteen had to pay the tax. The Legislative Papers of North Carolina for 1763 and 1771 contain two documents unique in colonial America: petitions to the Assembly signed by whites, most of whom were slave-holders, protesting the discriminatory additional tax on all free persons of color, and urging its repeal. The petitioners of 1763 pointed out:

That many inhabitants of the said counties who are free Negroes and mulattoes and persons of probity and good demeanor and cheerfully contribute towards the discharge of every public duty enjoined them by law. But by reason of being obliged by the said act of Assembly to pay levies for their wives and daughters as therein mentioned are greatly impoverished and many of them rendered unable to support themselves and families with the common necessaries of life. Wherefore your petitioners would humbly pray in behalf of the said free Negroes etc. that so make of the said recited act as compels such of them as intermarry with those of their own complexion to pay taxes for their wives and daughters may be exempted or that they may otherwise be relieved as to your worships in your great wisdom seem meet.

The petition of 1771 stated that the signers considered the special tax on free Negroes to be “highly derogatory of the rights of free born subjects,” and pleaded that an act “may pass exempting such free Negro and mulatto women and all wives other than slaves of free Negroes and mulattoes from being listed as tithables and from paying any public, county and parish levies.”

Neither petition was granted and free Negroes in colonial North Carolina continued to be discriminated against in taxation. Throughout the colonial period, too, all persons of “black complexion” were presumed to be slaves, and any person of color who claimed to be free was required to prove his freedom in court.


Georgia has the distinction of being the only English colony in America at whose inception slavery was prohibited. This policy was the product of a combination of fear of the Negro, a strategic design to protect English interests along the southern frontier, and a grandiose vision of an economy based on the production of commodities that required no slave labor. Since James Edward Oglethorpe, the chief proprietor of the colony, was a member of the slave-trading Royal African Company, humanitarian impulse played no part in the barring of slavery.

In 1732 George II granted the unsettled southernmost part of Carolina to a group of British philanthropists whose spokesman was Oglethorpe. The next year, Oglethorpe landed the first hundred settlers of Georgia, as he called his grant, above the mouth of the Savannah River, where they established the town of Savannah. To the crown, the military aspects of the enterprise were all-important: Georgia would serve as a bastion against the expansionist designs of the Spanish in Florida and their Indian allies against English territory. To the liberal proprietors, the new colony was to be a haven of refuge for the poor and oppressed of Europe, an asylum especially for Englishmen imprisoned for debt. Here in a land free from feudal restrictions and a savage criminal code, the deserving poor would find new outlets for their energies; with their own labor they would furnish England with silks, oil, dyes, drugs, and other exotic products and establish a market for English goods. Finally, the men who founded the border colony of Georgia, like Oglethorpe, Stephens, Martyn, and Egmont, were well aware of the rebellious activity of slaves in neighboring South Carolina and the continuous fear of white South Carolinians for their own security. They were anxious to avoid these dangers in their own colony.

The Utopia envisaged by the Georgia Trustees was to be a community of small farmers. No person could own more than five hundred acres, and the land could be passed on only to male heirs. Strong liquors were also prohibited, and the importation of rum and brandy banned.

In addition to these restrictions on land and liquor, the Trustees forbade the use of Negro labor. The law was entitled “An act for ren’ring the Colony of Georgia more defensible by prohibiting the Importation and Use of Black Slaves or Negroes into the same.” It was drafted in 1734 and presented to the Privy Council for approval. The council was especially impressed by the argument in the law that in the event of military conflict with the Indians on the nearby Spanish colonies, slaves might side with the enemy. The council approved the law, and Negroes were prohibited from legally entering Georgia after 24 June 1735.

No sooner were Negroes banned from the colony than an intensive campaign got under way to remove the restriction. The argument of the “Malcontents,” as the proslavery elements were called, stressed that Negroes were “as essentially necessary to the cultivation of Georgia, as axes, hoes, or any other utensil of agriculture”; that indeed Negroes were “the only human creatures proper to improve our soil”; that it was folly “to expect to live in this Part of America by Cultivation of Lands without Negroes”; that it was “simply impossible” to manufacture rice with the labor of white men; that the supply of white servants sent over by the Trustees was inadequate and an acute labor shortage existed that would, because of high wages, soon force employers into bankruptcy; and, finally, that Georgia could never expect to compete effectively with South Carolina as long as Negro slavery was prohibited.The petition of 1738 to the Trustees, the first in a long series of such appeals, noted that “it is very well known, that Carolina can raise every thing that this Colony can; and they having their Labour so much Cheaper will always ruin our Market, unless we are in some Measure on a Footing with them.…”

For every argument advanced by the “Malcontents,” there was a counterargument by those who opposed removing the ban, and the Trustees themselves headed the defenders of the restriction. The example was cited of the Germans from Salzburg at Ebenezer near Savannah, who did not have slaves but had produced more rice than they could use for their own consumption. The Salzburgers themselves entered the debate and requested Oglethorpe not to allow Negroes into the colony. They expressed scorn for the argument that it was “quite impossible and dangerous for White People to plant and manufacture any Rice, being a Work only for Negroes, not for European people.…” But they also made it clear that they did not want Negroes simply as Negroes, not merely as slaves, asserting that experience had proved “that houses and gardens will be robbed always by them, and white people are in danger of life from them, besides other great inconveniences.” The example of South Carolina was used to defend the ban, and Georgians were asked by the supporters of the Trustees whether they wanted to become dehumanized like the slave-owners in the sister colony to the north, who treated their slaves “like Brutes,” and consequently were forced to live in constant fear of black conspiracies. The Georgia Trustees, in support of this argument, even publicized a memorial to the King signed by the president and speaker of the South Carolina General Assembly, which emphasized the dangers arising from the presence of large numbers of Negro slaves. Finally, the Trustees reminded the British government, which was becoming increasingly concerned about the debate over the Negro ban, that the introduction of Negro slaves “so near to a Garrison of the Spaniards,” would weaken Georgia as “a Barrier” and would prove to be “absolutely dangerous to Georgia in its present situation, as well as to the adjacent provinces.”

One of the most interesting aspects of the debate was the correspondence in 1745 between the famous evangelist Reverend George Whitfield and the Reverend John Bolzius, a Georgia settler. Whitfield, who supported removal of the ban, argued that the providence of God appointed the colony of Georgia for the work of black slaves because of the excessive heat of the climate; that the large sum of money spent by the Trustees in establishing the colony would be wasted unless Negro slavery was introduced; and that it was impossible to continue construction of the Bethesda Orphanage without Negroes. He contended, too, that slavery would serve as a means of making Christians of the Negroes. Bolzius accused Whitfield of harboring sentiments that were destructive to industry and morality. He invoked the vengeance of heaven against those who were instrumental in enslaving any people. He argued that if the weather was too hot in the summer months, the settlers could labor in the fields in the early morning and afternoon. He swept aside the contention that the colony was a failure and insisted that a single letter to thrifty Germans would bring more than enough people to cultivate the fields. It was better to give up the orphanage than to drive the poor out of the colony, as slavery was destined to do, and that if any minister had a call to make Christians out of the Negroes, South Carolina was a fertile field.

While the debate over the use of Negro labor raged in petitions, pamphlets, and published correspondence, the advocates of slavery in Georgia were not confining themselves to words alone. Slaves had been smuggled into the colony in small numbers from South Carolina soon after the first settlers arrived, and in 1741, after their latest plea was rejected, the “Malcontents” began openly to hire slaves on hundred year terms from South Carolina planters. It was clear that the Trustees were waging a losing battle, and Parliament made their position even weaker by drastically reducing its grants of funds for the humanitarian venture. In 1742 the ban on the importation of rum was removed. In 1750 the legislation prohibiting Negroes was repealed, and at the same time, the land policy was revised, opening the door to large plantations. In 1752 the Trustees surrendered their charter and Georgia became a royal colony, signifying the end of the “noble experiment.”

The legislation of 1750, opening the way for slavery in Georgia, also legalized the importation of Negroes. Although slave importations did not immediately zoom, it was only a matter of time before the Negro population would grow considerably. By 1760 there were already more than 3,500 Negroes in a total population estimated at 9,578. The percentage of Negroes increased over the next decade and a half. By 1770 they accounted for 10,625 of the total population of 23,375, and three years later, had increased to 15,000, with a white population of 18,000. Although the ratio of blacks to whites was smaller than in neighboring South Carolina, it must be noted that slavery had begun much later in Georgia. Yet in seven years (1760–1773) the Negro population had almost doubled.

The repeal law of 1750, providing for “the Importation and use” of Negro slaves in the colony “under proper Restrictions and Regulations,” required that one white male servant be employed for every four male Negroes, made mandatory inspection of incoming blacks by health officers, and affirmed the sanctity of Negro marriages and the right of Negroes to be tried according to the laws of England. As the slave population expanded, the good intentions of the Trustees in providing for the regulation of the slaves went by the board. In 1755 Georgia adopted its first slave code. Georgia envied South Carolina because the latter was reaping a harvest from slave labor, but at the same time, Georgia feared a repetition of South Carolina’s record of slave insurrection. Since Georgia had experienced an influx of numerous slave-holding families from the sister colony after the enactment of the law permitting slavery to exist, it is not surprising that Georgia should have modeled its slave code after the one adopted in South Carolina. Indeed, the Georgia code rivals that of South Carolina in its severity.

The slave code of 1755 defined for the first time what persons were deemed slaves. All Negroes, mulattoes, or mestizos, except those already free or already in the province and their offspring born thereafter, were declared “to be and remain forever absolute Slaves and shall follow the Condition of the Mother.” Slaves were deemed to be personal and chattels. As personal property, the slave owned no property and possessed no civil or political rights. His master had complete control over all of his activities. As a chattel he could be sold to the highest bidder.

Slaves were not allowed to leave their plantations without written permission signed by the master or overseer, and any who were found away from their plantations unaccompanied by a white, and who refused to be searched, were to be pursued and corrected. If the white person who apprehended the slave was assaulted, the slave could be killed. Any slave who struck a white person, upon conviction before the justice and freeholders, was punished for the first and second offense by corporal punishment, which would not extend to the loss of life or limb; for the third offense, he would suffer death. All slaves who wounded, bruised, or maimed a white person, except by the command or in defense of the master, were to be executed.

Meetings of slaves were to be carefully supervised by white persons, especially on holidays, and the sale of liquor or beer to slaves without the consent of the owner was prohibited. The beating of drums and loud noises were forbidden as signals of evil designs by the slaves, such as insurrections. Any persons who permitted noises, public meetings, or feastings by strange Negroes on their plantations would forfeit thirty shillings for each offense.

Runaway slaves were to be captured and sent back to their owners. Any slave or free Negro who concealed or entertained runaway slaves was subject to corporal punishment not affecting life or limb. Slaves were forbidden to lurk about towns after nightfall, and any slaves found in the streets, lanes, or alleys after ten o’clock were liable to be whipped by the person apprehending them. Large numbers of slaves were not allowed to travel together on the roads unless accompanied by a white person. Justices had the power to disperse any assembly of slaves, to search suspected places for arms, ammunition, or stolen goods, and to arrest all slaves guilty of any crime. It was illegal for slaves to carry “offensive” weapons unless in the presence of a white person, and even them, only to hunt with the permission, in writing, of a master. Between Saturday sunset and Monday sunrise, slaves were not allowed on any condition to carry cutlass, pistol, or gun.

Slaves were to be denied the benefits of education. All persons who taught or caused a slave to be taught to write, or employed slaves as a scribe, forfeited the sum of fifteen pounds sterling. Medicine was not to be administered by any slave unless under the direction of a white person. Death was the penalty for any slave who adminstered poison or conveyed it to another person, and any slave who was found instructing others in the knowledge of poisonous roots, plants, or herbs, upon conviction, suffered death. (It will be noted that the attempt was considered to be the equal of the act itself.) Death was also the penalty for a slave found guilty of rape or attempted rape of a white person and for organizing or attempting to organize an insurrection.

As in South Carolina, the slave code of Georgia also contained a few provisions that were supposed to be for the protection of the slaves. Cruelty was forbidden, but a person accused of inflicting cruel punishment on a slave could vindicate himself by his own oath. If a person killed a slave willfully, he was adjudged guilty of felony. For the first offense, he had to compensate the owner for the slave murdered, and for the second, he would suffer according to the laws of England. But if a person killed a slave in sudden heat or passion, he had only to forfeit the sum of fifty pounds sterling. In case a person willfully cut the tongue, put out the eyes, cruelly scalded, burned, or deprived a slave of a limb, or inflicted any form of punishment other than beating with a horsewhip, cowskin, switch, or small stick, the penalty was ten pounds sterling. Slaves were not to be worked on Sundays except when absolutely necessary, and not to be worked longer during weekdays than sixteen hours out of twenty-four, with time for rest.

The slave code of 1755 was twice renewed before the outbreak of the War for Independence. In addition it was supplemented by a law of 1758 that provided for the establishing of patrols. All white male subjects between the ages of sixteen and sixty years were subject to patrol duty, but those summoned for patrol duty could secure a proxy by paying a fee. Every patrol was required to ride at least one night in fourteen to the several plantations in its district and to inspect them. Patrols had the power to administer corporal punishment to slaves and were allowed to enter any private dwelling to search for fugitive slaves.

Under the slave code of 1755, as we have seen, all slaves born in the province and all their offspring were to remain absolute slaves forever. This would seem to mean that there was no way that slaves in colonial Georgia could gain their freedom. However, a later act provided that a slave might obtain his freedom through the courts. A slave who felt himself abused by his master could apply, through a guardian, to the Justice of the General Court and petition for his freedom. The guardian was entitled to bring an action of trespass against any owner who refused to permit his slaves to sue for their freedom. If the judgment was for the slave, he was to be set free. If the decision was in favor of the master, the court was empowered to inflict corporal punishment on the slave, not extending to loss of life or limb.

In an effort to strengthen the defenses of the small colony against foreign enemies, the assembly also enacted legislation under which slaves could be freed as a reward for military deeds of honor. Every slave enlisted in the militia who engaged the enemy in times of invasion and displayed great courage in battle, upon proof by a certificate from an officer of the company who personally saw the action or upon information received from any two creditable white persons, was declared free and absolutely discharged from slavery and service to his master. The owners of slaves who were declared to be free were paid the full value of the slaves out of the public treasury. As an incentive for slaves to be loyal and courageous in times of invasion, the captain of each company was required to read publicly every muster day the text of the act relative to slaves gaining their feedom for meritorious deeds in battle. Those who failed to do so paid a fine of one pound sterling.

How many slaves gained their freedom through court action or as a reward for military service is impossible to determine. Georgia’s Colonial Records do not list a single case in which a slave gained his freedom, so it is difficult to determine the value of these laws for the slave population.

Although Georgia did not encourage manumission, and like South Carolina, required free Negroes to prove that they were not slaves, it did not prohibit free persons of color from remaining in the colony. On the contrary, in 1765 the colony went so far as to encourage immigration of free blacks and even provided that free mulatto immigrants might be naturalized as white men by the legislature and endowed with “all the Rights, Privileges, Powers and Immunities whatsoever which any person born of British parents” could have, except the right to vote and sit in the Commons House of Assembly. Here again, this most unusual policy in colonial America was influenced by the desire to strengthen the colony’s defenses. But here, too, as in the case of slaves who gained their freedom, there is no record of any free person of color having been naturalized under the terms of the 1765 law.


By 1754 the plantation system, based principally on crops of tobacco, rice, and indigo, was well established in the five southern English colonies —Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. Over 36 percent of the population in these colonies were Negro slaves: 220,000 out of 609,000. The largest proportion of the blacks were field hands on the plantations. Male and female slaves labored side by side. The following eyewitness account just before the Revolution is an indication of what their working day was like on a tobacco plantation:

They [the slaves] are called up at day break, and seldom allowed a mouthful of homminy, or hoe cake, but are drawn out into the field immediately, where they continue at hard labour, without intermission, till noon, when they go to their dinners, and are seldom allowed an hour for that purpose; their meals consist of homminy and salt, and if their master is a man of humanity, touched by the finer feelings of love and sensibility, he allows them twice a week a little fat skimmed milk, rusty bacon, or salt herring, to relish this miserable and scanty fare.…

After they have dined, they return to labour in the field, until dusk in the evening; here one naturally imagines the daily labor of these poor creatures was over, not so, they repair to the tobacco houses, where each has a task of stripping alloted which takes them up some hours, or else they have such a quantity of Indian corn to husk, and if they neglect it, they are tied up in the morning and receive a number of lashes from those unfeeling monsters, the overseers, whose masters suffer them to exercise their brutal authority without constraint. Thus by their night task, it is late in the evening before these poor creatures return to their second scanty meal, and the time taken up at it encroaches upon their hours of sleep, which for refreshment of food and sleep together can never be reckoned to exceed eight.

Crop cultivation occupied all of the time of the field hands from the late spring through the summer months. During the winter and slack seasons they were not idle. They cleared land, cut wood, split rails, built fences, or produced naval stores.

A smaller number of slaves fared better as members of the household staff in the master’s house. Proximity to the master’s family gave them certain privileges. The children of these slave women were allowed to enter the owner’s house at will. Furthermore, domestics who were assigned to cooking, spinning, and weaving could always obtain additional quantities of food and clothing for their own use. Still one must be careful not to exaggerate the privileges enjoyed by household workers and personal servants.

A third segment of the slave labor force was composed of skilled and semiskilled craftsmen. The emergence of such a class of slaves did not meet universal approval in the South. The white artisans, fearing competition, opposed the use of slave artisans. Some slave-owners believed that the slave craftsmen would come to resent their status as bondsmen more quickly than field hands and that this would encourage rebelliousness. Moreover, access to tools would enable them to put their discontent into practice. These fears were reflected in legislation in South Carolina and Georgia restricting the number of slaves who could be hired out as handicraftsmen or other types of laborers.

More influential, however, than these concerns was the growing need for mechanics and the costliness of free labor. The Reverend Peter Fontaine summed up the situation in a letter from Virginia on 30 March 1751 in which he pointed out that “a common laborer white or black, if you can be so favored to hire one, is a shilling sterling or fifteen pence currency per day; a bungling-carpenter two shillings or two shillings and sixpence per day; besides diet and lodging. That is, for a lazy fellow to get wood and water, £19,63, current per annum, add to this seven or eight pounds more and you have a slave for life.” He might have added that the “diet and lodging” for a slave worker was much more meager than that offered to a white laborer. “Even when well treated,” observed George Washington, who had numerous slave artisans on his plantation at Mount Vernon, they were fed the simple diet of Indian cornbread, buttermilk, pickled herrings, and meat “now and then,” “with a blanket for bedding.”

The value of slaves as field hands precluded their wide use in the South as craftsmen off the plantations. However, many plantations slaves, although primarily engaged in planting, were increasingly put to artisan work, especially as coopers, making casks for crops, and carpenters. On the larger plantations there were special groups of slave artisans: carpenters, coopers, sawyers, blacksmiths, tanners, curriers, shoemakers, spinners, ironworkers, weavers, and knitters. These plantations were fully developed self-sufficient economic units. On the Virginia plantation of Colonel Landon Carter there were slave bakers, blacksmiths, carpenters, coopers, midwives, millers, millwrights, spinners, stonecutters, tailors, tanners, weavers and wheelwrights, while George Mason, also in Virginia, had among his slaves carpenters, coopers, sawyers, blacksmiths, tanners, curriers, shoemakers, spinners, weavers, knitters, “and even a distiller.”

Virginia and Maryland ironworks relied heavily on slave labor. Most slaves were employed at unskilled tasks, such as woodchopping and carting. But slaves were also used at semiskilled jobs such as mining, coaling, hauling, and they were even to be found at highly skilled tasks such as foundering. The need for slave labor in the ironworks led to an unusual aspect of labor relationship under slavery. Whereas slaves who ran away, stole, committed arson or acts of sabotage were flogged, collared, and otherwise brutally treated, some ironmasters introduced a system of rewarding slaves who worked extra time (“overwork”) with special favors, such as more food and clothing and even money to spend at the company store.

Slave artisans in Williamsburg in the eighteenth century included barbers, blacksmiths, butchers, cabinetmakers, carpenters, carters, coopers, crafters, harnessmakers, shoemakers, tanners, and tailors. In the port of Charleston, the one real city developed in the South during the colonial period, many slaves were used to perform skilled and unskilled labor. In fact, white artisans and mechanics in Charleston used slave workers, trained them, and either kept the enslaved craftsmen in their own shops or sold them to masters who then hired them out at wages far below those of white craftsmen. “To be Let, to work in Charles Towne, at five shillings a Day each, Four able Negro Men, who have been used to labour for Bricklayers.” So read a typical advertisement in the 1750s. “If one needed a cooper, a carpenter, a cabinetmaker, a shoemaker, a plasterer,” notes Carl Bridenbaugh, “he had but to turn to the newspapers to find their services advertised by their masters.”

Although some white craftsmen benefited from the use and sale of slave mechanics, rising apprentices, journeymen, and newly arrived immigrants faced unemployment and severe competition because of this practice. Throughout the colonial period in Charleston, they kept up a persistent campaign to prevent slaves and free Negroes from entering the skilled trades. But they were fighting a losing battle. For they were challenging the right of slave-owners to use their property as they saw fit, and they were opposing the men who held the reins of government and dominated the colonial Assembly. In 1744 nonslave owning builders petitioned the House of Assembly to limit the number of Negroes in South Carolina shipyards. Free white shipwrights, the petitioners complained, could not compete with slaves. The Assembly appointed a committee to consider the petition, and this group even reported “that the Number of Negroes hired out, without a proportion of white Men to do the Business of shipwrights or ship Carpenters, is a Discouragement—to white Men of that Business.” But after considering passing a bill “for limiting the Number of Negroes that may be hired out to work of the shipwrights’ Trade with white Men, and for ascertaining the Wages of shipwrights, as well as white Men as Negroes,” the Assembly quickly buried the proposal.

Occasionally a white craftsman appealed to race pride to offset slave competition. Peter Biret, a Charleston cooper, advertised in 1736 that all his work was “done by white People, and not by Negroes, [and] as cheap as anywhere else.” But he was no more successful than craftsmen who petitioned the Assembly to protect white labor from slave competition.

Charleston, with a population of eight thousand in 1763, was the leading cultural center of the South. “The inhabitants,” wrote Hector Saint John de Crèvecoeur, who emigrated from France in 1754 and settled in the New World, “are the gayest in America; it is the called the centre of our beau monde, and it is always filled with the richest planters of the province, who resort hither in quest of health and pleasure.” But he quickly added that the “pleasure” of the Southern planter rested on the toil and privations of hte black slave:

While all is joy, festivity, and happiness in Charleston, would you imagine the scenes of misery overspread in the country? Their ears are by habit become deaf, their hearts are hardened; they neither see, hear nor feel for the woes of their poor slaves, from whose painful labors all their wealth proceeds… no one thinks with compassion of those showers of sweat and of tears which from the bodies of Africans daily drop, and moisten the ground they till.…The cracks of the whip urging these miserable beings to excessive labor, are far too distant from the gay capital to be heard.…They [the slaves] have no time, like us, tenderly to rear their helpless offspring, to nurse them on their knees, to enjoy the delight of being parents. Their paternal fondness is embittered by considering that if their children live, they must live to be slaves like themselves; no time is allowed to them to exercise their pious office, the mothers must fasten them on their backs, and with this double load follow their husbands into the field.

The use of the word “husbands,” while not unusual in the colonial South, is deceptive. The conception of slave marriages and families in the Southern colonies was expressed in 1767 by Daniel Dulany, a judge in a Maryland court, who ruled that slaves were incapable of marriage. “A slave,” he observed, “has never maintained an action against the violation of his bed. A slave is not admonished for incontinence, or punished for fornication or adultery.…” It was a criminal offense for indentured or free women to bear a child out of wedlock, but this was not a crime for a slave woman, who could not be legally married and whose children were viewed solely as a property increase for the master. In view of the practice of slave-breeding for financial profit, it is not surprising that slave promiscuity was permitted, or that only one instance of a slave being prosecuted for raping a slave has been discovered.

There were no last names for slaves, and parish records in the colonial South reveal no marriages of Negro slaves. Philip V. Fithian commented in his journal: “I learned that the slaves in this colony [Virginia] never are married, their Lords thinking them improper subjects for so valuable an Institution.”

Slaves in every Southern colony—whether field hands, domestics, or artisans—were property and were viewed as investments in capital, items of commercial exchange in the same category as livestock. In business dealings slaves were legally the same as animals; indeed, a judge in colonial Virginia asked, “What is the difference between a Horse and a Slave?” and he answered that there was none. But, of course, slaves were also human beings and could run away, revolt, burn their master’s homes, and poison their owners. So they had to have fear instilled into them even if this required the utmost in barbarism. No matter what cruelty it might entail, the domination of the master over the slave had to be established.

This was clearly reflected in the slave codes in the South. Although details varied from one colony to another, they followed a general pattern. They were aimed, after all, at the same goal in each colony. Slaves were forbidden to go off their plantation without a “ticket” from their master or overseer. They were not to congregate in large numbers, carry clubs or arms, or strike a white person. Masters were offered compensation if a slave died under “correction,” or if a slave was executed for a crime or killed in the process of recapture. Any white person was authorized to apprehend any Negro who could not give a satisfactory account of himself. In the areas of heavy slave concentration, whites were required to serve in the slave “patrols” that protected the community, especially at night and on Sundays. The patrols were often given powers of search that the colonists later found so objectionable in the hands of British authorities. Slaves were tried in specially constituted courts, and punishment was barbarous, including even burning at the stake.

The power of life and death over slaves was virtually in the hands of all slave-owners in the Southern colonies. It has often been argued that the desire of the master to avoid a pecuniary loss protected the slave’s life. But advertisements of slave-owners offering rewards for the heads of their runaway slaves would seem to indicate that this was a frail protection. The fact that masters were compensated in some cases for the loss of slaves helped to negate this protection. Moreover, the ability to replace blacks with new bondsmen from Africa during this period before the closing of the slave trade, hindered any inclination to improve living conditions of slaves.

Actually, the “pecuniary loss” argument served often to protect the master rather than the slave. In 1658 a Maryland slave-owner was indicted in the Provincial Court for the murder of a slave. The testimony indicated that the black, “commonly called Tony,” had been chained up “for some misdemeanor,” was released and ordered to go to work, but refused; he was then beaten with “some Peare Tree wands” and had hot lard poured on him. He died a few hours later. The owner was released on the ground that he would not willfully have caused himself a financial loss, and hence the slave must have merited the severe punishment.

The elimination of arrangements by which slaves could work on Sunday for their own maintenance so that they might spend their time in prayer, and the ending of slaves’ dancing on the Lord’s Day, were regarded as great achievements by an agent of the SPG (Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, an auxiliary of the Anglican church) in South Carolina. Those agents who sought to teach slaves to read the Bible usually met bitter opposition from Southern masters. A notable exception was the Charleston Negro School founded by the SPG in 1740, which lasted until 1764. At one time the school had seventy students, forty-five children taught during the day and fifteen adult slaves taught in the evenings after their day’s work was finished. But in Williamsburg, Virginia, an SPG school for slave children failed to achieve its goal of furnishing three years of education for two months each year. As soon as the children could do household chores their owners took them out of the school. In general, as Denzil T. Clifton points out, “the Church of England failed to be a source of influence in any sense on the lives of most of the growing slave population in the American colonies. Its catechisms, baptism, and moral admonitions were irrelevant and meaningless for the lives of the great mass of slaves. Nowhere does the church appear to have ameliorated the condition or offered spiritual succor, or even hope, to the majority of Negro bondmen.”

It has also been argued that religion served to restrain the unlimited power of the slave-owner. To be sure, groups like the SPG and the Quakers did try to improve the lot of slaves, especially in the Carolinas. (The Quakers set up schools for slaves in North Carolina, where as early as 1731 there were quite a few slaves who could read and write.) But they also gave religious sanction to slavery, and members of these and other religious organizations were themselves slave-holders. In the eighteenth century the Jesuits in South Carolina sent a delegation to the Vatican to urge the Pope to declare that blacks had no souls so that they could in good conscience keep their slaves and not worry about their treatment.

The episode of “Blackman David” is a good illustration of what happened when Christianity threatened the slave-owners’ sense of security. David, a Georgia slave, was sent to England to be trained for evangelical missionary work among his fellow slaves. Upon his return to America in 1775, he was invited to preach to a group of whites and blacks in Charleston. In the course of his sermon, “Blackman David” pleaded that “God would send Deliverance to the Negroes, from the power of their Masters, as He freed the children of Israel from Egyptian bondage.” He might just as well have exploded a bomb in Chareston. The whites, interpreting the black preacher’s words as a call upon their slaves to rebel, almost lynched “Blackman David,” and the white citizen who had invited him to preach was arrested and held for trial.

Perhaps Judge Samuel Sewall of Massachusetts gave the real answer to those who spoke so loudly about the influence of religion in restraining the Southern slave masters, when he wrote in 1705: “Talk to a Planter of the Soul of a Negro, and He’ll be apt to tell ye (or at least his Actions speak it loudly) that the Body of one of them may be worth twenty Pounds; but the Souls of an hundred of them would not yield him one Farthing.…”

Two developments in North Carolina illustrate the plight of the slave in the Southern colonies. The first concerned a trial of two Negro slaves for stealing. The charge against one of them, Scipio, was that “on the 18th day of February Instant in the Night time at the Plantation of Mr. William Turner…[Scipio] Did break open the Store-house of William Gregory—Merchant and there Feloniously did take & Carry away the Goods and Property of the Said James Gregory to the Value of Two Hundred pounds Current Bills.” The other slave, Abraham, was likely an accessory. The court, composed of whites, probably slave-holders, reached the verdict of “guilty.” The judgment was “that Scipio shall suffer Death by being Hanged and that the Negro Abraham shall suffer Corporal punishment by haveing one Ear nailed to the Stocks & cut off and also shall have Fifty Nine Lashes well Laid on his bare back.” Mr. Gregory was restored his stolen property, and Scipio’s owner was compensated for the loss of his slave by receiving two hundred pounds from the province.

On 1 May 1774 the North Carolina Assembly passed an act regarding the willful killing of a slave. For the first offense, the guilty party was to be fined one hundred pounds and sentenced to six months in prison, and for the second violation of the law, he was to suffer death. But the law contained the following additional provision: “Provided always that this Act shall not extend to any Person killing any Slave outlawed by virtue of any act of Assembly in this Province or to any Slave in the Act of Resistance to his Lawful Owner or Master or to any Slave dying under Moderate correction.” Such was the protection afforded slaves in the Southern colonies. Still it might have been a consolation for the slave had he known that over one century later, in 1896, the historian John Spencer Bassett would write in his Slavery and Servitude in the Colony of North Carolina:

To have come to America as a slave was not without an advantage to the negro, however disadvantageous it may be for his historian. The progress of a race is the lengthening of the experience of its earliest individuals.…Now, the negro when he came to America was far back in this stage of all. When he came from Africa he came into contact with the most advanced type of experience.…How could he best learn it? The answer is, he must learn it as another person who stands to this experience in the same relation with the negro, that is to say, as a child.

It is difficult, to say the least, to understand the disadvantage experienced by the historian, in the light of the “advantage” provided in the Southern colonies to the slave whose toil, penury, and suffering formed the foundation of the gaiety and luxury of the planter class.

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History of Black Americans -- : From Africa to the Emergence of the Cotton Kingdom


"Slaves and Free Blacks in the Southern Colonies." History of Black Americans : From Africa to the Emergence of the Cotton Kingdom. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1975. The African American Experience. Greenwood Publishing Group. 1 Dec 2015. <http://testaae.greenwood.com/doc.aspx?fileID=GR7529&chapterID=GR7529-747&path=books/greenwood>

Chicago Manual of Style

"Slaves and Free Blacks in the Southern Colonies." In History of Black Americans : From Africa to the Emergence of the Cotton Kingdom, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1975. The African American Experience. Greenwood Publishing Group. http://testaae.greenwood.com/doc.aspx?fileID=GR7529&chapterID=GR7529-747&path=books/greenwood. (accessed December 1, 2015).