Short History of the American Negro - Benjamin Brawley




The Institution of Slavery

24. General View of the System.—It is now time to look somewhat more intimately at the actual working of the system which has really formed the subject of the last two chapters. "In colonies like those in the West Indies and in South Carolina and Georgia, the rapid importation into America of a multitude of savages gave rise to a system of slavery far different from that which the late Civil War abolished. The strikingly harsh and even inhuman slave codes in those colonies show this. Crucifixion, burning, and starvation were legal modes of punishment. The rough and brutal character of the time and place was largely responsible for this; but a more decisive reason lay in the fierce and turbulent character of the imported Negroes. On the other hand, in New England and New York the Negroes were merely house servants or farm hands, and were treated neither better nor worse than servants in general in those days. Between these two extremes, the system of slavery varied from a mild serfdom in Pennsylvania and New Jersey to an aristocratic caste system in Maryland and Virginia."

25. Procuring Slaves.—As to the actual procuring of the slaves, the process was by no means as easy as is sometimes supposed. The captain of a vessel had to resort to various expedients in order to get his cargo. His commonest method was to bring with him a variety of gay cloth, cheap ornaments, and whiskey, which he would give in exchange for slaves brought to him. His task was most simple when a chieftain of one tribe brought to him several hundred prisoners of war. Most often, however, the work was more toilsome, and kidnapping a favorite method, though, as is commonly thought, individuals were frequently enticed on vessels. The work was always dangerous, for the natives along the slave coast were, suspicious. After they had seen some of their fellows taken away, they learned not to go unarmed while a slave-vessel was on the coast, and very often there were hand-to-hand encounters. "At first the slave vessels only visited the Guinea coast, and bargained with the negroes of the villages there for what quantity of wax, or gold, or negroes they had to give. But this was a clumsy way of conducting business. The ships had to sail along a large tract of coast, picking up a few negroes at one place, and a little ivory or gold at an other; sometimes even the natives of a village might have no elephants' teeth and no negroes to give; and even under the most favorable circumstances it took a considerable time to procure a decent cargo. No coast is so pestilential as that of Africa, and hence the service was very repulsive and very dangerous. As an improvement on this method of trading, the plan was adopted very early of planting small settlements of Europeans at intervals along the slave-coast, whose business it should be to negotiate with the negroes, stimulate them to activity in the slave-hunting expeditions, purchase the slaves brought in, and ware-house them until the arrival of the ships. These settlements were called slave factories. Factories of this kind were planted all along the western coast from Cape Verde to the equator, by English, French, Dutch, and Portuguese traders.

26. The Middle Passage..—Once on board the slaves were put in chains two by two. When the ship was ready to start, the hold of the vessel, whose ceiling might be four feet from the floor, would be crowded with moody and unhappy wretches who most commonly were made to crouch so that their knees touched their chins. There was one entrance to the hold, and there were small gratings on the sides. The clothing of a slave, if there was any at all, consisted of a rag about the loins. The food consisted of rice, yams, beans, or soup, and sometimes bread and meat; but the cooking was not good, nor was any care taken to see that all the slaves were fed. The supply of water was always limited, a pint a day being a generous allowance. For exercise the slaves were made to dance by the lash, and in order that they might be less gloomy they were also frequently forced to sing. The rule was to bring them on deck for an airing twice a day, about eight o'clock in the morning and four in the afternoon.

27. Effects of Treatment on Slaves.—On board the vessel not all the slaves were quiet by any means. Many instances of stubborn resistance are on record. Sustenance was frequently refused in order that death might be hastened. Sleeping conditions were horrible. Throughout the night the hold resounded with the moans of those who awoke from dreams of home to find themselves in bonds. The women frequently became hysterical, and both men and women sometimes became insane. Fearful and contagious diseases sometimes times broke out. Smallpox was one of these. Much more common was ophthalmia, a frightful inflammation of the eyes. A blind (hence worthless) slave was generally thrown to the sharks. Many of the victims would embrace any opportunity that might be presented to leap overboard in the hope (that universally prevailed among them) of being taken back to Africa. The sanitary conditions of the vessel can better be imagined than described. The slaves, bound for hours, together, wallowed in inconceivable filth. The putrid atmosphere, sudden transitions from heat to cold, and melancholy increased the mortality among a people naturally light-hearted; and frequently when morning came a dead and a living slave were found shackled together. A captain always counted on losing on the voyage one-forth of his cargo of slaves.

28. Effects on Seamen.—The physical effects of the system on the common seamen were only less bad than those on the slaves. These men were often naturally brutal, but not always. Sometimes they accepted work on a slaver as a last resort before going to jail. One who remembers the condition of English prisons in the earlier part of the eighteenth century will not wonder that the men accepted any possible alternative. The life of the seamen brought them into close contact with the slaves, whose contagious diseases they readily contracted. They received harsh treatment from the captain of the vessel, who was invariably a man of blunted sympathies. That the slave-trade was not relished by the men who had to do the dirty work may be seen from the difficulty of getting men for the service and from the large number of desertions.

29. Price of Slaves.—When a cargo of slaves was once in port, an auction would very soon be announced. In the earlier years the price of a slave was far less than what it became just before the Civil War; but consideration must be given to the greater purchasing power of money than in the later period. About the year 1700 able-bodied adult Negroes were valued at from $125 to $100, and children at $50 or $60. There was little difference in the value of men and women, for while a man might do more work, a woman might beget children for her master. A man worth $200 would in one or two seasons by his labor bring back to his owner the amount of money expended for him. After the invention of the cotton-gin the price of slaves rose so that a man who in 1792 brought $300 sold in 1800 for $450. The price continued to rise until in the middle of the nineteenth century that for an able-bodied man or a beautiful woman was very frequently $1,200, and, under exceptional circumstances, even $1,800. A slave was regarded as personal property, and to steal one was a capital offense.

30. Work of Slaves. Slaves were of most value when large numbers of them worked together. In the South the tendency was to develop large plantations. One thousand was the number of slaves on the ordinary large plantation, though once in a while the figure became as high as four or even five thousand. In Virginia, and Kentucky tobacco was raised. In South Carolina the cultivation of rice began about 1693. By 1740 the yield was worth $1,000,000 a year. For a long time indigo was next to this staple in importance. Some silk, flax, hemp, oranges, corn, and sugar were also raised; but, as we have seen, after the invention of the cotton-gin cotton became supreme. The law with reference to slaves on plantations imposed a penalty of 5 if they were made to work on Sunday or more than fifteen hours a day in summer or fourteen in winter. This was for the colonial period; the same general limits obtained in later years. Such skilled labor as the South possessed before the Civil War was mainly in the hands of slaves, who might be blacksmiths, harness-makers, carpenters, or similar artisans. Generally, however, work in the trades was such as was incident to plantation life. Almost nothing in the way of manufactures was done in the South; and it was because goods were imported from England and the North that Charleston was for so long a time a city of commanding importance.

31. Plantation Life. The plantation hand lived in the "quarters," a collection of rude, dilapidated cabins. His own room, which he shared with others, contained an apology for a bed, a chair or two, a frying-pan, a kettle, and a pot-rack. The walls were adorned with one or two gaudy pictures. No wardrobe was necessary as there was nothing to put in one. An average allowance of food for a plantation hand was a peck and a half of meal and three pounds of bacon a week. In Louisiana the law required a planter to give a slave 200 pounds of pork a year. Generally the slave had also some potatoes and green vegetables. The following picture of life on a Virginia plantation may be taken as fairly representative of the system in its milder aspects: "After breakfast has been eaten in the cabins, at sunrise or a little before in winter, and perhaps a little later in summer, they [the slaves] go to the field. At noon dinner is brought to them, and, unless the work presses, they are allowed two hours' rest. Very punctually at sunset they stop work and are at liberty, except that a squad is detached once a week for shelling corn, to go to the mill for the next week's drawing of meal. Thus they work in the field about eleven hours a day on an average. Returning to the cabins, wood ought to have been carted for them; but if it has not been, they then go to the woods and 'tote' it home for themselves. They then make a fire . . . and cook their own supper, which will be a bit of bacon fried, often with eggs, cornbread baked in the spider after the bacon, to absorb the fat, and perhaps some sweet potatoes roasted in the ashes. Immediately after supper they go to sleep, often lying on the floor or a bench in preference to a bed. About two o'clock they very generally rouse up and cook and eat, or eat cold, what they call their 'mornin' bit'; and sleep again till breakfast." [from Olmstead, Journey in the Seaboard Slave States, 109].

32. Slave Breeding.—For a long time it cost as much to raise a slave as he would ultimately be worth, and it was commonly thought to be cheaper to buy slaves than to rear them. The legal abolition of the slave-trade, however, coinciding with the heavy demands imposed by the Louisiana Purchase and the development of the lower South, greatly changed matters. The slave increased in value, and Virginia and Maryland became famous breeding places for the plantations of the far South, a woman who was an extraordinary breeder being advertised as such. In 1832 the apologist for slavery wrote: "Virginia is, in fact, a negro  raising state for other states; she produces enough for her own supply, and six thousand for sale." "For the ten years preceding 1860 the average annual importation of slaves into the seven Southern states from the slave-breeding states was little less than twenty-five thousand." On remote plantations the operation of the system was most gross; and a woman separated from her husband was forced to accept a new mate.

33. Religion.—Of the slaves who came to America a very few of the first were Mohammedans and could even read the Koran. Most of them, however, were densely ignorant and very superstitious. They remained illiterate in this country as, except in some places in the North, it was a crime to teach a slave to read. On the matter of religion for the Negro, however, there seems in the later years to have been sufficient concern. Indeed it was in the thought that in America the slave was brought into the light of Christianity that benevolent people solaced themselves for the whole system of slavery. Generally in cities slaves were expected to go to church. They occupied a corner or a gallery. On plantations it was very common for the slaves to have a meeting on Sunday; and it was at this that the "exhorter" of the plantation fulfilled his wonted function. The law required that at least one white person should be present at any such meetings of slaves. In actual practice an overseer simply passed by and looked in for a moment to see what was being done. Much of the worship of the slaves was simply the cultivation of emotional frenzy; but here and there light shone in the darkness and the true gospel was preached. The Negro Church was born nearly a hundred years before the Civil War.

34. Laws Concerning Slaves.—When it is remembered that each state had its own slave code, it will be seen that it is a difficult matter to make general statements about the legal side of slavery. The slave was by law due support in age or sickness, a right to limited religious instruction, and the privileges of marrying, having some free time, and testifying in cases concerning other slaves. If he did not get what was due him he had no redress, for he had no legal voice. His marriage was not consider binding and he was not supposed to have any morals, though many individuals were models of integrity and faithfulness. In New England slaves were regarded as possessing the same legal rights as apprentices, and if masters abused their authority they were liable to indictment. The code of South Carolina maybe taken as representative of the harsher ones. According to this a slave could not leave a plantation without a ticket of leave from his master; if he had no passport he might be given twenty lashes, or be "moderately punished "by a man that stopped him, or be regarded as a fugitive; he could have no firearms or other weapons in his possession; nor (for fear of poisonings) was he allowed to make any medicines without the knowledge of his master or mistress. On plantations no master was to allow a slave to plant for himself any corn, peas, or rice, or keep any private stock; and generally slaves were to wear clothes of the coarsest material only. Such provisions as these last, however, were commonly disregarded.

35. Punishment. By the South Carolina act of 1740 a fine of 700 was imposed for the deliberate murder of a slave by his master or another white man, 350 for killing him under correction or in the heat of passion, and 100 for mutilation or cruel punishment. In Mississippi it was decided in 1820 that the wanton killing of a slave by his master was murder. In Georgia, however, it was declared thirty years later that a master had absolute power over a slave. In actual practice, as plantations were remote and as a slave had no legal voice, no penalty was anywhere attached to the murder of a slave by his master, though of course the owner could recover damages if his slave was killed by anybody else. Severe cruelties for petty offenses were imposed by the South Carolina code of 1712; but these were soon modified, and in actual practice the punishment for stealing was generally whipping. In Charleston and elsewhere just before the Civil War the common punishment of a slave for a minor offense was ten lashes on the bare back. This was administered by a man who made it his business to whip slaves and who rendered his monthly account to his patrons at the rate of ten lashes for fifteen cents. It is needless to say that the slaves regarded this man as their inveterate enemy. If resistance was offered, the punishment was doubled or trebled. After these inflictions the flesh was commonly left raw. "The ordinary death penalty for the black man was hanging. Burning at the stake was not unknown, but there is one instance of such an execution in Massachusetts, and there are several in New York, so that it can not be cited as illustrating any peculiarity of the South Carolina type of slavery."

36. Peculiar Social Aspects.—In the study of slavery, as in the study of any other institution, it is to be remembered that peculiar attendant circumstances were ever present to modify large deductions that might be made. One thing that has been touched upon more than once in the course of these pages was the differing character of the system of slavery in different states, even in different Southern states. On the great plantations along the coast or in the cotton belt slavery appeared in all its grossness and hideousness. In Virginia, however, there was originally a more patriarchal form of the system; and the mistress of the estate not infrequently became the nurse of all the slaves on the plantation. Another attendant circumstance to be reckoned with is the fact that in numberless instances the masters of plantations or estates themselves became the fathers of slaves. Most frequently their children fared just as any other slaves; but not always. Such incidents as these, however, but emphasize the evil effects of slavery on both the dominant and the subject race.

37. Argument for Slavery.—Deserving at least of passing notice in this review are the arguments advanced by the South in support of slavery. The foremost apologist for the system, a professor at William and Mary College, argued that slavery had made for the civilization of the world in that it had mitigated the evils of war, had made labor profitable, had changed the nature of savages, and elevated woman. The slave-trade was of course horrible and unjust; but the great advantages of the system more than outweighed a few attendant evils. Emancipation and deportation were impossible. Even if practicable, they would be inexpedient measures, for they meant the loss to Virginia of one-third of her property. As for morality, it was not to be expected that the Negro should have the sensibilities of the white man. Moreover, the system had the positive advantage of cultivating a republican spirit among the white people. In short, said Dew, the slaves, in both the economic and the moral point of view, were "entirely unfit for a state of freedom among the whites." These arguments the church, with its usual conservatism, supported. It was pointed out that the old Mosaic law recognized slavery, that in the New Testament servants were told to be obedient to their masters, and that, best of all, the Apostle Paul was on the side of the fugitive slave law, having advised the servant Onesimus to go back to his master Philemon. Moreover, Jesus Christ had on no occasion spoken against slavery. Just before the war a distinguished minister, Palmer of New Orleans, preached a noteworthy sermon which was printed and sent broadcast over the country. He maintained in substance that such an overturning of the established order of things as the opponents of slavery intended was not only a violation of the Constitution of the United States, but the very endeavor to bring about a new reign of anarchy in society. After the lapse of years the pro-slavery argument is pitiful in its numerous fallacies, and it but serves as an example of the extremes to which economic interest will sometimes force men of the highest intelligence and honor.

38. Economy of Slavery.—We have seen that on its own confession the colony of Georgia did not begin to grow until it used slave labor. In course of time the very life of the South came to depend on the cotton industry. The final economic effects of the system of slavery on this section, however, were disastrous. "It needed no extensive marshalling of statistics to prove that the welfare of the North was greater than that of the South. Two simple facts, everywhere admitted, were of so far-reaching moment that they amounted to irrefragable demonstration. The emigration from the slave states was much larger than the movement in the other direction; and the South repelled the industrious emigrants who came from Europe, while the North attracted them."

The rich men of the South, moreover, invested their capital in land and slaves, so that mercantile interests passed into the hands of Northerners and Englishmen; and in course of time the South became wholly dependent on places outside of herself for manufactured goods. This fact accounts for South Carolina's attitude toward the tariff of 1828 and her emphasis on the principle of nullification. At a time when on account of increased production cotton was falling in value from forty cents a pound to seven or eight cents, this same cotton was coming back from England as cloth or clothing under a very high tariff. It was the rich planter rather than the white man of slender means who profited by slavery, wealth being more and more concentrated in a few hands. Among those white people who did not own slaves, moreover, there grew up a contempt for industrial effort, all manual labor being associated in their minds with slavery.

In 1860 41 percent of the white men who had been born in South Carolina were living in other states. Some of the men of Scotch-Irish stock in the "up-country" emigrated before the middle of the century on account of antipathy to slavery; still more yielded to the call of the rich lands of the West: but the great majority of those who moved were driven away by the competition of slave labor. More and more the South realized that she was not keeping pace with the country's development. Said the Richmond Enquirer, one of the strongest pro-slavery organs, under date December 25, 1852: "Virginia, anterior to the Revolution, and up to the adoption of the Federal Constitution, contained more wealth and a larger population than any other state of this Confederacy. . . . Virginia, from being first in point of wealth and political power, has come down to the fifth place in the former, and the fourth in the latter. New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Ohio stand above her in wealth, and all but Massachusetts in population and political power." The apologist for slavery might have shown more than one reason for this decline; but students of political economy agreed upon one main cause—Slavery.

It remained for a son of the South, a representative of white men of limited means, to expose the system. The Impending Crisis, produced four years before the Civil War, was surpassed in sensational interest by no other book of the period except Uncle Tom's Cabin. Hinton Rowan Helper, the author, was from North Carolina. He did not place himself upon the broadest principles of humanity and statesmanship; he had little interest in the Negro slave as such, and the great planters of the South were to him the "whelps" and "curs" of slavery. He spoke simply as the voice of the non-slaveholding whites of the South. He set forth such unpleasant truths as that the personal and real property, including slaves, of Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Missouri, Arkansas, Florida, and Texas, taken all together, was less than the real and personal estate in the single state of New York; that the hay crop alone of the North was worth more than all the cotton, rice, tobacco, hay, hemp, and cane-sugar of the South; that representation in Southern legislatures was unfair; that in the national congress a Southern planter was twice as powerful as a Northern man; that slavery was to blame for the migration from the South to the West; and that in short the system of slavery was harmful in its influence in every way. All of this was decidedly unpleasant to the ears of the property owners of the South; Helper's book was proscribed, and the author himself found it more advisable to live in New York than in North Carolina. The Impending Crisis  was eagerly read, however, and it succeeded as a book because it attempted to attack with some degree of honesty a great economic problem.