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Closer to Freedom Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South
By Stephanie M. H. Camp
The University of North Carolina Press Copyright © 2004 The University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.
Chapter One A Geography of Containment
The Bondage of Space and Time
The Principles of Restraint
At the heart of the process of enslavement was a spatial impulse: to locate bondpeople in plantation space and to control, indeed to determine, their movements and activities. Enslaved people in the nineteenth century were trapped in more than an exploitative labor relation; they were the captive losers in a battle for power that had begun centuries earlier in the Atlantic maritime world. As outsiders, heathens, perhaps even beasts, Africans were, unlike Europeans (no matter how debased), viewed as fundamentally enslaveable by the European merchants, planters, travelers, and adventurers who traversed the Atlantic world. Once enslaved, Africans were considered more like the captives of war to whom they were compared in the early, formative years of American slavery than to the indentured servants to whom they are sometimes compared now. In the minds of the earliest participants in and witnesses to the African slave trade, as historian Winthrop Jordan has put it, "enslavement was captivity."
Slavery's roots as a form of captivity lived into the nineteenth century. Enslavement in the American South meant cultural alienation, reduction to the status of property, the ever-present threat of sale, denial of the fruits of one's labor, and subjugation to the force, power, and will of another human being. It entailed the strictest control of the physical and social mobility of enslaved people, as some of the institution's most resonant accouterments-shackles, chains, passes, slave patrols, and hounds-suggest. These effects were as much a part of abolitionism's image-based protests against bondage as were depictions of the lash, the auction block, or stooped slaves in the field. These same images have persisted into our own visual culture of bondage, testaments to slavery's denial of a medley of freedoms. By the nineteenth century, lawmakers and slaveholders had laid out, in their statutes and in their plantation journals, a theory of mastery at the center of which was the restriction of slave movement. Passes, tickets, curfews, and roll calls all limited slave mobility. In his remarkable memoir of life in bondage, Charles Ball called the legal and day-to-day regulations that governed black movement "principles of restraint." "No slave dare leave" the plantation to which she or he belonged, Ball wrote, not for a "single mile" or a "single hour, by night or by day," except at the risk of "exposing himself to the danger of being taken up and flogged." Bondpeople everywhere were forbidden by law and by common practice to leave their owners' property without a pass, and slave patrols attempted to ensure obedience to the law and to plantation rules. Formerly enslaved people compared bondage to another form of confinement: "I was a slave," Henry Bibb wrote in his autobiography, "a prisoner for life." Fountain Hughes agreed, saying of enslavement that it was a "jail sentence, was jus' the same as we was in jail." Antebellum principles of restraint rested on a legal bedrock laid in the colonial and early national periods. Between the seventeenth and the early nineteenth centuries, as colonists and settlers seized and organized land that would become states, elites passed laws to govern the people who populated these new societies. Slaveholders everywhere in the slave South shared a common interest in constricting black mobility; intraregional differences of crop, demographics, and culture modulated but did not fundamentally alter this investment. Virginia was the first colony to pass laws governing bondpeople's behavior. Among the colony's earliest slave laws was the act of 1680 "for preventing Negroes Insurrections." The concerns expressed in this ordinance indicate a sense of urgency in regard to controlling black mobility. To prevent "Negroes Insurrections," the colonial legislature prohibited enslaved people from possessing weapons and, in the same breath, from leaving their place of work without a pass, or "certificate." The law read: "It shall not be lawfull for any negroe or other slave to carry or arme himselfe with any club, staffe, gunn, sword or any other weapon of defence or offence, nor to goe or depart from of his masters ground without a certificate from his master, mistris or overseer, and such permission not to be granted but upon perticuler and necessary occasions." Judging independent slave movement to be akin to the possession of arms, the Virginia legislature banned both. This law also established the punishment for errant movement away from the "masters ground:" "twenty lashes on his bare back well layd on." From fairly early in colonial history, slaveholders' control depended on the confinement of slaves. Distinct kinds of runaway activity demanded recognition of their differences. Between 1748 and 1785 the Virginia Assembly passed a number of laws prohibiting and punishing "outlying" and "outlawed" activity. In 1748 Virginia's lawmakers distinguished between outlying runaways (short-term runaways, those historians now call "truants") and outlawed escapees (now known as "runaways" or "fugitives"). Surprisingly, it was not the outlawed that most concerned the assembly, but the outlying. In that year, in response to the "injuries" that lurking truants were said to cause, lawmakers went so far as to make outlying a capital offense. Revealing the anxiety that truants caused them, Virginia's elite authorized local authorities who captured outlying runaways to "dismember" and even to "kill and destroy" them. In 1772, on the eve of the American Revolution, lawmakers reconsidered. Punishments such as these were inconsistent with emerging theories of humanity, and "doubts have arisen" about the "method of proceeding against outlying slaves." Moreover, dismemberment or execution of the many outlying bondpeople meant financial loss for their owners who then clamored for compensation. For these reasons, lawmakers rescinded the blanket policy, authorizing death only when it could be demonstrated that the truant had been "doing mischief." Legislators also clarified the question of compensation: "The owner ... of such slave shall not be paid for such slave by the publick." A significant proportion of South Carolina's earliest slaveholders had migrated from Barbados, and when they established the colony in 1670, they founded a slave society slightly different from the rest of the U.S. South. Following a Barbadian legal grammar, in 1690 the colony began to regulate slave activity, implementing pass laws modeled on the Barbadian "ticket" prototype. The 1690 law prohibited slave owners and managers from allowing bondpeople to "go out of their plantations ... without a ticket" on pain of a forty-shilling fine. Enslaved people were permitted to move from one place to another only when they carried such a ticket or when "one or more white men" were "in their company." The ticket, lawmakers dictated, must "expre[ss] their names and numbers, and also, from and to what place [they] are intending for, and [the] time" granted by their owners. In 1690 permissible punishments for repeat offenders included whipping, burning "some place" in the face, and slitting the nose. "For the third offence" death or "any other punishment" was permitted. In 1712 lawmakers repeated that it was "lawful" to "beat, maim or assault" as well as to kill anyone who "refuse[d] to shew his ticket." The 1712 law also illegalized the harboring of runaways and required managers to search bondpeople's cabins "diligently and effectually, once every fourteen days" for escapees and weapons. Within this familiar framework, the young colony showed its Caribbean roots. South Carolina's rice planters became the wealthiest in the British North American colonies and the owners of a usually large retinue of household laborers. To expedite the work of these domestic bondpeople (and perhaps to distinguish them from others of their caste even further than the livery they were expected to wear already did), in 1690 lawmakers made an exception from the ticket laws for those who "usually wait on [the] persons" of their owners. In 1712 legislators reminded colonists that every other "negro or slave that shall be taken hereafter out of his master's plantation, without a ticket, or leave in writing ... shall be whipped." Again, those who "wait[ed] upon" their owners "at home or abroad" or wore "livery" were exempted. By that same year lawmakers had become displeased with the amount of ticket writing, and they banned issuing a ticket to anyone on a Sunday and added more precision to the temporal and spatial contours of the few tickets that had to be granted on Sundays for unavoidable business. Tickets in general, for all days of the week, it was also stipulated, "shall particularly mention the name of every slave employed in the particular business, and to what place they are sent, and what time they return." Much of this formula became characteristic of ticket form. Elite South Carolinians were a metropolitan group who preferred to live in Charleston and leave their country estates to black and white management, an arrangement unique in the North American colonies. Consequently, some of South Carolina's earliest slave laws focused on Charleston, while the problems of urban slavery were of relatively little interest to most other colonial legislatures. South Carolina's particularity coexisted with the values it shared with the rest of the slave South, where common principles of restraint wove a continuous thread through the variations of regional space. Bondpeople everywhere were prohibited from leaving their workplaces without the knowledge and written consent of their owners and managers. Tickets were enormously powerful in South Carolina and elsewhere. No mere scraps of paper, passes and tickets were animated by the power of absent owners and overseers; they spoke for slave managers and acted on their behalf, directing and overseeing the movement of enslaved people. Throughout the early nineteenth-century South, the control of slave movement continued to be an issue of paramount importance. More than any other single slave activity-such as trading, learning to read, consuming alcohol, acquiring poisoning techniques, or plotting rebellions-slave movement was limited, monitored, and criminalized. Even topics such as the conditions and administration of manumission, sale, inheritance, and taxation received less attention than black mobility. Everywhere, enslaved people were barred from gathering for assemblies and from leaving their places of work for any reason. When they went, as Louisiana put it, "beyond certain limits" enslaved people were invariably required to obtain and carry written permission to do so. Lawmakers mandated that these written passes indicate the date of departure, the person's destination, and the date of his or her expected return. As the state of Georgia put it when it amended its patrol law in 1839, "written permits" must "set forth the time allowed for their [slaves'] absence, and distinctly designate the place or places where such slaves ... desire to visit." North Carolina went so far as to sketch the route that enslaved travelers were to take when it demanded that the bearers of passes "keep the most usual and accustomed road." Furthermore, legislatures defined and redefined types of runaways, outlined and revised minimum punishments for violations, drafted whites into compliance and enforcement, and occasionally devised ingenious punishments for runaways, such as putting them "in labor on the streets of said cities or towns, and on the highways and bridges adjacent," as frontier Mississippi did in 1829. Legislators also outlined procedures for capturing and returning runaways and enjoined blacks and whites alike from harboring them. Short- and long-term flight were not the only forms of movement that legislatures forbade. For instance, lawmakers commonly banned and reiterated bans on independent gatherings of bondpeople, and in some places enslaved people, except for boat and dockworkers, were strictly barred from traveling by water. In Georgia black sailors were "quarantined" after 1829 and were officially barred from setting foot on shore. Legal tinkering with pass laws slowed dramatically during the antebellum years, though it did not cease. Until the eve of the Civil War, lawmakers occasionally experimented with variations in language and content, perhaps hoping to find the right combination that would make the law's word stick. In 1856 Virginia warned whoever listened that enslaved people "found strolling" without passes would be "dealt with according to the law." Lawmakers created the state-backed principles of restraint that criminalized and enclosed slave movement, and slaveholders joined them in this work.
Geographies of Containment Antebellum slaveholders put the principles of restraint into practice in everyday life, adding to them their own plantation rules and building "geographies of containment" on their farms. Place functioned both metaphorically and literally in the Old South. Enslaved people's inferior and subjected position within the framework of antebellum southern society, their social "place," was reflected and affirmed by white control over their location in space, their literal place. Place, metaphorical and literal, came alive in the memories of slavery that some people carried with them in freedom. Only so long as "slaves stayed in deir places," Harriet Miller recalled, were they not "whipped or put in chains." As Andrew Boone said, "If you wus out widout a pass dey would shore git you. De paterollers shore looked after you. Dey would come to de house at night to see who wus dere. If you wus out of place, dey would wear you out." Slaveholders' power to define bondpeople's proper location illustrated slaveholding authority, and it did the same for the subjugation of the enslaved. By dictating bondpeople's locations, slaveholders made their plantations controlled and controlling landscapes that had a distinctly nineteenth-century cast. In the decades after the Revolution, proslavery ideology shifted subtly from the patriarchalism of the colonial period to paternalism, a form of social control more consistent with the humanitarian ideals of the age. During the colonial era, planters had not sought to convince enslaved people of the legitimacy of bondage. Before the success of the Revolution, elites had scarcely bothered to justify what seemed only natural, namely, hierarchical societies. Even if planters had desired control of the hearts and minds of African slaves, they could not have won it: language, meaning systems, and values all stood in the way. Rather than seeking to educate and convince their subordinates of the rightness of their world-as paternalist planters would do later-patriarchs sought simply to maintain their place in the social order.
Excerpted from Closer to Freedom by Stephanie M. H. Camp Copyright © 2004 by The University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission.
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What People are saying about this
From the Publisher
This slim volume makes a substantial and often ingenious contribution to slavery studies and to women's and southern history. Taking pleasure seriously, studying space without getting trapped in the 'public versus private' debate, finding new information in much-mined sources, and complicating our knowledge of enslaved women's resistance are valuable in themselves. They are also potent hints at what Camp and those who follow her lead will accomplish in the coming years.--American Historical Review
An appealing and creative approach to understanding everyday slave resistance.--Southern Historian
The book is well written throughout, and Camp really does seem to get inside the minds of enslaved women. . . . This is a promising first book and an interesting and innovative addition to the historiography of the lives of the enslaved.--Georgia Historical Quarterly
Stephanie Camp's brilliant study draws upon numerous fields of scholarship--feminist theory, anthropology, sociology--to produce an innovative reinterpretation of enslaved women in the plantation South. Sensitive, bold, and imaginative, Closer to Freedom is the first book to place black women at the center of everyday resistance to bondage.--Douglas R. Egerton, Le Moyne College
Wonderfully evocative. . . . A provocative book full of astonishing, sometimes unforgettable moments.--Virginia Magazine
Through the lens of geography, Camp successfully introduces a new language to describe and interpret everyday resistance among enslaved women and men. Scholars interested in a different approach to this important topic will find Closer to Freedom refreshing.--Civil War History
The author's attention to a 'spatial history of American slavery' reveals contests over physical space as a hitherto unappreciated dimension of the everyday politics of plantation life. This book skillfully brings into view clandestine pockets--ephemeral but resilient--in which slave women, in particular, struggled to sustain a 'rival geography' in which powers of mastery could be held at bay.--Julie Saville, University of Chicago
Very readable yet analytically sophisticated. . . . Camp seamlessly integrates a wide array of sources . . . into an engaging book that does more than recount women's experiences as slaves in the plantation South. . . . An excellent study of bondwomen and a penetrating look at the rival geographies created by enslaved people."-Journal of Southern History
Camp's creative and elegant work reinforces the interconnectedness of North and South, slave and free, in the lives of enslaved people.--Signs
Deepens our understanding of resistance as both an individual and collective endeavor. [Camp] argues forcefully. . . . Intriguing and interesting.--The Journal of Interdisciplinary History