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Enslaved Africans in the Colonial World
"Fire, Fire, Scorch, Scorch, A Little, Damn It, Bye-and-Bye." —Quack, A New York City slave, 1741
Between Christopher Columbus's first westward voyage in 1492 and the American revolutionary era, Europeans invaded and transformed the western hemisphere. Great opportunities lured them. They could bring their Christian faith to native people. They could practice the kind of Christianity they wanted. They could spread the glory and dominion of their kings and queens. They could remake what they found in Europe's image. Some, who were lucky, ruthless, or both, might become very rich. Most thought they could create better lives for themselves. Westward, the land seemed bright. For many of the European migrants, that proved to be so.
But everywhere they went, the explorers, invaders, colonizers, and settlers brought human slavery. During the colonial period a vastly greater number of Africans than Europeans crossed the Atlantic to the Americas. For them, there was no reason for the land or what they found there to seem bright at all. They went as captives, and they joined captured Native American people in slavery. More than any other institution, slavery became the great unifying colonial institution, throughout the whole hemisphere.
We cannot appreciate what black people did during the American Revolution, which is the subject of this book, unless we understand what they faced as colonial America developed, from the time of Columbus onward. Nor can we cannot appreciate slavery in the places that became the United States without the background of slavery throughout the hemisphere, at least in outline. Three powerful images, the first in words that a settler wrote down in earliest Virginia, the second a painting from late eighteenth-century South Carolina, and the third a map of New York City as of 1741, plunge us into colonial-era slavery. Each image is North American; each is very specific. But none of them displays its full meaning except against a world and hemispheric background.
The first image comes from the pen of Virginia colonist John Rolfe, after Rolfe returned from a visit that he and his famous Native American wife Pocahontas made to England. She died there, and he left behind their newborn son, whom he never saw again. Rolfe discovered that Caribbean tobacco would grow well in Virginia soil. He and other growers began using indentured English servants to plant, tend, harvest, and cure the crop. But at the end of August, 1619, Rolfe wrote, "came a dutch man of warre that sold us twenty Negars" whom the Dutch had seized from a Portuguese trader that was bound from west Africa to the Caribbean. The outline story of those twenty people is familiar, the stuff of textbook accounts. They had been captured into slavery in Africa, they had been slaves at sea, and it is easy to assume they remained slaves in Virginia. It is just as easy to fast-forward from them to the four million enslaved black people laboring all across the South on the eve of the Civil War, with nothing to separate them except the enormous growth in their numbers. But doing so would be wrong.
Rolfe's word-sketch has three separate dimensions. It presents a bare historical fact, which is that twenty Africans did arrive. It raises a historical probability, which is that these were the first black Virginians. That is not absolutely certain, but Rolfe most likely would not have noticed them otherwise. It also poses a historical problem, which is whether these were the first Virginia slaves. To appreciate the problem, consider another early arrival, identified as "a Negro" and bearing the Christian Portuguese name Antonio. He landed at Jamestown on an English vessel, the James, a year after those first twenty. Apparently he had been born in the Kingdom of Kongo, which had been Catholic since the mid-fifteenth century. Whatever his route from there to Virginia, Antonio was the sort who learned and adapted fast. After a few years of service he gained his freedom and gave himself a new name, Anthony Johnson. He prospered, acquiring property (including legally-bound servants on the same terms he had experienced), marrying a black woman who also had survived servitude, and earning his neighbors' respect. He seemed set to pass both his African heritage and his Virginia freedom on to his children. One of the Johnsons' sons chose the name Angola for the farm he acquired in Maryland. The New World proved about as good to him and his family as to European colonists. More than that, if his story holds for other early arrivals, how did Virginia become a place of slavery?
To answer that question we need to look much wider than Virginia and much deeper in time than 1619 or 1620. Looking at it that way, we can see that there was slavery all around the earliest Virginians' world, but not in Virginia itself. When Christopher Columbus crossed the Atlantic in 1492, slavery already existed across much of the world, including the Italian city of Genoa where he was born, and Spain, whose monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella sponsored his voyages. Columbus and his fellow voyagers enslaved Taino Indians almost as soon as they met them, and brought some back to Spain. The Spanish conquistadors who followed began enslaving Native Americans on a large scale, some to take to Europe, others to grow crops and dig for gold. Native Americans enslaved Spaniards as well. Columbus saw African slavery directly. He profited from it himself at least once, in the year 1479, on a voyage to the Atlantic island of Madeira for a cargo of slave-grown sugar. By then, Portuguese and Spanish seafarers had been carrying captive African people to sugar slavery in the Atlantic Islands for years.
Black Africans also practiced slavery. For them, in broad terms, slaves were signs of prestige and valuable objects in trade. Status, not race, separated masters from slaves in their world. They might adopt their slaves into freedom and full community membership. Light-skinned North Africans raided across the Sahara and down Africa's east coast, bringing people darker than themselves to slavery in Egypt, Turkey, Arabia, and as far as South Asia. During Europe's Middle Ages slaves came from Africa to cultivate sugar on the islands of the Mediterranean Sea. But they also came from Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Some medieval slaves in both the Muslim and Christian worlds were black, some olive-skinned, and some blond and blue-eyed. Muslims captured at sea might be enslaved by Christians, and Christians by Muslims. Medieval Norse raiders enslaved Anglo-Saxons and Celts from the British Isles, as well as French, Spaniards, Portuguese, Lithuanians, Poles, and Russians. The English word "slave," the French esclave, the Spanish esclavo, and the German Sklave all are cognate to Slav, because many Slavic people became enslaved. The Arabic term abd simply means servant, without any ethnic reference.
Europeans went to colonial America willingly, by the hundreds of thousands. Africans went, in far greater numbers, by the millions, because other Africans captured and sold them. One group of enslavers, called the Imbangala, ranged widely south and east of the Kingdom of Kongo during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. They were mostly male and they were strong enough to force alliances upon the monarchs of settled African kingdoms. They laid waste wherever they went, and they made it their business to capture other Africans, transport them over long distances, and trade them as slaves. The Imbangala and people like them created one of several moving slave frontiers that swept across Africa, gathering human beings as they went. The Imbangala's captives and others from Mozambique on Africa's east coast most likely ended up in Brazil, after their captors force-marched them to Luanda. Still others, from western and central Africa, and from as far away as the island of Madagascar, were bound for the Caribbean sugar islands and the British mainland colonies.
The concept of an advancing frontier is familiar in the mythology of the American West, and it does not usually include the idea of slavery. To Americans, at least, it usually brings up images of freedom and opportunity spreading across the continent. The frontier that spread across Africa brought not freedom but rather enslavement on a huge scale. Many other groups besides the Imbangala took direct part in African enslavement. All along the African coastline and deep into the African interior there were kings and rulers who cooperated in the slave trade and profited from it, and who, in return, received relative immunity.
All of the enslavers were brutal, including the Africans who captured their fellow Africans, the European seafarers who received the captives, the merchants who dispatched the ships, and the colonists who awaited the captives at their journey's end. So, for that matter, were the Native American enslavers who added their own captives to the ones brought by the African trade. The Africans and Native Americans probably would have practiced slavery of some sort without the Europeans. But the Europeans provided the market to which the enslavers brought millions of people for sale.
Law, history, and sacred scripture, including both the Christian and Jewish versions of the Bible and the Muslim Qur'an, all seemed to justify the enslavement of some people by others, given the right circumstances. Such circumstances could include being "infidel," meaning in Muslim eyes Christians or a believers in many gods, or, for Christians, Muslims or, again, believers in many gods. Medieval Eastern European Orthodox Christians who did not acknowledge the pope were fair game for Western European Catholics. A person whose life was forfeit in war might be killed or enslaved at the victor's choice, although Western Europeans were ceasing enslavement of one another's soldiers. A slave in the Ottoman Turkish Empire could rise to a high position, including the sultan's office of grand vizier in Istanbul. Enslaved European Christians became Mamluk soldiers in Egypt. But the slave-vizier had no real legal rights, and could be sent to the galleys at the sultan's whim.
Slavery has been a nearly universal fact in world history, but enslavers always have sought some justification for what they are doing to other people. As Europeans started to move to the newly found western hemisphere "race" did not figure among such justifications. The concept of race did not exist, not in the biological sense that some physical trait (such as the color of skin or the texture of hair) supposedly betokens all of a person's qualities, and not in the cultural sense of belonging to a group with a genetic heritage and a history in common. Africans had no sense of themselves as "black" and the western hemisphere's people had no sense of themselves as "natives" or "red," let alone "Indians." Europeans did not look at them in such terms either, or at themselves as "white."
King Charles V of Spain decreed an end to his subjects' enslavement of Native Americans in 1550, after listening to a ferocious debate on the subject. During the debate, the Catholic priest Fray Bartholomé de las Casas argued passionately against Indian enslavement. Las Casas had taken part in it as a conquistador, until he changed his ways and joined the Dominican Friars. But as the black American writer David Walker was to note with great anger centuries later, even as Las Casas was condemning Indian slavery, he also declared that there was an endless supply of readily available Africans. In the Spanish priest's view it was not race that determined the difference, but rather that Africans supposedly had refused their chance to embrace Christianity and Native Americans had not the chance at all.
Despite the Spanish monarch's decree, native enslavement continued for centuries under all the colonizers, Spaniards, Portuguese, French, Dutch, and English alike. Massachusetts enslaved hundreds of native people in 1676, after it defeated a coalition led by the Wampanoags in King Philip's War. It shipped them to Carolina, the West Indies, and even to Africa. South Carolina employed Westo Indians to capture other Native Americans from nearby and from deep into the continent, and then enslaved the Westo themselves when it defeated them in a war in 1680. In 1673 the French Jesuit priest Jacques Marquette spotted Indians with firearms near modern Memphis, Tennessee. In all probability they were on a slaving mission for Spaniards in Florida or for the English who had begun settling South Carolina. In 1722 the five Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Nations negotiated an agreement with the governor of Virginia. They would be safe if they stayed west of the Blue Ridge when they journeyed southward to make war against their Catawba enemies. But if they crossed the mountains, enslavement awaited them, as they recognized and accepted. They side-stepped the governor's request that they return escaped Virginia slaves who, as he and they both knew, had found refuge among them.
Their Catawba enemies enjoyed no such option. They faced nearby South Carolina's wrath, which meant facing their own enslavement and extinction, unless they tracked down escaped black slaves and returned them. As late as 1776, South Carolina leader William Henry Drayton promised Cherokee land and Cherokee slaves to frontier settlers who joined the revolution. Far to the west, the Comanche established a powerful, long-lasting horse-borne empire on the Great Plains, basing its economy partly on enslaving other native people. Some of their captives went to Spanish Texas and New Mexico. They traded others to French Louisiana and Canada. Still others found their way to the British settlements. Spanish, Portuguese, French, Dutch, and British alike, the conquistadors, colonizers, and settlers took slavery with them, or developed it wherever they went.
But they did so in different ways. Full-blown, legal slavery existed in Spain and Portugal at the time of Columbus. Spanish slave law reached back through the Middle Ages to Ancient Rome. The conquistadors who took over Hispaniola, Cuba, Mexico, and Peru simply imported it. But when the English founded Virginia, slavery had not existed among them in their country for centuries. On the Caribbean Islands and in the mainland places that the English claimed, the settlers created it themselves.
The law of British-American slavery took shape piecemeal, colony-by-colony, starting in Barbados in 1636. The Barbados code denied to slaves all the rights that Englishmen and women enjoyed under English law. Killing or maiming a slave would be no crime. The only requirement that the law imposed on the masters was to clothe the slaves. On the mainland, Massachusetts, rather than Virginia or Carolina, established the first slave law, in its "Body of Liberties" of 1641. Supposedly these Puritan settlers declared there would be no "bond slaverie, villinage or Captivitie amongst us." But they allowed themselves two big exceptions, "lawfull Captives taken in just warres, and such strangers as willingly selle themselves or are sold to us." "Taken in just warres" was among the rationales that slave merchants on the African coast were using, and the passive-voice "are sold to us" completely begged the question of how the victim had been enslaved. These Puritans said that they abhorred slavery, but they were willing enough to have it among themselves and, eventually, to join enthusiastically in the African slave trade and take advantage of it. Others like them who tried to settle at the same time on Providence Island in the Caribbean just got on with the business of buying slaves.
Seventeenth-century Virginia shaped its slave law over several decades. Step-by-step, white Virginians stripped black servants of their property, denied them firearms, forbade the men among them to have sexual contact with white women, banned all black-white marriages, treated their servitude as for life, and decreed that enslaved women's children would follow the condition of their mothers, whoever was the father. Imitating Barbados, Virginia's assembly enacted a law in 1660 that protected a master who "casually" killed a slave during the course of punishment. A year later, in 1670, it provided that all non-Christian "servants" brought in "by shipping ... were to be slaves for life." Slavery was not long in coming to colonial Virginia, but another possibility did exist when those first twenty "Negars" arrived. British colonists made it for themselves.
Excerpted from Enjoy the Same Liberty by Edward Countryman Copyright © 2012 by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of ROWMAN & LITTLEFIELD PUBLISHERS, INC.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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