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Passages to FreedomThe Underground Railroad in History and Memory
By David Blight
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2005 David Blight
All right reserved.
African and African American Slavery
in Mainland North America during
the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries
The destruction of slavery amid a bloody civil war has fixed the way in which most Americans view chattel bondage and has led them to identify it with the states of the Southern Confederacy and the cultivation of cotton. Yet that characterization belies slavery's long history in the portions of mainland North America that initially formed the United States. Indeed, for most of slavery's history, it was a colony-wide or national institution that reached every corner of the continent. Until the nineteenth century -- some two hundred years after the first African slaves arrived in mainland North America -- few slaves grew cotton and hardly any lived in the "blackbelt," that rich band of alluvial lands that extends westward from upcountry South Carolina to the Mississippi River and became the heartland of the Confederacy. In short, most American slaves experienced slavery not as cotton cultivators or residents of the blackbelt. Even after King Cotton had been crowned, the years "before cotton" continued to shape the lives of American slaves.
The story of slavery during those first two centuries was not of one piece. Slavery was constantly changing, as slaves confronted their owners in a panoply of diverse circumstances. Depending upon their origins, their time of arrival in the Americas, their numbers, the terrain upon which they lived, and the crops they grew, the lives of enslaved Africans and African Americans were different -- sometimes radically so. The continual transformation of slavery remade the lives of those held in bondage and suggests how and why slavery would be transformed in its final half century, when it became identified with the blackbelt and cotton. In the two centuries prior to the growth of cotton culture, the history of slavery can be divided into three parts or generations: a Charter Generation, composed of the first arrivals; a Plantation Generation, which experienced the imposition of staple production; and a Revolutionary Generation, which was transformed by the egalitarian movements of the late eighteenth century. The experiences of each generation differed, and with them so did the lives of enslaved peoples, although most were of African descent and black in color.
The Charter Generation refers to people of African descent who arrived as slaves in mainland North America prior to the advent of the plantation in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Disproportionately they were drawn from the Atlantic littoral. Their world focused outward onto the larger Atlantic region. They spoke, among other languages, the creole dialect that had developed among the peoples of the Atlantic world in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, a language with a Portuguese grammar and syntax but with a vocabulary borrowed from every shore of the Atlantic. They understood something about the trading etiquettes, religions, and laws of the Atlantic world. Many were employed as interpreters, supercargoes, sailors, and compodores (all-purpose seaboard handymen) for the great sixteenth- and seventeenth-century trading corporations -- the Dutch West India Company, the French Company of the West, and the Royal African Company -- as well as a host of private traders and privateers. They entered societies in which many people of European descent, although not slaves, were held in various sorts of servitude. Almost immediately they began incorporating themselves into those societies by taking familiar names, trading independently, establishing families, acquiring property, and employing their knowledge of the law to advance themselves and secure their freedom in remarkably high numbers. About one-fifth to one-quarter of those in the Charter Generation gained their liberty.1
Little is known about these men and women, whose telling names -- Anthony Johnson of Virginia, Paulo d'Angola of New Amsterdam, and Francisco Menéndez of Saint Augustine -- speak of the larger Atlantic world. Their history can be glimpsed through the life of another of their number: Samba Bambara of New Orleans. Samba Bambara's name first appears in the historical record while he was working for the French Company of the West on the Senegal River in west Africa at the beginning of the eighteenth century. He is known because he disputed his pay and complained that his wife "dishonored" him. Working along the river, moving cargo -- perhaps human cargo -- from Saint Louis on the coast of Senegal to the African interior, Samba Bambara rubbed shoulders with saltwater sailors of various European and African nationalities, traders from the continent's interior, the corporate bureaucrats who directed the French Company of the West, and the soldiers who protected them. He doubtless spoke the creole language of the Atlantic along with his own language and a bit of French. Like others who followed his path, Bambara became a cultural broker negotiating among the various peoples who had come together in the Atlantic.
Sometime in the 1720s, Samba Bambara became implicated in a slave insurrection in Saint Louis on the west coast of Africa, or perhaps he was merely accused of being involved. Nonetheless, he was enslaved and transported to Louisiana, a desultory society-with-slaves that stood at the outer edge of the French empire. That in itself was an interesting development, for almost all the slaves leaving Senegal for the New World were going to Martinique or Saint Domingue, colonies that were fast becoming the great sugar factories of the Atlantic world. Perhaps someone realized it was dangerous to send one like Samba Bambara, a man who knew how the system worked, to the revolutionary tinderboxes of Martinque and Saint Domingue.
Doubtless, Samba Bambara was not happy about his enslavement, exile, and forcible separation from everything and everyone he held dear, but once in New Orleans, he resumed his life almost without losing a beat. Within a decade, Samba Bambara -- still a slave -- was successively the overseer of the largest company-owned plantation in Louisiana and then the chief interpreter in the Louisiana Superior Court.2
Samba Bambara's success suggests something about the unity of the Atlantic world. It reveals how New Orleans on the Mississippi River was not much different from Saint Louis on the Senegal River. Both ports were filled . . .
Excerpted from Passages to Freedom by David Blight Copyright © 2005 by David Blight. Excerpted by permission.
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