Is not the slave trade entirely at war with the heart of man? And surely that which is begun by breaking down the barriers of virtue, involves in its continuance destruction to every principle, and buries all sentiments in ruin! When you make men slaves, you... compel them to live with you in a state of war.
- Olaudah Equiano, former slave
Slavery became a highly profitable system for white plantation owners in the colonial South. In South Carolina, successful slave owners, such as the Middleton family from Barbados, established a system of full-blown, Caribbean-style slavery. The Middletons settled on land near Charleston, Carolina's main port and slave-trading capital. They took advantage of the fact that at the end of the 17th century, some of the earliest African arrivals had shown English settlers how rice could be grown in the swampy coastal environment. With cheap and permanent workers available in the form of slaves, plantation owners realized this strange new crop could make them rich.
As rice boomed, land owners found the need to import more African slaves to clear the swamps where the rice was grown and to cultivate the crop. Many of the Africans knew how to grow and cultivate the crop, which was alien to Europeans. By 1710, scarcely 15 years after rice came to Carolina, Africans began to out-number Europeans in South Carolina.
Harvesting the Rice
Slavery was rapidly becoming an entrenched institution in American society, but it took brutal force to imposed this sort of mass exploitation upon once-free people. As Equiano wrote, white and black lived together "in a state of war." The more harshly whites enforced racial enslavement, the more they came to fear black uprisings. As they became more fearful, they responded by further tightening the screws of oppression.
"If you're a white authority, you're constantly trying to figure how tightly you want to impose the lid with respect to people running away. How fierce should the punishments be? Should it be a whipping? Should it be the loss of a finger or a hand or a foot? Should it be wearing shackles perpetually?"
- Peter Wood, historian
Carolina authorities developed laws to keep the African American population under control. Whipping, branding, dismembering, castrating, or killing a slave were legal under many circumstances. Freedom of movement, to assemble at a funeral, to earn money, even to learn to read and write, became outlawed.
A Negro Hung Alive by the Ribs to a Gallows
William Byrd's diary
At times the cruelty seemed almost casual. A Virginia slaveowner's journal entry for April 17, 1709 reads: "Anaka was whipped yesterday for stealing the rum and filling the bottle up with water. I said my prayers and I danced my dance. Eugene was whipped again for pissing in bed and Jenny for concealing it."
White fears of the people they kept enslaved were entirely justified. On September 9, 1739, an African man named Jemmy, thought to be of Angolan origin, led a march from Stono near Charleston toward Florida and what he believed would be freedom on Spanish soil. Other slaves joined Jemmy and their numbers grew to nearly 100. Jemmy and his companions killed dozens of whites on their way, in what became known as the Stono Rebellion. White colonists caught up with the rebels and executed those whom they managed to capture. The severed heads of the rebels were left on mile posts on the side of the road as a warning to others.
White fear of blacks was also rampant in New York City, which had a density of slaves nearing that of Charleston. In 1741, fires were ignited all over New York, including one at the governor's mansion. In witch-hunt fashion, 160 blacks and at least a dozen working class whites were accused of conspiring against the City of New York. Thirty-one Africans were killed; 13 were burned at the stake. Four whites were hung.
Stono Rebellion report
New York: the revolt of 1712
Witch hunt in New York: the 1741 rebellion
A few white men, although in the minority, balked at the cruelty toward African slaves. Francis Le Jau, an Anglican minister who oversaw a church built on land donated by the Middletons, spoke against the cruelty of Carolina slavery. Samuel Sewall, a Boston judge, wrote a pamphlet called The Selling of Joseph, criticizing slavery.
Georgia, the last free colony, legalized slavery in 1750. That meant slavery was now legal in each of the thirteen British colonies that would soon become the United States. But the conflict between those who supported racial enslavement and those who believed in freedom was only just beginning. In the tumultuous generation of the American Revolution, protests against "enslavement" by Britain and demands for American "liberty" would become common in the rebellious colonies, and many African Americans, both slave and free, had high hopes that the rhetoric of Independence would apply to them. These hopes, however, would eventually be dashed, and it would take a bloody civil war three generations later to finally bring an end to the enslavement of black Americans.
Part 1 Narrative:
Map: The British Colonies
Europeans Come to Western Africa
New World Exploration and English Ambition
From Indentured Servitude to Racial Slavery
The African Slave Trade and the Middle Passage
The Growth of Slavery in North America
Part 1: Narrative | Resource Bank Contents | Teacher's Guide
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