Sources of Labor: Slavery
Following triangular trade and indentured servitude is the institution whose legacy we’re still dealing with a century and a half after it’s end. Slavery and enslavement are the state and condition of being a slave. A person is enslaved when a slaver coerces him or her into working for them and is deprived of the opportunity to leave.
In chattel slavery, the enslaved person is legally rendered the personal property (chattel) of the slave owner. In economics, the term de facto slavery describes the conditions of unfree labor and forced labor, where people are forced or compelled to work against their will. In the course of human history, slavery was often a feature of civilization and legal in most societies, but is now outlawed in most countries of the world.
As a social institution, chattel slavery (traditional slavery) denies the human agency of people, by legalistically dehumanising them into chattels (personal property) owned by the slaver; therefore slaves give birth to slaves; the children of slaves are born enslaved, by way of the legalistic philosophy of partus sequitur ventrem (That which is brought forth follows the belly). They are also bought and sold at will, as a result. Although chattel slavery was the usual form of enslavement in most societies that practiced slavery throughout human history, since the 19th century, this form of slavery was formally abolished.
Slavery in the Americas
Slavery in America remains a contentious issue and played a major role in the history and evolution of some countries, triggering a revolution, a civil war, and numerous rebellions. In order to establish itself as an American empire, Spain had to fight against the relatively powerful civilizations of the New World. The Spanish conquest of the indigenous peoples in the Americas included using the Natives as forced labor.
The Spanish colonies were the first Europeans to use African slaves in the New World on islands such as Cuba and Hispaniola. Bartolomé de las Casas, a 16th-century Dominican friar and Spanish historian, participated in campaigns in Cuba (at Bayamo and Camagüey) and was present at the massacre of Hatuey; his observation of that massacre led him to fight for a social movement away from the use of natives as slaves. Also, the alarming decline in the native population had spurred the first royal laws protecting the native population.
Many Africans who arrived in North America during the 17th and 18th centuries came under contract as indentured servants. The transformation from indentured servitude to slavery was a gradual process in Virginia. The earliest legal documentation of such a shift was in 1640 where a negro, John Punch, was sentenced to lifetime slavery, forcing him to serve his master, Hugh Gwyn, for the remainder of his life, for attempting to run away. This case was significant because it established the disparity between his sentence as a black man and that of the two white indentured servants who escaped with him (one described as Dutch and one as a Scotchman). It is the first documented case of a black man sentenced to lifetime servitude and is considered one of the first legal cases to make a racial distinction between black and white indentured servants.
After 1640, planters started to ignore the expiration of indentured contracts and keep their servants as slaves for life. This was demonstrated by the 1655 case Johnson v. Parker, where the court ruled that a black man, Anthony Johnson of Virginia, was granted ownership of another black man, John Casor, as the result of a civil case. This was the first instance of a judicial determination in the Thirteen Colonies holding that a person who had committed no crime could be held in servitude for life.
The slave codes were laws relating to slavery and enslaved people, specifically regarding the Atlantic slave trade and chattel slavery in the Americas. Most slave codes were concerned with the rights and duties of free people in regards to enslaved people. Slave codes left a great deal unsaid, with much of the actual practice of slavery being a matter of traditions rather than formal law.
The primary colonial powers all had slightly different slave codes. French colonies, after 1685, had the Code Noir specifically for this purpose. The Spanish had some laws regarding slavery in Las Siete Partidas, a far older law that was not designed for the slave societies of the Americas. English colonies largely had their own local slave codes, mostly based on the codes of either the colonies of Barbados or Virginia.
In addition to the these national and state- or colony-level slave codes, there were city ordinances and other local restrictions regarding enslaved people.
There are many similarities between the various slave codes. The most common elements are:
- Movement Restrictions: Most regions required any slaves away from their plantations or outside of the cities they resided in to have a pass signed by their master. Many cities in the slave-states required slave-tags, small copper badges that enslaved people wore, to show that they were allowed to move about.
- Marriage Restrictions: Most places restricted the marriage rights of enslaved people, ostensibly to prevent them from trying to change masters by marrying into a family on another plantation. Marriage between people of different races was also usually restricted.
- Prohibitions on Gathering: Slave codes generally prevented large groups of enslaved people from gathering away from their plantations.
- Slave Patrols: In the slave-dependent portions of North America, varying degrees of legal authority backed patrols by plantation owners and other free whites to ensure that enslaved people were not free to move about at night, and to generally enforce the restrictions on slaves.
- Trade and Commerce by Slaves: Initially, most places gave enslaved people some land to work personally and allowed them to operate their markets. As slavery became more profitable, slave codes restricting the rights of enslaved people to buy, sell, and produce goods were introduced. In some places, slave tags were required to be worn by enslaved people to prove that they were allowed to participate in certain types of work.
- Punishment and Killing of Slaves: Slave codes regulated how slaves could be punished, usually going so far as to apply no penalty for accidentally killing a slave while punishing them. Later laws began to apply restrictions on this, but slave-owners were still rarely punished for killing their slaves. Historian Lawrence M. Friedman wrote: “Ten Southern codes made it a crime to mistreat a slave…. Under the Louisiana Civil Code of 1825 (art. 192), if a master was ′convicted of cruel treatment,′ the judge could order the sale of the mistreated slave, presumably to a better master.”
- Education Restrictions: Some codes made it illegal to teach slaves to read.
Slave Codes in the United States
There was no central English slave code; each colony developed its own code. In the British Thirteen Colonies, after their independence, the individual states ratified new constitutions, but their laws were generally a continuation of the laws those regions maintained prior to that point and their slave codes remaining unchanged.
The first comprehensive English slave code was established in Barbados, an island in the Caribbean, in 1661. Many other slave codes of the time are based directly on this model.
Modifications of the Barbadian slave codes were put in place in the Colony of Jamaica in 1664, and were then greatly modified in 1684. The Jamaican codes of 1684 were copied by the Province of South Carolina in 1691. The South Carolina slave code served as the model for many other colonies in North America. In 1770, colony of Georgia adopted the South Carolina slave code, and Florida adopted the Georgia code.
Virginia’s slave codes were made in parallel to those in Barbados, with individual laws starting in 1667 and a comprehensive slave code passed in 1705. The slave codes of the other tobacco colonies (Delaware, Maryland, and North Carolina) were modeled on the Virginia code. While not based directly on the codes of Barbados, the Virginia codes were inspired by them.
The shipping and trade that took place between the West Indies and the Chesapeake meant that planters were quickly informed of any legal and cultural changes that took place. According to historian Russell Menard, when Maryland put its slave code in place the influence of the Barbadian codes as a “cultural hearth” for the law is noted with members of the Maryland legislature having been former residents of Barbados.
The northern colonies developed their own slave codes at later dates, the strictest being in New York, which passed a comprehensive slave code in 1702 and expanded that code in 1712 and 1730. Slavery was restricted throughout the British Empire by the Slave Trade Act of 1807, which prevented trading slaves, but did not actually end slavery. In 1833, the Slavery Abolition Act ended slavery throughout the British Empire, although this did not mean that all slaves were immediately freed.
In the United States, there was a division between slave states in the South and free states in the North. At the start of the American Civil War, there were 34 states in the United States, 15 of which were slave states, all of which had slave codes. The 19 free states did not have slave codes, although they still had laws regarding slavery and enslaved people, covering such issues as how to handle slaves from slave states, whether they were runaways or with their owners.
Slavery was not banned nationwide in the United States until the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified on December 6, 1865. Earlier national laws greatly restricting slavery in the United States were the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves on 1 January 1808, which made it a felony to import slaves from abroad, and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required governments in free states to assist in the capture of fugitive slaves.
The French colonies in North America were the only portion of the Americas to have an effective slave code applied from the center of the empire. King Louis XIV applied the Code Noir in 1685, and it was adopted by Saint-Domingue in 1687 and the French West Indies in 1687, French Guiana in 1704, Réunion in 1723, and Louisiana in 1724. It was never applied in Canada, which had very few slaves. The Code Noir was developed in part to combat the spread of Protestantism and thus focuses more on religious restrictions than other slave codes. The Code Noir was significantly updated in 1724.
The city of New Orleans in Louisiana developed slave codes under Spain, France, and the United States, due to Louisiana changing hands several times, resulting in a very complex set of slave codes. The needs of the locals were usually held in favor over any outside laws.
France abolished slavery after the French Revolution, first by freeing second-generation slaves in 1794. Although it was reinstated under Napoleon with the law of 20 May 1802.
In practice, the slave codes of the Spanish colonies were local laws, similar to those in other regions. There was an overarching legal code, Las Siete Partidas, which granted many specific rights to the slaves in these regions, but there is little record of it actually being used to benefit the slaves in the Americas. Las Siete Partidas was compiled in the thirteenth century, long before the colonization of the new world, and its treatment of slavery was based on the Roman tradition.
Frank Tannenbaum, an influential sociologist who wrote on the treatment of slaves in the Americas, treated the laws in Las Siete Partidas as an accurate reflection of treatment, but later scholarship has moved away from this viewpoint, arguing that the official laws in Las Siete Partidas did not reflect practices in the colonies.
An attempt to unify the Spanish slave codes, the Codigo Negro, was cancelled without ever going into effect because it was unpopular with the slave-owners in the Americas. The Laws of the Indies were an ongoing body of laws, modified throughout the history of the Spanish colonies, that incorporated many slave laws in the later versions.
Slavery in the United States
Slavery in the United States was the legal institution of human chattel enslavement, primarily of Africans and African Americans, that existed in the United States of America from its founding in 1776 until passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. Slavery was established throughout European colonization in the Americas. From early colonial days, it was practiced in Britain’s colonies, including the Thirteen Colonies which formed the United States. Under the law, an enslaved person was treated as property and could be bought, sold, or given away.
By the time of the American Revolution (1775–1783), the status of enslaved people had been institutionalized as a racial caste associated with African ancestry. During and immediately following the Revolution, abolitionist laws were passed in most Northern states and a movement developed to abolish slavery.
The role of slavery under the U.S. Constitution (1789) was the most contentious issue during its drafting. Although the creators of the Constitution never used the word “slavery”, the final document, through the three-fifths clause, gave slave-owners disproportionate political power.
All Northern states had abolished slavery in some way by 1805; sometimes, abolition was a gradual process, and hundreds of people were still enslaved in the Northern states as late as the 1840 Census. Some slaveowners—primarily in the Upper South—freed their slaves, and philanthropists and charitable groups bought and freed other slaves.
The Atlantic slave trade was outlawed by individual states beginning during the American Revolution. The import-trade was banned by Congress in 1808, although smuggling was common thereafter.
The rapid expansion of the cotton industry in the Deep South after the invention of the cotton gin greatly increased demand for slave labor, and the Southern states continued as slave societies. The United States became ever more polarized over the issue of slavery, split into slave and free states. Driven by labor demands from new cotton plantations in the Deep South, the Upper South sold over a million slaves who were taken to the Deep South. The total slave population in the South eventually reached four million.
As the United States expanded, the Southern states attempted to extend slavery into the new western territories to allow proslavery forces to maintain their power in the country. The new territories acquired by the Louisiana purchase and the Mexican cession were the subject of major political crises and compromises.
By 1850, the newly rich, cotton-growing South was threatening to secede from the Union, and tensions continued to rise. Slavery was defended in the South as a “positive good”, and the largest religious denominations split over the slavery issue into regional organizations of the North and South.
When Abraham Lincoln won the 1860 election on a platform of halting the expansion of slavery, seven slave states broke away to form the Confederacy. Shortly afterward, the Civil War began when Confederate forces attacked the US Army’s Fort Sumter. Four additional slave states then joined the confederacy after Lincoln requested arms from them to make a retaliatory strike.
Due to Union measures such as the Confiscation Acts and the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, the war effectively ended slavery, even before the institution was banned by constitutional amendment. Following the Union victory in the Civil War, slavery was made illegal in the United States upon the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in December 1865.
Black Slave Owners
Slave owners included people of African ancestry, in each of the original Thirteen Colonies and all later states and territories that allowed slavery; in some cases black Americans owned white indentured servants. An African former indentured servant who settled in Virginia in 1621, Anthony Johnson, became one of the earliest documented slave owners in the mainland American colonies when he won a civil suit for ownership of John Casor.
In 1830 there were 3,775 such black slaveholders in the South who owned a total of 12,760 slaves, a small percent, out of a total of over 2 million slaves. 80% of the black slaveholders were located in Louisiana, South Carolina, Virginia, and Maryland.
There were economic and ethnic differences between free blacks of the Upper South and Deep South, with the latter fewer in number, but wealthier and typically of mixed race. Half of the black slaveholders lived in cities rather than the countryside, with most living in New Orleans and Charleston. New Orleans had an especially large, relatively wealthy free black population (gens de couleur) composed of people of mixed race, who had become a third social class between whites and enslaved blacks, under French and Spanish colonial rule.
Relatively few non-white slaveholders were “substantial planters”. Of those who were, most were of mixed race, often endowed by white fathers with some property and social capital. For example, Andrew Durnford of New Orleans was listed as owning 77 slaves.
According to Rachel Kranz: “Durnford was known as a stern master who worked his slaves hard and punished them often in his efforts to make his Louisiana sugar plantation a success.” In the years leading up to the Civil War, Antoine Dubuclet, who owned over a hundred slaves, was considered the wealthiest black slave owner in Louisiana.
The historians John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger wrote:
A large majority of profit-oriented free black slaveholders resided in the Lower South. For the most part, they were persons of mixed racial origin, often women who cohabited or were mistresses of white men, or mulatto men … Provided land and slaves by whites, they owned farms and plantations, worked their hands in the rice, cotton, and sugar fields, and like their white contemporaries were troubled with runaways.
The historian Ira Berlin wrote:
In slave societies, nearly everyone—free and slave—aspired to enter the slaveholding class, and upon occasion some former slaves rose into slaveholders’ ranks. Their acceptance was grudging, as they carried the stigma of bondage in their lineage and, in the case of American slavery, color in their skin.
African-American history and culture scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. wrote:
… the percentage of free black slave owners as the total number of free black heads of families was quite high in several states, namely 43 percent in South Carolina, 40 percent in Louisiana, 26 percent in Mississippi, 25 percent in Alabama and 20 percent in Georgia.
Free blacks were perceived “as a continual symbolic threat to slaveholders, challenging the idea that ‘black’ and ‘slave’ were synonymous”. Free blacks were sometimes seen as potential allies of fugitive slaves and “slaveholders bore witness to their fear and loathing of free blacks in no uncertain terms.” For free blacks, who had only a precarious hold on freedom, “slave ownership was not simply an economic convenience but indispensable evidence of the free blacks’ determination to break with their slave past and their silent acceptance – if not approval – of slavery.”
The historian James Oakes in 1982 stated that “[t]he evidence is overwhelming that the vast majority of black slaveholders were free men who purchased members of their families or who acted out of benevolence”. After 1810 Southern states made it increasingly difficult for any slaveholders to free slaves. Often the purchasers of family members were left with no choice but to maintain, on paper, the owner–slave relationship. In the 1850s “there were increasing efforts to restrict the right to hold bondsmen on the grounds that slaves should be kept ‘as far as possible under the control of white men only.'”
In his 1985 statewide study of black slaveholders in South Carolina, Larry Koger challenged this benevolent view. He found that the majority of black slaveholders appeared to hold at least some of their slaves for commercial reasons.
For instance, he noted that in 1850 more than 80 percent of black slaveholders were of mixed race, but nearly 90 percent of their slaves were classified as black. Koger also noted that many South Carolina free blacks operated small businesses as skilled artisans, and many owned slaves working in those businesses. “Koger emphasizes that it was all too common for freed slaves to become slaveholders themselves.”
Some free black slaveholders in New Orleans offered to fight for Louisiana in the Civil War. Over a thousand free black people volunteered and formed the 1st Louisiana Native Guard (CSA), which was disbanded without seeing combat.
Native American Slaves
During the 17th and 18th centuries, Indian slavery, the enslavement of Native Americans by European colonists, was common. Many of these Native slaves were exported to the Northern colonies and to off-shore colonies, especially the “sugar islands” of the Caribbean.
Slavery of Native Americans was organized in colonial and Mexican California through Franciscan missions, theoretically entitled to ten years of Native labor, but in practice maintaining them in perpetual servitude, until their charge was revoked in the mid-1830s. Following the 1847–48 invasion by U.S. troops, the “loitering or orphaned Indians” were de facto enslaved in the new state from statehood in 1850 to 1867. Slavery required the posting of a bond by the slave holder and enslavement occurred through raids and a four-month servitude imposed as a punishment for Indian “vagrancy”.
The exact number of Native Americans who were enslaved is unknown because vital statistics and census reports were at best infrequent. Historian Alan Gallay estimates that from 1670 to 1715, British slave traders sold between 24,000 and 51,000 Native Americans from what is now the southern part of the U.S.
Andrés Reséndez estimates that between 147,000 and 340,000 Native Americans were enslaved in North America, excluding Mexico. Even after the Indian Slave Trade ended in 1750 the enslavement of Native Americans continued in the west, and also in the Southern states mostly through kidnappings.
Native American Slaveowners
African slaves were owned by Native Americans from the colonial period until the United States’ Civil War. The interactions between Native Americans and African Slaves in the antebellum United States is complex, given that slavery played a significant role in the creation and construction of America. This slavery institution relied largely on enslaved Africans and Native Americans owned by white American settlers both before and after the United States (known before independence as the Thirteen Colonies) gained independence via the American Revolutionary War.
Although chattel slavery was a primarily European institution in the Americas, a few North American indigenous groups over time adopted slave ownership for several purposes, predominantly as a tactic to assimilate into European colonial society. Most of the indigenous tribes who participated in this practice resided in the Southeast where white European infrastructure thrived off of slave ownership, specifically the Five Civilized Tribes (Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole). Following the Indian removal of the 1830s, these tribes were relocated to Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) and brought their slaves with them.
After 1800, some of the Cherokee and the other four civilized tribes of the Southeast started buying and using black slaves as labor. They continued this practice after removal to Indian Territory in the 1830s, when as many as 15,000 enslaved blacks were taken with them.
The nature of slavery in Cherokee society often mirrored that of white slave-owning society. The law barred intermarriage of Cherokees and enslaved African Americans, but Cherokee men had unions with enslaved women, resulting in mixed-race children. Cherokee who aided slaves were punished with one hundred lashes on the back. In Cherokee society, persons of African descent were barred from holding office even if they were also racially and culturally Cherokee. They were also barred from bearing arms and owning property. The Cherokee prohibited the teaching of African Americans to read and write.
By contrast, the Seminole welcomed into their nation African Americans who had escaped slavery (Black Seminoles). Historically, the Black Seminoles lived mostly in distinct bands near the Native American Seminole. Some were held as slaves of particular Seminole leaders. Seminole practice in Florida had acknowledged slavery, though not the chattel slavery model common elsewhere. It was, in fact, more like feudal dependency and taxation. The relationship between Seminole blacks and natives changed following their relocation in the 1830s to territory controlled by the Creek who had a system of chattel slavery. Pro slavery pressure from Creek and pro-Creek Seminole and slave raiding led to many Black Seminoles escaping to Mexico.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, more than 300,000 white people were shipped to America as slaves. Urchins were swept up from London’s streets to labor in the tobacco fields, where life expectancy was no more than two years. Brothels were raided to provide “breeders” for Virginia. Hopeful migrants were duped into signing as indentured servants, unaware they would become personal property who could be bought, sold, and even gambled away. Transported convicts were paraded for sale like livestock.
Drawing on letters crying for help, diaries, and court and government archives, Don Jordan and Michael Walsh demonstrate that the brutalities usually associated with black slavery alone were perpetrated on whites throughout British rule. The trade ended with American independence, but the British still tried to sell convicts in their former colonies
In 2019, approximately 40 million people, of whom 26 percent were children, were enslaved throughout the world. In the modern world, more than 50 percent of enslaved people provide forced labor, usually in the factories and sweatshops of the private sector of a country’s economy. In industrialized countries, human trafficking is the modern variety of slavery. In third world countries, enslavement by debt bondage is a common form of enslaving a person including: captive domestic servants, forced marriage, and child soldiers.
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