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In 1860 it was calculated that about 88 per cent of America's slave-owners owned twenty slaves or less. However, large landowners would usually own well over 100 slaves and relied heavily on overseers to run their plantations. These overseers were under considerable pressure from the plantation owners to maximize profits. They did this by bullying the slaves into increasing productivity. The punishments used against slaves judged to be under-performing included the use of the cart-whip. Not surprisingly the mortality-rate amongst the slaves was high. Studies have shown that over a four-year period, up to 30 per cent of the slave population in America died.
John Newton was a slave-captain between 1747 and 1754. He wrote in Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade (1787): "He later recalled a conversation with a man who purchased slaves from Newton: "He said, that calculations had been made, with all possible exactness, to determine which was the preferable, that is, the most saving method of managing slaves". He went onto say that they needed to decided: "Whether, to appoint them moderate work, plenty of provision, and such treatment, as might enable them to protract their lives to old age? Or, by rigorously straining their strength to the utmost, with little relaxation, hard fare, and hard usage, to wear them out before they became useless, and unable to do service; and then, to buy new ones, to fill up their places?"
Francis Fredric has argued that some plantation owners employed slaves as overseers. He pointed out in his autobiography: "My grandmother's master was one of the hard kind. He had made her son an overseer. Consequently, my grandmother having committed the crime of attending a prayer-meeting, was ordered to be flogged by her own son. This was done by tying her hands before her with a rope, and then fastening the rope to a peach tree, and laying bare the back. Her own son was then made to give her forty lashes with a thong of a raw cow's-hide, her master standing over her the whole time blaspheming and threatening what he would do if her son did not lay it on."
Slaves were in the fields from sunrise to sunset and at harvest time they did an eighteen hour day. Moses Grandy later wrote that his overseer "MacPherson gave the same task to each slave; of course the weak ones often failed to do it. I have often seen him tie up persons and flog them in the morning, only because they were unable to get the previous day's task done: after they were flogged, pork or beef brine was put on their bleeding backs, to increase the pain; he sitting by resting himself, and seeing it done. After being thus flogged and pickled, the sufferers often remained tied up all day, the feet just touching the ground, the legs tied, and pieces of wood put between the legs. All the motion allowed was a slight turn of the neck. Thus exposed and helpless, the yellow flies and mosquitoes in great numbers would settle on the bleeding and smarting back, and put the sufferer to extreme torture. This continued all day, for they were not taken down till night."
Women worked the same hours as the men and pregnant women were expected to continue until their child was born. Only a month's rest was allowed for recovery from child-bearing. The women then carried the child on their backs while they worked in the fields. Around the age of five, slave children would also be expected to work on the plantation.
Austin Steward pointed out in Twenty-Two Years a Slave (1857): "It was usual for men and women to work side by side on our plantation; and in many kinds of work, the women were compelled to do as much as the men. Captain William Helm employed an overseer, whose business it was to look after each slave in the field, and see that he performed his task. The overseer always went around with a whip, about nine feet long, made of the toughest kind of cowhide, the but-end of which was loaded with lead, and was about four or five inches in circumference, running to a point at the opposite extremity. This made a dreadful instrument of torture, and, when in the hands of a cruel overseer, it was truly fearful. With it, the skin of an ox or a horse could be cut through. Hence, it was no uncommon thing to see the poor slaves with their backs mangled in a most horrible manner."
MacPherson gave the same task to each slave; of course the weak ones often failed to do it. This continued all day, for they were not taken down till night.
In flogging, MacPherson would sometimes tie the slave's shirt over his head, that he might not flinch when the blow was coming: sometimes he would increase his misery, by blustering and calling out that he was coming to flog again, which he did or did not, as happened. I have seen him flog slaves with his own hands, till their entrails were visible; and I have seen the sufferers dead when they were taken down. He never was called to account in any way for it.
It is not uncommon for flies to blow the sores made by flogging. In that case, we get a strong weed growing in those parts, called the Oak of Jerusalem; we boil it at night, and wash the sores with the liquor, which is extremely bitter: on this, the creepers or maggots come out. To relieve them in some degree after severe flogging, their fellow-slaves rub their backs with part of their little allowance of fat meat.
Many masters possessing large plantations, and some hundreds of slaves, being desirous to divest themselves as much as possible of the cares of managing the estate, hire white men, at a salary of from 1,200 to 1,400 dollars per annum, to look after the whole property. These are the best and most humane overseers. But other slave proprietors, in order to save the cost of an overseer, but chiefly to exact as much work as possible out of the ******s, make a ****** an overseer, who if he does not cruelly work the slaves is threatened with a flogging, which the master cannot give to a white man. In order to save his own back the slave overseer very often behaves in the most brutal manner to the ******s under him.
My grandmother's master was one of the hard kind. Her own son was then made to give her forty lashes with a thong of a raw cow's-hide, her master standing over her the whole time blaspheming and threatening what he would do if her son did not lay it on.
My master's son Charles, at one time, became impressed with the evils of slavery, and put his notion into practical effect by emancipating about forty of his slaves, and paying their expenses to a free state. Our old master, about this time, being unable to attend to all his affairs himself, employed an overseer whose, disposition was so cruel as to make many of the slaves run away. The change in our treatment was so great, and so much for the worse, that we could not help lamenting that the master had adopted such a change. There is no telling what might have been the result of this new method amongst slaves, so unused to the lash as we were, if in the midst of the experiment our old master had not been called upon to go the way of all the earth. As he was about to expire he sent for my mother and me to come to his bedside; we ran with beating hearts and highly elated feelings, not doubting, in the, least, but that he was about to confer upon us the boon of freedom - for we had both expected that we should be set free when master died - but imagine our deep disappointment when the old man called me to his side and said, Henry yon, will make a good plough-boy, or a good gardener, now you must be an honest boy and never tell an untruth.
Gilbert was a cruel overseer. He used to strip his fellow Negroes while in the woods, and whip them two or three times a week, so that their backs were all scarred, and threatened them with severer punishments if they told; this state of things had been going on for quite a while. As I was a favorite with Gilbert, I always managed to escape a whipping. But finally, one day, Gilbert said to me, "Jake," as he used to call me, "you am a good boy, but I'm going to whip you some today, as I whip the other boys." Of course I was required to strip off my only garment, which was an Osnaburg linen shirt, worn by both sexes of the Negro children in the summer. As I stood trembling before my merciless superior, who had a switch in his hand, thousands of thoughts went through my little mind as to how to get rid of the whipping. I finally fell upon a plan which I hoped would save me from a punishment that was near at hand. I commenced reluctantly to take off my shirt, at the same time pleading with Gilbert, who paid no attention to my prayer.
There was a planter in the country, not far from us, who had six hundred slaves, many of whom he did not know by sight. His extensive plantation was managed by well-paid overseers. There was a jail and a whipping post on his grounds; and whatever cruelties were perpetrated there, they passed without comment. He was so effectively screened by his great wealth that he was called to no account for his crimes, not even for murder.
Various were the punishments resorted to. A favorite one was to tie a rope round a man's body, and suspend him from the ground. A fire was kindled over him, from which was suspended a piece of fat pork. As this cooked, the scalding drops of fat continually fell on the bare flesh. On his own plantation, he required very strict obedience to the eighth commandment. But depredations on the neighbors were allowable, provided the culprit managed to evade detection or suspicion. If a neighbor brought a charge of theft against any of his slaves, he was browbeaten by the master, who assured him that his slaves had enough of every thing at home, and had no inducement to steal. No sooner was the neighbor's back turned, than the accused was sought out, and whipped.
His brother, if not equal in wealth, was at least equal in cruelty. His bloodhounds were well trained. Their pen was spacious, and a terror to the slaves. They were let loose on a runaway, and, if they tracked him, they literally tore the flesh from his bones. When this slaveholder died, his shrieks and groans were so frightful that they appalled his own friends. His last words were, "I am going to hell; bury my money with me."
My first master's name was Captain Anthony - a title which, I presume, he acquired by sailing a craft on the Chesapeake Bay. He was not considered a rich slaveholder. He owned two or three farms, and about thirty slaves. His farms and slaves were under the care of an overseer. The overseer's name was Plummer. Mr. Plummer was a miserable drunkard, a profane swearer, and a savage monster. He always went armed with a cowskin and a heavy cudgel. I have known him to cut and slash the women's heads so horribly, that even master would be enraged at his cruelty, and would threaten to whip him if he did not mind himself. Master, however, was not a humane slaveholder. It required extraordinary barbarity on the part of an overseer to affect him. He was a cruel man, hardened by a long life of slaveholding. He would at times seem to take great pleasure in whipping a slave. I have often been awakened at the dawn of day by the most heart-rending shrieks of an own aunt of mine, whom he used to tie up to a joist, and whip upon her naked back till she was literally covered with blood. No words, no tears, no prayers, from his gory victim, seemed to move his iron heart from its bloody purpose. The louder she screamed, the harder he whipped; and where the blood ran fastest, there he whipped longest.
It was usual for men and women to work side by side on our plantation; and in many kinds of work, the women were compelled to do as much as the men. Hence, it was no uncommon thing to see the poor slaves with their backs mangled in a most horrible manner. Our overseer, thus armed with his cowhide, and with a large bull-dog behind him, followed the slaves all day; and, if one of them fell in the rear from any cause, this cruel weapon was plied with terrible force. He would strike the dog one blow and the slave another, in order to keep the former from tearing the delinquent slave in pieces, - such was the ferocity of his canine attendant.
We had an overseer named Blackstone; he was an extremely cruel man to the working hands. He always carried a long hickory whip - a kind of pole. He kept three or four of these, in order that he might not at any time be without one.
I once found one of these hickories lying in the yard, and supposing that he had thrown it away, I picked it up, and boy-like, was using it for a horse; he came along from the field, and seeing me with it, fell upon me with the one he then had in his hand, and flogged me most cruelly. From that, I lived in constant dread of that man; and he would show how much he delighted in cruelty by chasing me from my play with threats and imprecations. I have lain for hours in a wood, or behind a fence, to hide from his eye.
Little Known Black History Fact: Sambo
To most of us, the phrase “Uncle Tom” is synonymous with a Black person who has sold out their race. The character Stephen from Django played by Samuel L. Jackson, is a perfect example of someone commonly referred to as a “Tom.”
In actuality, the term “Sambo” better fits the characteristics we often ascribe to Uncle Tom.
The racial term “Sambo” first came to prominence in modern American culture with the publishing of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. However, the origin of the term reaches back to the 1700s according to some scholars, and there is evidence the name is a variation of a West African name as well.
Today, the term is largely derogatory but the etymology of the word appears to be “zambo,” a word that was used during the Spanish and Portuguese Empire periods to describe a mixed person that appeared more Black than white. It was also said to mean bow-legged or knock-kneed. There is also evidence that the word is derived from the West African Foulah tribal language, which translates into “uncle.”
In Stowe’s 1852 book, the character of Sambo was one of the slave overseers that work for the cruel slave owner, Simon Legree. Uncle Tom, a god-fearing slave with a compassionate heart, was tormented and beaten to death by Sambo, who regretted his act even as Tom forgave him as he was dying. Although Stowe had higher aims with her book, the depiction of Black characters as matronly and subservient further added to stereotypes that persist today
Scottish author Helen Bannerman’s The Story of Little Black Sambo in 1899 also gave the term more of its negative connection. The tale of a dark-skinned East Indian boy helped push the narrative that the term was racist and meant to be offensive.
Other variants of the name appear throughout African and indigenous culture across the Caribbean. In several African languages, especially along the coasts, the name was rather common despite differing spellings.
The Twenty-Slave Law, passed by the Confederate Congress on October 11, 1862, during the American Civil War (1861–1865), created an exemption to military conscription for the owners of twenty or more slaves. The law was controversial in much of the South, where it served to exacerbate certain social rifts and led to claims by drafted soldiers that they were fighting a “rich man’s war.” The law did not generate as much opposition in Virginia, home to the Confederacy’s largest population of slaves. Supporters viewed the law as essential in guarding against slave rebellion and in maintaining agriculture and industry and, therefore, the nation’s ability to carry on the war effort. The Confederate Congress later amended the law to alleviate concerns, limiting the ability of plantation owners to evade military service.
The first Conscription Act, passed by the Confederate Congress on April 16, 1862, made all white males between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five eligible to be drafted into military service. (This was the first such draft in American history.) Although Confederate congressmen passed a variety of exemptions to maintain industrial and agricultural production, they initially refused to exempt overseers. Congressmen addressed this omission on October 11, 1862, by authorizing the exemption of one white man per plantation with twenty or more slaves, the so-called Twenty-Slave Law. The law also allowed an overseer exemption for two or more plantations within five miles of each other with collectively twenty or more slaves. The Twenty-Slave Law was in part a reaction to the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, issued by U.S. president Abraham Lincoln on September 22, 1862. Confederates viewed the proclamation as Lincoln’s attempt to foment slave rebellion. By their lights, the Twenty-Slave Law was necessary to ensure the productivity of the black population and to maintain the safety of the white population.
The Twenty-Slave Law created some resentment, especially among small farmers, who believed that the law benefited wealthy slaveholders at the expense of the common man. In response to the criticism, Confederate congressmen amended the Twenty-Slave Law on May 1, 1863, to apply only to overseers on plantations belonging solely to “a minor, a person of unsound mind, a femme sole single woman , or a person absent from home in the military or naval service of the Confederacy.” Congressmen required planters to swear an affidavit that they had been unable to secure an overseer not liable for military service and to pay five hundred dollars for the privilege. In addition, only men who had been overseers prior to April 16, 1862, on plantations that had not been divided since October 11, 1862, could qualify for exemptions under the Twenty-Slave Law.
Congressmen intended these latter provisions to prevent men from becoming overseers in order to evade conscription and to prevent planters from dividing their plantations to exempt additional overseers. On February 17, 1864, congressmen changed the requirement to fifteen able-bodied slaves and required planters with exempted overseers to deliver one hundred pounds of bacon or its equivalent for every slave on the plantation to the government and to sell his or her surplus to the government or to soldiers’ families at government prices. In this way, congressmen ensured that the Confederate war effort benefited from the overseer exemptions.
The Twenty-Slave Law generated relatively little criticism in Virginia. In fact, many white Virginians viewed overseer exemptions as essential. Catherine Crittenden, a sixty-two-year-old widow in Culpeper County, requested that the governor excuse her overseer George Bowman from military service. She and her twenty-two-year-old daughter, Anna, had no protection as her son, Lieutenant Charles T. Crittenden, was already in Confederate service. “Not only for myself do I make this appeal … but for my neighbors, Mr. Bowman being the only overseer & nearly every man has volunteered.” The result is “a thinly settled neighborhood, the farms being large, averaging 20 negroes to a farm, and not a man to keep order … Truly the condition of our neighborhood will be a lamentable one if we are left to the mercy of the negroes.” The breakdown in plantation discipline as a result of the close proximity of Union troops and periodic food scarcities as a result of wartime devastation and military impressment muted criticism of the overseer exemptions in Virginia.
Grand Closing: Plantation With Juneteenth Event Honoring ‘Massa’ Shuts Its Doors
UPDATED: 9:25 a.m. ET, June 18
Originally published June 14
T he North Carolina plantation whose controversial Juneteenth celebration included an event that was sympathetic to slave owners and didn’t properly recognize slavery itself has closed its doors after backlash. Juneteenth, of course, commemorates the official end of slavery in the United States.
The Historic Latta Plantation announced on Thursday that it would be closing for business “until further notice” without making any mention of the since-canceled event that featured an evening with a newly homeless “Massa” recounting his experiences.
“Historic Latta Plantation, within Latta Nature Preserve, is closed until further notice,” Mecklenberg County government said in a statement posted on its website.
“Over the next few months, we will evaluate the best path forward for Latta Plantation and its programming, ensuring that the site is utilized in an appropriate, forward-thinking manner,” Mecklenberg County Park and Recreation Director W. Lee Jones said. “As our review continues, we feel it is in the best interest of the community and the property to close for now until other plans can be announced.”
Site manager Ian Campbell, who is Black and planned the event, refused to apologize in a rambling post that is still live on the plantation’s website. He blamed “yellow journalism,” online outrage, insisted he is committed to educating people and pointed to the ruin of a free event.
In doing so, Campbell also drew further attention to the problem with ignoring historical accuracy in education. It was also a reminder about why plantation tourism probably should not exist.
Campbell clearly didn’t understand his Juneteenth assignment .
His response is riddled with inconsistencies. Insisting white supremacy would not be a part of his work, Campbell also claimed that it is “pointless” to tell the story of newly freed Black people without telling the stories of former slave owners and overseers.
He continued to disparage and distort the legacy of newly freed Black people.
“Those formerly enslaved are now freedmen and have taken over the massa’s house, the house they toiled in seven days a week or in many cases on other plantations even built. They are now living high on the hog, bottom rail on top massa,” wrote Campbell.
Whether Campbell realizes it or not, his approach does more harm than good and upholds white supremacy. The entire premise of the event was a huge fail, and not grounded in actual history.
Having lives intertwined with their oppressors does not mean that “Massa” and his overseer need to be positioned as central figures in a Juneteenth celebration. To cast white owners and overseers as refugees or the victims of an economic downturn is disrespectful and racist.
Black or white, the impact is still the same. It really doesn’t matter what event Campbell thought he was doing. And this event allegedly flew under everyone’s radar, which raises other questions about programming at Latta, including the Civil War soldier summer camp.
Drawing unwanted scrutiny to itself, the North Carolina “living history” farm could lose support from Mecklenburg County and the city of Huntersville. Local news reported both the city and Mecklenburg County were “reviewing their ties” to Latta Plantation.
In a statement, the county stated its commitment to diversity and said it had a zero-tolerance policy toward programs that do not embrace equity and diversity.
Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles said in a statement that the Latta Plantation should have “known better.” From Campbell’s statement, it doesn’t seem like he nor the plantation had a clue about what it means to represent the lives of enslaved Black people or how to commemorate their freedom.
Even if they have since learned the error in their ways, there remains a description of the Civil War Soldier’s Life program on the plantation’s website that says it is “taken from a viewpoint that neither favors nor discredits, this program discusses the political, social, and military aspects of this tragic conflict.”
Revisionist historical re-enactments are not new. The south is full of them. But the focus on empathy with southern planters and their white employees speaks to a larger issue.
In March, a North Carolina school district came under fire for mock tweets from students promoting slavery. Another historical role-playing event, “gone wrong,” these incidents are more common than one would think for the 21st century.
Whether in a classroom or on a plantation, teaching history needs more than lip service to cultural sensitivity. And while some plantations have “evolved,” there’s clearly more work to do.
Like the Whitney in Louisiana, few plantations center the lives and experiences of formerly enslaved Black people. The Washington Post recently highlighted efforts by the Whitney to work with descendants in figuring out programming that directly supports descendants of those formerly enslaved on the site. Both Middleton Place in South Carolina and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello in Virginia award partial scholarships to descendants of those once enslaved on the plantations.
A $2,000 to $5,000 scholarship is not reparations but represents a shift in the way plantations exist beyond tourist attractions. Joy Banner, the founder of the Descendant Project, told the Washington Post she would ultimately like to see a transfer of land ownership or a land conservancy that would directly benefit descendants of those enslaved on the Whitney Plantation.
“There are as many different forms of reparations as you can think of because healing looks different in every community,” Banner told the Washington Post. “It’s my calling from God to do what I can to protect the descendant community and help us grow.”
In the 1760s Anglo-American frontiersmen, determined to settle the land, planted slavery firmly within the borders of what would become Tennessee. Over time, East Tennessee, hilly and dominated by small farms, retained the fewest number of slaves. Middle Tennessee, where tobacco, cattle, and grain became the favored crops, held the largest number of slaves throughout the antebellum period. West Tennessee, the area between the Tennessee and Mississippi Rivers, ultimately the richest cotton producing section of the state, saw the greatest concentration of slaves. By 1860 Tennessee’s 275,719 slaves represented just under 25 percent of the total population and were engaged in urban, industrial, and agricultural slavery.
When North Carolina ceded its western lands to the United States in 1790, the terms of cession prevented the new federal congress from excluding slavery in the Southwest Territory, as had been done under the Articles of Confederation’s government in the Northwest Territory. Six years later, when Tennessee achieved statehood, the 1796 constitution remained mute on the status of slavery. The state operated under the laws first promulgated by North Carolina, whereby slaves were regarded primarily as chattel (the property of their owners), but sometimes as persons with legal obligations and a very few legal rights. Slaves, for example, had the right to a jury trial in those exceptional cases of crimes that were outside the master’s jurisdiction. They also had the right to contest their ownership in the courts if they could present evidence and procure a white sponsor. At the same time, as in all of the slave states, the marriage of slaves and their right to their children had no legal sanction.
As Tennesseans moved westward from the 1770s throughout the 1820s, successive frontiers saw a temporary loosening of restraints on slaves and a multiplication of roles for slaves to play. Slaves traveled alone through the wilderness on their masters’ errands, carried guns for protection against Indians and to hunt game, and shared tight quarters with their masters in the stockades. White men of property made unusually public alliances with women of color, and sometimes they freed and provided for their mulatto children. Agencies to enforce racial codes were weak and erratic. Ironically, however, in these years, roughly from 1770 to 1830, when legal obstacles least constrained emancipation, both the demand for slave labor and uncertain frontier finances made slave families especially vulnerable to slave sales. From the beginning slaves were among white Tennesseans’ most valuable assets in time, both Nashville and, most notably, Memphis established permanent slave markets. From 1826 until 1853, legislation outlawing interstate trade in slaves was ignored.
East Tennessee manifested an early antislavery sentiment. Some twenty-five manumission societies organized before 1830 and attracted major figures in the emerging national campaign against slavery. Men like Elihu Embree and Benjamin Lundy attempted to find ways to achieve emancipation without violent upheaval. In 1829 the Tennessee Colonization Society organized to send emancipated slaves to Liberia, transporting 870 ex-slaves to Africa in the period that ended in 1866. Although this modest record had minimal impact on the institution of slavery in Tennessee, it represented the only antislavery activity tolerated in the state after the 1830s. Manumission societies disappeared, and public discussion of emancipation was prohibited. The increasing militancy of the abolition movement in the North, periodic white panic following rumors of slave insurrection, and above all, the increasing institutionalization of slavery as it became part of the settled agriculture of the state dictated a harsher legal code governing not only slaves, but also free blacks and white abolitionists. In 1831, for example, the law required that emancipation of a slave had to be accompanied by removal from the state, while severe penalties were enacted against the distribution of “rebellion inciting” materials. The 1835 state constitution explicitly deprived free blacks of the right to vote. Laws against the assembling of blacks, which were often observed only in the breach, were harshly enforced during slave rebellion scares.
Although most slaves, both male and female, were agricultural workers, slavery was not a uniform experience. On the farm, a slave’s life was influenced, first, by the kind of operation the master ran: a subsistence farm, a corn and tobacco cash crop farm, a livestock farm, a cotton plantation, or, most likely in all sections of Tennessee, some combination of these. Secondly, the number of slaves a master housed helped determine the contours of any given slave community. Relatively few great plantations existed in Tennessee. Census records show that only one person owned more than 300 slaves in 1860 and only forty-seven owned more than 100. More than three-fourths of all masters held fewer than 10 slaves together they controlled under 40 percent of the slave population. Thus, by 1860, more than half of the slaves probably lived in quarters that housed more than ten, but many fewer than 100 slaves. Work assignments were dictated by the seasonal needs of the master’s farm, by the domestic needs of the master’s household, and often by the needs of the plots assigned to slave families to provide a portion of their subsistence. Some slaves, especially those with special talents as carpenters, weavers, or musicians, were hired out to other planters or town residents.
For the most part, rural slaves had to create their own societies. They focused first on putting together families which, given the trauma of slave sales and dispersals, meant putting together surrogate families to take in newly purchased single adults or children separated from parents. The so-called matriarchal families of slavery were one result, but the nuclear or extended family remained the vital institutional base of slave society. Generally slaves were housed in family units rather than in barracks, which undoubtedly reinforced the sense of family that prevailed in the slave quarters despite the ways in which slavery violated the norms of family life as understood by black people or by white people of the nineteenth century.
Religion also served as a strong survival mechanism, as slaves adopted and adapted Christianity. Frontier Methodist and Baptist churches were open to slaves in ways that were almost anomalous given the institutional constraints of slavery. Methodist circuit riders preached to whites and blacks and eagerly claimed black converts. Black church members were called upon to exhort their fellow parishioners, black and white, in Baptist churches. Within the quarters, slave preachers, who emerged from the slave community itself, interpreted Christianity in the quarters powerful gospel music was created. This musical response to a people’s travail left a historical record for modern historians, but more importantly, it provided immediate solace, hope, and solidarity. Despite the denial of literacy, some slaves learned how to read with or without the cooperation of individual masters. Thus, slaves fashioned a world of their own within the white masters’ farms and plantations. Slave owners were often conscious of this slave community outside their purview, in some sense independent of them, even subversive, but usually they chose to ignore what they could not control.
Urban slavery produced another set of experiences. In most towns and in the larger cities, slaves were ubiquitous, scattered throughout the community, visible at any public event, providing the basic manual labor of the city and much of its skilled labor as well. The black population of the village of Nashville in 1800 amounted to 45 percent of the total. As the town grew, that figure declined to just over a third of the total in the 1820s and 1830s, and then continued to decline to 25 percent in 1850, and to 23 percent in 1860. European immigrants entering the labor force accounted for much of this change, which was even more dramatic in Memphis, where the cotton boom attracted many new immigrants to fill the demand for labor and the city’s black population declined from 28 percent to 17 percent in the decade before the Civil War. Urban conditions may have meant greater opportunities for literacy and education of all sorts, for religious choices, and even a quasi-legal independence for some slaves. On the other hand, cities may have been harder on the slave family’s integrity.
Most city slave owners, living in restricted quarters, bought or rented individual slaves according to the services required, although they sometimes agreed to take on slave children with their mothers, so that in many households, the slave family centered around the mother, grandmother, or “auntie.” The hiring of slaves became so common it was institutionalized: each New Year’s Day, the market square drew slaves and employers to bargain for slave labor for the coming year. Self-hire, by which masters allowed slaves to bargain for their own labor with employers, who simply sent back a fixed sum to the owner, was illegal but so convenient and profitable that it was difficult to stop. These quasi-free people mingled with the legally free black population, which though fewer than a thousand persons in Nashville in 1860, succeeded in creating autonomous Methodist, Baptist, and Christian (Disciples of Christ) congregations, open to slaves as well as free persons, and pastored by well-known black ministers. Nelson Merry led the Baptist congregation from the 1840s until his death in 1884, when his church numbered more than two thousand members. Schools were more clandestine operations and yet were stubbornly and courageously opened by free blacks like Daniel Wadkins, William Napier, and Sally Porter, and then reopened after white panic that periodically forced them to close had eased.
City life was not only churches or schools, or even the excitement of the streets it was mainly work, and slaves performed in virtually every capacity. They worked as the municipality’s street hands and in the hotels’ kitchens. They were domestics of all sorts–coachmen, housepainters, laundresses, and midwives. They were also industrial workers. Small textile plants advertised for hands early in the nineteenth century mines and gristmills used slave labor, often as hired hands. From 1807 until 1857 iron master Montgomery Bell operated a series of furnaces employing hundreds of slaves. The steam-driven Worley Furnace, built in 1844 in Dickson County, was named for Bell’s slave and trusted manager of his works, James Worley, and was operated with slave labor. By 1833 some of Nashville’s earliest merchant bankers, Thomas Yeatman and his partners, Joseph and Robert Woods, had developed iron mines, blast furnaces, and a rolling mill in Stewart County that were operated by at least 200 slaves. By the 1850s this operation, the Cumberland River Iron Works, employed almost 2,000 slaves and nearly as many white workers. The concentration of slave labor in the iron manufacturing industry focused suspicion on the Iron Works in 1835, when the specter of slave rebellion seemed imminent. Again in 1856, the suspicion of rebellion resulted in the torture of 65 slaves from the Iron Works to produce confessions to insurrection. Nine of the “confessed” rebels were hanged at the Iron Works and another 19 at Dover.
Resistance to slavery by slaves was rarely a matter of conspiracy, though. Most resistance involved individual actions of sabotage, slow-downs in output, negligence with livestock and tools, and other kinds of behavior that might force concessions in work loads or rewards from overseers or masters. The most feared forms of slave rebellion were poison and arson. The runaway slave, regardless of the success of his endeavor, was the most conspicuous and the most common embodiment of resistance throughout the history of slavery. In Tennessee slavery officially ended in April of 1865, when the Unionist-controlled legislature ratified the Thirteenth Amendment.
The Shocking Photo of 'Whipped Peter' That Made Slavery's Brutality Impossible to Deny
An escaped enslaved man named Peter showing his scarred back at a medical examination in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 1863.
By the time he made it to a Union encampment in Baton Rouge in March 1863, Peter had been through hell. Bloodhounds had chased him. He had been pursued for miles, had run barefoot through creeks and across fields. He had survived, if barely. When he reached the soldiers, Peter’s clothing was ragged and soaked with mud and sweat.
But his 10-day ordeal was nothing compared to what he had already been through. During Peter&aposs enslavement on John and Bridget Lyons’ Louisiana plantation, Peter endured not just the indignity of slavery, but a brutal whipping that nearly took his life. And when he joined the Union Army after his escape from slavery, Peter exposed his scars during a medical examination.
Raised welts and strafe marks crisscrossed his back. The marks extended from his buttocks to his shoulders, calling to mind the viciousness and power with which he had been beaten. It was a hideous constellation of scars: visual proof of the brutality of slavery. And for thousands of white people, it was a shocking image that helped fuel the fires of abolition during the Civil War.
A photograph of Peter’s back became one of the most widely circulated images of slavery of its time, galvanizing public opinion and serving as a wordless indictment of the institution of slavery. Peter&aposs disfigured back helped bring the stakes of the Civil War to life, contradicting Southerners’ insistence that their slaveholding was a matter of economic survival, not racism. And it showed just how important mass media was during the war that nearly destroyed the United States.
Not much is known about Peter aside from the testimony he gave the medical examiners at the camp and the image of his back and the keloid scars he suffered from his beating. He told examiners that he had left the plantation ten days ago, and that the man who whipped him was the plantation’s overseer, Artayou Carrier. After the whipping, he was told he had become “sort of crazy” and had threatened his wife. As he lay in bed recovering, the plantation owner fired the overseer. But Peter had already determined to escape.
Peter and three other enslaved people escaped by cover of night, but one of their companions was murdered by slave hunters who came in pursuit of Lyons’ property. The surviving escapees rubbed onions on their bodies to escape the bloodhounds the slave catchers used to pursue them. Only after days of pursuit did they reach the Union encampment, weeping with joy when they were greeted by Black men in uniform. They immediately enlisted.
The white soldiers who inspected Peter were horrified by his wounds. “Suiting the action to the word, he pulled down the pile of dirty rags that half concealed his back,” said a witness. “It sent a thrill of horror to every white person present, but the few Blacks who were waiting…paid but little attention to the sad spectacle, such terrible scenes being painfully familiar to them all.”
But though Peter’s experience was shared by thousands of enslaved people, it was foreign to many Northerners who had never witnessed slavery and its brutality with their own eyes. Mass media was still relatively new, and though escaped slaves and other eyewitnesses brought stories of whippings and other punishments north, few had seen the evidence of the oppression of slaves.
McPherson and Oliver, two itinerant photographers who were at the camp, photographed Peter’s back, and the photo was reproduced and distributed as a carte-de-visite, a trendy new photographic format. The small cards were cheap to produce and became wildly popular during the Civil War, providing a near-instant look at the war, and its players, as it unfolded.
Peter’s photo quickly spread across the nation. “I have found a large number of the four hundred or so contrabands [people who had escaped slavery and were now protected by the Union Army] examined by me to be as badly lacerated as the specimen represented in the enclosed photograph,” J.W. Mercer, a Union Army surgeon in Louisiana, wrote on the back of the card. He sent it to Colonel L.B. Marsh.
“This Card Photograph should be multiplied by 100,000, and scattered over the States,” an anonymous journalist wrote. The image was a powerful rebuttal to the lie that enslaved people were treated humanely,ਊ common refrain of those who didn’t think slavery should be abolished.
Three illustrations showing Peter after his escape, the welts from being whipped upon his back, and in uniform after he had joined the Union Army, featured in McPherson and Oliver in July, 1863.
Peter was not the only runaway slave whose image helped stoke anti-slavery sentiments. As soon as the carte de visite was introduced in 1854, the technology became popular in abolitionist circles. Others who had escaped from slavery, like Frederick Douglass, posed for popular portraits. Sojourner Truth even used the proceeds from the cartes de visites she sold at her speeches to fund speaking tours and help recruit Black soldiers.
But Peter’s strafed back was perhaps the most visible𠅊nd significant—photograph of a former enslaved person. It was sold by abolitionists who used it to raise money for their cause, and gained the name “The Scourged Back” or “Whipped Peter.” When it was published in Harper’s Weekly, the most popular periodical of its day, it reached a massive audience. The spread also stoked confusion when Peter’s name was listed instead as “Gordon.”
The photo was also decried as fake by the Copperheads, a nickname for a faction of Northerners who opposed the war and was loudly sympathetic of the South and of slave ownership. An unnamed Union Army soldier who had taken the photographs shot back with a long account that upheld the veracity of the photograph. 𠇊ll the logic of the blind and infatuated believers in Human Slavery cannot arrest or thwart the progress of truth, any more than they can prevent the development of the positive picture, when aided by the silent and powerful process of chemical action,” he wrote.
Though Peter’s body was used as proof of the cruelty of slavery, accounts of his ordeal are saturated with the racism that pervaded American society, even among sympathetic white Northerners. The Harper’s spread referred to Peter as possessing “unusual intelligence and energy,” laying bare stereotypes of Black people as stupid and lazy. A surgeon who was present at his examination noted that “nothing in his appearance indicates any unusual viciousness,” as if anything could justify a whipping.
Despite the racism of the day, though, Peter’s portrait did galvanize even those who had never spoken out against slavery. “What began as a very local — even private — image ultimately achieved something much grander because it circulated so widely,” historian Bruce Laurie told the Boston Globe.
It’s unclear what Peter did during the rest of the war, or what his life was like after the Civil War came to an end. Though slavery had been abolished, he𠅊nd the others who had been subjugated, beaten and demeaned during hundreds of years of slavery in the Americas—still bore the scars of enslavement.
As historian Michael Dickman notes, whipping was a common punishment on Southern plantations, though there was a debate about whether to use it sparingly to keep enslaved people from revolting. “Masters desired to maintain order in a society in which they were in unquestionable positions of authority,” he writes. “They used the whip as a tool to enforce this vision of society. Slaves, on the other hand, through their victimization and punishment, viewed the whip as the physical manifestation of their oppression under slavery.”
For white Southerners and enslaved Black people, the sight of a back like Peter’s was chillingly commonplace. For white Northerners, though, Peter’s scourged body made slavery&aposs brutality impossible to deny. It remains one of the era’s best known𠅊nd most appalling—images.
Remembering the Women of Slavery by Sylviane Diouf March 27, 2015
Since my graduate school days in Paris, I have been researching and writing and talking about the slave trade and slavery. On March 25, I had the honor of doing the latter during the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
Here's what I wanted people to know and remember:
It is a great honor to be here today among you as we commemorate the victims of slavery and the transatlantic slave trade whose memory has been so movingly captured and rendered by architect Rodney Leon. This year’s theme, “Women and Slavery,” comes fittingly on the heels of International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month. This theme reminds us that no history, no present and no future can be written without recognizing the vital role of women that, unfortunately, is too often obscured, glossed over, forgotten, or even denied.
So I am particularly pleased to be helping to break the silence that surrounds the women who were not simply the victims of the transatlantic slave trade and slavery, but were also immense contributors to the creation of a new world. But, first, let us remember that between the early 1500s and 1867 as many captives crossed the Atlantic as were forced out of Africa by all the other slave trades combined from 500 CE to 1900. The transatlantic slave trade was the most massive forced migration in history.
As a result, from 1492 to 1820, 80 percent of the people who arrived in the Americas were Africans, only 20 percent were Europeans. Africans landed in every country, from Argentina to Bolivia, from every Caribbean Island to Honduras and North America. The Africans’ skills, knowledge, and work transformed the land. They mined and cultivated the riches of the continents. They built cities and towns, and fought for their freedom and the independence of the countries that enslaved them, all the while developing new cultures, new languages, new religions, new peoples. Females represented 30 percent of the people who survived the Middle Passage.
We know that most deported Africans were between the ages of 15 and 30. What it means is that the majority of the women who boarded the slave ships were married and had children. It was the case for many men too. These women were not only daughters and sisters, then, but they were also wives and mothers leaving husbands and young children behind, or seeing them embark on another ship.
The sheer agony at being so brutally separated from the family that had loved them, uprooted from their community forever can never be adequately described, and it often was expressed without words. On the slave ships, one surgeon explained, men and women “showed signs of extreme distress and despair, from a feeling of their situation at being torn from their friends and connections. They were often heard in the night making a howling melancholy noise, expressive of extreme anguish. It was because they had dreamed they were in their own country again, and finding themselves, when awake, in the hold of a slave-ship. This exquisite sensibility was particularly observable among the women many of whom, on such occasions, he found in hysteric fits.”
The women who survived the ordeal represented 80 percent of all the women who landed in the Americas before 1820. Their presence had a considerable impact on the formation of the continents’ societies. They were central to the demographic, social, and cultural development of the Western Hemisphere.
They carried with them their knowledge of medicinal plants and various crops, their skills at gardening and midwifery, their cuisines, their songs, dances, and stories, and their gendered traditions, values, cultures, and religious practices. Although their mortality rates were high and their fertility rates were low, they were the women who brought to the world the first generations of Americans.
But as slaves and as women, they and their daughters and granddaughters bore the brunt of oppression. Studies have shown that women were more likely to be subjected to excessive physical abuse than men. They were more vulnerable, less likely to respond with force. As Frederick Douglass wrote, “He is whipped oftenest, who is whipped easiest.” Women, like men, were stripped naked and whipped and humiliated in front of their children and the larger community.
The abjection of slavery took an added dimension when women were concerned. They were the victims of sexual abuse, from harassment to forced prostitution, and from breeding to rape. Rape by sailors on the slave ships, and rape by overseers, slaveholders, and their sons in the Americas was a persistent threat to all, a horrific reality to many. Used, like it continues to be used today, as a weapon of terror, rape was meant to assert power over and demean not only the women, but also their fathers, brothers, husbands, and sons, who were reminded daily that they were considered less than men since they could not protect their womenfolk. Breeding through compulsion or incentives was another appaling feature of the gender-based violence and exploitation women had to endure. Overall, the sexual abuse of women was part of the larger attempt at demoralization and submission of the entire community.
Slavery did not recognize the sanctity of marriage. Couples and families could be broken up at any time, without warning. Commonly, except on large plantations, husbands and wives did not reside on the same place, sometimes not in the same neighborhood following sales or owners’ relocation. Thus, the reality is that despite men’s often incredibly heroic efforts at visiting and supporting their families, women were forced to raise their children largely on their own, for as long as they could since they lived under the constant threat of sales, sale of their children, or their own sale.
But in the midst of it all, women fought back in a multitude of ways. Throughout the Americas, their “insolence” was noted. Verbal confrontations, gestures, attitudes, looks, facial expressions that showed lack of respect and challenged authority were deemed to be mostly the weapon of women. These overt manifestations of hostility and insubordination could be brutally punished. It was often the women who were the poisoners of animals and people, spreading terror among slaveholders who feared for their lives and the lives of their families, and saw their holdings in beasts and humans shrink.Rejecting the owners’ management of their fertility, mothers and midwives were the abortionists, and the perpetrators of infanticide who refused to bring children into a miserable world and increase slaveholders’ fortunes.
Even if less frequently than men, women ran away to cities and free territories or stayed on their own or with their families in small and large maroon communities all over the Western Hemisphere. In the United States, there were mothers and their children who lived in caves they had dug 7 feet under the ground. Some gave birth there and remained safely hidden for years. During insurrections women fed the fighters, transported ammunition, acted as spies, and tended to the wounded. Some fought arms in hand sometimes disguised as men. Others used their gender as a weapon. The uprising and the revolution in St Domingue, for example, saw some women exchange sexual favors with the French soldiers for bullets and gunpowder. Women were hanged, whipped to death, burned alive, mauled by dogs, or shot for marronage, assault, arson, poisoning, or rebellion.
But one of the most enduring aspects of women’s resistance was the preservation and passing on of culture. Because of the widespread dislocation of families, mothers were, not the only but too often the main, social and cultural nurturers of 15 generations of enslaved men and women in the Americas. Given the circumstances, they, predominantly, provided their children with the inner strength and the coping mechanisms that enabled them to survive, live, love, hope, create, and form strong, resourceful communities.Through oral traditions, skills, deeds, example, and sheer determination, women largely kept the African Diaspora in the Atlantic world together. They were instrumental in creating and transmitting the dynamic and vibrant cultures we know as African-American, Gullah-Geechee, Caribbean, Bushinenge, Afro-Peruana, Afro-Brasileira, Creole, and antillaise.
The women’s bravery and stamina in a world that tried to degrade them as human beings, as Africans, and as women, is an extraordinarily inspiring example for all times and all places. In a most evil terror system, in a racist, sexist and patriarchal environment, women found ways: they taught, they protected, they nurtured, they challenged, and they fought.
The women’s struggles, alongside the men, did not end with the abolition of the slave trade and slavery. As the need for an International Decade for People of African Descent abundantly shows, their 200 million descendants in the Atlantic world still face daunting obstacles: individual and institutional racism, racial and gender marginalization and discrimination, poverty, de facto segregation and the denial of basic rights. Breaking the silence and confronting these issues, including modern slavery and sexual slavery that primarily victimize girls and women, are our responsibility today so that the next generations will not have to fight the same battles.
As a historian of the slave trade and slavery, there are many things I wish I did not know, or I wish I could forget. But one thing I know and I will not forget is the remarkable creativity, energy, resourcefulness and fortitude of the women who, with amazing courage and grace, showed us the way.
The Ark of Return at the United Nations
That memorable day saw the unveiling of the magnificent “Ark of Return,” a beautiful, striking memorial designed by architect Rodney Leon, who is also the creator of the African Burial Ground National Monument in Lower Manhattan. The permanent memorial is located on UN ground.
Did Black People Own Slaves?
Nicolas Augustin Metoyer of Louisiana owned 13 slaves in 1830. He and his 12 family members collectively owned 215 slaves.
Editor's note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these "amazing facts" are an homage.
(The Root) -- 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro No. 21: Did black people own slaves? If so, why?
One of the most vexing questions in African-American history is whether free African Americans themselves owned slaves. The short answer to this question, as you might suspect, is yes, of course some free black people in this country bought and sold other black people, and did so at least since 1654, continuing to do so right through the Civil War. For me, the really fascinating questions about black slave-owning are how many black "masters" were involved, how many slaves did they own and why did they own slaves?
The answers to these questions are complex, and historians have been arguing for some time over whether free blacks purchased family members as slaves in order to protect them -- motivated, on the one hand, by benevolence and philanthropy, as historian Carter G. Woodson put it, or whether, on the other hand, they purchased other black people "as an act of exploitation," primarily to exploit their free labor for profit, just as white slave owners did. The evidence shows that, unfortunately, both things are true. The great African-American historian, John Hope Franklin, states this clearly: "The majority of Negro owners of slaves had some personal interest in their property." But, he admits, "There were instances, however, in which free Negroes had a real economic interest in the institution of slavery and held slaves in order to improve their economic status."
In a fascinating essay reviewing this controversy, R. Halliburton shows that free black people have owned slaves "in each of the thirteen original states and later in every state that countenanced slavery," at least since Anthony Johnson and his wife Mary went to court in Virginia in 1654 to obtain the services of their indentured servant, a black man, John Castor, for life.
And for a time, free black people could even "own" the services of white indentured servants in Virginia as well. Free blacks owned slaves in Boston by 1724 and in Connecticut by 1783 by 1790, 48 black people in Maryland owned 143 slaves. One particularly notorious black Maryland farmer named Nat Butler "regularly purchased and sold Negroes for the Southern trade," Halliburton wrote.
Perhaps the most insidious or desperate attempt to defend the right of black people to own slaves was the statement made on the eve of the Civil War by a group of free people of color in New Orleans, offering their services to the Confederacy, in part because they were fearful for their own enslavement: "The free colored population [native] of Louisiana … own slaves, and they are dearly attached to their native land … and they are ready to shed their blood for her defense. They have no sympathy for abolitionism no love for the North, but they have plenty for Louisiana … They will fight for her in 1861 as they fought [to defend New Orleans from the British] in 1814-1815."
These guys were, to put it bluntly, opportunists par excellence: As Noah Andre Trudeau and James G. Hollandsworth Jr. explain, once the war broke out, some of these same black men formed 14 companies of a militia composed of 440 men and were organized by the governor in May 1861 into "the Native Guards, Louisiana," swearing to fight to defend the Confederacy. Although given no combat role, the Guards -- reaching a peak of 1,000 volunteers -- became the first Civil War unit to appoint black officers.
When New Orleans fell in late April 1862 to the Union, about 10 percent of these men, not missing a beat, now formed the Native Guard/Corps d'Afrique to defend the Union. Joel A. Rogers noted this phenomenon in his 100 Amazing Facts: "The Negro slave-holders, like the white ones, fought to keep their chattels in the Civil War." Rogers also notes that some black men, including those in New Orleans at the outbreak of the War, "fought to perpetuate slavery."
How Many Slaves Did Blacks Own?
So what do the actual numbers of black slave owners and their slaves tell us? In 1830, the year most carefully studied by Carter G. Woodson, about 13.7 percent (319,599) of the black population was free. Of these, 3,776 free Negroes owned 12,907 slaves, out of a total of 2,009,043 slaves owned in the entire United States, so the numbers of slaves owned by black people over all was quite small by comparison with the number owned by white people. In his essay, " 'The Known World' of Free Black Slaveholders," Thomas J. Pressly, using Woodson's statistics, calculated that 54 (or about 1 percent) of these black slave owners in 1830 owned between 20 and 84 slaves 172 (about 4 percent) owned between 10 to 19 slaves and 3,550 (about 94 percent) each owned between 1 and 9 slaves. Crucially, 42 percent owned just one slave.
It is reasonable to assume that the 42 percent of the free black slave owners who owned just one slave probably owned a family member to protect that person, as did many of the other black slave owners who owned only slightly larger numbers of slaves. As Woodson put it in 1924's Free Negro Owners of Slaves in the United States in 1830, "The census records show that the majority of the Negro owners of slaves were such from the point of view of philanthropy. In many instances the husband purchased the wife or vice versa … Slaves of Negroes were in some cases the children of a free father who had purchased his wife. If he did not thereafter emancipate the mother, as so many such husbands failed to do, his own children were born his slaves and were thus reported to the numerators."
Moreover, Woodson explains, "Benevolent Negroes often purchased slaves to make their lot easier by granting them their freedom for a nominal sum, or by permitting them to work it out on liberal terms." In other words, these black slave-owners, the clear majority, cleverly used the system of slavery to protect their loved ones. That's the good news.
But not all did, and that is the bad news. Halliburton concludes, after examining the evidence, that "it would be a serious mistake to automatically assume that free blacks owned their spouse or children only for benevolent purposes." Woodson himself notes that a "small number of slaves, however, does not always signify benevolence on the part of the owner." And John Hope Franklin notes that in North Carolina, "Without doubt, there were those who possessed slaves for the purpose of advancing their [own] well-being … these Negro slaveholders were more interested in making their farms or carpenter-shops 'pay' than they were in treating their slaves humanely." For these black slaveholders, he concludes, "there was some effort to conform to the pattern established by the dominant slaveholding group within the State in the effort to elevate themselves to a position of respect and privilege." In other words, most black slave owners probably owned family members to protect them, but far too many turned to slavery to exploit the labor of other black people for profit.
Who Were These Black Slave Owners?
If we were compiling a "Rogues Gallery of Black History," the following free black slaveholders would be in it:
William Ellison's fascinating story is told by Michael Johnson and James L. Roark in their book, Black Masters: A Free Family of Color in the Old South. At his death on the eve of the Civil War, Ellison was wealthier than nine out of 10 white people in South Carolina. He was born in 1790 as a slave on a plantation in the Fairfield District of the state, far up country from Charleston. In 1816, at the age of 26, he bought his own freedom, and soon bought his wife and their child. In 1822, he opened his own cotton gin, and soon became quite wealthy. By his death in 1860, he owned 900 acres of land and 63 slaves. Not one of his slaves was allowed to purchase his or her own freedom.
Louisiana, as we have seen, was its own bizarre world of color, class, caste and slavery.
By 1830, in Louisiana, several black people there owned a large number of slaves, including the following: In Pointe Coupee Parish alone, Sophie Delhonde owned 38 slaves Lefroix Decuire owned 59 slaves Antoine Decuire owned 70 slaves Leandre Severin owned 60 slaves and Victor Duperon owned 10. In St. John the Baptist Parish, Victoire Deslondes owned 52 slaves in Plaquemine Brule, Martin Donatto owned 75 slaves in Bayou Teche, Jean B. Muillion owned 52 slaves Martin Lenormand in St. Martin Parish owned 44 slaves Verret Polen in West Baton Rouge Parish owned 69 slaves Francis Jerod in Washita Parish owned 33 slaves and Cecee McCarty in the Upper Suburbs of New Orleans owned 32 slaves. Incredibly, the 13 members of the Metoyer family in Natchitoches Parish -- including Nicolas Augustin Metoyer, pictured -- collectively owned 215 slaves.
Antoine Dubuclet and his wife Claire Pollard owned more than 70 slaves in Iberville Parish when they married. According to Thomas Clarkin, by 1864, in the midst of the Civil War, they owned 100 slaves, worth $94,700. During Reconstruction, he became the state's first black treasurer, serving between 1868 and 1878.
Andrew Durnford was a sugar planter and a physician who owned the St. Rosalie plantation, 33 miles south of New Orleans. In the late 1820s, David O. Whitten tells us, he paid $7,000 for seven male slaves, five females and two children. He traveled all the way to Virginia in the 1830s and purchased 24 more. Eventually, he would own 77 slaves. When a fellow Creole slave owner liberated 85 of his slaves and shipped them off to Liberia, Durnford commented that he couldn't do that, because "self interest is too strongly rooted in the bosom of all that breathes the American atmosphere."
It would be a mistake to think that large black slaveholders were only men. In 1830, in Louisiana, the aforementioned Madame Antoine Dublucet owned 44 slaves, and Madame Ciprien Ricard owned 35 slaves, Louise Divivier owned 17 slaves, Genevieve Rigobert owned 16 slaves and Rose Lanoix and Caroline Miller both owned 13 slaves, while over in Georgia, Betsey Perry owned 25 slaves. According to Johnson and Roark, the wealthiest black person in Charleston, S.C., in 1860 was Maria Weston, who owned 14 slaves and property valued at more than $40,000, at a time when the average white man earned about $100 a year. (The city's largest black slaveholders, though, were Justus Angel and Mistress L. Horry, both of whom owned 84 slaves.)
In Savannah, Ga., between 1823 and 1828, according to Betty Wood's Gender, Race, and Rank in a Revolutionary Age, Hannah Leion owned nine slaves, while the largest slaveholder in 1860 was Ciprien Ricard, who had a sugarcane plantation in Louisiana and owned 152 slaves with her son, Pierre -- many more that the 35 she owned in 1830. According to economic historian Stanley Engerman, "In Charleston, South Carolina about 42 percent of free blacks owned slaves in 1850, and about 64 percent of these slaveholders were women." Greed, in other words, was gender-blind.
Why They Owned Slaves
These men and women, from William Stanly to Madame Ciprien Ricard, were among the largest free Negro slaveholders, and their motivations were neither benevolent nor philanthropic. One would be hard-pressed to account for their ownership of such large numbers of slaves except as avaricious, rapacious, acquisitive and predatory.
But lest we romanticize all of those small black slave owners who ostensibly purchased family members only for humanitarian reasons, even in these cases the evidence can be problematic. Halliburton, citing examples from an essay in the North American Review by Calvin Wilson in 1905, presents some hair-raising challenges to the idea that black people who owned their own family members always treated them well:
A free black in Trimble County, Kentucky, " … sold his own son and daughter South, one for $1,000, the other for $1,200." … A Maryland father sold his slave children in order to purchase his wife. A Columbus, Georgia, black woman -- Dilsey Pope -- owned her husband. "He offended her in some way and she sold him … " Fanny Canady of Louisville, Kentucky, owned her husband Jim -- a drunken cobbler -- whom she threatened to "sell down the river." At New Bern, North Carolina, a free black wife and son purchased their slave husband-father. When the newly bought father criticized his son, the son sold him to a slave trader. The son boasted afterward that "the old man had gone to the corn fields about New Orleans where they might learn him some manners."
Carter Woodson, too, tells us that some of the husbands who purchased their spouses "were not anxious to liberate their wives immediately. They considered it advisable to put them on probation for a few years, and if they did not find them satisfactory they would sell their wives as other slave holders disposed of Negroes." He then relates the example of a black man, a shoemaker in Charleston, S.C., who purchased his wife for $700. But "on finding her hard to please, he sold her a few months thereafter for $750, gaining $50 by the transaction."
Most of us will find the news that some black people bought and sold other black people for profit quite distressing, as well we should. But given the long history of class divisions in the black community, whichMartin R. Delany as early as the 1850s described as "a nation within a nation," and given the role of African elites in the long history of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, perhaps we should not be surprised that we can find examples throughout black history of just about every sort of human behavior, from the most noble to the most heinous, that we find in any other people's history.
The good news, scholars agree, is that by 1860 the number of free blacks owning slaves had markedly decreased from 1830. In fact, Loren Schweninger concludes that by the eve of the Civil War, "the phenomenon of free blacks owning slaves had nearly disappeared" in the Upper South, even if it had not in places such as Louisiana in the Lower South. Nevertheless, it is a very sad aspect of African-American history that slavery sometimes could be a colorblind affair, and that the evil business of owning another human being could manifest itself in both males and females, and in black as well as white.
As always, you can find more "Amazing Facts About the Negro" on The Root, and check back each week as we count to 100.
Blog: On The Beat
“I [patroller’s name], do swear, that I will as searcher for guns, swords, and other weapons among the slaves in my district, faithfully, and as privately as I can, discharge the trust reposed in me as the law directs, to the best of my power. So help me, God.”
-Slave Patroller’s Oath, North Carolina, 1828.
When one thinks about policing in early America, there are a few images that may come to mind: A county sheriff enforcing a debt between neighbors, a constable serving an arrest warrant on horseback, or a lone night watchman carrying a lantern through his sleeping town. These organized practices were adapted to the colonies from England and formed the foundations of American law enforcement. However, there is another significant origin of American policing that we cannot forget—and that is slave patrols.
The American South relied almost exclusively on slave labor and white Southerners lived in near constant fear of slave rebellions disrupting this economic status quo. As a result, these patrols were one of the earliest and most prolific forms of early policing in the South. The responsibility of patrols was straightforward—to control the movements and behaviors of enslaved populations. According to historian Gary Potter, slave patrols served three main functions.
“(1) to chase down, apprehend, and return to their owners, runaway slaves (2) to provide a form of organized terror to deter slave revolts and, (3) to maintain a form of discipline for slave-workers who were subject to summary justice, outside the law.”[i]
Organized policing was one of the many types of social controls imposed on enslaved African Americans in the South. Physical and psychological violence took many forms, including an overseer’s brutal whip, the intentional breakup of families, deprivation of food and other necessities, and the private employment of slave catchers to track down runaways.
Slave patrols were no less violent in their control of African Americans they beat and terrorized as well. Their distinction was that they were legally compelled to do so by local authorities. In this sense, it was considered a civic duty—one that in some areas could result in a fine if avoided. In others, patrollers received financial compensation for their work. Typically, slave patrol routines included enforcing curfews, checking travelers for a permission pass, catching those assembling without permission, and preventing any form of organized resistance. As historian Sally Hadden writes in her book, Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas,
“The history of police work in the South grows out of this early fascination, by white patrollers, with what African American slaves were doing. Most law enforcement was, by definition, white patrolmen watching, catching, or beating black slaves.”[ii]
The process of how one became a patroller differed throughout the colonies. Some governments ordered local militias to select patrollers from their rosters of white men in the region within a certain age range. In many areas, patrols were made up of lower-class and wealthy landowning white men alike.[iii] Other areas pulled names from lists of local landowners. Interestingly, in 18 th century South Carolina, landowning white women were included in the potential list of names. If they were called to duty, they were given the option to identify a male substitute to patrol in their place.[iv]
First formed in 1704 in South Carolina, patrols lasted over 150 years, only technically ending with the abolition of slavery during the Civil War. However, just because the patrols lost their lawful status did not mean that their influence died out in 1865. Hadden argues there are distinct parallels between the legal slave patrols before the war and extralegal terrorization tactics used by vigilante groups during Reconstruction, most notoriously, the Ku Klux Klan.[v]
After the Civil War, Southern police departments often carried over aspects of the patrols. These included systematic surveillance, the enforcement of curfews, and even notions of who could become a police officer. Though a small number of African Americans joined the police force in the South during Reconstruction, they met active resistance.
Though law enforcement looks very different today, the profession developed from practices implemented in the colonies.
[ii] Hadden, Sally E. Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2001), 4.
The Irish and the Atlantic slave trade
It was the Stuarts who introduced the Irish to the slave trade. Charles II returned to the throne in 1660 at a time when it was becoming clear that sugar plantations were as valuable as gold-mines. The Royal Africa Company (RAC) was established to supply slaves to the British West Indies in order to extend production. Irish names can be found among those working for the RAC. Among the most successful was William Ronan, who worked in West Africa for a decade (1687–97). A Catholic Irishman, he rose to become the chairman of the committee of merchants at Cape Castle in present-day Ghana, his career apparently unhindered by the ascent of William of Orange. In the seventeenth century Europeans saw slaving as respectable and desirable. It was conveniently accepted that Africans sold into slavery by their rulers were prisoners of war, who would otherwise have been slaughtered. Thus export to the Americas offered them prolonged life in a Christian society. It was a century later, when public sensitivities began to change, that such attitudes to the slave trade were called into question.
The French connection: Nantes
In Europe the connection between the Stuarts and Irish slave-traders was not lost with the throne. The defeated James II was conveyed from Ireland to France by Philip Walsh, a Dublin-born merchant, settled in St Malo, who would die on an African voyage. In 1745 Philip Walsh’s son, Antoine, provided Prince Charles Edward Stuart with an armed frigate, on which they sailed together for Scotland in a bid to restore the Jacobite line. Antoine Walsh could afford this political gesture because of the wealth he had made from the slave trade. Nantes (with its close-knit Irish community) had emerged as the kingdom’s chief slaving port, a starting-point for the triangular trade—manufactures for Africa (textiles, brandy and firearms), slaves for the French West Indian colonies (Martinique, Guadeloupe and St Domingue), sugar and tobacco for Europe.
Captains and crew did the voyaging merchants (ship-owners and outfitters/armateurs) stayed at home, funding and organising. Prolonged loading in Africa was the most hazardous part of the operation. The climate was unhealthy and the slaves, still within sight of the shore, were at their most furiously desperate. Fear of revolt, which could be mitigated for the armateur by insurance cover, was rife among captains and crew.
By the early 1730s Antoine Walsh had shifted from slave-ship captain to slave-merchant. He never actually experienced revolt himself but his relatives and employees did. In 1734 L’Aventurier, outfitted by Walsh’s father-in-law Luc Shiell (O’Shiel), spent almost four months on the African coast, moving from port to port in search of slaves. At Whydah the captain went ashore to trade, leaving Barnaby Shiell, Antoine Walsh’s young brother-in-law, in command of a crew largely immobilised by fever and dysentery. The slaves rose, cut the ailing pilot’s throat and locked other invalid whites below hatches. At this point Barnaby Shiell, with five armed sailors, fired on the Africans. In the ensuing slaughter two crew and 40 slaves were killed. The result in commercial terms was the destruction of one-sixth of the cargo. Undeterred by this set-back, Captain J. Shaughnessy determinedly pursued his professional objectives, remaining at Whydah until he was finally able to sail with 480 Africans for St Domingue and Martinique. In the future both Shaughnessy and Barnaby Shiell would act as captains for Antoine Walsh.
After the Jacobite defeat, Walsh turned back to slaving, and immediately one of his ships became the scene of a slave revolt. His ironically named Prince d’Orange reached Whydah and took four and a half months assembling 245 Africans. As the ship got ready to sail, six women, one with a child at the breast, threw themselves overboard and drowned. A month later, off the island of San Thome, the remaining slaves rose and killed the captain and two sailors. The crew threatened to resort to firearms but the Africans took no notice and the result was 36 dead.
By the eighteenth century Africans were accustomed to guns. The desire to possess them was one of the factors fuelling the trade and bringing about political change as states grew stronger or weaker according to their access to firepower. But those Africans delivered to the ships as slaves were devoid of weapons. In 50 years, the only record of a successful slave revolt on an Irish Nantais vessel occurred in 1742, when the 350 slaves on Patrice Archer’s La Sainte Helène managed to get hold of guns from above deck, set the ship on fire and escape to shore, where the local ruler proved uncooperative in securing their return.
On board Walsh’s Prince d’Orange, Jean Honoraty (John Hanratty?) replaced the murdered captain and the voyage continued. For an experienced slave-trader it was a familiar professional set-back. As far as Walsh was concerned, the real danger to his ambitions had surfaced within Nantes itself. In September 1748 he launched the Société d’Angole, the first private joint stock company in France devoted to the slave trade. His aim was to eliminate the weak state monopoly, Compaigne des Indes (currently drawing most of its income from licensing independent operators), and to establish the Société’s own monopoly of French trade in Africa. Walsh had risen as an independent himself but now wanted to prevent the rise of other independents. His financial innovations in France were to be underpinned by novel arrangements in Africa. The company would have three large ships stocked with trade goods permanently stationed off the Angolan coast. Five smaller ships would make an annual Atlantic crossing to St Domingue, where they would deliver their cargo into a fortified slave-camp.
Almost immediately Walsh’s monopolistic ambitions were challenged in Nantes itself by the establishment of a rival joint stock company, the Société de Guinée, which proved more successful than its Angolan counterpart. In 1753, when Walsh’s company completed the period for which it had been designed, he did not seek to reconstruct it. After launching 40 voyages, his career as an armateur had come to an end. He left France a few years later to manage the family properties in St Domingue and died there in 1763, slave-trader turned planter/purchaser in a colony which was by then absorbing a shipload of Africans a week. In the eighteenth century Britain emerged as Europe’s greatest slave-trader, but the development of St Domingue meant that France became her greatest sugar-producer. This colony, which Walsh helped to build, was envied as the richest gem in the imperial New World, before the opportunity offered by the French Revolution caused it to implode into the Caribbean’s first black republic of Haiti.
Antoine Walsh’s greatest ambitions had not been achieved in Jacobite politics nor in establishing the dominance of his company over the French slave trade. Nor had he become France’s largest slaver: that position fell to an indigenous French family, the Mauntondons (60 voyages), who had begun life as shoemakers. Over the years Antoine Walsh had purchased over 12,000 Africans for export across the Atlantic, though not all of them had reached the Americas. No other family from the Irish community in Nantes could claim anything approaching such a score, although two others, the Rirdans and the Roches, emerged as significant armateurs. The Rirdan (O’Riordan) brothers, Etienne and Laurent, claiming roots in Derryvoe, Co. Cork, sent out eleven expeditions during the years 1734–49, purchasing just over 3,000 slaves. Between 1739 and 1755 the Roche family (their roots in Limerick, where they possessed marriage connections with Arthurs and Suttons) organised a similar number.
Bristol and Liverpool
By the end of the seventeenth century the RAC had lost its monopoly. This opened up the slave trade to individual British merchants, while banning Irish ports from launching direct voyages to Africa. Thus the equivalents of the Rirdans and the Roches (though not Antoine Walsh) can be found in Bristol and Liverpool. Bristol was Britain’s premier slaving port from the demise of the RAC until 1740, when Liverpool came to dominate the trade. In this expansive period the Frekes, an offshoot of the County Cork landowning family, could be found among Bristol’s leading slave-merchants. Their success over several generations was marked by their move into Queen Square, where they lived in an elegant new building looking out on a handsome statue of William III. Other Irish slave-ship-owners from the same era were Michael Callaghan and John Teague. By the 1760s they had disappeared, to be replaced by John Coghlan and James Connor.
In 1780s Liverpool there were slave-merchants with Irish names: Felix Doran, Christopher Butler, Thomas Ryan, James McGauley and David Tuohy. But the first four had all been born in that area only Tuohy had arrived as a young man from Tralee. From the 1750s onwards he and his brother-in-law, Philip Nagle, captained ships to Africa. By 1771 Tuohy was able to write to a Stephen Fagan in Cork that he had ‘been in the African trade for many years in which I have made a pretty fortune’. He declared that he was now inclined ‘to go no more to Africa but follow the business of a merchant in Liverpool’. Though he gave up sailing to Africa himself after 1771, he continued to despatch ships for slaves. The men mentioned above were professional survivors and successes. In France and Britain many of those emerging as slave-merchants had begun life as captains in the trade. At least five captains died in Africa for every one who achieved the status of merchant.
Probably the most famous (or infamous) slave-ship today is Liverpool’s Brookes, designed to carry 600 slaves. It began its climb to notoriety in 1789, when the abolitionists produced a diagram of the vessel showing shackled slaves, arranged with mathematical precision, head to toe, layer upon layer, not an inch of space unused. This year it will reappear (22 March–13 May 2007) as ‘an installation’ in the British Museum, part of the bicentennial commem-oration of the abolition of the slave trade. During the American Revolution the Brookes was commanded by an Irish captain, Clement Noble of Ardmore. Confronted by an enemy privateer near Barbados, he armed 50 of his cargo and successfully repelled the attack. Commenting that the Negroes fought ‘with exceeding spirit’, he sailed on to Jamaica, where he sold them on the north coast at Montego Bay.
The number of Scots and Manx captaining Liverpool slave-ships exceeded those from Ireland. But among ordinary sailors the position was reversed and the Irish formed the most numerous non-English group—more than 12 per cent as against the Scots with 9.5 per cent. During the 1750s John Newton, later an Anglican clergyman and author of Amazing Grace, captained three voyages from Liverpool to West Africa. Already an evangelical, but still inhabiting a pre-anti-slavery world, he held services on board for the crew, never thinking of extending his religious ministrations to the Africans he was loading and shackling down below. His papers record them as numbers, while his crew names reveal an Irish presence: John Carren, John Megan, James Gallagher. Some of the Irish names presented Newton with greater difficulty. He had trouble in spelling Shaughnessy (Shestnassy) and even more trouble with Cooney (Cooney, Cunneigh and Coney), who took a female slave ‘and lay with her brute like in view of the whole quarter deck, for which I put him in irons. I hope this has been the first affair of the kind on board and I am determined to keep them quiet if possible. If anything happens to the woman I will impute it to him, for she was big with child. Her number is 83.’
Many captains and other officers have described the behaviour of common seamen. The crew themselves rarely wrote about their voyages. Two brothers from Ireland have left an account of such experiences, however. Nicholas and Blaney Owen came from an impoverished gentry background. Driven to seafaring by their father’s spendthrift habits, they spent six years in the slave trade, working first on Liverpool vessels and then deserting to a Rhode Island slaver, where the pay and conditions were better. In 1756 at Banana Island, south of Sierra Leone, their ship was seized by locals, angry because a Dutch captain had recently removed some of their free men. At first the Africans held the crew captive but later allowed them to wander off. The brothers eventually found work with an African-born mulatto who had developed a trading post manned by his wives, children and slaves. For commercial convenience, the Owens built themselves houses at separate points on the Sherbrow River. Nicholas started his journal, recording his past experiences and philosophising on his present isolation in an alien society, describing himself as a ‘hermit’.
There was, however, much in Nicholas’s lifestyle that was not eremitical he lived with an African woman and was served by a team of four or five men who helped him to acquire and control the slaves he collected. Generally he referred to this African grouping as ‘my people’, and on one occasion as ‘my familey’. In Africa he felt that he had acquired something of the gentry lifestyle he had forfeited at home. But, as he very well understood, it was at the cost of staying there. ‘I find it impossible to go of without a dail of dangers and risque.’ When he was well and busy and trade was prosperous he was not discontented with his situation. But when he was ill it was a different matter. Shuddering with malaria, unable to supervise business, homesickness would strike. ‘I have not brought any trade this 2 months, not so much as a servela [a term for a little slave]’, he wrote. ‘I still long more and more for a return to my native country.’ Within three months he was dead. Blaney took over the journal to record his brother’s passing and his own grief. As the journal survived, Blaney may also have done so. The tale of the Irish brothers, one dying in Africa, the other returning without having made his fortune, encapsulates the experience of most slave-ship crewmen.
The West Indies
Across the Atlantic, in the Caribbean, a group of second-generation Irish emigrants were making fortunes from buying and selling slaves. Since the seventeenth century the Irish had been settling in the Leewards, a string of physically varied and politically diverse islands. Their first choice was St Kitts, until 1713 divided into French and British sectors, and within easy reach of Dutch St Eustatius, a volcanic peak known as the ‘golden rock’ because of its fame as a smugglers’ haven. The authorities, however, increasingly pushed the Irish out of St Kitts onto the tiny volcanic island of Montserrat, where they came to constitute some 69 per cent of the white population, ‘almost an Irish colony’. Their presence on nearby Antigua and Nevis was also statistically significant, representing around a quarter of all whites.
Slaves were arriving in huge numbers into the Leewards in the eighteenth century. A Cork man working as an overseer in Antigua in the 1770s, and writing later to defend the trade, described the arrival of the Guinea ships with slaves dancing, gay, hung with glass beads, as if celebrating a festival. He declared that ‘There are one thousand of Irishmen . . . who have been spectators of the merriment’. On Montserrat, Skerrets, Ryans and Tuites busied themselves in inter-island trading, buying slaves from British ships and then re-exporting them, along with cargoes of provisions from Ireland. Nicholas Tuite, son of a Westmeath settler, branched out beyond the Leewards, some four days’ sail to the Virgin Islands, where the Danes were developing their colony of St Croix.
While the Danes possessed the capital and mercantile expertise necessary for running such a venture, they did not possess manpower eager or suitable for planting their new possession. It was Nicholas Tuite who solved this problem for them, importing slaves and encouraging other Montserratians, supplemented by individuals from Ireland itself, to move there. Between 1753 and 1773 (the year after Tuite’s death) slave numbers are said to have trebled, from 7,566 to 22,244, while sugar exports rose from 350 to 8,200 tons. Tuite himself now owned seven plantations there and was part-owner of seven others. In 1760 he journeyed to Copenhagen, where Fredrick V appointed him chamberlain and paid tribute to his role as founder of Denmark’s Caribbean empire. Like Antoine Walsh, slave-trading and plantation-owning had made him the friend of kings.
Every group in Ireland produced merchants who benefited from the slave trade and the expanding slave colonies. All slave-trading voyages required minor investors. In the 1750s the Presbyterian McCammons of Newry put money into at least one Liverpool voyage and actually ended up owning a slave. Almost four decades later their cousins James and Lambert Blair, following up West Indian connections, went out to St Eustatius, where they set up as agents, their main source of income derived by purchasing slaves for the Stevenson plantation. At the beginning of the nineteenth century the Napoleonic wars brought Britain the Dutch territory of Demerara. The Blairs, now with funds to invest, were quick to buy land in Demerara and stock it with slaves to develop sugar plantations. In 1833 Westminster emancipated the slaves, paying out £20 million in compensation to the plantation-owners for the loss of their human property. James Blair received £83,530-8-11 for his 1,598 slaves. He thus claimed for more slaves and received more money than any other slave-owner in the British Empire.
Ireland’s projected slave-trade companies
Merchants in Ireland’s ports and towns were well aware of the importance of the slave trade and the slave colonies. The eighteenth-century economies of Cork, Limerick and Belfast expanded on the back of salted and pickled provisions specially designed to survive high temperatures. These were exported to the West Indies to feed slaves and planters, British, French, Spanish and Dutch. Products grown on slave plantations, sugar in the Caribbean and tobacco from the North American colonies, poured into eighteenth-century Ireland. Commercial interests throughout the island, and the parliament in Dublin, were vividly aware of how much wealth and revenue could be made from the imports. The fact that mercantile regulations, laid down in Westminster, meant that ‘plantation goods’ only reached Ireland via British ports was a source of growing indignation. In 1779 the Dublin parliament and the Volunteers successfully worked together to make Britain’s American difficulty Ireland’s opportunity, demanding that Westminster repeal mercantile regulations to allow ‘a free trade for Ireland’.
The importance of enslaved Africans in furnishing these Irish gains is vividly illustrated in a commemorative print of 1780 entitled ‘Hibernia attended by her Brave Volunteers, exhibiting her commercial freedom’. At the centre of the picture a youthful Hibernia, barefoot and barebreasted, hair flowing in the breeze, lifts up both her arms to display a banner bearing the words FREE TRADE. Behind her two armed and uniformed figures stand on guard while merchant ships approach at full sail. In the foreground, flanked by tobacco barrels, are three figures, kneeling before Hibernia to offer gifts. On the left an Irish woman holds out cloths, presumably a reference to the right of Ireland to freely export her textile production. Beside her an American Indian offers an animal pelt. On the right a black slave, strong, sinewy and briefly draped, extends a neoclassical urn, its precious metal representing the untold wealth of Africa and America. These three ‘volunteers’ carrying riches to Hibernia recall paintings of the Magi and the Christ-child, that biblical scene in which, since the fifteenth century, one of the kings was invariably depicted as an African.
This newly won ‘free trade for Ireland’ was not restricted to Atlantic voyaging it also allowed Irish ships to sail direct to West Africa—in other words, to enter the slave trade. By 1784 Limerick and Belfast had drawn up and published detailed plans for the launching of slave-trade companies. Both ports contained leading merchant families who had made fortunes in the Caribbean. Creaghs from Limerick can be found slave-trading down the century from Rhode Island, Nantes and St Eustatius, and plantation-owning on Barbados and Jamaica. In Limerick by mid-century John Roche (1688–1760) had emerged as the city’s foremost Catholic merchant, richer even than the Creaghs, supplying the West Indies with provisions, buying their sugar and rum, smuggling and privateering during wartime. A similar pattern was established by Thomas Greg and Waddell Cunningham in Belfast. Their activities in the Caribbean during the Seven Years’ War enabled them to improve port facilities at home and to establish sugar plantations in the Ceded Islands.
Such experiences fed patriot ambition to make use of Ireland’s new commercial freedom to enter the slave trade. But these plans now proved economically and ideologically backward-looking. By the 1780s more accessible and attractive opportunities were emerging nearer home as Britain industrialised, while simultaneously the rise of an anti-slavery campaign was making a once-respectable trade reprehensible. The projected companies came to nothing.
The slave trade provided labour for the plantation colonies, and these colonies had an enormous impact on Ireland. They encouraged urban growth through the import of sugar and tobacco and the export of provisions. Commercial dairying and beef production changed life in the countryside, generating wealth for some and fostering agrarian unrest among others. By 1780 sugar, though not as inflammatory as tea in Boston, was playing a transforming role in Irish political life. Ireland was very much part of the Black Atlantic world.
Nini Rodgers is a retired lecturer from the School of History, Queen’s University, Belfast.
N. Rodgers, Ireland, slavery and anti-slavery 1612–1865 (Basingstoke, 2007).
B. Rolston and M. Shannon, Encounters: how racism came to Ireland (Belfast, 2002).
R. L. Stein, The French slave trade in the eighteenth century: an Old Regime business (Wisconsin, 1979).
J. Walvin, Black ivory, a history of slavery in the British Empire (Blackwell, 2001).