Africans were brought by force to the New World to work in an economic system in which they had no stake. Bringing them to labor not only free of charge, but free of rights and above that treated as things that the white men own, meant a great and wide dispersal of peoples, maybe not the most important one throughout the history or the greatest or widest, but certainly a very important inhuman action that destroyed the lives of millions of people.
It was indeed traffic with human merchandise that started in the early sixteenth century and continued until the nineteenth century. Even if at the beginning the slave market was something new and unexplored by most white people, after a while it became a fashion and after that a custom, which made the slave demand increase. It was a mentality that was blocked in the mind of slave owners for whom the nineteenth century was quite a disaster.
1.1. Slave Trading
The beginning of slave trade in America, according to Colin Palmer, is sustained by some records which affirm that the first black came there when Christopher Columbus took a second visit to the New World in 1493.
Nevertheless, if we refer at slavery as an institution it only appeared in 1501 and the first English colony which took part at the whole importing process; Virginia in North America brought Africans in 1619 to do “unfree” labor for whites. There were also free blacks who owned slaves. Black skin was indeed the symbol of discrimination, even if a minority of white people were also held as slaves.
The 1600s until the end of the nineteenth century was devastating for the ones shipped to America. We could not say precisely how many lives were destroyed, but Philip Curtin, who is said to have the most systematic accounting, estimates that only 9.391.000 slaves were brought during the slave trade; from this amount an almost insignificant proportion went to North America.
The slave trade was very important for colonists, not only concerning economy, but it also became a habit, something that they thought they could not live without. Americans came to believe that slaves were literally indispensable farm animals and their lives would be much easier if they bought some, then hire a person to “take care” of them and after the work was done they would become rich men. That is why the demand in slaves increased, slave traders were the happiest people and human souls were vanished. The slave trade influenced everyone. Even in Georgia, a colony that didn’t permit slave labor, the planters started to want them so much that when they had a drink, their regular toast was:”Here’s for the one thing needful!”. So, buying slaves was something very normal for American planters, but no one other than a slave knew what this process was alike.
Palmer describes in his essay about the slave trade how things unfolded. At first, the slaves were witnesses to the process of their price negotiation between the African trader and the foreigner. They were examined by a doctor and those who were apt for hard labor were marked with a red hot iron on the breast so that each company could trail its slaves. If we would take into consideration one human action, it would be the fact that women were treated a little gentler than men when they were marked on the breast with that hot iron, a treatment unconscionable for every being. That doesn’t mean that they had feelings, but at least they didn’t forget that women were more sensitive than men.
The next step was the “middle passage”, a dreadful journey of a slave ship, which lasted between six and ten weeks and most frequently departed from a European harbor. You could almost say that the ones who were aboard were future walking corps because of the conditions in which they traveled. What was so awful about the journey? Slaves were chained and stayed like sardines in a can the whole way. They could not move without hurting themselves or another person; even before they arrived to their masters they were treated worse than animals and these conditions facilitated the appearance of diseases and pandemics. Measles, smallpox, dysentery, “ophtalmia” (a form of blindness) and others were the cause of their death; but some of them also committed suicide or died in anguish by a process known as “fixed melancholy”, an outcome of the shock. An anonymous slave trader which arrived once with only 372 slaves out of 700 remarked:
We could not say if at the end of the journey the ones who survived were lucky or not because what followed was as horrible as the journey, if not even worse.
On their arrival, the slaves were shaved and oiled and generally made ready for the hordes of prospective buyers. Often these wretched humans were paraded through the public square so as to expose them to the anxious eyes of the waiting purchasers. Thereafter the bargain for each slave took place, while the terrified Africans often believed they were being bought in order to be eaten. (Palmer 96)
After they arrived in America, the domestic trade was next in line. Virginia was one of the states that practiced this with a lot of success and it was followed by North Carolina, South Carolina and Maryland. The slave price increased and in Georgia, for example, it rose from $700 to $1,050 in thirty years. This process was pretty fast involving the slave trade within the territory and was made by those who could not participate at the external trade, but after the Haitian Revolution in 1791, the slave owners had a real problem: fear. In that period half a million slaves destroyed the sugar plantations and murdered their owners. Theoretically, slave trade became illegal before the beginning of nineteenth century.
1.1.1. The Illegal Phase
In 1776, the Founding Fathers “wrote” in the pages of history an important change. After taking part in the American Revolution and winning American Independence from Great Britain, they signed the United States Declaration of Independence which gave thirteen states their freedom: Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, South Carolina, New Hampshire, Virginia, New York, North Carolina and Rhode Island. But even if that have occurred, an important paragraph from the Declaration, a matter of principles, something for what they fought was not true:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. (www.ushistory.org/declaration/document/)
Maybe this was available for many, but not for all; slaves were also humans. The thing was that planters now depended on slave labor (even the “founding fathers” were slave owners), but among the people who did not agree with slave traffic and tried to stop it, the Declaration played an important role also; even if it wasn’t a fact.
They made it illegal, but they were still practicing it and Eli Whitney’s invention in 1793, the cotton gin, was one of the reasons. After 1808, when the federal government declared slave trade illegal, Georgia and Louisiana were the two principal centers of traffic.
The British government persuaded the European maritime powers to sign a treaty whereby they agreed to abolish slave trading for good, but they did not manage to convince the United States (U.S.A.). The British also wanted to prevent the advantages that their economic competitors had because of cheap labor and the U.S.A. was definitely a hitch. And even after they repeated their proposal in the next two decades, the Americans still wouldn’t yield. That refusal was a perfect alibi for any kind of slave traders because a ship that had the American flag had immunity in front of the law.
Slave trading became illegal in 1820 and it was considered a form of piracy. The sentence was death, but this law remained unenforced until the time Lincoln was elected president. That election opened the Civil War and the fight between North and South settled things in the end, even if blood poured and the Southern mentality was still standing.
Some ships were captured and some slaves romped their freedom thanks to the American and British squadrons: the Americans captured 24 ships and released 4.945 Africans and the British captured 595 slavers and released 45.612 slaves; in the end, 1862 was the year when American participation in the slave trade was cut off (they finally agreed to sign the treaty and the American flag lost its immunity).
In 1867 the British squadron was withdrawn from the African coast, fact that was recognized by the entire world as the end of the slave trade.
This terrible action was present in the New World’s history for almost four centuries and the fight to end it was an unexpectedly slow process, all because human greed that, unfortunately, is still a fact of life today.
1.2. The Lives of Slaves
Being a slave is something that no one in this world would accept, but blacks had no choice. According to John C. Calhoun, who was a model for the secessionists, slaves had certain features, physical characteristics that other races did not have and which made them perfect for hard labor and for bondage. It was true that they were capable of working very hard compared to whites, but it was also something that they had to do because slavery is not a life style, it is something maleficent. Slaves, on the other hand, had their own opinion that this “peculiar institution”, how slave-owners called it, was equivalent to exertion. And this was a matter of discrimination and race problems which were present especially in slave states in Southern U.S.A. like Georgia, South Carolina, Virginia, Mississippi, Alabama etc.
Discrimination and slavery had a major influence on those who were held in bondage because they were deprived of rights. They felt the lack of social and legal status, their private lives did not exist anymore, but the thing that affected them most was the absence of a vital right: having authority over their own life. Francis Gaines call to mind that it was said that due to the African character they did not suffer so much and they were capable of being happy and accept their status. They were “quick to respond to the stimulus of joy, quick to forget their grief.” (Gaines 244).
A wrong thing was that most masters had the vague impression that they knew their slaves. They actually knew nothing about the way they felt, but for no reason the servants danced as the master sang and did not let him or her know the truth about their lives. Slaves did exactly what pleased the master: they said what he wanted to hear, acted in a way so that they would not disappoint them and did what they were told. Moreover, the planters had the idea that slaves did not know what freedom is or they did not understand it, but things weren’t like that at all.
Slaves knew what freedom meant, knew what possibilities they could have if they were free and they knew it only because they observed how things unfold. They saw how their masters, the master’s guests and also other free men lived and they concluded a definition of true life. Another thing concerning this perspective of freedom was also the fact that all knew that an emancipation of Negros was no fairy tale because of the concrete cases. They saw with their own eyes human beings who were like them, in bondage, and who were freed by their masters, worked where they wanted, went where they wished and spent money as they pleased. That made them believe that a life without bondage was not something they could not reach.
At any rate, a line was often said when slaves were asked about their freedom. We do not know if they said this because they were scared of being punished or if they accepted their fate, but when others who were in the South asked a slave if he wants to be free, he would reply: << No, massa, me no want to be free, have good massa, take care of me when I sick, never ‘buse nigger; no, me no want to be free. >> (Andrews 97).
Some planters knew that slaves were not as they thought and a tangible example is given by Ethan Andrews: a slave-owner in Georgia that said: “We planters could never get at the truth”. But beside this they also had various theories about slaves, like many overseers who considered that people must not be as stupid as to trust a slave or to have a good relation with one. And that was also a problem.
As anywhere in this world there are different people, different mentalities and even if the whites believed it or not, slaves were also people. There were slave-owners who did not punish them and treated them as human beings are supposed to be treated, with respect, but in the same time these were the slave-owners who suffered most. This kind of merciful persons received no compassion from their slaves because they had a hatred inside that would not allow them to see the difference between their kind masters and the slave traders and this was the reason why they acted badly. After they received an equal treatment, their next desire was freedom; in this manner they would have wanted to be their own masters and this is what slave-owners were afraid of. They would not give him an inch because he would take an ell, although some did.
Frederick Douglas, one of the famous refugee from slavery, considered that if you treated the slave like a dog then that’s what you would have, but he did not specify exactly if in a good way or in a bad way because a dog can be man’s best friend and at the same time his enemy. We just have to think of the fact that those who were treated well could not be controlled anymore and we will realize that his statement refers to the enemy.
In what way slaveholders should treat their slaves was a big confusion for them, but the majority adapted to the situation. The Southerner had his rules, his way of life and he did not understand anything else. Change for him was something that he wished it would never happen and this is why treating his slaves as he wanted was something normal. In consequence, slaves received a very harsh punishment if they did something that the master thought was wrong. They were beaten harshly, burnt with hot iron and other kinds of torture, but whipping was the most common punishment.
Slaves had as main work experience the plantation. Most of them did hard labor on different kinds of plantations even if their masters were not the owners of that plantation or of any other plantation. A census tells us that in the South there were approximately 600.000 agricultural units where slaves worked. Those areas were marked with the seal of slavery. And among that slaves also did different kind of housework, things that need to be done.
In the South predominant were corn, tobacco, cotton, rice, indigo and sugar. These were the plantations were exploitation was flourishing, with the exception of the cotton plantation, which became very important only after the American Revolution. The rice and indigo plantations prevailed in Georgia and South Carolina and the sugar plantations in Mississippi and Louisiana. These three types of plantations were among the most extended and on a plantation of any sort slaves lost their time and strength or in other words their lives. They did many things when they worked on a plantation and their work included the growing of crops, caring and harvesting them, preparing the land or extending it under cultivation; and beside these jobs they also manufactured simple articles.
When it came to handle the slaves, the whites had two systems that they used. They were the task system and the gang system. The first system consisted in assigning slaves with a certain job and if all was fair, after the work was done, theoretically they had finished their norm. And the other system, the gang system, was a bit more complicated. The main character of this system was the provided driver who was responsible with a set of paces that slaves were forced to follow. This man who took care of this system was most of the times the master, but he could also be one of the slaves who later one received small benefits like better clothing or more food, but only in the case in which he did his job well.
Now, if we talk of the opinion of so many writers, the sugar plantation was considered to be that area where most unfairly things occurred. Those were the plantations were slaves received the greatest mistreatment and it was due to the fact that there were more demanding works than, for example, on a cotton plantation.
Anyway, the way slaves were treated on different plantations depended on the crop. They were treated differently on a sugar plantation than on a cotton one or on a rice one because each crop had its own procedures that needed to be follow in order to make a great job. However the most important factor when we talk about the way slaves were treated was the master or the overseer, or both, no matter on which plantation.
A slave’s day on a cotton plantation according to some slaves’ testimonies was as it follows. They worked all day in the field and they went to the gin-house with their baskets. The gin-house was the place where the cotton was being weighed and the slaves were not allowed to bring less than the quantity required or they were punished. They did not afford to be tired, sleepy or feel bad and they always went to the gin-house with their hearts full of fear because they knew the consequences if they did not do the work as required. It did not matter for the master or for the overseer if the slave could not do his job right because of the crop; it was a “must”.
After this part of the day, full of hard labor and terror, other chores followed; chores like feeding the animals or bringing fire wood or something else that had to be done and in the end they reached their cabin. In the cabin they made the fire and prepared lunch for the following day, but the food that they received was selected in a way considered sufficient for their needs. They slept on a wooden plank in terrible conditions and in the morning they had to be sober or, again, punishment would follow. The next day was another day of hard labor and fear and that’s how things unrolled.
Brutality and inhuman behaviour concerning slaves was recognized by slave-owners as well. Some of them used it because they had to or at least that was their excuse and others had the gut to say that it was something that was good for the slaves, they enjoyed it and they were content. One thing is for sure, there were many slave-owners that practiced whipping and other kinds of tortures on their slaves for fun, but for a miserable human being that had his life stolen was not pleasurable at all.
Even though slaves were not educated and did not know things about life that whites did, they had a character. These two classes that were part of totally different worlds had many things in common and in the same time many discrepancies. It was understood, but we cannot forget that not only persons who do not belong to the same world are different, but also those who belong to the same world. In conclusion, masters were not all alike and neither were the slaves, but they had to be acquainted with each other in order to know what to expect; especially masters that had to control their chattel. This was indeed a very hard thing because slaves were not open people and you could not figure them out. This was a side-effect of what they had been through: the way they were treated, the fact that their lives were stolen and religion played an important role also because when they came in the New World the issue was if they should be converted to Christianity or not.
Of course slaves could not accept and their opinion was as if it never existed, but in return, many whites did not agree with the conversion because they would have had to see Negros like their own brothers and they did not comply with that. But as we can imagine, in slave states the law protected the slave-owners and conditioned a law that created the religious difference between the masters and their property.
Among others, there was also another aspect called proslavery. This appeared often when a master decided to enslave one and him or she did not want to. One example is a slave called Washington, who had to choose between freedom and another master from the same family. He chose freedom but he asked the legislature to exempt him from the law which then required free Negros to leave the state. He declared in his petition that he was old and that his family lived in Virginia, but he wanted something that he could not have. When an occasion like this appeared, slaves rarely accepted the emancipation because of the conditions imposed to them.
One thing was for sure: masters had the entire power given to them by the state. Even so, no one can claim that slavery perpetuated thanks to the satisfaction of slaves or the fact that they did not understand freedom. They thirsted after liberty and withstood bondage with all their heart, but it was more than hard. Their circumstances and the technique elaborated by their owners, which was a dramatic disproof of a myth, made people think that slavery survived because slaves agreed and were content with this treatment. This acquiescence was only an excuse that whites invented and the state encouraged it (in 1669, in Virginia, the law defined slaves as property without any awareness of their action).
In the end, we can say that greed was the most powerful tool that controlled the man. Slaves were a capital investment, an important means of profit and their loss would have been a severe economic liability. And no one can ever pretend that he or she can imagine how a slave felt if the person had not been in one’s shoes.
1.3. North and South. The Civil War
John Jakes underlines very well life before, during and after Civil War in his novel North and South published in 1982. He talks about how hard the life of a Southerner and a Yankee was only because they were very good friends, in spite of their different mentalities, lifestyle and the fact they went to war against each other. In his novel J. Jakes shows to the entire world how things were in the nineteenth century. He concentrates brutality, greed, discrimination, love, friendship, honor and the influence which an experience has upon a human (good or bad) in a book that can give you a different vision of life by just reading an old naked truth.
What one thought about the other was not far from reality. The Southerners believed that a Yankee did nothing else but sharpen his knife, make cans and try to beat his neighbors in court. That opinion was confirmed by a Yankee who also underlined that there were exceptions as well. On the other hand, a Yankee believed that Southerners ate pork, slept all day and beat their slaves all night. That concept was something that a man from the South could barely accept because the truth is hard to face, although he sustained that not all Southerners are like that and that some of them actually favor modern methods. Slavery was something which a Southerner, even if he did not agree with it, had to embrace and the ones from the North did not understand why. The novel is based on true facts underlining the possibility of a great friendship between two very different people while the ones of their kind hated each other because of chattel slavery.
The election of President Abraham Lincoln in 1860, who wanted to preserve the Union and end the expansion of slavery, was enough to start the Civil War.
The causes of the Civil War were many. In the North, by 1808, all states abolished slavery, while in the South it was still legal. The Yankees wanted freedom for slaves; an urban society and people who could choose the place where they will work. But the Southerners were addicted to slave labor and lived in small villages or on farms. The economical differences were also a deterrent. In the North they had factories and favored taxes that protected them from foreign competition, while in the South there were large plantations and they opposed taxes because that would meant the raising of prices and a negative impact on sales to New England states. And last, but not least, the Yankees wanted a strong central government and the safekeeping of the Union, whereas seven South states went to secession and form the Confederacy led by Jefferson Davis.
But even if the causes for the bubble to burst were many, slavery and discrimination (concepts which were not accepted by abolitionists) and a book called Uncle’s Tom Cabin written by Harriet Beecher Stowe stirred things. Everyone put slavery as the main cause of the war. In fact if we think of all the differences these two societies had, the problem could have been solved without a war, but because no part was willing to compromise when it came to slavery, this became the main reason for them to fight.
Slavery died in the North because it was not beneficial and it was expected to end soon throughout the country, but it did not because of the cotton gin and so problems left unsolved too long created the explosive change that destroyed one America and started rebuilding another one that it is not even today completed.
1.3.1. Uncle’s Tom Cabin
Uncle’s Tom Cabin is an anti-slavery novel and tool that had a major impact on the American civilization at the time it was published, in 1852. They all read it even if southerners burn it and Yankees found a sense in it and as time followed it “helped lay the groundwork for the Civil War”(Kaufman 18). This book was indeed an insult to Southern national honor and had an enormous success because at that time it was the second best-seller; if the Bible did not exist, this book would have been their “Bible”.
Stowe created Uncle Tom after Josiah Henson, a black slave who escaped slavery in 1830 and helped other fugitive slaves. The main themes of the book were offenses for the Southern civilization: the evil and immorality of slavery, the moral authority of motherhood and the fact that Christianity is incompatible with slavery. The author pointed out on almost every single page her belief that slavery is something to be condemned and she expresses her view upon women’s moral power to change things through characters like Eliza who escapes slavery to save her son and in the end brings together the whole family, or Eva who represents faith and Christianity and for whom love, forgiveness, mercy and kindness are indispensable features.
After the book was published, the author was accused that she wrote things about which she knew nothing because she had no knowledge of the South region, but Stowe declared that the fact that made her write an anti-slavery novel were scenes she observed on the Ohio River and stories told by fugitive slaves. In response to these criticisms, Stowe published another book, A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in which she cites the most important characters from the first novel and she explains the fact that the novel is no fiction and those persons existed, even though under other names.
Another thing to be mentioned is that Anti-Tom literature written by Southern writers was their shield. Aunt Phillis’s Cabin by Mary Henderson Eastman was one of the novels that presented Southern Life as It Is (another title of the same book). Most of these books were written by Southern women because they thought it would be fair if the view of justice presented by Stowe would be answered by a woman and not a man.
Even if there were many discussions about this kind of influence, through literature, one man that had right principles and played the most important role in the Civil War, had the opinion that Stowe was the lady who started the war, figuratively speaking. And that man was Abraham Lincoln.
1.3.2. Slavery during the Civil War
Civil War began and with it the end of slavery, fact that most white Southerners refused to believe something that by time became clear. President Abraham Lincoln did not want to spill so much blood, but he considered secession illegal and he did whatever was necessary to protect Federal Law and the Union. On the other hand he wanted to stop the expansion of slavery, but southerners were aware of the fact that if they would be admitted to the Union their states would be Free states and in the end slavery would be abolished. Slaves were the cornerstone of the South and so the battle of Fort Sumter, on April 12 1861 opened the war officially (South Carolina wanted to secede from the Union, Fort Sumter was still occupied by Federal troops and that siege gave southerners confidence that they would win a War of Secession).
When the war began both sides wondered if the slaves would rebel, if they wanted to be free, if they would fight for that freedom and if they would knew what to do after they gained it. The answer for all these questions was “yes”, but slaves did not hurry the cause. The truth is that both sides were preoccupied by the slave rebellion. The consequences slaves endured in the first months of war when they escaped from the South and arrived at Union lines were the same as before because according to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 they had to be returned (slave-owners had this right). The North did not want problems of this kind with the South because then they would make reunion more difficult.
Slaves were neither fools, nor suicidal. They realized that this war was very important for their future and even if it was also about them, both North and South agreed that it was better not to bring them on the battle field. They did not see a reason for doing so; it was their civil war. In any case the Blacks watched, waited and analyzed the situation so that they could find some ways to turn all in their favor. They acted from behind the war scene because they did not have political standing or public voice and cautiousness was their main feature. The knowledge that an act of rebellion on their own was hopeless because the whites were too powerful made them ready to take chances for freedom and to put their loyalty in the service of the Union. In so doing, they severely compromised the power of the master and like that this war that was for the Union became a war for freedom. Slaves knew and waited for the right time to riot, meanwhile, through desertion and noncooperation they defied the South.
The change came neither easy, nor fast. Union leaders freed slaves only under military pressure, but throughout the war their reluctance yield to an increased readiness and last to a firm determination to eliminate chattel slavery.
This war was a hard time for everybody and during it slaves had to work on the battlefield. Officers who fought for the South had servants to cook and do laundry for them and that was not all concerning the labor slaves did for the Confederate States. Discrimination was present in the South even during the war. White soldiers put their servants to build fortifications, dig latrines or haul supplies among many other chores. This labor was much more difficult than the one on the plantation and it was also dangerous. Additionally, the ones that worked on the front line were carefully watched, so that they would not escape. These slaves were usually men between eighteen and forty and that was one of the things Stowe underlined in her novel: the careless with separating members of a family plus the coolness the South had for their safety and health. “Rewarding” their masters, blacks escaped when the opportunity appeared and helped the North wit