The unHappy Plantation

Slavery has existed since the beginning of recorded history.  The great civilizations of Egypt, Greece, and Rome were built on a foundation of slave labor, and slavery continued to exist in various parts of the world until the modern era.

The African slave trade was a very profitable business, and many nations and peoples reaped an economic benefit from it. As the Bible says, “the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil.”  That is certainly true when we describe the slave trade.

Most black slaves were taken into captivity and sold by other Africans, and Muslim traders became very involved in the transportation and sale of Africans, both to the East (India and the East Indies) and to the New World.  Portugal, Spain, England, France, and the Netherlands all participated heavily in the Western slave trade for some period prior to its termination in the early 19th Century. No nation or peoples can honestly claim total innocence. Sadly, the trade continued in Africa, primarily in Muslim controlled territories, long after that time.  Even today, in certain parts of Africa, there are areas where slavery has not been totally eradicated.

For many centuries the African countries were bled of human resources to support slavery.  Moving beyond the ancient histories of Egypt, Greece, and Rome, from the ninth to the nineteenth centuries Muslim slave traders exported African slaves from the continent by all possible routes.  Perhaps four million were exported to the East via the Red Sea, another four million through ports on the Indian ocean, and as many as nine million along the trans-Saharan caravan route.  With the opening of the New World in the sixteenth century, transport of African slaves to the Americas became enormously profitable. According to James A. Rawley, author of The Transatlantic Slave Trade, the follow numbers of Africans were shipped to America prior to the final suppression of slavery:


British North America                                   523,000


Spanish America                                       1,687,000


British Caribbean                                       2,443,000


French Caribbean                                      1,655,000


Dutch Caribbean                                          500,000


Danish Caribbean                                           50,000


Brazil                                                            4,190,000                                                                            _______________________________________ ____________

Total                                                       11,048,000


Over three-fifths of the transatlantic slave traffic was in the years 1701-1810.

Africans usually became slaves by being captured in endemic warfare between African tribes.  Some Africans made a business out of capturing Africans from neighboring ethnic groups and selling them into slavery. The slave trade was so profitable that several African states even waged war with their neighbors for the sole purpose of taking slaves, and Europeans sometimes encouraged them in this practice.  Once these natives were captured, they were often sold to Muslim traders and transported to the European trading ports on the coast.  There the slaves were exchanged for alcohol, firearms, or other manufactured goods.

The transport of slaves by ship to the Americas is often referred to as the “Middle Passage”, and it was a horrible experience for those who had to endure it.  Overcrowding, shackles, inadequate diet, epidemics, and high mortality were tragic elements of the Middle Passage, but economic self-interest fostered delivery of cargoes alive and well.  In the early years the death rate was atrocious, but during the 18th Century the death rate decreased — usually to a rate between 10 & 15 percent — sometimes less. Based on these estimates, the total loss of life during the Middle Passage can be extrapolated to be something in the range of 1.5 to 2.5 million slaves.  This is a tragic figure, but not so high as is claimed by those who insist that black deaths during the Middle Passage match or exceed Jewish deaths in the holocaust.

The first black slaves arrived in Jamestown in 1619, only 12 years after that colony was established.  Over the following two centuries, until the western slave trade was finally abolished, approximately 500,000 blacks were imported into what was to become the United States.  These blacks were held as chattel slaves, meaning that they were treated as actual property who could be bought, sold, traded or inherited.

Over time, slaveholding became more and more confined to the southern United States. Tilling the large cotton fields and tobacco farms was a very labor-intensive business, and slave labor proved to be a practical solution.  The northern economy was built more on small farms and expanding urban centers, and slaveholding was not so profitable.  Nevertheless, it took many years before slavery ended in northern states.  In New England and the mid-Atlantic states gradual emancipation programs were adopted and applied with varying vigor and rapidity.  Vermont was the  only state to outlaw slavery definitively within its 1777 constitution.  The rest of New England soon followed in freeing its slaves.  In the mid-Atlantic the process was much slower. Pennsylvania was the first state to agree to gradual abolition of slavery, but total abolition did not happen there until 1847, and New Jersey and New York were also slow to act. Thus, slavery continued to exist in the north far longer than many people realize.   

The treatment of slaves varied by time and place, but was generally brutal and degrading. Slaves were sometimes punished by whipping, shackling, beating, mutilation, branding and/or imprisonment. Punishment was most often meted out in response to disobedience or perceived infractions, but masters or overseers sometimes abused slaves simply to assert dominance or because of sadistic tendencies. There were many relatively benign slaveholders, but the whole system reeked with injustice as cruel men and women were free to exercise their power over slaves with little likelihood of being held to account. Treatment was usually harsher on large plantations, which were often managed by overseers and owned by absentee slaveholders. Small slaveholders usually worked together with their slaves and often treated them more humanely.

Southern slaveholders were ever fearful of a slave uprising.  They were acutely aware of what had happened in Haiti little more than a half-century earlier, and the Nat Turner rebellion, the rumored Murrell conspiracy, and John Brown’s activities were later reminders of the potential for a black insurrection.  As a result, whites often tried to suppress large gatherings of blacks, and they put severe clamps on education and the dissemination of information among the slave population.

The following four paragraphs are taken from a PBS resource paper on antebellum slave conditions in the American South.

The standard image of Southern slavery is that of a large plantation with hundreds of slaves. In fact, such situations were rare. Fully 3/4 of Southern whites did not own slaves; of those who did, 88% owned twenty or fewer. Whites who did not own slaves were primarily yeoman farmers. Practically speaking, the institution of slavery did not help these people, and yet most non-slaveholding white Southerners identified with and defended the institution of slavery.

One of the worst conditions that enslaved people had to live under was the constant threat of sale. Even if their master was “benevolent,” slaves knew that a financial loss or another personal crisis could lead them to the auction block. . . . Even if they or their loved ones were never sold, slaves had to live with the constant threat that they could be. 

African American women had to endure the threat and the practice of sexual exploitation. There were no safeguards to protect them from being sexually stalked, harassed, or raped, or to be used as long-term concubines by masters and overseers. The abuse was widespread, as men with authority took advantage of their situation. Even if a woman seemed agreeable to the situation, in reality she had no choice. Slave men, for their part, were often powerless to protect the women they loved.

While most slaves were concentrated on the plantations or scattered on small farms, there were many slaves living in urban areas or working in rural industry. Although over 90% of American slaves lived in rural areas, slaves made up at least 20% of the populations of most Southern cities. In Charleston, South Carolina, slaves and free blacks outnumbered whites. Many slaves living in cities worked as domestics, but others worked as blacksmiths, carpenters, shoemakers, bakers, or other tradespeople. Often, slaves were hired out by their masters, for a day or up to several years. Sometimes slaves were allowed to hire themselves out. Urban slaves had more freedom of movement than plantation slaves and generally had greater opportunities for learning. They also had increased contact with free black people, who often expanded their ways of thinking about slavery.

Free blacks lived in the American South before the Civil War, but their numbers were relatively few.  Their total number was perhaps 250,000, whereas the number of slaves was about 4 million.  Free blacks were present because of one of several reasons:

  • They arrived in America as a free person.
  • They were a mulatto child born to a white woman.
  • They were a mixed-race child of a black man and an American Indian woman.
  • They were born to a free black woman.
  • They had been freed by their slave master or had managed to buy their own freedom.

Virginia and North Carolina had many more free blacks than other seceding Southern states, and free blacks were also numerous in cities of the lower South such as Charleston and New Orleans.

The honest description of slavery contained in the preceding paragraphs belies the image of the happy black slave.  Yes, some slaves were treated well and had a good relationship with their owner, but the situation was probably rare and fraught with uncertainty. What if the owner died and his estate was liquidated?  Would the slave and his family be separated and sent to the slave market?  Other slaves might have brutal masters and be subject to the most cruel sort of treatment.  Above all, most slaves yearned to be free.  Their actions during the Civil War bears witness to this aspiration.

On the eve of the Civil War there were approximately four million black slaves in the United States, of whom 3.5 million lived in those states that seceded from the Union.  Approximately 200,000 blacks served as Union soldiers and sailors during the war, and some 10,000 died in combat.  Another 30,000 were lost to disease.  No blacks fought as armed soldiers for the Confederacy, though some served as cooks and laborers and helped build fortifications.  When a Union army moved through an area of the South, blacks often rose in large numbers to follow them, seeking freedom and protection. All during the war many blacks used this opportunity to shed their shackles.  They also provided the Union army with valuable intelligence about Confederate movements and dispositions.

When the war was over, black Americans found that the evil institution of slavery had finally been ended in this nation, but the struggle for true equality was just beginning.

Black slavery and the continued exploitation of blacks after the Civil War casts a dark shadow on the history of the United States.  There were countless instances of racial atrocities of the worst sort, and the scars from these evils still haunt us today.  But all is not darkness and despair.  Consider the many contributions of black Americans to our nation.  We are a much richer society because of their presence, and, without slavery, it would not have happened.  Thus, good things are often derived from unhappy and even terrible beginnings.

Together, whites, blacks, Latinos, Asians, and native Americans, let us work together to overcome bitter memories,  defeat bigotry and hate, and build a better future for our beloved country.


One thought on “The unHappy Plantation

  1. Another wonderful history lesson….hatred and bigotry is alive and still active. I’m blessed to have you as a friend. This blog should be required reading in our schools.


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