Slavery in the New World

Thomas Jackson, American Renaissance, December 2006

David Brion Davis, Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World, Oxford University Press, 440 pp., $30.00.

Thucydides, who gave us his famous 5th century BC account of the Peloponnesian War, is considered the first historian who tried simply to understand events and write about them objectively. Earlier chroniclers filled their accounts with supernatural interventions or wrote “histories” that only glorified their rulers. Thucydides just wanted the facts.

David Brion Davis, Inhuman Bondage The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World

Today we have a new and different kind of history that fails to meet Thucydides’ standards. Its purpose is to demonstrate the author’s moral superiority by condemning historical figures for thoughts and actions that were acceptable in their own time but are now looked upon with fashionable horror. The historian displays virtue by showing his contempt for the past, especially that of his own country and ancestors.

Despite its occasional rambling, Inhuman Bondage, by Yale emeritus professor David Brion Davis, could have been an informative book about slavery had it not been for Prof. Davis’s moral exhibitionism. Even though it is hard to imagine a more futile exercise than to sift 18th and 19th century Americans as “racists” — some he even calls “virulent racists” — passing out epithets is an indispensable part of Prof. Davis’s preening.

How often does Prof. Davis think he has to rail against “racist dehumanization and oppression” or the “horror of human bondage” before readers get the message that he disapproves of slavery? There is much good material in this book, but it is hard to trust a historian who would rather heap scorn on the past than try to understand and explain it.

The Slavery Revolution

Prof. Davis points out that in 1770, on the eve of the American Revolution, slavery was legal and essentially unquestioned in the entire New World, but by 1888, when Brazil freed its slaves, it had completely disappeared. His book is an investigation of that process with a heavy concentration on British and American emancipation. Prof. Davis begins, however, with some general observations about slavery, noting that it is found in all recorded history, and that the Greeks thought the leisure it brought to slave owners was a necessary part of building a civilization.

He notes also that the status of slave has always been associated with darker-skinned people, whether in classical antiquity, India, China or the Middle East. Arabs were the first to enslave blacks on a large scale, and Prof. Davis thinks there may have been as many Africans taken by Muslims as were shipped to the New World. He also writes that it may have been the Moors, who occupied the Iberian peninsula from the 8th to the 15th centuries, who taught the Spaniards to associate slavery with Africans. Just like Christians, Muslims and Jews interpreted Noah’s curse of Ham (actually of Ham’s son Canaan) as justification for African slavery.

Aristotle had taught that some people were slaves by nature, but he never clearly explained how to distinguish such people. With their distinctive physical traits and low level of development, Africans seemed the perfect slave people. Bartholome de Las Casas (1484–1566) was the Catholic Church’s first prominent advocate for the rights of New World Indians, but his solicitude did not extend to Africans — he promoted their importation as slaves so as to spare Indians the burden of forced labor.

And, indeed, the Spaniards wasted no time in providing relief for the Indians. By 1520, just 30 years after the discovery, Africans were arriving in considerable numbers, and Prof. Davis points out that at one time blacks constituted half the population of Mexico City and Lima. 1619 is the famous year in which 20 “negars” arrived in Jamestown, but African slaves were already present in Spanish Florida by the 1560s.

It was the Portuguese who ultimately transported more slaves across the Atlantic than any other nation, and Prof. Davis writes that at one time black slaves were so plentiful in Portugal itself that laborers and sailors could afford them, as well as prostitutes, who were forbidden to employ free servants.

All told, North America received only five to six percent of the Africans who were shipped West. Far more went to Brazil and the Caribbean, where it was cheaper to work a slave to death and replace him with a new one than to breed stock. Prof. Davis estimates that an average of 15 percent of the slaves died during the passage, though the death toll could range from five to 33 percent. Other authors have written that conditions on board were so unhealthful that white crewmembers died at about the same rate as slaves. Prof. Davis suggests there were slave revolts on as many as one in ten voyages, and that slavers had to carry extra crew to keep order.

What Prof. Davis calls “predatory states” rose up in Africa to raid their neighbors and supply white slave traders. He says the machinery of capture and transport to the coast was so well oiled that it continued to operate even after the end of the slave trade, flooding coastal slaving ports with captured blacks for whom there was no longer a market. Although profit was the primary goal, the predators probably enjoyed predation.

Prof. Davis notes that two thirds of the history of slavery in North America was before the Revolution, and devotes considerable space to this period. Slavery was legal and practiced in every state, but the absence of staple crops that leant themselves to plantation agriculture was the main reason it died out in the North.

In 1664, however, when the Dutch gave up New Amsterdam to the British, black slaves were 20 percent of the population. Prof. Davis points out that in 1770 there were 19,062 black slaves in New York — more than in Georgia — and that 40 percent of white households in Manhattan owned slaves. New York City suffered a serious slave conspiracy in 1741, after which the authorities burned 13 blacks at the stake and hanged 17.

Prof. Davis doesn’t like to write about kind masters or loyal slaves because to do so “is to risk losing sight of the central horror of human bondage.” He concedes, however, that 18th century slavery was often paternalistic, with close relations between slaves and masters. Owners encouraged slave marriage and tried to keep families together. In some areas, slaves were on the “task system,” where-by masters allotted work that energetic slaves could finish by early afternoon so as to devote the rest of the day to private plots. Masters often bought this produce from slaves, who accumulated property they could pass on to their children.

Slavery varied greatly by region. In the 18th century, slaves were 40 percent of the population of Virginia but only four percent in Connecticut. In the South, Indians bought and sold large numbers of slaves, and many took their human property with them when they marched West over the “trail of tears.”

The Revolution had a temporary, alleviating effect on slavery. Many Americans concluded that “created equal” should apply to blacks as well as whites, and in 1777 Vermont became the first region in the New World to abolish slavery. Massachusetts and New Hampshire quickly followed, as did Pennsylvania in 1780. Some slaves defected to the British expecting freedom, but many were disappointed. Some ended up enslaved again in the Bahamas, and others became beggars in London before they were shipped off to the questionable benefits of freedom in Sierra Leone.

Many American leaders disliked both slavery and the presence of blacks, and wanted to couple abolition with “colonization,” or the export of freed blacks “beyond the reach of mixture,” as Jefferson put it. Carried along by the sentiments of revolutionary egalitarianism, in 1784, the Continental Congress came within one vote of approving Jefferson’s proposal that slavery be banned in the entire trans-Appalachian region. Twenty years later, such a close vote would have been unthinkable.

Prof. Davis points out that emancipation in the North was different from that in the South at the end of the Civil War. Called “gradual emancipation,” it freed no one for the first 20 years or so. People who were slaves at the time the bill was passed — even young children — remained slaves for the rest of their lives; children born to slave women after that date, however, were to be freed when they reached a certain age, usually in their early 20s. After abolition, it was possible to sell a young slave who was about to reach the age of freedom to a new owner in a slave state. This was theoretically illegal, but there was little to prevent it. Emancipation of this kind involved essentially no financial penalty to slaveholders.

Gradual emancipation took place in 1799 in New York, in 1804 in New Jersey, and not until 1848 in Connecticut. Thus, there were still slaves in the North at the time of the war. There were even a few elderly slaves in Pennsylvania, which had “abolished” slavery in 1780. A one-year-old in that year would have been 82 by 1861 — and still a slave, even though his children were free.

Upper Canada passed a similar bill in 1793, whereby future children of slaves were to be free at age 25, but all Canadian slaves were freed in 1833 when Britain decreed abolition throughout the empire. Many freed Canadian slaves emigrated to Sierra Leone.

Prof. Davis admits grudgingly that it was in the interests of slave owners to keep their property healthy and happy. He also writes that travelers in the South often reported that masters wanted to be “popular” among their slaves, an ambition probably lacking among Brazilian or Caribbean masters. He also concedes that since 72 percent of masters had fewer than 10 slaves, they knew them well, and probably had reasonably good relations. At the same time, many masters took pains to encourage Christianity in the slave quarters because the Bible enjoins servants to obey masters. Likewise, many masters took pride in what they considered their decent, Christian treatment of their property.

It is embarrassing to contemporary historians that there were not more slave mutinies in the South. Prof. Davis notes that plantations with 50 slaves or more had an average of only 1.5 white men on the premises, so blacks could have easily overpowered them. Insurrection was more common in Brazil and in the Caribbean, but this is not surprising. All-male gang slaves, who knew they were going to be worked to death, and had no hope of having children or grandchildren had little to lose. In the South, even during the war, when white men were at the front, there were hardly any slave revolts to speak of.

At one time it was common to speculate that American slaves did not revolt because they were brutalized into a state of paralysis, but the most obvious explanation is surely correct: Many slaves may have wanted freedom but did not find their lives so intolerable that they were prepared to commit violence and risk death for it. In the 1930s, elderly ex-slaves gave interviews as part of a Depression-era government project. Scholars rarely mention this today because so many of them spoke fondly of slavery and of their departed masters (see “Forgotten Black Voices,” AR, Sept-Oct. 1993). A certain resigned contentment was probably not unusual.

Prof. Davis makes much of the slave rebellion on Haiti at the turn of the 19th century, and clearly wishes blacks all over the New World had massacred their masters. There has been some speculation as to whether Haiti was an inspiration for other slaves or not. Denmark Vesey, who planned an 1822 rebellion in Charleston, South Carolina, took a great interest in Haiti, and appears to have thought it might be an ally in a revolt, but it is difficult to know what most slaves thought.

For a time, abolitionists believed black-run Haiti would be a shining example of what emancipation would achieve. They predicted lush prosperity, with Haitian merchantmen cruising the world’s seas. This only proves how far back white naïveté goes. In the 1820s, as Haiti sunk into misery, President Jean-Pierre Boyer invited free blacks from America to come help build the country. At least 6,000 arrived from the Philadelphia area, but thousands returned disillusioned. Better to live in a slave-holding society run by whites than in black-run chaos.

One of the stupidest things Prof. Davis writes is about the revolution in Haiti: “The slaves and free descendants of slaves defeated not only their masters but the most formidable armies of Spain, Britain, and France.” The Europeans hardly sent their “most formidable armies” to Haiti, and once they got there they were ravaged by disease. To suggest that Haitians defeated imperial France in the field the way Wellington and Blucher did at Waterloo is an example of the woeful pandering that now passes for history.

Abolition

The abolitionist movement in Britain was perhaps the first social movement of the modern kind. Millions of people marched and petitioned, pressuring the government to do something it would certainly not otherwise have done. Years of agitation culminated in 1833 in freedom for 800,000 blacks throughout the empire, and total compensation of 20 million pounds — a huge sum — to owners. A few hard-headed observers were not caught up in the excitement. One predicted abolition would substitute “eight hundred thousand savages for the same number of slaves.”

Twenty years later, it was clear that abolition had been an economic disaster. Free blacks refused to work for wages, and became loafers and subsistence farmers. Caribbean plantation land plummeted in value and exports dried up. In 1843, the British made a formal offer to the United States to pay the ocean passage for free blacks willing to go the West Indies and work under contract. When that failed, the islands imported hundreds of thousands of East Indians or “hill coolies” to work in the fields.

By 1857, the Times of London reported that abolition had “destroyed an immense property, ruined thousands of good families, degraded the Negroes still lower than they were, and, after all, increased the mass of Slavery in less scrupulous hands,” by which it meant Cuba and America. Benjamin Disraeli called emancipation “the greatest blunder in the history of the English people.”

One reason the abolition movement was so popular in Britain is that most Britons had never seen a slave or even a free black. In America, people had more experience. Consequently, abolitionists were a minority, and even people who wanted freedom for slaves assumed that free blacks would be colonized. Not surprisingly, the movement was dominated by women, who outnumbered male activists three to one. Still, there were white abolitionist nuts like Wendell Philips who wrote in 1859 that he rejoiced “that every five minutes gives birth to a black baby; for in its infant wail I recognize the voice which shall yet shout the war-cry of insurrection; its baby hand will one day hold the dagger which shall reach the master’s heart.”

Prof. Davis does a good job of describing the events that led up to secession, and the process whereby the war to save the Union became, at least in part, a war to free the slaves. He notes that if the war had ended in a quick Union victory, much of the social system of the South could have remained intact. Lincoln would probably have been content with gradual emancipation and colonization rather than instant abolition.

Prof. Davis describes the little-known emancipation of slaves in the District of Columbia in 1862, which was the only case of compensated emancipation in American history (compensation was the norm in other countries). The federal government paid $300 per slave, and offered ex-slaves $100 to emigrate. A measure forcibly to deport the district’s free blacks lost in the Senate only when the vice president cast his vote to break the tie.

There has been much analysis of the cynical and political nature of Lincoln’s own Emancipation Proclamation — that it “freed” only those slaves in the Confederacy over whom he had no control, that it’s purpose was to dissuade France and Britain from recognizing and aiding the Confederacy, that it had to wait for a Union victory — but Prof. Davis goes further. Lincoln did not believe Congress had Constitutional authority to meddle with slavery in the states, but he claimed he had the authority, as a war measure, to free the slaves of anyone “in rebellion.” Prof. Davis explains that the proclamation really was a practical, war-fighting measure in the sense that Lincoln believed many slaves would walk off the job, shutting down the Southern economy.

This was not all. In his initial proclamation of September 1862, Lincoln implicitly called for slave insurrection, and even Yankees understood what that implied. Former governor of New York Horatio Seymour remarked in horror that it was a “proposal for the butchery of women and children, for scenes of lust and rapine, and of arson and murder.” Lincoln himself expected revolt and massacre, noting that because of the proclamation, “the character of the war will be changed. It will be one of subjugation and extermination.” Later, he told Ohio congressman William Holman he was disappointed blacks had not revolted. For the most part, however, there was jubilation over the proclamation in the North, where most people believed emancipation would cripple the South and stop the war. Such is the background of what is taught to school children as a humanitarian gesture towards our black brothers.

Prof. Davis concludes that the Civil War was well worth fighting, a “good war,” because it freed the slaves. In other words, untold destruction, and the death of 600,000 whites was a proper price to pay for the advancement of blacks.

Race and Slavery

Prof. Davis notes that the economics of slavery is still a subject of debate — people disagree as to whether it was more productive or profitable than free labor. Would America have developed more rapidly if all those blacks had been wage earners rather than slaves? This debate is fruitless so long as it ignores racial differences. British abolitionists believed post-revolution Haiti would become a model of prosperity because they did not understand the differences between blacks and whites. For the same reason, they did not anticipate the post-emancipation collapse of the Caribbean economies.

If the Haitian slaves had been white they would have established a free-labor economy, the country would have prospered, and it would not be a pest hole today. The same is true of Barbados, Jamaica and the rest of the British Caribbean. The English would not have had to import “hill coolies” to do the work free blacks refused to do.

This is why the economics of slavery cannot be examined apart from race. White free labor was more efficient and productive than white slave labor, because free whites were enterprising and ambitious. Black slave labor was probably more efficient than black free labor because freed blacks subsided into indolence. The history of Africa tells the same story: Africans lived better under colonial and white rule than they do under black rule.

The likelihood that black slave labor was more efficient than black free labor does not, however, justify the laughable claims Prof. Davis makes for slavery: “Our free and democratic society was made possible by massive slave labor.” Slavery “prepared the way for everything America was to become.” It was “basic and integral to the entire phenomenon we call ‘America.’” Can he really believe this? Canada and Australia developed more or less in parallel with the United States without “massive slave labor,” and entire regions of the United States had hardly any slaves at all. The South would have developed differently without slaves, but it would certainly have developed; we can only imagine it richer and happier today if it had never imported Africans.

Propaganda in the form of history does both blacks and whites a terrible disservice. Let us review some of Prof. Davis’s central themes: The death of 600,000 whites was justified because it advanced the interests of enslaved blacks. Prof. Davis would no doubt argue that blacks today are poorer than whites and more likely to be in jail because of continuing white “racism.” Once he has accepted the principle of killing whites in the name of racial justice, how many white deaths would he accept if the slaughter would raise blacks to the level of whites: Another 600,000? One million? If not, why not?

Let us explore his thinking further: Violence against the slave master was always justified, and it would have been good if all black slaves had massacred their white masters as those in Haiti did. The United States is prosperous and free because of slavery. Where does this leave us? If the ancestors of many white Americans deserved to die at the hands of blacks, if death is appropriate expiation for racist oppression, if whites are rich and free because of the past labor of black slaves, why shouldn’t today’s blacks kill whites and take their property? Some do, of course, and justify it as payback for “oppression” and “racism.” They have learned the very lesson Prof. Davis seems to be trying to teach.

Will Prof. Davis ever understand the damage he is doing? Not likely. He writes about the “once celebrated voyage” of Columbus, he assures us — despite the evidence — that Thomas Jef-ferson had children with Sally Hemings, and urges us to believe that “tyranny is a central theme of American history, that racial exploitation and racial conflict have been part of the DNA of American culture.” He routinely calls Americans and Britons “racists,” but somehow forgets to use the word with Arabs, Cubans, and Brazilians who also had black slaves.

Prejudices like these disfigure what could have been a genuinely illuminating book.

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