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AHHS — Chapter 8

Section Two: African Americans in the Southern Culture

Chapter 8 – African-American Bondage in World Perspective, by Vance Caswell of N. C., S.I.S.H.


Before the invention and widespread use of machinery in the 1800s, servitude was commonplace in civilized societies everywhere.  It was one of the chief means of controlling labour to get the world’s work done.  In the ancient Greek cities, credited with the invention of democracy, slaves were abundant.  Citizenship was hereditary and freed slaves and immigrants did not take part in public life.  In medieval Europe many people were serfs, hereditarily tied to a particular piece of land and to service to its lord.  For several centuries Islamic pirates from North Africa raided the European shores of the Mediterranean and carried off thousands of people to slavery.  Serfdom in Europe and the enslavement of white people in the Islamic world did not end until well into the 1800s.  Slavery was also commonplace in Africa.  According to United Nations reports it can still be found today in parts of Africa.  Some form of dependency on and obedience to a master was the lot of much of humanity for most of history.

New World African Slavery

In the 1500s and 1600s, in one of the most important and remarkable events in history, intelligent and hardy Europeans explored the globe, discovering new lands and peoples.  The most important discovery was of the New World – North and South America and the Caribbean Islands.   This vast territory was sparsely inhabited by mostly nomadic Indians who spoke a multitude of different languages and were constantly at war with each other.  The New World held vast resources.  What it needed was labour to exploit those resources.   In the course of their explorations, the coasts of Africa had become familiar to Europeans.  For three and a half centuries (1500s to 1800s) several million Africans were brought to the various European colonies in the New World to work.   Every European country that had ships engaged in this activity, including the English colonists of New England.   Enslavement of native Indians had not worked.  The great Spanish bishop of South America, Las Casas, known as a protector of the Indians, said that slavery was inappropriate for the Indians but was a benefit to “pagans” from Africa.    European colonists drove themselves hard, and others even harder.

Both the east and west coasts of Africa supplied slaves.  Black slaves went not only to the New World but throughout the vast Islamic world and even to China.  This trade could not have been carried on without African chiefs who traded with coastal stations and supplied captive enemies and sometimes their own people for export.    Such was the need of America for labour that the slave trade was extremely profitable to seamen, although also extremely dangerous, since the west coast of Africa was full of devastating diseases and was known as “the white man’s graveyard.”  Interestingly, the black leader of the slave revolt portrayed in the film Amistad returned to Africa and became a slave trader himself.

North America was a less important destination in the international slave trade than such places as Brazil (Portuguese), Cuba (Spanish), Jamaica (British), and Haiti (French).  Only about 5% of the imports came to North America.  Even so, African slaves were legally held in all of the 13 colonies at the time of their independence and plantation slaves were numerous in the Southern colonies.  Few people had any strong feelings against this, including respectable Northerners who owned many house servants and farm workers.  The first official record of slavery in what became the United States is from the court records of Northampton County, Virginia Colony, in 1653.  A free African-American named Anthony Johnson was given permanent right to the labor of African-American John Casor.    From a fairly early period it was well established in the English colonies that white servants were apprenticed for a fixed period of years and blacks were to be bonded for life.  That the Africans were of a different race and culture was an important social fact.   At law a master did not own the bonded person, but had a permanent right to his labour and an obligation for his care.

People these days who discuss American slavery fail to note an important point.  The history of slavery in North America differs in significant ways from the remainder of the New World.   From very early on most Americans sought to end further importation of slaves.  They petitioned the British government to end the trade but were refused.  This was one of the American grievances cited in the Declaration of Independence.   The reason for this American position is clear – the black population was proliferating.  Like the white population in the colonies, the black population was more than reproducing itself (an indication of relatively good treatment).   Opposition to the foreign slave trade did not mean criticism of slavery.  It meant: “We already have a large enough black population.”  The Constitution gave Congress the right to end slave importations after twenty years – keeping it temporarily open at the request of a combination of SC and GA with New England shipping interests.  In 1808 importations were ended by federal law, and Americans were forbidden to engage in this trade.   Southerners supported this ban on the international slave trade.  Some slaves came into U.S. jurisdiction with the Louisiana Purchase and the admission of Texas as a State, and some were smuggled in.  But by 1860 most African American bonded people were native born to America and had known no other life.

Republican propagandists and historians have harped on the charge that the Confederacy was inspired by Southern determination to reopen the foreign slave trade.  There were indeed some political radicals who talked this up, but they were put down by overwhelmingly contrary Southern opinion.  These same historians don’t get around to mentioning that the Constitution of the Confederate States of America plainly forbids importation of African slaves.

Slave importations to Spanish and Portuguese possessions in the New World continued long after the American ban.    Although it was illegal for Americans, New Englanders were greatly involved in carrying Africans to Brazil and Cuba, where slavery did not end until the 1880s.   The last ship captain hanged for this crime was from Maine, just before the WBTS.   Southerners honourably accepted and worked to enforce the suppression of the international slave trade.  Henry A. Wise, later to be Governor of Virginia and a Confederate general, was active in this while he was U.S. Minister in Brazil.  Here is an interesting story that never gets into your textbooks but illustrates the complex nature of the slavery question.    In 1860 a U.S. coast guard vessel near the Cuban coast intercepted the ship Echo from Providence, RI.  There were 400 Africans on board, many of them in miserable condition, the mortality rate on the voyage having been 30%.  The coast guard vessel was commanded by John N. Maffitt, who a few years later would be commanding the Confederate Navy raider Florida.   The skipper of the Echo was a well-educated and affluent man named Edward Townsend, from a “respectable” RI family.   He alleged that he had saved the Africans from death in their homeland, and let slip that he expected to clear $130,000 from his voyage, a staggering sum in those days.   Maffitt took the Rhode Islander to the U.S. Judge in Key West to be prosecuted.  The Northern-born Federal judge there (later a Unionist) refused to take jurisdiction and sent Townsend to Boston, the supposed point of origin of his voyage.   The judge in Boston let Townsend, who had influential friends, walk free of a crime equivalent to piracy in American and international law.  Meanwhile, the Echo and its captives were taken to Charleston, SC, where they were received sympathetically and provided with food and clothing.  The U.S. District Attorney in Charleston was James Conner.  Unable to get hold of Townsend, he vigorously prosecuted the Echo crew.   A few years later Conner was a general in the Confederate army and lost a leg in battle defending the South.   One writer claims falsely that the Echo Africans were enslaved in SC, indicating that hatred of Southerners outweighs the truth for him (and many others).  In fact, the captives were sent back to their homeland, although many did not want to go.


In what is now the United States, African American bondage existed for about two and a half centuries, perhaps ten generations or so.   It involved millions of people spread over a vast territory.   In this history one can find an incident to prove anything one wishes to prove, but historians should look at the general picture.   It would be a mistake to think that slavery remained static and that easy generalizations can be applied.  Like all human institutions, African American slavery evolved over time and was not the same in 1860 as in 1660.

Some historians have asserted that slavery was milder in South America than in the U.S. because the Catholic culture encouraged emancipation and racial distinctions were not so tightly drawn.  But this is belied by the figures.  In Latin America a constant new importation of slaves was needed to make up for high mortality.  The slave population there was largely male, while in the Southern U.S. the balance of numbers between the sexes was normal.  White Southerners were overwhelmingly serious Christians.  The black population by 1860 was Christian while Christianity was almost unknown in Africa.   Southerners by and large encouraged monogamous family relationships, unknown in African cultures.  Most Southern clergy insisted on this and had made great if not complete progress toward the goal.

It has been often pointed out that slavery ended everywhere in the New World without bloodshed except for Haiti and the United States.  Southerners were well aware of what had happened in Haiti.  The ideology of the French Revolution in the 1790s brought on a slave revolt which led to the torture and extermination of the white population, including women and children, and to war between the people of mixed race and the pure Africans.  What was once the most valuable island in the New World for its sugar production descended into poverty and disorder that remains till this day.  Prewar Southerners were also aware of Britain’s emancipation policy in its New World colonies.  There emancipation was compensated.  Slave owners collected their money and returned to England.   Once rich colonies like Jamaica underwent rapid economic decline.   The great British thinker Thomas Carlyle excoriated British leaders who showed great compassion for slaves who lived easy lives in a warm climate and were indifferent to the immense sufferings of their own people in the mines and factories of the time.

Much evidence shows that by 1860 African American bondage was moving toward a peaceful end in the Southern culture.  Many African Americans were skilled craftsmen – masons, carpenters, sailors, overseers, chefs, butlers, seamstresses.  More than among the freed people in the North then (and very possibly today). Quite a few were allowed to hire themselves out and enjoyed considerable freedom.  On the plantations sturdy if modest dwellings were common and most workers were allowed personal gardens from which they made money.  Invading Northern soldiers were astonished to find that African Americans had watches and fine clothes.  They did not hesitate to loot the slaves along with the whites.

Some people today have likened prewar bondage in the Southern Culture to the concentration camps of totalitarian governments in the 20th century.  This is a malicious and willfully false contention.  The prisoners in 20th century camps were snatched from normal lives and imprisoned by governments with negative interest in their welfare.  The Old South had domestic servitude, an institution as old as the Bible.  The bonded people were not the property of governments, they belonged to families who cared for their well-being, with whom they attended the same churches and were treated by the same doctors.  There was no barbed wire around the plantations, no guard towers, no armed guards.  In the early 20th century many people, black and white, looked back on the plantations before the WBTS as happy places.   Plantations were farms, where people lived and worked together to grow crops to feed themselves and perhaps make a little profit.

Perhaps most people today think of African American bondage in comparison to the safe and prosperous life of Americans in the late 1900s and early 2000s.  But the Old South ought to be viewed in its own times.  Life expectancies for every one were lower than today.  Many families saw half their children perish before adulthood.  Women frequently died in childbirth from infections today easily treatable.  Devastating epidemics struck the cities every few years.  There was no welfare, no unemployment pay, no antibiotics, good anesthetics, or microsurgery.  People grew their own food with hard labour and raised and killed their own livestock.   The American frontier was not settled without a lot of tough people and tough behavior.   Corporal punishment existed on plantations.  It also existed in families, factories, the army, the navy, schools, and in local criminal punishment.

The Southern Culture was far from perfect and its people were aware that much of the civilized world had changed its attitudes and by the mid-1800s regarded them as backward.  Outside critics were harsh in denunciation but conspicuously lacking in constructive suggestions.  The Northerners who condemned slavery were also adamant that they did not want black people living among them.  Southerners were doing the best they could and were creating as humane a way of life as they could.  The great Massachusetts statesman Daniel Webster said that the abolitionists were to blame for diverting the South from early movement toward emancipation.  What better evidence of the nature of the Old South than the absence of any slave revolt during the war when most white men were away from home.  Thousands of black men accompanied and helped sustain the Confederate armies and often took their wounded and dead masters home.  Conservative clergymen, North and South, knew that Scripture did not condemn servitude – it urged masters to be good masters and servants to be faithful servants. The Episcopal Bishop of Vermont, John Henry Hopkins, wrote a book on slavery just before the war by which he hoped to dampen down the fire directed at the South among his fellow Northerners.  Abolitionists, he said, had never done anything really helpful to African Americans, while white Southerners had done more to advance them than any people in history.

Suggestion for Class Discussion (Let students decide.)

Recommended Readings

  • Roll, Jordan Roll: The World the Slaves Made, by Eugene Genovese, pub. 1976.
  • Our Fathers’ Fields: A Southern Story, by James E. Kibler, pub. 1998.
  • Life and Labor in the Old South by Ulrich B. Philips, pub. 1929.