American African-American History Antebellum America Part 2

One of the most awful parts of slavery was the middle passage.

The United States outlawed the transatlantic slave trade in 1808, but the domestic slave trade and illegal importation continued for several decades. The South Atlantic trade network involved several international routes. The best known of the triangular trades included the transportation of manufactured goods from Europe to Africa, where they were traded for slaves. Slaves were then transported across the Atlantic–the infamous middle passage–primarily to Brazil and the Caribbean, where they were sold. It was not uncommon for up to one eighth of the human cargo to die. Dead slaves were thrown overboard and schools of sharks followed the slave ships. But profits were so vast that the loss was incidental. Often the slaves would stay in the West Indies for several weeks while they were acclimated to their new North American home.

The final leg of this triangular trade brought tropical products to Europe. In another variation, manufactured goods from colonial America were taken to West Africa; slaves were carried to the Caribbean and Southern colonies; and sugar, molasses and other goods were returned to the home ports (

Why did the English participate in slavery? After all, the Spanish and the Portuguese had a tradition of doing so. Normally English labor was fulfilled through indentured servants and apprenticeships. Both forms of labor were acceptable, but nothing was more profitable than chattel slavery. The profits were too great to ignore the benefits of chattel slavery. Did the slaves resist their captors? Yes, indeed they did. Slaves had to be controlled, to be managed. White masters created slave dependence upon their owners. The demon of white privilege lodged itself well into the institution of slavery.

A basic step toward successful slave management was to implant in the slaves an identity of personal inferiority. They had to keep their places, to understand that bondage was their natural status. Thus, from the beginning, African-Americans understood that their resistance to white domination was a question of identity survival. Indeed, resistance seemed to be the only way to survive in the face of profound white systemic racism. It was from this root that later separatism ideology sprang.

Slaves were resisting even before they were out of sight of Africa. Resistance became a way of life. Slaves were resisting even before they were out of sight of Africa. Resistance became a way of life. Whether it was in the Stono Rebellion or in the Brer Rabbit stories, or everyday work in the cotton fields, African-Americans resisted. Slaves defiantly cut off the roots of the plants with their hoes, just under the ground so no one noticed. Slaves used work stoppages, self-injuries, and, especially in the first few weeks of bondage, suicide to resist white enslavement. African-Americans were resisting so vigorously that at times it seemed like a white minority was under siege.

One of the most clever ways the African-Americans resisted the whites was by their maintenance of a very rich culture. This pattern of behavior continued into the twentieth century. Numbers and size of African-American communities affected the degree and nature of resistance, but resistance existed. A chasm grew between whites and African-Americans that politics, religion, and economics would never bridge. This chasm, real or imagined, became an indelible part of the American ethos.

African-American slaves stayed aloof from the white world. This was especially true in their religious life. Many African-American church leaders resisted assimilation into church institutions in which whites participated. It was a fundamental way that African-Americans showed their defiance. In fact, the early civil rights movement to many observers appeared to be a religious protest movement more than a political protest movement.

Brer Rabbit was constantly thrown into the briar patch but he always reminded his master that the briar patch, afterall, was home. But what a price he had to pay! In Toni Morrison’s book The Bluest Eyes the young protagonist–an African-American girl–lamented that “she has no memories to be cherished.” As slavery ended, most African-Americans had precious few good memories to cherish.

Robert William Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman skillfully argued that slaves did not resist their captivity. “Slaves are exploited in the sense that part of the income which they produced is expropriated by their owners. . . however . . . over his lifetime, the typical slave field hand has received about 90 percent of the income he produced.” Robert William Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman, Time on the Cross: The economics of American Negro Slavery (New York: Lanham, 1974), pp. 6-7. According to Engelman and Fogel, slaves had very little reason to resist. They are simply not treated very badly–for the masters to do so would have been unprofitable. Crucial to Fogel’s and Engerman’s argument was the idea that slavery had to flourish in the capitalist’s mecca: the city. “Slaves employed in industry compared favorably with free workers in diligence and efficiency.” But slavery did not thrive in the city and slaves in the city most assuredly resisted their masters. If anything, urban resistance was more blatant because slaves had free black support. Richard C. Wade, Slavery in The City (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964), Ch. 9, p. 243. Furthermore, Barbara Fields in her study of slavery in the middle colonies, and especially in Baltimore, showed that urban slavery declined because slave resistance made it too much of a stress on southern urban society. Barbara Jeanne Fields, Slavery and Freedom on the Middle Ground (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), p. 37.

The most interesting evidence of slave resistance came from the generation of historians who studied the slaves themselves–including Genovese, Gutman, Levine, and Blassingame. Through history that seemed at times anecdotal, Blassingame painted a picture of a defiant and very complicated people. “Many of the Africans resisted enslavement at every step of their forced emigration.” John W. Blassingame, The Slave Community (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), p. 10. Even after the slaves discovered the “economic advantages” of slave life, “The plantation is a battlefield where slaves fought masters for physical and psychological survival . . . ” Josiah Henson, a former slave whose memoirs were recorded by Harvey Wish, when he was five, was separated permanently from his mother. She begged her master to keep Josiah. He refused. “This is one of my earliest observations of men; an experience which I only shared with thousand of my race, the bitterness of which to any individual who suffers it cannot be diminished by the frequency of its occurrence . . .” Harvey Wish, Slavery in the South:First Hand Accounts of the Ante-bellum American Southland (New York: The Noonday Press, 1964), pp. 25-40.

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