Our Slaves Are Black

Nicholas Guyatt

  • Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World by David Brion Davis
    Oxford, 440 pp, £17.99, May 2006, ISBN 0 19 514073 7
  • The Trader, the Owner, the Slave by James Walvin
    Cape, 297 pp, £17.99, March 2007, ISBN 978 0 224 06144 5
  • The Forging of Races: Race and Scripture in the Protestant Atlantic World, 1600-2000 by Colin Kidd
    Cambridge, 309 pp, £16.99, September 2006, ISBN 0 521 79324 6
  • The Mind of the Master Class: History and Faith in the Southern Slaveholders’ Worldview by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene Genovese
    Cambridge, 828 pp, £18.99, December 2005, ISBN 0 521 85065 7

In 1659, during the last months of the Commonwealth, 72 slaves from Barbados managed to escape to London. They complained to Parliament that they had been living in ‘unsupportable Captivity’, working at the furnaces and sugar mills, and ‘digging in this scorching Island’ with only roots and water to sustain them. They had been ‘bought and sold still from one Planter to another, or attached as horses or beasts for the debts of their masters’. Many had been badly beaten. Having fled from the ‘disconsolate vault’ of Barbados, they were terrified that they might be recognised and returned to the Caribbean. ‘I am escaped,’ one said in a letter to an MP, ‘I cannot say free, but rather, as one brought over in a Coffin, out of which I may not peep, until the protection of this Parliament unlock it, and say, Arise Freeman and walk.’ This petitioner and his desperate associates were not confident that they would be vindicated in their appeals, even though they had one trump card up their sleeves: they were white.

The petitioners’ circumstances were unusual: they had been transported to Barbados as suspected Royalist insurgents after the failed Salisbury Uprising of 1655. But, in the mid-17th century, white people could be found near the bottom of the slave hierarchy as well as at its apex. As the plantations in the Caribbean and the American South were established, white labourers performed many of the onerous tasks that would later be done exclusively by blacks. Political prisoners from the English Civil War were sent directly into West Indian slavery, and poorer whites were encouraged (by destitution, misleading advertising or organised kidnapping) to become field hands in Virginia and the Caribbean.

By the end of the century, this had become impossible. Slavery in the English Atlantic had coalesced around the subjugation of Africans, and a colour line had been drawn which reassured even the humblest white labourers that they couldn’t be subjected to the very worst forms of exploitation. For nearly a century thereafter, racialised slavery went largely unchallenged. Then, quite suddenly, things began to change. In 1772, the chief justice, Lord Mansfield, issued the famous Somerset Decision, which was taken to have outlawed slavery on English soil. In 1787, Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce began their campaign against the slave trade. Parliament eventually voted to end the trade in 1807; the United States followed suit in 1808. Slavery in the British West Indies was abolished in 1834, and even the tenacious slave system of the American South was destroyed in 1865.

The story of Atlantic slavery continues to attract historians, perhaps because it encompasses the moral absolutes of depravity and redemption. In the most popular version, a few brave campaigners change the moral sensibility of entire nations, and slavery is eventually banished from the Americas. (A similar story frames the current celebrations in Britain marking the bicentenary of abolition.) But behind this narrative of tragedy and triumph lies the more complicated issue of race. How did slavery and blackness become indelibly linked in the 17th and early 18th centuries? And why did the rise of antislavery in Britain and America coincide with an intensification of racial thinking?

David Brion Davis’s Inhuman Bondage throws light on the process by which slavery became exclusively black. There were many European precedents for white slavery, not only in the classical period but in the trading networks of the late medieval Mediterranean. The word ‘slave’ derives from sclavus, or Slav, and the vast majority of slaves in Western Europe before the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453 were taken from the lands between the Black Sea and the Caspian. (They were literally Caucasian.) Cut off from this supply, and from the lucrative overland routes to Asia, European merchants and explorers sought an alternative passage around the cape of Africa. In the process, they stumbled on a new supply of enslaved peoples made available by black traders on the African coast. They also encountered the indigenous Canary Islanders, the Guanche, who acted as guinea pigs for New World slavery; and, inadvertently, they found America itself. The discovery of vast new lands to the west led to an immediate and enormous need for labour.

In the early 16th century, Native Americans – especially in the Caribbean – were ravaged by European microbes to which they had no resistance. And then, after 1542, they were exempted from slavery by the Spanish Crown. Africans, who had been exposed to the same microbes for centuries, were brought to Spanish America and Brazil as a replacement workforce. While they fared better than their native predecessors, the mortality rates for field labourers were usually appalling. Over the course of the 17th century, this reinforced the logic of slavery: whites were loath to opt for indentured service in the plantation system because they were unlikely to survive the experience. Planters and slave traders had either to enslave white people or to bring over more Africans.

As the example of the Royalists in Barbados suggests, white slavery was not out of the question in 17th-century America, but planters and traders were nervous about enslaving white people, principally on religious grounds. The Royalist petitioners pleaded in 1659 that they were Christian rather than white, and the same belief in the incompatibility of slavery and Christianity recurs throughout the fascinating account of the colonisation of Barbados published in 1657 by the English agent Richard Ligon. Many planters remained nervous about bringing religion to their slaves in the 18th century. Even as some argued that Africans were naturally inferior to whites, planters feared they would lose their powers to enslave when their workers became Christians.

If African slavery came to dominate the labour systems of the Americas for pragmatic rather than ideological reasons, we might wonder when ideology – and theories of race – entered the picture. Davis chronicles a variety of attempts to rationalise black slavery and inferiority, from the biblical curse of Noah to the quasi-scientific concept of purity of blood (limpieza de sangre) which prevailed in the Spanish Empire. The question of how, exactly, these intellectual influences shaped social and political action is harder to fathom, especially in the more autonomous societies of the British Atlantic.

James Walvin’s new book takes a different approach. In an effort to get away from the ‘big meta-narrative’, Walvin presents biographical sketches of three participants in Britain’s 18th-century slave economy. John Newton (1725-1807) was a slave captain who became an Anglican cleric and, towards the end of his life, an opponent of the trade. Thomas Thistlewood (1721-86) was an overseer and eventually a slaveholder in western Jamaica who compiled a meticulous diary of his activities. Olaudah Equiano (c.1745-97) was a black slave who worked as a sailor in his early years until he raised enough money to buy his freedom. (Like Newton, he became an important witness against the trade.) These diverse figures give us some sense of what it meant to experience slavery at first hand.

Walvin’s framework is simple: Newton is the slave trader who came to repent his actions; Thistlewood the English Everyman who was corrupted by plantation life; Equiano the African who triumphed over slavery. But the stories keep wandering away from this simple characterisation, towards ambiguities which upset the image of the 18th century as marking a gradual triumph over the inhumanity of slavery.

John Newton was a dissolute young man who discovered a sense of discipline through the patient and strict management of slaves. He sailed from England to West Africa to the Caribbean with no apparent acknowledgment of the immorality of his actions. He didn’t talk about race, or national origin, or purity of blood: he simply negotiated with African slave traders, chained his purchases in the dark hold of his ship, applied thumbscrews to the troublemakers, and sold his cargo at a profit in the fever-ridden harbours of the West Indies. Meanwhile, he wrote love letters of a rare tenderness to his wife, and became interested in religion.

This might be the stuff of a classic conversion narrative. A stroke in 1754 put an end to Newton’s slaving days and set him on the road towards the Church. In 1764 he wrote an autobiography, which was intended to demonstrate that he had repented of his wild youth. But in his catalogue of callow sins and foibles, Newton found no place for slaving. Instead, he confessed to infidelity, sexual licentiousness and indolence. When he mentions the slave trade – with which he was closely involved for a decade – he nonchalantly concedes that it is ‘in many respects far from eligible’, but that he was ‘satisfied with it, as the appointment Providence had marked out for me’.

More than twenty years passed before Newton turned on ‘that unhappy and disgraceful branch of commerce’. In the meantime, he befriended a very young William Wilberforce and moved to London. Newton reconsidered the morality of his early years only when the antislavery campaigners of the late 1780s encouraged him to testify. After writing a pamphlet in 1788, and appearing before the Parliamentary committee investigating the trade, he withdrew once more from the debate. Newton could have been one of the most powerful and credible antislavery voices, but he played only a small role in the campaign.

The careers of Thomas Thistlewood and Olaudah Equiano also diverge from type. Thistlewood’s diary provides damning evidence against him, recording his numerous rapes and beatings of slaves as well as his slow ascent into the planter class in Jamaica. And yet his unchecked appetites also led to his becoming emotionally dependent on his slaves. As an overseer, he began a relationship with a slave woman called Phibbah, and worked hard to sustain their connection all through his life. Phibbah had managed to acquire cash and property even before she met Thistlewood, selling food and animals in the informal trading networks that gave modest hope to Caribbean blacks. Thistlewood looked after her money, and even borrowed from her early in his career. In 1760 she gave birth to his son, and he set aside money in his will for Phibbah to buy her freedom. It’s hard to contest Walvin’s verdict that Thistlewood was a brutal man, but his enduring attachment to Phibbah and her family raises difficult questions. Was this villainous planter ‘civilised by his slaves’? Did he find some form of redemption among the creolised Africans he had subjugated?

Olaudah Equiano has become a controversial figure among scholars. In his autobiography, he claimed to be an Igbo born in what is now Nigeria, and offered a wrenching account of the Middle Passage which was an especially effective piece of evidence in the antislavery campaign. Recently unearthed baptismal and naval records suggest, however, that he may have been born in South Carolina. Walvin doesn’t go into this uncertainty, but the undisputed facts of Equiano’s life throw up their own uneasy questions. While one can appreciate his delicate position before he secured his manumission papers in 1766, he continued to work in the trade as a free man. He didn’t derive his entire income from slavery: he spent some time as a hairdresser in London, and even travelled in 1773 on a Royal Society expedition in search of a northeast passage to Asia. But, as with Newton, it was some time before he became unambiguously opposed to the enslavement of black people.

Equiano agreed in 1775 to accompany the scientist and businessman Charles Irving on a colonisation venture. Irving was well aware of Equiano’s adaptability: they had originally met in a Haymarket barber’s shop, and Irving had been impressed enough to recruit him as a scientific assistant on his voyage towards the North Pole in 1773. Two years later, Irving’s new scheme called for black slaves to plant provisions and haul mahogany and logwood in a colony on the Mosquito Coast. Equiano agreed to buy slaves in the West Indies and to assure them that, in spite of the hostility of the Spanish and the wariness of the colony’s indigenous population, they were embarking on something other than a suicide mission.

It is an incongruous tale: in 1776 a black man and a white man, having developed a friendship over several years, founded a new American colony based on slave labour. Paul Lovejoy, who has investigated this venture carefully, believes that Equiano and Irving saw the plantation as a social experiment as well as a commercial opportunity: the slaves might eventually be freed, after proving themselves in the new colony. But Equiano’s actions suggest that he had yet to turn against racialised slavery in spite of his own experiences. Having assured his new African recruits that they had a bright future, he fled the plantation when it was beset by bad weather and harassed by the Spanish (both were eminently predictable). The entire slave population eventually died in a vain effort to escape from the colony by sea. This disastrous affair should not detract from Equiano’s role in the antislavery campaign of the late 1780s and 1790s, but it adds another complication to the straightforward story of antislavery’s triumph. The moral certainties of Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce had shallower roots than we might imagine.

Was racialised slavery based on a racist ideology? White Englishmen and women recognised differences of skin colour from the moment that black people arrived in significant numbers (as entertainers and servants, mostly) in the late 16th century; but they were slow to develop any coherent system of racial superiority to back up their prejudices. Historians of English racism often cite Elizabeth I’s proclamations in 1596 and 1601 against the presence of so many ‘blackamoors’, and note that the Crown hired a Lübeck merchant to remove black people on both occasions. But Elizabeth’s complaint focused on practical matters and religion rather than ‘race’: there wasn’t enough food to support England’s existing population, she insisted, and the recent black arrivals were ‘infidels’ rather than Christians. In 1596 she rounded up nearly a hundred Moors for a prisoner exchange with Spain, suggesting a still more instrumental motive for their expulsion. (Their English masters were asked to take comfort from the fact that Christians would be redeemed from captivity as a result of the swap.) Othello (1604) helped to subvert popular prejudices against North Africans – who often appeared as the villains in Renaissance drama, and were stereotyped as lascivious – but the intellectual basis of Iago’s pathology seems remarkably thin: ‘I hate the Moor’ is his monotonous refrain.

Scientific racism – which held that white people were endowed with superior qualities to black, and were perhaps a different species – did not gain intellectual traction until the middle of the 19th century. Instead, as Colin Kidd argues in The Forging of Races, it was religion that provided the benchmarks against which physical difference and racial potential could be measured. After a spirited opening chapter on the illusory nature of racial thinking, Kidd discusses the many (sometimes unintended) collisions between theology and race in the early modern period. Arguing that scripture should be considered ‘the primary cultural influence on the forging of races’ before the 19th century, he plunges into an admirably plain-speaking exploration of some burning questions. Was Adam white or black? Which race did Cain encounter in the land of Nod? Did Moses provide a precedent for miscegenation? Kidd’s achievement is to persuade us that, for theologians and philosophers in the 17th and 18th centuries, these questions were pressing and relevant to the modern world. He also contends that the idea of monogenesis – that all of humanity is descended from Adam and Eve – was a bulwark against racial inequality.

One of the many surprising conclusions of this book is that ‘“whites” conquered the world without any overt ideology of white superiority.’ Grassroots prejudice against black people – which might help John Newton to apply his thumbscrews, or Thomas Thistlewood to indulge his sexual appetite – ran far ahead of any formal racism in the treatises of European theologians and philosophers. The gap between racism in theory and in practice is, unfortunately, beyond Kidd’s purview: this is an intellectual history which rarely wanders beyond the pulpits and studies of a curious elite. But the book clearly demonstrates that ideas, and especially the fundamentals of the Christian religion, could not be simply placed in the service of an expanding imperialism.

Until the notions of monogenesis and of a single Creation were undermined in the 19th century, the most effective way of making religion serve racism and slavery was to invoke Providence and to suggest that God had intervened in history to create racial differences. The Scottish jurist Lord Kames, one of the leading lights of the moderate Protestant Enlightenment, speculated in 1774 that God created racial differences when he scattered the peoples who built the Tower of Babel. A more venerable and influential rationale was drawn from the ninth book of Genesis. As the floodwaters around Mount Ararat were receding, Noah whiled away an afternoon drinking wine from his vineyard. After resolving to sleep off his stupor, he was disturbed in bed by one of his sons. Ham, according to the story, not only exposed Noah’s nakedness but encouraged his brothers to laugh at their father. When Noah woke up, he cursed Ham’s son, Canaan, and declared that his posterity would from now on be slaves to Ham’s brothers, Shem and Japheth, and their descendants.

David Brion Davis suggests that this story, which had been revived at various points in the medieval period (most notably by Muslim slave traders working in Africa), was brought to Europe in 1498 by the Portuguese philosopher Isaac ben Abravanel. Abravanel claimed that Canaan and his descendants were Africans, while Japheth was the patriarch of the white race. He offered this interpretation not long after black slaves had become a familiar sight in Portugal, and just as Iberian slave traders began to expand their operations in West Africa and the Americas.

Davis and Kidd agree that the scriptural basis for this racial interpretation of Noah’s curse was extremely weak, and that early modern Christians often acknowledged this. Nothing in the Bible suggested that Canaan was black, and the logic behind the curse itself was as mystifying as anything in the Old Testament. Why not curse Kush, Canaan’s brother? Or apply some more immediate punishment to Ham himself, who was responsible for the ridiculing of his father? Seventeenth-century clergymen such as Peter Heylyn veered between embracing the racial version of this story and dismissing it as ‘a foolish tale’. (Heylyn did both, at different moments in his life.) Some 19th-century commentators tripped on the awkward question of how stuffy old Noah had become both drunk and naked when he tumbled into bed. But the usefulness of the story outweighed its essential strangeness. The idea of Noah’s curse became a kind of ‘popular mythology’, in Kidd’s phrase, even while its credentials as formal ideology were extremely weak. It would retain its appeal (in America at least) until the 1860s, when it became one of the last rallying cries of the embattled Confederacy.

Kidd began his research with the loose idea that religion had restrained racial prejudice: the reluctance of Protestants to abandon the belief in monogenesis forced them to avoid the convenient conclusion that Africans or Native Americans were naturally inferior beings. Noah’s curse, and the ability of Enlightenment thinkers to combine monogenesis with provocative speculations about racial difference, suggest instead that religion could be used to rationalise racism or slavery even while monogenesis might keep them in check. For those with the stamina and the curiosity, this point can be seen even more clearly in The Mind of the Master Class, a massive study of slaveholders in the American South by Eugene Genovese and the late Elizabeth Fox-Genovese.

Eugene Genovese is the First Mrs Rochester of the American historical profession. Nearly forty years ago, he won prizes and rave reviews for his studies of the antebellum South, and he enlivened a stagnant field by bringing a Marxist analysis to the sectional conflict. Cheered on by the New Left, he claimed that the South had developed into a distinctive slave society ranged against a North of capitalist exploitation. In the afterglow of the Civil Rights era, historians took for granted that Genovese would be as scornful of slavery as he was of capitalism, and his early commitment to writing about slaves as well as masters did much to deflect attention from the conservative potential of his argument. In the 1980s and 1990s, however, Genovese and his wife produced a series of books which seemed troublingly like apologias for white slaveholders. They also fired off angry letters to newspapers and professional organisations about political correctness and multiculturalism, and they were effectively sidelined by their liberal colleagues.

A reader of The Mind of the Master Class who is unaware of this back story may be surprised by its belligerence. ‘This book is about white Southerners,’ reads the first sentence, ‘and it is not about their “whiteness” – whatever that term may mean.’ There’s more of this, including the Genoveses’ determination to write about ‘the War for Southern Independence’ rather than the ‘Civil War’ or ‘the War of Northern Aggression’. Then there’s the thesis: the ‘master class’ of white Southerners preserved slavery before 1860 not for material motives, but because they feared the bourgeois individualism, religious experimentalism and rampant capitalism that might prevail in a ‘free’ society. Southerners read their Bibles carefully, found encouragement there, and strove for a political, moral and intellectual decency that only a slave society could facilitate.

The Genoveses themselves seem beguiled by the master class and its logic. The epigraph of their book is from Santayana: ‘The necessity of rejecting and destroying some things that are beautiful is the deepest curse of existence.’ The crabby introduction applauds our current aversion to racial subjugation as ‘a rare example of unambiguous moral progress’, then adds a discordant caveat: ‘Whether what is now recognised as wrong was always wrong – wrong in all circumstances and contexts – is a more complex issue than generally acknowledged.’ The exhaustive survey of Southern intellectual life that follows is slanted towards the book’s central preoccupation with explaining a slaveholding worldview. Like Michael O’Brien, in his Conjectures of Order (2004), the Genoveses are exasperated with the tendency of historians to dismiss Southerners as anti-intellectual, provincial or crassly materialistic. Unlike O’Brien, they suggest that slavery was the phenomenon about which Southerners thought most deeply and sincerely.

For the Genoveses, Northern antislavery campaigners in the 1840s and 1850s gravely endangered the authority of scripture by replacing the injunctions of the Bible with the judgments of conscience. Southerners linked this sort of moral experimentalism with the liberal social thinking that had eroded family relations in the North, or with a heartless capitalism throughout the Western world, or even with the French Revolution. Southerners maintained slavery as a ‘hedge’, the Genoveses claim, against ‘the excesses of their own epoch’. Their achievement was to wage a principled and pious rearguard action against the unhinged moralising of the North.

It would be foolish to deny the religious sincerity of many Southerners, but Mammon was hardly banished from the South after the American Revolution. In 1860, two-thirds of the richest men in America lived below the Mason-Dixon line. The slave system itself was deeply embedded within the broader American economy. Slaveholders dealt amicably with Northern merchants and suppliers, and cotton became the export commodity that drove the nation’s capitalist expansion in the antebellum years. Even if we accept the premise that religious conviction trumped material interest, there’s another problem that returns us to the issue of race. The Genoveses concede that Southerners had trouble justifying racialised slavery from the Bible; so why were the slaves of the master class exclusively black?

This question receives no sustained discussion, and at crucial moments the Genoveses struggle to deny the obvious conclusion that Southerners fused their biblical arguments for slavery with an unbiblical racism. Noah’s curse, for example, was the most popular Southern justification for keeping black people in chains. The Genoveses admit that the curse was viewed even by many Southerners as the ‘scripturally and intellectually weakest point in the biblical defence of slavery’, but they also acknowledge that it ‘emerged as the politically strongest’. The interesting question is why this should be so, and surely the Genoveses dodge this because they won’t like the answer. Southern defenders of slavery were willing to appropriate scripturally weak arguments when these might serve their political agenda: to keep blacks rather than whites in chains.

There are other omissions in this long book which undermine the Genoveses’ central argument: that Southerners defended the Word by maintaining slavery. Slaveholders frequently reached for Providence rather than the Bible to explain black inferiority, and these arguments depended on religious and historical speculation rather than the verities of scripture. In the 17th and 18th centuries, according to the most popular providential claim of the antebellum era, God had brought blacks from the barbarism and ignorance of Africa to receive learning and religion on the American plantations. He would send the black race ‘back’ to Africa when their education was complete. This comforting narrative enjoyed support throughout the South (and in the North), and gripped leading theologians such as Benjamin Palmer of New Orleans even after 1860. But these more slippery, providential arguments are absent from The Mind of the Master Class, as is any sustained discussion of the scientific racism that became popular in the United States from the 1840s onwards.

One of the Genoveses’ most prominent subjects, the politician James Henry Hammond, provides telling testimony against their thesis. If Hammond was a God-fearing Christian who read his Bible faithfully, he had a strange way of showing it. In the mid-1840s, he was driven from the governor’s mansion in Charleston when word leaked out that he was having sexual relations with all four of his nieces. A decade later, his career miraculously revived, he became the most prominent spokesperson for what was later termed herrenvolk republicanism: the idea that one race could live happily and prosperously by subjugating another. There’s nothing about Hammond’s personal life in The Mind of the Master Class – even his wife refused to live with him when he insisted on keeping his slave mistress in their home – but the omission of his views on race is especially startling. In 1858 he told the US Senate that all successful societies depended on ‘a class to do the menial duties’, and that this ‘mudsill’ had been provided in the South by slavery. ‘We do not think that whites should be slaves either by law or necessity,’ Hammond said. ‘Our slaves are black, of another and inferior race.’ He also warned his Northern counterparts that their dependence on a white, enfranchised population to do this work was a huge mistake. The North had been wrong to abolish racialised slavery, and would get its comeuppance when the West was fully settled and the urban poor turned on the Northern master class.

A handful of Southerners, like the eccentric social theorist George Fitzhugh, endorsed white slavery by the end of the 1850s for practical rather than religious reasons. Davis notes that Abraham Lincoln may have stiffened his opposition to the South in the belief that Fitzhugh’s ideas had caught on. In fact, Southerners remained unwilling to enslave white people for the same reasons as planters in the 17th-century Caribbean: it was hard to turn white Christians into slaves, and there were distinct social benefits in preserving an indelible line between white and black workers. In the South, the master class consolidated its position by persuading non-slaveholding whites (who outnumbered slaveholders) that racial belonging trumped economic status: poorer whites with no slaves often indulged in the most virulent racism, defining themselves as utterly different from the mudsill that held up the planter elite.

The presumption of black inferiority was ubiquitous among the whites who built and maintained these slave systems, but it rested on shaky intellectual and religious foundations. Perhaps these prejudices gained their power from the fact that they were more often worked out in actions than in words. This might help to explain why, when Britons and Americans finally turned against slavery, they focused much more on the institution itself than on the people they had enslaved or the prejudices that had supported the trade. In fact, whites proved surprisingly amenable to racist thinking even as they rejected racialised slavery.

Historians have long recognised that the development of a formal, intellectual racism in the Caribbean and United States was inspired by the antislavery challenge: when slaveholders came under concerted attack for the first time after 1770, they searched for a more durable basis for black inferiority in the hope that this would sustain slavery indefinitely. Although they lost the argument, planters found that their white antislavery opponents were far less hostile to new thinking about black inability and racial hierarchies. This irony overshadows the idea of abolition as a moral triumph, and forces us to think more carefully about why the movements in Britain and America to abolish slavery did little to combat the toxic racism that outlived it.