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.

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