The Brutality of Slavery

[This article is excerpted from Conceived in Liberty, volume 1, chapter 6, “The Social Structure of Virginia: Bondservants and Slaves”. An MP3 audio file of this article, narrated by Floy Lilley, is available for download.]

Until the 1670s, the bulk of forced labor in Virginia was indentured service (largely white, but some Negro); Negro slavery was negligible. In 1683 there were 12,000 indentured servants in Virginia and only 3,000 slaves of a total population of 44,000. Masters generally preferred bondservants for two reasons. First, they could exploit the bondservants more ruthlessly because they did not own them permanently, as they did their slaves; on the other hand, the slaves were completely their owners’ capital and hence the masters were economically compelled to try to preserve the capital value of their human tools of production. Second, the bondservants, looking forward to their freedom, could be more productive laborers than the slaves, who were deprived of all hope for the future.

As the colony grew, the number of bondservants grew also, although as servants were repeatedly set free, their proportion to the population of Virginia declined. Since the service was temporary, a large new supply had to be continually furnished. There were seven sources of bondservice, two voluntary (initially) and five compulsory. The former consisted partly of “redemptioners” who bound themselves for four to seven years, in return for their passage money to America. It is estimated that seventy percent of all immigration in the colonies throughout the colonial era consisted of redemptioners. The other voluntary category consisted of apprentices, children of the English poor, who were bound out until the age of twenty-one. In the compulsory category were: (a) impoverished and orphaned English children shipped to the colonies by the English government; (b) colonists bound to service in lieu of imprisonment for debt (the universal punishment for all nonpayment in that period); (c) colonial criminals who were simply farmed out by the authorities to the mastership of private employers; (d) poor English children or adults kidnapped by professional “crimps”—one of whom boasted of seizing 500 children annually for a dozen years; and (e) British convicts choosing servitude in America for seven to fourteen years in lieu of all prison terms in England. The last were usually petty thieves or political prisoners—and Virginia absorbed a large portion of the transported criminals.

As an example of the grounds for deporting political prisoners into bondage, an English law in force in the mid-1660s banished to the colonies anyone convicted three times of attempting an unlawful meeting—a law aimed mostly at the Quakers. Hundreds of Scottish nationalist rebels, particularly after the Scottish uprising of 1679, were shipped to the colonies as political criminals. An act of 1670 banished to the colonies anyone with knowledge of illegal religious or political activity, who refused to turn informer for the government.

During his term of bondage, the indentured servant received no monetary payment. His hours and conditions of work were set absolutely by the will of his master who punished the servant at his own discretion. Flight from the master’s service was punishable by beating, or by doubling or tripling the term of indenture. The bondservants were frequently beaten, branded, chained to their work, and tortured. The frequent maltreatment of bondservants is so indicated in a corrective Virginia act of 1662: “The barbarous usage of some servants by cruel masters being so much scandal and infamy to the country… that people who would willingly adventure themselves hither, are through fears thereof diverted”—thus diminishing the needed supply of indentured servants.

Many of the oppressed servants were moved to the length of open resistance. The major form of resistance was flight, either individually or in groups; this spurred their employers to search for them by various means, including newspaper advertisements. Work stoppages were also employed as a method of struggle. But more vigorous rebellions also occurred especially in Virginia in 1659, 1661, 1663, and 1681. Rebellions of servants were particularly pressing in the 1660s because of the particularly large number of political prisoners taken in England during that decade. Independent and rebellious by nature, these men had been shipped to the colonies as bondservants. Stringent laws were passed in the 1660s against runaway servants striving to gain their freedom.

In all cases, the servant revolts for freedom were totally crushed and the leaders executed. Demands of the rebelling servants ranged from improved conditions and better food to outright freedom. The leading example was the servant uprising of 1661 in York County, Virginia, led by Isaac Friend and William Clutton. Friend had exhorted the other servants that “he would be the first and lead them and cry as they went along who would be for liberty and freed from bondage and that there would be enough come to them, and they would go through the country and kill those who made any opposition and that they would either be free or die for it.”1 The rebels were treated with surprising leniency by the county court, but this unwonted spirit quickly evaporated with another servant uprising in 1663.

This servant rebellion in York, Middlesex, and Gloucester counties was betrayed by a servant named Birkenhead, who was rewarded for his renegacy by the House of Burgesses with his freedom and 5,000 pounds of tobacco. The rebel leaders, however,—former soldiers under Cromwell—were ruthlessly treated; nine were indicted for high treason and four actually executed. In 1672 a servant plot to gain freedom was uncovered and a Katherine Nugent suffered thirty lashes for complicity. A law was passed forbidding servants from leaving home without special permits and meetings of servants were further repressed.

One of the first servant rebellions occurred in the neighboring Chesapeake tobacco colony of Maryland. In 1644 Edward Robinson and two brothers were convicted for armed rebellion for the purpose of liberating bondservants. Thirteen years later Robert Chessick, a recaptured runaway servant in Maryland, persuaded several servants of various masters to run away to the Swedish settlements on the Delaware River. Chessick and a dozen other servants seized a master’s boat, as well as arms for self-defense in case of attempted capture. But the men were captured and Chessick was given thirty lashes. As a special refinement, one of Chessick’s friends and abettors in the escape, John Beale, was forced to perform the whipping.

In 1663 the bondservants of Richard Preston of Maryland went on strike and refused to work in protest against the lack of meat. The Maryland court sentenced the six disobedient servants to thirty lashes each, with two of the most moderate rebels compelled to perform the whipping. Facing force majeure, all the servants abased themselves and begged forgiveness from their master and from the court, which suspended the sentence on good behavior.

In Virginia a servant rebellion against a master, Captain Sisbey, occurred as early as 1638; the lower Norfolk court ordered the enormous total of one hundred lashes on each rebel. In 1640 six servants of Captain William Pierce tried to escape to the Dutch settlements. The runaways were apprehended and brutally punished, lest this set “a dangerous precedent for the future time.” The prisoners were sentenced to be whipped and branded, to work in shackles, and to have their terms of bondage extended.

By the late seventeenth century the supply of bondservants began to dry up. While the opening of new colonies and wider settlements increased the demand for bondservants, the supply dwindled greatly as the English government finally cracked down on the organized practice of kidnapping and on the shipping of convicts to the colonies. And so the planters turned to the import and purchase of Negro slaves. In Virginia there had been 50 Negroes, the bulk of them slaves, out of a total population of 2,500 in 1630; 950 Negroes out of 27,000 in 1660; and 3,000 Negroes out of 44,000 in 1680—a steadily rising proportion, but still limited to less than seven percent of the population. But in ten years, by 1690, the proportion of Negroes had jumped to over 9,000 out of 53,000, approximately seventeen percent. And by 1700, the number was 16,000 out of a population of 58,000, approximately twenty-eight percent. And of the total labor force—the working population—this undoubtedly reflected a considerably higher proportion of Negroes.

How the Negro slaves were treated may be gauged by the diary of the aforementioned William Byrd II, who felt himself to be a kindly master and often inveighed against “brutes who mistreat their slaves.” Typical examples of this kindly treatment were entered in his diary:

2-8-09: Jenny and Eugene were whipped.

5-13-09: Mrs. Byrd whips the nurse.

6-10-09: Eugene (a child) was whipped for running away and had the bit put on him.

11-30-09: Jenny and Eugene were whipped.

12-16-09: Eugene was whipped for doing nothing yesterday.

4-17-10: Byrd helped to investigate slaves tried for “High Treason”; two were hanged.

7-1-10: The Negro woman ran away again with the bit in her mouth.

7-15-10: My wife, against my will, caused little Jenny to be burned with a hot iron.

8-22-10: I had a severe quarrel with little Jenny and beat her too much for which I was sorry.

1-22-11: A slave “pretends to be sick.” I put a branding iron on the place he claimed of and put the bit on him.

It is pointless to criticize such passages as only selected instances of cruel treatment, counterbalanced by acts of kindness by Byrd and other planters toward their slaves. For the point is not only that the slave system was one where such acts could take place; the point is that threats of brutality underlay the whole relationship. For the essence of slavery is that human beings, with their inherent freedom of will, with individual desires and convictions and purposes, are used as capital, as tools for the benefit of their master. The slave is therefore habitually forced into types and degrees of work that he would not have freely undertaken; by necessity, therefore, the bit and the lash become the motor of the slave system. The myth of the kindly master camouflages the inherent brutality and savagery of the slave system.

One historical myth holds that since the slaves were their masters’ capital, the masters’ economic self-interest dictated kindly treatment of their property. But again, the masters always had to make sure that the property was really theirs, and for this, systematic brutality was needed to turn labor from natural into coerced channels for the benefit of the master. And, second, what of property that had outlived its usefulness? Of capital that no longer promised a return to the master? Of slaves too old or too ill to continue earning their masters a return? What sort of treatment did the economic self-interest of the master dictate for slaves who could no longer repay the costs of their subsistence?

Slaves resisted their plight in many ways, ranging from such nonviolent methods as work slowdowns, feigning illness, and flight, to sabotage, arson, and outright insurrection. Insurrections were always doomed to failure, outnumbered as the slaves were in the population. And yet the slave revolts appeared and reappeared. There were considerable slave plots in Virginia in 1687, 1709–10, 1722–23, and 1730. A joint conspiracy of great numbers of Negro and Indian slaves in Surry and Isle of Wight counties was suppressed in 1709, and another Negro slave conspiracy crushed in Surry County the following year. The slave who betrayed his fellows was granted his freedom by the grateful master. The 1730 uprising occurred in five counties of Virginia, and centered on the town of Williamsburg. A few weeks before the insurrection, several suspected slaves were arrested and whipped. An insurrection was then planned for the future, but was betrayed and the leaders executed.

Joint flight by slaves and servants was also common during the seventeenth century, as well as joint participation in plots and uprisings. In 1663 Negro slaves and white indentured servants in Virginia plotted an extensive revolt, and a number of the rebels were executed. The colonists appointed the day as one of prayer and thanksgiving for being spared the revolt. Neither slave nor indentured servant was permitted to marry without the master’s consent; yet there is record of frequent cohabitation, despite prohibitory laws.

It has been maintained in mitigation of the brutality of the American slave system that the Negroes were purchased from African chieftains, who had enslaved them there. It is true that the slaves were also slaves in Africa, but it is also true that African slavery never envisioned the vast scope, the massive dragooning of forced labor that marked American plantation slavery. Furthermore, the existence of a ready white market for slaves greatly expanded the extent of slavery in Africa, as well as the intensity of the intertribal wars through which slavery came about. As is usually the case on the market, demand stimulated supply. Moreover, African slavery did not include transportation under such monstrous conditions that a large percentage could not survive, or the brutal “seasoning” process in a West Indies way station to make sure that only those fit for slave conditions survived, or the continual deliberate breaking up of slave families that prevailed in the colonies.

From the earliest opening of the New World, African slaves were imported as forced labor to make possible the working of large plantations, which, as we have seen, would have been uneconomic if they had had to rely, as did other producers, on free and voluntary labor. In Latin America, from the sixteenth century on, Negro slavery was used for large sugar plantations concentrated in the West Indies and on the north coast of South America. It has been estimated that a total of 900,000 Negro slaves were imported into the New World in the sixteenth century, and two and three-quarter million in the seventeenth century.2

Negroes came into use as slaves instead of the indigenous American Indians because: (a) the Negroes proved more adaptable to the onerous working conditions of slavery—enslaved Indians tended, as in the Caribbean, to die out; (b) it was easier to buy existing slaves from African chieftains than to enslave a race anew; and (c) of the great moral and spiritual influence of Father Bartolome de Las Casas in Spanish America, who in the mid-sixteenth century inveighed against the enslavement of the American Indians. Spanish consciences were never agitated over Negro slavery as they were over Indian; even Las Casas himself owned several Negro slaves for many years. Indeed, early in his career, Las Casas advocated the introduction of Negro slaves to relieve the pressure on the Indians, but he eventually came to repudiate the slavery of both races. In the seventeenth century two Spanish Jesuits, Alonzo de Sandoval and Pedro Claver, were conspicuous in trying to help the Negro slaves, but neither attacked the institution of Negro slavery as un-Christian. Undoubtedly one reason for the different treatment of the two races was the general conviction among Europeans of the inherent inferiority of the Negro race. Thus, the same Montesquieu who had scoffed at those Spaniards who called the American Indians barbarians, suggested that the African Negro was the embodiment of Aristotle’s “natural slave.” And even the environmental determinist David Hume suspected “the Negroes to be naturally inferior to the whites. There scarcely ever was a civilized nation of that complexion, nor even an individual, eminent either in action or speculation. No ingenious manufacturers amongst them, no arts, no sciences. On the other hand, the most rude and barbarian of the whites… have still something eminent about them…. Such a uniform and constant difference could not happen, in so many countries and ages, if nature had not made an original distinction between these breeds of men.”

Contrary to the views of those writers who maintain that Negroes and whites enjoyed equal rights as indentured servants in Virginia until the 1660s, after which the Negroes were gradually enslaved, evidence seems clear that from the beginning many Negroes were slaves and were treated far more harshly than were white indentured servants.3 No white man, for example, was ever enslaved unto perpetuity—lifetime service for the slave and for his descendants—in any English colony. The fact that there were no slave statutes in Virginia until the 1660s simply reflected the small number of Negroes in the colony before that date.4 From a very early date, owned Negroes were worked as field hands, whereas white bondservants were spared this onerous labor. And also from an early date, Negroes, in particular, were denied any right to bear arms. An especially striking illustration of this racism pervading Virginia from the earliest days was the harsh prohibition against any sexual union of the races. As early as 1630 a Virginia court ordered “Hugh Davis to be soundly whipped, before an assembly of Negroes and others for abusing himself to the dishonor of God and shame of Christians by defiling his body in lying with a Negro.” By the early 1660s the colonial government outlawed miscegenation and interracial fornication. When Virginia prohibited all interracial unions in 1691, the Assembly bitterly denounced miscegenation as “that abominable mixture and spurious issue.”5

Other regulations dating from this period and a little later included one that forbade any slave from leaving a plantation without a pass from his master; another decreed that conversion to Christianity would not set a slave free, a fact which violated a European tradition that only heathens, not Christians, might be reduced to slavery.

By the end of the seventeenth century, the growing Virginia colony had emerged from its tiny and precarious beginnings with a definite social structure. This society may be termed partly feudal. On the one hand, Virginia, with its abundance of new land, was spared the complete feudal mold of the English homeland. The Virginia Company was interested in promoting settlement, and most grantees (such as individual settlers and former indentured servants) were interested in settling the land for themselves. As a result, there developed a multitude of independent yeomen settlers, particularly in the less choice up-country lands. Also, the feudal quitrent system never took hold in Virginia. The settlers were charged quitrents by the colony or by the large grantees who, instead of allowing settlers to own the land or selling the land to them, insisted on charging and trying to collect annual quitrents as overlords of the land area. But while Virginia was able to avoid many crucial features of feudalism, it introduced an important feudal feature into its method of distributing land, especially the granting of large tracts of choice tidewater river land to favorite and wealthy planters. These large land grants would have early dissolved into ownership by the individual settlers were it not for the regime of forced labor, which made the large tobacco plantations profitable. Furthermore, the original “settlers,” those who brought the new land into use, were in this case the slaves and bondservants themselves, so it might well be said that the planters were in an arbitrary quasi-feudal relation to their land even apart from the large grants.

Temporary indentured service, both “voluntary” and compulsory, and the more permanent Negro slavery formed the base of exploited labor upon which was erected a structure of oligarchic rule by the large tobacco planters. The continuance of the large land tracts was also buttressed by the totally feudal laws of entail and primogeniture, which obtained, at least formally, in Virginia and most of the other colonies. Primogeniture compelled the undivided passing-on of land to the eldest son, and entail prevented the land from being alienated (even voluntarily) from the family domain. However, primogeniture did not exert its fully restrictive effect, for the planters generally managed to elude it and to divide their estate among their younger children as well. Hence, Virginia land partly dissolved into its natural division as the population grew. Primogeniture and entail never really took hold in Virginia, because the abundance of cheap land made labor—and hence the coerced supply of slaves—the key factor in production. More land could always be acquired; hence there was no need to restrict inheritance to the eldest son. Furthermore, the rapid exhaustion of tobacco land by the current methods of cultivation required the planters to be mobile, and to be ready to strike out after new plantations. The need for such mobility militated against the fixity of landed estates that marked the rigid feudal system of land inheritance prevailing in England. Overall, the wealth and status of Virginia’s large planters was far more precarious and less entrenched that were those of their landowning counterparts in England.

1. Abbot E. Smith, Colonists in Bondage.
2. Over the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, only about one-fifteenth of the total Negro imports into the New World arrived in the territory of what is now the United States. That the slaves fared even worse in the Latin American colonies is seen by the far higher death rate there than in North America.
3. Cf. Winthrop D. Jordan, “Modern Tensions and the Origins of American Slavery,” Journal of Southern History (February 1962), pp. 17-30.
4. Ibid. Jordan cites many evidences of Negro slavery—including court sentences, records of Negroes, executions of wills, comparative sale prices of Negro and white servants—dating from 1640, before which time the number of Negroes in Virginia was negligible.
5. “Spurious” in colonial legislation meant not simply illegitimate, but specifically the children of interracial unions.

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