Slave Life

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Slave Life

The roughly three-quarters of a century between 1754 and 1829, during which United States nationhood evolved and consolidated, also witnessed an extraordinarily dynamic period of change and development in the lives of slaves. Although slavery existed in all of the North American British colonies, by 1750 it was clear that slavery was evolving differently below what would later become the Mason-Dixon line. With nearly 90 percent of slaves concentrated in the southern colonies, slavery was undeniably more important to the economic and social order in the Chesapeake and Lower South than it was in the middle colonies and New England. Generally speaking, the work, culture, and treatment of slaves varied according to geographic location and historical progression.

Slave life shifted not only across geographic space but across time as well, as is evident in cultural differences between slave generations. Slaves of the Plantation Generation, which ran from 1700 to 1775, were more likely to have direct personal ties to Africa. Slaves of the Revolutionary Generation, which lasted from 1776 to roughly 1829, inherited a more synthesized African, European, and Native American way of life that was truly African American. National events and politics played a role in defining the boundaries of this developing African American culture. Most noticeably, the mixed economies of societies with slaves such as those of the middle colonies and New England rapidly gave way to free labor after the American Revolution. Additionally, when the direct importation of slaves was banned in 1808, the domestic slave trade flourished, as slaves largely from the Chesapeake were sent to clear land and produce cotton in the rapidly growing Deep South. Daily life changed radically for many forced migrants, who were separated from family and community and thrown into plantation labor to which they were not accustomed.


With most of their waking hours for six or more days per week spent in uncompensated labor, the lives of slaves revolved around work. In New England and the middle colonies, outside the plantation system, slaves performed a variety of tasks in a mixed economy. Often concentrated in major port cities such as New York, Philadelphia, or Newport, slaves worked in a variety of skilled and unskilled positions as craftsmen, artisans, and domestic servants. Slaves made significant contributions to the maritime industry by making sails, barrels for merchandise, repairing ships, and sometimes as crew. For these slaves in the North, daily labor was often in small, racially heterogeneous, independent groups and usually alongside free laborers.

Slave labor and life was much different in the South. Whether producing tobacco in the Chesapeake region of Virginia and Maryland, rice in the swampy low country of South Carolina or Georgia, or cotton in the emergent Deep South, most slaves from both the Plantation and Revolutionary Generations worked in a gang system of labor that demanded participation irrespective of gender or physical maturity to produce staple cash crops for sale in a global market. Slaves in these regions lived in communities in which blacks usually vastly outnumbered whites, sometimes by a margin of ten or more to one. Typically, an enslaved black driver worked under the direction of a white overseer, who was employed by a plantation owner. In the Chesapeake, plantation owners tended to live on-site, whereas those in the Lower South were generally removed from the plantation's daily routine and thus maintained less regular contact with slaves.

Because depleted soil in the tobacco-producing Chesapeake could not yield a sufficient crop for more than three consecutive years, slaves in this region not only worked within the monotonous yearly cycle of standard tobacco production but also engaged in the backbreaking toil of clearing and preparing land in the hilly piedmont region for the expansion of plantation agriculture. At the American Revolution's onset in 1775, this extraordinarily wealthy region held over half of the new nation's slaves. In 1790, just three years before Eli Whitney's cotton gin would begin to revolutionize global capitalism and

stimulate America's cotton boom, the lives of most slaves in South Carolina and Georgia revolved around rice. Work in rice paddies regularly entailed arduous manual labor under a hot subtropical sun while wading up to one's thighs in mosquito- and reptile-infested swamps. Rice required constant attention in planting, irrigating, weeding, and protecting from birds. In the winter off-season, slaves on low-country rice plantations erected and repaired the massive irrigation system of dams and levees that this labor-intensive crop demanded. In both the tobacco- and rice-growing regions, gang labor was a central facet of the daily life and cultural development of slaves. That blacks were a visible majority in these regions was also a significant feature of slave life.

Time off was granted at the discretion of plantation management. For most slaves working under the gang-labor task system, Sunday was a break from the week of compulsory labor. This is not to say that it was a day of traditional rest and relaxation. Rather, Sundays were often spent working on a variety of chores including mending clothing, hunting or fishing to supplement relatively meager dietary rations of corn meal or rice, and tending one's small personal plot of vegetables, fowl, or cash crop for sale at the local market. Rural slaves also used Sunday time to acquire a pass to visit friends and family on a neighboring plantation; slaves in and around cities such as Charleston and New Orleans gathered at well-known public squares to exchange goods, dance, and socialize.


Slave culture drew largely from a shared African heritage and, with the passing of generations, developed into a unique African American slave culture. In regions with a greater concentration of blacks and first-generation African slaves, slave culture was more distinctly African; the culture of slaves with deep heritage on the North American mainland, who lived and worked as a minority among whites, was more distinctly European American. Nevertheless, a creolized African American culture was recognizable by the onset of antebellum slavery. This developing African American culture is evident in slaves' handmade pottery and cooking techniques; musical instruments, syncopated rhythms, and fluid dance; folk tales; root medicine; and courtship patterns. Even in New England, Africa's presence in the development of late-eighteenth-century slave culture is noticeable in the mimicry of African royalty during the election of southern New England's slave governors. Winners of these annual elections, which fused Yankee local democracy with some aspects of African royalty, had authority over minor issues within the slave community.

By the late eighteenth century, one of the most important cultural institutions of slave life was an extensive network of kin and fictive kin. In its fully developed stages, this kinship network bound adult slaves together in a community of mutual obligation in which the entire slave community was responsible for rearing and socializing slave youth, supporting widows, and ensuring the general well-being of fellow slaves. Increasing immunity to both malaria and respiratory infections, coupled with the relative increase in material comfort connected to Revolutionary-era humanism, helped slave families to consolidate and regenerate. Although slaves were not granted the legal protection of marriage, many of them were involved in long-term monogamous relationships with slaves from their own or neighboring plantations or nearby free blacks. The bonds of family and community were constantly threatened by outside forces such as sale or a master's decision to relocate. After the 1808 ban on American participation in the international slave trade, the domestic slave trade sharply increased, shattering slave families and entire slave communities. At the same time, the rise in the domestic slave trade caused African American slave culture to spread into new territory. The names of slave children born in America, many taken from the names of close kin who were lost, reflected the lingering bonds of family.

The amount of daily interaction slaves had with whites, as well as the proportion of Africans with whom they lived, affected their acquisition and mastery of English-language skills. Many slaves from Delaware to Georgia spoke an invented pidgin form of African-influenced English that was barely decipherable to the untrained white ear, but slaves reared and working in the mixed economies of New England and the middle colonies often fully mastered spoken English. Likewise, domestic servants who maintained close contact with masters had a firm grasp of English-language skills. Advertisements seeking the return of runaway slaves often commented on the slaves' English-language skills, revealing that many slaves used English as a tool for liberation. Indeed, runaways with advanced English skills could hope to pass as free blacks on their journey toward liberty.


Deciding how much English they would learn was just one of many choices slaves made in the dynamic cultural times of the Plantation and Revolutionary Generations. Like language, slaves' choice of religion was also a major component of their identity and helped determine their degree of acculturation. Slave religion, especially for those who had just survived the Middle Passage, was deeply infused with African spirituality that sometimes included Islamic monotheism. African Muslims were a distinct minority, and well into the eighteenth century most slaves had never heard of Jesus. Despite a language barrier and the inability of most slaves to read Scripture, the London-based Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts began actively proselytizing slaves during the mid-eighteenth-century Great Awakening. Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists made early inroads into converting members of the slave community with an emphasis on the spontaneous worship and experiential spirituality characteristic of African religions. By 1776 Virginia's Baptists had effectively courted many slave converts. By 1829 slaves and free blacks in the North were developing their own formal religious institutions and consolidating their form of Christianity. For these slave converts, a deep African worldview fundamentally influenced their synthesized version of Christianity. Indeed, it was rare for slaves to adopt fully Christian forms of religious practice. Despite efforts at conversion, most common slaves from this era maintained a fundamental reluctance to compromise or alter their religious worldview.


Slave culture incorporated both accommodation and resistance. Although slaves might obey orders and defer to an owner, they could and did resist slavery. A massive slave rebellion like those that occurred in the Caribbean and South America never transpired; but slaves did resist or subvert their bondage through covert arson and poisoning, direct challenges of overseers, and small but significant acts such as sabotage. Although owners often interpreted a slow pace of labor, destruction of tools, or malingering to laziness or stupidity, these individual acts of subversion were part of a spectrum of slave resistance that included Gabriel's Rebellion of 1800 in Virginia, and the 1811 uprising of five hundred New Orleans slaves armed with hand weapons that was squelched by federal forces cooperating with the local militia. Gabriel Prosser's co-conspirator, Jack Bowler, summed up the spirit of slave rebels across generations, testifying that "we had as much right to fight for our liberty as any men."

Slave revolts became more organized and aggressive when changing racial demographics meant that slaves were no longer drastically outnumbered by whites. In short, the racial imbalance that developed as a direct result of the plantation system provided fertile ground for violent slave rebellions.

One of the more frequent methods of slave resistance was absconding. Especially in the Deep South, where the absence of a free black community virtually equated skin color with slavery, running away was a logistical nightmare; slaves had to traverse unfamiliar and hostile terrain, avoid regular slave patrols, and rely almost exclusively on other slaves for sustenance. In light of these objective difficulties, many slaves fled for only a few days or a week, using this time away from work to visit friends and family on nearby plantations or take a break from the labors of slave life. In some cases, truancy was a method of resisting changes in the daily regimen such as an increased workload under the task system or the denial of an expected day off during harvest time.

American independence represented both a birth of freedom and an extension of slavery. Although Enlightenment ideology and a changing economy effectively smashed slavery in the North, the removal of British limitations on trans-Appalachian settlement allowed chattel slavery to spread well beyond the eastern seaboard. The federal ban on imported slaves in 1808 had an enormous impact on slave culture, yet the new federal government did nothing to protect the slave family by regulating the interstate slave trade. Likewise, no early federal legislation extended civil rights or equal protection to enslaved African Americans. As demonstrated by their willingness to fight alongside both Patriots and the British, slaves did not hold allegiance to any country. Rather, their allegiance was to freedom.

See alsoChesapeake Region; Cotton Gin; Fugitive Slave Law of 1793; Gabriel's Rebellion; Haitian Revolution; Law: Slavery Law; Plantation, The; Revolution: Slavery and Blacks in the Revolution; Vesey Rebellion .


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David Lucander