Slavery is the unconditional servitude of one individual to another. A slave is usually acquired by purchase and legally described as chattel or a tangible form of movable property. For much of human history, slavery has constituted an important dimension of social and occupational organization. The word slavery originated with the sale of Slavs to the Black Sea region during the ninth century. Slavery existed in European society until the nineteenth century, and it was the principal source of labor during the process of European colonization.
Some forms of slavery existed among the indigenous societies in the Americas before the arrival of Christopher Columbus. However, the reconstruction of the Americas after 1492 led to a system of slavery quite unprecedented in human experience. Slavery in the Americas was a patently artificial social and political construct, not a natural condition. It was a specific organizational response to a specific labor scarcity. African slavery in the Americas, then, was a relatively recent development in the course of human history—and quite exceptional in the universal history of slave societies.
Slavery was also a form of power relations, so slaves by and large did not have an equal voice in articulating a view of their condition. Their actions, however, spoke loudly of their innermost thoughts and represented their reflections on, and reactions to, the world in which they found themselves. Columbus thought the people he encountered in the Caribbean in 1492 might make good slaves, as he seemed to infer in his log of October 10, 1492, when he wrote: "They ought to make good and skilled servants, for they repeat very quickly whatever we say to them. I think that they can easily be made Christians, for they seem to have no religion. If it pleases Our Lord, I will take six of them to Your Highness when I depart, in order that they may learn our language" (Columbus, p. 77).
Blacks in the New World
Nevertheless, the first Africans who accompanied the early Spanish explorers were not all slaves. Some were free (such as Pedro Alonso Niño, who accompanied Christopher Columbus on his third voyage); and others were servants.
Nuflo de Olano, who accompanied Vasco Nuñez de Balboa across the Isthmus of Panama was, however, a slave. So were Juan Valiente and several others who traveled and fought with Hernán Cortés in Mexico, or the Pizarro brothers in Peru, or Pánfilo de Narváez in Florida. Those blacks who sailed with Columbus on his first voyage to the Americas in 1492 were free men, and their descendants presumably were as free as any other Spanish colonist in the Americas. Other blacks who accompanied the early Spanish conquistadores might have been servile, but they were not true slaves as the term was later understood. Estebanico—described as "Andrés Dorantes' black Moorish slave"—accompanied Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca in his amazing journey around the Gulf of Mexico and overland across the Southwest to Mexico City in the late 1520s and 1530s. Estebanico learned several local Indian languages with consummate ease, and he posed, along with his companions, as holy men gifted with healing powers (Weber, p. 44). The chronicler Bernal Díaz del Castillo describes several "blacks" who accompanied Hernán Cortés to Mexico—one of whom brought wheat to the New World, and another (a follower of Pánfilo de Narváez) who introduced smallpox among the Indians, with lethal results (Castillo, 1979). Of the 168 men who followed Francisco Pizarro to Peru in 1532 and captured the Inca at Cajamarca, at least two were black: Juan García, born in Old Castile, served the expedition as a piper and crier, and Miguel Ruiz, born in Seville, was a part of the cavalry and probably received a double portion of the spoils, as did all those who had horses.
A significant proportion of the nonwhite inhabitants of the American slave societies were not the direct descendants of slaves. That is to say, they were not freedmen, or the descendants of freedmen, but free men and women who could trace their free status through several generations. They comprised a growing segment of the American Creole population. These forever-free people formed an important part of the history of American slave societies, of the constantly negotiated and changing world of masters and slaves.
Less ambiguous was the remarkable case of the slaves and their community of El Cobre in eastern Cuba, described by Olga Portuondo Zúñiga in La virgen de la Caridad del Cobre: símbolo de cubanía (1995) and by María Elena Díaz in The Virgin, The King, and the Royal Slaves of El Cobre (2000). In El Cobre, the original copper mining company went bankrupt in 1670 and the slaves (as well as the physical property, such as machinery, lands, and buildings) reverted to the monarchy of Castile. The slaves of El Cobre became royal slaves with significant traditional privileges, and apparently they knew these privileges better than the officials at the royal court. The slaves successfully exploited Spanish laws and customs to establish a viable self-governing community in which their town council supervised free people. Surely this was a most anomalous situation in the American slave system: enslaved people with more extensive privileges than freeholders. When the residents eventually lost their autonomy in 1780, a compromise with the copper company established a peculiar category called "wage slaves," and those residents who had not purchased their freedom—or had it purchased for them in the intervening years—fell into this category. The mining company nominally recovered its slaves after more than a hundred years of litigation, but it was forced to pay wages to the slaves as though they were regularly hired free laborers.
Indeed, between 1502 and 1518, Spain shipped hundreds of black slaves from Iberia to the fledgling American colonies. These slaves, called ladinos, were born in Iberia, in communities of Africans found between Málaga and Huelva in southern Iberia. As such, they were Roman Catholic in religion and Hispanic in culture. In the Americas they worked in the mines of Hispaniola, Mexico, and Peru; dived for pearls off the Venezuelan coast; helped to build the new cities and towns; and supplemented the faltering Indian population everywhere the Spanish established settlements. From this early population, a growing community of free nonwhite, nonindigenous people developed throughout the Americas. These descendants of various mixtures of population were unique to the colonial experience in the Americas.
The Slave Trade
The transatlantic slave trade formally began in 1518, when King Charles I of Spain sanctioned the direct importation of Africans to his colonies in the Americas, finally acknowledging that the potential supply of indigenous slaves was inadequate to maintain the economic viability of his fledgling overseas colonies. Shortly thereafter, the Portuguese started to import Africans to Brazil to create a plantation society and establish an Atlantic bulwark against other Europeans intruding along the coast. As the demand for labor grew, the number of Africans imported as slaves increased, and manual labor throughout the Americas eventually became virtually synonymous with the enslavement of Africans. The transatlantic slave trade became a lucrative international enterprise, and by the time it ended, around 1870, more than ten million Africans had been forcibly transported and made slaves in the Americas. Many millions more died in Africa or at sea in transit to the Americas.
The slave trade responded to an interrelated series of factors operating across Africa, at the supply side, and also in the Americas, at the market level. The trade can be divided into four phases, strongly influenced by the development of colonialism throughout the hemisphere. In the first phase, lasting to about 1620, the Americas were the domain of the Spanish and the Portuguese. These Iberian powers introduced about 125,000 slaves to the Americas, with some 75,000 (or 27 percent of African slave exports of the period) to the Spanish colonies, and about 50,000 (18 percent of the trade) to Brazil. This was a relatively small flow of about 1,000 slaves per year, most of whom were supplied from Portuguese forts along the West African coast. But slavery in the towns, farms, and mines of the Americas then employed less African slaves (about 45 percent of the total Atlantic trade) than in the tropical African islands of Fernando Po and Sâo Tomé, Europe proper, or the islands of the Madeiras, Cape Verdes, and the Azores (about 55 percent of trade). Indeed, the small island of Sâo Tomé alone received more than 76,000 African slaves during the period, exceeding the entire American market.
The second phase of the transatlantic slave trade lasted from 1620 to about 1700 and saw the distribution of approximately 1,350,000 slaves throughout the Americas, with an additional 25,000 or so going to Europe. During this phase, the Americas became the main destination of enslaved Africans. The trade was marked by greater geographical distribution and the development of a more varied supply pattern. The European component of the trade eventually dwindled to less than 2 percent. Instead, Brazil assumed the premier position as a slave destination, receiving nearly 42 percent of all Africans sold on the western side of the Atlantic Ocean. Spanish America received about 22 percent, distributed principally in Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Mexico, Central America, and the Andean regions of South America. The English Caribbean colonies bought more than 263,000 slaves, or 20 percent of the volume sold in the Americas. The French Caribbean imported about 156,000 slaves, or 12 percent; and the small islands of the Dutch Caribbean bought another 40,000 slaves, or 3 percent of slaves sold throughout the Americas.
During this phase, a social and demographic metamorphosis occurred, brought about by the sugar revolutions in various parts of the tropical Americas. By the end of the period, the Americas were divided between a number of rival European colonies, all successfully establishing plantation colonies for the production and export of tropical staple crops such as cotton, tobacco, sugar, indigo, and rice. Slaves became perhaps the most important commercial commodity in transatlantic trade, as well as the desired form of labor on American plantations.
Even more important, slavery evolved into a complex system of labor, commerce, and society that was legally, socially, and ethnically distinct from other forms of servitude, and that was almost always applied to the condition of nonfree Africans. Two patterns of colonies developed throughout the western hemisphere: colonies designed as microcosms of European societies and colonies designed primarily for the efficient production of export commodities. The first group of colonies constituted the settler colonies. In these colonies, slaves constituted a minority of the population and did not necessarily represent the dominant labor sector. In the second group were exploitation plantation colonies, marked by their overwhelming proportion of nonfree members, and in which slavery formed the dominant labor system.
The period between 1701 and 1810 represented the maturation of the slave system in the Americas. This third phase witnessed the apogee of both the transatlantic slave trade and the system of American slavery. Altogether, nearly six million Africans—amounting to nearly 60 percent of the entire transatlantic slave trade—arrived in American ports. Brazil continued to be the dominant recipient country, accounting for nearly two million Africans, or 31 percent, of the trade during this period. The British Caribbean plantations (mainly on Barbados and Jamaica) received almost a million and a half slaves, accounting for 23 percent of the trade. The French Antilles (mainly Saint-Domingue on western Hispaniola, Martinique, and Guadeloupe) imported almost as many, accounting for 22 percent of the trade. The Spanish Caribbean (mainly Cuba) imported more than 500,000 slaves, or 9.6 percent of the trade. The Dutch Caribbean accounted for nearly 8 percent of the trade, but most of those slaves were re-exported to other areas of the New World. The British North American colonies imported slightly more than 300,000, or slightly less than 6 percent of the trade, while the small Danish colonies of the Caribbean bought about 25,000 slaves, a rather minuscule proportion of the slaves sold in the Americas during this period.
Opposition to Slavery
The eighteenth century formed the watershed in the system of American slavery. Although individuals, and even groups such as the Quakers, had always opposed slavery and the slave trade, general disapproval to the system gained strength during the later eighteenth century, primarily due to the growth of the Enlightenment, with its emphasis on rationality, and British Evangelical Protestantism. Opposition to slavery became increasingly more coordinated in England, and it eventually had a profound impact, with the abolition of the English slave trade in 1807. Before that, prodded by Granville Sharp and other abolitionists, Lord Chief Justice Mansfield declared slavery illegal in Great Britain in 1772, giving enormous impetus to the British antislavery movement. The British legal ruling, in time, freed about 15,000 slaves who were then in Britain with their colonial masters, who estimated their "property loss" at approximately £700,000.
In 1776 the British philosopher and economist Adam Smith declared in his classic study The Wealth of Nations that the system of slavery represented an uneconomical use of land and resources, since slaves cost more to maintain than free workers. By the 1780s the British Parliament was considering a series of bills dealing with the legality of the slave trade, and several of the recently independent former North American colonies—then part of the United States of America—began to abolish slavery within their local jurisdictions. After 1808—when Great Britain and the United States legally abolished their component of the transatlantic slave trade—the English initiated a campaign to end all slave trading across the Atlantic, and to replace slave trading within Africa with other forms of legal trade. Through a series of outright bribes, diplomatic pressure, and naval blockades, the trade gradually came to an end around 1870.
But slavery was not only attacked from above. At the same time that European governments contemplated administrative measures against slavery and the slave trade, the implacable opposition of the enslaved in the overseas colonies increased the overall costs of maintaining the system of slavery. Slave revolts, conspiracies, and rumors of revolts engendered widespread fear among owners and administrators. Small bands of runaway slaves formed stable black communities, legally recognized by their imperial powers in difficult geographical locations such as Esmeraldas in Ecuador, the Colombian coastal areas, Palmares in Brazil, and in the impenetrable mountains of Jamaica. Then, in 1791, the slaves of Saint-Domingue/Haiti, taking their cue somewhat from the French Revolution, staged a successful revolt under the leadership of Toussaint Louverture (1743–1803) and a number of other local leaders. The radical French commissioner in the colony, Léger Félicité Sonthonax (1763–1813) saw the futility of trying to defeat the local revolt and declared the emancipation of all slaves and their immediate admission to full citizenship (1793), a move ratified the following year by
the revolutionary government in Paris, which extended the emancipation to all French colonies. Napoleon Bonaparte revoked the decree of emancipation in 1802, but he failed to make it stick in Saint-Domingue, where the former slaves and their free colored allies declared the independence of Haiti—the second free state in the Americas—in 1804.
The fourth and final phase of the transatlantic trade lasted from about 1810 to 1870. During that phase approximately two million Africans were sold as slaves in a greatly reduced area of the Americas. With its trade legal until 1850, Brazil imported some 1,145,400 Africans, or about 60 percent of all slaves sold in the Americas after 1810. The Spanish Antilles—mainly Cuba and Puerto Rico—imported more than 600,000 Africans (32 percent), the great majority of them illegally introduced to Cuba after an Anglo-Spanish treaty to abolish the Spanish slave trade in 1817. The French Antilles imported approximately 96,000 slaves, about 5 percent of all slaves sold during that period, mainly for the small sugar plantations of Martinique and Guadeloupe. The southern United States also imported about 50,000 slaves, or slightly less than 3 percent of all slaves sold, despite formally agreeing to end their international slave trade in 1807.
Conditions of Slavery
The system of slavery in the Americas was generally restrictive and harsh, but significant variations characterized the daily lives of slaves. The exhaustive demands of the plantation societies in parts of the Caribbean and Brazil, combined with skewed sexual balances among the slaves, resulted in excessively high mortality rates, unusually low fertility rates, and, consequently, a steady demand for imported Africans to maintain the required labor forces. The recovery of the indigenous populations in places such as Mexico and the Andean highlands led to the use of other systems of coerced labor, somewhat reducing the reliance on African slaves in these areas. Frontiers of grazing economies such as the llanos of Venezuela, the southern parts of Brazil, and the pampas of Argentina and Uruguay required only modest supplies of labor, so that African slaves constituted a small proportion of the local population. Only in the United States did the slave population reproduce itself dramatically over the years, supplying most of the internal demand for slave labor during the nineteenth century.
In general, death rates were highest for slaves engaged in sugar production, especially on newly opened areas of the tropics, and lowest among domestic urban workers, except during periodical outbreaks of epidemic diseases.
The Abolition of the Slave Systems
The attack on the slave trade paralleled growing attacks on the system of slavery throughout the Americas. The selfdirected abolition from below that occurred in Saint-Domingue in 1793 was not repeated elsewhere, however. Instead, a combination of internal and external events eventually determined the course of abolition throughout the region. The issue of slavery became a part of the struggle for political independence for the mainland Spanish American colonies. Chile (1823), Mexico, and the new Central America States (1824), abolished slavery immediately after their wars of independence from Spain. The British government abolished slavery throughout its empire in 1834, effectively ending the institution in 1838. Uruguay legally emancipated its few remaining slaves in 1842. The French government ended slavery in the French Antilles in 1848. Colombia effectively abolished slavery in 1851, with Ecuador following in 1852, Argentina in 1853, and Peru and Venezuela in 1854. The United States of America abolished slavery after the U.S. Civil War in 1865. Spain abolished slavery in Puerto Rico in 1873 and in Cuba in 1886. Finally, Brazil abolished slavery in 1888.
Slavery Scholarship and the Place of the Slave in the World
The topic of slavery has attracted the attention of a very large number of writers. Before the 1950s, writers tended to view slavery as a monolithic institution. Then, as now, there was much discussion of slavery, and less of the slaves themselves. Standard influential American studies, such as U. B. Phillips's American Negro Slavery (1918) and Life and Labor in the Old South (1929), Kenneth M. Stampp's The Peculiar Institution (1956), and Stanley Elkins' Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life (1959), misleadingly described slaves as passive participants to their own cruel denigration and outrageous exploitation. In Phillips's world, everyone was sublimely happy. In the world of Stampp and Elkins, they were not happy—but neither could they help themselves. Apparently neither Stampp nor Elkins read much outside their narrow field—or if they did, they discounted it. Certainly the then available scholarship of Eric Williams, C. L. R. James, or Elsa V. Goveia is not evident in their works. Herbert Aptheker in American Negro Slave Revolts (1943), Gunnar Myrdal in An American Dilemma (1944), and Frank Tannenbaum in Slave and Citizen (1946) had tried, in those three intellectually stimulating works, to modify the overall picture, but without much success.
Then, in 1956, Goveia published an outstanding book, Slave Society in the British Leeward Islands at the End of the Eighteenth Century. As Francisco Scarano notes of Goveia's work: "Goveia's sensitive and profound study of slave society in the British Leewards … is doubtless one of the great works of Caribbean history in any language. The Guyanese historian revealed the ways in which, in a racialized slave society, the imperative of slave subordination permeated all contexts of social interaction, from legal system to education and from religion to leisure. Everything was predicated on the violence necessary to maintain slavocratic order" (Scarano, p. 260). Goveia's approach inculcated the slaves with agency, a fundamental quality of which earlier writers seemed incredibly unaware. Slaves continuously acted in, as well as reacted to, the world in which they existed.
By the 1970s and 1980s, the maturing of Caribbean historiography, combined with the civil rights revolution in the United States, provided a renewed impetus for more sophisticated writings about slaves and slavery across the Americas. The quality of the debate improved noticeably, and comparative history threw refreshing new insights on some of the old problems. Slaves were seen as an inescapable and integral part of the world they fashioned, not some freak sideshow of helpless, subordinated individuals.
From the Caribbean came a rich outpouring of seminal works, all paying inordinate attention to the essential role of slaves in creating the new American experience. A selective list would include: Franklin W. Knight, Slave Society in Cuba during the Nineteenth Century (1970); Edward Brathwaite, The Development of Creole Society in Jamaica, 1770–1820 (1971); Pedro Deschamps Chapeaux, El Negro en la economía habanera del siglo XIX (1971); Richard S. Dunn, Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624–1713 (1972); Richard Sheridan, Sugar and Slavery: An Economic History of the British West Indies, 1623–1775 (1973); José Luciano Franco, Los palenques de negros cimarrones (1973); B. W. Higman, Slave Population and Economy in Jamaica, 1807–1833 (1976); Michael Craton, Searching for the Invisible Man: Slaves and Plantation Life in Jamaica (1978); Manuel Moreno Fraginals, El ingenio. Complejo económico, social cubano del azúcar (1978); Guillermo Baralt, Esclavos rebeldes: conspiraciones y sublevaciones de esclavos en Puerto Rico (1795–1873) (1981); Léo Elizabeth, L'abolition de l'esclavage à la Martinique (1983); Hilary Beckles, Black Rebellion in Barbados: The Struggle against Slavery, 1627–1838 (1984); Rebecca Scott, Slave Emancipation in Cuba: The Transition to Free Labor (1984); Barry Gaspar, Bondmen and Rebels: A Study of Master-Slave Relations in Antigua, with Implications for Colonial British America (1985); and David Eltis, Economic Growth and the Ending of the Transatlantic Slave Trade (1987). In addition to these outstanding monographs, a flood of outstanding articles appeared simultaneously in various journals, especially in Slavery and Abolition, and in papers read at annual meetings of the Association of Caribbean Historians.
In the United States, too, the attention given to slavery increased enormously in volume and improved tremendously in sophistication after 1970. Among the new studies were: Carl Degler, Neither Black nor White: Slavery and Race Relations in Brazil and the United States (1971); John Blassingame, The Slave Community (1972); Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman, Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery (1974); Eugene Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (1974) and From Rebellion to Revolution (1979); Peter Wood, Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion (1974); Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (1975); David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770–1823 (1975); Herbert Gutman, The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom (1976); Lawrence Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom (1977); Seymour Drescher, Econocide. British Slavery in the Era of Abolition (1977); Albert Raboteau, Slave Religion: The "Invisible Institution" in the Antebellum South (1978); Daniel Littlefield, Rice and Slaves: Ethnicity and the Slave Trade in Colonial South Carolina (1981); James Oakes, The Ruling Race: A History of American Slaveholders (1982); Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (1982); R. J. M. Blackett, Building an Antislavery Wall: Black Americans in the Atlantic Abolitionist Movement, 1830–1860 (1983); and Robin Blackburn, The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, 1776–1848 (1988).
Giving agency to the slaves allowed for a realization that overt and bloody revolt was not the only, much less the major, form of resistance to the institution of slavery. Just as the poor do not accept their poverty, slaves did not accept slavery. Michael Craton points out, in his General History of the Caribbean, that "slave resistance was as inevitable as slavery itself. Slaves 'naturally' resisted their enslavement because slavery was fundamentally unnatural. Slave resistance of one kind or another was a constant feature of slavery. Only the forms varied across time and place, according to circumstances and opportunities, mutating in rhythm to an internal dynamic, if not also in relation to the larger historical context…. If slave resistance was endemic, it was overt only in special circumstances" (p. 222).
Overt rebellion was, of course, the most dramatic objection to slavery by far as Barry Gaspar and David Geggus illustrate in A Turbulent Time: The French Revolution and the Greater Caribbean. Michael Craton provided a detailed catalogue of Caribbean slave revolts in Testing the Chains: Resistance to Slavery in the British West Indies (1982), although he retreated and reformulated his original views in his later publication in the UNESCO General History, Volume III, which appeared in 1997. Excellent accounts of the various large-scale revolts include: C. L. R James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint l'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (1938), Thomas Ott, The Haitian Revolution,
1789–1804 (1973), and David Geggus, Slavery, War, and Revolution: The British Occupation of Saint Domingue 1793–1798 (1982)—all dealing with Haiti; Emilia Viotti da Costa, Crowns of Glory, Tears of Blood: The Demerara Slave Rebellion of 1823 (1994), on the largest revolt in the history of Guyana; Robert L. Paquette, Sugar Is Made with Blood: The Conspiracy of La Escalera and the Conflict between Empires over Slavery in Cuba (1988); Mary Turner, Slaves and Missionaries: The Disintegration of Jamaican Slave Society, 1787–1834 (1982); Anne Pérotin-Dumon, Entre patriote sous les tropiques La Guadeloupe, la colonization et la Révolution (1985); and Laurent Dubois, Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution (2004) and A Colony of Citizens: Revolution and Slave Emancipation in the French Caribbean, 1787–1804 (2004).
Most rebellions started with small conspiracies, and planters were often prone to exact tremendous retribution based on their paranoid fear of the ultimate consequences of such revolts. This is exactly what happened in 1843 in Matanzas, Cuba (a place-name that, ironically, translates as "the place of the killings"). It was there that the authorities murdered hundreds of slaves and free people of color, some in cold blood, because they felt that some slaves were about to start a rebellion.
Other forms of resistance were more prevalent, more endemic, than outright revolt. Certainly more pervasive in time and place were deliberate absences from work and running away. This perennial absconding took two forms. The first was a mass desertion of slaves who left deliberately with no intention ever to return. Refugees who followed this course sometimes formed independent communities in the relatively inaccessible hills near plantations and towns, operating in a symbiotic relationship with established colonial society. Such mass desertion was called gran marronage, and it gave rise to the various Maroon communities all across the Americas. In Spanish these communities were called palenques, and in Brazil they were referred to as quilombos or mocambos. Some Maroon communities lasted only briefly. Others lasted for centuries, as was the case with the Jamaica Maroons. Determined communities in Bahia and Palmares in Brazil, in Esmeraldas in Ecuador, in Maracaibo in Venezuela, and in Le Maniel in French Saint Domingue lasted for decades.
Concomitant with gran marronage was the more individual occurrence called petit marronage, the spontaneous decision of an individual slave to leave his master for a short period. Petit marronage reflected the strong individual will of the slave to resist forced or unpleasant labor, to procrastinate, or to defy authority. It was never designed to create a viable alternate to the slave society, as was the case with the Maroons. At its most serious, petit marronage remained a personal conflict between master and slave.
Other forms of slave resistance were equally personal and vindictive. Suicide among slaves was endemic in the American slave society. Domestic slaves poisoned themselves and their masters. Across the Caribbean, whites spoke often in fear of the magical powers of slaves who they suspected of having cast spells on them. Slaves also malingered and feigned ignorance, pretended not to understand the common plantation language of their drivers, broke farm equipment, killed or maimed cattle, set fires to cane fields at harvest time, destroyed cane carts and milling machinery, or even sold the produce produced on the plantations. By these various forms of industrial action slaves sabotaged the production and productivity of the plantations and increased the overall cost of the system to their owners.
It is extremely difficult to determine what constituted conscious modes of resistance and what actions resulted from the inadvertent consequence of random carelessness on the part of the slaves. But abundant evidence exists to suggest that slaves were largely in command of their world, even when they lacked the force to alter it.
Of course, writers such as Gordon K. Lewis, in Main Currents in Caribbean Thought, and Michael Craton, in his contribution in the General History of the Caribbean, tend to evaluate all actions of slaves as part of a conscious pattern of resistance. Lewis divides resistance into three categories:
(1) The category of patterns of accommodation and of habits of learned survival in the daily experience of plantation life: this involved the whole gamut of slave response, short of escape and rebellion, to the general slavery situation, and included everything from feigned ignorance, malingering, sabotage, slowed-down work habits, suicide, and poisoning of masters, on to the endless invention of attitudes that reflected a general war of psychological tensions and stresses between both sides in the master-slave relationship; (2) The category of alternative life-style: this category included the manifold ways whereby the slave populations nourished and developed their own autonomous world of culture—in the areas, variously, of family, religion, language, song and dance, and even economic organization; and (3) The category of escape and open revolt.
Writers such as Lewis and Craton clearly view the entire existence of slave life as a form of resistance—a necessary precondition to a life in freedom, but also a vital manifestation of one's dignity and humanity. As Viotti da Costa writes: "Creating a black community in the slave quarters and holding on to traditions represented resistance to slavery because slavery implied not only the subordination and exploitation of one social group by another, but also the confrontation of two ethnic groups. The slave could resist in different ways: as a slave to his master, as a black man to a white man, and as an African to the Europeans. In the context cultural resistance could be interpreted as a form of social protest" (p. 301).
Nevertheless, viewing the slave systems as merely an enduring inescapable pattern of coercion and resistance is rather narrow and constricting. It fails to do full justice to the dynamic and nuanced world of the American slave systems. Such a narrow view perpetuates an indelible victim mentality and fails to reflect the totality of slavery throughout the Americas. It minimizes the monumental resilience, the astonishing creativity and dynamic contribution of Africans and their descendants in the making of the modern world.
Some of the activities of Africans and their descendants cannot be easily categorized, described, or analyzed within the restrictive bipolar forms of accommodation or resistance. Indeed, a great number of people described as Africans or as African slaves in the Americas were not in any way coerced. Their lot was quite removed from that of plantation field slaves, especially in the later years of the American slave system. The condition of slavery varied too much across the Americas to be neatly categorized. Moreover, it was never a static institution. It changed enormously through time, and even in the same locality.
See also Abolition; Maroon Societies in the Caribbean; Palmares; Runaway Slaves in Latin America and the Caribbean; Runaway Slaves in the United States; Slave Trade; Slavery and the Constitution; Toussaint-Louverture
Columbus, Christopher. The Log of Christopher Columbus, translated by Robert H. Fuson. Camden, Maine: International Marine Publishing Company, 1987.
Craton, Michael. "Forms of Resistance to Slavery." In General History of the Caribbean, vol. III, Slave Societies of the Caribbean, edited by Franklin W. Knight. New York: UNESCO, 1997.
Díaz del Castillo, Bernal. The True History of the Conquest of Mexico: Written in the Year 1568, translated by Maurice Keating. London, 1800. Facsimile edition, La Jolla, Calif.: Renaissance Press, 1979.
Geggus, David. "Slavery, War, and Revolution in the Greater Caribbean." In A Turbulent Time: The French Revolution and the Greater Caribbean, edited by David Gaspar and David Geggus. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997.
Lewis, Gordon K. Main Currents in Caribbean Thought: The Historical Evolution of Caribbean Society in its Ideological Aspects, 1492–1900. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983.
Lockhart, James. The Men of Cajamarca. A Social and Biographical Study of the First Conquerors of Peru. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1972.
Scarano, Francisco A. "Slavery and Emancipation in Caribbean History." In General History of the Caribbean, vol. VI, Methodology and Historiography of the Caribbean, edited by B. W. Higman. London: UNESCO, 1999.
Viotti da Costa, Emilia. "Slave Images and Realities." In Comparative Perspectives on Slavery in New World Plantation Societies, edited by Vera Rubin and Arthur Tuden. New York: New York Academy of Sciences, 1977.
West, Steven M. Though the Heavens May Fall: The Landmark Trial That Led to the End of Human Slavery. Cambridge, Mass.: Da Capo Press, 2005.
Zúñiga, Olga Portuondo. La virgen de la Caridad del Cobre: símbolo de cubanía. Santiago de Cuba: Editorial Oriente, 1995.
franklin w. knight (2005)
"Slavery." Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 19, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/slavery-1
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