The First Africans to Arrive in the New World
The First Africans to Arrive in the New World
ADAPTED FROM ESSAYS BY ANTHONY MILES
THE BEGINNINGS OF THE SLAVE TRADE
The story of African Americans begins with these first Africans, who first came to America involuntarily through the Atlantic slave trade, which was conducted largely along the coast of West Africa and served to transfer blacks to European colonies in the Americas.
These Africans entered the slave trade in several ways. Europeans kidnapped blacks and shipped them overseas to be sold, and while Africans resisted this, often successfully, they also took part in the slave trade. The extent of their involvement continues to be debated, but it is clear that Africans sold into slavery captives taken in wars or raids on other tribes and kingdoms. In many African societies, slavery was also a punishment for crime, meted out through a variety of legal proceedings.
Whether Africans came to be enslaved through kidnapping, war, or traditional social mechanisms, most were eventually sold to European traders and wound up aboard slave ships bound for the Americas. The conditions on the Middle Passage, as the Atlantic voyage was called, were appalling. Packed and chained tightly together and made to lie on their sides, newly enslaved Africans en route to the Americas died at a rate of 16 percent—of disease, suffocation, and other causes, including suicide and despair.
Because they came from many ethnic groups and locations, transported Africans had different languages and cultures, a diversity that made communication among them difficult. Individuals from the same tribe, or with similar languages, might communicate with one another. But these connections often were torn asunder at the end of the Middle Passage, when they were sold to masters from different places throughout the New World.
Recalling his arrival in Virginia, Olaudah Equiano wrote: "All my companions were distributed different ways and only myself was left. I was now exceedingly miserable and thought myself worse off than any of the rest … for they could talk to each other, but I had no person to speak to that I could understand. "Such feelings, experienced by Equiano in the eighteenth century, must have been even greater for the first group of twenty Africans brought to Virginia by a Dutch slaver in 1619.
By 1775, on the eve of the American Revolution, the number of African Americans in the population had grown to nearly five hundred thousand, making up almost 20 percent of the people in Britain's thirteen North American colonies. At the root of this population growth was the institution of slavery, a system of unpaid labor based on white ownership and domination of African Americans.
RACISM AND THE BEGINNINGS OF RACIAL SLAVERY
Whether slavery developed out of racism or racism developed out of slavery remains one of the major questions of the colonial period. Although it appears impossible to determine which came first, it is clear that both slavery and racism developed either at the same time or within a relatively short time of each other.
Eventually, American slavery came to be based on race, and its increasing prominence in the social and economic fabric went hand in hand with increased racism. As slavery grew, those who profited from it used notions of black inferiority to justify the institution. Racist ideas were slavery's lowest common denominator and were found in every region, regardless of differences in the nature of the institution itself.
Slavery existed in every colony, but it differed from region to region. Varying economies, labor needs, climates, and environments all helped to determine the numbers of Africans, native-born African Americans, and whites in any given area. All of these factors played a role in determining the nature of the slave system that developed in each colonial region.
THE CHESAPEAKE REGION IN THE EARLY YEARS
The Chesapeake region included the colonies of Maryland and Virginia, where Africans first arrived. The status of the first people put ashore in Virginia in 1619 remains unclear. For several years after their arrival, the colonists seem to have considered them indentured servants, listing them as such in the censuses of 1623 and 1624. However, they appear to have served for longer periods of time than white indentured servants.
In these early years, indentured blacks and whites often ate, worked, and slept in the same areas, in conditions that offered opportunities for interaction across racial lines. United in their work and leisure activities, they also joined together in escape and rebellion.
Conditions were difficult and dangerous. Black and white laborers worked long hours growing and preparing tobacco and were threatened alike by numerous diseases."Seasoning," the process by which they adjusted to the climate and developed resistance to disease, was a hazardous business. Many did not survive, but for those who did, the dream was to finish out the terms of indenture and become farmers. Like their white counterparts, some black survivors of these early years eventually gained their freedom, purchased land, and became small planters. Some even came to own servants and slaves of their own. But the early promise of equal opportunity for African Americans quickly eroded.
SEE PRIMARY SOURCE DOCUMENT Memoir of a Boy Sold into Slavery
EARLY LEGAL RECOGNITION OF SLAVERY IN THE CHESAPEAKE REGION
It is impossible to tell exactly when racial slavery first began in Virginia, but the first legal recognition of it occurred in 1661, in a law that specified the punishment for white servants who ran away with black slaves. The 1661 law did not affect blacks who had already been granted their freedom, but it did make it clear that only blacks could be slaves. Another Virginia law defined as free the children of white or free black mothers. Its failure to distinguish between free and unfree whites provides further evidence that only blacks could be slaves.
In Maryland, slavery was not recognized under law until 1663. Unlike Virginia, Maryland sought to reduce even previously free blacks to slavery. In one of the clearest formulations of the connection between race and slave status, Maryland law also declared the mixed-race children of white women who married slaves to be "slaves as their fathers were."
As the 1600s drew to a close, the law was defining more and more sharply an inferior place for blacks within white colonial society. Eventually, the law came to regulate the majority of actions and relations between blacks and whites, usually at the expense of African Americans' rights. Most important among the rights lost was the right to hold property, for this offered the only means of economic and social advancement within the colonies.
Despite the early legal recognition of racial slavery, Chesapeake planters at first preferred white laborers and imported them in large numbers. But a variety of causes—including competition from other colonies, new opportunities for advancement in England, and declining opportunities in Virginia and Maryland—began to lessen the supply of new servants. What did not diminish was the need for labor. This, together with the chartering in 1672 of the Royal African Company, which made its profits from the slave trade, led to a substantial rise in the African American population.
SEE PRIMARY SOURCE DOCUMENT "An Agreement to Deliver 17 Negro Slaves"
CHANGES IN SLAVE LIFE IN THE CHESAPEAKE REGION
From 1695 onward, blacks were imported at the rate of more than a thousand per year. In Virginia the African American population grew from about 4,600 in 1680 to 13,000 by 1700. Around 1740, Virginia's black population began to sustain natural growth, and on the eve of the American Revolution it had reached almost 200,000. With the expansion of slavery and the explosion of the black population, work became much more limited and routine. Most blacks labored on large plantations, where they lived apart from whites in slave quarters. This provided opportunities for them to continue old social practices, and to develop new communities and hybrid cultural forms.
By the 1770s, African Americans made up almost 40 percent of the population of the Chesapeake region, virtually all of them slaves. In many communities, African Americans outnumbered whites, which led to fears of rebellion or insurrection. Such fears often resulted in increased repression, while some people argued for an end to the slave trade or expressed doubts about the wisdom of slavery itself. The fear of rebellion, as well as the effort to prevent it, would remain long after the revolution.
SEE PRIMARY SOURCE DOCUMENT Virginia Passes the "Casual Slave Killing Act"
THE LOW COUNTRY
The coastal regions of Georgia and the Carolinas made up the low country. Unlike Virginia, South Carolina had been envisioned from the beginning as a slave society, chartered by slave-owning Barbadian planters and members of the Royal African Company and first settled by slave-owning planters from Barbados. The colony of Georgia, originally founded to reform English criminals, at first banned slavery from its borders. The expansion of rice cultivation quickly brought slavery to the colony, however, and once there it expanded rapidly. By the 1760s, Georgia was importing slaves from South Carolina, and later directly from Africa. By 1775, Georgia's African American population was approximately equal to its white population of fifteen thousand. Slavery took firm hold along North Carolina's coast but developed intermittently in the more mountainous backlands, which were settled by people moving south from Virginia, Pennsylvania, and points farther north and by immigrants from northern England and Scotland.
Of the low-country colonies, South Carolina was by far the wealthiest and most productive, and African slaves were crucial to its economic development. In the beginning, the colonial proprietors encouraged planters to grow a variety of crops for export, and as a result, by the end of the seventeenth century, South Carolina had developed one of the most diversified colonial economies. In the region's early development, African slaves contributed their knowledge of tropical soil, farming, and husbandry to a number of early experiments with different crops, including indigo, sugarcane, and cotton. Some African groups had developed special techniques for raising livestock in tropical climates. Members of these groups were particularly valuable to South Carolina's early cattle industry, which supplied meat to Barbados.
The colonists soon discovered that rice was the ideal crop for their environment. They knew little, however, about cultivating it. Africans, on the other hand, had long experience growing rice, which formed a major part of their daily diet. Largely as a result of their expertise, rice became the driving crop of South Carolina's economy. Indeed, only after the widespread adoption of African growing techniques did rice production take off. The success of rice growing led to the development of large-scale plantation agriculture. Many plantations were owned by absentee planters who lived in Charleston or other places where they were less likely to be exposed to malaria. Rice was a labor-intensive crop, and many workers were required to produce it in exportable quantities. Thus, West African slaves, who enjoyed some resistance to malaria, were imported in large numbers to maintain the plantation labor force.
In the early years, the colonial proprietors also encouraged the importation of slaves by what was known as the headright system, whereby planters received a certain portion of land, or "headrights," for every laborer they imported. This led to large-scale importing of slaves, with the result that blacks outnumbered whites in South Carolina as early as 1715. By 1740, African Americans made up 90 percent of the population in some plantation areas.
LIFE FOR SOUTH CAROLINA'S BLACK MAJORITY
As in Virginia and Maryland, the concentration of large numbers of slaves helped to sustain African beliefs and traditions and promoted the development of new forms of distinctively African American culture. In coastal South Carolina, isolation intensified this process, allowing for the development of Gullah culture, which to this day retains elements of African tradition, belief, and language. With planters absent, overseers often organized work by tasks. Once their tasks were finished, African Americans had time to themselves. Many used the time to raise their own vegetables or help family members with work, in this way freeing up time they could spend together. This situation had negative consequences as well. As in the Chesapeake region, so too in South Carolina, the black majority aroused fears of rebellion. These fears were realized in the 1739 Stono Rebellion, which claimed the lives of thirty whites and forty-four African Americans and took several days to put down.
South Carolina's Fundamental Constitutions of 1669 had made it clear that the colony was to be supported by black labor but dominated and controlled by whites. Through the years, as the black population grew, repressive laws multiplied. These laws removed almost all power into the hands of whites, leaving blacks with few rights or means of expressing their grievances.
SEE PRIMARY SOURCE DOCUMENT The First Slavery Statute and First Anti-Literacy Act
In the New England colonies of Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire, slavery was practiced on a much smaller scale. These colonies produced a variety of exportable materials through whaling, fishing, and the raising of grain and livestock. Because their economies did not rely on labor-intensive commercial agriculture, they did not need a huge labor force. Moreover, as southern commercial agriculture grew, the price of slaves also rose throughout the colonies, making slave labor on a large scale unprofitable for northern slaveholders. For these reasons, fewer slaves lived in New England than in any other mainland region.
New Englanders also had a different sense of community. While most southern colonies were founded for profit, the New England colonies were founded as religious communities by Puritans seeking to escape persecution in England. These communities centered around the family. They also had a long tradition of apprenticeship, whereby a child as young as nine or ten would be "sent out" to another family in order to learn a trade or farming skills. Apprenticeship came to serve as a model for New England slavery.
While the status of the first Africans in Boston remains uncertain, it is clear that slavery soon became a legitimate institution in New England, its growth aided by the involvement of New England ship merchants in the slave trade. In the early days of the trade, merchants sent ships to the coast of Africa to take on slaves who would then be sold to planters in the Caribbean and southern mainland colonies. Those who could not be sold in these markets—the least healthy, or the most troublesome—often were brought to New England. As slavery became more institutionalized, New England slave owners began to place special orders with slave merchants. Some preferred small children, who could easily be reared within the apprenticeship system and who adopted their owners' values more readily than adults might.
Like apprentices, New England slaves lived and worked with their masters' families. This arrangement fostered intimacy, which led in turn to a milder form of bondage. And because Africans remained a small percentage of the New England population, there were not the fears of rebellion that made for harsh slave codes in the South. In fact, New England was known for the mild nature of its slave institution. Work remained the focus of slaves' lives, just as in the South, but the types of work differed dramatically. Under the apprenticeship model, New England slaves were not only agricultural laborers, but also bakers, shoemakers, blacksmiths, coopers, and sailors, to name just a few occupations. Although they remained property, New England slaves enjoyed many more rights than southern slaves. They could own property themselves and pass it on to their children. They could associate more freely with one another, without white supervision. Though widely scattered among the white population, they took advantage of their freedoms to develop and promote a common culture.
The factors that made New England slavery so mild produced negative results as well. Many New England masters preferred unmarried male slaves, in part because children were considered an extra expense, and not—as in the South—an increase in wealth. The resulting imbalance in the ratio of men and women, as well as the wide dispersion of the black population, made it much harder to form families than in the large plantation communities of the South. Then too, New England masters sometimes liberated slaves who were no longer productive, rather than continue to give them food and shelter, as happened in the South. Many slaves refused this treatment, saying, "Massa eat the meat; he now pick the bone."
Although slavery was milder in the North, racism was not. Assumptions about African American inferiority pervaded social as well as political arrangements. Ironically, racism also contributed to the decline of slavery as an institution in New England. Puritan communities that had a strong instinct for public charity were continually burdened with the expense of supporting old and infirm slaves who had been freed by their masters. As New England's white population grew, colonists also worried about vocational opportunities for whites and the need to support larger numbers of poor whites. Such concerns, along with slavery's lack of economic importance to the regional economy, contributed to its decline in the years before the revolution. Just as slavery was becoming more deeply entrenched as the chief social and economic institution of the South, it was on the verge of extinction in the North.
THE MIDDLE GROUND
Between New England and the Chesapeake region—in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware—there arose yet another form of slavery, an in-between form, both geographically and in terms of its nature and severity.
Slavery existed in the middle colonies in the 1630s, and the number of blacks in this region increased substantially after Britain took over New York from the Dutch. Here, the British presence made slavery much harsher, diminishing the rights accorded to slaves. In Pennsylvania, on the other hand, the Quaker presence provided a strong opposition to slavery. But while each of the middle colonies had a different history of slavery, in all of them slave ownership became a symbol of status and wealth and this brought many blacks together in cities. The urban nature of slavery in the middle colonies was its most remarkable feature. While many middle-colony slaves, like those in New England, lived with families, they enjoyed greater independence than most of their nonurban counterparts, north or south. They also enjoyed a greater variety of work, which contributed to their greater anonymity.
As in the southern colonies, large concentrations of slaves produced great fears of insurrection. New York City experienced two insurrection scares, one in 1712 and the other in 1741. Although the evidence of slave conspiracy was questionable in the 1741 scare, it nevertheless resulted in the execution of thirty-one blacks and four whites and the deportation of seventy more African Americans. Both events provoked legislative responses. Yet it was difficult to control or restrict the movement of urban slaves. They moved freely among workplaces, made deliveries, and hired themselves out. As in New England, African Americans used their mobility and relative independence to build a distinct and supportive community and culture beyond the influence of whites.
AFRICAN AMERICAN CULTURE
From the first moment of their enslavement, Africans began adapting to their new situation through a process called acculturation. Learning a new language was a particularly important part of this process. The first Africans to arrive very likely communicated with their European masters through signs and gestures. These Africans had to learn English from whites. Those slaves who came later entered established black communities and usually learned English from other blacks. This allowed for the formation of different patterns of speech, in which English words were added to West African grammar.
Such developments were particularly pronounced among blacks living on the isolated rice plantations of South Carolina and Georgia. In the culture that developed there, known as Gullah, many African words were retained in addition to grammatical structures. The Gullah people of the South Carolina and Georgia Sea Islands continued in isolation through much of the twentieth century. Their language and culture appear to have changed very little and may thus provide the best means of understanding how African American culture developed.
How much of their African cultural heritage have African Americans retained? This question is still being debated. It seems clear, however, that Africans in America have retained and passed down much more of their African heritage than a few words and grammatical structures. From Africa, slaves brought with them the knowledge of how to make traditional instruments, including drums and a three-stringed, guitar-like instrument now known as the banjo. They brought traditional music and dance forms, which they incorporated in their work, their free-time entertainment, and their burials and other ceremonies. As blacks became more acculturated, they also created their own celebrations around white holidays like election day, celebrations that incorporated elements of both cultures.
Africans also brought their concepts of participatory worship, magic, and death. These concepts had a dramatic impact on the development of evangelical and black Christianity. In the early years of American slavery, few blacks converted to Christianity. This was particularly true in New England, where the Puritan style of preaching did not appeal to those of African descent. Noting that blacks enjoyed singing in church, many ministers began to sing psalms with great fervor. By this and other means, they sought to convert slaves, and at the same time they altered white forms of worship.
The rise of evangelical Christianity around the turn of the eighteenth century is a testament to the power of African styles of worship. The communal and participatory practices of African worship became part of both black and white religious practices. In baptism and in certain distinctively African American forms of worship, like the ring shout, African Americans fused their various African traditions into a single culture.
Spirits also played a large role in African world-views, which held that one joined the spirits of one's ancestors after death. Through their contact with white workers, children, and masters, blacks imparted these concepts to whites, which led to the now commonplace idea that families would be reunited in heaven. For blacks who converted to Christianity, heaven eventually replaced the African idea of an ancestral home one entered after death. Heaven became one's true home, an idea that helped blacks to endure and resist the conditions of their bondage.
SEE PRIMARY SOURCE DOCUMENT Tracing the Roots of African American Cultural Traditions in Early Slave Narratives
RESISTANCE AND REBELLIONS
Slavery was an institution of subjection and domination based on fear and force. African Americans resisted both the physical and the psychological oppression of slavery. In their attempt to create meek and docile servants, masters and white ministers often quoted biblical passages that laid out the obligations of servants to their masters. Afro-Christianity, on the other hand, emphasized those passages that dealt with liberation and triumph over oppression. Traditional African beliefs in magic and the powers of certain roots and herbs also played a part in slave resistance. Slaves often used charms created by medicine men or women known as Obeah to protect themselves against violence from a master or overseer.
Slaves resisted white domination by other means as well. Masters retained the authority to name slaves, including the slaves' children, but slaves often chose alternative names that were used only among themselves. And although they were not generally given or allowed to have last names, slaves developed them anyway as a means of resistance and passed them on to their children. Such names served to identify family members, even those who had been sold far from home.
The physical oppressions of slavery were great. Slaves were worked hard for long hours and often were underfed. In the South, they were also subject to whippings and beatings for a variety of minor offenses. Women were particularly vulnerable. In addition to facing the same physical dangers as men, they were also subject to sexual violence from masters, masters' sons, and overseers. Slave women were given little or no time off from work when they were pregnant or raising children.
Slaves developed a number of ways of resisting these conditions. They engaged in work slowdowns or stoppages, sabotaged equipment, and pretended to be ill. Often, they ran away as the huge number of advertisements for runaway slaves attests. Some escaped permanently into the wilderness, where they lived with Native Americans or formed their own maroon communities. This occurred most often in the South, especially in South Carolina.
Slaves also resisted violently, either individually or in planned insurrections. Fear of slave revolt was widespread in all slave-holding communities outside New England. Whether or not slaves planned as many insurrections as whites feared remains an open question. Yet a number of insurrections did take place, often when the white community was distracted or divided by some other issue. The overwhelming force with which these insurrections were suppressed may well have served to limit the number of them. Religion played a strong role in slave insurrections, most of which were described and justified by their leaders in religious terms.
Both culturally and structurally, persons of African descent exerted an influence on slavery and the development of American culture. The African American experience in the colonial period provided a strong foundation for the further development of African American culture and a preparation for the experiences blacks would endure in the future. On the eve of the revolution, African Americans already had a century and a half of experience and tradition to rely upon. As slavery developed in the nineteenth century, they would continue to adapt their strategies of survival and to challenge white control.
A NOTE ON FREE BLACKS
Throughout the colonial era, a small number of blacks were free. Although the number grew, legislative attempts to restrict manumission reduced the opportunity for others to gain their freedom. Free blacks were never fully recognized as colonists, however, and had no real position within the colonial social order. As such, they were a threat to that order and suffered from a host of discriminatory laws and provisions.
Some free blacks, particularly in New England, became farmers and lived comfortably, respected by the white community. Venture Smith, who lived in eighteenth-century Connecticut, was a free black who eventually became a farmer and then a slaveholder himself. In New England, the homes of free blacks often provided gathering places for the black community. Free blacks were also heavily involved in planning a number of insurrections. Their reputation for this kind of activity earned them the special distrust of many legislators, who then took away even more of their rights. Thus, free blacks lived difficult lives. They had their freedom, but it was a poor freedom at best.
Glasrud, Bruce A., and Alan M. Smith, eds. Race Relations in British North America, 1607-1783. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1982.
Higginbotham, A. Leon. In the Matter of Color: Race and the American Legal Process: The Colonial Period. New York: Oxford University Press, 1975.
Isaac, Rhys. The Transformation of Virginia, 1740-1790. New York:Norton, 1982.
Jordan, Winthrop. White over Black. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1968.
Morgan, Edmund. American Slavery, American Freedom. New York:Norton, 1975.
Mullin, Gerald W. Flight and Rebellion. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972.
Piersen, William D. Black Yankees. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988.
Sobel, Mechal. The World They Made Together. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987.
Thornton, John. Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1680. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
Wood, Peter H. Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion. New York: Norton, 1974.
Wright, Donald R. African Americans in the Colonial Era. Arlington Heights: Harlan Davidson, 1990.
PRIMARY SOURCE DOCUMENT
Memoir of a Boy Sold into Slavery
In this memoir, the Narrative of Louis Asa-Asa, a young boy recalls his capture in a French ship called the Pearl, and transport along the route of the infamous Middle Passage. The narrative is given as nearly as possible in the narrator's words, with only so much correction as is necessary to connect the story, and render it grammatical.
It is necessary to explain that Louis came to this country about five years ago, in a French vessel called the Pearl. She had lost her reckoning, and was driven by stress of weather into the port of St. Ives, in Cornwall. Louis and his four companions were brought to London upon a writ of Habeas Corpus at the instance of Mr. George Stephen; and, after some trifling opposition on the part of the master of the vessel, were discharged by Lord Wynford. Two of his unfortunate fellow-sufferers died of the measles at Hampstead; the other two returned to Sierra Leone; but poor Louis, when offered the choice of going back to Africa, replied, "Me no father, no mother now; me stay with you. "And here he has ever since remained; conducting himself in a way to gain the good will and respect of all who know him. He is remarkably intelligent, understands our language perfectly, and can read and write well. The last sentences of the following narrative will seem almost too peculiar to be his own; but it is not the first time that in conversation with Mr. George Stephen, he has made similar remarks. On one occasion in particular, he was heard saying to himself in the kitchen, while sitting by the fire apparently in deep thought, "Me think,—me think——" A fellow-servant inquired what he meant; and he added, "Me think what a good thing I came to England! Here, I know what God is, and read my Bible; in my country they have no God, no Bible."
How severe and just a reproof to the guilty wretches who visit his country only with fire and sword! How deserved a censure upon the not less guilty men, who dare to vindicate the state of slavery, on the lying pretext, that its victims are of an inferior nature! And scarcely less deserving of reprobation are those who have it in their power to prevent these crimes, but who remain inactive from indifference, or are dissuaded from throwing the shield of British power over the victim of oppression, by the sophistry, and the clamour, and the avarice of the oppressor. It is the reproach and the sin of England. May God avert from our country the ruin which this national guilt deserves!
We lament to add, that the Pearl which brought these negroes to our shore, was restored to its owners at the instance of the French Government, instead of being condemned as a prize to Lieut. Rye, who, on his own responsibility, detained her, with all her manacles and chains and other detestable proofs of her piratical occupation on board. We trust it is not yet too late to demand investigation into the reasons for restoring her.
The Negro Boy's Narrative
My father's name was Clashoquin; mine is Asa-Asa. He lived in a country called Bycla, near Egie, a large town. Egie is as large as Brighton; it was some way from the sea. I had five brothers and sisters. We all lived together with my father and mother; he kept a horse, and was respectable, but not one of the great men. My uncle was one of the great men at Egie; he could make men come and work for him: his name was Otou. He had a great deal of land and cattle. My father sometimes worked on his own land, and used to make charcoal. I was too little to work;my eldest brother used to work on the land; and we were all very happy.
A great many people, whom we called Adinyes, set fire to Egie in the morning before daybreak; there were some thousands of them. They killed a great many, and burnt all their houses. They staid two days, and then carried away all the people whom they did not kill.
They came again every now and then for a month, as long as they could find people to carry away. They used to tie them by the feet, except when they were taking them off, and then they let them loose; but if they offered to run away, they would shoot them. I lost a great many friends and relations at Egie; about a dozen. They sold all they carried away, to be slaves. I know this because I afterwards saw them as slaves on the other side of the sea. They took away brothers, and sisters, and husbands, and wives; they did not care about this. They were sold for cloth or gunpowder, sometimes for salt or guns; sometimes they got four or five guns for a man: they were English guns, made like my master's that I clean for his shooting. The Adinyes burnt a great many places besides Egie. They burnt all the country wherever they found villages; they used to shoot men, women, and children, if they ran away.
They came to us about eleven o'clock one day, and directly they came they set our house on fire. All of us had run away. We kept together and went into the woods, and stopped there two days. The Adinyes then went away, and we returned home and found every thing burnt. We tried to build a little shed, and were beginning to get comfortable again. We found several of our neighbours lying about wounded; they had been shot. I saw the bodies of four or five little children whom they had killed with blows on the head. They had carried away their fathers and mothers, but the children were too small for slaves, so they killed them. They had killed several others, but these were all that I saw. I saw them lying in the street like dead dogs.
In about a week after we got back, the Adinyes returned, and burnt all the sheds and houses they had left standing. We all ran away again; we went to the woods as we had done before.—They followed us the next day. We went farther into the woods, and staid there about four days and nights; we were half starved; we only got a few potatoes. My uncle Otou was with us. At the end of this time, the Adinyes found us. We ran away. They called my uncle to go to them; but he refused, and they shot him immediately: they killed him. The rest of us ran on, and they did not get at us till the next day. I ran up into a tree: they followed me and brought me down. They tied my feet. I do not know if they found my father and mother, and brothers and sisters: they had run faster than me, and were half a mile farther when I got up into the tree: I have never seen them since.—There was a man who ran up into the tree with me: I believe they shot him, for I never saw him again.
They carried away about twenty besides me. They carried us to the sea. They did not beat us: they only killed one man, who was very ill and too weak to carry his load: they made all of us carry chickens and meat for our food; but this poor man could not carry his load, and they ran him through the body with a sword.—He was a neighbour of ours. When we got to the sea they sold all of us, but not to the same person. They sold us for money; and I was sold six times over, sometimes for money, sometimes for cloth, and sometimes for a gun. I was about thirteen years old. It was about half a year from the time I was taken, before I saw the white people.
We were taken in a boat from place to place, and sold at every place we stopped at. In about six months we got to a ship, in which we first saw white people: they were French. They bought us. We found here a great many other slaves; there were about eighty, including women and children. The Frenchmen sent away all but five of us into another very large ship. We five staid on board till we got to England, which was about five or six months. The slaves we saw on board the ship were chained together by the legs below deck, so close they could not move. They were flogged very cruelly: I saw one of them flogged till he died; we could not tell what for. They gave them enough to eat. The place they were confined in below deck was so hot and nasty I could not bear to be in it. A great many of the slaves were ill, but they were not attended to. They used to flog me very bad on board the ship: the captain cut my head very bad one time.
I am very happy to be in England, as far as I am very well;—but I have no friend belonging to me, but God, who will take care of me as he has done already. I am very glad I have come to England, to know who God is. I should like much to see my friends again, but I do not now wish to go back to them: for if I go back to my own country, I might be taken as a slave again. I would rather stay here, where I am free, than go back to my country to be sold. I shall stay in England as long as (please God) I shall live. I wish the King of England could know all I have told you. I wish it that he may see how cruelly we are used. We had no king in our country, or he would have stop it. I think the king of England might stop it, and this is why I wish him to know it all. I have heard say he is good; and if he is, he will stop it if he can. I am well off myself, for I am well taken care of, and have good bed and good clothes; but I wish my own people to be as comfortable.
London, January 31, 1831.
PRIMARY SOURCE DOCUMENT
"An Agreement to Deliver 17 Negro Slaves"
The contract reprinted here, between Leonard Calvert and John Skinner, was executed in 1642, long before slavery became a statutory institution in Virginia. It is a contract of barter, like many of the early colonial contracts, and stipulates an exchange of goods and services between the two men.
Calvert agrees to give Skinner three pieces of property and "to finish the dwelling house at Pinie Neck," in exchange for "fourteen Negro men-slaves and three women slaves, of between 16 and 26 yeare olde able and sound in body and limbs. "The contract identifies John Skinner as a "mariner," that is, a seaman or a sailor, and makes clear that he will be importing slaves from abroad. The slaves are further treated as inheritable property, which may be passed down from Leonard Calvert to his "assigns" or heirs.
Leonard Calvert Esq. etc. acknowledged that he hath conveyed and sold unto John Skinner mariner, all those his 3 Mannors of St. Michael, St. Gabriel, and Trinity Mannor, with all the tenements and hereditaments in or upon them or any of them, and all his right title and interest in and to the premises or any part thereof, to have and to hold the same to the said John Skinner his heires and assignes for ever. And that he hath further covenanted to finish the dwelling house at Pinie neck, with a stack of brick chimneyes (conteining 2 chimneys) neare about the middle of the house now standing and to make the partition by the said chimneyes, and doores and windowes, and to underpin the frame of it wth stone or brick. In consideration wherof the said John Skinner covenanted and bargained to deliver unto the said Leonard Calvert, fourteene negro men-slaves, and three women slaves, of betweene 16 and 26 yeare old able and sound in body and limbs, at some time before the first of march come twelve-month, at St. Maries, if he bring so many within the Capes, by himselfe or any assignes betweene this and the said first of march, or afterward within the said yeare, to be delivered as aforesaid to him the said Leonard Calvert or his assignes in the case aforesaid. And in case he shall not so doe, then he willeth and granteth that foure and twenty thousand weight of tobacco, be leavied upon any the lands goods or chattells of him the said John Skinner, to the use of him the said Leonard Calvert and his assignes.
PRIMARY SOURCE DOCUMENT
Virginia Passes the "Casual Slave Killing Act"
In 1669 the Virginia Assembly passed an act acquitting masters of "felony murder" for the killing of slaves during the course of punishment. It was called an "Act about the Casual Killing of Slaves," and was part of a flourish of early legislation put in place that gave slavery in the United States its particularly brutal and dehumanizing character.
The legislation is presented here precisely as it was written, including the spellings and diction commonly used at that time.
The Punishment of Refractory Servants
Act I, An Act About the Casuall Killing of Slaves, from Laws of Virginia
Whereas the only law in force for the punishment of refractory servants (a) resisting their master, mistris or overseer cannot be inflicted upon negroes, nor the obstinacy of many of them by other then violent meanes supprest, Be it enacted and declared by this grand assembly, if any slave resist his master (or other by his masters order connecting him) and by the extremity of the correction should chance to die, that his death shall not be accompted ffelony, but the master (or that other person appointed by the master to punish him) be acquit from molestation, since it cannot be presumed that prepensed malice (which alone makes murther ffelony) should induce any man to destroy his owne estate.
PRIMARY SOURCE DOCUMENT
The First Slavery Statute and First Anti-Literacy Act
Very early on, the young colonies began to put laws on the books limiting the rights of African Americans, whether they were or were not slaves. In the first decades of the colonies, the color of one's skin was not an automatic indicator of slave status. Many came to the New World in a state of indentured servitude and paid off their transport by working for various landowners, farmers, and merchants. Here are examples of some of the early laws to appear on the books.
This first document, the 91st Article of the Code of Fundamentals, or Body of Liberties of the Massachusetts Colony in New England, guaranteed the freedom of English settlers and also allowed for the enslavement of Indians and Africans. Ironically, many of the egalitarian sentiments of this document turned up later in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.
The second piece of legislation is a prime example of the types of laws that were created in order to maintain and strengthen the bonds of slavery. The anti-literacy act called for a ban on the education of slaves, in effect instituting a ban on the education of all peoples of color.
Liberties of Forreiners and Strangers (The First Slavery Statute passed by Massachusetts, 1641)
There shall never be any bond slaverie, villinage or captivitie amongst us unles it be lawfull captives taken in just warres, and such strangers as willingly selle themselves or are sold to us. And these shall have all the liberties and Christian usages which the law of God established in Israell concerning such persons doeth morally require. This exempts none from servitude who shall be Judged thereto by Authoritie.
The South Carolina Anti-Literacy Act of 1740 (The First Anti-Literacy Act)
Whereas, the having slaves taught to write, or suffering them to be employed in writing, may be attended with great inconveniences; Be it enacted, that all and every person and persons whatsoever, who shall hereafter teach or cause any slave or slaves to be taught to write, or shall use or employ any slave as a scribe, in any manner of writing whatsoever, hereafter taught to write, every such person or persons shall, for every such offense, forfeit the sum of one hundred pounds, current money.
PRIMARY SOURCE DOCUMENT
Tracing the Roots of African American Cultural Traditions in Early Slave Narratives
The trace elements of an evolved and vibrant African American cultural tradition can be found in the early slave texts produced in the United States. This excerpt from Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs provides a window into the daily life and psychological concerns of the narrator and presents early examples of a number of traditions that would grow and flourish in African American cultural expression. It is an example of the narrative as a quest for personal identity, an early form of protest literature, and a valuable source of insight into the dynamics of family life for those living in slavery. The ironic, double-edged slave song to be sung to the master when he has not given a sufficient "trifle" synthesizes elements of musical tradition with a form of sarcastic baiting that both pleases and mocks its intended target. Also, Jacobs's description of the "dark hole" with a trap door constructed by her uncle is similar to the "pit" that later evolved in the writings of the novelist Ralph Ellison and the poet Robert Hayden. The entire construction of a controlled "pit"—at once a dark and stifling place and a place that provides a unique vantage point from which to view the activities of those supposedly in control—is a fascinating amalgam of various elements found in African and African American cultural traditions.
The Loophole of Retreat A small shed had been added to my grandmother's house years ago. Some boards were laid across the joists at the top, and between these boards and the roof was a very small garret, never occupied by any thing but rats and mice. It was a pent roof, covered with nothing but shingles, according to the southern custom for such buildings. The garret was only nine feet long and seven wide. The highest part was three feet high, and sloped down abruptly to the loose board floor. There was no admission for either light or air. My uncle Phillip, who was a carpenter, had very skilfully made a concealed trap-door, which communicated with the storeroom. He had been doing this while I was waiting in the swamp. The storeroom opened upon a piazza. To this hole I was conveyed as soon as I entered the house. The air was stifling; the darkness total. A bed had been spread on the floor. I could sleep quite comfortably on one side; but the slope was so sudden that I could not turn on the other without hitting the roof. The rats and mice ran over my bed; but I was weary, and I slept such sleep as the wretched may, when a tempest has passed over them. Morning came. I knew it only by the noises I heard; for in my small den day and night were all the same. I suffered for air even more than for light. But I was not comfortless. I heard the voices of my children. There was joy and there was sadness in the sound. It made my tears flow. How I longed to speak to them! I was eager to look on their faces; but there was no hole, no crack, through which I could peep. This continued darkness was oppressive. It seemed horrible to sit or lie in a cramped position day after day, without one gleam of light. Yet I would have chosen this, rather than my lot as a slave, though white people considered it an easy one; and it was so compared with the fate of others. I was never cruelly over-worked; I was never lacerated with the whip from head to foot; I was never so beaten and bruised that I could not turn from one side to the other; I never had my heel-strings cut to prevent my running away; I was never chained to a log and forced to drag it about, while I toiled in the fields from morning till night; I was never branded with hot iron, or torn by bloodhounds. On the contrary, I had always been kindly treated, and tenderly cared for, until I came into the hands of Dr. Flint. I had never wished for freedom till then. But though my life in slavery was comparatively devoid of hardships, God pity the woman who is compelled to lead such a life!
My food was passed up to me through the trap-door my uncle had contrived; and my grandmother, my uncle Phillip, and aunt Nancy would seize such opportunities as they could, to mount up there and chat with me at the opening. But of course this was not safe in the daytime. It must all be done in darkness. It was impossible for me to move in an erect position, but I crawled about my den for exercise. One day I hit my head against something, and found it was a gimlet. My uncle had left it sticking there when he made the trap-door. I was as rejoiced as Robinson Crusoe could have been at finding such a treasure. It put a lucky thought into my head. I said to myself,"Now I will have some light. Now I will see my children. "I did not dare to begin my work during the daytime, for fear of attracting attention. But I groped round; and having found the side next the street, where I could frequently see my children, I stuck the gimlet in and waited for evening. I bored three rows of holes, one above another; then I bored out the interstices between. I thus succeeded in making one hole about an inch long and an inch broad. I sat by it till late into the night, to enjoy the little whiff of air that floated in. In the morning I watched for my children. The first person I saw in the street was Dr. Flint. I had a shuddering, superstitious feeling that it was a bad omen. Several familiar faces passed by. At last I heard the merry laugh of children, and presently two sweet little faces were looking up at me, as though they knew I was there, and were conscious of the joy they imparted. How I longed to tell them I was there!
My condition was now a little improved. But for weeks I was tormented by hundreds of little red insects, fine as a needle's point, that pierced through my skin, and produced an intolerable burning. The good grandmother gave me herb teas and cooling medicines, and finally I got rid of them. The heat of my den was intense, for nothing but thin shingles protected me from the scorching summer's sun. But I had my consolations. Through my peeping-hole I could watch the children, and when they were near enough, I could hear their talk. Aunt Nancy brought me all the news she could hear at Dr. Flint's. From her I learned that the doctor had written to New York to a colored woman, who had been born and raised in our neighborhood, and had breathed his contaminating atmosphere. He offered her a reward if she could find out any thing about me. I know not what was the nature of her reply; but he soon after started for New York in haste, saying to his family that he had business of importance to transact. I peeped at him as he passed on his way to the steamboat. It was a satisfaction to have miles of land and water between us, even for a little while; and it was a still greater satisfaction to know that he believed me to be in the Free States. My little den seemed less dreary than it had done. He returned, as he did from his former journey to New York, without obtaining any satisfactory information. When he passed our house next morning, Benny was standing at the gate. He had heard them say that he had gone to find me, and he called out,"Dr. Flint, did you bring my mother home? I want to see her. "The doctor stamped his foot at him in a rage, and exclaimed, "Get out of the way, you little damned rascal! If you don't, I'll cut off your head."
Benny ran terrified into the house, saying,"You can't put me in jail again. I don't belong to you now. "It was well that the wind carried the words away from the doctor's ear. I told my grandmother of it, when we had our next conference at the trap-door; and begged of her not to allow the children to be impertinent to the irascible old man.
Autumn came, with a pleasant abatement of heat. My eyes had become accustomed to the dim light, and by holding my book or work in a certain position near the aperture I contrived to read and sew. That was a great relief to the tedious monotony of my life. But when winter came, the cold penetrated through the thin shingle roof, and I was dreadfully chilled. The winters there are not so long, or so severe, as in northern latitudes; but the houses are not built to shelter from cold, and my little den was peculiarly comfortless. The kind grandmother brought me bed-clothes and warm drinks. Often I was obliged to lie in bed all day to keep comfortable; but with all my precautions, my shoulders and feet were frostbitten. O, those long, gloomy days, with no object for my eye to rest upon, and no thoughts to occupy my mind, except the dreary past and the uncertain future! I was thankful when there came a day sufficiently mild for me to wrap myself up and sit at the loophole to watch the passers by. Southerners have the habit of stopping and talking in the streets, and I heard many conversations not intended to meet my ears. I heard slave-hunters planning how to catch some poor fugitive. Several times I heard allusions to Dr. Flint, myself, and the history of my children, who, perhaps, were playing near the gate. One would say, "I wouldn't move my little finger to catch her, as old Flint's property."Another would say,"I'll catch any nigger for the reward. A man ought to have what belongs to him, if he is a damned brute. "The opinion was often expressed that I was in the Free States. Very rarely did any one suggest that I might be in the vicinity. Had the least suspicion rested on my grandmother's house, it would have been burned to the ground. But it was the last place they thought of. Yet there was no place, where slavery existed, that could have afforded me so good a place of concealment.
Dr. Flint and his family repeatedly tried to coax and bribe my children to tell something they had heard said about me. One day the doctor took them into a shop, and offered them some bright little silver pieces and gay handkerchiefs if they would tell where their mother was. Ellen shrank away from him, and would not speak; but Benny spoke up, and said,"Dr. Flint, I don't know where my mother is I guess she's in New York; and when you go there again. I wish you'd ask her to come home, for I want to see her; but if you put her in jail, or tell her you'll cut her head off, I'll tell her to go right back."
Christmas Festivities Christmas was approaching. Grandmother brought me materials, and I busied myself making some new garments and little playthings for my children. Were it not that hiring day is near at hand, and many families are fearfully looking forward to the probability of separation in a few days, Christmas might be a happy season for the poor slaves. Even slave mothers try to gladden the hearts of their little ones on that occasion. Benny and Ellen had their Christmas stockings filled. Their imprisoned mother could not have the privilege of witnessing their surprise and joy. But I had the pleasure of peeping at them as they went into the street with their new suits on. I heard Benny ask a little playmate whether Santa Claus brought him any thing. "Yes," replied the boy; "but Santa Claus ain't a real man. It's the children's mothers that put things into the stockings. ""No, that can't be," replied Benny,"for Santa Claus brought Ellen and me these new clothes, and my mother has been gone this long time."
How I longed to tell him that his mother made those garments, and that many a tear fell on them while she worked!
Every child rises early on Christmas morning to see the Johnkannaus. Without them, Christmas would be shorn of its greatest attraction. They consist of companies of slaves from the plantations, generally of the lower class. Two athletic men, in calico wrappers, have a net thrown over them, covered with all manner of bright-colored stripes. Cows' tails are fastened to their backs, and their heads are decorated with horns. A box, covered with sheepskin, is called the gumbo box. A dozen beat on this, while others strike triangles and jawbones, to which bands of dancers keep time. For a month previous they are composing songs, which are sung on this occasion. These companies, of a hundred each, turn out early in the morning, and are allowed to go round till twelve o'clock, begging for contributions. Not a door is left unvisited where there is the least chance of obtaining a penny or a glass of rum. They do not drink while they are out, but carry the rum home in jugs, to have a carousal. These Christmas donations frequently amount to twenty or thirty dollars. It is seldom that any white man or child refuses to give them a trifle. If he does, they regale his ears with the following song:—
Poor massa, so dey say;
Down in de heel, so dey say;
Got no money, so dey say;
Not one shillin, so dey say;
God A'mighty bress you, so dey say.
Christmas is a day of feasting, both with white and colored people. Slaves, who are lucky enough to have a few shillings, are sure to spend them for good eating; and many a turkey and pig is captured, without saying, "By your leave, sir. "Those who cannot obtain these, cook a 'possum, or a raccoon, from which savory dishes can be made. My grandmother raised poultry and pigs for sale; and it was her established custom to have both a turkey and a pig roasted for Christmas dinner.
On this occasion, I was warned to keep extremely quiet, because two guests had been invited. One was the town constable, and the other was a free colored man, who tried to pass himself off for white, and who was always ready to do any mean work for the sake of currying favor with white people. My grandmother had a motive for inviting them. She managed to take them all over the house. All the rooms on the lower floor were thrown open for them to pass in and out; and after dinner, they were invited up stairs to look at a fine mocking bird my uncle had just brought home. There, too, the rooms were all thrown open, that they might look in. When I heard them talking on the piazza, my heart almost stood still. I knew this colored man had spent many nights hunting for me. Every body knew he had the blood of a slave father in his veins; but for the sake of passing himself off for white, he was ready to kiss the slaveholders' feet. How I despised him! As for the constable, he wore no false colors. The duties of his office were despicable, but he was superior to his companion, inasmuch as he did not pretend to be what he was not. Any white man, who could raise money enough to buy a slave, would have considered himself degraded by being a constable; but the office enabled its possessor to exercise authority. If he found any slave out after nine o'clock, he could whip him as much as he liked; and that was a privilege to be coveted. When the guests were ready to depart, my grandmother gave each of them some of her nice pudding, as a present for their wives. Through my peep-hole I saw them go out of the gate, and I was glad when it closed after them. So passed the first Christmas in my den.
Still in Prison When spring returned, and I took in the little patch of green the aperture commanded, I asked myself how many more summers and winters I must be condemned to spend thus. I longed to draw in a plentiful draught of fresh air, to stretch my cramped limbs, to have room to stand erect, to feel the earth under my feet again. My relatives were constantly on the lookout for a chance of escape; but none offered that seemed practicable, and even tolerably safe. The hot summer came again, and made the turpentine drop from the thin roof over my head.
During the long nights I was restless for want of air, and I had no room to toss and turn. There was but one compensation; the atmosphere was so stifled that even mosquitos would not condescend to buzz in it. With all my detestation of Dr. Flint, I could hardly wish him a worse punishment, either in this world or that which is to come, than to suffer what I suffered in one single summer. Yet the laws allowed him to be out in the free air, while I, guiltless of crime, was pent up here, as the only means of avoiding the cruelties the laws allowed him to inflict upon me! I don't know what kept life within me. Again and again, I thought I should die before long; but I saw the leaves of another autumn whirl through the air, and felt the touch of another winter. In summer the most terrible thunder storms were acceptable, for the rain came through the roof, and I rolled up my bed that it might cool the hot boards under it. Later in the season, storms sometimes wet my clothes through and through, and that was not comfortable when the air grew chilly. Moderate storms I could keep out by filling the chinks with oakum.
But uncomfortable as my situation was, I had glimpses of things out of doors, which made me thankful for my wretched hiding-place. One day I saw a slave pass our gate, muttering, "It's his own, and he can kill it if he will. "My grandmother told me that woman's history. Her mistress had that day seen her baby for the first time, and in the lineaments of its fair face she saw a likeness to her husband. She turned the bondwoman and her child out of doors, and forbade her ever to return. The slave went to her master, and told him what had happened. He promised to talk with her mistress, and make it all right. The next day she and her baby were sold to a Georgia trader.
Another time I saw a woman rush wildly by, pursued by two men. She was a slave, the wet nurse of her mistress's children. For some trifling offence her mistress ordered her to be stripped and whipped. To escape the degradation and the torture, she rushed to the river, jumped in, and ended her wrongs in death.
Senator Brown, of Mississippi, could not be ignorant of many such facts as these, for they are of frequent occurrence in every Southern State. Yet he stood up in the Congress of the United States, and declared that slavery was "a great moral, social, and political blessing; a blessing to the master, and a blessing to the slave!"
I suffered much more during the second winter than I did during the first. My limbs were benumbed by inaction, and the cold filled them with cramp. I had a very painful sensation of coldness in my head; even my face and tongue stiffened, and I lost the power of speech. Of course it was impossible, under the circumstances, to summon any physician. My brother William came and did all he could for me. Uncle Phillip also watched tenderly over me; and poor grandmother crept up and down to inquire whether there were any signs of returning life. I was restored to consciousness by the dashing of cold water in my face, and found myself leaning against my brother's arm, while he bent over me with streaming eyes. He afterwards told me he thought I was dying, for I had been in an unconscious state sixteen hours. I next became delirious, and was in great danger of betraying myself and my friends. To prevent this, they stupefied me with drugs. I remained in bed six weeks, weary in body and sick at heart. How to get medical advice was the question. William finally went to a Thompsonian doctor, and described himself as having all my pains and aches. He returned with herbs, roots, and ointment. He was especially charged to rub on the ointment by a fire; but how could a fire be made in my little den? Charcoal in a furnace was tried, but there was no outlet for the gas, and it nearly cost me my life. Afterwards coals, already kindled, were brought up in an iron pan, and placed on bricks. I was so weak, and it was so long since I had enjoyed the warmth of a fire, that those few coals actually made me weep. I think the medicines did me some good; but my recovery was very slow. Dark thoughts passed through my mind as I lay there day after day. I tried to be thankful for my little cell, dismal as it was, and even to love it, as part of the price I had paid for the redemption of my children. Sometimes I thought God was a compassionate Father, who would forgive my sins for the sake of my sufferings. At other times, it seemed to me there was no justice or mercy in the divine government. I asked why the curse of slavery was permitted to exist, and why I had been so persecuted and wronged from youth upward. These things took the shape of mystery, which is to this day not so clear to my soul as I trust it will be hereafter.
In the midst of my illness, grandmother broke down under the weight of anxiety and toil. The idea of losing her, who had always been my best friend and a mother to my children, was the sorest trial I had yet had. O, how earnestly I prayed that she might recover! How hard it seemed, that I could not tend upon her, who had so long and so tenderly watched over me!
One day the screams of a child nerved me with strength to crawl to my peeping-hole, and I saw my son covered with blood. A fierce dog, usually kept chained, had seized and bitten him. A doctor was sent for, and I heard the groans and screams of my child while the wounds were being sewed up. O, what torture to a mother's heart, to listen to this and be unable to go to him!
But childhood is like a day in spring, alternately shower and sunshine. Before night Benny was bright and lively, threatening the destruction of the dog; and great was his delight when the doctor told him the next day that the dog had bitten another boy and been shot. Benny recovered from his wounds; but it was long before he could walk.
When my grandmother's illness became known, many ladies, who were her customers, called to bring her some little comforts, and to inquire whether she had every thing she wanted. Aunt Nancy one night asked permission to watch with her sick mother, and Mrs. Flint replied,"I don't see any need of your going. I can't spare you. "But when she found other ladies in the neighborhood were so attentive, not wishing to be outdone in Christian charity, she also sallied forth, in magnificent condescension, and stood by the bedside of her who had loved her in her infancy, and who had been repaid by such grievous wrongs. She seemed surprised to find her so ill, and scolded uncle Phillip for not sending for Dr. Flint. She herself sent for him immediately, and he came. Secure as I was in my retreat, I should have been terrified if I had known he was so near me. He pronounced my grandmother in a very critical situation, and said if her attending physician wished it, he would visit her. Nobody wished to have him coming to the house at all hours, and we were not disposed to give him a chance to make out a long bill.
As Mrs. Flint went out, Sally told her the reason Benny was lame was, that a dog had bitten him."I'm glad of it," replied she."I wish he had killed him. It would be good news to send to his mother. Her day will come. The dogs will grab her yet. "With these Christian words she and her husband departed, and, to my great satisfaction, returned no more.
I heard from uncle Phillip, with feelings of unspeakable joy and gratitude, that the crisis was passed and grandmother would live. I could now say from my heart, "God is merciful. He has spared me the anguish of feeling that I caused her death."
The Candidate for Congress The summer had nearly ended, when Dr. Flint made a third visit to New York, in search of me. Two candidates were running for Congress, and he returned in season to vote. The father of my children was the Whig candidate. The doctor had hitherto been a stanch Whig; but now he exerted all his energies for the defeat of Mr. Sands. He invited large parties of men to dine in the shade of his trees, and supplied them with plenty of rum and brandy. If any poor fellow drowned his wits in the bowl, and, in the openness of his convivial heart, proclaimed that he did not mean to vote the Democratic ticket, he was shoved into the street without ceremony.
The doctor expended his liquor in vain. Mr. Sands was elected; an event which occasioned me some anxious thoughts. He had not emancipated my children, and if he should die they would be at the mercy of his heirs. Two little voices, that frequently met my ear, seemed to plead with me not to let their father depart without striving to make their freedom secure. Years had passed since I had spoken to him. I had not even seen him since the night I passed him, unrecognized, in my disguise of a sailor. I supposed he would call before he left, to say something to my grandmother concerning the children, and I resolved what course to take.
The day before his departure for Washington I made arrangements, towards evening, to get from my hiding-place into the storeroom below. I found myself so stiff and clumsy that it was with great difficulty I could hitch from one resting place to another. When I reached the storeroom my ankles gave way under me, and I sank exhausted on the floor. It seemed as if I could never use my limbs again. But the purpose I had in view roused all the strength I had. I crawled on my hands and knees to the window, and, screened behind a barrel, I waited for his coming. The clock struck nine, and I knew the steamboat would leave between ten and eleven. My hopes were failing. But presently I heard his voice, saying to some one,"Wait for me a moment. I wish to see aunt Martha. "When he came out, as he passed the window, I said, "Stop one moment, and let me speak for my children. "He started, hesitated, and then passed on, and went out of the gate. I closed the shutter I had partially opened, and sank down behind the barrel. I had suffered much; but seldom had I experienced a keener pang than I then felt. Had my children, then, become of so little consequence to him? And had he so little feeling for their wretched mother that he would not listen a moment while she pleaded for them? Painful memories were so busy within me, that I forgot I had not hooked the shutter, till I heard some one opening it. I looked up. He had come back. "Who called me?" said he, in a low tone. "I did," I replied."Oh, Linda," said he, "I knew your voice; but I was afraid to answer, lest my friend should hear me. Why do you come here? Is it possible you risk yourself in this house? They are mad to allow it. I shall expect to hear that you are all ruined. "I did not wish to implicate him, by letting him know my place of concealment; so I merely said, "I thought you would come to bid grandmother good by, and so I came here to speak a few words to you about emancipating my children. Many changes may take place during the six months you are gone to Washington, and it does not seem right for you to expose them to the risk of such changes. I want nothing for myself; all I ask is, that you will free my children, or authorize some friend to do it, before you go."
He promised he would do it, and also expressed a readiness to make any arrangements whereby I could be purchased.
I heard footsteps approaching, and closed the shutter hastily. I wanted to crawl back to my den, without letting the family know what I had done; for I knew they would deem it very imprudent. But he stepped back into the house, to tell my grandmother that he had spoken with me at the storeroom window, and to beg of her not to allow me to remain in the house over night. He said it was the height of madness for me to be there; that we should certainly all be ruined. Luckily, he was in too much of a hurry to wait for a reply, or the dear old woman would surely have told him all.
I tried to go back to my den, but found it more difficult to go up than I had to come down. Now that my mission was fulfilled, the little strength that had supported me through it was gone, and I sank helpless on the floor. My grandmother, alarmed at the risk I had run, came into the storeroom in the dark, and locked the door behind her."Linda," she whispered,"where are you?"
"I am here by the window," I replied. "I couldn't have him go away without emancipating the children. Who knows what may happen?"
"Come, come, child," said she,"it won't do for you to stay here another minute. You've done wrong; but I can't blame you, poor thing!"
I told her I could not return without assistance, and she must call my uncle. Uncle Phillip came, and pity prevented him from scolding me. He carried me back to my dungeon, laid me tenderly on the bed, gave me some medicine, and asked me if there was any thing more he could do. Then he went away, and I was left with my own thoughts—starless as the midnight darkness around me.
My friends feared I should become a cripple for life; and I was so weary of my long imprisonment that, had it not been for the hope of serving my children, I should have been thankful to die; but, for their sakes, I was willing to bear on.
Competition in Cunning Dr. Flint had not given me up. Every now and then he would say to my grandmother that I would yet come back, and voluntarily surrender myself; and that when I did, I could be purchased by my relatives, or any one who wished to buy me. I knew his cunning nature too well not to perceive that this was a trap laid for me; and so all my friends understood it. I resolved to match my cunning against his cunning. In order to make him believe that I was in New York, I resolved to write him a letter dated from that place. I sent for my friend Peter, and asked him if he knew any trustworthy seafaring person, who would carry such a letter to New York, and put it in the post office there. He said he knew one that he would trust with his own life to the ends of the world. I reminded him that it was a hazardous thing for him to undertake. He said he knew it, but he was willing to do any thing to help me. I expressed a wish for a New York paper, to ascertain the names of some of the streets. He run his hand into his pocket, and said, "Here is half a one, that was round a cap I bought of a pedler yesterday. "I told him the letter would be ready the next evening. He bade me good by, adding, "Keep up your spirits, Linda; brighter days will come by and by."
My uncle Phillip kept watch over the gate until our brief interview was over. Early the next morning, I seated myself near the little aperture to examine the newspaper. It was a piece of the New York Herald; and, for once, the paper that systematically abuses the colored people, was made to render them a service. Having obtained what information I wanted concerning streets and numbers, I wrote two letters, one to my grandmother, the other to Dr. Flint. I reminded him how he, a gray-headed man, had treated a helpless child, who had been placed in his power, and what years of misery he had brought upon her. To my grandmother, I expressed a wish to have my children sent to me at the north, where I could teach them to respect themselves, and set them a virtuous example; which a slave mother was not allowed to do at the south. I asked her to direct her answer to a certain street in Boston, as I did not live in New York, though I went there sometimes. I dated these letters ahead, to allow for the time it would take to carry them, and sent a memorandum of the date to the messenger. When my friend came for the letters, I said,"God bless and reward you, Peter, for this disinterested kindness. Pray be careful. If you are detected, both you and I will have to suffer dreadfully. I have not a relative who would dare to do it for me. "He replied,"You may trust to me, Linda. I don't forget that your father was my best friend, and I will be a friend to his children so long as God lets me live."
It was necessary to tell my grandmother what I had done, in order that she might be ready for the letter, and prepared to hear what Dr. Flint might say about my being at the north. She was sadly troubled. She felt sure mischief would come of it. I also told my plan to aunt Nancy, in order that she might report to us what was said at Dr. Flint's house. I whispered it to her through a crack, and she whispered back,"I hope it will succeed. I shan't mind being a slave all my life, if I can only see you and the children free."
I had directed that my letters should be put into the New York post office on the 20th of the month. On the evening of the 24th my aunt came to say that Dr. Flint and his wife had been talking in a low voice about a letter he had received, and that when he went to his office he promised to bring it when he came to tea. So I concluded I should hear my letter read the next morning. I told my grandmother Dr. Flint would be sure to come, and asked her to have him sit near a certain door, and leave it open, that I might hear what he said. The next morning I took my station within sound of that door, and remained motionless as a statue. It was not long before I heard the gate slam, and the well-known footsteps enter the house. He seated himself in the chair that was placed for him, and said, "Well, Martha, I've brought you a letter from Linda. She has sent me a letter, also. I know exactly where to find her; but I don't choose to go to Boston for her. I had rather she would come back of her own accord, in a respectable manner. Her uncle Phillip is the best person to go for her. With him, she would feel perfectly free to act. I am willing to pay his expenses going and returning. She shall be sold to her friends. Her children are free; at least I suppose they are; and when you obtain her freedom, you'll make a happy family. I suppose, Martha, you have no objection to my reading to you the letter Linda has written to you."
He broke the seal, and I heard him read it. The old villain! He had suppressed the letter I wrote to grandmother, and prepared a substitute of his own, the purport of which was as follows:—
"Dear Grandmother: I have long wanted to write to you; but the disgraceful manner in which I left you and my children made me ashamed to do it. If you knew how much I have suffered since I ran away, you would pity and forgive me. I have purchased freedom at a dear rate. If any arrangement could be made for me to return to the south without being a slave, I would gladly come. If not, I beg of you to send my children to the north. I cannot live any longer without them. Let me know in time, and I will meet them in New York or Philadelphia, whichever place best suits my uncle's convenience. Write as soon as possible to your unhappy daughter."
"It is very much as I expected it would be,"said the old hypocrite, rising to go."You see the foolish girl has repented of her rashness, and wants to return. We must help her to do it, Martha. Talk with Phillip about it. If he will go for her, she will trust to him, and come back. I should like an answer tomorrow. Good morning, Martha."
As he stepped out on the piazza, he stumbled over my little girl."Ah, Ellen, is that you?" he said, in his most gracious manner."I didn't see you. How do you do?"
"Pretty well, sir," she replied."I heard you tell grandmother that my mother is coming home. I want to see her."
"Yes, Ellen, I am going to bring her home very soon," rejoined he; "and you shall see her as much as you like, you little curly-headed nigger."
This was as good as a comedy to me, who had heard it all; but grandmother was frightened and distressed, because the doctor wanted my uncle to go for me.
The next evening Dr. Flint called to talk the matter over. My uncle told him that from what he had heard of Massachusetts, he judged he should be mobbed if he went there after a runaway slave. "All stuff and nonsense, Phillip!" replied the doctor."Do you suppose I want you to kick up a row in Boston? The business can all be done quietly. Linda writes that she wants to come back. You are her relative, and she would trust you. The case would be different if I went. She might object to coming with me; and the damned abolitionists, if they knew I was her master, would not believe me, if I told them she had begged to go back. They would get up a row; and I should not like to see Linda dragged through the streets like a common negro. She has been very ungrateful to me for all my kindness; but I forgive her, and want to act the part of a friend towards her. I have no wish to hold her as my slave. Her friends can buy her as soon as she arrives here."
Finding that his arguments failed to convince my uncle, the doctor "let the cat out of the bag," by saying that he had written to the mayor of Boston, to ascertain whether there was a person of my description at the street and number from which my letter was dated. He had omitted this date in the letter he had made up to read to my grandmother. If I had dated from New York, the old man would probably have made another journey to that city. But even in that dark region, where knowledge is so carefully excluded from the slave, I had heard enough about Massachusetts to come to the conclusion that slaveholders did not consider it a comfortable place to go to in search of a runaway. That was before the Fugitive Slave Law was passed; before Massachusetts had consented to become a "nigger hunter" for the south.
My grandmother, who had become skittish by seeing her family always in danger, came to me with a very distressed countenance, and said, "What will you do if the mayor of Boston sends him word that you haven't been there? Then he will suspect the letter was a trick; and maybe he'll find out something about it, and we shall all get into trouble. O Linda, I wish you had never sent the letter."
"Don't worry yourself, grandmother," said I. "The mayor of Boston won't trouble himself to hunt niggers for Dr. Flint. The letters will do good in the end. I shall get out of this dark hole some time or other."
"I hope you will, child," replied the good, patient old friend. "You have been here a long time; almost five years; but whenever you do go, it will break your old grandmother's heart. I should be expecting every day to hear that you were brought back in irons and put in jail. God help you, poor child! Let us be thankful that some time or other we shall go 'where the wicked cease from troubling, and the weary are at rest.'" My heart responded, Amen.
The fact that Dr. Flint had written to the mayor of Boston convinced me that he believed my letter to be genuine, and of course that he had no suspicion of my being any where in the vicinity. It was a great object to keep up this delusion, for it made me and my friends feel less anxious, and it would be very convenient whenever there was a chance to escape. I resolved, therefore, to continue to write letters from the north from time to time.
Two or three weeks passed, and as no news came from the mayor of Boston, grandmother began to listen to my entreaty to be allowed to leave my cell, sometimes, and exercise my limbs to prevent my becoming a cripple. I was allowed to slip down into the small storeroom, early in the morning, and remain there a little while. The room was all filled up with barrels, except a small open space under my trap-door. This faced the door, the upper part of which was of glass, and purposely left uncurtained, that the curious might look in. The air of this place was close; but it was so much better than the atmosphere of my cell, that I dreaded to return. I came down as soon as it was light, and remained till eight o'clock, when people began to be about, and there was danger that some one might come on the piazza. I had tried various applications to bring warmth and feeling into my limbs, but without avail. They were so numb and stiff that it was a painful effort to move; and had my enemies come upon me during the first mornings I tried to exercise them a little in the small unoccupied space of the storeroom, it would have been impossible for me to have escaped.
Twenty Africans Arrive in Jamestown Colony
When the first twenty African slaves arrived in Jamestown harbor, statutory slavery did not yet exist. The first slaves were sold as indentured servants and many worked to buy their freedom and were in fact among the first founding members of the original colonies. Within twenty-five years however, statutory slavery would be established in Massachusetts, with every colony following suit and thereby creating the "racial slavery" that forever marked both the character of the young nation and every American generation that would follow. While slavery did not exist as a statutory institution in Virginia until the 1660s and 1670s, many Africans were imported as slaves well before then.
These original Africans to arrive in Jamestown are particularly significant because they clearly show that racial slavery was not the norm when the first settlers arrived in the New World and that among the pioneers who first set about taming the land, there were Africans—the first African Americans.
The European Slave Trade Begins
The European slave trade began when the Portuguese prince Henry the Navigator sailed down the coast of Africa and took captive over 200 Africans. For many years, Arab slave traders had captured and transported Africans; however, with the advent of superior methods of capture and transport, the transatlantic slave trade began in earnest.
The years both before and after Columbus's expeditions to the New World saw an astonishing number of advances that changed the course of history, initiating the age of Europe's dominance over the seas. For example, the last decades of the fifteenth century saw the invention of the moveable type printing press, making possible the first mass-produced books. The craft of ship-building exploded forward; advances in hull and forecastle construction made it possible to build much larger ships that could take longer voyages. These new ships had bigger sails fixed to taller masts, and a navigator standing at the ship's highest point above the line of the horizon. Henry the Navigator was the first to use these advances, effectively ushering in an age of improved slave trading and transporting.
The arrogance of the colonial age was not limited to the capture and sale of people. The new technologies pitted Portugal and Spain against one another to conquer new territories. The nations essentially decided to divide up the world as they saw it. The agreement between the two nations promised to the Spanish throne all lands discovered 370 leagues west of The Cape Verdean Islands and to the Portuguese throne all lands found 370 leagues east of the islands. The Portuguese aimed to exploit the western coast of Africa, the trade routes to the east going around the horn of Africa, and any lands in Africa—the effect of which can be seen in the presence of the Portuguese language in Angola, Cape Verde, and numerous other locales of the region. The Spanish end of the bargain, however, was far more advantageous: they, in effect, had rights to all of the New World. These early decisions would mark all history to follow, creating languages, cultures, nations, and entire peoples with their own ethnic characteristics grown out of centuries of miscegenation.
The Roots of African American Cultural and Artistic Traditions
The story of African Americans in the United States is about a people kidnapped and forced into slavery who went on to mark every element of American culture, from the highbrow to the low. Black Americans have participated in virtually every field of American cultural endeavor and established the very roots of some great American contributions to the world, such as jazz and rock-and-roll. At its heart that expression, rock-and-roll, is deeply rooted in various traditions of African American culture.
The roots of many trademark elements of African American culture, such as call and response structure and the exchange of humorous insults known as "signifying," can be traced to West African roots. West African cultures are known for their strong sense of irony and fate. In the Yoruba tradition, for example, there is a pantheon of gods, each with a two-sided nature. The god of iron, Ogun, represents both the will to control one's surroundings and the destruction and chaos that may result from this impulse to control. This brand of ironic, allegorical dialectic has had a strong influence on American personality and self-expression.