Conflict between Slaves

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Conflict between Slaves

For decades, historians have stressed slaves' ability to overcome adversity through their reliance on religion, family, and culture. Conflict nevertheless wracked the slave community from the introduction of American slavery to its abolition. Rivalries and mistrust routinely disrupted the harmony and solidarity of the quarters. Such conflicts played an ambiguous role in the lives of slaves, both constituting and corroding their sense of community.

A number of cleavages among bondpeople had the potential to shatter the unity of the slave community. During the colonial period, Philip D. Morgan observed, "Frictions among African ethnic groups or between Africans and creoles" pitted some slaves against their fellow bondpeople (1998, p. 614). Other divisions persisted after the closing of the transatlantic slave trade. Although bondpeople conferred status on skilled slave craftsmen, preachers, and conjurors, others did not earn such universal respect. On the largest plantations, occupational stratification fostered distinctions among slaves. Domestic servants at times considered themselves the so-called slave aristocracy and adopted an attitude of superiority toward their counterparts laboring in the fields. Field slaves might reciprocate by regarding house servants with resentment, suspicion, and mistrust for appearing too closely allied with the master. Likewise, the occupational hierarchy slaves constructed held black drivers in low esteem. Appointed by some slaveholders, especially in the Carolina Lowcountry, slave drivers found themselves in the psychologically ungratifying position of having to enforce the master's dictates by directing the labor of bound family, friends, and acquaintances, wielding the whip as necessary. Drivers who too eagerly did the master's bidding risked ostracism in the slave quarters. Conflicts resulted not only from occupational fissures, however, but also from skin color. Lighter-skinned slaves (who were also more likely to serve as house servants) sometimes internalized white standards by ranking themselves superior to darker-skinned slaves, although Eugene D. Genovese emphasized that "more fraternity than hostility" marked their relations (1976, p. 429).

In part, conflicts among slaves determined the contours of a particular slave community. The domestic slave trade routinely disrupted slave communities and necessitated continual social re-creation. Newcomers needed to earn their welcome into a new plantation family. Henry Haynes' newly purchased slave woman "quarreled with the other Negroes" in the quarters and hence remained a perpetual outsider (Johnson 1999, p. 196). Slaves who too frequently shirked work by feigning illness, repeatedly thrusting greater burdens of work on their comrades, might also become outcasts; so too might bondpeople who betrayed their fellows by informing the master of slave thefts, conspiracies, or other crimes. As outsiders, fugitive slaves might not automatically expect sympathy or assistance from enslaved strangers they encountered during flight.

Verbal quarrels and physical confrontations erupted frequently in the quarters. Many slaves recalled that, as children, they ate from a common trough filled with corn bread and sweet milk or clabber. Slave children jostled with their peers to fill their bellies and engaged in other scraps typical of childhood, often simply for sport. As adults, slave men challenged one another to physical contests. Masters seemed to delight in the spectacle. Some even orchestrated more formalized violence among slaves, wagering on wrestling and boxing matches that pitted slaves from one plantation against their enslaved neighbors.

Adult female and male slaves committed violent acts of their own accord as well. One slave recalled "his mother and another woman … fighting over their children," while another remembered that a "woman cussed my mother and it made her mad and they had a fight" (Rawick 1977, vol. 7, pt. 2, p. 732; vol. 7, p. 94). Among antebellum whites, slave women gained a reputation for frequently committing infanticide, but these reports were wildly exaggerated. Far more evidence survives documenting the violence of slave men. Drunkenness often played a role in such violent confrontations. Fights erupted at dances and frolics—wherever liquor flowed freely. Urban slaves had somewhat greater access to alcohol than rural bondpeople, yet slaves in the countryside imbibed with the master's consent at cornshuckings, logrollings, and other events in the agricultural calendar, clandestinely at many other times. Slaves' brief taste of liberty, their ability to travel and pursue leisurely pastimes, and their relative lack of physical exhaustion meant that Saturday nights, the Sabbath, and holidays hosted most of the violent contests among slaves. Weekend gambling, one slave admitted, prompted "disagreement[s] wid a few fights" (vol. 9, pt. 4, p. 1,433).

Slaves often fell out over property disputes. Most bondpeople lacked any secret or safe repository for their possessions, so any cash or valuable commodities were vulnerable to theft. In South Carolina, the bondman Wiley reportedly stole "some Tobacco and half a dollar in mony" from another slave. George smote Sam fatal blows with an axe after Sam accused him of "taking his hammer," and Toney struck Dick after Dick accused him of stealing "more leather than his back could pay for." "In Georgia," wrote Genovese, "a blacksmith killed a fellow slave for stealing the keys to his shop" (p. 607). Like male slaves, enslaved girls and women clashed over the possession of goods as well. In Mississippi, one slave girl jealously guarded her dresses by force, while a slave woman became angry when her spouse gave her clothes to "other gals fer to dance in" (Rawick 1977, vol. 7, pt. 2, p. 623; vol. 7, p. 163). The theft of foodstuffs prompted harsh reprisal. Three bondpeople in South Carolina attacked J. W. Norris's slaves over some stolen bacon, while slaves John and Dave accosted Dan for stealing corn. In both of these instances, slaves relied on violence as a means of self-preservation. The theft of bacon or corn threatened to reduce their own rations, so slaves willingly fought to safeguard their provisions. To avoid punishment for the loss of pilfered goods, slaves also defended masters' property even if it had no immediate value to them. Six slaves in South Carolina ran off another bondman named Ned lurking about their master's blacksmith shop trying to steal iron. Slaves also engaged in violent confrontations over the repayment of debts they had contracted with one another. Amos and Andrew, for instance, "fell out about a debt" incurred in the purchase of bread.

In addition to economic matters, issues of love and family sparked violent confrontations among slaves. Slave men vied with one another for desirable bondwomen at home or on nearby plantations. Two South Carolina slaves fought because they were both apparently in love with the same woman, while another male slave thrashed a competing admirer about the face with a switch of grapevine to warn him away from his beloved. After North Carolina bondwoman Dicey refused to let Edmund court her daughter Deely, the despondent slave slit the protective mother's throat.

Despite their lack of force in law, slave marriages were widely recognized as fact by both masters and slaves. Yet domestic quarrels sometimes disrupted the harmony of the slave cabin. Some slave men employed spousal abuse to affirm and maintain their position as head of the household, and masters created an environment conducive to domestic violence when they matched slave couples with callous disregard for the bondpeople's personal preferences. One Alabama slave remembered that the overseer "useta whip mammy an' pappy, 'ca'se day fight so much" (Rawick 1977, vol. 6, p. 216).

Slave men used violence to protect and defend the women they claimed as their own and to jealously guard slave women against the sexual overtures of other bondmen. Nelson struck fellow North Carolina slave Gabriel a mortal blow with a fence rail after the latter insulted his wife. In South Carolina, one slave struck another with a large stick because he felt the man was bothering his wife. But slave men could not provide foolproof protection, if the slave women in question even wanted it. Adultery marked a leading cause of marital difficulties for slave couples, and cuckolded slave men often craved revenge against the slave interloper. A slave named George in South Carolina found himself in the middle of several conflicts at once. At the same time a slave named Tom sought revenge against George for breaking up Tom's marriage, a bondman named Ed also accosted George, pulling a pistol on him because George was sleeping with Ed's wife. Cases of adultery also drove enraged slave wives to violence. A Baptist church in South Carolina disciplined bondwoman Betsey for striking her cheating husband.

Masters disapproved of conflicts and fights in the quarters, which jeopardized plantation harmony and produced unwelcome economic effects. Injured slaves might require time off work, not labor as quickly or efficiently, or lose monetary value if their wounds proved serious enough. One Georgia slave described the rules on many plantations when he reported, "We were not even allowed to quarrel among ourselves" (Rawick 1977, vol. 12, pt. 2, p. 75). When fights did erupt, masters drew upon a number of punishments: placing transgressing slaves in stocks or chains, locking them in a gin house or other outbuilding, or, most frequently, whipping them. If conflicts among slaves produced a permanent disability, a severe maiming, or death, and especially if the combatants belonged to different masters, the aggrieved slaveholder might seek redress through the Southern court system. Slaves put on trial for crimes against fellow bondpeople stood better odds than if the victim were white. A guilty verdict was not automatic, and those convicted typically escaped with a whipping and/or short jail term. In Georgia, slaves accused of murder of another bondperson were typically found guilty of the lesser charge of manslaughter and punished through a combination of lashes and branding. Across the South, transportation out-of-state and executions proved exceptionally rare when slaves were both the perpetrator and the victim of the crime.


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                                              Jeff Forret