Define the changing relationship between masters and slaves in the antebellum South Few institutions in American history have made such a fundamental impact as slavery, from it’s origins in the mid-seventeenth century, to its abolition in 1863, following President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and the North’s victory in the American Civil War. In attempting to study the history of black slavery in the antebellum South, it is fundamental to consider that the institution of slavery was dynamic, as the relationship between masters and slaves altered over time.
This changing rapport was largely shaped by events in American history, and can be analysed in several different time-spans: early colonial America, the effects of the American Revolution, and the modern slave status resulting from the Industrial Revolution. The first African slaves were transported into the Chesapeake, after 1619, when a Dutch vessel unloaded “Twenty negars” in Jamestown, Virginia.
Some of the first black settlers were treated as indentured servants, with a limited period of servitude, gradually achieving liberty and land; by 1660, a racially-constructed system of black slavery was in operation. It is apparent that the early colonial Southern society treated blacks in a differential manner to the white population: the first census, established in 1629, segregated blacks and whites, frequently providing no personal names for African settlers.
In 1640, blacks were outlawed from bearing weapons; there is evidence to prove that blacks were treated far more harshly than their white counterparts by the criminal justice system. One example that clearly demonstrates this discrepancy in treatment is that of three runaway indentured servants, two white and one black, who when captured in 1640 received phenomenally different punishments for the same misdemeanor: the two white servants each received an extra fours years of servitude, while the black was bound for life.
A southern master in 1647 was granted the right to have eight blacks “to have hold occupy posesse and injoy and every one of the afforementioned Negroes forever. ” A p henomenal gap was widening in the 1640s and early1650s between the price of whites and black servants, a disparity that would forever alter the nature of black slavery in America. While white servants during this period with an indenture of five or more years were worth approximately 1,000 pounds of tobacco, their black counterparts cost around 2,000 pounds of tobacco.
Masters during the early colonnial period were therefore prepared to pay up to twice as much for blacks than for whites. Factors such as the higher marketable value of African servants, and the fact that lifelong servitude was a stipulation only applied to blacks, demonstrates a racially-differentiated system of servitude, in which a fundamental transformation was in operation. Black Africans became the great slave force of the colonial South, as relations between masters and the ever-decreasing number of white servants deteriorated.
Bacon’s Rebellion, a military protest conducted in 1676 by white indentured servants and small farmers against the affluent planters and political leaders of Virginia, signified the height of the tensions created between slaveholders and white servants. Blacks were seen to be the ultimate solution to a Southern demand for fast and relatively cheap labour, in a dynamic and constantly expanding agrarian society.
Blacks were seen to be the most efficient source of mass labour, as unlike a servant of white origin, or a native American, the fact that they were foreign to the country, and physically conspicuous, made it almost impossible for them to escape from bondage and blend into the community. Forced into an alien land, worlds apart from white settlers in miles, culture and language, they were easily-exploited and could be forced into life servitude.
Blacks were additionally denied legal and political rights, permanently barred from the company of white landowners, unable to organise themselves into political groups, bound as much by their own diverse cultures as their white masters’ suppressive and often brutal treatment. This dehumanisation of slaves was institutionalised in law in 1705 in Virginia; although various seventeenth century statutes had limited the rights of blacks and defined their ri??
les as slaves, it was not until this date that the first extensive legal code explicitly defined slaves as property: “All Negro, mulatto, and Indian slaves within this dominion shall be held to be real estate and shall descend unto heirs and widows according to the custom of land inheritance. ” White has traditionally been associated with purity and goodness, while the colour black has been used to symbolise evil, witchcraft and sin.
These historical stereotypes further reinforced southern prejudices, convincing white settlers in colonnial America that they were on a moral crusade. The white oppressors used theories of black inferiority in order to justify this radically inegalitarian system, arguing that Africans were a primitive, heathen, barbaric people, and that the white settlers were fulfilling a moral obligation in “civilising” them with white culture and Christian values. Part of this “civilising” ri??le that the master was expected to fulfill in exchange for hard, loyal labour was outlined in a 1742 sermon, delivered in the Espicopal parish of the Reverend Thomas Bacon in Maryland;
Bacon asserted that God had “laid the foundation of justice and equity between man and man, by making each in his several station, ” and that it was the obligation of masters to feed, clothe, and shelter their bondsmen, and to educate them in Christianity, in return for “care, fidelity, and honest labour” from their slaves.
The obvious difficulty of investigating relationships between slaves and their masters is that there are few written accounts and artifacts dating back to ante-bellum America, which were written by blacks. Many states prohibited any form of basic education or reading and writing skills to blacks, fearing the threat of rebellion once their slaves gained information and intelligence. This paranoia towards educated slaves is demonstrated in Alex Haley’s Roots, an account of black slavery in the South, based on historical documents.
In this book, plantation owner Massa Waller, finding that one of the slaves, Kizzy, has been taught to write, decides to sell her, despite beseeching pleads from her family for forgiveness, saying, “The law is the law. She’s broken my rules. She’s committed a felony. ” Although this book is a twentieth century insight into slavery and is only loosely based on facts, it demonstrates the way in which the early treatment of slaves was harsh and often uncompromising. Slaves who attempted to rebel against their cruel masters faced severe retribution.