Bussa statue

Black Resistance (British America)
Part II in a Series

So to continue our series on Black Resistance to Slavery in America, let’s begin after Columbus discovered the western reaches of India around 1492. Okay, of course, we all know Columbus did not discover the western reaches of India although that was what he wanted to do and that is what he thought he did. What he sought was a short water route to India and the Far East; his theory was if he circumnavigated the globe he would find that route. Of course, he and other Europeans had no idea that they would find another hemisphere and when they found it, they still did not know that they had found another hemisphere. Columbus was not alone in this search. Many European nations were paying explorers to find a way to sail to the Far East and thus break the Venetian monopoly on such a route. European nations needed to go to China and India to purchase goods they could sell back in Europe where there was a big demand for these products, and they wanted to travel there without using the alternate overland route that brought them into the welcoming arms of highway men and assassins or the route controlled by the Princes of Venice.

In 1497 the Portuguese found that route and controlled it for their own profit but the race was still on and the Dutch, French, Spanish, and English among others kept looking for the rest of India or for a passage through the new continents to Asia, until a mapmaker pointed out they were not in or even near India at all but  had bumped into an entire other hemisphere. There was considerable confusion early on about these lands and to say European rulers knew nothing about this land mass would certainly be an understatement. The people who they found on this hemisphere were quite different from the Europeans and reactions to them were mixed. Some like Rousseau idealized them, while others preferred quick elimination in order to take over their land.

As soon as Europeans found this new (to them) continent, they spent a lot of time and many lives continuing to try to find that western part of India. They went up , down and around the continents as well as any islands in these new waters. In that way, they explored much of the land on the continents and the many islands off the Western Hemisphere.

At the time Europe was slowly moving out of its feudal past and the economy was changing. This change included the development of towns and money, that is, an economy that was not about owning tracts of land and working for the Lords who owned them. This new system would be dubbed capitalism by Adam Smith in 1776 but its development over a century would change the world as Europeans had known it.
It slowly dawned on Kings and other landed aristocracy that this land, devoid of European customs and habits , thus often seen by them as uninhabited or only inhabited by “savages”, offered riches that could be developed and sold for as much profit as Far Eastern goods. This awareness developed as European cities grew and handcrafts introduced new products. Goods from the Middle and Far East created markets for wonderful treasures that had been unknown to Europe: tea ,coffee, cotton, silk, spices, rum etc. The monarchs saw this “newly” found hemisphere an exciting source of increasing wealth since it was clear feudalism was dying. They figured products that brought wealth were easily cultivated in this land but they needed people’s labor to begin to create a European landscape there and develop these products.
The only problem was to convince Europeans that heading into a strange wilderness with unknown dangers where absolutely nothing was waiting for them except perhaps angry “savages” who wanted to kill them, might prove a challenge. Also, such a venture would eat up a lot of wealth invested in the project long before any profit could be shown and the enterprise was fraught with  dangers. So Kings thought of ways to lure people to these frightening places. They handed out “Charters” or gifts of tracts of land to those who would pool their money and promise to help populate this land empty of Europeans. The investors in these Charter Companies created by the King would get the necessary people there and reap a good profit.

These Charters were, in fact, the earliest of corporations. Men pooled their money to create profit and increase their wealth. Thus the creation of the United States began as a corporate venture.
Now whom and how to convince people to risk everything to populate the Americas? They would need men and women willing to risk it all to form communities out of a forbidding wilderness. They would exist without friends or family as well as means to water, food, medical attention, housing and that was after conquering the rough seas of the Atlantic that promised illness, death and drowning. Once on land they knew there would be nothing to protect them from weather, beasts, illnesses, eachother or the people already there who were probably not so happy to be invaded.

Thirteen English colonies would make up the original 13 American colonies. Getting “settlers” on those ships at the start was no mean trick and many ways were tried. A lot depended on what products each colony was able to produce. So it took at least a generation to create or “settle” the land. Some of the earliest arrivals were not interested in products that required farming. Some men looking for making money immediately came as loners. They hunted and sent very popular furs to be sold back home. In England Beaver Hats became the rage.

Other men were willing to come in exchange for land . English inheritance laws forbade inherited land from ever being divided among a family. All land would be inherited by the eldest son. So some younger sons got large tracks of land in exchange for working that land and supplying a workforce. The Dutch who later would lose their colony New Amsterdam region to the English, promised wealthy younger sons huge tracks of land if they came with serfs ready to work that land. So some did just that, they were call patroons and created beautiful estates in what became upstate New York.

And who wouldn’t agree religious fanatics were ideal “settlers’ of the land? Charters were given to various religious zealots. The Separatists, who are so lauded for escaping the Protestant battles in England formed a holy community, in the Massachusetts Bay colony. Searching for religious freedom for themselves they were in fact religious zealots who believed in freedom of religion for themselves and not anyone else. These were people who were not allowed to use words that were not in the Bible and intended to keep out the people celebrating the wrong religion- the Separatistis.They made the Puritans look soft but this brand of strict Puritanism peopled the English Colony of Massachusetts.
One nice thing for the “settlers” who farmed was that the land around them was vast if they were adventurous, they could look for land a bit west of where they started thus a way to solve community disagreements. Of course, some indigenous people looked askance at that. The woman preacher, Ann Hutchinson after an argument with her pastor moved to the wilds of what is now the Bronx, there she and her thirteen children were slaughtered by the men they called Indians, men who did not look kindly on the expansion of Europeans into their lands, so yes, you could find elsewhere but you faced again all the usual dangers.

William Penn who got a Charter from the English King brought his Quakers to Pennsylvania where they would not be persecuted. Georgia was to be settled by Catholics to help them escape the on-going Protestant-Catholic slaughters and wars. By 1732 James Oglethorpe began bringing convicts to the colony to do slave labor. He declared slavery illegal in Georgia and for a while that colony was a cooperative venture. By 1751 the Georgia colonists demanded the opportunity to enslave, and got it.

The “New World” was a cornucopia of products and wealth. Hemp, dyes, rice, cotton, iron ore, tobacco, coal, timber, fur ... the list was long but not every colony was blessed with the weather for these crops. Slowly colonies began to specialize.
But wait, once they chopped down the trees, killed lots indigenous people the population was still not large enough to satisfy the need for large enough of produce for trade. They needed more workers . Some crops like rice, cotton and tobacco in the South required large tracts of land and many workers. But up in the North farm work still benefited from more hands than the landowners. They puzzled how to get these workers and get them cheap but even more important get workers who would be steady and not apt to leave to find their own fortunes.

At first the indigenous people were tried out. It did not work well. It was not their natural way of life and they often sickened and died when forced into servitude and with their knowledge of the terrain and friends to help they often escaped back to their tribal lands.

In Europe, poverty reigned as Feudalism died. Many would have liked to adventure to the “New World” to find their fortune but raising the money for the trip was impossible for some. So a system was developed. The poor would become contract labor. They would sell themselves or their children into servitude for a number of years to pay for their crossing. By the time of the Revolution there were 55,000 thousand indentured servants in the colonies of the between 500,000 -550,000 Europeans in the colonies.

Indenture bond was a contract in which the signer of such agreed to pay off his or her passage through unpaid, slave-like servitude for a limited amount of time often up to 7 years. Though recently some have likened indenture to slavery and though it was unpaid labor where your “master” had total control of your life and though, it is true, like a slave, the indenture was at the mercy of the person who held his/her contract and cheating on the time of release from indenture was not unusual and while the conditions for an indentured servant could be quite harsh, indenture differs markedly from chattel slavery. First it a contract entered into willingly. Second indentured servitude is limited to a number of years, after which the indenture has all legal rights. Unlike slaves the children of indentured servants would not be bound in servitude and the European indentures had one other benefit slaves would not ever have. They could run away and blend into the majority white population .

The last and most expensive way of getting those extra hands to the colonies was to buy a human being who had been kidnapped from Africa. Most slaves arriving in the American colonies were first brought to the Caribbean Islands . There they would be trained into slavery. It was called seasoning. It is hard to imagine what a terrifying ordeal that had to be. There is some argument about when the first slaves came to American shores but at first slavery was approached somewhat haphazardly colony by colony until it became “institutionalized” that is when the system was codified.

The jobs a slave might do would differ with location and the needs of the purchaser. Their job could be on a small farm where slave and owner might work together in the field or on a big plantation where the large number of slaves would preclude the owner’s personal knowledge of a most slaves except for those who worked directly in the owners house.

At the start of slavery which is usually dated as 1618, some slaves were treated as indentured servants with limited time of service. At times indentured servants and slaves worked side by side which led to human contact that sometimes led to romantic relationships and children of mixed race. At the start of slavery marriages between slaves and indentured servants were not always forbidden. And where it was some couples lived together out of wedlock once free.

Sometimes slaves could earn money doing paid labor for skills they had developed like shoe making or carving by working after his main job was done. Occasionally, an owner would free his slaves especially after his death and , of course, slaves would often run away. Thus by the time of the American Revolution free Black men and women lived in the colonies and even owned land, while the majority still suffered slavery.

Some Black people became notable in the colonies. Phillis Wheatley, (c. 1753 – December 5, 1784) was born in West Africa, and sold into slavery at the age of seven or eight then transported to North America. She was purchased by the Wheatley family of Boston as help in their home. The Wheatly’s taught the little girl to read and write and when she began to write poetry, they encouraged her and helped her publish her first book of poetry. Soon after the publication of her book they freed her. She was the first African-American poet and her work was very popular.

Benjamin Banneker (November 9, 1731 – October 19, 1806) was a free African-American almanac author, surveyor, landowner and farmer. He was born in Baltimore County, Maryland, to a free African-American woman and a former slave, Banneker had little or no formal education and was largely self-taught. He became known as member of a group that surveyed the original borders of the District of Columbia, the federal capital district of the United States). He also challenged Thomas Jefferson’s idea that Black people were intellectually inferior. Jefferson, after Banneker’s letter, stepped a few paces back from his original statements on race and intelligence. Many other free Black people were only locally known and have faded from historical record. While free Black people existed alongside Black slavery, the existence of Free Black people would became increasingly difficult as slavery became more widely accepted in the colonies. Black slavery expanded because chattel slavery could bevery lucrative for both buyers and sellers.

In 1655 an indentured Black man in Virginia, John Casor, believed he had served out his indenture according to his records. His owner Anthony Johnson disagreed. It went to court, which by the way, was one method of resistance used by Black people . Unfortunately, the court sided with Johnson. Not only that , the court claimed Casor would be Johnson’s slave for life. About seven years later, Virginia made the practice of lifetime slavery legal by making it state law that any free white, black or Indian was entitled to own slaves.

Some things can be expected with men and women working together. Some will fall in love. Indentured Europeans and slaves often formed unions. If one servant was white and an indentured servant and one a slave. What would the child be in legal terms  free like the white parent, or slave like the Black parent? And then there was the question of a owners rape of female slaves that produced mixed race children. What would these mixed race children be?

In 1662, the Virginia colony passed a law incorporating the principle of partus sequitur ventrem, ruling that children of enslaved mothers would be born into slavery, regardless of their father's race or status, giving all power to the owner to use and abuse slave women. Laws were also passed to forbid marriage between white and black people. Lifetime inherited slavery was now the fate of Black people in the American colonies. Some kind of laws like the Virginia laws we discussed earlier were passed in all the original colonies. . In 1670 another Virginia court case declared a slave was “not a citizen of the colony” because he was black. Thus slavery as an institution brought with it the beginnings of racism that would be enshrined in America for over 500 years.

Avenues for legal resistance were closing. Slavery existed in all the thirteen colonies. The road out of slavery now had fewer routes, being freed by your owner, buying yourself and possibly your family out of slavery or running away. The angry longshoreman Crispus Attucks of the Boston Massacre fame was an escaped slave.

Revolts now became another more desperate form of resistance. The first known slave rebellion in one of England’s American colonies took place in Gloucester County, Virginia in 1663, 44 years after the first slaves arrived in the British colony. It was named “The Servants Plot”, and involved white and black indentured servants who rebelled against the unceasing labor of the colony’s tobacco industry. Their plot failed and at least four men were hanged.

A 1712 slave rebellion in New York City killed at least nine white slave holders. Colonial forces arrested seventy blacks and jailed them. Six were reported to have committed suicide. Twenty-seven were put on trial, 21 of whom were convicted and sentenced to death, including one woman with child. Twenty were burned to death and one was executed on a breaking wheel. After the revolt, the city and colony passed more restrictive laws governing black and Indian slaves. Slaves were not permitted to gather in groups of more than three, they were not permitted to carry firearms, and gambling was outlawed. Crimes of property damage, rape, and conspiracy to kill qualified for the death penalty. Despite these restrictive laws know as the Black Codes, Free blacks were still allowed to own land. Anthony Portuguese (alternately spelled Portugies), owned land that makes up a portion of present-day Washington Square Park; this continued to be owned by his daughter and grandchildren. As time goes on and the danger of rebellions heightened the Black Codes will become more severe.

In 1739, up to 100 black people in colonial South Carolina participated in the “Stono Rebellion”, the largest slave uprising in British North America. The” Stono Rebellion” (sometimes called Cato's Conspiracy or Cato's Rebellion) was a slave rebellion that began on 9 September 1739, in the colony of South Carolina. It was the largest slave uprising in the British mainland colonies, with 25 colonists and 35 to 50 Africans killed. The uprising was led by native Africans who were likely from the Central African Kingdom of Congo. Their leader, Jemmy, was a literate slave. In some reports, however, he is referred to as "Cato", and likely was held by the Cato, or Cater, family who lived near the Ashley River and north of the Stono River. He led 20 other enslaved Congolese, who may have been former soldiers, in an armed march south from the Stono River they were bound for Spanish Florida. The Spanish had tried to destabilize British rule on the continent by promising freedom and land in St. Augustine to slaves who escaped from the British colonies.Jemmy and his group recruited nearly 60 other slaves and killed some whites before being intercepted and defeated by the South Carolina militia near the Edisto River. A group of slaves escaped and traveled another 30 miles before battling a week later with the militia. Most of the captured slaves were executed; the surviving few were sold to markets in the West Indies.

In response to the rebellion, the South Carolina legislature passed the Negro Act of 1740, which restricted slave assembly, education, and movement. It also enacted a 10-year moratorium against importing African slaves, because they were considered more rebellious, and established penalties against slaveholders' harsh treatment of slaves. It required legislative approval for each act of manumission (that is a landowner giving his slave freedom”, which slaveholders had previously been able to arrange privately. This sharply reduced the rate of manumissions in the state.The revolt resulted in some laws intended to discourage uprisings and rein in brutal slaveholders. The colonies already had strict slave codes designed to govern the behavior of enslaved people. In response to the “Stono Rebellion”, these laws became increasingly draconian.

The system of slavery in the colonies had hardened. Enslaved populations had made it clear they were violently unhappy with their status. The lucrative position of “owner” and the benefits of enslavement engendered rebellion and fear of rebellion. Then came the American Revolution. Perhaps another avenue of resistance will open? Black Slavery, Black Resistance in Colonial America
Part II in a Series

Carol Polcovar

Carol Polcovar

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