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Monday, September 23, 2013

Myths of Slavery - We done did got usselves Bamboozled

November 28, 2005

No subject has been more generally misunderstood or more persistently misrepresented. ~ Jefferson Davis

Much of what we hear today about slavery from the Black community, the news media, the pulpit, the high school classroom, and the university lectern is a myth. This does not mean that slavery was anything but a great evil. It just means many things commonly accepted as slavery facts are actually slavery myths. 

This is not an attempt at a scholarly discourse on slavery. It is merely a presentation of some myth-refuting facts that I have assembled from a few books in my own library.

Myth number one: Slavery was a distinctively Southern institution. From Ira Berlin’s Generations of Captivity (Harvard University Press, 2003), we read:

On the eve of American independence, nearly three-fourths of Boston’s wealthiest quartile of property-holders held slaves. A like proportion could be found in New York, Philadelphia, Providence, and Newport. From a position at the top of colonial society, one visitor noted that there was "not a house in Boston" that "has not one or two" slaves — an observation that might be applied to every northern city with but slight exaggeration.

The expansion of slavery followed a similar trajectory in the countryside. 

Indeed, the rapid growth of rural slavery eclipsed its development in the cities of the North. Throughout the grain-producing areas of Pennsylvania, northern New Jersey, the Hudson Valley, and Long Island — the North’s bread basket — bondage spread swiftly during the eighteenth century, as farmers turned from white indentured servants to black slaves. By mid-century slavery’s tentacles reached into parts of southern New England, especially the area around Narragansett Bay, where large slaveholders — many of whom had originated in Barbados — took on the airs of a planter class. In these places, slaves constituted as much as one-third of the labor force, and sometimes more than half.

In the northern colonies, Africans had difficulty finding mates, establishing families, conceiving, and producing healthy infants. The problem was not new. 

From the beginning of settlement, northern slaveholders, unlike their counterparts farther south, showed little interest in creating an indigenous slave population. From their perspective, the discomfort and expense of sharing their cramped quarters with slaves outweighed the profits offered by a self-reproducing labor force. Northern slaveholders discouraged their slaves from marrying and did not provide accommodations for slave families to reside in the same abode. They routinely separated husbands from wives and parents from children and only reluctantly extended visitation rights. Seeing but small advantage in the creation of an indigenous, self-reproducing slave population, northern slaveholders sold slave women at the first sign of pregnancy. Such practices constrained the development of residential family units and diminished the chances that black men would assume the roles of husbands and fathers and black women the roles of wives and mothers. 

Grandparenthood became unknown to most northerners of African descent.
In the middle years of the eighteenth century, northern lawmakers — taking a page from southern statute books — updated, refined, or consolidated the miscellaneous regulations that had been enacted during the seventeenth century and issued more comprehensive slave codes. In every case, legislators strengthened the hand of the slaveowner at the expense of the slave and free black.

Black life in the North increasingly resembled that of the plantation South.

Thomas DiLorenzo has also recently pointed out that Ira Berlin played a role in assembling an exhibit in October at the New York Historical Society entitled "Slavery in New York." When interviewed about the exhibit, Professor Berlin pointed out that "New York City in the 17th and 18th centuries was the largest slave-holding city on the North American continent. There were more slaves in New York than in Charleston or New Orleans. Slaves made up a quarter of New York’s population at various times. . . . New York had slave auctions and slave whipping posts and slave rebellions. . . . there were over 10,000 slaves in New York in the third decade of the 19th century."

Myth number two: The White man captured slaves in the African jungles. From Alan Taylor’s American Colonies (Viking, 2001), we read:

Popular myth has it that the Europeans obtained their slaves by attacking and seizing Africans. In fact, the shippers almost always bought their slaves from African middlemen, generally the leading merchants and chiefs of the coastal kingdoms. Determined to profit from the trade, the African traders and chiefs did not tolerate Europeans who foolishly bypassed them to seize slaves on their own initiative. And during the eighteenth century the Africans had the power to defeat Europeans who failed to cooperate. Contrary to the stereotype of shrewd Europeans cheating weak and gullible natives, the European traders had to pay premium, and rising, prices to African chiefs and traders, who drove a hard bargain.

The Europeans exploited and expanded the slavery long practiced by Africans. Some slaves were starving children sold by their impoverished parents. Others were debtors or criminals sentenced to slavery. But most were taken in wars between kingdoms or simply kidnapped by armed gangs.

The African raiders marched their captives to the coast in long lines know as coffles: dozens of people yoked together by the neck with leather thongs to prevent escape. Some marches to the coast exceeded five hundred miles and six months. About a quarter of the captives died along the way from some combination of disease, hunger, exhaustion, beatings, and suicide.

Upon reaching the coast, the captors herded their captives into walled pens called barracoons. Stripped naked, the slaves were closely examined by European traders, who wanted only reasonably healthy and young people, preferably male.

Myth number three: Blacks never owned slaves. From Anne Sarah Rubin’s A Shattered Nation: The Rise & Fall of the Confederacy (The University of North Carolina Press, 2005), we read:

The free blacks who had prospered in the prewar South had done so by seeking favor with local whites and assuring them of their loyalty. Some of them had owned slaves themselves.

And again, from Berlin’s Generations of Captivity:

As societies engaged in the trade in slaves, the coastal enclaves became societies with slaves. African slavery in its various forms — from pawnage to chattel bondage — was practiced in these towns. Both Europeans and Africans held slaves, imported and exported them, hired them, used them as collateral, and traded them. At Elmina, the Dutch West India Company owned some 300 slaves in the late seventeenth century, and individual Europeans and Africans held others. Finish reading>>