Eric V. Snow



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The lives of masters, mistresses, and overseers could be at risk in confrontations with slaves. Some of the ways slaves disposed of overseers permanently included being whacked in the head with a hoe, getting hit by the stick and then having his hands and feet chopped off with an ax, and being whipped and thrown off a cliff. In each of these cases, it was because the overseer had whipped a slave before some kind of retaliation ensued.

Chesnut described how her cousin, one old mistress named Betsey Witherspoon, was murdered by her house slaves. Why? Because they had acted so insolently to their owner because she did not try disciplining them at all seriously, her son said he would whip them. In order to prevent the threatened punishment, they they murdered her in bed, and stole some linen, a nightgown, and gold coins. In another case Chesnut described, yet another mistress was murdered by her slaves, then hanged to look like she had committed suicide. Another slave murdered her mistress and her two young children--for which she was soon lynched. Slaves could be much more subtle about how they murdered their masters. House slaves who prepared the white family's food preferred poisoning. In North Carolina between 1755 and 1770, the colony had fifty-nine claims for slaves being executed. Nearly 25 percent of these were for murder or attempted murder of whites. As a result, while they did not threaten the regime's overall stability, these crimes struck fear in masters and (evidently) especially mistresses. Chesnut once wrote:


Hitherto I have never thought of being afraid of Negroes. I had never injured any of them; why should they want to hurt me? . . . Somehow today I feel that the ground is cut away from under my feet. Why should they treat me any better than they had done Cousin Betsey Witherspoon?
Kemble wrote she knew that Southern white men often denied living under a continual sense of danger, but "every Southern [white] woman to whom I have spoken on the subject has admitted to me that they live in terror of their slaves." For these reasons the domestic servants were not be allowed to sleep in the same house as their master generally--a precaution Mrs. Witherspoon certainly was not observing. Yet, Chesnut also observed that "nobody is afraid of their own Negroes," and she said she would feel perfectly safe on the plantation "even if there were no white person in twenty miles."616
"Nats" or "Sambos"?--Selective Perception by the Master Class
Masters and mistresses possessed a rather contradictory mind-set about their own slaves. Their selective perception caused self-deception. They imputed towards and/or focused upon different characteristics in the slaves depending upon on their mood and their slaves' immediate acts. When the slaves had on their masks, when playing "Sambo the fool" to trick their owners, or sullenly went about their work after having challenged white authority and losing, masters could be confident about their relationships with their human property. But when the occasional murder, conspiracy panic, or (much more rarely) actual revolt transpired, and the black man had demonstrated his danger to the whites, then he became a "Nat" instead--a slave who had been well-treated like those in Chesnut's family, but who suddenly turned and murdered his master in bed in cold blood, with another slave finishing the grisly job. Blassingame interprets the Southern slaveholders' mentality thus: "The more fear whites had of Nat, the more firmly they tried to believe in Sambo in order to escape paranoia." This psychological portrait is likely overdrawn, because enough slaveholders and overseers had dealt with enough ordinarily recalcitrant slaves "shuffling" while in the fields, who sought and employed almost every possible trick in the book to evade work, let alone actual open rebelliousness upon occasion (or had heard about such). As a result, the pure "Sambo" stereotype was never really believed in by most whites in their hidden transcript, even as it was featured strongly in pro-slavery propaganda of the public transcript. Although small scale frontal assaults on white slaveholders and overseers were not common, and were not a fundamental threat to the regime because of their generally individualistic, even anarchic nature, they occurred enough to keep most of them on their toes with procedures reminiscent of a police state, at least in areas where slaves heavily outnumbered the whites. Slaveholders knew punishment could suddenly backfire possibly, over and above the rather rare cases in which some of them were killed deliberately after conscious calculation by their bondsmen.617
The Rarity of Slave Revolts in the United States Compared to Elsewhere
Slave revolts--organized insurrection against the white regime by slaves en masse--in the Southern United States in the period 1750-1865 were very rare, for all the attention they received by contemporaries and historians since. During this time, only in two cases did groups of slaves actually began to use violent force against their owners: one near New Orleans in 1811 and Turner's rebellion in 1831. The New Orleans revolt in St. John the Baptist and St. Charles parishes featured somewhere between three hundred and five hundred slaves armed with plenty of pikes, axes, and hoes, but few firearms. They organized themselves in companies commanded by officers as they marched on New Orleans, and succeeded in burning a few plantations and killing two whites. Later they were dispersed by regular troops and militia under Wade Hampton, with sixty-six slaves being killed in open battle, and afterwards the executions of sixteen leaders followed. Although much more obscure than Turner's revolt, it holds pride of place as America's largest slave revolt. Turner's band of rebels never numbered more than sixty or seventy, but they managed to kill far more whites before being quelled, as described above (p. 272). Even these revolts were minor affairs compared to the size and frequency of those in the history of Latin American and Caribbean slavery. For example, in what is now Guyana, there were at least eighteen revolts over and above maroon wars and abortive uprisings in the period 1731 until the abolition of slavery. In 1823, one of these revolts involved between 10,000 and 20,000 slaves on 50 plantations. Another in the part then called Berbice in 1763 involved about 2000 bondsmen, who succeeded in killing about 200 of the colony's 350 whites. In Jamaica, the average revolt featured about 400 participants, with one in 1760 having 1000. During the decade 1730-40, a major revolt occurred almost every year. Bahia in Brazil during the period 1807-1835 featured at least six major revolts. For a period of three years Manoel Francisco dos Anjos Fereira held the entire province of Maranhao with the aid of his followers in the Balaiada in Brazil. By comparison, Turner's rebellion was a mere passing vapor. And all these ultimate failures overlook the greatest and most successful revolt of all, that of Saint-Domingue beginning in 1791.618 By comparison, the history of slavery in the United States singularly lacks such drama--befitting the emphasis on daily infrapolitics when discussing slave resistance above.
The Factors Militating Against Slave Revolts in the United States
The reasons for Southern slaves' relative quiescence to their Caribbean and Latin American brothers and sisters resulted from a multitude of factors, all of which favored revolt in the latter areas compared to the United States. The difference in the number of revolts was not due to some inherent docility of North American slaves, but because just about objective factor nameable weighing the balance of forces between the white regime and the slaves was tilted towards more towards former in the United States compared to Latin American and Caribbean conditions. The slave population outside of the United States was much more likely to heavily outnumber the whites and be proportionately more African than native-born (creole), especially as the nineteenth century drew along and the legal foreign slave trade closed in 1808, and to have a skewed sex ratio in which men outnumbered women, especially on the large plantations. Even as early as the American Revolution, only one-fifth of American slaves were African-born, while as late as 1800, one-fourth of the people in Martinique, Barbados, and Jamaica were Africans who had arrived in the preceding decade. Males made up 60 percent to 70 percent of the slaves in Latin America. In Jamaica, blacks outnumbered whites ten to one, and the slave to white ratio was eleven to one in Haiti, twenty to one in Surinam, and seven to one in the West Indies generally, while in the South a 0.5 ratio prevailed regionally. The African-born, having experienced their own enslavement and loss of freedom, and having a stronger ethos of collective organization, were naturally more restless than the creoles born in America, who tended to protest in an individualistic manner more and were habituated to the rigors of bondage from birth. The African slaves also had a non-Christian religious tradition, as developed into Vodun in the Caribbean, which formed ideological foundations for revolt, and due to language and other cultural differences, less influenced by the master class' attempts at ideological hegemony. Their continual importation infused African cultural practices among both earlier arrivals and the creoles themselves. Assimilation was a plausible objective for Southern whites when dealing with slaves, at least after the closing of the foreign slave trade. This objective was rather absurd where the whites were a small elite among masses of blacks and mulattos. In such places as Jamaica, Haiti, and Guyana, they had to segregate themselves from the blacks to preserve their cultural identity. Due to having a nearly even sex ratio, the men among American slaves experienced much more of the intrinsically taming and settling aspects of marriage and family life, unlike the restless "bachelor herds" of large Caribbean and Latin American plantations, where many of the men could never hope to marry. The slaves in the United States were often held in relatively small units, three-quarters in groups of fifty or less, and almost half were owned in groups of twenty or less. There were 2.1 slaves per white member of a slaveholding family, with 72 percent holding less than ten and nearly 50 percent of slaveowners less than five bondsmen. By contrast, a collective consciousness flourished much more among those on the much larger groups customarily held in Latin America and the Caribbean, which averaged one hundred to two hundred, where the master's and mistress' personal presence and influence was much less likely to be felt face-to-face by the ordinary field hand. As in capitalist industry, a real paternalism is much more likely to flourish in smaller units of production than in larger ones, where the owner really comes to know his workers--or slaves--as the case may be. The master also was less likely to be physically present as well--absenteeism flourished in much of Latin American and Caribbean slavery, where one estimate had 90 percent of the owners of Jamaican slaves were absentees. But in the United States, resident masters were an important restraining force on the discretion granted to overseers in punishing the slaves under their authority.619
Other factors militated against the slaves rebelling in an organized fashion. The white regime in the United States was far more unified and militarily efficient than that of the ruling classes in many Latin American colonies such as Brazil and Saint Domingue, and could count upon the automatic support of a fierce, well-armed poor white majority wherever the slaves grew dangerous. The Caribbean elites, in particular, faced a much greater likelihood of invasion from without as well. Nothing like the maroon colony of Palmares developed within the confines of the United States, nor were the whites reduced to making treaties with such entities, nor did any rebels ever hold out long against the military power the whites commanded. By contrast, in Cuba, it took two months to push out seven hundred slaves out of a mountain stronghold, and in colonial Mexico, their army once took months to reach where slaves had revolted--and still failed to defeat them. While undeniably inferior to the North's or England's, the South's development of a superior transportation and communications network, such as through railroads, steamboats, and the telegraph, gave the white regime advantages over its slaves no other slaveholding elite had possessed by the eve of the Civil War, making large maroon colonies and sustained revolts practically impossible. Southern slaves, especially those outside task system areas, had relatively little experience in raising their own food and selling it to others, while elsewhere in the Americas, since the slaveholders made the slaves grow their own food, there were much greater opportunities for black entrepreneurship and initiative taking. These commercial activities broadened the mind, helpful when planning revolts and in encouraging them to begin with, since more "practical freedom" existed outside the master's and overseer's daily supervision and control, giving them a taste for more. Because free whites were more numerous than the slaves in the South, the slaves could be easily excluded from bearing arms in wartime to repel foreign invaders and from most consequential commercial activities. But in Jamaica and Saint-Domingue, the mulattos and slaves actually controlled much of the commerce, while the continual warfare in Latin America and the Caribbean caused slaveholders to arm their slaves for military purposes, and sometimes grant them freedom in return for doing so. In America, keeping the slaves totally economically dependent by providing them most or all their food and prohibiting them selling or growing anything themselves was a much more practical objective, and one many masters pursued to one degree or another outside task system areas. American slaves did not gain any of the military experience that could be employed in revolts. Positive incentives also did play a role in discouraging revolt, since the material conditions of Southern slaves, such as in food provided and hours worked, was certainly better than those which prevailed in most other places in the Americas. Better treatment was one of the reasons (besides having fewer deaths due to tropical disease) why the slave labor force in the United States was the only one which experienced natural increase through births exceeding deaths. While Brazil received about 37 percent and North America about a mere 6 percent of all slave imports to the New World during the period 1500-1825, both wound up with a very similar number of blacks in 1825. Finally, the slaves were more stratified by economic function and status due to the greater division of labor on the large plantations in the Caribbean and Latin America, and because there was much less of a free white artisanal class to turn to perform certain trades and functions. This occupational hierarchy encouraged more development of capable leadership compared to the United States above the masses of the field hands and domestic servants that made up most slaves throughout the Americas. Thus, each one of the factors concerning the likelihood of slave revolt listed above which influenced the relative balance of forces favored the continued control of the white regime in America and prevented organized rebellion and/or encouraged passivity among the bondsmen compared to the rest of the New World.620
Many Slaves Knew How Much the Deck Was Stacked Against Successful Revolt
American slaves did not develop any kind of revolutionary ethos due to the paucity of actual armed insurrections among them, and the ease with which the white elite was able to crush the very few that did occur, something which Aptheker maintained but fellow Marxist Genovese has denied.621 For those literate slaves who rose above the masses of field hands, perhaps as preachers, drivers, artisans, or the domestic servants of large planters, who could analyze their society more intellectually, they easily saw how strong and powerful the white regime was and how the balance of forces were tilted overwhelmingly against successful insurrection. Frontal attacks en masse were simply hopeless, especially as the slaveholding elite readily employed savage repression against those who did participate in the few revolts that did occur, such as near New Orleans and under Turner, or those that nearly did, like Prosser's and (evidently) Vesey's. Slaveholders sometimes tolerated the occasional individual slave who refused to be whipped, but normally otherwise did his or her work. Entertaining violence by slaves in organized groups was quite another matter, and was brutally crushed, as the violent nature of the white regime as compared to England's rural elite was shown above (pp. 271-74). Furthermore, those seriously planning revolts faced the problem of informers among their own ranks, which destroyed both Prosser's and Vesey's conspiracies, resulting in the costs of repression without any white blood being drawn or property destroyed. Olmsted noted casually, while describing Prosser's conspiracy: "Having been betrayed by a traitor, as insurgent slaves almost always are, they were met, on their approach, by a large body of well-armed militia, hastily called out by the Governor." For these reasons, American slaves were apt to put that much more effort into daily infrapolitics, because "deliverance from below," such as occurred in Haiti under Toussaint Louventure, was simply impossibly utopian. Perhaps for these reasons, especially with the more informed, literate slaves seeing freedom arriving "from above," through the Union Army without them having to take any dangerous risks, and escape opportunities massively multiplied, the South suffered no significant slave revolts during the Civil War despite the draining of young men from the countryside to serve in the Confederate Army and the growing disorganization of its economy and communications/transportation network while suffering invasion and blockade. When Mr. Chesnut discussed offering freedom in exchange for fighting for the South, his headmen were interested. "Now [December 1864] they say coolly that they don't want freedom if they have to fight for it. That means they are pretty sure of having it anyway."622 Unlike those who fought for the North, this theoretical offer involved fighting for the cause of those who held them in bondage, so they may have lied about their loyalty to the South's cause even as they could (now) safely admit to their desire for freedom. Nevertheless, this story points to a obvious risk avoidance strategy--why fight for freedom when likely within a year's time the Union army's bayonets will deliver it to your door? When the white regime was much stronger, before the war, the realization that open revolt more likely led to death instead of liberty was a fundamental reason for why American slaves appeared more passive than their Latin American and Caribbean counterparts.
Why Then, If Revolts Were So Rare, Were the Whites So Paranoid?
Granted the lack of slave revolts in the years 1750-1865, then why were the slaveholders so paranoid? Why did so many insurrection panics shake through the South? Aptheker's history of slave revolts actually is a record much more of white fears of slave conspiracies, a number of which were likely the product of "strong grievances on one side and deep fears on another," than any actual preparations for revolt above, perhaps, idle threats and gossip. Wade has even questioned the existence of Vesey's famous conspiracy:
No elaborate network had been established in the countryside; no cache of arms lay hidden about the city; no date for an uprising had been set; no underground apparatus, carefully organized and secretly maintained, awaited a signal to fire Charleston and murder the whites.623
Aptheker's record of conspiracies suffers from uncritically analyzing his sources. Those described for the post-1835 period almost invariably were said to have originated in the mind of a white man, such as an Northern abolitionist or a Southern fellow traveler, not from a black.624 The panic that lead to "lynch law" proceedings in three counties in Mississippi in 1835 was not an exception to this rule. Supposedly, John A. Murrell's gang of some one thousand desperados was planning a vast insurrection to take place on Christmas Day, 1835 in order to facilitate their plans of plundering the countryside. Although convicted and thrown into prison for stealing slaves some months before that date, a pamphlet about his supposed plans about slave rebellion circulated, and in the July of 1835 a white mob in Livingston county hanged slaves. Some of them had pointed to two white men in their confessions--who were soon summarily executed in turn. John Cotton, one of these whites, "confessed," saying he was part of a plot for all the slaves in the South to revolt, from Maryland to Louisiana, desiring to destroy the white population of the South. The absurdity of this tale is evident, yet within a few weeks twelve white men (with five hanged) and a much larger number of slaves had fallen victim to drumhead legal proceedings and were punished.625 Employing a sociological approach, Morris maintains the ultimate cause of this scare, and by extension those in other parts of the South, was due to a lack of community organization and contact among the whites on a routine basis in some local town that would administer the county, which caused them to suspect and accuse whites they did not know well of being the ringleaders.626 However, there were deeper reasons for these witch hunts periodically sweeping parts of the South, over and above any objective need for vigilance. An elite, when it purportedly believes its labor force is contented, at least in its propaganda in the public transcript, is apt to blame discontent on outsiders, on subversives, inflaming the minds of its subordinate class to become discontent and to rise against their masters. (Similar rumors were present during the Swing Riots in England, during which gentlemen or foreigners were blamed for setting fires, etc.) This strategy serves to unite "us" versus the relatively unknown "other" or "them"--serving to help quell any publicly expressed doubts Southern whites might have about the regime themselves. The panicky paranoia that surfaced upon occasion also demonstrated that deep down the slaveholders did not believe their own propaganda about how contented Sambo supposedly was, but knew he had good reasons not to be happy between his crude, coarse rations and the overseer's lash, understanding the slaves' very humanity meant they likely desired freedom secretly as much as any white did.627
Resistance to Slavery in the United States Is Dominated by Infrapolitics
The story of resistance under slavery in the United States is mainly one of day-to-day resistance--of evaded work, stolen food, and protective lies, rather than one of revolts, open defiance, and organized, collective efforts. This was not because American plantations were populated with Sambos instead of Nats due to the effects of a closed system producing bent personalities (Elkins) nor, in the older historiography, upon some innately rooted dispositions in character (U.B. Phillips's American Negro Slavery). Part of this lay in the inevitable reality that the infrapolitics of struggle between a dominant and a subordinate class largely make up most both groups' mutual dealings, outside of rare, revolutionary moments, because of the former's strength compared to the latter. Routinely the weak use covert, circuitous means of accomplishing their aims, because the costs of open defiance normally are very high. However, American slaves, even more than their Latin American and Caribbean brethren, placed their efforts into day-to-day resistance because the objective strength of the white regime in the United States was so great, open and organized defiance was even more suicidal than normal for this subordinate class. Due to the ethic of the easy use of personal violence coming from living in relatively unsettled, unpoliced, frontier areas under a naturally suspicious white regime whose public mores emphasized defending one's honor and thus was correspondingly hypersensitive about personal slights and offenses, and the lack of any substantive de jure legal rights much above the right not be murdered by one's master, the slaves lacked the ability to organize in a collective manner that was not violent itself in nature. Although some resistance occurred that mimicked the withdrawal of labor by striking unions, by masses of slaves running away in protest against particularly abusive overseers or overly demanding work schedules, the suspicions of the whites and their refusal (as demonstrated by the legal theory of the slave codes) to recognize them as having any legal rights to freedom of association or to the product of their labor ensured that collective protests almost inevitably had to turn to violence. The slaves, working within the system, could not change the regime by any open and sustained collective activity, such as the English farmworkers' unions constituted. The only way to change slavery at all as a social system was to totally overthrow it at once--which led directly to the desperate use of violence whenever the slaves did rise against their owners throughout the Americas. The policies of the white regime left the slaves the alternatives of open violence, which was especially suicidal in the American case, or surreptitious infrapolitics, through wearing masks before their masters, venting their frustrations in generally unsurveyed social sites, and covert, loose, informal organizing in the quarters that aimed at making extracting work out of them a maximally frustrating process for their owners and supervisors. That American slaves lacked an extensive history of revolts and large scale maroon colonies has little to due with any virtues or defects in character or personality, but was due to the objective strength of the white regime over them.
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