Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Un-revising history: The facts about slavery in America

Answer T (true) or F (false)

• True or False: The role of Africans in the slave trade was considerable.

Answer: True

"While we are all familiar with the role played by the United States and the European colonial powers like Britain, France, Holland, Portugal and Spain, there is very little discussion of the role Africans themselves played. And that role, it turns out, was a considerable one, especially for the slave-trading kingdoms of western and central Africa. These included the Akan of the kingdom of Asante in what is now Ghana, the Fon of Dahomey (now Benin), the Mbundu of Ndongo in modern Angola and the Kongo of today’s Congo, among several others."

"The historians John Thornton and Linda Heywood of Boston University estimate that 90 percent of those shipped to the New World were enslaved by Africans and then sold to European traders. The sad truth is that without complex business partnerships between African elites and European traders and commercial agents, the slave trade to the New World would have been impossible, at least on the scale it occurred." [Emphasis added]

The notion of White European raiding parties descending on unsuspecting African villages is a gross distortion of reality. Not only does the historical record argue against White raiding parties, but such parties would have been costly and inefficient compared to purchasing Africans already held in slavery. White slave traders would not endure the risk related to such incursions. Furthermore, Africans already held as slaves would be less willing to resist, particularly among those whose African owners were brutal enemies.

Source: Ending the Slavery Blame-Game, Henry Louis Gates, The New York Times April 22, 2010

• True or False: Slaves were routinely beaten with impunity by brutal White slave owners

Answer: False

Logic, alone, should be sufficient to dissuade thinking people from the perennial myth that black slaves were brutalized by their White owners. Slaves were expensive property. As such, slave owners were careful to protect their investments. Beating a slave was simply not in the owner's best interest.

There were exceptions.

In 1838 Harriet Martineau visited New Orleans where she heard tales of a particularly abusive slave owner. At issue was slave owner Delphine LaLaurie who resided in a mansion at 1140 Royal Street. "Martineau reported that public rumors about LaLaurie's mistreatment of her slaves were sufficiently widespread that a local lawyer was dispatched to Royal Street to remind LaLaurie of the laws relevant to the upkeep of slaves." The attorney found no evidence of wrong doing.

Nonetheless, LaLaurie was forced to forfeit nine slaves after a subsequent investigation found her guilty of slave abuse.

It was later rumored that one of LaLaurie slaves intentionally set fire to the mansion to draw attention to ongoing abuse. Bystanders forced entry to squelch the fire and discovered "seven slaves, more or less horribly mutilated ... suspended by the neck, with their limbs apparently stretched and torn from one extremity to the other."

Tale of the abuse quickly spread throughout New Orleans. An angry mob of White residents descended on the mansion and "demolished and destroyed everything upon which they could lay their hands."

LaLaurie fled the mob violence, escaping to Mobile, Alabama and then to Paris.

What we learn from the historical LaLaurie episode is that:

1. Laws protecting slaves from abuse were enforced.
2. White residents did not tolerate owners who abused their slaves.


Wikipedia | |

• True or False: Millions of slaves escaped via the Underground Railroad.

Answer: False

In an interview presented by the Chicago Public Library, historian Dr. Henry Louis Gates noted that far fewer slaves escaped via the Underground Railroad than is commonly believed. [1]

Thousands of slaves lived on properties that bordered free states during the centuries when slavery was a part of America's history. They could have easily escaped. Yet most chose to remain in slavery.

There were no 'Iron Curtains,' no barbed wire fences and no armed guards perched atop towers.

What, then, held black slaves in slave states? If life under slavery was as intolerable and abusive as modern historians claim, why did slaves who lived adjacent to free states simply not walk, swim or ride a raft to freedom?

Consider, by comparison, the deplorable conditions that have compelled Cubans to risk their lives aboard makeshift boats to sail to the safe haven of freedom. Yet few blacks who lived on the Kentucky side of the Ohio River bothered to make the short transition from slavery to the freedom in Indiana or Ohio.

Consider the millions of Mexicans who often trek hundreds of miles, risk losing their lives at the hands of unscrupulous guides, and endure suffocating and dangerous modes of transport to cross the border with Mexico. Few are escaping physical abuse and the indiginites of slavery, yet they eagerly make the journey to America where they are denied citizenship.

Certainly if blacks were routinely subjected to beatings and deprived of bare necessities, they would have sought to escape, even as Cubans risk their lives to sail to freedom and Mexicans endure the hardships of fleeing their homeland.

How many slaves were escaped via the Underground Railroad? No one knows. However, James A. Banks placed the estimate at 100,000 in his book March Toward Freedom: A History of Black Americans (1970). The number is unsubstantiated and, given the proclivity of modern scholarship to skew history in favor of their particular bias, that estimate may very well be extremely exangerated.

1. Video Source: C-Span Video Library

• True or False: There were a few black slave owners.

Answer: False

Actually, there were thousands of black slave owners.

"In 1830 there were 3,775 such slaveholders in the South, with 80% of them located in Louisiana, South Carolina, Virginia, and Maryland. There were economic differences between free blacks of the Upper South and Deep South, with the latter fewer in number, but wealthier and typically of mixed race. Half of the black slaveholders lived in cities rather than the countryside, with most in New Orleans and Charleston."

Historians John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger wrote:

"A large majority of profit-oriented free black slaveholders resided in the Lower South. For the most part, they were persons of mixed racial origin, often women who cohabited or were mistresses of white men, or mulatto men ... . Provided land and slaves by whites, they owned farms and plantations, worked their hands in the rice, cotton, and sugar fields, and like their white contemporaries were troubled with runaways."

Historian Ira Berlin wrote:

"In slave societies, nearly everyone – free and slave – aspired to enter the slaveholding class, and upon occasion some former slaves rose into slaveholders’ ranks. Their acceptance was grudging, as they carried the stigma of bondage in their lineage and, in the case of American slavery, color in their skin."[1]

To write extensively about blacks who owned slaves in the antebellum South would require a full volume. Black slaveowners: free Black slave masters in South Carolina, 1790-1860 By Larry Koger is one such volume.

Koger tells of Richard Holloway, Sr., a black carpenter who purchased his African cousins as slave labor. [2]Cato was the name of one of his slaves. Cato remained in Holloway's possession throughout the 1830s and '40s, according to Koger, until he was sold to his son, Richard Holloway, Jr., in 1845. Cato died in 1851 and the younger Holloway replaced him with the purchase of a 16-year-old black male.

Koger says there were ten black slave owners in Charleston City, SC in 1830.

Nor was black-on-black slavery unique to Southern states.

Koger informs us that in 1830 New York City recorded eight black slave holders who owned a total of 17 black slaves. The total number of slaves owned by blacks in 1830 was more than 10,000 according to the federal census of 1830; and that includes only four states: Louisiana, Maryland, South Carolina and Virginia. In addition there were "black master in every state where slavery existed," Koger says.

1. [source]

2. source

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