Compare and contrast the experience of slaves on tobacco plantations in the early seventeenth-century Chesapeake region with that of slaves on nineteenth-century cotton plantations in the Deep South. What forces transformed the institution of slavery the early seventeenth century to the nineteenth century? When approaching slavery from a historical standpoint, it is a tendency to generalize the experience of slaves. However, slavery differs per region and time period.
The differing climates of the Chesapeake region and Deep South determined the crops that would be grown and consequently the severity of slave labor. Likewise, over time slavery evolved from a class based system (poor indentured servants working alongside blacks) to a racially based system, creating an identity within the slave community. However, not only the slave experience differed, the institution itself transformed.
The transition from class-based slavery to racial slavery, accompanied by new technologies that made the industry more profitable, changed how the institution was run. Thus, despite a general continuity in the institution of slavery, such as it being agrarian-based and involving black subordinates, many forces changed the institution like the installment of slave codes in 1670s, making it a legal and racial practice, and the development of the cotton gin and other technological advances in the 1790s.
Whilst seventeenth century slavery was characterized by smaller tobacco plantations, racially-mixed servitude, and somewhat less-demanding labor, nineteenth century slavery was characterized by large-scale cotton plantations, solely black slavery, harsh and dangerous working conditions, and syncretic slave societies within plantations. This essay will approach identifying factors of change through the general categories of beginning, middle, and end of American slavery. It will also directly compare and contrast the institutions of early Chesapeake and later Deep South slavery.
Slavery is not new and unique to United States history, and many factors caused it to change and evolve in America. The first major transformation took place in roughly the 1690s when slavery was defined legally and racially. Slavery began in the Chesapeake region as indentured servitude, granting migrants passage to the New World in exchange for a labor contract. The first Africans were brought to the Jamestown colony in 1619, joining the ranks of indentured servants and working side-by-side with whites. There was no legal definition of slavery at the time.
Eventually, with significant free land to begin competitor farms, European indentured servants often finished or abandoned their indentured life to begin anew. This created an ever-growing void for labor, and presented a flaw with indentured-servitude— if they could start their own farm, what would keep them at another? This frightened the planters, who feared rebellion and faced a lack of labor. At the same time, Africans were steadily being brought into America for servitude. In fact, by the mid-1680s black slaves outnumbered their European counterparts.
Bacon’s Rebellion, 1676, was a rebellion staged by white descendants of or former indentured-servants living on the frontier against the government of Virginia over defending land from Indians. The result, however, was the end of indentured servitude. It presented too much of a risk— servitude would have to be continued in another way. This way was achieved when in 1682 Virginia issued a slave code that marked the first distinction that all peoples imported to the country of color were to be slaves. This was important because it introduced race into the realm of servitude.
Now slavery was both legally enforced and racial. This was a significant force to the development of the black slavery and white supremacist culture we associate with American History today. Throughout the middle time period, racial slavery was concreted. In the eighteenth century, it became evident that the fertile soil of the southern colonies would be instrumental to growing cash crops. Thus, the tobacco slavery practiced in the Chesapeake region boomed, increasing the demand for slaves. Tobacco was an appealing crop for planters, for it cost pennies to purchase and sold for much more.
As a result, the slave trade expanded, and many companies sought to join the lucrative trade. This is shown by the Royal African Company losing its monopoly in 1698. By 1750, blacks comprised nearly half of the population in Virginia. To ensure the preservation of racial slavery, new slave codes deemed that the children of those enslaved would also be enslaved. Thus the concept of slavery for life was established. This furthered the claim of planters that the blacks they owned were in fact property or “chattels”, making the racial basis of slavery unquestionable.
It is clear that America was no longer just a society with slaves— the institution of slavery was integrated with race, the economy, politics, as well as everyday life. In addition to tobacco plantations, cotton slavery was also expanding in the Deep South. As the soil became exhausted from growing tobacco in the Chesapeake area, many slave-owners found it more profitable to sell their slaves to southern plantations. Thus, though slavery remained in the Chesapeake area, the growing cotton industry moved its epicenter to the Deep South. The major forces that caused this shift will be included in the paragraph about the end of slavery.
The soil was beginning to become overused because of the intensity of tobacco growing in the Chesapeake, and many plantation owners decided to sell their slaves to Southern cotton plantation owners. In the nineteenth century, the institution of slavery peaked economically and politically. Cotton slavery was a lucrative industry. This was made possible by Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin in 1793, and the British Industrial Revolution. The British had an increased need for cotton for their growing textile industry. The cotton gin allowed slaves to more efficiently yield cotton.
Thus, the supply-demand relationship gave rise to massive plantations, some owning hundreds of slaves. The fortunes in slavery were clear by the huge estates of planters and many acres of slave-tended fields. Although, the Atlantic Slave Trade was outlawed in 1808, the slave population in America was self-sustaining (it would eventually peak at about four million before the Civil War). In addition, illegal Atlantic slave trade continued as well as trading within the country (take for example the Second Middle Passage). Slavery, now legally restricted to southern states, was the core of the southern agrarian economy.
Because it was so lucrative, planters took initiatives to ensure productivity from their slaves. Whipping was a common practice. Also, Fugitive Slave Laws gave planters the right to their slaves as property, even if they escaped to the free North. Slave codes were strict, and even an inappropriate greeting could guarantee a slave punishment. In response to rebellions like that of Denmark Vesey in 1822 or the Nat Turner Insurrection of 1831, paranoia was high. Planters used these laws to keep slaves in line, and preserve the institution of slavery.
In conclusion, a clear progression is made from a legally undefined practice of servitude to a heavily legislated institution with severe punishments. Likewise, slavery developed from servitude of the lower class to racial enslavement. These developments would not be possible without the initial shift caused by Bacon’s Rebellion and the slave codes, to the eventual invention of the cotton gin that made slavery such a lucrative venture. As a direct result of the evolving institution of slavery, slaves had different experiences at different times and places in American history.
To exemplify the effects of the forces that transformed slavery, it is important to examine how they altered the experience of slaves over time. To begin we will shed light on the experience of a seventeenth century Chesapeake tobacco slave. This slave would have likely worked alongside white indentured servants, considering slavery was not yet racial. Since slaves were first brought to the Chesapeake in 1619, African servants of this time may not have known English. The nuclear family of slaves often stayed together at this time, and if not they usually remained within the same region.
Although the climate of the Chesapeake area is hot in the summer, the conditions were not as bad as further south. The experience of seventeenth century slaves had many similarities and differences to that of their later, Deep South counterparts. By the nineteenth century, slavery was a booming industry, especially in the Deep South where the growing demand for cotton resulted in many plantations. Similarities to the experience of seventeenth century slaves were the consistent agrarian nature of slavery— it still involved significant manual labor.
In addition, the slaves lived roughly the same way, with as much (or as little) food and sleep required to keep them productive. Although it was less apparent in the seventeenth century, the black race was always viewed as subordinate. The force that caused significant differences was the increased scale of nineteenth century slavery. It is truly the difference between a society with slaves and a slave society. The Deep South was dependent on the cotton industry. Slaves of the nineteenth century faced grueling conditions, as described in Frederick Douglass’s autobiography. It can be assumed the mortality rate was higher.
The nuclear family of Deep South slaves was often broken apart. The marriage vow of slaves was “until death or distance do you part. ” It was profitable to sell slaves down the river, and many slaves like Sojourner Truth watched all of their family sold away. Compared to the mixed ethnicities of slaves in the seventeenth century, by the nineteenth century American slaves formed an identity as a separate ethnic group. Most spoke English, and syncretic slave languages like Geechee and Gullah were formed. In addition, ‘spirituals’ (slave songs) helped the slaves survive harsh work.
Deep South slaves also faced more punishment, to keep them mentally enslaved as well as physically. Overall, despite the same general structure, slavery in nineteenth century Deep South was much harsher than tobacco slavery in the Chesapeake. In addition, the resulting identities formed by slaves defined the culture and effected their lifestyles. In conclusion, many forces culminated to transform slavery from an economic to a social and racial institution. The resulting outcome was a huge and lucrative industry. This changed how slaves lived, transitioning from less-harsh work to grueling labor, as well as forming a cultural identity.
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