Throughout the history of the United States, slavery played a vital role. The term, slavery generally means buying and selling of people as properties and their labors become under exploitative conditions. In other words, slavery is very similar to modern day “trafficking of a person”, but slavery is legal in the early American history. In the United States, the primary reason for the demand of slaves was to use their labors in plantation and agriculture; for example, sugar, tobacco, coffee, cotton, etc. and sold those products back to Europe. In the early 17th century, there were only two sources of slaves: Native Americans and poor white indentured servants from Europe especially from England, Germany, Ireland and Wales. However, there were problems with both kinds of slavery because Native American slaves were able to escape easily because it was their territory, and they knew more about the landscapes than the owners. So, there were only a few numbers of Native American slaves in the colony. For the poor whites, the indenture term was from 3 to 7 years, and after that they would be free men. Due to the rapid expansion of land and development of economics situations with the decline of indentured servitude i.e. they became free, and most of them would not do the same job as they did before, the rich or landowners actively engaged in the slave trade in the late 17th century to own black slaves from Africa. This essay will critically discuss how general people in the early colonial period understood black slaves; the vulnerabilities of African or American born African slaves and why the system was unacceptable even in that period of time.
Basically, African or African-American slaves were segregated due to their color. Higginbotham (1996) pointed out that blackness as “the handmaid and symbol of baseness and evil, a sign of danger and repulsion” (pp. 88). This sentence clearly shows that being black was sinful or they had evil inside and possessed inferior quality. On the other hand, it can be inferred that being whiteness was blessing, angel or superiority. But, how could they change their color because it was their innate nature? There was an option if black people wanted to erase their innate nature of being black as inferiority which was to be Christianized. In his work, Higginbotham mentioned that “his race was a sin for which he could obtain forgiveness only by becoming a Christian and admitting to himself and to society that he was inferior” (1996, pp. 89). However, it was easier to be said than done. In my opinion, admitting as inferiors in public was degrading oneself and breaking down self-esteem. What I think is that it was an intellectual way of depriving humans not physically but psychologically. Moreover, black and white people could not live together or could not have sex. The case of Re Davis and Sweat were the best examples of segregation between black and white people. The critical point in these cases was white men who were engaging a sexual activity with ‘someone less than human’, the act of ‘bestiality’ (Higginbotham, 1996, pp. 90). By sleeping with black women, white people were committing crime by abusing himself, dishonoring God and depriving the whole Christianity. In fact, people in the early colonial period in North America did not see black slaves as human beings, but rather they were less than human, inferior, and had an evil spirit.
The next important concept is that slaves were determined as properties. According to Deyle, slave was a property and one of the most valuable form of investments in the country, second only to land (2005, pp. 5). He also discussed that buying and selling of men, women, and children was a regular activity in everyday life in southern society and made many slave traders rich (2005, pp. 144). The reason why slave trade became very popular in the South was again expansion of agriculture and high demand of tobacco, cotton, coffee, sugar, etc. along with the harvesting of beaver skin and gold mining. However, landowners and slave traders had to keep in mind was that slaves were not properties; being a slave was just their occupation as other jobs such as an industrial worker, a salesperson, etc. Being a slave was because they were poor, and they did not have a right to choose what they would do, or some might be trafficked and sold them to landowners and became slaves. So, they were still humans. They could not be compared with material properties such as house, land, jewelries, etc. because human beings are much more intelligent and highly creative than those objects. One of the shocking examples which can be found in Hortons’ work, ‘Slavery and the Making of America’, was
“Negroes for Sale. The Sale to be opened at 10 O’ clock each day, in Mr. Bourdeaux’s Yard, at No, 48, on the Bay (2005, pp. 1)”.
The sentence was pretty short, but the reason behind was horrible. It was advertising to sell humans as selling things in the market. There was no humanity at all. Therefore, Davis (2006) described slavery as “negation of the human” (pp. 3). In my opinion, it was the act of dehumanizing by a group of people to other people who were only different in color.
Not only slaves were seen as inferiors and properties in the early 17th and 18th century, they had also experienced psychological as well as physical abuses, violations and forced labor by their owners. Since the beginning of the slaves, on the way to go to the South, they were physically abused by the English white men. When slaves were transported, men were usually handcuffed in pairs and tied with the other pairs as a long chain. For women and children, they could either walk or ride in a wagon while white drivers sat on the horseback carrying guns and whips along with them. The trip normally took seven to eight weeks walking twenty to twenty five miles each day (Deyle, 2005, pp. 146). If they disobeyed during the marching time, they would have been whipped; or if they tried to escape, they might be shot by the white men. This was just the beginning of the slavery, and it would be nothing if they compared their life when they were sold and completely became slaves. In his work, Douglass wrote about his childhood experiences in which he expressed what he had seen about the suffering of black people who were tortured by their owners. He wrote about a woman called ‘Ester’ who was whipped thirty to forty times by her master. After she was untied, she could barely stand up (1855, pp 85). This is one of the examples from his work describing how black people were oppressed as a slave. Moreover, he highlighted the life of slaves in Southern plantation such as tobacco, sugar, and cotton industries. Douglass described that some slaves who did not follow what their master said were arbitrarily tortured such as whipped, immersed in the water, and even they were murdered (1855, pp. 116). This is I will say severe and cruel oppression of slaveholders against morality and religion.
By examining the information of black slaves in the 17th and 18th centuries, they were extremely exploited and forced to work against their will. Some of them were totally sold, or some were debt bondage and hereditary slaves. The common view of the slaves was they were inferior, someone who was less than human. Secondly, they were seen as someone’s property, so thus the owner could do whatever they want. Lastly, they were oppressed and tortured because they were assumed as someone’s properties; for example, physical, psychological or verbal abuses by slaveholders. In a worse case, slaves were killed by the owners. However, human beings were highly intelligent; they should not even compare with things and materials. Human beings will never be things because they can think, they can analyze, and criticize what they have heard, known and experienced where things do not have those properties.
In conclusion, the prosperity and the development of the colony were brought by the slaves. Due to their contribution to plantation and agricultural industries, the colonies could make a lot of money by exporting products to European markets. Even the Northern colonies and the Southern colonies were different before the civil war because the Southern States which owned a lot of slaves were the most prosperous states in the region. Although the Southern region was getting rich through slavery, black people were still poor. In fact, they were forced to work, received little or no payment at all with poor healthcare and crowded accommodation. The vulnerabilities of black slaves were a way too much even though they were only different in color with white people. From my standpoint, slavery should not be adopted even in that period of time, 17th and 18th centuries because it was ‘a negation of humans’ due to degrading of human beings by a group of people treated humans like things.