History & Injustice
Reflections on Slavery, Servitude and Reparations
This past week, national discourse again focused on the idea of reparations for historic injustice, specifically in relation to reparations for the descendants of slaves. The brutality of servitude, both indentured and forced, is not quantifiable, and slavery was abolished in the USA with the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. The effort in 2021 to place a value on historic human bondage is a hotly contested idea.
Although Congress issued a formal apology for slavery in 2008, HR 40 is a bill that has experienced numerous fits and starts, and as of January 2021 is back on the table. This bill establishes the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans and examine slavery and discrimination in the colonies and the United States from 1619 to the present. The objectives of the committee are to identify “(1) the role of the federal and state governments in supporting the institution of slavery, (2) forms of discrimination in the public and private sectors against freed slaves and their descendants, and (3) lingering negative effects of slavery on living African Americans and society.” Congress will suggest remedies, and what these will look like is yet to be determined.
Frederick Douglass said, “Knowledge makes a man unfit to be a slave.” A brief history of servitude, both enslaved bondage and indentured, is an important starting point for reflection on this issue.
From the fifteenth century to the abolition movements in the Americas of the nineteenth century, between 10 and 13 million Africans were forcibly trafficked to the Americas. An estimated 22 million Africans from across the continent were captured during this period.
A famous account of captivity and the Mid-Passage to the Americas is the autobiography of Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African (1789). From Benin (Guinea) and the district of Eboe (Nigeria), Equiano and his sister were captured by a neighboring tribe and sold to European traders. His story reveals a brutal journey from slavery to freedom and situates his conversion to Christianity at the center of his narrative. Equiano became an abolitionist, and his narrative an important abolitionist pamphlet of the late eighteenth century.
Britain and Portugal accounted for approximately 70% of all Africans trafficked to the New World, and Britian dominated the trade from 1640 to 1807. The Europeans divided the geography of the African coast into regions: Upper Guinea Coast: Ivory (or Windward) Coast, Central Liberia; Lower Guinea Coast: the Gold Coast on the west (Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana); the Slave Coast (Togo, Benin, western Nigeria), the Bight of Benin (Nigeria and Cameroon) Gabon Angola.
Brazil received 38% of the imported African population. The French and British Caribbean and Spanish colonies approximately 50% and the Dutch and Swedish colonies 6%. The British colonies, later the United States, received between 4 and 6% between 1619 and 1808.
80% of slaves came to the Americas between 1451 and 1810. A common misunderstanding is that cotton drove the demand in the British colonies and later the USA, but cotton was a nineteenth-century commodity and a product of the United States South. Sugar was the slave-dependent crop of the colonial era.
In the sixteenth century, the Spanish crown contracted out the trade from Africa with primarily Dutch and Portuguese traders with the asiento. The Asiento de Negros was a contract between the Spanish crown and merchants to provide slaves to the Spanish colonies in the Americas. Other nations engaged in the lucrative trade, but control of the trade remained in Spanish hands (with a brief period of Dutch control) until 1713 when the British received control of the asiento with the Treaty of Utrecht. Parliament gave the South Sea Company control of the trade, and the three most important ports were London, Bristol and Liverpool.
By virtue of the 1799 Slave Trade Act, trade was restricted to these three ports until the Slave Trade Act of 1807 banned the trade of slaves in the British Empire. With demand from the British colonies, Parliament granted charters to numerous trading companies. Illegal trading, monopolies and competition were common and numerous industries, especially shipping and insurance, grew in tandem with the trade.
Approximately 5% of slaves came to British North America where tobacco, rice and indigo demanded labor. The small percentage was due primarily to the absence of labor-intensive sugar production. Massachusetts was the first colony to legalize slavery, Rhode Island the first to abolish slavery and Pennsylvania the first to mount a religious protest against it with the Germantown Protest of 1688. The famous Boston theologian Cotton Mather included in his Rules for the Society of the Negroes (1693) the explanation that "Negroes were enslaved because they had sinned against God.”
In colonial British North America, slavery existed in all thirteen colonies with South Carolina (the Carolinas until 1712) having a black majority in the colonial period. By 1720 southern colonies had rates higher in comparison to the total population and approximately 40% of the enslaved population lived in the southern colonies. Slaves in the colonies comprised 4% of the population in 1650 and 22% by 1770.
In colonial British North America, Rhode Island was the hub of the slave-rum trade, with 1% of the 5% slaves trafficked to British North America carried on Rhode Island ships. By 1774 and despite it being the first colony to abolish slavery, Rhode Island had more slaves per capita than any other New England colony.
The American Revolution was a turning point and brought an end to the institution in parts of the new United States. The Constitution preserved it with the 3/5ths Clause, amended in 1865 by the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution that abolished slavery in the United States. By 1888 slavery was abolished in the Americas, Cuba and Brazil the last two nations to end the use of slave labor.
“Article one, section two of the Constitution of the United States declared that any person who was not free would be counted as three-fifths of a free individual for the purposes of determining congressional representation.”
The history of servitude in America is important to consider in relation to slavery because forced and free labor coexisted in colonial British North America, especially in the seventeenth century. Indentured servitude in the British colonies lasted from 1607 to 1672 (there are exceptions to this frame) and involved many ethnic and racial groups, namely Irish, Africans and Native Americans who often labored without clearly defined parameters of service. Indentured servants were treated poorly but never legally considered chattel, meaning moveable property, a legal term that signified the human as property under the law by the eighteenth century. Despite this difference, indentured servitude was harsh.
“Servitude in Virginia’s tobacco fields approached closer to slavery than anything known at the time in England,” wrote historian Edmund S. Morgan. “Men served longer, were subjected to more rigorous punishments, [and] were traded about as commodities.”
In contrast to chattel, an indenture was a contract that typically lasted seven years.
In 1643 the Virigina colony’s General Assembly passed a law to address men and women who arrived as servants without clear parameters of servitude.
“WHEREAS divers controversies have risen between masters and servants being brought into the colony without indentures or covenants to testifie their agreements whereby both masters and servants have been often prejudiced, Be it therefore enacted and confirmed for prevention of future controversies of the like nature, that such servants as shall be imported haveing no indentures or convenants either men or women if they be above twenty year old to serve fowre year, if they shall be above twelve and under twenty to serve five years, And if under twelve to serve seaven years.”
Many servants experienced brutal living conditions and died “like cats and dogs” due to overwork and exhaustion. Indentured servants were also treated as property although legally bound by a contract rather than classified as chattel. Women servants who became pregnant were considered lost revenue, and by 1662 the Virginia colony looked to the church to assume responsibility for children of illegitimate unions. Additional years of servitude were added to the indenture of both father and mother of these illicit unions. By 1696 the persistent problem of fornication among servants led the General Assembly to pass “An act for punishment of ffornication and seaverall other sins and offences” that codified punishments for “cursing, profaining God’s holy name, sabbath abuseing, drunkenness, fornication and adultery.” The most potent dictate:
A story indicative of the brutality of colonial indentured servitude is of a servant in the Jamestown settlement who spoke poorly of the leadership. His punishment required he crawl through a line of men who beat him with the butts of their guns, awled his tongue, broke both of his arms and legs then threw him out of the settlement, at the time a fort surrounded by the not-so-friendly Powhatan Confederacy. And, this was a result of drinking a wee bit and running his mouth.
By the 1640s, seven years could be extended to the indenture if the servant ran away or committed a crime. The John Punch Case of 1640 demonstrates the role of law in establishing different treatments based on race. A black servant named John Punch and two Irish servants ran away, and once captured, Punch received servitude for life while the two white men received additional years of servitude for the same crime. This is the first case in colonial British North America where race differentiated the punishment and served as the basis for enslavement. Although the crystallization of the institution of slavery in British North America evolved over the course of the seventeenth century, by the early eighteenth century, the institution was codified as forced labor composed primarily of Africans. In 1705 the passage of “An act concerning Servants and Slaves” led slavery to replace indentured servitude as the source of forced labor in the Virginia colony. The Black Codes of Maryland and Virigina served as legal models for other colonies in the period. Colonial North Carolina, still tied to South Carolina until 1729, had 900 slaves by 1710, and by 1715 the colony had a slave code.
Indentured servitude died out by the late seventeenth century in the British colonies as forced labor differentiated by color emerged the standard. Bacon’s Rebellion (1676) is often considered the turning point in this transformation when discontented servants rebelled against the planter elite. The response was a shift to establishing racial solidarity among former servants and elites and using racial difference as justification for servitude.
“Slavery did not end indentured servitude, in other words; the end of servitude gave rise to slavery.”
This transformation happened slowly over the course of the seventeenth century, and the precarious existence of slavery coexisted with free blacks in colonial Viriginia, many who owned indentured servants and slaves. One of the most famous was Anthony Johnson. Johnson was from Angola and an indentured servant who once free, acquired wealth and land between 1619 and 1670. When he died in 1670, his property was not passed to his children, and despite his son owning a 44 acre farm named Angola, by 1730 the Johnson family vanished from the historical record.
The history of servitude- both forced and indentured- in American history is complicated and dynamic across time. Colonial bondage differed from antebellum bondage, and geography, time, international law and many other factors shape the complicated, layered story in American history. To place a monetary value on the history of slavery, no matter how high or low, will fail to undo the historic injustice and its legacy. Reparations will eventually be determined for those descendants of enslaved people, but the number assigned as value will fail to undo or match the inhumanity of the system.