Racial Slavery in the Colonial South
by Brian Jaeger
Care of Mister Maegi
The lecturer and Winthrop Jordan do differ as to what the most powerful cause of racial slavery was in America. Doctor Renda, within his lecture, made numerous valid points. I will, however, attempt to prove that the arguments made by Jordan are more convincing. I use the term convincing instead of factual because of the lack of fact, which in turn casts some doubt on either presentation. Renda seemed to argue that slavery was more a result of economic factors than anything else. Jordan argues that racism was the main cause of slavery.
Jordan takes the stance that racial slavery was a result of both economic need and racism. The dominating factor was racism, though. We must first establish the fact that racism existed before racial slavery in America. The English made an attempt at a religious explanation for blackness. Blacks became associated with the story of Noah, whose son, Ham, took a peek at his naked father. Noah cursed Ham's son Canaan and said he Canaan would be "servant of servants," (Winthrop Jordan, The White Man's Burden pg 9). Blackness was considered part of the curse by the English.
Religion played a role in the racism that the English had toward blacks. Blacks and Indians were considered heathen, but for some reason the English made no effort in converting blacks. The English did, however, make a substantial effort in trying to convert Indians. "Given these circumstances, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the distinction which Englishmen made as to conversion was at least in some small measure modeled after the difference they saw in skin color," (Jordan p12). The English saw the blacks' lack of Christianity as proof that they were inferior, and the English did little to enlighten the Africans.
Africans did not live as the English did. Differences existed within blacks "clothing, housing, farming, warfare, language, government, morals, and (not least important) in their table manners," and "As with skin color, English reporting of African customs was partly an exercise in self-inspection by means of comparison," (Jordan p13). Anything different was quickly considered inferior.
The English discovered that the Africans were comparatively libidinous. This sexual prowess was also related to animal behavior as Leo Africanus states:
"the Negroes... leade a beastly kind of life , being utterly destitute of the use of reason, of dexteritie of wit, and of all arts. Yea, they so behave themselves, as if they had continually lived in a Forrest among wild beasts. They have great swarmes of harlots among them; whereupon a man may easily conjecture their manner of living," (Jordan p18).
The English also found that various primates lived quite near to the Africans, causing an unfavorable association. The English did not actually regard the Africans as beasts, yet certainly closer to it than themselves, which was enough to degrade the blacks still more.
Blacks were, in effect, easy targets for the English. Life in Africa seemed almost the opposite of that in Europe. This may have produced much disgust in England, though it also caused a curiosity that had to be quenched.
The lecturer cited economic factors as a major cause of the institution of slavery. The plantations in the South were beginning to require more labor. Indians were not always considered suitable for slavery, but they were taken as slaves. Renda claims that the white indentured servants were too much trouble. These servants began fulfilling their required years of service because of a rise in life expectancy. The landowners were obliged to hand over clothes, tools, and 50 acres of land at the completion of servitude. The landowners were to expect four to five years of service before the servant could leave. Obviously lifetime slaves would be welcomed by the wealthy landowners. Landowners had a constant need for new labor, so new permanent labor would solve a lot.
Bacon's Rebellion may have reminded landowners about exactly who their indentured servants were. The ruling class was alarmed by Bacon's Rebellion because it demonstrated that the servants could unite for a common cause. Within that common cause, as Renda pointed out, there was no class system.
We may be able to conclude that Indians and whites were not good servants, but maybe we should not do so. If this conclusion is reached, with the result being the importation of black slaves, racism is once again apparent, albeit reverse discrimination. Of course the landowners did not want to give away 50 acres, but an option existed. White slavery would not have been altogether unheard of, since "Scottish prisoners taken by Cromwell during the English Civil Wars- captives of a just war!- were never treated as slaves in England or the colonies,"(Jordan p48). This seems to be enough to prove that racism caused racial slavery, rather than simply the need for labor. The English would have used captives from wars had they not identified with these captives more than with the Indians or blacks.
The importance of physical (color) and cultural differences cannot be stressed enough. Had the Africans been white, surely the Indians would have been the slaves in America. Black Christians would have also been more identifiable for the English. Humans like to identify with others, and blacks simply did not provide the English much to identify with.
Racism not only contributed toward slavery. Self identification was vastly affected by the confronting of blacks by whites. Whites began to think of themselves differently. "Throughout the colonies, the terms Christian, free, English, and white were for many years employed indiscriminately as synonyms," (Jordan p53). Whites not only saw blacks as a lower form of humans, they began to see themselves as higher, or better, beings.
We can probably say that racial slavery in the colonies could have been avoided, in that indentured servants, tenant farmers, white slaves, and convicts could have sufficiently cultivated the land. Racism itself, however, would more than likely not have been avoided. This would lead to the conclusion that racism contributed more to the institution of slavery in the South than did slavery contribute to racism. Economic and social factors both contributed to racial slavery in the South, but the social factors seem to be more convincing. Blacks were not considered to be in the same social class as whites, and they were used accordingly.