Slavery in the early eighteenth century was horrible for African Americans. Men were being killed, women were being raped and children were being sold. To avoid the unjust treatment of slavery, slaves did the unthinkable. Some ran away, others killed their masters, and women even killed their own children. What were they trying to accomplish by this? Resistance. In the modern reinterpretation of slavery, considerable attention has been devoted to the subject of slave resistance.
Earlier observers argued that such slave characteristics as clumsiness, slovenliness, listleness, destructiveness, and inability to learn indicated racial inferiority. Recent studies of slavery attribute these observed characteristics to the slaves, defiant determination to resist slaverys worst manifestations and to make the institution as livable as possible. Slaves recognized that they could take day-to-day action on an individual or small group basis, engaging in what historians has termed personal or communal foot dragging.
Such resistance successfully thwarted the masters attempt to gain total control over their lives. The extent and success of this day-to-day resistance depended upon the support of a strong and close-knit slave community. Despite white societys belief that slaves were nothing more than laborers, they were in fact part of an elaborate and well defined social structure that gave them identity and sustained them in their silent protest. In slave quarters, slaves expressed themselves with relative freedom from white interference. Religion provided a similar support.
By attending their own church, whether openly or in secret, slaves fashioned a Christianity that emphasized salvation for all peoples, slaves included, and promised rewards in the afterlife. In church, blacks assumed leadership roles and openly expressed feelings they usually suppress. Masters tried to use religion negatively to teach slaves obedience and duty; slaves used it positively as an affirmation of their self worth and as a promise of future. Their community provided slaves with the chance to be among their own people, to express themselves, to develop their own culture, and to have control over some portions of their own lives.
These opportunities were limited and varied greatly, but the ability to be fathers or mothers, to worship in their own church, to take part in a communal holiday celebration, to use gathered gossip against the master all helped to give bondsmen the strength and will to resist the dehumanizing aspects of their enslavement. Specific forms of slave resistance varied as much as masters and slaves differed in their personalities and situations. The absence of a single slave personality was, in fact, one of the frustrating facts of life for masters.
Just when they thought they knew their slaves, the slaves responded in unexpected ways. How could the same individual be a compliant hard worker one day, a slow moving worker the next, a fugitive the third? Many masters found such unpredictable behavior puzzling and troubling. Slaves tried to work at their own pace, resisting speedups, trying, as much as they could to avoid being overworked. Some of the techniques they used were to feign illness or pregnancy, break or misplace tools, mistreat horses and mules, and fake ignorance so they would not have to learn any sophisticated tasks they wished to avoid.
When the master or overseer was not looking, slaves might hide among the rows of cotton plants and then load their bags with rocks or sand or wet cotton to camouflage their malingering. If an overseer tried to correct them too harshly, they might become clumsy and destroy crops rather than tend to them. Masters and overseers thought this kind of slave activity exasperating, and some masters responded by planting inferior crop strains, purchasing less efficient but more durable tools, and, in general, lowering agricultural expectations.
When such activity failed to ameliorate a condition slaves found oppressive, they might run away. Some proslavery theorists saw this tendency toward flight yet another African mental disease, calling it drapetomania. Unless slaves lived near free terriortory, or near a city where they could mix into an urban free black population, they knew that permanent escape was unlikely. Bondsman were more likely to run off for a few days, perhaps to nearby woods, and risk punishment when they return. Other slaves joined in the pursuit and conspired to feed and hide a fugitive until they could pass word that it was safe to return.
Only rarely, did a large group of slaves attempt a mass escape or try to establish and maintain an extended independent existence. On numerous occasions, however, groups of runaway slaves either attacked white slave patrollers or tried to bribe them. Sometimes slaves could neither effectively slow down their work nor successfully run away. Alternatively, they had specific grievances that caused them to want to strike back at the master especially hard. Then they turned to methods that are more surreptitious.
Throughout the south, many slaveholders watched newly harvested crops go up in smoke or saw a building burn to the ground from unknown causes. This kind of slave resistance was so prevalent, or at least so widely suspected, that as early as 1740 South Carolina passed an arson law. Slaves generally saw nothing wrong in lying to protect themselves or others. Those who could write would also sometimes forge passes or other documents to trick their enslavers. Whether it was verbally or in writing, such deception became an accepted weapon in the arsenal of slave resistance.
When slaves became desperate enough, they openly resisted their masters. Numerous examples illustrate slaves refusing to accept punishment and battling with the white man trying to administer it. Fredrick Douglas, for example, fought with a slave breaker, an individual specializing in reforming rebellious slaves. Douglas found that the white man desisted once he realized that his slave would resist any whipping. This experience exhilarated Douglas. When a slave can not be flogged, he concluded, he is more than half free.
Such slave resistance was rarely successful, however, because most masters refused to tolerate it. Physically or verbally, opposing a white man was dangerous, and running away, disrupted work patterns, and destroying or stealing property could result in similarly harsh punishment if detected. When such resistance was too dangerous, slaves employed more subtle ways to voice their opposition. Slaves masters consistently tried to erase African culture from their slaves memories, insisting repeatedly that slavery had rescued blacks form the barbarism of Africa and introduced them to the superior white civilization.
Some slaves came to believe this propaganda, but the continued influence of Africanisms in the slave community indicated salve resistance to acculturation. Some slaves, for example, answered to English name in the fields but use an African name in the quarters. Sometimes they wore clothes or wore their hair according to remembered and transmitted African styles. The slaves lives were filled with remnants of African culture, and their gravestones, artwork, music, and architecture reflected this influence. It was in music, dance, and storytelling that slaves most expressed their African heritage and passed it along to their children.
They played a wide variety of stringed and percussion musical instruments similar to those used in Africa. Musical tempos were based on African rhythms, and the words expressed a defiance that whites failed to recognize. Dances similarly were African-inspired and expressed an exuberant affirmation of a self-worth and artistic creativity that masters insisted that slaves did not possess. Folktales served the same function. Slaves told stories about clear African origins abut weak humans or animals that, through native cunning, often outsmarted their more powerful adversaries.
Brer rabbit and a slave named Old John were the major folk heroes who entertained and encourage slaves. Listening to these stories, slaves gained a fictional victory denied them in real life. Brer rabbit repeatedly made the seemingly more powerful brer fox and brer bear look foolish. Stories of his activities encouraged the slaves to believe that their own resistance might not always be fruitless. Slaves were constantly told that the master was their white father, and they were his children.
When an overseer proved to be particularly demanding, therefore, the slaves appealed to their father directly, or they planted suspicions about the overseer with him. Sometimes the master fired an overseer because of such slave tattling, or he intervened to soften some discipline. At the very least any suspicion of the master toward the overseer worked to the slaves benefit, weakening the white solidarity against the blacks and making efficient discipline more difficult. When all else failed, slaves still had other means of resistance. Plantations often had conjurers, slaves with supposed supernatural powers.
Particularly aggrieved slaves would appeal to the conjurer for a spell to punish an offending white. Because many whites also feared conjurers, these slaves held unusual power within their community. Their position told the slaves that not all whites were superior to all blacks. The conjurer was the only black person regularly able to frighten the normally dominant masters. Sometimes circumstances became so oppressive that slaves received little satisfaction from their usual means of resistance. Then, in their despaired, they turned on an oppressing white, or, in further despair, turned on themselves.
Slaves sometimes assaulted whites or murdered them, using guns, knives, clubs, and poison. Murder by poisoning was apparently so prevalent that, as early as 1748. Virginia passed a law prohibiting slaves from handling medicines. Slaves also mutilated themselves to avoid work, punishment, or sale. They cut off fingers, hands, toes, or feet, and disfigured other body parts of their bodies to make themselves less valuable slave property. Some slaves committed suicide to escape enslavement. There is even some evidence of parents murdering their children to keep them from having to live lives as chattels.
Some newly captured slaves from Africa believed that death would cause them or their children to return home, a belief that provided additional incentive for suicide and infanticide. The resistance slaves offered to their enslavement were rarely open or violent confrontation. Rather, it was constant, steady pressure. The main goal of resistance was survival to insure the most decent life possible within an intrinsically indecent institution. Slaves rarely were able to overcome the masters ultimate control over them, but they were able to prevent such control from becoming total.