The History and Development of Slavery.
The development of slavery in the Americas began in 1495 when the Indian natives on the island of Hispaniola, or Haiti, rose against their Spanish oppressors. According to the early historian Antonio de Herrera, hundreds of thousands of native Indians marched on the small settlement of Isabella, where Christopher Columbus had arrived a few months before with three ships (caravels) after an extended voyage of discovery to the West Indies.
Columbus was the man in charge of those regions. Ferdinand and Isabella were conscientious monarchs who had instructed him to “honor much” the Indians and to “treat them well and lovingly.” But the discovers desperately needed gold. The Indians were unused to manual labor of any sort, and after being forced to work fourteen long hours a day, day after day, many began to get sick, others tried to run away, and many others just gave up working. As a result of the mistreatment, the Indians revolted violently against those who held them captive. Columbus marched out against them, leading a force of two hundred infantry and twenty horsemen. Many natives were killed, and the survivors once again were put to work even longer hours thereafter. Many of them died within a few days, totally unable to withstand captivity.
Moved by the destruction of the Native Indians, Father Bartolome de Las Casas, later Bishop of Chiapa in Mexico and known as the Apostle to the Indians, returned to Spain, determined to save the few survivors. In 1517 he met with Charles V, who had succeeded Ferdinand and Isabella. At this meeting Father Las Casas implored the King to spare the last of the Indians. Realizing that there must be labor to work the plantations and the mines, Las Casas presented the new king what he thought was an excellent solution. Considering that already a considerable number of Black slaves had been brought to Haiti, they seemed happy and were hard workers, Las Casas, as an act of mercy toward the Indians, begged His Majesty to import other Blacks, at least twelve for each colonist.
Others made the same plea to Charles V, though not always with the same humanitarian motives. The King was moved to pity, and there was also the highly practical consideration that the Indians were worthless as slaves and the Blacks extremely useful.
Charles granted one of his favorite courtisans a patent which entitled him to ship four thousand Blacks to the West Indian colonies. This event was the beginning of the famous Asiento, an import license which carried with it the privilege of controlling the slave traffic to the Spanish settlements in the New World.
With the king’s consent to set free the Indian natives and to replace their labor duties (obligations) with Black slaves, the development of a new power struggle between the New World and the Old World originated almost immediately. And with it slavery—the American way—developed.
As indicated by Herbert S. Klein in his book
Slavery in the Americas, “
Although England and Spain may have had different motives for undertaking imperial expansion, may have been operating in different historical epochs and dealing with unique national characters, they nevertheless faced the identical problem of establishing their control over frontier colonies thousands of miles from the metropolitan authority. In this attempt at impressing their wills greatest difficulties, not primarily from physical distance but from the opposition of their own colonial subjects, who sought as much independence from imperial direction as they could achieve. These colonists, indeed, wanted freedom from the so called “metropolitan power in all but name.” Slavery: The American Way, was the result of the struggle inherent in both England’s and Spain’s colonizing efforts, a contest which developed to determine where the true power was to be located—in the New World or in the Old, in the imperial monarchy ant its institutions, or in colonial leadership and its own organs of power.
As the power struggle and strong desire for independence continued to increase at a rapid rate, the Americans colonies were bent on achieving an initiative that they had never possessed in Europe, that they had come to America to achieve. For example, through the outcome of the struggle, given an equal drive of both the Caribbean and North America, “Southerners,” colonies for autonomy, would be determined by policies undertaken, whether active or passive, by the Metropolitan Authority in the early years of conquest and colonization.
For the institution of Black slavery, the importance of this conflict was paramount, since it would determine whether the local or metropolitan institutions would create and administer the legal codes concerning the Blacks in the Americas. This, in turn, would largely determine what forces would exercise a significant influence in the development of the colonial slave regimes for each of these authorities would be affected differently by various external factors.
As the colonial’s leadership grew stronger, local economic needs tended to be the dominant force in defining the legal structure of Black slavery and social attitudes toward the new American ways in the treatment of slaves.
The Slave Trade
With the liberation of the native Indians came the need for a better work force in the colonial Americas. Once the patent was granted by Charles V, the new king of the Spanish empire, the slave trade business developed extremely fast. European slave masters began to profit either by the buying or selling of thousands upon thousands of slaves.
In spite of wars between European states, the slave trade flourished from the beginning and very soon it surpassed Charles V’s original estimate of four thousand a year. Bishop de Las Casas proved to be right—Blacks could survive under conditions impossible for the Indians and would work hard under the overseer’s lash.
Antonio de Herrera wrote in 1601, “These Negroes prospered so much in the colony that it was the opinion that unless a Negro should happen to be hung he would never die, for as yet none have been known to perish from infirmity.” Herrera also noted that the work of one Afro-American Black was equal to that of four Indians.
As early as 1540, ten thousand Blacks a year were being imported to the Caribbean colonies. By the end of the century some nine hundred thousand slaves—by one estimate—had been shipped to the West Indies alone, not counting those sent to Mexico and South America.
Oliver Ransford, in his book
The Slave Trade
discussed the phenomenon of slavery the American way. He indicated that the number of Africans torn from their homes and forcibly transported to America during the course of the Atlantic slave trade will never be known. Conservative estimates suggest that the figure lies somewhere between fourteen and twenty million. But even this was by no means the entire toll of the trade.
The Atlantic slave trade sponsored the four and a half centuries which followed the first real contact of white men with Afro-American Blacks in their own environment. It closed only a long lifetime ago, for the last Black cargo ship landed in Cuba as recently as 1880 and the slaves of Brazil were not emancipated until 1888.
The Atlantic slave trade introduced vast numbers of African Blacks in the Americas, and most of them came from Africa, especially Guinea which lay conveniently close. In the new world the Blacks worked very hard. They cut down forests, tilled the land, cultivated crops of sugar, cotton and tobacco, and helped to create a continent’s wealth. Thanks to their labors, great fortunes were founded in Europe as well as in the Americas, fortunes which played an important part in financing the Industrial Revolution in England and nevertheless, Spain, and so molded the form of the world in which we live today.
The physical conditions under which the Afro-American Black slaves worked and suffered varied according to their destinations and/or rules and regulations imposed upon them by their white masters. The ruthless way the white masters treated their Black slaves can be a good example of slavery, the American way.
The White Master and the Slave Revolt
What was a slave revolt? Was the white master responsible for the slaves’ violent behavior? Although there can be many reasons given to answer these questions, without a doubt, a struggle for freedom was probably the main cause for it to have occurred.
As indicated by Eugene I. Genovese in his book
From Rebellion to Revolution
, Chapter One: Slave Revolts in Hemisphere Perspective, “the revolts of Black slaves in the modern world had a special character and historical significance for they occurred within a worldwide capitalist mode of production.”
The slave system of the New World arose from a conjunctive of international and regional developments, themselves generated primarily by the exigenues of the world market. But, some systems, most notably the Iberians, had roots in serqneural metropolises, whereas others, most notably the English, had roots in the world’s most advanced bourgeois metropolis.
The English colonies of North America generated the slave system in which the white master-slave relationship most profoundly affected regional history, for there the slave holders most closely approximated a class-for-itself with considerable political power and autonomous aspirations.
The English colonies in the Latin countries, especially in the Caribbean, in contrast, generated a slave system most thoroughly borugeous and subservient to world capitalism. Whatever else may be said of the revolts, everywhere they formed part of the political opposition to European capitalism’s bloody conquest of the world and the attendant subjugation of the colored peopled.
By the end of the eighteenth century, the historical content of the slave revolts shifted decisively from attempts to secure freedom from slavery to attempts to overthrow slavery as a social system. The revolts in the United States, or in any other country, must be viewed as a world context. For example, many revolts began as more or less spontaneous acts of desperation against extreme severity, hunger, sudden withdrawal of privileges, or other local or immediate conditions. These sometimes, but not often, passed into warfare against particular injustices, even as defined by the customary arrangements of slavery. Other revolts, as well as guerrilla wars waged by the so called “Maroons” (i.e., groups of runaway slaves) aimed at withdrawing from slave society in an attempt to resurrect an Archaic social order often perceived as traditionally African, but invariably a distinct Afro-American creation.
The white master (slave holders) of the Americas faced military challenge not only from slaves in open revolt but also from those who fled the plantations, grouped themselves in runaway communities, and waged guerrilla warfare. The Maroons (Cimarrones, Maroons, Quilombolo) plagued every slave society on which mountains, swamps or other terrain provided a hinterland into which slaves could flee—some Maroon communities became powerful enough to force the European powers into formal peace treaties designed to pacify the interior while recognizing the freedom and autonomy of the rebels.
In the Caribbean, for example, as the “Maroons” committees continued to increase, the white slave masters (Creoles) were given legal codes which provided them with full-scale recognition to the right of self-purchase, or coartacion. In a very short time the new legislation was spread all over the Americas colonies. The new system gave the white master a full-scale recognition of the slave’s right to personal property and to the making of contracts. Slaves were declared chattel without any rights to property or personal protection. Severe punishments were given for running away, and the white masters had the right to chastise slaves at their discretion and to the degree that they wished. Slaves could not make contracts and were excluded from even the minimal rights granted to children and other dependents.
As indicated by Herbert S. Klein, in his book
African Slavery in Latin America and the Caribbean
(Chapter 9: Slave Resistance and Rebellion): “Even rights to sacraments were qualified.” Slaves could not marry without the consent of their white masters and though required to be baptized, were not granted any specific time for religious education and worship.
In only one aspect was the code at all positive toward slave rights, and this was in terms of Manumission. Although no provisions were initially made for self-purchase, any slave who was freed by a white master was given full legal rights to citizenship. This aspect of the code was in fact quite advanced for its time and would cause an endless amount of conflict between whites and free colored in the 18th Century, especially in French America (Haiti).
The fast development of bitter racial conflicts led to constant attempts by local white masters to restrict the freedom of slaves, which even led to short-term prohibitions of Manumission and denial of legal equality to those already liberated. As a result, more slaves runaway committees continued to grow stronger by the day. Many were destroyed as the plantations expanded into the inaccessible frontiers and ended their previous isolation. But these attacks could always be justified by the arrival of the latest runaways, many of whom were often not returned to their masters despite the treaty arrangements.
In all cases, slave revolts were the revolts of desperate men and women who could no longer suffer the abuses of slavery—the American way; and from the 16th century onward, there were slave rebellions in every slave society in America.
The Slave Culture and its Impact to American Literature
The slave impact on American Literature has been and continues to be so strong that it is almost impossible for anyone to describe it without conducting a major research study on the subject. However, in the real sense, one cannot discuss issues about American Literature without making some sort of comparative study of its influence on the African Slave Culture. Evidently, it would be almost impossible for the American writers of literature to try to develop their work without it being influenced by the culture of the African Blacks.
As indicated in our previous topics, with the development of the slave trade on the American Continent came an impact of African Culture on literature. In Latin America, for example, the African Slave Culture became the roots for the flourishing of the American Culture. Writers of American Literature, include such authors as Alejo Carpentier, Gabriel Garcia Marquéz, Palés Matos, Fernando Ort’z, Nicolás Guillen, and many others too numerous to mention. The slave trade gave a new sense of culture development for the Latin American writers to bring about the heritage and well as traditions of the African Black culture.
A good book, where one can study not all but some of the previously mentioned writers’ works, was printed in 1976 by the University of New Mexico Press. This book entitled:
The Black Image in Latin American Literature
, by Richard L. Jackson, is a compilation of Latin American writers and their work. Here are a few of the long list of topics that can be studied in this book:
Literary Portraits and Ethnic Descriptions
. This novel, that first appeared in 1839, with part two not published until 1882, became a classic on nineteenth century Cuban customs. It takes an equally paradoxical position toward Blacks.
Black Writers in Latin America
War of Time,
is a collection of stories where tracing the Black slave culture can easily be followed throughout the book, especially in the short story entitled “The Fugitives.” This story deals with a runaway slave closely followed by the White Master’s dogs as the slave struggles to be free.
False Black Poetry
by Fernando Ort’z researches into Black life and culture were preliminary to the Afro-Cuban movement where poets, using in part their findings, gave birth to poetic Negrism, a form of poetry characterized by African sounding words, rhythms, language etc. (See Bibliography for further reference to these books).
, which was also printed by the University of New Mexico Press in 1979, Richard L. Jackson gives another narrative study of some, but not all, of the most valuable writer’s of Afro-American Literature. In this book one can study topics such as the early development of Black Literature (1821-1921), major periods of Black Literature (1922-1949) and contemporary authors (1950-present). This is a narrative of the American writers and their work about Black Literature. (See Bibliography for more information on this book.)
Borges Milongas’: The Chords of Argentine Verbal Art
, written by Ana Cara-Walker, is another of the many examples of the Black culture impact on American Literature. Here the author raises a series of argumentative issues about Jorge Luis Borges’ claim that “the Milonga is one of the greatest conversational forms in Buenos Aires.”
All Jorges Luis Borges’ views about the Milonga issues are supported in his book on Milongas entitled
Para Seis Cuerdas
(For Six Strings). Borges’ poetry enlightened not only the author’s knowledge of slave culture but also served as topics of conversation in Argentina.
Without getting into too many details, I would like to elaborate, briefly, some important thoughts about the term “Milonga.” As indicated by Cara-Walker, African origin of the name “Milonga” comes from one of the Bantu languages. It is the plural form of Mulonga, meaning “word or “wordiness” and suggests, by extension, verbal entanglement and intricacy. (See Footnote 18 for source of reference on Borges, the poet.)
It would be extremely exhausting to mention all the literature that is available about the impact caused by the culture of the African Black slave at the beginning and after the development of Slavery: The American Way. But, in my opinion, the materials presented in this curriculum unit are more than enough evidence of its existence.