The American Revolution Reconsidered: Part Twenty-Nine: The Fault Line
Question: As you know, some of the American population of African descent fought for the "American" side, the Revolution, and some fought for the British. The question is: Why the difference? What were the different calculations each camp might have been making? Since America had, by the late eighteenth century, fully committed to exclusive, color-based black enslavement, and the British had not, why wasn't the decision unanimous? Why didn't the entire population, in America, of African descent fight on the British side?
Answer: As I read the history, it seems to me that the difference ran down a fault line of fear or concern about being enslaved because of race; or fear or concern about being enslaved because of class. That is the short answer.
In order to understand what I mean by that "short answer," we have to get a few things straight first.
1. England did not impose the labor regime of exclusive, color-based, black enslavement upon any of the English colonies of the Western Hemisphere.
2. England imposed the labor regime of indentured servitude (some people refer to it as "white slavery") upon its colonies.
3. England had outlawed actual slavery for itself (and any of its dominions) in 1550 (1).
4. What this means is that any English colony, including the settlements on the North American mainland, which used the institution of actual, lifetime slavery was in violation of English common law, though it was unenforced.
5. The reason for the popular view that "England" imposed the labor regime of exclusive, color-based, black enslavement upon its colonies, is that we have overlooked, or have not properly comprehended the intra-hemispheric slave trade, which I shall detail shortly.
6. Another reason that we mistakenly believe that England imposed slavery on its colonies, is the following contradiction: While it is true that England had outlawed actual slavery for itself and its dominions, the slave trade was something different. "England" had, for a time, dominated the African slave trade, taking the baton from the Spanish and Portuguese.
Unlike the French, Spanish, and Portuguese---who made exclusive labor use of Indians and Africans---England had begun its colonial project with a ready supply of surplus English labor. Therefore, their first labor regime was organized around indentured servitude.
The historian Nell Irvin Painter would have us know that "before an eighteenth-century boom in the African slave trade, between one-half and two-thirds of all early white immigrants to the British colonies in the Western Hemisphere came as unfree labor, some 300,000 to 400,000. The eighteenth century created the now familiar equation that converts race to black and black to slave" (2).
Dr. Painter continued: "This shift to the west did not, however, signal an end to white slavery, for Britain was still in play. With its rapidly increasing population, religious and royal wars, Irish ethnic cleansing, and fear of rising crime, Britain excelled among the European imperial powers in shipping its people into bondage in distant lands" (3).
And just so that there is no misunderstanding, let Dr. Painter give you the bottom line, in the strongest possible terms: "Field labor was the role of a white underclass in seventeenth century North America" (4).
I have detailed the horrors of the indentured servitude system elsewhere in this series. So there is no need to repeat them here.
England and the Slave Trade
1672: England chartered the Royal African Company (RAC), which dominated the slave trade for fifty years; and held the monopoly on the trade for ten of those years. This monopoly was bitterly resisted by independent operators (5).
1698: The Royal African Company lost its monopoly privilege over the African slave trade (6).
1731: The RAC gave up the slave trading business to concentrate on dealing in ivory and gold dust (7).
By 1788 two-thirds of all slaves transported by British slave traders, were being sold in foreign colonies. Planters in the English colonies objected to the fact that their competitors---the Spanish, Portuguese, and French---were being provided with slaves by British traders (8).
This activity of the British slave traders---in concentrating on foreign colonies---strikes me as subtle, indirect proof that they knew that the institution of slavery was illegal by English common law. Because these traders were opportunists, they were willing to take a chance and break that law; but they wanted to do so judiciously, selectively, picking their shots, as it were.
So we see that the use of the labor regime of exclusive, color-based black enslavement was something the settlers insisted upon for themselves, out of envy of the Spanish, Portuguese, and French.
I should also mention that New England traders picked up the slack (9).
The Intra-Hemispheric Slave Trade
African slaves were first used in tobacco plantations in the Caribbean (10). And speaking of the Caribbean, the thing to understand is that this region was used for two things: working African slaves to death (slavery in the Caribbean was the harshest of all) and warehousing Africans, to be re-exported wherever needed.
In 1639 the European market for tobacco became so glutted that the price fell off a cliff and West Indian planters took huge losses. On the advice of Dutch merchants, they turned to sugar cultivation (11).
By 1763 sixty-thousand African slaves had been brought into Cuba. Between 1763-1790 about forty-one-thousand more had been brought into Cuba; and between 1791-1825 at least three-hundred-twenty-thousand slaves were brought into Havana alone (12).
Many of the slaves that were brought into Cuba, were re-exported. Indeed, African slaves were constantly being exported from the islands, especially the British islands. In order to try to capture some of the trade with foreign islands, British traders first brought slaves into British islands, and from there, exported them to Cuba, Puerto Rico, and other foreign islands (13).
After a century of sugar cultivation, soil exhaustion set in, which raised the cost of producing sugar. And so, as the prosperity of the West Indies declined, and as the attention of Europe became focused on the North American mainland, more slaves were doubtless exported from the islands to British North America (14).
Coming Full Circle and Wrapping Up
You should know that the "white," English and European indentured servants we spoke of, were slaves because of class. And those of you who have been following this series, should know that all of this is powered by that great motor that was continuing to churn back in England. It is what I have referred to as the overwhelming social force of the agricultural revolution-facilitated, primogeniture-driven relentless grind machine of the enclosure process, which privatized commonly-held lands.
You should also know that the Africans were slaves because of race.
Every individual and family of African descent, would have had a very difficult decision to make in 1776. Which side offered them the best chance for freedom?
The blacks who fought for the British, felt that they had the best chance for freedom under the Union Jack, since the British, in Britain, were, apparently, not holding slaves (there may have been blacks in England that were true servants) on the basis of color.
Even though exclusive, color-based enslavement targeted themselves, those blacks who fought on the side of the American Revolution still might have thought that the rebels' polity offered them the best "eventual" chance for freedom.
The latters' thought process might have gone something like this: England is 'Old Europe,' set in its ways. They are so snooty and class-conscious. They have class-based slavery there, and will probably never change. Okay, they have exclusive, color-based slavery here of our people. But, we have seen one form of slavery disappear. If we hang on, and especially if we show our courage and love for this country, the other kind of slavery---the one which binds us---will surely disappear as well, "real soon."
There are never any easy answers at the time. Exclusive, color-based black enslavement did not end "real soon" after the Revolution, except in geologic time.
And while it is probable that more slaves gained their freedom in their association with the British (more than 14,000 blacks went away with British troops), those slaves who had sought asylum with the British but had not taken up arms were not freed. They remained slaves and were sent to Jamaica or some other British West Indian colony as slaves (15).
Thank you so much for reading. See you next time.
1. Jordan, Winthrop D. White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro 1550-1812. University of North Carolina Press, 1968. 51
2. Painter, Nell Irvin. The History of White People. W.W. Norton & Company, 2010. (paperback). 42
3. ibid, 40
4. ibid, 42
5. Franklin, John Hope & Moss, Jr., Alfred A. From Slavery To Freedom: A History Of Negro Americans. Alfred A. Knopf, 1988. (paperback). 34
9. ibid, 62
10. ibid, 42
13. ibid, 42, 46
14. ibid, 46
15. Horton, James Oliver & Horton, Lois E. Slavery And The Making Of America. Oxford University Press, 2005. 65
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