Jan.-March 2017
Vol. 11, No. 1
Richmond, Ky.

Random thoughts on slavery …
It began in colonies in 1592, but many
were native Americans, plus Irish

Bugle Staff Writer

We Americans like simple, short solutions to complex problems. The tendency to oversimplify has become a national idiosyncrasy. Such is the case with the complex institution which we refer to as slavery. Few subjects are as complicated as slavery, yet we still insist on simple explanations when discussing it.

Today most people consider slavery barbaric, but this was not always the case. In the ancient world, before slavery existed, if the army of town A defeated the army of town B, it was customary for town A’s army to enter town B and slaughter all inhabitants, men, women and children. Eventually, a new “humanitarian” idea altered this tactic, and slavery was introduced. Yes, it then was considered a humanitarian alternative to obligatory massacres.

So when were the first African slaves brought to the 13 colonies? We have long been taught that a Dutch ship brought slaves to Virginia in 1619, and that is true. However, the first instance of African slaves being brought to the English colonies was in 1592 by the Spanish. Approximately 100 African slaves served 500 Spaniards in what is now southern Georgia. This colony was eventually destroyed by native Americans and the slaves intermarried with the indigenous population.

One common supposition is that all slaves were Africans. This is not the case. Native Americans were frequently utilized as slaves and so were the Irish. The British considered the Irish to be lower life forms and this idea carried to the British colonies. Some Irish were indeed slaves and their children were even sold and taken to far away destinations. And then there were the Irish who came as indentured servants. The normal period to fulfill their obligation was seven years, but some were indentured for 99 years.

Indeed, one of the first slave owners in Virginia was a former indentured servant. Anthony Johnson had gained his freedom and succeeded as a businessman. He bought some land and purchased five slaves to work it. One of these slaves was an African who had been taken from Africa by Muslims, then sold in Virginia. While the African slave in question requested and was granted his freedom after seven years, the courts ruled that he was indeed a slave and not an indentured servant. The other four continued to toil for Anthony Johnson, a Black man.

This phenomenon became more common as the United States matured. Free Black men owned slaves especially in Virginia and Louisiana. These still represented a small percentage of the slave owners. When the Civil War began in 1861, free Blacks in Louisiana formed two regiments and offered their services to the Confederacy. This offer was refused and they eventually ended up fighting for the Union.

The subject is not a simple one, despite the simplistic manner in which it is too frequently taught. Slavery comes in hundreds of forms. Were there masters like Simon Legree in Uncle Tom's Cabin? Absolutely, there is little question that many such men did exist. But there is an equally extreme version of the institution on the side of empathy.

Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, has been much reviled since the war. However, his system of punishing slaves was remarkably liberal, if such a word can be used. If a slave at Brierfield broke the rules, a council of fellow slaves would determine the appropriate punishment. The master, President Davis, only reserved the right to lessen the severity of the punishment. This policy had been learned from the Owenites in New Harmony, Ind.

This article is not intended in any way to be an apology for slavery. My purpose is simply to broaden the scope of points on discussion of the subject. Without any question, the Western World considers slavery to be barbaric, yet it is still practiced in many areas of the world today.

Articles and photos appearing on www.thekentuckycivilwarbugle.com may be used with permission. For permission, contact Bugle editor Ed Ford at fordpr@mis.net.

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