Imagine the infrastructure that had to have been in place in 18th century colonial America before the American Revolution. Take just one ship arriving in one port city in Virginia, like York or Bermuda Hundred, both on the James River, with a cargo of nearly 500 African slaves.
People would have been herded off the ship and placed into a holding pen of sorts to wait for up to two weeks or more as they are advertised like stock, which in fact they are considered, in newsprint and by word of mouth. Before they were led out onto an auction block to be sold individually or in small groups they would have been examined intimately, as they had been on the ship, to confirm their health. A few behind the scene deals would be made, of course. Not every slave would need to stand on the block before being transported to his or her place of servitude.
That’s one ship, one port and one delivery of slaves. But there were many ports in colonial America and many ships delivering their human cargo before loading their holes with colonial-made goods, like tobacco and molasses.
So imagine the growth in and the scale of operations over time – not one ship at one port with hundreds of slaves on board but multiple ships dropping off thousands of chained people who had homes and identities that were stripped away. Who had cultures millenia old that were dismissed in this new land. Who had languages, arts and religions that were deemed insignificant. Who had skin in wondrous shades of brown which made them seem so “other” that perhaps that otherness made it especially easy for people to dismiss their humanity.
Imagine how a concept of indentured servitude referred to in the early days of colonial life — you could eventually buy your way to freedom — evolved into something much more insidious and institutionalized as black African slavery became the engine for a growing economy. An economic growth that would help fuel the idea of creating an independent United States versus remaining colonies subject to British rule.
Not all were in agreement with slavery and eventually the slave trade from Africa would officially end around 1810 (though it would continue illegally long after). As future generations of slaves were born, not in Africa but in the colonial and then United States, it became de rigeur not to allow them to learn to read or write. To prevent their gathering for worship except under very proscribed conditions. To prevent their free movement by chain, by brand and by paper pass. They were property – perhaps loved or respected by those who owned them – but they were property nonetheless.
Tens of thousands and eventually millions of people would be born into a system that had evolved to maintain a “free” labor force through intimidation, denigration and willful ignorance of horrors against humanity. I say willful ignorance because even people who were kind to their slaves had to be aware of what would happen if their slaves ran afoul of patrols without their papers and so on. The identity of the slaves, their sense of self and of their worth in this world, would be shaped by a cruel system as would be the identities of the people who maintained that system with both wealth and whip. Slavery as an institution, on that scale and by that design, exist no more in this country … but human nature remains the same … the good, the bad, the ugly and all that lies in between.
When I compare 18th century newspaper clippings about slave auctions, slaves being sold as part of estate sales, advertisements for the return of runaway slaves, and so on to slave narratives from the 1930s, nearly two centuries later, it is extremely sad and insightful to see how slavery in this country was nearly successful in keeping a people down and it is only because of visionary and courageous people, of all races, working hard across all of those centuries that I am able to sit here pounding away on my computer. Without fear.
Why revisit this past? In this age of 140-character messages, history is becoming increasingly sanitized. And I guess because I am reading too much in this 21st Century about people looking back with nostalgia about those former times. The patrollers of those centuries, from the 17th into the late 19th centuries, riding through the countryside in various states rounding up brown people without papers were not civil servants – they were a fear mongering horde whose jobs enabled their most base behavior. I don’t care the color of the shirt, red, or the hood, white, all who wore them in those times did so to generate fear. And people are wearing those colors today.
There are far too many people who are fearful today. And that is wrong. That’s my random musing this Sunday. Back to nature photography next week. Maybe.