American Slavery in the Seventeenth Century
Toni Morrison locates her novel at a moment of transition in American history, the moment when, to use the historian Ira Berlin's terms, a society with slaves became a slaveholding society. British colonialists had owned African slaves ever since the founding of Jamestown, but in the beginning of the seventeenth century, slavery was just one form of labor among many and slave-owners were few.
No laws yet existed to govern this relationship, and African slavery was not yet a legally defined identity. In the mid-Atlantic region, black slaves were treated similarly to white servants and the two groups forged solidarities across racial lines. Neither group was treated well, but slavery was not yet legally protected as a special category of human exploitation in which masters trumped even courts in determining their slaves' lives. Slaves, like servants and indeed like the owners who labored next to them in their tobacco fields, could expect Sundays, half of Saturdays, and holidays off. Slaves could forego their right to food and shelter from their owners in exchange for time and land to farm for themselves, leading to a small slave economy in the Chesapeake region. Some blacks even earned enough to purchase their freedom. A small but significant number of free blacks lived in the Chesapeake during the mid-seventeenth century, demonstrating to all the permeability of the boundary between slavery and freedom.
As the century wore on, that boundary began to harden. In the 1660s, when the Chesapeake region began growing tobacco for trade across the Atlantic, chattel bondage was legalized and made hereditary. In the 1670s, the slave-owning planter class seized control of the economy and designed it for maximum, brutal efficiency, leading to a society in which the master-slave relationship was paramount. They stepped up their importation of African slaves into the region and slaves almost entirely replaced indentured white servants. Chesapeake legislators cracked down on the slave economy by making it unlawful to trade with a slave, though many ignored the stricture. The routes to manumission were narrowed. In 1691, the Virginia legislature banned marriage between whites and blacks. Slaves' right to travel was drastically curtailed. And on the plantations, masters ruled with unfettered power, unchecked by sheriffs or judges.
As Berlin writes in Many Thousands Gone (the book from which the above facts were taken), "Knowing that a person was a slave does not tell everything about him or her. Put another way, slaveholders severely circumscribed the lives of enslaved people, but they never fully defined them. Slaves were neither extensions of their owners' will nor products of the market's demand. The slaves' historylike all human historywas made not only by what was done to them but also by what they did for themselves." And that's where novelists take over from historians.
This article was originally published in January 2009, and has been updated for the
August 2009 paperback release.
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