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American Beginnings: 1492-1690
Topic: ContactTopic: ExplorationTopic: SettlementTopic: PermanenceTopic: Power
Topic: Power
Toolbox Overview: American Beginnings: 1492-1690
Resource Menu: Power
Text 1. Imperial Rivalry I: Spain and England in the Caribbean
Text 2. Imperial Rivalry II: Spain and France in Tejas (Texas)
Text 3. Imperial Rivalry III: England and France in the Northeast
Text 4. Colonial Rule
Text 5. Colonial Rebellion (English Colonies)
Text 6. Indian Relations
Text 7. Indian Wars
Text 8. Africans I: English Colonies
Text 9. Africans II: Spanish and French Colonies

Reading Guide
Virginia tobacco plantation
Virginia tobacco plantation
Africans I: English Colonies
- Barbados: Slave-master relationships, 1657 (PDF)
- Barbados: Slave conspiracy of 1692 (PDF)
- Pennsylvania: Anti-slavery petition, 1688
- Virginia: Servants and slaves in Virginia, 1705 (PDF)

The power relationships we consider here are categorically different from others in this section. Africans did not come to North America on their own initiative to pursue their own goals. Their status from the outset was subordinate at best, enslaved at worst. There was no peer-to-peer negotiation or warfare as occurred between Europeans and Native Americans and among European rivals in the hemisphere. No traditions or laws were transported from the mother country to be respected or re-interpreted by colonial authorities, as was true in varying degrees for European settlers. Any power Africans would gain in North America would derive from their response to utter powerlessness.

In this section we will focus on enslaved Africans in the English colonies, where the number of slaves varied widely by region. In 1700, 78% of the inhabitants in the English West Indies were slaves, compared to 13% in Virginia and 2% in New England.* The correlation of percentage with the power struggle in each region is apparent in these readings.
  • BARBADOS: SLAVES & MASTERS. In 1627 the first Englishmen landed on the uninhabited Caribbean island of Barbados. Twenty years later Richard Ligon arrived on the island, purchased half of a sugar plantation with colleagues, and remained for three years, writing A True & Exact History after his return to England. In separate sections he describes the masters, servants, and slaves of the island (and the few Indians, usually brought as slaves from other islands). In addition to his interpretations of the physical and cultural characteristics of the "Negroes," he offers personal experiences to illustrate the master-slave relationships that had evolved on Barbados.
    [Richard Ligon, The True & Exact History of the Island of Barbadoes, 1657]

  • BARBADOS: SLAVE CONSPIRACY. By 1685 there were four times as many Africans as Europeans on the island of Barbados, and the white masters understood the power-in-numbers of their enslaved Africans. Fear of slave rebellion took hold of the masters, who stayed vigilant for rumors of rebellion and who rewarded slaves who revealed conspiracies or refused to join the uprisings (as described by Ligon in True & Exact History). Three slave rebellions were planned in the 1600s; one in 1649 was quickly suppressed and a second in 1675 was discovered before its implementation. In 1692 the third planned rebellion was discovered hours before the scheduled uprising. In this brief broadside published in London three months later, the "barbarous and bloody plot" is described as well as the conspirators' plans for "a Governour and Government of their own" and the brutal punishments devised to deter future rebellion.
    [A Brief, but most True Relation of the late Barbarous and Bloody Plot of the Negro's in the Island of Barbados on Friday the 21. of October, 1692, broadside, 1693]

  • PENNSYLVANIA: ANTI-SLAVERY PETITION. The prospect of slave rebellion appears again in this petition, but this time as a challenge to one's conscience: "Have these poor negroes not as much right to fight for their freedom as you have to keep them slaves?" Written in 1688 by four German colonists in Pennsylvania (including Mennonites and Quakers), the petition was distributed to several congregations but did not incite a larger anti-slavery campaign at the time, when even William Penn and other Pennsylvania Quakers owned slaves. (In 1700 ten percent of Philadelphia residents owned slaves, primarily to work in urban manufactures.) Quaker opposition to slavery would appear later, in the 1700s, when a core argument of this petition was resurrected: "Is there any that would be done or handled at this manner? viz., to be sold or made a slave for all the time of his life?"
    [Petition in opposition to slavery by four men of Germantown, Pennsylvania, 18 February 1688]

  • VIRGINIA SERVANTS AND SLAVES. The marked transition in the Chesapeake colonies from servant to slave labor occurred in these last years of the seventeenth century. Virginia's slave population grew from 150 in 1640, to nearly 3,000 in 1680, and by 1700 to 13,000—one sixth of the colony's population. The transition occurred primarily for two reasons: (1) the supply of indentured servants dropped as England offered more economic opportunities for its poor; and (2) the wealthy planters feared the power of the lower classes in their midst, namely the white backwoods farmers, the white indentured servants, and the black servants and slaves. White-black coalitions were an ever-present threat to the planters—Bacon's Rebellion of 1676 had made that clear (see #5: Colonial Rebellion). As the slave population increased, so did the legal controls on slaves' behavior and power, culminating in the extensive law of 1705. Also appearing in 1705 was a justification of servitude and slavery written by a Virginia planter to rebut criticism from England. "Because I have heard how strangely cruel, and severe [slavery and servitude are] presented in some parts of England," writes Robert Beverley, "I can't forbear affirming that the work of their servants and slaves is no other than what every common Freeman does." Explaining the 1705 law, Beverley cites clauses that buttress his argument and judiciously omits others, which you can identify in the excerpts included here and in the full text of the statute (see Supplemental Links).
    [Robert Beverley, Jr., "Of the Slaves and Servants in Virginia," in The History and Present State of Virginia, 1705; and An Act concerning Servants and Slaves, Virginia, 1705]
Keep in mind that these power relationships between white and black people did not exist in a vacuum, unaffected by other power struggles in colonial North America. (11 pages.)

Discussion questions
  1. What master-slave relationships had evolved in the English colonies by 1700?
  2. How were these relationships affected by (a) planter-planter relations, (b) servant-slave relations, (c) slave-slave relations?
  3. For the planter-planter relations, how did class affect the power balances among white men? (See also POWER: Colonial Rebellion/Bacon's Rebellion.)
  4. For the servant-slave relations, how did race affect the power balances among servants (white and black) and slaves? (See also PERMANENCE: Servitude.)
  5. For slave-slave relations, how did ethnic identity affect the power balances among slaves, and the slaves with their masters?
  6. How did religion—of the master and of the slave—factor into the power relationships?
  7. What is the correlation of these factors to the power enslaved Africans could wield: (1) their numbers, (2) the presence of indentured servants, (3) the geographic region of the colony, (4) their masters' fear of their potential power?
  8. What aspects of the master-slave relationship are most condemned in the Germantown Mennonite petition? How do they formulate their argument to persuade slaveowners?
  9. Compare the 1688 petition with other anti-slavery documents in this Toolbox, e.g., EXPLORATION: Slave Trade, 1587; SETTLEMENT: Enslaved Peoples, 1561; and POWER: Africans II, 1629.
  10. Compare the slave rebellions in Barbados with the planned uprising in Mexico in 1537 (SETTLEMENT: Enslaved Peoples) and the servant/slave uprising in Virginia in 1640 (PERMANENCE: Servitude).
  11. Compare Ligon's descriptions of Barbadian slave owners in this section and in PERMANENCE: Prosperity, Sugar Works (both selections from his 1657 history of Barbados).
  12. Based on these readings, what changes in the master-slave power relationships would you expect in the 1700s as the institution of slavery became central to the economies and political structures of the Chesapeake and southern colonies?

Topic Framing Questions
  •  What power relationships had been forged among the peoples of North America by 1690?
  •  How did the European rivalries of the 1690s in North America set the stage for the later imperial conflicts of the 1700s?
  •  What did "North America" signify to Europe in 1690? to the inhabitants of North America?

Barbados—Slave-master relationships:  4
Barbados—Slave rebellion:  1
Pennsylvania—Anti-slavery petition:  2
Virginia—Slavery and servitude:  4
11 pages
Supplemental Sites
Slavery in Barbados, from Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Encyclopedia (Perseus, 1999)

Thones Kunders House, Philadelphia, site of signing the 1688 petition, from Independence Hall Assn.

1705 Virginia law on servants and slaves, full text from Sturm College of Law, University of Denver

*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.

Anti-slavery petition: The Avalon Project, Yale University School of Law
Others: National Humanities Center

Image: Engraving in F. W. Fairholt, Tobacco, its history and associations: including an account of the plant and its manufacture; with its modes of use in all ages and countries, 1821, detail. Courtesy of the University of Virginia Library in the online collection, The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record, ID mariners01; from The Mariners' Museum, Newport News, Virginia, #1975.0023.000002.

*Alan S. Taylor, American Colonies: The Settling of North America (New York: Viking/Penguin, 2001), 169.

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