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history slavery North Atlantic British colonies United States
Observations Regarding Slavery
One of the primary methods of resistance for people of African descent who existed in servitude in the North Atlantic British colonies and in the United States was rebellion. Although far from occurring frequently, armed, violent revolt from chattel slaves helped to shape the history of their descendants in these locations. One of the most notorious of these uprisings was known as the Southampton Insurrection led by Nat Turner in Virginia's Southampton County in August of 1831. The effect of Turner's armed insurrection, and those of others in the Southern United States and in other North Atlantic British colonies can be evidenced in the amended legislature which ultimately influenced the future and perception of both slaves and former slaves for several years to come.
Turner's 1831 rebellion was just the latest in the lengthy list of historical uprisings slaves of African descent faced in the Northern hemisphere. Turner's insurgency was most recently preceded by slave uprisings in Haiti, which were taken note of and feared throughout the continental United States. These rebellions occurred around the time many capitalists (particularly those located in Southern states) deemed slavery an essential component of the U.S. economy's vitality. This decision was largely based upon the sudden, surging popularity for cotton and its heavy reliance upon slave labor for both its cultivation and sale. Subsequently, the high value of slavery due to its economic feasibility played an important role in the response to an American nation virtually dependant upon slavery for pecuniary success in the early to mid 19th century.
In the case of Turner's insurrection, the response from law makers, slave owners, and freed Whites was predictably harsh on a number of fronts, both in a physical, corporal sense as well as in ensuing litigation which would mandate the behavior of both slaves and freedmen of African descent. Turner and his legions (which were thought to number approximately 70 men including both freedmen and slaves) succeeded in killing roughly 60 whites during a period of multiple days. Turner's death toll was the highest of that of slave rebellions in the U.S. At its time, and was naturally terrifying for the capitalist exploiters of the Southern-based slave economy. Consequently, the level of retaliation was more than equal to the level of force and aggression displayed by Turner and his followers, as Virginia militia and three companies of artillery defeated the insurgents within days of their revolt.
One of the immediate effects of this show of force was the fact that the killing of slaves and freedmen of African descent did not end with the cessation of the rebellion and its participants. In fact, the revolt was used as a launching point to further discipline, circumscribe, and ultimately control the behavior of these people. Sources show that government militia was responsible for the murder of far greater amounts of African-Americans (almost twice as much, by some estimates) than those involved in Turner's uprising, and that the Virginia military's example was followed in surrounding areas including parts of North Carolina (Thomas, 1998, p. 10). Even worse was the fact that fear and rumors of similar slave revolts induced a panic for slave owners and whites, who wantonly murdered people of African descent for several weeks after Turner's uprising had been repressed. The overall effect of this revolt, and other such means of violent expression of slave resistance during the chattel slavery period, was that it effectively demonstrated to local and federal authority figures the tenuous nature of this economic practice which was well on its way to becoming immensely important to the fledgling United States.
The response at the federal level to this particular insurrection had both immediate and enduring consequences, some of which persisted for several generations. Known affiliates of Turner during his rebellion were tried for treason, insurrection and conspiracy, and were mostly executed or banished from the state. Turner himself was captured (after successfully evading authorities for nearly three months), tried and executed for his deeds. Yet the ensuing legislation which was passed following what slave owners, economists, and governmental figures perceived to be an extremely realistic threat to the nation's financial hegemony was perhaps even more austere, and certainly more lasting in its ramifications. The Southampton Insurrection served to alienate southern opposition to slavery as well as to estrange efforts from whites to free slaves in that region, simply because of the fear and calamity Turner's efforts engendered among the general populace. Therefore, the primary focus of the laws passed in the ensuing aftermath revolved around circumscribing the education of people of African descent and restricting the paucity of civil liberties such African-Americans did possess.
In particular, the Virginia General Assembly effected legislation that made it unlawful to teach any African-Americans (whether enslaved, free, or mulatto) to read or write, in an effort to limit the efficaciousness of communication between such people. Other states in the southern region of America effected similar laws, so that the illiteracy rate of African-Americans was nearly as ubiquitous as their presence in the South. Despite the efforts of sympathetic law breakers such as Mary Smith Peake and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson to teach people of African descent to read in Southern states, the vast majority of these denizens were illiterate at the conclusion of the Civil War nearly 35 years later. Reconstruction efforts included a fair amount of dedication to the literacy of freedmen in Southern states, although it was not until the turn of the 20th century that the majority of African-Americans in the South could actually read and write.
Other legislation passed by the Virginia General Assembly included laws that disallowed people of African descent from attending church or any other sort of religious gathering without the vigilance of a white, authoritarian minister. This law was particularly consequential, in large measure due to the fact that at the time of its enactment (and for several years afterwards) legislation existed that made it unlawful for more than a small number of African-Americans to gather in any public place (within the continental United States) except church. The Virginia General Assembly's legal inclusion of a white minister at the only place African-Americans could assemble certainly limited their liberties even in church, and goes to underscore both the potency and the enduring legacy of some of the principle effects of slave resistance in the United States and in other North Atlantic British colonies.
There are several reasons to account for the sectarian differences among the issue of slavery that would eventually divide the Northern and Southern states of America, and which would eventually need to be resolved by the Civil War, in which the latter states threatened to leave the union which linked the country. Many of the determining influences which founded those differences were always existent and are inherent in the composition of ecological and economic factors that affect such states, although these differences became more pronounced and virtually irreconcilable in the time following the Colonial war until the conclusion of the Civil War in 1865. The combination of socio-economic factors including natural resources such as land arability and access to waterways, in addition to the constituents who occupied these regions would eventually serve to spur the political differences which would come to outlaw slavery in the North and actively encourage it in the Southern United States.
At the heart of the matter was the ability of both of these respective regions to furnish the means to earn a living in a largely capitalist world. For many of the states in the North, particularly in New England in the areas that formed or would eventually form the states of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut, the economic climate of their surroundings did not mandate or even necessarily support slavery as a means of financial autonomy. Agriculturally, New England and other Northern states such as New York, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, could support the growth of green vegetables, barley, oats, wheat, rye and potatoes, but not in quantities copious enough to supply adequate monetary compensation. Instead, these areas developed and proffered the exportation of fish, whale oil, lumber and grains, most of which were delivered to England in the form of raw materials which the former would utilize for much needed manufactured goods.
By such means was a verifiable industry created in the Northern United States, which was based around a method of refinement and processing which many non-African descendant Americans considered too advanced, and not rudimentary enough for the widely accepted inferiority African-American slaves. Additionally, another means to financial prosperity for Northern states and for New England in particular was ship building, which helped to aid in their involvement in the triangular trade between Northern states, England, and Africa and the West Indies (which contributed slave labor to states in the South). Again, many Northerners believed the ship building process to be too complicated and unsuited for slaves, so that in virtually…[continue]
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