The Brutality of Slavery

Murray N. Rothbard

Until the 1670s, the bulk of forced labor in Virginia was indentured service (largely white, but some Negro); Negro slavery was negligible. In 1683 there were 12,000 indentured servants in Virginia and only 3,000 slaves of a total population of 44,000. Masters generally preferred bondservants for two reasons. First, they could exploit the bondservants more ruthlessly because they did not own them permanently, as they did their slaves; on the other hand, the slaves were completely their owners’ capital and hence the masters were economically compelled to try to preserve the capital value of their human tools of production. Second, the bondservants, looking forward to their freedom, could be more productive laborers than the slaves, who were deprived of all hope for the future.

As the colony grew, the number of bondservants grew also, although as servants were repeatedly set free, their proportion to the population of Virginia declined. Since the service was temporary, a large new supply had to be continually furnished. There were seven sources of bondservice, two voluntary (initially) and five compulsory. The former consisted partly of “redemptioners” who bound themselves for four to seven years, in return for their passage money to America. It is estimated that seventy percent of all immigration in the colonies throughout the colonial era consisted of redemptioners. The other voluntary category consisted of apprentices, children of the English poor, who were bound out until the age of twenty-one. In the compulsory category were: (a) impoverished and orphaned English children shipped to the colonies by the English government; (b) colonists bound to service in lieu of imprisonment for debt (the universal punishment for all nonpayment in that period); (c) colonial criminals who were simply farmed out by the authorities to the mastership of private employers; (d) poor English children or adults kidnapped by professional “crimps”—one of whom boasted of seizing 500 children annually for a dozen years; and (e) British convicts choosing servitude in America for seven to fourteen years in lieu of all prison terms in England. The last were usually petty thieves or political prisoners—and Virginia absorbed a large portion of the transported criminals.

As an example of the grounds for deporting political prisoners into bondage, an English law in force in the mid-1660s banished to the colonies anyone convicted three times of attempting an unlawful meeting—a law aimed mostly at the Quakers. Hundreds of Scottish nationalist rebels, particularly after the Scottish uprising of 1679, were shipped to the colonies as political criminals. An act of 1670 banished to the colonies anyone with knowledge of illegal religious or political activity, who refused to turn informer for the government.

During his term of bondage, the indentured servant received no monetary payment. His hours and conditions of work were set absolutely by the will of his master who punished the servant at his own discretion. Flight from the master’s service was punishable by beating, or by doubling or tripling the term of indenture. The bondservants were frequently beaten, branded, chained to their work, and tortured. The frequent maltreatment of bondservants is so indicated in a corrective Virginia act of 1662: “The barbarous usage of some servants by cruel masters being so much scandal and infamy to the country… that people who would willingly adventure themselves hither, are through fears thereof diverted”—thus diminishing the needed supply of indentured servants.

Many of the oppressed servants were moved to the length of open resistance. The major form of resistance was flight, either individually or in groups; this spurred their employers to search for them by various means, including newspaper advertisements. Work stoppages were also employed as a method of struggle. But more vigorous rebellions also occurred especially in Virginia in 1659, 1661, 1663, and 1681. Rebellions of servants were particularly pressing in the 1660s because of the particularly large number of political prisoners taken in England during that decade. Independent and rebellious by nature, these men had been shipped to the colonies as bondservants. Stringent laws were passed in the 1660s against runaway servants striving to gain their freedom.

In all cases, the servant revolts for freedom were totally crushed and the leaders executed. Demands of the rebelling servants ranged from improved conditions and better food to outright freedom. The leading example was the servant uprising of 1661 in York County, Virginia, led by Isaac Friend and William Clutton. Friend had exhorted the other servants that “he would be the first and lead them and cry as they went along who would be for liberty and freed from bondage and that there would be enough come to them, and they would go through the country and kill those who made any opposition and that they would either be free or die for it.”1 The rebels were treated with surprising leniency by the county court, but this unwonted spirit quickly evaporated with another servant uprising in 1663.

This servant rebellion in York, Middlesex, and Gloucester counties was betrayed by a servant named Birkenhead, who was rewarded for his renegacy by the House of Burgesses with his freedom and 5,000 pounds of tobacco. The rebel leaders, however,—former soldiers under Cromwell—were ruthlessly treated; nine were indicted for high treason and four actually executed. In 1672 a servant plot to gain freedom was uncovered and a Katherine Nugent suffered thirty lashes for complicity. A law was passed forbidding servants from leaving home without special permits and meetings of servants were further repressed.

One of the first servant rebellions occurred in the neighboring Chesapeake tobacco colony of Maryland. In 1644 Edward Robinson and two brothers were convicted for armed rebellion for the purpose of liberating bondservants. Thirteen years later Robert Chessick, a recaptured runaway servant in Maryland, persuaded several servants of various masters to run away to the Swedish settlements on the Delaware River. Chessick and a dozen other servants seized a master’s boat, as well as arms for self-defense in case of attempted capture. But the men were captured and Chessick was given thirty lashes. As a special refinement, one of Chessick’s friends and abettors in the escape, John Beale, was forced to perform the whipping.

In 1663 the bondservants of Richard Preston of Maryland went on strike and refused to work in protest against the lack of meat. The Maryland court sentenced the six disobedient servants to thirty lashes each, with two of the most moderate rebels compelled to perform the whipping. Facing force majeure, all the servants abased themselves and begged forgiveness from their master and from the court, which suspended the sentence on good behavior.

In Virginia a servant rebellion against a master, Captain Sisbey, occurred as early as 1638; the lower Norfolk court ordered the enormous total of one hundred lashes on each rebel. In 1640 six servants of Captain William Pierce tried to escape to the Dutch settlements. The runaways were apprehended and brutally punished, lest this set “a dangerous precedent for the future time.” The prisoners were sentenced to be whipped and branded, to work in shackles, and to have their terms of bondage extended.

By the late seventeenth century the supply of bondservants began to dry up. While the opening of new colonies and wider settlements increased the demand for bondservants, the supply dwindled greatly as the English government finally cracked down on the organized practice of kidnapping and on the shipping of convicts to the colonies. And so the planters turned to the import and purchase of Negro slaves. In Virginia there had been 50 Negroes, the bulk of them slaves, out of a total population of 2,500 in 1630; 950 Negroes out of 27,000 in 1660; and 3,000 Negroes out of 44,000 in 1680—a steadily rising proportion, but still limited to less than seven percent of the population. But in ten years, by 1690, the proportion of Negroes had jumped to over 9,000 out of 53,000, approximately seventeen percent. And by 1700, the number was 16,000 out of a population of 58,000, approximately twenty-eight percent. And of the total labor force—the working population—this undoubtedly reflected a considerably higher proportion of Negroes.


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