Week 7 – 2/20 Slavery and the American Revolution


24 thoughts on “Week 7 – 2/20 Slavery and the American Revolution

  1. cal72013 February 19, 2013 at 2:58 pm Reply

    In reading Olaudah Equiano’s narrative, I found one passage in chapter five particularly interesting. In it, Equiano tells the stories of a few slaves who are brutally murdered for “[retaining] so much of human nature about them as to wish to put an end to their misery, and retaliate on their tyrants,” (66). In Equiano’s eyes, as a consequence of slavery, slaves maintain their humanity, while masters and slave drivers become “part persons,” (66) or inhuman. Equiano also writes that slave masters come in to the world the same as other men, but that slavery “corrupts the milk of human kindness and turns it into gall,” (70). I found this passage especially interesting considering the title of Davis’s book, Inhuman Bondage. Davis’s claim is that slavery made slaves less than human, while Equiano’s view is the complete opposite, that slavery actually made masters inhuman.

    • Daniel Land February 19, 2013 at 11:57 pm Reply

      I think it might be interesting here to integrate perspectives: rather than the “inhumanity” of slavery attaching itself to the role of either master or slave, it is found in the master-slave relationship itself.

    • Gahbrielle Armrdi February 20, 2013 at 12:19 pm Reply

      I found it interesting that when Equiano went to Turkey, he was treated well. However, the Turks mistreated the Greeks as White’s mistreat blacks in the Americas.

  2. Daniel Land February 19, 2013 at 7:05 pm Reply

    I found Equiano’s narrative fascinating, and was very impressed with such command of English coming from a former slave. Knowing this was a protest against slavery, however, I feel like much of the content was stretched or exaggerated: for example, the emphasis on the cleanliness of his native tribe, the supposed connection between Africans and Abraham, and the many miracles he encountered all seemed catered to his Christian audience. Regardless, it is easy to see how the narrative’s inspiring events would have made a significant impact on readers, whether abolitionist or pro-slavery. He provided a juxtaposition of a black man who performed heroic feats and exemplified Christian virtues against various white men who disregarded them.

    • Eric February 20, 2013 at 2:16 am Reply

      I feel like many of his statements in the book could have easily been misinterpreted to favor keeping slaves as they are. He references religion throughout the book, yet we’ve seen that even very religious individuals back slavery with the curse of Ham. He also mentions wanting to educate himself in the ways of navigation so that he might run away if necessary. This, I feel, could easily be used by slave owners as evidence that they should not educate their slaves.

    • cal72013 February 20, 2013 at 10:18 am Reply

      I also thought it was interesting that Equiano wrote so much about the cleanliness, especially the perfumes and good smells, of his home in Africa. This made me think his emphasis was in response to the stereotype that slaves were dirty and smelled bad.

    • Gahbrielle Armrdi February 20, 2013 at 12:12 pm Reply

      I admired Equiano’s passion for learning. I feel like his determination to learn and improve himself made his enhanced his slave experience.

  3. Christine Shaw February 19, 2013 at 9:03 pm Reply

    Equiano’s narrative serves as a very effective criticism of slavery, though I wonder if he fictionalized some aspects, because it seems unlikely that he would be able to remember such specific details about African society from his early childhood. Regardless, his narrative clearly portrays the horrors of slavery while emphasizing African slaves’ humanity and worth compared to the way many whites often viewed them. For example, Equiano frequently mentions Christianity and how thankful he is to God. He also notes that, when reading passages from the Bible, he sees “the law and rules of [his] country written almost exactly.” A white person reading his narrative at the time of its publication would have been forced to reconsider the immorality of slavery, especially when confronted with Equiano’s view that God was watching over him even though he was a slave.

    • taymn February 20, 2013 at 12:35 am Reply

      Equiano not only provides insight to his personal thoughts and ideals, but he relays them well and so well-spoken. Any white person who was able to have a conversation with Equiano probably questioned the immorality of slavery as well as their inferiority.

  4. Eric February 19, 2013 at 11:38 pm Reply

    This week’s reading of Olaudah Equiano provides several first hand accounts of how the economic forces of the eighteenth century drove slavery around the world. One of the first things we see in Olaudah’s narrative is a description of how Africans came to find themselves in bondage. Africans themselves would keep prisoners from battles as slaves, most of these were later sold or freed. Olaudah was captured in a more deceptive manner, taken as a child while his parents were away, but even he was bought and sold several times within Africa before being purchased by Atlantic slave traders. These traders moved along the coast in smaller ships trading for slaves before coming to one large slave ship to sail across the Atlantic upon. All through Equiano’s life, untill he purchases his own freedom, he is traded completely at the will of his masters.

    • Christine Shaw February 20, 2013 at 12:19 am Reply

      I was also surprised by the number of times Equiano was bought and sold, though it seems like he had several masters that treated him relatively better than most others would have. However, I found his descriptions of the conditions on slaves ships and the cruelty slaves experienced sometimes hard to read.

      • taymn February 20, 2013 at 12:29 am

        I was happy to find that he had so many positive relationships with his masters. Especially Dr. Robert King, who took care of him after he was attacked and the Guerins who allowed him to learn how to read and write.

    • Daniel Land February 20, 2013 at 1:07 am Reply

      I thought it was interesting that Equiano, though he had many opporunities to escape, chose not to so long as he was treated well. He seemed to have developed strong emotional attachments to his kinder masters.

      • Eric February 20, 2013 at 2:43 am

        While it is true that he had many opportunities to escape, I feel like these chances came as a result of him being so well-treated. Under a normal master, he’d have likely never learned navigation, and we see that one captain he worked under at first preferred to keep his slaves locked inside a sinking ship rather than risk losing them

      • cal72013 February 20, 2013 at 10:25 am

        I thought it was interesting that he not only formed strong relationships with some of his masters, but that he also thought it would be dishonest to run away and wanted to acquire his freedom in an honest way. He seems to feel like he owes something to his masters for treating him well when they could have mistreated him.

  5. taymn February 19, 2013 at 11:54 pm Reply

    Our reading from Davis claimed that the most important “gain” from the American Revolution was a “Revolutionary Ideology” (Davis 156). It brings about confusion because this argument was used against the British and ignored with regards to the slaves (144). The idea of free African Americans rose fear of “…black crime and economic dependence” (153). The result was “Negrophobic racism” (153). Conclusions such as these lead to a continuance of our discussions last week in which we tried to achieve a better understanding of how racism and racist ideologies came about. I found it interesting that in chapter two of Equiano’s reading, his initial observations of white men lead him to make assumptions about them and their culture. He specifically uses the word “savage” when describing the way they act. In chapter eleven, when he is asked why he does not swear like the white men on board, he explains that it is because he fears God and they do not. He does not blame their ways on their skin color but on their spiritual background. His spiritual growth throughout the narrative is apparent in the conclusions that he draws about the world around him. Equiano’s relationship with God definitely grows stronger as his life progresses as with many African-American slaves throughout history.

    • Christine Shaw February 20, 2013 at 12:37 am Reply

      It definitely seems like religion also played a large role in helping Equiano make it through his many years as a slave. While some slaves thought ending their lives would be preferable to living in slavery, Equiano turns to religion instead.

  6. gna32013gahbrielle February 20, 2013 at 4:51 am Reply

    I found it ironic that the American Revolution inspired slaves to consider there un-free state of being. Davis gives an example of slaves yelling: “Liberty! Liberty!” after observing such behavior from white Americans during the Stamp Act crisis in 1765. In another example, a master frees his slave after the slave makes the comment “Master, you are going to fight for your liberty, but I have none to fight for”. During the time period surrounding the American Revolution, there was more of a push towards the perspective of slaves being humans with natural right and not animals. I also noted that states where slavery was less of a necessity tended to be the first few states to outlaw slavery—Vermont.

  7. James Wainwright February 20, 2013 at 10:26 am Reply

    Hello all, my name is James Wainwright and I’m another of Ben Wright’s colleagues in the history department. Thanks for letting my share my thoughts with you today.

    First let me say that you guys do an impressive job considering these readings from multiple angles. I’ll try to comment on a few of them, as well as offer a few new things to think about.

    You all do a great job making sure to remember that Equiano’s narrative (and really all primary sources on some level) was written for a specific audience in mind (in this case, as a Christian antislavery tract), and thus cannot simply be taken at face value. Equiano had a vested interest in pointing out the paradoxes and the harshness of slavery, both in Africa across the Atlantic world, but he did so in very deliberate, meticulous ways. That said, we do know from other research that much of what he describes is in fact a pretty accurate portrayal of what enslavement would have been like. But Equiano is a master of taking actual events and narrating them in such a way as to make you, the reader, feel a certain emotion, or take a specific position. In what places do you think he does so?

    On the topic of whether slavery made either slaves or masters somehow “inhuman,” I’d like to maybe push you in a different direction. It might be a mistake to describe any of this as inhuman. Andrew Johnson mentioned a few weeks ago that slavery, as a concept and as an institution (though in many different forms) had existed since ancient times. In fact, for the vast majority of human history, on all continents and in nearly every nation, slavery and various forms of unfreedom were implicitly accepted and practiced by humans. The Revolutionary period that you’re covering this week is in fact the first time in human history that people began arguing that slavery was fundamentally wrong, on moral grounds. So in a sense, one might say that slavery is actually very human. This does not mean it was not violent, brutal, or destructive. As many during the Revolutionary period decided, this does not make it moral or right either – an idea that we still to hold today. So, perhaps a more interesting question is: What exactly pushed some people to, for the first time ever, morally question enslavement? Why did that occur at this particular moment in time?

    On another note, I’d like you to consider that many historians label the American Revolution the greatest slave rebellion in human history (to be supplanted shortly thereafter by the Haitian Revolution in 1789–1804). Multiple thousands of slaves escaped to British lines during the conflict, and Britain gave them freedom. For black Americans, it was the British who represented freedom and liberty, not the “founding fathers.” This mass rebellion set off another fascinating story in the African diaspora. Many of these former slaves fought for the British army, and most of them were evacuated by the British at the conclusion of the war. They ended up first in British Canada (Nova Scotia), and many ended up in London. Some even ended up in Africa, where they founded a new Afro-British colony in Sierra Leone. Harry Washington, for example, was a man who was once owned by George Washington. He escaped his famous master and eventually ended up in Australia. If you’d like to know more about these stories, you can check out Cassandra Pybus’s “Epic Journeys of Freedom” and Alexander Byrd’s “Captives and Voyagers.”

    So, does this put the American Revolution in a different light? Most South Carolinians, for example, hoped the British would win the Revolutionary War. Many of them were black.

    • Christine Shaw February 20, 2013 at 2:06 pm Reply

      In your comment, you mention that many slaves obtained freedom from the British during the Revolution. From the readings, it seems like the condition of free Africans was not much of an improvement from when they were slaves: they were no longer someone’s property, but had very few rights and were still treated poorly. Was this also true of the Africans who were freed and escaped to London and Nova Scotia as well?

      • James Wainwright February 20, 2013 at 2:30 pm

        You’re right that, materially, free Africans and African Americans often had a difficult time in a world increasingly based on the equation of “blackness” and bondage. Nonetheless I think it is telling that so many wanted freedom anyway. That says something about the human condition–that when given the opportunity, people prefer freedom no matter the material consequences. Further, in many parts of the Atlantic world, free blacks actually could achieve a relatively comfortable life. Outside of the British American colonies, free people of color often served in the militia, learned and practiced trades, and owned businesses. Some even purchased slaves and became planters themselves–for instance in Louisiana and the Spanish and French West Indies. Further, unlike slaves, free people of color could have a family life without (too much) fear of being forcibly separated from their loved ones.

        The former slaves who made it to Nova Scotia actually had a difficult time. They were discriminated against by the local white population, and they found it hard to scratch out a life there (very cold, not great conditions for agriculture). This is a large part of the explanation as to why, when offered a chance to start over in Sierra Leone, many of the Nova Soctia ex-slaves jumped at it.

  8. Gahbrielle Armrdi February 20, 2013 at 2:05 pm Reply

    Although slavery may have existed since ancient times, has there every been a form of slavery as dynamic, effective and influential as the middle passage system?

    • James Wainwright February 20, 2013 at 2:32 pm Reply

      As far as volume and the way it revolutionized life, you’re right, Atlantic black chattel slavery was unprecedented. And in a big way. But nonetheless, the notion that humans could be slaves far predates the African slave trade.

  9. taymn February 20, 2013 at 2:41 pm Reply

    I think that because most people began to question slavery during the American Revolution, we must consider that the Revolution, itself, pushed them to do so. It happened because Americans were using enslavement as arguments for freedom. How could they do this without considering the slaves that they owned themselves?

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