Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes
Reprinted in Early American Writing
Published in 1994
Edited by Giles Gunn
"If I purchase a Man who hath never forfeited his Liberty, the natural Right of Freedom is in him; and shall I keep him and his Posterity in Servitude and Ignorance?"
Slavery existed in Africa long before Europeans started an international slave trade off the western coast of the continent in the 1400s. For hundreds of years Africans had taken members of other tribes into slavery during wars or used slavery as punishment for crimes within their own groups. There were also enslaved craftsmen, warriors, and advisors to tribal chiefs and kings. While a small slave trade was conducted between Africa and Europe prior to the discovery of the Americas, it increased significantly when the Spaniards discovered that marketable products such as sugar could be grown in the Caribbean islands.
Initially the Europeans used Native Americans as workers on sugar plantations (large farms), but the native peoples quickly died from European diseases. As a result, plantation owners turned to Africa for slaves. Even at its height, the slave trade was not well organized, nor was it controlled by Europeans. Instead, African traders sold other Africans. They took their captives from an area that stretched three thousand miles south along the Senegambia River to the Congo River—a distance greater than that between present-day New York and California.
The first slaves in North America arrived in 1619 at Jamestown, Virginia, when a Dutch trader exchanged twenty slaves for provisions (a stock of food). Soon Africans were essential to the American plantation economy. The slave trade became a booming business, not only in the South but also at busy ports in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. The trade route formed a triangle: ships loaded with European-made goods departed from British ports and landed on the west coast of Africa, where the goods would be exchanged for slaves. Then the slaves were transported to the American colonies or the Caribbean islands and traded for agricultural products. Finally, completing the triangle, the ships took this cargo back to England. Merchants made money only if the slaves were alive upon delivery in American ports, so they hired ship captains who kept Africans healthy during the long trip across the Atlantic Ocean.
Sailors referred to the shipboard experience of enslaved Africans as "the middle passage." During the voyage men were usually chained, while women and children were allowed some freedom of movement on the ship deck. Captains chose one of two methods for transporting slaves: tight packing or loose packing. Tight packing squeezed in as many slaves as possible, thus preventing them from moving about or even sitting up. Males lay in space six feet long, sixteen inches wide, and two and one-half feet high. Females occupied an area five feet long, fourteen inches wide, and two and one-half feet high. Captains who chose this method did not want to waste valuable space, since the more slaves they transported the more money they would get even if a higher percentage of slaves died. They also increased their profits by giving the slaves little food and hiring a minimum number of crewmen. Other captains chose loose packing. They believed that giving slaves more room, better food, and freedom to move about reduced the death rate. Many captains insured their slave cargo against drowning. Because insurance did not cover the loss of slaves who died during the voyage, some captains dumped dying slaves overboard and claimed they drowned in order to collect insurance benefits.
Once slave ships had docked, the goal of merchants was to make a profit from a quick sale. In some cases an entire group of slaves might be reserved for one planter (plantation owner), thus closing the sale to anyone else. A more common practice was to sell slaves at an auction where buyers would place bids (call out a price). Prior to the auction, slaves were exhibited before interested buyers (planters), who poked and prodded them. After the slaves had been examined, an auctioneer would sell them to buyers who had placed the highest bids. Another method involved merchants setting a price beforehand and then selling the slaves in groups as buyers scrambled into a holding pen to pick out the choicest slaves. Olaudah Equiano (c.1750–1797), a freed African slave, described the chaotic scene of such a sale in his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789). "On a signal given," Equiano wrote, "the buyers rush at once into the yard where the slaves are confined, and make choice of that parcel (portion of land) they like best. The noise and clamor with which this is attended, and the eagerness visible on the countenances of the buyers, serve not a little to increase the apprehensions of terrified Africans."
After the mid-1600s slavery was legalized through a series of laws called slave codes. The Virginia legislature passed several such laws. A 1662 statute, for instance, made the child of a slave woman a slave (see "Servants and Slaves in Virginia")—even if the father was free and even if the father was a white master. A 1669 law declared that if a slave died while resisting his or her master, the master could not be charged with a felony. Slaves were worth large sums of money, so even harsher laws gave owners the right to demand the return of runaways, who were considered legal "property."
Although most slaves were put to work on tobacco and rice plantations in the South, all of the colonies used slave laborers. Whether slavery caused racism (prejudice because of race) or racism caused slavery might never be fully determined, but African slaves were generally considered unequal to white people. At first owners made an effort to keep slave families together. But gradually this practice changed and, as slaves were routinely bought and sold, families were broken apart. Husbands and wives tended not to live together, and children were often sold at a young age since they took time away from their mothers' work. By the 1740s the majority of African slaves remained in bondage throughout their lives. The number of slaves in a colony depended on economic factors. In areas where slavery was most profitable, there were more Africans—for instance, they comprised the majority of the population of South Carolina as early as 1708. Slaves had their own cabins in the South, whereas in the northern colonies they lived in cellars, attics, and sheds. Africans were frequently mistreated by white masters and overseers, who beat them for such infractions (violations) as not working hard enough or trying to run away.
By the late 1600s European colonists were interacting with Africans on a daily basis, and many masters even regarded their slaves as part of their own families. Historians have noted some improvements in the quality of life for slaves during this period. The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, a religious organization in New England, advocated the education of blacks. Colonial leaders such as Massachusetts preacher Cotton Mather (1663–1728) taught Africans to read. There were also a few isolated protests against slavery. The first was voiced in 1688 by Francis Pastorius (1651–?1720), a German-born Quaker (member of a Christian Protestant group that advocated direct communication with God through an "inner light") who founded Germantown, Pennsylvania. In 1700 Samuel Sewall(1652–1730), a Massachusetts merchant and judge, published a pamphlet titled The Selling of Joseph in which he attacked slavery as being un-Christian. Yet racism and mistreatment of blacks was still prevalent throughout the colonies, and whites rarely questioned the morality of slavery—it was too essential to the economy.
The movement against slavery did not gain momentum until nearly a half century later when Quaker pastor John Woolman (1720–1772) set out on the first of thirty annual excursions to attend Quaker meetings (religious services). From his home in Mount Holly, New Jersey, he journeyed around New England and down to the Carolinas. Wherever he went—in both the South and the North—he encountered slavery, and he was deeply troubled by the sight of people being owned as property. Woolman therefore resolved to mount a vigorous abolitionist (antislavery) campaign as he made his annual trips. When he traveled in the South, he preached his message to slave holders. In Rhode Island he tried to persuade ship owners not to transport slaves from Africa to North America. He refused to buy any products connected with the slave trade, and he would not accept hospitality from slave owners.
Things to Remember While Reading Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes:
- Modern readers should be aware of Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes because it played a major role in starting the abolition movement, which gained full momentum in the nineteenth century. Largely as a result of the efforts of abolitionists, President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) issued the Emancipation Proclamation (1863), which freed all slaves during the Civil War (1861–65; also called the War Between the States, the Civil War was a conflict between the Northern states, or the Union, and the Confederacy, a group of Southern states that formed their own nation.)
- Nevertheless, Woolman's essay presents some difficulties for the modern reader. For example, he was addressing an eighteenth-century Quaker audience, so his writing style is typical of the period. He also made numerous references to the Bible (the Christian holy book). For those reasons, explanatory notes are included in the excerpts from Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes.
Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes
Woolman opened the essay by asserting that he had a duty to protest the mistreatment of African slaves in "an enlight'ned Christian Country." In the following two paragraphs he reminded his readers that all human beings, including Africans, share the same characteristics and that all people are members of "a general Brotherhood." As mere "Sojourners," (temporary travelers) in the world, they experience the same "Afflictions and Infirmities of Body, the like Disorders and Frailties in Mind, the like Temptations, the same Death." He went on to point out that over time Christians came to be "filled with fond Notions of Superiority," forgetting their duty to be caretakers of weaker fellow human beings.
When we remember that all Nations are of one Blood, Gen. iii.20. that in this World we are but Sojourners, that we are subject to the like [same] Afflictions and Infirmities of Body, the like Disorders Frailties in Mind, the like Temptations, the same Death, and the same Judgement, and, that the Alwise Being is Judge and Lord over us all, it seems to raise an Idea of a general Brotherhood, and a Disposition easy to be touched with a Feeling of each others Afflictions: But when we forget those Things, and look chiefly at our outward Circumstances, in this and some Ages past, constantly retaining in our Minds the Distinction betwixt us and them, with respect to out Knowledge and Improvement in Things divine, natural and artificial, our Breasts being apt to be filled with fond Notions of Superiority, there is Danger of erring in our Conduct toward them [mistreating them].
We allow them to be of the same Species with ourselves, the Odds is, we are in a higher Station, and enjoy greater Favours then they: And when it is thus, that our heavenly Father endoweth some of his Children with distinguished Gifts, they are intended for good Ends; but if those thus gifted are thereby lifted up above their Brethren, not considering themselves as Debtors to the Weak, nor behaving themselves as faithful Stewards none who judge impartially can suppose them free from Ingratitude [that is, they are not being properly grateful to God for the gifts they have been given]. . . .
Woolman argued that Christians must imitate the impartial, "universal" love of God, which "begets a Likeness of itself, and the Heart is enlarged towards all Men." He warned that prejudice—considering "a People froward, perverse, and worse by Nature than others—is unworthy of Christians ("unbecoming the Excellence of true Religion"). Then he appealed to his readers to put themselves in the place of African slaves, "to make their Case ours." Suppose, he wrote, that white people had been held as slaves and received no education, no cultural advantages, no religious teachings, or no rewards for their own labor. Suppose further that they had been "treated as a contemptible, ignorant Part of Mankind." If that was the case, he asked, would white people be any different from Africans? Examining the case further, Woolman asserted that it is impossible for oppressed people to love their oppressors. The only result can be a miserable situation, which produces "Sloth and many other Habits appearing odious to us."
To consider Mankind otherwise than Brethren, to think Favours are peculiar to one Nation, and exclude others, plainly supposes a Darkness in the Understanding: For as God's Love is universal, so where the Mind is inefficiently influenced by it, it begets a Likeness of itself, and the Heart is enlarged towards all Men. Again, to conclude a People froward, perverse, and worse by Nature than others (who ungratefully receive Favours, and apply them to bad Ends) this will excite a Behaviour toward them unbecoming the Excellence of true Religion.
To prevent such Error, let us calmly consider their Circumstance; and, the better to do it, make their Case ours. Suppose, then, that our Ancestors and we had been exposed to constant Servitude in the more servile and inferior Employments of Life; that we had been destitute of the Help of Reading and good Company; that amongst ourselves we had had few wise and pious Instructors; that the Religious amongst our Superiors seldom took Notice of us; that while others, in Ease, have plentifully heap'd up the Fruit of our Labour, we had receiv'd barely enough to relieve Nature, and being wholly at the Command of others, had generally been treated as a contemptible, ignorant Part of Mankind: Should we, in that Case, be less abject than they now are? . . .
When our Property is taken contrary to our Mind, by Means appearing to us unjust, it is only through divine Influence, and the Enlargement of heart from thence proceeding, that we can love our reputed Oppressors: If the Negroes fall short in this, an uneasy, if not a disconsolate Disposition, will be awak'ned, and remain like Seeds in their Minds, producing Sloth and many other Habits appearing odious to us, with which being free Men, they, perhaps, had not been chargeable. These, and other Circumstances, rightly considered, will lessen that too great Disparity, which some make between us and them. . . .
In the final excerpt from the essay, Woolman stated that it was time for white people to take responsibility for the situation they had created by owning slaves. He rejected the argument that slaves were a financial investment and owners were entitled to make a profit from them. Slavery is morally and logically wrong, he contended, and it is "better that there were none in our Country." In conclusion, he noted that continuing slavery would "not be doing as we would be done by [would not be treating others as we want to be treated]."
It may be objected there is Cost of Purchase, and Risque of their Lives to them who possess' em, and therefore needful that they make the best Use of their Time: In a Practice just and reasonable, such Objections may have Weight; but if the Work be wrong from the Beginning, there's little or no Force in them. If I purchase a Man who hath never forfeited his Liberty, the natural Right of Freedom is in him; and shall I keep him and his Posterity in Servitude and Ignorance? How should I approve of this Conduct, were I in his Circumstances, and he in mine? It may be thought, that to treat them as we would willingly be treated, our Gain by them would be inconsiderable: And it were, in divers Respects, better that there were none in our Country.
We may further consider, that they are now amongst us, and those of our Nation the Cause of their being here; that whatsoever Difficulty accrues thereon, we are justly chargeable with, and to bear all Inconveniences attending it, with a serious and weighty Concern of Mind to do our Duty by them, is the best we can do. To seek a Remedy by continuing the Oppression, because we have Power to do it, and see others do it, will, I apprehend, not be doing as we would be done by.
What happened next . . .
Woolman's abolitionist activities eventually produced results. He persuaded Quaker communities to make public protests against slavery, and he convinced owners to free their slaves. He was joined by others who shared his views, and in 1760 Quakers in New England, New York, and Pennsylvania ceased the buying and selling of slaves. The Society of Friends then moved to the forefront of the antislavery movement, which gained momentum in the nineteenth century.
Did you know . . .
- Between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, 10,000,000 to 11,000,000 African slaves crossed the Atlantic Ocean. Relatively few of them arrived in the American colonies. Most (eighty-five percent) went to Brazil and to British, French, Spanish, Danish, or Dutch colonies in the Caribbean. Nine percent of the slaves were sent to the Spanish mainland. Only six percent, or 600,000 to 650,000 Africans, went to the American colonies.
- Many former slaves owned farms. For instance, freedman freed slave Anthony Johnson (d. 1665) began acquiring his own plantation in Virginia during the 1640s. By 1651 he owned 250 acres of land, and he became known as the "black patriarch" of Pungoteague Creek (the area of Virginia where his estate was located).
- Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose was founded as a town for freed blacks in 1738. Located in Spanish Florida two miles north of Saint Augustine, Mose was the only town of its kind in what would become the United States. The earliest settlers were escaped slaves from South Carolina. English attacks forced evacuation of the town from 1740 to 1752, and inhabitants moved to Saint Augustine.
For more information
Breen, T. H. and Stephen Innes. "Myne Owne Ground": Race and Freedom on Virginia's Eastern Shore, 1640–1676. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.
Cady, Edwin Harrison. John Woolman. New York: Washington Square Press, 1965.
Dalglish, Doris N. People Called Quakers. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1969.
Elliott, Emory, and others, eds. American Literature: A Prentice-Hall Anthology. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1991, pp. 399–401.
Gunn, Giles, ed. Early American Writing. New York: Penguin Books, 1994, pp. 391–95.
Johnson, Charles, Patricia Smith, and WGBH Research Team. Africans in America: America's Journey through Slavery. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1998, pp. 37–39, 42–46.
Middleton, Richard. Colonial America: A History, 1585–1776. Second edition. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 1996, pp. 311–34.
Wood, Peter H. Strange New Land: African Americans, 1617–1776. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.