Friday, July 07, 2006

Slave Drivers: How Southern Planters Kept Their Slave Populations from Rebellion

I blogged previously on my experience reading "Jubliee," a novel of slavery by Margaret Walker. In that post I quoted Uncle Joe's monologue on the futility of the abolitionist cause, and his faith in the Lord's provenance in bringing about the slave exodus to the promised land. I'm getting further on through the book now. My main impression reading many of the recent passages has been one of endurance: The incredible ability of many of the slaves, and particularly Vyry, the story's main character, to endure hardship, deprivation, and unending violence. The story continued a few chapters ahead with the narrative of a meeting of John Dutton, Vyry's plantation master, and a number of other prominent planters in Georgia. They heard talk of the black uprising as well, and now they're coordinating their plans to suppress any potential revolt. The consensus among the planters was that a revolt was beyond "the wildest imaginations":

Nevertheless, if there was any such ingratitude lurking among them [the slaves] after all the money that had been spent on food and clothes and doctor bills, the owners must be realistic and resort to drastic methods to counteract such activity. They must not wait too long to listen to reason. Hastily and secretly, Marse John and his planter friends gathered with this purpose. There they decided, as the [slave]drivers had suggested, that the first thing was to seek out the culprits and see that they were punished to the full extent of the law, chiefly by hanging. Thus they would make an example of them and put the fear of God in the rest of the slaves. Second, they must clamp down harder on the movements of all the blacks, enforce the curfew laws and all of the Black Codes, thereby rigorously maintaining control over their property, both land and chattel slaves. Finally, but not the least, they must seek out all abolitionists guilty of giving aid and comfort to the black enemies of the Georgia people, and either force them out of the state or deal with them so harshly that they would willingly leave. As for the free Negroes, all of them should be called in for questioning and under threat of revoking their papers, forcing them back into slavery, they should be made to leave the state. Meanwhile, the planters should continue to question trusted slaves for any information and should keep watch for any signs of the development of the plot or for any unusual movements of the slaves. The guards and the patter-rollers were ordered to search the slave cabins to make sure no weapons or firearms of any kind came into the possession of any black person, slave or free.
That's quite an anti-insurrectionist program, a police-state system, which obviously benefited the Southern planters for centuries. It seems clear that Walker's story leads at some point to a slave revolt, but it's too early to tell if that's the ultimate conclusion for the story's theme of slaves longing for freedom. In any case, it's a compelling read. One thesis in contemporary black politics is that slavery left a long list of "accumulated disadvatages" which have been difficult for African-Americans to overcome (a view corresponding to some of the original advocacy of affirmative action programs during the 1960s). For more information on this thesis, check Amazon's page for Orlando Patterson's "Rituals of Blood," a conservative sociological examination of the impact of slavery on contemporary black life, as well as some of the other suggested reading found there.

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