How America’s bloodiest and forgotten war affected slavery

A Liberal Dose


Last week, I talked about how slavery started in the English colonies and the fact that, for much of the 1600s plantation, labor was done by three groups -African slaves, white indentured servants, and American Indian captives/slaves - who not only worked closely together in the fields, but who learned from one another, interacted socially and often intermarried. By about 1720, that had changed.

The widespread use of indentured servants on plantations ended after Bacon’s Rebellion (1676). If you recall from earlier columns, in the early 1600s, most of those white indentured servants had not lived to the end of their seven-year contracts due to disease, hardship, and Indian wars. By the late 1600s conditions had improved, and most of them did survive, which meant that, suddenly, there were large numbers of free, unemployed, landless poor whites who now wanted the land they had been promised, and it was mostly already taken. This led to an armed uprising of - not only angry landless whites - but also angry landless free blacks who wanted the same thing. The rebels actually burned Jamestown to the ground. After that, it no longer seemed like a good idea to planters to import large numbers of indentured servants from Europe. The war also led authorities in Virginia - and soon in other Southern colonies - to start passing laws meant to prevent poor white and black workers from teaming up again. Interracial marriage was made illegal, and free blacks found their rights being whittled away to insert a wedge between the two groups.

After that, then, most of the plantation labor was done by African and Native American slaves. The latter were still being used extensively - in 1700, there were more Indian slaves than black ones in Charleston, South Carolina (the colony with the most slaves overall). From the mid-1650s to the early 1700s, the English had been at the heart of a massive Indian slave trade in the Southern colonies - the same situation that Europeans had exacerbated in West Africa. At first, English authorities and planters would buy extra captives taken by Indians raiding enemy tribes, but eventually the royal governor of South Carolina actually made contracts with certain tribes (and helped arm them), such as the Westo and the Shawnee, to provide slaves to planters. These tribes then made perpetual war on everyone around them, actually wiping out many of the tribes in northern Florida. Again, as with West Africa, this resulted in social chaos.

Incidentally, most of the founders of the Carolina colony were second or third sons of wealthy plantation owners in the English colonies of Barbados, the Bahamas, and Jamaica. They couldn’t inherit their fathers’ estates, so they set up a new colony - and brought with them the much harsher, deadlier slavery practices common in the Caribbean. The South Carolinians operated lucrative rice plantations, which required far more workers than tobacco did.

The Indians figured out that it was against the best interests of all the tribes to be set against each other in the slave trade, so in 1712 virtually all the tribes in the Southeast (except the Cherokees, who tended to stay isolated) stopped raiding each other and decided to wipe out the English colonists of South Carolina instead. In the Yamasee War, so named for one of the leading tribes, they almost succeeded. Only the fact that the English persuaded the Cherokees to come in on their side turned the tide and saved the colony.

After that, enslaving Indians also seemed like a bad idea. After all, if an African slave escaped he would have no idea where he was, whereas Indians knew the area. Africans were hardier than Indians, who lacked resistance to many diseases. Most importantly, an African slave did not have large numbers of heavily armed friends and neighbors living right down the road. Slavery became an exclusively African experience in the colonies -and laws increasingly reflected that.

--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.    


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