White Servitude

White Servitude

Race and Family in the Colonial South




The Composition of the Lowcountry Work Force, 1670-1730

Estimates made by local officials reveal the structure of Carolina’s population at the beginning of the eighteenth century, in 1703 and 1708 ( Table 2 ). White servants were only a minor part of the unfree work force, numbering 200 in 1703, less than 3 percent of the total population and 6 percent of the bound workers. Over the next five years, some servants died or gained their freedom and few arrived to take their place. Their number fell, to only 120, roughly 1 percent of the total and 2 percent of the unfree laborers. Slaves, on the other hand, increased markedly over the period. The Lowcountry was already a slave society in 1703, when its 3,000 blacks and 350 Indians made up 47 percent of the population. Between 1703 and 1708 the white population, battered by “the Late sickness” and held down by the “small supply from other parts,” barely held its own, rising from 3,800 to 4,080. The colony gained 1,100 blacks, however, through natural increase and from the West Indies, and 1,050 Indian slaves “by reason of our late conquest over the French and Spaniards and the success of our forces against the Appallackys and other Indian engagements.” 16 In 1708 there were 5,500 slaves in the Lowcountry, 4,100 of them black, 1,400 Indian, accounting for 57 percent of the total population.

No similarly comprehensive data remain for earlier or later years, but a combination of tax lists, parish census records, postmortem inventories, and contemporary observations permit a description of the work force in 1730. The message of these data is clear: the Lowcountry work force was overwhelmingly enslaved, black, and African. South Carolina’s population was two-thirds enslaved in 1730, and only a handful were Indians. There were few indentured servants and free white workers, most of them craftsmen or overseers on the larger plantations. And the composition of the black population had changed as West Africa replaced the sugar islands as the major source of new slaves. 17

Data for the seventeen century are scarce, but it is clear that Carolina had a much different work force early in its history. Records of headrights — warrants for land awarded to immigrants — are full of pitfalls for the historian, and those of Carolina seem especially problematic. Nevertheless, they provide precious clues to the composition of the labor force during the seventeenth century. In the 1670s, servants outnumbered slaves among new arrivals by more than 6 to 1, while white immigrants outnumbered blacks by 13 to 1 ( Table 3 ). White servants were the major source of unfree labor during the initial decade of the English occupation of the Lowcountry. 18 drawn increasingly from West Africa. 19 We can gain insight into these shifts through a close examination of the Lowcountry labor market, by surveying the changing supply of servants, Indians, and blacks, and by assessing the demand for workers among South Carolina planters. 20

The First Transition: From Servants to Slaves

By the time the first permanent English settlement was established in the Lowcountry, colonizers were able to draw on more than a half-century of experience in developing British America. All the English colonies faced the problem of recruiting a labor force, and a variety of methods and populations had been tried. Indentured servitude represented one of the more successful and enduring responses. By 1670 it had played a central role in the development of the British West Indies and the Chespeake colonies, accounting for perhaps 85 percent of the white migration to those regions and financing the Atlantic passage of roughly 150,000 settlers to English America as a whole. Not surprisingly, the promoters of South Carolina anticipated that indentured servants would supply a major share of the colony’s work force and they took steps to organize their recruitment immediately. 21

Their timing was unfortunate, for the days when servants willingly left England in numbers sufficient to the needs of colonial planters had already passed. British migration to America peaked in the 1650s and then declined, largely in response to falling population and improved opportunities at home. Carolinians recruited among a diminishing supply of willing migrants and they did so in the face of increased competition from other colonial regions, particularly the sugar islands and the tobacco coast but also from William Penn’s new colony in the mid-Atlantic area. 22

While the rapid disappearance of servants from field work is simple enough to account for, their failure to dominate plantation crafts and supervisory positions early in the Africanization process is a puzzle. In the West Indies and the Chesapeake colonies the transition from servitude to slavery occurred in two phases: blacks first displaced whites in routine agricultural labor and only later, with the rise of an acculturated, country-born slave population, dominated skilled work and supervision. 53 Peter Wood argues that a more complex pattern prevailed in the Lowcountry as blacks captured, lost, and then recaptured a dominant position in skilled jobs. 54 The evidence from probate inventories does not support Wood’s contention: none of the slave men who appear in inventories probated before 1720 were described as skilled, but 7 percent of those who appear in the 1720s and 10 percent in the 1730s were so described, a pattern similar to that found elsewhere in British America in the early stages of the rise of slavery. 55 What distinguishes Carolina from the other British colonies is the failure of Lowcountry planters to import white servants to perform such tasks before a substantial number of skilled blacks appeared in the region.

Another distinguishing feature of the Lowcountry labor system during the process of Africanization was the key role played by Native American slaves. While Indian slaves appear in South Carolina as early as 1683, they were rare during the seventeenth century. In 1700 there were roughly 200 enslaved Indians in the Lowcountry, 3 percent of the total population and 7 percent of the unfree work force. During the next decade they were the most rapidly growing group in the colony. By 1710 there were 1500 Native American slaves accounting for 15 percent of the total and 26 percent of the bound laborers. They continued to increase in the next decade, but much less rapidly. In 1720, there were 2000 Indians, but they made up only 11 percent of the total and 17 percent of the slaves. Thereafter both their numbers and their

share fell sharply: in 1730 there were 500 Indian slaves in South Carolina, less than 2 percent of the total and only 2.4 percent of the unfree workers ( Table 1 ).

While the subject merits a detailed investigation, the pattern is consistent with an explanation based on the supply of Indians and the demand for labor. During the seventeenth century before the rapid expansion of the Carolina export sector, Lowcountry planters met their labor needs with servants and West Indian blacks. Few Indians were turned into slaves and most of them were exported to earn foreign exchange. In this period the slave trade was a secondary activity, subordinate to the trade in deer skins and the political aims of the English and their Native American allies. Indian slaves were captured almost incidentally, as a by-product of other processes. After 1700 the Lowcountry export boom led to a sharp increase in demand for labor which transformed relationships between the English and the Indians. The slave trade gained in importance and was no longer subordinated to the deerskin trade or to political concerns. More Indians were captured and more of those captives were kept in the Lowcountry to make rice, grow provisions, and produce naval stores. 56

The intensification of the slave trade proved devastating to the aboriginal population. It was a bloody, violent business, impossible to institutionalize, that demanded increased warfare and ever more raiding. It produced sharp demographic decline and the total destruction of several smaller tribes. And it led to major political changes as Indians struggled to protect themselves by forming larger and more effective federations and by elaborating a “play-off ” system in which rivalries between the English, French, and Spanish were exploited in efforts to control the worst excesses of the European invasion. Population decline and political restructuring quickly lowered the supply of Indian slaves, reducing it to a mere trickle by the 1720s. 57

It is unlikely that planter preferences for Africans played a major role in the decline of Indian slavery. True, Indians were more vulnerable to Lowcountry diseases than blacks and were thus more often sick and more likely to die young. Indians also may have found escape easier given their geographic knowledge and the presence of nearby tribes who might take them in. And it is possible that tradition and prior work experience made Indians less productive as agricultural laborers. However, such differences were compensated for by the higher prices blacks commanded: during the 1720s adult blacks were worth 40 to 50 percent more than adult Indians. If planter preferences were responsible for the decline of Indian slavery one would expect a sharp fall in price to accompany the fall in numbers. Prices rose, rather than fell, by 50 to 100 percent from the 1720s to 1730s, indicating that planters would have purchased more Indian slaves had they been available. 58

Although the preferences of planters as individual managers of labor played little role in the decline of Indian slavery, their political concerns, the preferences of planters as a collective, as members of an emerging ruling class, were critical to the fall of the native slave trade. In the late stages of the Yamasee War the Carolina Assembly passed an Indian Trading Act which, among other things, restricted dealing in Native American slaves. Perhaps that reflected the tension between the extravagant violence of the slave trade and the growing gentility of Lowcountry life, a tension that Bernard Bailyn has identified as a central theme of colonial history. 59 More likely it was a reaction to the dangers posed by the Indian slave trade. Those dangers were clearly revealed in the Yamasee War, which engulfed the colony in 17151717. While the origins of that conflict are complex, it is clear that Indian grievances against the slave trade helped initiate it and that the slave traders welcomed it as an opportunity to increase supplies and prevented an early settlement. The war devasted the colony: some 400 people were killed, more than £100,000 in property was lost, half the cultivated land was abandoned, food supplies were so short that starvation threatened, commerce was disrupted, and taxes rose sharply. And it was nearly worse. Only

luck and skillful diplomacy prevented the alliance of Creeks, Choctaws, and Yamasees from overwhelming Carolina and pushing the settlers into the sea. By 1715, the Carolina planters had too much at stake to tolerate such risks, especially since an alternative (and safer) source of labor was available through the African trade. 60

The rapid growth of the slave trade to the West Indies during the seventeenth century, long before Africans emerged as a dominant source of unfree labor in the Lowcountry, played a central role in the rise of slavery in South Carolina and in all the other mainland colonies. In only two decades around 1650, Barbados was transformed from a struggling tobacco colony into a major sugar producer. By 1660 there were 34,000 blacks in the British West Indies and annual slave deliveries approached 3,000. The transformation is usually credited to the Dutch, who, “being ingaged on the coast of Giney in Affrick for negros slaves having lost Brasille not knowing where to vent them they trusted them to Barbados.” The English played at least a minor role in this early West Indian slave trade and, by the 1660s, had wrested the African trade (as well as all the other major trades with its colonies) from Dutch control. 61 During the third quarter of the seventeenth century, English slavers greatly improved the efficiency of their operations. Prices fell dramatically, reaching a low point in the 1680s. At the same time, volume rose sharply: in the 1680s the Royal African Company delivered more than 5,000 slaves annually to the British sugar islands, a figure that excludes the apparently substantial trade conducted by interlopers. 62 The supply of slaves to British America improved during the seventeenth century, the larger numbers and lower prices reflecting more efficient markets, cheaper transport costs, and the exploitation of new African sources. At the very least the long-run supply curve for slaves was highly elastic, and despite rising prices evident by the 1690s, it remained so into the early decades of the eighteenth century.

In 1708 over half of the Charleston population of 9,580 was said to have been composed of slaves: 1, 400 American Indian slaves and 4,100 black slaves. In addition, Indian slaves were being exported from Charleston to colonies to the north as well as to the West Indies. Some of these were undoubtedly Cherokees, though most were perhaps from tribes closer to the colony ( Thomas 1903:94-96).