Rape in American Slavery System During the Antebellum
The first African slaves arrived in Virginia, North America in 1619. As the plantations of the antebellum south flourished, the African slave trade gained momentum. (Slavery in the ante-bellum South). Between the 16 and 19th centuries, America had an estimated 12 million African slaves (Slavery in the United States). Enslavement of the African Americans formally commenced in the 1630s and 1640s. By 1740, colonial America had a fully developed slavery system in place, granting slave owners an absolute and tyrannical life-and-death authority over their slaves or ‘chattels’ and their children. (Slavery in the United States) Stripped of any identity or rights, enslaved black slaves were considered legal non-persons, except in the event of a crime committed (Slavery in the ante-bellum South).
Documents and research on the slave era in the antebellum south are awash with horror stories of the brutal and inhuman treatment of slaves, particularly women. ( David Brion Davis and Eugene Genovese,- Slavery in the United States-Treatment). Considered ‘properties’ by their masters, enslaved black women endured continual physical and emotional abuse, sexual violations, torture, and sometimes even death. (Susanne Scholz )
This research paper takes up the issue of how rape in the American slavery system during the antebellum south affected the African American society, and attempts to answer the following questions:
1. How sexual violence affected slave family life and their behavior?
By the 1800s, slavery had percolated down mainly to the antebellum south (Africans in America). Whilst a majority of these slaves were designated as ‘field servants’ performing duties outside the house, a smaller percentage, particularly women were employed as domestics or ‘house servants’, mammies and surrogate mothers. Owners generally enforced their status as ‘property owners’ by callous methods (Africans in America).
Many first person accounts (Harriet A Jacobs) and other data available, underscore the rampant sexual exploitation of African women slaves. In the absence of any safeguards, with laws granting owners sweeping powers over their slaves, these women in bondage were habitually ravished, harassed, sexually stalked and used as long term concubines not only by their masters, but by the owners’ families and friends as well. Slave men, for their part, were rendered powerless to challenge or intervene, as to do so would mean sure death or sale to distant plantations (Africans in America). Progeny or ‘mulattos’ resulting from such rapes were also considered slaves, unless freed by the owner. (Historian Eugene Genovese -Slavery in the United States).
“As masters applied their stamp to the domestic life of the slave quarter, slaves struggled to maintain the integrity of their families. Slaveholders had no legal obligation to respect the sanctity of the slave’s marriage bed, and slave women- married or single – had no formal protection against their owners’ sexual advances. …Without legal protection and subject to the master’s whim, the slave family was always at risk.”(slavery in the united states – treatment & rapes of females )
However, in quite a few documented cases, enslaved black women worked as devoted loyal servants, as mammies and surrogate mothers for white children demonstrating the absence of oppression and bonds of affection that actually united the two races.
Blassingame,* underlines the fact that slave parents tried to shield their young from the brutal realities of the plantation. They often dissuaded angry urges among the children, which generally arose after their first whipping, from seeking revenge or running away. Children often internalized the two contradictory behavior responses of their parents; one submissive in front of the owner, the other castigating their owner’s action in private. They understood that submissiveness was a way to avoid punishment, but the true behavior model emulated was the one they witnessed in private. The family was an important survival mechanism, for no matter how often the family was broken, it enabled the slave to survive on the plantation without becoming totally submissive to or dependent on the master.
Slaves often retaliated, subtly or overtly, to their inhuman treatment. They resorted to destroying crops or disabling machinery, slowing down work. Many stole food, livestock and valuables. Some committed suicide or mutilated themselves to reduce their property value and some even murdered their masters, by the use of weapons or poison (Africans in America).
Furthermore, slave parents were also concerned about the owner’s interference in their private lives. Southern law defined slaves as moveable property or chattel. Often buying, selling and trading slaves, owners habitually split families, frequently taking children from their mothers. Slaves were often blackmailed with such treatment if they refused to work or if the women repulsed the advances of their masters (organization of American historians -Family life in the slave quarters” survival strategies- Marie jenkin Scwartz)
2. How were the masters able to wield significant control and power, over their black mistress?
A Virginia law declared slaves to be “chattel personal in the hands of their owners and possessors for all intents, construction, and purpose whatsoever” (African American History by Henry Drewry). It affirmed their total ownership and right over their slaves particularly the womenfolk. As absolute property of their owners, enslaved black women were thus uprooted their homes and families and to comply with every physical and sexual whim of the master. They had to learn to be totally submissive to the master, in mind and body. Sexual abuse could be in the form of sexual coercion to forced breeding for profit. Refusal of sexual overtures met with physical and emotional abuse and often the sale of a family member to distant farms, never to be seen again. She had no safeguard or refuge as the law regarded rape as a mere trespassing of property. Developing relations with fellow slaves, men and women, proved difficult as she or her friends could be deported or sold to another property at any given time. Any challenges by the male slaves to such sexual exploitation could mean an end to their own lives (Life of a woman on a plantation- an essay – Berkin).
First person accounts of two slave girls, Harriet A Jacobs and Cecil (Harriett a Jacobs – An autobiography – Incidents in the life of a slave girl 1861) (Essay on Slavery – Celia a slave) substantiate this claim. Both female slaves of African descent articulated the pain and suffering caused by the repeated sexual violation of their bodies and how they were held captive by their masters till they decided to take matters into their hands and escape their captors.
Compelled to live under the same roof with a man forty years her senior, he daily violated her. Her misery seemed inescapable, for there was no law to protect her from the constant insults, violence or even death. She finally managed to escape and went into hiding for seven years, before she could flee to another place.
Though reluctant mistresses, these enslaved African women were often labeled as ‘jezebels’, innately promiscuous or even predatory by the white women. They were perceived to enjoy higher status and privileges than other slave women, but these privileges were tainted by the fact that they were forced into sexual submission (Africans in America). However, research based data indicates that quite a few of these formed short term liaisons with their white owners for vested interests (Southern Mulattos Population) and, yet others willingly maintained long-term relationships with their masters, begetting them children. Contemporary sociologist K Sue Jewell in her book describes ‘Jezebel’ as a tragic mulatto indicating they formed the bulk of black women sold into prostitution. In a system termed placage, many such freeborn light-skinned women were willing mistresses to wealthy white southerners.
3. How did southern plantation owners use their powers not only to control their mistress but their children and even male slaves under their control?
Slaves were at an utter disadvantage and powerless as they were designated legal properties of their owners. Authorized to use punitive measures, slave owners and their families deployed severe methods on the least pretext to ensure slave obedience (Slavery in the United States). A variety of objects and contraptions such as the more commonly used whip, shackles, chains, metal collars, knives, guns, field tools, forced walking on the treadmill and even hanging were used to quell any disobedience or rebellion. Reasons for punishments ranged from breaking a law like leaving the plantation without permission, running away, not following orders or slow work, often punishing them in front of others to make an example of them (Slavery in the United States). In fact, the law required slave owners to mandatorily discipline recaptured runaway slaves or face fines. Owners also constantly blackmailed slaves with the threat of sale of their family members to distant plantations, never to be seen again.
Enslaved blacks continued to be sexual pawns in the hands of their owners. Children that ensued from these actions were also treated as slaves as they took on the status of their mothers. (Slavery in the United States)
Slave marriages were considered illegal and couples were frequently separated through sale. (The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South is a book written by American Historian John W. Blassingame). It was unsafe for a slave couple to be residing on the same plantation. Nothing demonstrated the utter powerlessness of the husband as he watch the brutal whipping and rape of his wife and the sale of his children. He had no alternative but to comply with the demands of his master.
However, Blassingame also indicates that owners understood the need to encourage monogamous relationships “a black man, they reasoned, who loved his wife and his children was less likely to be rebellious or to run away than would a ‘single’ slave”(The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South is a book written by American Historian John W. Blassingame).
Whilst some masters were compassionate, most slaves knew that any error or crisis would take them to the auction block.
Slave owners were also uncomfortable with the fact that slave children might question their authority and the legitimacy of the order, as they were reared to respect other authority figures like their parents (Organization of American historians -Family life in the slave quarters” survival strategies- Marie Jenkin Scwartz). To subvert this, owners established rules and planned activities aimed at minimizing the importance of slave family life and emphasizing his position as the master. Many went to the extent of referring to their slaves as family members which gave them the right to interfere in their slaves’ private lives. To this end, they kept a keen watch on their slave’s activities night and day, including such mundane matters as to what they ate, how they dressed and when they slept. They would often bribe the slave children or reward bad behavior with toys or gifts (Slavery in the United States)
4. How did slavery laws and southern politic support the rights of slave owners to abuse their slaves?
Enslavement of the African Americans formally commenced in the 1630s and 1640s (Slavery in the Civil war Era). Colonial courts and legislatures clearly affirmed that Africans–unlike their counterpart white indentured servants-would serve their masters for life and their slave status would be inherited by their children. A 1667 A Virginia act declared that “Baptisme doth not alter the condition of the person as to his bondage or freedome.” And By 1740 colonial America had a fully developed slavery system in place (Slavery in the Civil War Era). In fact in Virginia, after 1807, slaves were considered the chief ‘cash crop’ of their owners. Such legislation gave owners ultimate power over their slaves (Slavery in the United States).
A law on partus in 1662 in Virginia indicated that children of an enslaved mother would automatically be slaves, even if the father was a freeborn white. This further institutionalized the power relationships and freed the white men from any legal responsibility of either acknowledging or supporting their children, confining the scandal of illegitimate, mixed-race children to the slave quarters.
In the 1860s, elite families, who formed a bulk of the shareholding families, influenced and shaped the political scenario of the land. Foremost amongst their common concerns was controlling and ensuring an adequate supply of slave labor (Slavery in the civil war era) Legislation in the south was so designed as to protect the owners’ rights to their human chattels. ‘Slave codes” incorporated in these laws admitted, if grudgingly so, that slaves were human beings and not property like animals. However, these codes instituted many clauses to minimize the possibility of slave rebellion. The codes made it illegal for slaves to (a) educate themselves to read and write (b) to attend church services without a white person, or (c) to testify in court against a white. Also, leaving their home plantation without a masters’ written pass was forbidden. Additional laws sought to restrict the possibility of manumission (the freeing of one’s slaves).
Between 1810 and 1860, legislation in all Southern states restricted the right of slave owners to free their slaves, even in a will, as free blacks might inspire other slaves to rebel. As a consequence, most Southern states required that any such freed slave leave the state within thirty days (Slavery in the Civil War Era). Authorities established ‘slave patrols’ to enforce these codes. Locally organized bands of young white men, both slave owners and yeomen farmers patrolled the night checking that slaves were in indeed their quarters. These ‘patrols’ shared a common desire to keep the black population in check (Slavery in the civil War Era)
5. How the isolation of Plantation life in the south factors into the percentage of numbers of rapes of black slaves
Although slavery was widespread throughout antebellum America, the 1830’s saw a greater demand and concentration of African American slaves in the flourishing plantations of the antebellum south (Slavery in the civil war Era). Legislation of slavery in the southern states, unlike the north where there were free slaves, indicated that all slaves to be “chattel personal in the hands of their owners and possessors for all intents, construction, and purpose whatsoever.” (African American History). A black man could be whipped for no reason. He could be beaten, stripped or tortured for the entertainment of his master. A black woman could be sexually harassed, assaulted, beaten or raped at anytime without question.(Life of women in the plantation – slavery essay)
As bonded laborers and property of their owners, slaves were confined to live and work on the plantations. Permission to go outside the premises was only by written consent from the master and severely punishable if disobeyed (Slavery in the Civil War Era). It served the owners’ dual purpose of labor exploitation and race control. Children and women were used as domestic help so as to not waste capable labor (Berkin – Life of women slaves on the plantation- an essay Berkin, p. 62). Slave codes incorporated in the legal system restricted their movements and growth. They were not permitted an education, could not testify against a white or attend church services without one (Slavery in the United States). Authorities established ‘slave patrols’ to enforce these codes. .( Slavery in the United States)
In the absence of any safeguards and laws to protect them, enslaved African women were the worst victims of a system that designated and treated them as sole property of the owners. Of the data available and horrific first person accounts of two slave African Americans, women suffered the worst possible sexual violence and abuse (Berkin – Life of women slaves on the plantation- an essay Berkin, p. 62). Her non-compliance resulted in severe physical and emotional punitive measures for herself and her spouse or the selling of a family member – a child, spouse, parent or near relative to a distant land never to be seen again. Any rebuttals to such sexual exploitation by the male slaves could result in death (Berkin – Life of women slaves on the plantation- an essay Berkin, p. 62)).
The antebellum era in America is strife with the slavery epoch which went contrary to the principles of the War of Independence. It is ironical that the very state, Virginia in which the American Declaration of Independence was signed, would be the first to legitimize slavery. African slaves first set foot in Virginia, America in 1619 with the arrival of captives sold by a Dutch to settlers in Jamestown. Considering their economic worth, particularly in the plantations in the antebellum south, their demand grew and spiraled over time up to the 1800s.(African American History). Colonial courts and legislatures had racialized slavery (Slavery in the United States)The first arm of legalization in 1662 stated that such Africans would be servants for life, and later in a 1667 another act declared that “Baptisme doth not alter the condition of the person as to his bondage or freedome.” By 1740 a concrete legal slavery system in colonial America was in place. A Virginia law gave owners absolute right over their ‘property’ stating that slaves were “chattel personal in the hands of their owners and possessors for all intents, construction, and purpose whatsoever.” (African American History).
Legitimizing slavery gave owners sweeping powers of life and death over their slaves, particularly, the enslaved black women ((Berkin – Life of women slaves on the plantation- an essay Berkin, p. 62). Slaves were brutally penalized and sometimes even murdered. Rape and sexual violence against enslaved black women was rampant and not considered a crime except for the fact that it represented trespassing on another’s property. Owners often resorted to severe punishment, physical and emotional, to reinforce submissive behavior, particularly against black slave women.
Designated as property to their white owners, they lived with the constant reality of rape as is witnessed in the first person accounts of Harriet a Jacobs and Celia ((Berkin – Life of women slaves on the plantation- an essay Berkin, p. 62). Habitually, raped, harassed, sexually stalked and used as long term concubines not only by their masters, but by the owner’s families and friends, these enslaved women lived in constant fear of punishment either physically or emotional blackmail through separation when their loved ones and family members were sold to distant plantations, never to be seen again. (Africans in America) Laws accommodated the owners actions, classifying the resultant progeny as children of the mothers only, absolving the white father of any responsibility, unless they were freed by the owner.( Historian Eugene Genovese -Slavery in the United States)
Though Black women were reluctant mistresses, they were termed as seducers called, “Jezebels” However, there is evidence to suggest that some enslaved black mistresses had devised a way to use her sexuality as a means of avoiding exploitation by her master and for other vested interests (Southern Mulatto Population).
Slave men for their part were powerless to intervene as they faced the threat of death. (Africans in America). A slave couple residing on the same plantation were unsafe. Nothing demonstrated the husband’s powerlessness more than the brutal whipping and rape of his wife and sale of his children. “(The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South is a book written by American Historian John W. Blassingame). However, owners also understood the importance and need of allowing monogamous relationships, as this was less likely to create run-away slaves.
Slaves struggled to maintain the integrity of their family and culture, even as masters applied their stamp to the domestic life of the slave quarter. Fearing that slave children might question their authority, slave owners established rules and planned activities aimed at affirming his position as master. (Organization of American historians -Family life in the slave quarters” survival strategies- Marie Jenkin Scwartz).
The fact that the slaves in the antebellum south were legalized and property of the owners afforded them no rights or freedom. Their isolation from the north, where free slaves resided, further detracted from any hope of freedom or better quality of life than at the hands of their tyrannical owners. ((Berkin – Life of women slaves on the plantation- an essay Berkin, p. 62)