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Comparing Slavery


Slavery in Futa Jallon

Although they had strongly opposed the overseas slave trade, by the 1750s the leaders of Futa Jallon, including Abdul Rahman's father, engaged in it. They kept on protecting their own, but they raided non-Muslim populations over a vast area, retaining a number of captives and selling the rest to the Europeans. Futa society was mainly divided along religious lines -- Muslims and non-Muslim -- and ethnicity had little relevance. Non-Muslim Fulbe belonged to the lower classes and the enslaved community, whereas Muslim Mandinka, for example, were part of the elite. Only non-Muslims could be enslaved and the sale of Muslims was strictly prohibited. Prisoners of wars and raids bore the full brunt of servitude and their resistance could be fierce. Slave uprisings were recorded in the 1750s and the 1790s.

By the third generation, the status of a slave was similar to that of a freed person, and children born of a free father and an enslaved mother were free and could reach the highest echelon of political power. Some captives were blacksmiths, potters, weavers, and soldiers but most worked in agriculture and lived in villages in the countryside where they had little contact with their owners. Placed under the direction of one of their own, they grew rice, corn, grain, yam, peanuts, millet, and cassava. They worked in their fields and gardens two days a week to feed themselves, and could hold property. Part of the crops they produced for their owners was sold to the Europeans: it became the food distributed to the captives during the Middle Passage. As slavery expanded in the Americas, Futa Jallon's domestic slavery did as well because more and more captives were needed there to raise the crops and take care of the cattle, sheep, and goats sold to the growing European slave market on the coast.

Household Slaves

Slavery in Natchez

The system of slavery in the United States was a system of labor based on racial distinctions and permanent bondage, which made it different from other forms of slavery the world over. As Peter Kolchin explains, "The racial character of New World slavery was significant: that slavery was predicated on new, unequal relationships between Europe and Africa and between white and black." By 1830, more than 40% of the population of Natchez was enslaved, as was some 80% of the population in the surrounding county. Yet those enslaved persons were concentrated on a small number of large cotton plantations.

Slave Auction

Throughout the South, fewer than one-fourth of white people held slaves, and nearly 90% of those who did owned fewer than 20 slaves. This was also true in Natchez and the surrounding region, where enslaved people made up a large percentage of the population, but were held by a small minority of wealthy planters. Nevertheless, even those white people who did not hold slaves were, in the main, fully in support of the slave system. Despite this, several hundred free African Americans continued to live in the community. By 1822, the Mississippi legislature had put in place mechanisms for making emancipation more difficult. People who were enslaved had varying experiences, though all lacked full control over their lives. Some worked in the fields. Others worked in the slaveholder's household. Some worked as craftspeople, carpenters, and blacksmiths.

While scholars have often portrayed those enslaved in the household as having an easier life, Anthony Kaye notes, "Working in the big house was more burden than privilege." Enslaved persons stationed in the household were under the constant watchful eye of the slaveholder and his family, which limited their autonomy and made less time available to them to manage their own personal affairs. For enslaved women, it also meant the ever-present possibility of sexual assault by the slaveholder. Those who worked in the fields faced daunting labor. For instance, men who plowed the fields averaged more than ten miles per day, and those chopping out old plants completed between four and seven miles of cotton rows each day! The relationship between slaveholder and enslaved person was characterized in great part by the slaveholder's underlying economic interest. As David Libby notes, "planters worked to establish a level of interaction between them and their slaves that would be harsh enough to ensure their superiority, but mild enough to avoid rebellion."

Slaves Working on a Potato Plantation

Insecurity and instability were the forces against which enslaved people organized their lives. Enslaved persons formed strong family bonds, in spite of their knowledge that the slaveholder or his descendants could tear families apart on a whim. In order to visit their family, enslaved persons violated laws requiring permission to travel from plantation to plantation, despite threats of vicious lashings. In short, enslaved persons found ways to "make a way out of no way," surviving despite the slaveholders' attempts to dehumanize them. Enslaved persons often sought to resist their enslavement, sometimes by running away, as Abdul Rahman did. Among those who absconded, more than 80% were men, and more than three-quarters were under thirty years of age. In 1850, the life expectancy for a twenty-year-old African American man was only 37!

Fugitive Slaves