Slavery in Alabama

Slavery in Alabama

by James Benson Sellers, Harriet E. Amos Doss

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Since its initial publication in 1950, Slavery in Alabama remains the only comprehensive statewide study of the institution of slavery in Alabama. Sellers concentrates on examining the social and economic aspects of how slavery operated in the state. After a brief discussion of slavery under imperial rulers of the colonial and territorial periods, Sellers focuses on the transplantation of the slavery system from the Atlantic seaboard states to Alabama.

Sellers used the primary sources available to him, including government documents, county and city records, personal papers, church records, and newspapers. His discussions of the church and the slave, and his treatment of the proslavery defense, deepen the comprehensiveness of his study. His two sections of photographs are special touches showing former slaves and churches with slave galleries.


Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817389147
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Publication date: 01/14/2015
Series: Library Alabama Classics
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 456
File size: 5 MB

About the Author

James Benson Sellers (1889-1964) served as Professor of History at The University of Alabama. Harriet E. Amos Doss is Associate Professor of History at The University of Alabama at Birmingham.


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Slavery in Alabama

By James Benson Sellers

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 1950 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-8914-7



NEGRO SLAVERY has existed since remote antiquity. Some Ethiopian slaves were used to help erect the monuments of ancient Egypt. The origin of domestic slavery in Africa can be traced to the same general cause which produced other historic forms of slavery, that is, some essential or actual inequality between individuals in their broad social relations. Such an inequality, if prolonged and intensified, gradually creates a status marked by distinct incidents, which in time assumes the form of a definite social institution, recognized first by custom and then by law.

The era of awakened commerce and discovery that marked the transition of the medieval into the modern world first brought Europeans into contact with African slavery as an already developed institution. Negroes under their tribal customs enslaved their kindred for debts, crimes, and as a matter of systematic poor relief. And the sparing of the captive enemy to become a slave, the most prolific and humane source of slavery, was generally practiced in native inter-tribal warfare. The Moors from early times enslaved not only the Negroes around them but also Christian whites. It was through the Moors that Europeans were first made acquainted with the benefits to be derived from the African slave trade.

By 1440, the energetic Prince Henry of Portugal, better known as Prince Henry the Navigator, was actively pushing the course of Portuguese discovery along the west coast of Africa. Anthony Gonzales, one of his mariners, captured two Moors in 1440 near Cape Bajados. Since Prince Henry was quite willing to Christianize some and enslave others, he ordered the exchange of the Moors for a proffered ransom of ten blacks, and these were brought from the Rio del Oro to Lisbon in 1442. He justified his act on the ground that the Negroes might be Christianized but the Moors could not. Two years later the Company of Lagos, charted by the King of Portugal and engaged in discovery on the African coast, imported two hundred Negroes from the islands of Nar and Tidar. Of those the king received his share, a fifth. They were separated by lot without regard for relationship, justification for the subjection of their bodies being found in a pious hope for the salvation of their souls.

Such was the origin of the African slave trade in Europe, an incident of the commercial expansion of Portugal, an incident of the general progress of the world to enlightenment, and on the very eve of the birth of a new era. Within a short time thirty-seven Portuguese ships were engaged in the slave trade, and in 1481 the king felt constrained to add to his distinctions the title "Lord of Guinea." After the discovery of America and the colonization of the Spanish West Indies, the inefficiency of Indian slave labor in the mines and the questionable humanity of Las Casas led to the substitution of Negro slave labor. Thus at the beginning of the sixteenth century, in 1502 and 1503, a field was opened for the slave trade that Portugal could not supply. Consequently, the traffic was undertaken by Spain in 1517, and by the English Sea-Dog Hawkins in 1553. France followed in 1624 and somewhat later Holland, Denmark, New England and other English colonies. By the end of the seventeenth century, all civilized nations with any extended commerce were engaged in the trade. Slaves were sold into Portugal, Spain, and England, but particularly into the American colonies—continental and island—of Spain, France, England, Portugal, and Holland. The main supply was directed in the early years quite naturally to Spanish West Indies because of their prior discovery and settlement, and later to the English colonies along the Atlantic seaboard.

Slaves were first introduced into the region which is now Alabama when that region was part of France's Louisiana Colony. Bienville, lieutenant governor of the colony, began to press for their importation as early as 1701, when he wrote to the French government urging that laborers be sent to help till the soil. He reiterated his plea in 1707, in a dispatch to the minister. The colonists, he said, needed more supplies. Their plantations were not yet adequate for their support. The lands up the Mobile river were fertile, but they were unhealthful during the period of crop cultivation. The lack of Negroes, horses, and oxen hampered the feeble efforts of the Louisiana planters; failures were many. Yet again, in 1708, he recommended that the colonists be allowed to send Indians to the West Indian Islands and there exchange them for Negroes. That proposition was rejected. Bienville was told that the inhabitants of the West Indies would certainly not be willing to part with their good Negroes; probably the only way the colonists could get the slaves they needed was to buy them from Guinea.

Bienville's efforts to secure a labor force for his colony apparently met with small success. By 1716, there were only a few Negroes there. All of them were near Mobile or on Dauphin Island.

In 1717, an association known as the Western or Indian Company was given, along with many other rights and privileges, control of all the commerce of the Louisiana Colony for a period of twenty-five years. The company set as its prime goal the development of agriculture in the provinces, and "obliged itself to transport to Louisiana, before the expiration of its charter, six thousand white and three thousand blacks. A few years later, the actual importation of Negro slaves began. In March, 1721, the Africane, a ship of war, arrived at Mobile with 120 Negroes. She was followed, in the same year, by the Marie, with 338 more slaves. These newcomers, arriving in a period of general famine, were quartered for a while at Mobile, where they came very close to starvation. Later came the Neride with 238 Africans.

After 1721, slave ships reached the province from Africa almost every year. When the Indian Company relinquished its control, it had imported more than six thousand Negroes. The total number landed since colored laborers were first employed was then close to seven thousand.

Colonial officials were required by the home government to make a certified statement on every slave ship, and to include in this report the number and the condition of the Negroes on board. In some of these reports the number who had died on the voyage was also given. Most of the Negroes came from the province of Senegal on the African coast, a possession of France. Mortality rates on the slave ships were high. Scurvy, measles, flux, and dysentery were prevalent. These common complaints were often aggravated by climatic conditions and complicated with other maladies contracted after landing. Many who survived the voyage died soon after their arrival. The procuring of food for the newcomers presented other difficulties. It was a serious obstacle in the way of expanding the slave trade.

In its distribution of Negroes, the Company was very practical. It assigned them only to colonists able to provide them with food and clothing and able also, under anything like favorable conditions, to meet the payments for the slaves as they fell due. The total cost of a slave, amounting to 660 livres ($176.00), was divided into three annual installments. Rice and tobacco were the media of exchange. In 1723, the Company raised the price for slaves from Africa to 676 livres. By 1734, colonists of New Orleans and Mobile were feeling such urgent need for slaves that they were willing to offer as much as 1400 livres apiece for them.

Within a few years after the importation of slaves to the colony began (March, 1724), the King of France issued at Versailles an "Edict concerning the Negro Slaves in Louisiana." This is generally known as the "Black Code." It remained in force in colonial times and some of its provisions were incorporated into the code of American Louisiana. Its articles related to rights, privileges, obligations, and penalties for both slaves and masters.

According to this Edict, slaves must be given instruction in the Roman Catholic creed; Negroes placed under the supervision of anyone not a Catholic were liable to confiscation. Several articles made detailed stipulations about clothing and sustenance for slaves, and masters who neglected such obligations were subject to prosecution. Slaves could not own property and were declared incapable of all public functions. Masters twenty-five years of age or over were empowered to manumit their slaves, and masters who appointed slaves as tutors for their children automatically made such slaves free. Masters were forbidden to marry slaves or live with them in concubinage. Slaves were held as movables and, as such, were not liable to be seized under mortgage. Husbands and wives were not to be seized and sold separately if they belonged to the same master, and children under fourteen years of age were not to be separated from their parents. Severe punishment was provided for runaway slaves:

The runaway slave, who shall continue to be so for one month from the day of his being denounced to the officers of justice, shall have his ears cut off, and shall be branded with the flower de luce on the shoulder; and on a second offense of the same nature, persisted in during one month from the day of his being denounced, he shall be hamstrung and be marked with the flower de luce on the other shoulder. On the third offense, he shall suffer death.

As colonists from Europe continued to arrive in the Louisiana Colony, and agriculture began to develop, the need for slaves steadily increased. In 1737, when the home government turned a deaf ear to an appeal for more slave labor, a settler living near Mobile took matters in his own hands. He made a bargain with the captain of an English vessel to open a slave market on the "Isle of Vessels" near the mouth of the Mobile river, and this ship captain sold five blacks as slaves. Other schemes were tried in an unsuccessful effort to advance the slave trade of the colony. The supply of slaves for breaking and tilling the soil of the new land remained inadequate to the need. Interest in the slave trade fluctuated throughout all the years of the French regime. When that regime ended, the blacks had become an established element of the population.

Three French frigates, in 1759, seized an English vessel with 414 Negroes on board. One-third of these blacks were brought to the Louisiana Colony and distributed to the planters. With this sale, the slave trade of the Louisiana Colony as a French province came to an end. On July 9, 1763, the Louisiana Superior Council passed a law forbidding the importation of Negroes from Santo Domingo because so many white settlers of that island had died of poison administered by the blacks. About this time the French influence over this district ended, and the English culture spread into the districts around Mobile and West Florida. The territory was then called British West Florida.

At the time of the retrocession of Louisana in 1731 from the Western or Indian Company to the King of France, there were 3,395 Negro slaves in the province. In 1746, there were 4,730 and at the end of the French period there were, in the whole province, about 6,000.23 This steady increase was due in large part to the importation of slaves from Africa and other foreign countries. But new colonists, coming into Louisiana from other parts of the new world, helped swell the total by bringing their own slaves with them.

Reasons for this rapid importation of slaves are not hard to find. They stem from the eager ambitions of the colonists who, whether French or British, dreamed of establishing a colonial empire in this vast new land. The soil was very fertile. An abundance of rivers led to excellent ports. Contemporary writers give enthusiastic accounts of the agricultural products and possibilities of West Florida. Bartram, one of the early Alabama tourists, mentioned corn, indigo, potatoes, beans, peas, cotton, tobacco, and almost every sort of "esculent vegetable," as well as pears, peaches, grapes, and plums. The fertile areas in the western part of the province, where agriculture reached its most advanced colonial stage, were just being opened when the English period ended.

Almost all writers spoke of the herds of "black cattle" around Mobile, where old French families raised cattle and Indian corn in a rather indolent fashion. North of Mobile, in what was later to be Washington County, most of the people lived along the fertile banks of the Tombigbee river. As early as 1791, these settlers were engaged in the cultivation of indigo and the burning of tar. Indigo was, however, soon abandoned for cotton, which in later years became the major crop. The greatest number of Negro slaves were used in cotton planting. Lumbering also became an important occupation in this area. Countless tall trees were hewn andshipped to Mobile. The spar business flourished. Many owners used their slaves exclusively for this work.

The districts that were later to become parts of the state of Alabama were rich in natural resources. The land which would one day be known as the "Black Belt" was as good farming land as could be found anywhere on the continent. No wonder the colonists, and the governments behind them, were ambitious to develop these rich resources. And to develop them, to grasp the marvelous opportunities for wealth they offered, labor was needed—labor for agriculture, for shipping, for lumbering. The importation of slaves seemed the only way to meet this need.

At the end of 1763, England took over part of the North American lands which had belonged to France, and established new territories within their bounds. A portion of the present state of Alabama was incorporated in the Province of West Florida. Mobile, which became one of the important centers in the new province, retained its predominantly French culture, but the English culture came to predominate north and east of Mobile, along the fertile Tombigbee river. The Indians around Mobile and to the west were friendly and made liberal concessions.

English traders continued the slave traffic French traders had begun, both because the trade was profitable in itself and because they also were ambitious to enhance the wealth and prestige of the province. Trade by sea was supplemented by a river trade centered at Mobile. Many slaves came into Alabama along the territory's natural waterways. The slave ships put their human cargo ashore at Mobile. The slaves were transferred to small boats and sent up the Mobile, Alabama, and Tombigbee rivers to inland settlements as far north as what is now Washington, Clarke, and Monroe counties.

The British found this trade a useful source of revenue. An act of the West Florida Assembly in 1776 imposed a duty of ten shillings sterling on every slave imported to the province that year, such duty to be paid by the importer or the person to whom the slave was consigned. Any person coming singly or with his family to reside in the province, however, was permitted to bring in, duty free, the slaves he needed for his own service, provided he gave sufficient security for the payment of duty if those slaves were sold.

The petitions for land filed by settlers indicated that most of the families in the province did not own slaves and that most of those who did owned only from three to eight. There were, however, several instances where large numbers were owned. One plantation owned eighty-one. The Mobile District, in 1766, is described by P. J. Hamilton in these words:

... according to the information I have received there are from the highest to the lowest, on the east side of the bay of Mobile, seventeen plantations, thirty-nine white men who can bear arms, thirty-two negro women and children. In all 124 souls....

Around Mobile most blacks were undoubtedly used in agriculture, but some were employed in the production of naval stores, in the making of staves and tar, and in lumber ventures. Negroes belonging to citizens were used three days in the year to clear and drain the swamps around Mobile.

By the summer of 1770, the movement of settlers from the colonies of the Atlantic seaboard to the fertile lands of West Florida had assumed substantial proportions. In August of that year, Daniel Huay arrived at Pensacola with the information that he had piloted a party of seventy-nine white people and eighteen Negroes, mostly from Pennsylvania, and that they planned to settle between Pensacola and the Mississippi river. He told Governor Chester of the British West Florida Colony that a hundred families in the back part of Virginia and Pennsylvania would come to the province if his party sent back a favorable report.


Excerpted from Slavery in Alabama by James Benson Sellers. Copyright © 1950 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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Table of Contents

Contents Introduction by Harriet E. Amos Doss Preface 1. In the Colonial and Territorial Periods 2. Plantation and Planters 3. The Work of the Plantation: Overseer and Slave 4. The Slave and the Plantation 5. Traffic in Slaves 6. Hired Slave and Town Slave 7. The Legal Status of the Slave 8. Crimes and Punishments of Slaves 9. Runaways 10. The Church and the Slave 11. The Defense of Slavery 12. The Free Negro in Alabama Before 1865 Bibliography Index

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