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To What Extent Should Slaves' Independent Economic Activities Be Understood as a Form of Control That Served the Interests of the Slaveholding Class?

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To What Extent Should Slaves' Independent Economic Activities Be Understood as a Form of Control That Served the Interests of the Slaveholding Class?

To what extent should slaves’ independent economic activities be understood as a form of control that served the interests of the slaveholding class?

The extent to which the slave holding class used the economic activities of the slaves to control them will ultimately be judged by the individual on the evidence recorded throughout the period but the ultimate goal though of the slave holders at the time was arguably pure financial gain. To achieve maximum gain the slave community had to be kept in order by any means necessary. The control of the slaves’ economic lives was perhaps a more subtle form of control but was also an alternative to the violent crack of the whip that was prominent throughout the history of slavery in the Americas. Although mistreatment and physical punishment would never be eradicated the bonuses on both sides would be visible for both parties involved. I will be considering some different points of view within this essay but the overriding focus was profit and this was perhaps true for both slaves and slave holders. The difference in geography also has its part to play in the economies of the slaves and this difference between North American slaves and South American slaves can be seen in the way their respective economies and practices vary from north to south. The difference in slave set up north and south was also a key aspect of this difference and in the slave market place which saw not only the economic growth of the slave but also the cultural growth, a market place that needs consideration.

The difference in lifestyle or how the different styles of growing, along with geographical concerns, had an important influence but the result of this was two different types of community and this difference in lifestyle ultimately played a key role in the economic development of slaves. Not only was the North American slave perhaps more integrated into the daily lives of the slave holder than the South American slave but they were in much fewer numbers as a community in a majority of cases. As James Walvin tells us in his book Questioning slavery (1996) the difference in the slaves size and communities vastly differed from North America to South America and the West Indies,

‘As late as 1775, most Virginia planters owned five slaves or fewer; the average in the Caribbean at the time was 240.’

This difference in numbers added a very different dynamic on how the economies grew and developed in each part of the Americas. As crops changed and large plantations that produced cotton and tobacco became prominent in North America the size of the work force did increase in the earlier half of the 19th century. This increase in size was perhaps more similar to their southern neighbours but the dynamic was still different with the slave owners employing overseers to control the plantations for them. The detachment of the South American slave owners let the communities of slaves develop in a different way and their economy was key, not only to their way of living but to living itself. The much smaller, intimate communities of North America also used their slave economy to get by but perhaps not as much as their South American counterparts did earlier on.

The slave economy or its other titles, the ‘internal economy’ or the ‘peasant breach’ encompassed many aspects of the slave lifestyle. These things included food production, raising livestock, making craft products such as rugs along with other skills brought over from Africa and passed

down through generations. Selling these products, tending to cash crops along with spending and saving the money from these dealings were also important. Another important part of this economic gain can be seen in the passing down in things such as property to their descendants. This internal economy was maybe more prominent in the Southern Americas, perhaps the Caribbean Islands but it was part of most slave communities across the Americas. The want to improve their lives through the economies they had been allowed to tender gave the slave a reason to carry on with the life of servitude they were born into or brought to and this was seen and exploited by the slave owners. Marshal K. Woodville goes on to say this about the slaves’ position in The Slavery Reader (2003),

‘Slaves everywhere made the most of whatever opportunities were affordable by the land, and by the skills and qualities they possessed. Slaves hunted and finished for food and pelts, for barter and trade. Food acquired in this way augmented foodstuffs supplied by masters. So too did the food grown on slave plots and in their gardens. In time a wide range of vegetables, fruits and crops was established across the slave societies, enhancing

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