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Slavery in the Americas: Separating Fact from Fiction

The history of transatlantic slavery is riddled with fables and errors. Erroneous claims have been propagated in the media because history is currently perceived as a political project that must justify present sensibilities. History has become so politicized that rigorous research is unable to disabuse activists of inaccuracies. Due to the rampant politicization of academia, noted scholars are usually cajoled into apologizing for defending historical standards.

After chiding fellow scholars for projecting modern sensibilities onto historical realities, historian James H. Sweet was shamed into penning an apology. Sweet was ruthlessly demeaned by his colleagues for noting the fallacy of using the narratives of identity politics to interpret historical events. Because academics are so willing to genuflect to unhinged mobs, propaganda is becoming history, and instead of digesting hard historical truths, many are fed fabrications.

One of the most pernicious myths is the argument that planters in the West Indies and the American South engaged in systematic and widespread slave breeding. After the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, planters in the West Indies pursued pronatal policies to increase reproduction. Some even offered women lighter work and cash incentives, but pronatal policies were more successful in the American South where plantations recorded a natural increase.

Planters were interested in multiplying the slave population because slaves reflected capital investment; however, evidence asserting that slaves were directly bred for sale or that stud farms were established to breed slaves is largely circumstantial. Although planters deliberately promoted intimate relations between slaves to ensure reproduction, we can’t comment on its frequency or conclusively state that it was done to manufacture slaves for export.

Kenneth Stampp, a pioneer researcher in this arena, admits that evidence corroborating the slave-breeding thesis is primarily circumstantial since planters hesitated to document such an atrocious act. Yet, Thomas Thistlewood documented many of his sadistic policies, and doing so was not usual for the planter class. Slave breeding is mild compared to the reprehensible punishments Thistlewood and others meted out to slaves. Nevertheless, this myth remains entrenched in academic circles despite evidence to the contrary.

For instance, David Lowenthal and Colin G. Clarke, in a landmark paper titled “Slave-Breeding in Barbuda: The Past of a Negro Myth,” contend that natural increase in Barbuda was driven by social and environmental conditions that were conducive to population growth rather than an orchestrated policy of slave breeding. Slavery was more brutal in places where sugar production was dominant; however, in regions where sugar was marginal, planters exerted less authority over slaves who proved to be more independent.

Lowenthal and Clarke explain that places with alternative economic structures during slavery tended to benefit from higher living standards and population increase:

Barbuda was not, however, wholly unique. Michael Craton has traced parallel slave circumstances on a cotton plantation in the Bahamian island of Great Exuma, owned by Lord Rolle. Here too, dry climate and thin soils precluded sugar cane, and a couple of hundred slaves enjoyed many of the same conditions as the Barbudans . . . Evidence from Union Island in the Grenadines likewise suggests that slave life in many such tiny islets, only tangentially connected with the society of the great estates, was generally more benign than most West Indian plantation conditions.

Another troubling myth is the proposition that slavery destroyed the family. Although this myth has been thoroughly debunked, the trope is still heavily promoted. The sale of slaves disrupted family relations when people were separated; however, even when slaves did not reside on the same plantations, they still formed unions and visited each other. Moreover, slaves often developed fictive relationships, and it was not uncommon for women to adopt other children.

There are several cases of slaves getting married or forming common-law relationships. In fact, nuclear families were not an anomaly during slavery in the American South. Further, the work of Michael Craton and Gail Saunders has shown that by 1822, 65 percent of slaves lived in nuclear families with both parents. Mike Meacham, in a breathtaking essay, easily supplants the myth that slavery destroyed the black family.

Drawing on the work of leading scholars such as Eugene Genovese and John W. Blassingame, Meacham shows that plantation slavery failed to destroy the black family. Interestingly, Genovese submits that planters encouraged stable unions and would use the fear of family separation to pacify slaves. On the other side of the spectrum, Blassingame suggests that slave unions were generally monogamous and maintained by affection rather than the force of law.

Moreover, using the case study of Berbice, Randy Browne and Trevor Burnard dispel the notion that enslaved men were marginal in family life. Their study portrays men as responsible actors who provided for their families and protected them from abuse. Some men even quarreled with planters who mistreated their spouses or children. Primary sources compiled by Browne and Burnard depict men as instrumental in the socialization of children as disciplinarians and nurturers. The Caribbean research has demonstrated that black men were active participants in family life, and stating otherwise is sheer propaganda.

Similarly, it is also believed that due to the brutality of slavery, slaves were unable to enjoy themselves, but nothing could be more fictitious. In the American South, slave parties were quite popular, and it was typical for slaves to attend parties on neighboring plantations, as David Wiggins’s research documents. Their Jamaican counterparts were equally fond of parties, according to the research of Henrice Altink. Usually, these parties were held on a Saturday and slaves would enjoy themselves until midnight.

Altink aptly describes the nature of the Saturday night dance: “This dance was organised by the slaves themselves and took place in one of the slave houses. The guests, either invited or paid, were provided with live music, food and drink. . . . Evidence suggests that women not only took part in them as dancers and waitresses but also organised them.” Even more shocking is that planters rarely refused requests to host these parties. Not even slavery could quench the appetite for leisure.

Slavery was horrendous; however, magnifying its evils cannot ameliorate the current condition of blacks. Exaggerating the brutality of slavery to demonize white people might inflate the status of some activists, but it disempowers blacks by giving them a false sense of history.

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