In the introduction to his book Did Slavery Pay? (1971: xii), a collection of readings on the economic effects of slavery, Hugh G. J. Aitken discusses what we can learn from these texts. He says they ‘have much to tell us about slavery, and about the plantation economy, and the South, but they have little to tell us about the black man’ (1971: xii). To get a fuller understanding of the subject the narratives on slavery are extremely useful. They paint a vivid picture of what life was like for black men, women and children at the time.
However it is important to keep in mind the differences between and the limitations of both these kinds of sources. Both types raise questions of bias and reliability. Everyone who gives an account of history does so with a purpose. We must carefully analyse each source and make clear what we can and cannot learn from it. The economic accounts of slavery are presented as objective. ‘Facts’ and figures are used to analyse the profitability of slavery. Ernest Williams, for example in From Columbus to Castro: the history of the Caribbean, 1492-1969 (1970) provides a lot of numerical data detailing the rise and fall of slavery.
How accurate these figures are is an important question. The reader needs to consider how they were constructed and for what purpose. Aitken suggests that historians often picked up unexamined assertions and used them as facts. They based their arguments on ‘stereotypes of the negro and of plantation slavery they found in earlier writings’ (1971: 2). If true, this means the conclusions of these arguments are of little value. In Capitalism and Slavery (1944) Williams discusses the ‘origins of Negro slavery’. He stresses the idea that black slavery was ‘an economic phenomenon.
Slavery was not born of racism: rather racism was a consequence of slavery’ (1944: 7). Williams supports this by telling how ‘unfree labour in the New World was brown, white, black and yellow; Catholic, Protestant and pagan’ (1944: 7). It is true that many indentured white servants were taken to the Americas to work, however there were distinct differences between these white servants and the black slaves. White labour was bought for a temporary period; their freedom was theirs again once they had served their contracts.
Blacks, on the other hand were bought for life. This seems to show that racist moral assumptions were being made about which types of people could acceptably be bought outright as property. Many economic accounts discuss the profitability of slavery, for the slaveholders individually and for the South’s economy but vary on their conclusions (Aitken 1971: xii). Many writers focus on the importance of slavery for the European nations involved. Adam Smith sees slavery as the basis for the industrial revolution in Britain.
However this idea is also debatable. David Landes (1998) criticises this view, claiming that important advances that led to the industrial revolution (for example steam engines, mechanised wool spinning) developed independently of the Atlantic system. If theses ideas are debatable, then we must question the way they are presented as facts. It is also important to keep in mind that no author is completely neutral. Every writer has political beliefs that are likely to influence his or her work.
For example, a writer who is anti-capitalist is likely to emphasise evidence that shows the negative effects of capitalism, while a writer who is pro-capitalism would be likely to do the opposite. Slavery is a very emotive subject, Aitken says ‘there is a lot of suppressed guilt involved, though it is seldom permitted to show clearly through the polished academic veneer’ (1971: ix). As he says it can be ‘amazingly difficult to filter out the ideological component’ and discover what is the objective truth.
The economic texts tend to talk of slaves in numbers as a commodity. This is perhaps an echo of how they were seen at the time: a non-human mode of production. Slavery was discussed as efficient or inefficient, profitable or unprofitable. The Slave narratives gave this ‘mode of production’ a voice, allowing the reader a glimpse of the human side of slavery. Many of the slave narratives share several characteristics. They describe the physical and emotional hardships they endured during their time as a slave.
Like in many narratives Mary Prince told of her separation from her family, ‘we had not the sad satisfaction of being partners in bondage’ (in The Classic Slave Narratives 1987: 191), and of the cruelty of her masters, ‘to strip me naked – to hang me up by the wrists and lay my flesh open with the cow-skin, was an ordinary punishment for even a slight offence’ (1987: 194). They tell of their quest for freedom and their escape from slavery. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in the introduction to The Classic Slave Narratives states ‘the slave narratives came to resemble each other, both in their content and in their formal shape’ (1987: x).
The narratives were extremely popular in America and Britain at the time it could be argued that some of the narratives were simply repeating what had worked for other authors. Although it is equally possible that the experiences of slaves in various places were similar. They are primary sources, eyewitness accounts of what took place and in this way have a value that the economic texts do not. They were written by those experience slavery, rather than some studying it possibly many years later.
The first slave narratives were originally published to arouse the sympathy of readers in the hope of gaining support for abolition. This should be kept in mind when reading the narratives. The political motive may have led authors to exaggerate the cruelties they suffered. Frederick Douglass, probably the most famous writer of slave narratives, confessed to doing this. In Frederick Douglass; New literary and Historical Essays Sundquist tells how ‘his charges of brutality against Thomas Auld were deliberately inaccurate’.
Douglass later apologised to Auld for this, admitting that his intention was to make Auld ‘a weapon with which to assail the system of slavery’ (1990: 6). Although published for abolitionist purposes most slave narratives were very personal accounts, snapshots of lives rather than political statements. Douglass, however, ‘made the facts of his life a dramatic representation of the great political forces that constituted the nations over slavery’ (1990: 3) It is important to recognise the differences between the economic texts and the narratives on slavery to get the fullest and most accurate understanding of the subject.
The economic texts tell us of the influence that the slave trade and the production using slavery had on the economies in America and in Europe. It can provide us with information on the long-term consequences of slavery. The slave narratives give an insight as to what life was like on a personal level. They give the reader a picture of how the master and the slave interacted. They can help us begin to understand some of the atrocities suffered by the slaves. The slave narratives debatably played a part in the abolition of slavery and so provide us with a background for that.
Both types of source provide a lot of interesting and useful information, but as with all historical sources they must be assessed for reliability. The economic accounts are secondary sources of information, so the reader must question the evidence that the arguments and assertions are rested on. The slave narratives were written with political motives that may have influenced the content. With both types of writing it is important to read various accounts, and look for both conflicting and consistent views. The reader must always keep in mind the limitations of each source and be aware of who was writing it and why.