Class Struggle, the Hidden Origins of Slavery?

hammer-and-sickle1In A Different Mirror  historian Ronald Takaki–who also happens to be a surfer, I’m just saying–makes a case that the hidden origins of American slavery lie in an underlying class struggle which became apparent in one of the early colony’s first revolts. The following is a brief synopsis of his argument.

In 1676 Nathaniel Bacon, a member of the Virginia council, raised a militia made up of the lower class to form a defense against the Indians (64). When he lead a march killing many Susquehannahs and Occaneechee Native Americans the governor declared him a rebel and accused him of treason. In response Bacon marched his army towards Jamestown and destroyed it. On the way a vast number of blacks joined his army. Many of them were stuck in servitude for life and thus had much to gain from a rebellion. The historian Edmund Morgan called this, “the largest rebellion in any American colony before the [American] Revolution.” (65) The rebellion was eventually crushed after Governor Berkeley returned with ships and troops to Jamestown and made specious promises towards them if the rebels surrendered. He did not hold to these. While the rebellion did not last long, it was made apparent that the substrata of American society consisted of radical class tensions, always churning under the social surface waiting to erupt.

It is Takaki’s thesis that the recognition of these tensions by those in power, even though this recognition was mostly implicit, constituted the hidden origins of slavery. That is, it was recognized by the powers that be that a shift was needed in order to undermine the power relations that arose from a common state in life, namely subjugation to an unjust economic regime. What was done over time was a shift from identification with those of one’s class and common economic plight, to the highlighting of the arbitrary codifications of race based around skin color and identification with those who fell within one’s own racial typology.

To help the reader understand his argument he takes us back a little further into the recesses of American capitalism and its modalities. In the early 1600’s landowners preferred white indentured servants to blacks. In contrast to this, from the 1660’s on and especially after 76 one can see a sharp increase in favor of black slaves over white indentured servants, the underlying motivation being economic. By 1694 almost half of the work force was made up of black slaves (66).

Legislation also contributed to the furthering of racial tensions over and against class tensions. For one blacks were punished more severely for wrongs then whites. They where not allowed to hold arms nor meet in large groups (66). Since blacks were denied certain rights based on the color of their skin the landowners saw that they were easier to exploit. When this was coupled with the fact that blacks were socially stigmatized based on the color of their skin it further paved the way for landowners to increasingly exploit blacks. In addition, the legislature permitted whites to abuse blacks. White workers were often used to punish blacks and put down slave rebellions. Legislature also provided that black’s farm animals and food were to be confiscated and turned over to poor whites (67-68). These both, again, highlighted whites’ social status as above blacks and further solidified their camaraderie to one another, as well as increasing animosity between both races which would eventually lead a society in which a man could be enslaved and abused based on nothing more than the color of his skin.

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