A lust for gold drove Prince Henry of Portugal to dispatch African Expeditions. In 1441, he sent Antam Gonclaves and Nuno Tristao, two of his captains, to Cape Bianco on the western coast of Africa. There, the two discovered a black Muslim market where they received a small amount of gold dust. Also, the Portuguese crew seized twelve black Africans to take back “not as slaves, but as exhibits to show Prince Henry.” That is most likely not true. They probably were brought back as exhibits to show as future slaves. A local Arabic speaking chief was among the captives, and he negotiated a trade for himself and a boy captive. He promised other black slaves in exchange for himself and the boy. In 1442, Antam Gonclaves sailed back to Africa and returned with more gold dust and ten black Africans. The next year, Portuguese explorers returned from Africa with almost thirty slaves.
In 1481, Elimina, or the mine, was built by Portugal on Africa’s Guinea coast. It was the first of many permanent slave factories, or trading posts that dealt in slaves. Slaves were traded for cowrie shells, iron bars, guns, basins, mirrors, knives, linens, silk, and beads.
In April 1606, the Virginia Company was charted by King James I. It was comprised of two divisions, the Plymouth Company and the London Company. The London Company established Jamestown in Virginia, England’s first permanent settlement in the New World.
There were two ways to become a member of the London Company, an adventurer and a planter. An adventurer was simply an investor who stayed in England, and a planter traveled to the New World to work for the company for a set number of years. In exchange for this work, the company provided housing, clothing, and food. At the end of the servitude, the planter would be granted a piece of land and freedom from the company. The planter would also get a share of the company profits. The planters had no real freedom and were kept in the company by force. They had no choice but to accept whatever changes the governor or the company decided to make, even extensions of contracts. Anyone who talked bad about the company was severely punished by hanging, shooting, breaking on the wheel, or even being burnt alive. The company also recruited indentured servants, seven years servitude for passage to the colony.
In 1607, three ships carrying 100 English colonists sailed into Chesapeake Bay and anchored at the mouth of the James River. There, Jamestown settlement was established. In the next three years, 800 more settlers arrived. The settlers quickly became hungry and ate all resources, including chickens, pigs, cattle, and horses. According to Captain John Smith, cannibalism was rampant. One man even killed his wife for food. By spring of 1610, only sixty of the original 900 colonists were still alive. Two years later, in order to create income and survive, the colonists began to experiment with different types of tobacco. They desperately needed more laborers to produce the tobacco so Virginia could survive.
In 1619 it was beginning to be pretty peaceful for the settlers, but they relied heavily on Indians for corn because it was a New World crop that was previously unfamiliar to the English. The colonists began to bully the Indians in many different ways. This attitude was nothing new, though, because they had been bullying themselves for years. The colonists would do whatever was necessary to ensure their survival.
In 1619, the first Africans began arriving in Jamestown. Some were slaves and some were servants. Anthony Johnson, referred to as “Antonio a Negro” in early records, first arrived in Virginia in 1621. Anthony went to work on a tobacco plantation. It is not clear if he was an indentured servant or a slave, but he eventually bought his way out of bondage. During the 1640s, Anthony and his wife Mary acquired their own land where they raised livestock. By the 1650s, their estate had grown to 250 acres, which was extremely rare for any ex-servant, white or black. In 1670, a court in Virginia ruled that, because “he [Anthony] was a Negro, and by consequence an alien,” the land owned by Johnson rightfully belonged to the Crown.
By 1640, at least one African, John Punch, had been declared a slave. He was ordered “to serve his said master or his assigns for the time of his natural life here or elsewhere.” He was one of three servants who had run away. The other two were white. His severe punishment was not based on the color of his skin. It was based on the fact that he was non-Christian. To the colonists, freedom of religion was only guaranteed to Christians and no one else. In 1641, there were no laws in Virginia that defined the rights, or lack of rights, of blacks. John Graweere went to court to ask permission to buy the freedom of his child in order to raise the child as a Christian. Even though the child’s mother was a slave, the court granted Graweere permission.
In the 1620s and 1630s, Virginia acquired most of its tobacco labor from London. Then, after 1660, the price of tobacco went down, the Black Plague reduced England’s population, and a fire destroyed much of London, creating a lot of construction jobs back home. Virginians began to look toward African labor. Plantation owners’ perspectives began to change. Blacks could be forced to work for the rest of their lives and punished with impunity simply because they were not Christians. The number of blacks began to rise. In 1625, there were only 23 in the colony. By 1650, there were 300, and by 1700, more than 1000 Africans were brought to the colony every year.
By 1661, a reference to slavery entered into Virginia Law. The next year, the colony went further by stating that children born would be bonded or free according to the status of the mother.
In 1675 and 1676, Nathaniel Bacon led rebellions that united poor blacks and whites against the ruling class, which was led by Governor William Berkeley. These rebellions, which invoked fears that the poor could unite and overthrow the ruling class, hurried the transition to racial slavery.
In 1705, the Virginia General Assembly made Virginia’s Slave Codes. These codes stated that any servants imported and brought into the country, which were not Christians in their native country, shall be accounted and be slaves, all Negro, mulatto, and Indian slaves within this dominion shall be held as real estate, and if any slave resist his master, the master corrects the slave, and the correction results in the slave’s death, the master shall be free of all punishment, as if such accident never happened. Since slaves who did not own property and could not be required to pay fines, these codes imposed harsh physical punishments upon them. A slave found guilty of murder or rape would be hanged. If the slave, according to the codes, was found guilty of robbery or any other major offense, the slave would receive sixty lashes and be placed in the stocks where his or her ears would be cut off. A minor offense, like associating with whites, would result in whipping, branding, or maiming. Prior to the slave codes of 1705, disputes between a slave and a master could be brought before a court for judgment.
Terrorists from England came to America, stole what was needed to survive, whether it was food or human lives, and killed what was not. A few brave souls, outraged by the crimes of humanity exercised before them, began to act against the forces of oppression. The Underground Railroad, which no one is sure when it started, but records have been found that date back to the early 1700s, was an intricate web of safe houses that formed a path for runaway slaves to reach safety in Canada. Conductors would meet slaves at different points along the trek and safely move them from one stop, or safe house, to another. The Underground Railroad spanned from every corner of America, including the Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky area.
John Parker, a former slave, who eventually resided in Ripley, Ohio, often went into Kentucky and Virginia and helped transport by boat hundreds of runaways across the Ohio River. His father was white, and his mother was a black slave. He was sold to a slave agent at the age of eight, who sold Parker to a doctor. Parker was allowed to learn how to read and write. He was also allowed to apprentice in an iron factory where he learned the trade of plasterer and was permitted to keep some of the money he made. He purchased his freedom in 1845 for $1800. Parker’s first act as a conductor on the Underground Railroad was to help a Negro barber by removing two young girls from Kentucky and taking them to freedom in Indiana and Ohio. According to his autobiography, he helped 400 slaves reach freedom. Parker became a businessman who eventually purchased an iron factory and patented several popular inventions, including a follower-screw for tobacco presses in 1884. He also was a recruiter for the 27th Regiment, U.S. Colored Troops. His foundry was still operating in 1981, but was no longer owned by his family.
Harriet Beecher Stowe moved to Cincinnati in 1832. She became an influential abolitionist when her book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, became a best-seller in 1852. Her book was based on real-life events she personally witnessed through her connections to the Underground Railroad. What sparked her interest in the cause was a trip to Washington, Kentucky. At the age of 22, Stowe was a teacher. She was visiting one of her students. The student’s father, Colonel Marshall Key, in order to entertain Stowe, took her to a slave auction at the Washington Court House. What Stowe saw horrified her, and she never forgot about it. Over twenty years later, she wrote her famous book, which mirrored real-life individuals such as Josiah Henson as well as Jane and Isham Anderson, amongst others.
The Wilmot Proviso, an 1846 proposed amendment to a bill put before the U.S. House of Representatives during the Mexican War, created a lot of bitterness between North and South and helped greaten the conflict over the extension of slavery in newly acquired U.S. territories. The bill was for money to be used to negotiate territorial settlements with Mexico, but the proposed amendment stipulated that none of the territory acquired in the Mexican War should be open to slavery. The amended bill passed in the House both years it was proposed, but it would not pass anywhere else. It was either voted down, ignored, or just crossed out and the bill drawn up without the amendment added. But, the Wilmot Proviso did aid in the decision to enact the Compromise of 1850.
The Compromise of 1850 was part of American efforts to resolve the conflict over the spread of slavery into the developing western territories, though it did bring about the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. The Compromise was developed by Kentucky senator Henry Clay, with help from vice president Millard Filmore, and supported by many, including Massachusetts’ secretary of state, Daniel Webster. The Compromise stated that slave trading was outlawed in D.C., Congress had no power to interfere with the interstate slave trade, California would be entered into the union as a free state, New Mexico and Utah would decide on slavery through a vote of popular sovereignty, and a federal fugitive slave law would be enacted making it illegal for northerners to harbor, aid, or assist fugitive slaves. This compromise meant that if a fugitive slave was caught, he or she was no longer brought before judicial officers, but was instead brought before federal commissioners, who were terribly biased in decided the fate of these runaway slaves.
Fugitive slave laws existed in 1793, though, which gave legal support to masters seeking their fugitive slaves and, in turn, caused states who had recently freed their slaves to establish personal liberty laws to protect citizens from slave catchers. Fugitives could, under these personal liberty laws, testify before judges, and slave owners were prevented from seizing fugitives without a warrant for their arrest. All personal liberty laws became null and void, however, under the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850.
A claimant or his representative (a slave owner or slave catcher) could claim fugitives simply by seizing a black person who fit the description of the runaway slave. A federal judge decided the identity of the fugitive solely based on the testimony of the slave owner or slave catcher because slaves were not allowed to give testimony on their own behalf. All commissioners, including local judges, were given the same power as Supreme Court judges when enforcing the fugitive slave law and its penalties. If the fugitive was returned to the owner, the judge received $10 from the federal government, but if the judge found in favor of the defendant, he only received $5. Any U.S. Marshal who refused to act under the law was fined $1000. Also, any person “obstructing arrest of [said] fugitive, harboring fugitives, or concealing them” was fined up to $1000 and could get up to six months in prison. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 stripped fugitives of due process before the law.
These new laws hindered the Underground Railroad in some ways, and, in some ways, not. Harriet Beecher Stowe moved from Ohio to Brunswick, Maine in 1850, after her husband accepted a teaching position at Bowdon College. Could Stowe, sympathetic to runaway slaves and abolition and living so close to the borderlines of opposing viewpoints and fugitive tension, have moved simply to escape the front lines, enabling her to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin in peace? John Parker seemed unmoved by the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, but he was a Negro, and not just a sympathizer.
Through brutality, and, what would be considered by our own present U.N. sanctions as crimes, our country flourished into what it has become today, a first world, money-hungry, godless country in which only few still own the means to production, but all work together toward a common goal, wealth, the American Dream. For many, the Underground Railroad symbolizes human generosity and kindness at its best, but for many others it symbolizes human brutality and oppression at its worst. Which view is the right view? Maybe the better question would be who has the right to view humans above animals, where a stronger being overpowers a weaker one at any chance it can get?
I will continue this thought with privatized prisons…