Slavery existed in Africa in the form of servitude long before Europeans landed on the continent and commercialized the practice. One major difference between African and European slavery is that in the African set-up, slaves were being used as domestic workers or soldiers. However, European slavery was purely motivated by commercial inducements. The European slave trade was a large-scale capitalist method of production as the Industrial Revolution required cheap labor in factories and plantations.
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Additionally, slaves in the African context enjoyed some individual and social rights, such as freedom to worship their gods, speak their language, and marry. However, once sold to European masters, slaves were stripped of all their rights, humanity, and personality. They could not even be called by their names (Sambol-Tosco, 2004). In Africa, slaves were not properties, but in Europe, they were regarded as such.
Before 1642, there were no contractual obligations defining the period of time that slaves would serve their masters. Prospective slaves would get to a colony before being indentured and negotiate terms with a planter who in turn paid transportation expenses. However, the scenario changed when Assemblymen questioned the English common law, which said, “If a man shall retain a servant, without expressing any time, the law shall construe it to be a year” (Billings, 1991, p. 48).
Therefore, in March 1642, contractual terms of un-indentured servants were specified. Those older than 20 years would serve for four years, while adolescents and children were held for 5 and 7 years respectively. However, this law changed in 1657 and anyone aged over 16 years would serve for 4 years, but children would remain as servants until they turn 21 years old. In 1661, the law was modified for adults to remain slaves for 5 years and children under 15 years old to remain in service until they turned 23. In 1705, the slave code was written, and it became the official document governing the term of service for servants.
The status of children born to slaves by white men was determined using anti-miscegenation laws. Therefore, such children became the property of the master. In this case, it was illegal for a white man to have children with his slave women. However, the white master benefitted from this illegality by becoming the owner of the child born thereof. Mixed race persons could not enjoy the privileges of whiteness.
Slaves were treated as property in terms of the right to possession among other aspects. For instance, the killing of a slave would be considered as damage to property as opposed to murder. As property, slaves could not testify against their masters in courts. In summary, slaves could not “make contracts, leave the plantation without permission, strike a white (even in self-defense), buy and sell goods, own firearms, gather without a white present, possess any anti-slavery literature, or visit the homes of whites or free black” (PBS, n.d., para. 14). Laws were set specifically for slaves to retain their status as property to their masters.
Jefferson’s view of slavery and its abolition was controversial. For instance, while he spoke openly against the slave trade and chastised the British for the same, he benefitted from the practice, as he owned over 600 of them throughout his adult life. He only freed seven slaves (William, 1969).
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In the Declaration of Independence, he stated that all men are created equal, yet he did not apply the same principles by owning slaves. Despite this controversy, Jefferson was a staunch anti-slavery crusader, and he masterminded its abolition in Virginia. Before his death, his views remained the same, that slavery was savagery, and its abolition was the only feasible way of restoring human dignity.
Billings, W. M. (1991). The law of servants and slaves in seventeenth-century Virginia. The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 99(1), 45-62.
PBS. (n.d.). People & events: Conditions of antebellum slavery 1830 – 1860. Web.
Sambol-Tosco, K. (2004). The slave experience: Legal rights & government. Web.
William, C. (1969). Thomas Jefferson and the problem of slavery. Journal of American History, 56(3), 503-526.