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The Old Plantation, attributed to Rose
The Old Plantation, attributed to John Rose (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Old Plantation, attributed to John Rose, possibly 1785-1795, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art MuseumWilliamsburg, Virginia, USA

Slaves and serfs made up around three-quarters of the world’s population at the beginning of the 19th century. (See Slavery, Wikipedia) 

Slavery: Resistance

I used this watercolor in a post dated 10 November 2013. From an artistic point of view, it is a lovely painting. Moreover, according to Wikipedia, “it is the only known painting of its era that depicts African-Americans by themselves, concerned only with each other.” (See The Old Plantation, Wikipedia.)

John Rose, the apparent and probable artist, was a Virginia slave owner who depicted not only “African Americans concerned only with each other,” but also enslaved human beings “resisting” their unfortunate condition. In other words, he portrayed resilience.

“Jumping the Broom”

It is difficult to tell with certainty what John Rose depicted in his “Old Plantation,” but it may be a traditional African marriage practice called jumping the broom. His painting shows slaves trying to have a life of their own. They were slaves, but they built a community, danced, played music, and kept their customs alive.

In other words, slavery was despicable, but many slaves rose above it.


It is not possible to exaggerate the wrongs of slavery in general and North-American slavery, in particular. For instance, if the plantation owner’s wife had a “headache,” she could be replaced. Slave owners often believed they owned the bodies of their slaves. In fact, some slave owners considered the Black they purchased as members of an inferior race. The Black were not altogether “human.”

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Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)


The history of slavery is a very complex topic. There have been many forms of slaves and slaves of many colors and, although serfdom, an international plight,  and slavery in North-America have been obliterated, [h]uman trafficking hasn’t. According to Wikipedia “[h]uman trafficking is primarily used for forcing women and children into sex industries.” In fact, debt-bondage  also remains a form of slavery and it has nothing to do with the color of one’s skin.  

The Wikipedia entry on slavery is extremely informative. There was chattel slavery and  indentured servants, persons who had borrowed money to move to the Americas, but were made to pay for a lifetime. There were children used as soldiers and forced to work. Surrogacy is yet another form of slavery as is the theft of organs and tissues, perhaps the latest form of human trafficking.

To simplify, however, we can reduce enslavement to three areas: forced labor, the sex industry and debt-bondage (poverty).  Also, we are looking at North-American enslavement mainly.

Slave Ship (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Slavery in North-America

North-American slaves were Black and they were used mainly as free and forced labor. They were captured in Africa, mostly West Africa, shipped like sardines to the Americas. They were sold mostly to plantation owners who made them work endless hours and often to death.

The condition of slaves differed from plantation to plantation, but all were human beings bought by human beings who had complete control over their lives and bodies. They were beasts of burden.

According to Wikipedia, “[a]n estimated 12 million Africans arrived in the Americas from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Of these, an estimated 645,000 were brought to what is now the United States. The usual estimate is that about 15% of slaves died during the voyage, with mortality rates considerably higher in Africa itself in the process of capturing and transporting indigenous people to the ships. Approximately 6 million black Africans were killed by others in tribal wars.” (See Slavery, Wikipedia.)

Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson (Photo credit: Virginia Historical Society)

The Declaration of Independence

The case of slavery in North-America is particularly sad.  Owning slaves, which had been deemed acceptable since settlers started to come to America, was suddenly in violation of the American Declaration of Independence (4 July 1776).

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The American Declaration of Independence  remains an ideal—there is no equality, but if “all men are created equal,”  enslavement could not be justified. In other words, federation could not be achieved unless slavery was abolished, which entailed the economic collapse of the Slave States.[i]

As a result, the Slave States, the South, confederated and started a war to preserve their economy, but although the Union, the North, won the war, ending slavery, a Union victory did impoverish former Slave States and, since  they had owned slaves, former slave owners felt their privileged lifestyle could not be taken away. I should think that many knew slavery was unacceptable, but it had been accepted and had made the plantation owner a wealthy man in a land that promised wealth. King Cotton!

Therefore, although Thomas Jefferson[ii] was able to pass the Act Prohibiting the Importation of Slaves of 1807 (2nd March 1807) the year England passed the Slave Trade Act, in 1807, the abolition of slavery itself occurred later and incurred a war.

In England, 26 years separate the Slave Trade  Act of 1807 and the abolition of slavery, in 1833, but in North-America, the gap is longer: 58 years. Given new moral imperatives, rooted in the Age Enlightenment (the primacy of reason), the French Revolution (liberté, égalité, fraternité), and Romanticism (the primacy of sentiment or feelings), slavery had to be abolished.


— King Cotton (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Civil War

Consequently, the Slave States confederated, won the battle of Fort Sumter (12 -14 April 1861), but lost the war (9 April 1865). Confederacy General Robert E. Lee (19 January 1807 – 12 October 1870) surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant (27 April 1822 – 23 July 1885) at Appomattox Courthouse on 9 April 1865, six days before President-elect Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, on 15 April 1865. Slavery had been abolished, but the state of the Union was fragile. Robert E. Lee is as much a hero to Americans as Ulysses S. Grant. But slavery was an evil. One’s life and body belong to oneself.    

From Slavery to Racism, but…

The Emancipation Proclamation (1863), signed by President Lincoln on 1st January 1863, gave their freedom to the slaves inhabiting the Slave States (11) and the Thirteenth Amendment (1865) would eradicate slavery, but the Union’s victory fueled racism and led to segregation.  The Ku Klux Klan has not closed shop, there have been too many cases of lynching, and there are voter purges.  No “Act” can do away with racism.

Slavery and segregation have ended in the eyes of the law: but a de jure victory is not necessarily a de facto victory. Yet, President Obama, an African-American, is the duly elected President of the United States and that is a fact. Moreover, although the Affordable Care Act is imperfect, Affordable Care has begun. It may have to be taken out of the hands of Insurance Companies, except for the little extras, but it exists.   


Humankind’s resilience and its wish to be happy are such that victims themselves seek and find little pleasures. Even in the days of slavery, there were fine friendships, and even love, between the Black and the White, not to mention the slave owner and the slave. Harriet Beecher Stowe‘s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) may contain stereotypes, but it shows immense sympathy toward the Black. Joel Chandler Harris, the author of Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings (1880) and other Uncle Remus stories, was influenced by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. These books are testimonials. 

The painting at the top of this post is not a lie. There had to be an “Old Plantation” and there is.

The new slave is the son or daughter who cannot afford the house in which he or she was raised.        

[i] The Confederacy included South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas. After the Confederacy’s victory at Fort Sumter, Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina seceded from the United States or the “Union.”  
[ii] Although Jefferson owned hundreds of slaves, he was an abolitionist.
© Micheline Walker
November 17, 2013