Slavery in the North American colonies was a neglected area of study before Peter H. Wood’s examination of its development in South Carolina from the founding of the colony through the Stono Rebellion in 1739. Wood argues that social stratification between whites and African slaves increased as South Carolina developed from a frontier economy to a staple economy. While bonded laborers enjoyed a certain amount of respect for their wilderness and trade skills in the frontier economy, as their population grew and the economy began to focus on cash crops, the movement and activities of African slaves were increasingly restricted. Wood asserts that the main reasons for the increasingly circumscribed role of Africans in Carolina were fear of slave rebellions and invasion from the Spanish possessions to the south.
Wood contends that the low population of Carolina under the frontier economy forced free whites to work alongside unfree labor, including African and Indian slaves. The young colony required all of the available manpower for subsistence and to slowly develop export products like naval stores, cattle, and eventually rice. It was normal for free whites to work at a task like sawing planks alongside African slaves. Wood suggests that the closeness of the work relationship between free and unfree workers created a more egalitarian society during the first generation of settlement.
Carolina’s desperate need for laborers included both trade and survival skills necessary for subtropical regions. While Indian slaves and servants possessed some of the necessary hunting and agricultural skills, using them could damage relations with nearby tribes. Indian slaves also found it easier to escape captivity due to the proximity of their tribes. White indentured servants sometimes had valuable trade skills, but Carolina’s climate and incidence of disease discouraged indentured servants from immigrating to the colony. The remaining source of laborers available to Carolinians was African slaves who suffered less from the colony’s endemic yellow fever and malaria. Many settlers migrated to Carolina from England’s Barbados colony, and were familiar with African slaves, which encouraged this path toward obtaining needed labor. Colony founders designed land warrant policies to encourage colonists to bring contingents of African slaves by allotting settlers additional acreage for each individual they transported to the colony.
African slaves brought critical skills to Carolina, including trade skills like blacksmithing, sawing, and cooping. As important as these trade skills were in the colony’s first generation, Wood claims that survival skills were even more important. West Africans were adept at navigating Carolinian waterways and woods, fishing, and herding cattle. These skills served to feed the colony and provide the initial exports of beef. Slaves also played a critical role in Carolina’s export of naval stores, which provided much-needed trade commodities. Finally, Africans brought skill at planting and harvesting rice crops with them, providing the basis of Carolina’s future cash crop.
During the first generation of the Carolina colony, Wood suggests that Africans retained a relatively high degree of self-reliance despite their servile status. Carolinians expected slaves to provide their own food and clothing, and allowed them to earn their own money during their off-hours. In pursuing their own economic goals, Africans could ply their trades, sell agricultural products to merchants, or enter trade themselves. Slaves armed with muskets or spears also took part in colonial defense as pioneers.
As Carolina’s economy changed from a frontier economy to a staple economy based on rice slaves began to lose their freedom of action. The primary component that drove the change in Africans’ status, Wood argus, is whites’ fear of slave insurrections. Fear of slave rebellion developed after slave revolts in the Virgin Islands and Jamaica in 1734. Carolinians were particularly aware of their vulnerability to slave uprisings due to demographics. Relying on documents from the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, Wood shows that slaves outnumbered whites 2:1 by 1720, a statistical relationship maintained through at least 1740.
Wood believes that fear drove white Carolinians to restrict the movement of Africans, requiring that they obtain a ticket from their master before going to towns. Colonists enacted legislation to penalize masters of slaves that traveled to wilderness areas. Africans were also restricted from trades that allowed them access to weapons. The issue of slaves working for their own benefit in the Carolina economy became an issue when whites began to fear their economic competition in terms of wage instability for laborers and seeming food price increases. Slave owners were increasingly expected to provide slaves with food and clothing to reduce their self-reliance. The colony increased restrictions on slaves’ trades and movement after the Stono Rebellion of 1739.
Based on slave narratives, Wood asserts that slaves met increased restrictions with varying degrees of resistance. Insolence, slow work, and carelessness were the mildest forms of slave resistance. In more extreme cases slaves reacted violently toward their oppressors, attacking them with any weapon that came to hand. Slave resistance also took the form of arson, poisoning, or escape. Arson was the most spectacular type of resistance short of outright rebellion, having the potential to destroy entire towns. Naval stores, harvested rice, and dwellings were all significant targets of arson. Poisoning held a special fear for colonists, perhaps due to Africans’ expertise at fashioning both cures and poisons from natural sources. To combat potential poisonings, banned slaves from practicing or administering medicine, and banned whites from employing slaves in drugstores. A final method of resistance open to slaves was to escape.
Wood successfully employs an interdisciplinary approach that included linguistic analysis of slave names and the development of Gullah English, medical information to discuss effect of subtropical diseases, and the use of demographic information from the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel to fuel the discussion of population trends. Wood carefully illustrates discrepancies between the data available in available sources of demographic information. To interpret slave motivations for work or resistance, Wood relies primarily on Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography, collections of slave narratives gathered through interviews, and testimony offered in trials. Although this paucity of direct evidence of slave experience is unavoidable, it forced Wood to infer the motivations of slaves. The motivations and actions of white colonists are less opaque, as Wood had greater access to primary sources representing them. Legal statues, court documents, newspapers, and cargo manifests combine with letters to provide Wood a clear picture of Carolinians’ concerns.