Slave Independence and Enterprise in South Carolina

UNCG Author/Contributor (non-UNCG co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Loren L. Schweninger, Emeritus Professor (Creator)
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG )
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Abstract: "EVERY MEASURE THAT MAY LESSON THE DEPENDENCE OF A Slave on his master ought to be opposed, as tending to dangerous consequences," a group of slaveholders in Orangeburg District, South Carolina, declared in a petition to the state legislature in 1816. "The more privileges a Slave obtains, the less depending he is on his master, & the greater nuisance he is likely to be to the public." In their district, the petitioners continued, slave owners were far too lax with regard to allowing bondspeople free time on Saturdays to "keep horses, raise hogs, cultivate for themselves every thing for home consumption, & for market, that their masters do." The most pernicious liberty was allowing slaves to plant, harvest, and sell cotton. This gave them the opportunity to "Steal with impunity," and those who did not plant cotton themselves found a ready market for their stolen goods among slaves who did and acted as factors. Trying to locate the pilfered bales, the petitioners lamented, was "like looking for a drop of water lost in a river."1 The origins of these and other "privileges" dated back to the beginnings of slavery in South Carolina. During the early colonial period, slaves enjoyed a large measure of autonomy. Few in number, working on small farms or isolated cowpens, facing the same harsh frontier conditions as their masters, blacks "set the pace of work, defined standards of workmanship, and divided labor among themselves," as one historian has noted, "doubtless leaving a good measure of time for their own use." Even with the importation of large numbers of Caribbean — and African-born — slaves into the colony during the late-seventeenth and early-eighteenth centuries, the labor pattern that evolved in the cultivation of rice — the task system —gave blacks "free time" to cultivate gardens, raise livestock and poultry, and harvest cash crops. Those who adapted to their new land by learning English, embracing Christianity, acquiring skills as carpenters, blacksmiths, coopers, and bricklayers, and those who lived in an urban environment could sometimes be hired out for wages by their owners, or allowed to hire themselves out, retaining a portion of their earnings. As early as 1733-1734, a grand jury in Charles Town noted the practice among slave masters of allowing their bondspeople "to work out by the Week" and "bring in a certain Hire." Some of the most artful and talented slaves moved out on their own and, though still legally in bondage, lived virtually autonomous lives.

Additional Information

South Carolina Historical Magazine 93 (April 1992):101-25
Language: English
Date: 1992
South Carolina, Slaves, Slave owners

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