In the series The Evolution of White Supremacy in Carolina we have explored the development of racial consciousness in the plantation culture of the Lower South and how this led to a system of legal and cultural White supremacy. However, some readers have repeatedly questioned the decision by the White settlers of the Southern frontier to employ African slaves.
In discussing this issue of why the Negro was used in the South let us turn to the work of Alexander Hewatt (or Hewat) a Scottish Presbyterian minister in Charleston, SC, loyalist to the British crown and the first historian of the Lower South. In his famous book An Historical Account of the Rise and Progress of the Colonies of South Carolina and Georgia (1779) we find an account of the danger of the environment to European man and the comparative fitness of the African for work in the Lowcountry and a passionate objection to slavery on the grounds of Christian morality and Enlightenment era abstractions about universal liberty and equality:
With the introduction of rice planting into this country, and the fixing upon it as its staple commodity, the necessity of employing Africans for the purpose of cultivation was doubled. So laborious is the task of raising, beating, and cleaning this article, that though it had been possible to obtain European servants in numbers sufficient for attacking the thick forest and clearing grounds for the purpose, thousands and ten thousands must have perished in the arduous attempt. The utter inaptitude of Europeans for the labour requisite in such a climate and soil, is obvious to every one possessed of the smallest degree of knowledge respecting the country ; white servants would have exhausted their strength in clearing a spot of land for digging their own graves, and every rice plantation would have served no other purpose than a burying ground to its European cultivators. The low lands of Carolina, which are unquestionably the richest grounds in the country, must long have remained a wilderness, had not Africans, whose natural constitutions were suited to the clime and work, been employed in cultivating this useful article of food and commerce.
Hewatt argues that racial differences made the African more suitable for working the Lowcountry’s rice plantations. His approach to the question was one of common sense about the physical fitness of the races to a particular climate and type of labor.
Interestingly, Hewatt claims that plenty of White labor was available – a claim generally disputed by most historians who write of a labor shortage in a virgin frontier.
Then he continues, diving into universalist Enlightenment arguments about equality and freedom:
So much may be said for the necessity of employing Africans in the cultivation of rice ; but great is the difference between employing negroes in clearing and improving those rich plains, and that miserable state of hardship and slavery to which they are there devoted, and which has been tolerated and established by the law of the land. If we view this race, first ranging over the hills of Africa, equally free and independent as other rude nations on earth, and from thence inveigled by fraud, or compelled by force, and then consigned over to a state of endless slavery, we must confess the change is great and deplorable, especially to an impartial and disinterested eye. Without them, it is acknowledged, slow must have been the progress of cultivation in Carolina; but from such a consideration, what man will presume to vindicate the policy of keeping those rational creatures in perpetual exile and slavery. Nature had given them an equal right to liberty as to life, and the general law of self-preservation was equally concerned for the preservation of both. We would be glad then to know, upon what principle of equity and justice the English traders found their right to deprive the freeborn in habitants of Africa of their natural liberty and native country ; or on what grounds the planter afterwards founds his right to their service during life, and that of all their posterity, to the latest generation. Can the particular laws of any country supersede the general laws of nature? Can the local circumstances of any province upon earth be pled in excuse for such a violent trade, and for such endless slavery in consequence of it? Besides, has not this trade a tendency to encourage war and plunder among the natives of Africa ? to set one tribe against another, to catch and trepan their neighbours, on purpose to barter them for European trinkets to the factories? Nor is the traffic confined to the captives of war alone, who have been subjected to slavery by many nations ; for so ardently do they covet the pernicious liquors and trifling commodities carried to them from Europe, that, without scruple they will part with their nearest relations, their wives and children not excepted, to procure them. Thus civilized nations, by such a traffic, have made barbarians more barbarous, and tempted them to commit the most cruel and unnatural actions.
Nothing can be more evident, than that such a trade is tolerated and carried on in violation of the grand rule of equity prescribed to Christians.
Notice here that Hewatt dispenses with both his previous observations on racial realism and with the traditional view of English liberty which continued to develop in Carolina and had nothing to do with universalism or equality. He presents three arguments against African slavery:
- Negroes as “rational creatures” have an “equal right to liberty.” Hewett claims that the change from their native paleolithic-like lifestyle in Africa to their labor helping to build civilization on a new continent was “deplorable.”
- Africans as barbarians who sell their own relatives into slavery are made more barbarous by the slave trade.
- Christian morality requires equality and forbids slavery.
Needless to say, Hewatt’s arguments were not persuasive to Southerners or English planters in the Caribbean. Theirs was an identitarian liberty which was inegalitarian and rooted in the traditional rights of Englishmen – not in radical Enlightenment era universal propositions. As Hunter Wallace has explained, “Liberty was an ethnic marker, not an abstraction.” It certainly did not extend to primitive alien peoples. And the Christian religious tradition, which had grown up during a time of various forms of slavery and servitude, fit well with the plantation culture. In fact, Southerners routinely defended African slavery on Christian grounds.
In short, African slavery in Carolina was chosen because there was a need for workers who were physically resistant to the environmental challenges of the Lowcountry. British-Barbadian settlers were familiar with Negro slaves and their labor in the Caribbean. They were not troubled with universal abstractions about the rights of all human beings. Their concept of liberty was tribal and traditional – liberty was a privilege and inequality was a fact. They saw a need and met that need with the resources available while taking prudent measures to ensure the safety and purity of their people.