In London in June of 1606, King James I, the reigning monarch of England, issued what would forever change the lives and destiny of the world. The king granted a group of entrepreneurs a charter, allowing them to settle the vastly unknown lands of the newly discovered continent of America. In 1607, a group of ill-suited settlers landed in the Chesapeake region of North America and established the colony of Jamestown. Ravaged by starvation, disease, and natives, the hapless settlers found little success in the early years of the colony. Only through John Smiths leadership and poise did the colony manage to survive the first few grueling years. John Rolfes contributions ultimately saved the colony, as he was able to tame and cultivate tobacco. The settlement became dependent on farming various products. As Englands insatiable appetite grew, Jamestown grew to large-scale farming techniques such as plantation agriculture. It soon became evident that a steady work force would be needed to keep up with the demand of Europe. In 1619, an institution was introduced to the colony that would forever challenge the posterity of the land, altering the scope of future American society for years to come. It is in this year that the first few African slaves arrived in the unknown continent of America. Slavery became firmly established in southern society, relied upon for economic well-being. Through years of degradation, the slaves continued their lives of discrimination and humiliation. Yet these people survived the years of oppression, creating an incredible culture that lasted through their tumultuous existence in America. The evil of slavery reared its ugly face throughout early United States history. The push for freedom grew with the aid of abolitionists who attempted to root out a corruption that appeared to consume their benevolent country.
In this sea of trouble, Frederick Douglas arose to fight against this demon seed of slavery. His detailed account of his life as a slave touched the hearts of abolitionists and helped to fan the flame that would destroy this debauched institution. Frederick Douglas narrative was a weapon that helped many Americans understand slave life and culture and the depravity of their lives through his attempt to invoke sympathy from his readers. The lives and culture of these slaves give testament to the everyday struggle and helped the call for complete abolition.
Plantation life was a harsh existence for slaves. Master and slave relationships varied from different plantations. Some masters thought of themselves as having a parental role for the slaves, providing them food and shelter in exchange for a days work. Yet other masters gave no hint of remorse or feelings towards the slaves and often inflicted great emotional and physical hardships upon them. In either case, the slave system was based on the control of one race over the other based on racial discrimination and moral injustice. Frederick Douglas autobiography gives a first-hand account as to the life of a slave. Like Douglas, many slaves had more than one master. Often times many smaller masters had small farms all of which was on the property of one master. Each of the smaller masters had what Douglas called overseers (p. 41). The overseers job was to control the duties and everyday tasks of the slaves. Usually the overseer is the one that delivers the punishment to the slaves. This person is one of the most despised on the plantation because of their cold-hearted, unwavering hatred towards the slaves. The slaves were valued as property, and their meager existence outlines their struggle of everyday life.
In the life of slaves, few things were as important as the family. For a person that is given few possessions, they grappled on to their relationships with their fellow captives. Slaves were not allowed to marry legally, yet they were often permitted to start families and raise children. When they were separated from family members, as was often the case, they experienced grave emotional anguish. The slaves were forced to work in the fields all day under the watchful eyes of the overseer. They served a menial existence, being given the bare necessities of food, water, and some clothing. In their small dwellings, a slave family adopted gender roles similar to those of free persons. After fieldwork, some masters permitted their slaves to work other jobs to earn wages to support their families. They commanded some respect in their households, being seen as the caretaker of the family. The women usually tended to the children and the household chores. The slaves were the lowest class of society, treated with horrendous and terrible cruelty and punishment. Yet through their suffering, slaves developed a culture that was distinctive to their racial identity.
African culture followed the Africans as they made the voyage to America. Though forced into slavery, the culture persisted and modified through the generations, creating a unique mixture of cultural heritage. Some slaves adopted various forms of African tradition in their physical appearance such as hair and body piercings. One form of art that remained strong and helped the slaves persevere through the troublesome times was music. Tribal dances were often held to the beat of homemade African-style drums and other instruments. Songs known as spirituals detailed the slaves suffering, joy, and hope in their day-to-day life. Slaves obtained most of their support from their family, binding together to face the suffering together. Slaves were furthered hampered by their lack of education. Masters did not want their oppressed people to gain any type of knowledge about their situation, closing them off to the basics of reading and arithmetic. The only knowledge they were allowed to have was that of Christianity. Being forced to adopt Christianity upon their arrival in the colonies, the slaves became fascinated by this religion. They hoped to find salvation through the help of the Christian God who will one day deliver them out of bondage. But without the knowledge of reading and writing, it was difficult for the slaves to speak out against the unjust institution. Yet some defied this setback, learning the art of literature that would one day open their minds to the devastation of bondage. Frederick Douglas learned the craft of literacy, and gathered his own ideas about slavery that would help inspire the abolitionist movement.