A People’s History – Chapter 2, Drawing the Color Line part 6

This is a last minor point, then in a future post I will attempt to sum up Chapter 2.

Zinn does this weird thing where he first says that Africans were a natural choice for enslavement in the New World because they were easier to enslave than either Native American or Europeans. But then, he spends the last several pages of the chapter discuss the rebelliousness of black slaves and all the ways in which it was expensive and full of hassle and required much government subsidization to keep slavery going.

[The early Virginia settlers] couldn’t force Indians to work for them, as Columbus had done. They were outnumbered, and while, with superior firearms, they could massacre Indians, they would face massacre in return. They could not capture them and keep them enslaved; the Indians were tough, resourceful, defiant, and at home in these woods, as the transplanted Englishmen were not (Zinn 25).

Black slaves were the answer. And it was natural to consider imported blacks as slaves, even if the institution of slavery would not be regularized and legalized for several decades (Zinn 25).

Their helplessness made enslavement easier. The Indians were on their own land. The whites were in their own European culture. The blacks had been torn from their land and culture, forced into a situation where the heritage of language, dress, custom, family relations, was bit by bit obliterated except for the remnants that blacks could hold on to by sheer, extraordinary persistence (Zinn 25).

Then we get page after page of their rebelliousness.

Still, under the most difficult conditions, under pain of mutilation and death, throughout their two hundred years of enslavement in North America, these Afro-Americans continued to rebel.

Fear of slave revolt seems to have been a permanent fact of plantation life. William Byrd, a wealthy Virginia slaveowner, wrote in 1736: We have already at least 10,000 men of these descendants of Ham, fit to bear arms, and these numbers increase every day, as well by birth as by importation. And in case there should arise a man of desperate fortune, he might with more advantage than Cataline kindle a servile war . . . and tinge our rivers wide as they are with blood.

This is an aside, but there is a lot of talk of the death in the colonies. I would like to see how many people were dying back in Europe every winter. Probably not as many a in American colonies, but a lot i’m sure. the point being the era was a rough one, opeople were consanttly being offed. So Zinn talking about the lack of labor of whatever is possibly a joke.

One last thing. Zinn concludes ultimately that slavery in America was a result of historical factors, and is not a – as he calls it – natural. If by this he means slavery is not moral, then I agree. If he means to imply that there are unique historical factors in the Americas which lead to slavery, he is wrong. As we have seen, slavery existed across all races and cultures and across all of history. It was (and still is in many places today) primarily a class issue, not a race issue.

Here is Zinn:

We see now a complex web of historical threads to ensnare blacks for slavery in America: the desperation of starving settlers, the special helplessness of the displaced African, the powerful incentive of profit for slave trader and planter, the temptation of superior status for poor whites, the elaborate controls against escape and rebellion, the legal and social punishment of black and white collaboration.

The point is that the elements of this web are historical, not “natural.” This does not mean that they are easily disentangled, dismantled. (Zinn 37)

On to Chapter 3, Persons of Mean and Vile Condition.