Slavery and the Making of AmericaPhoto of a group slaves on a Beaufort, South Carolina plantation
Time and Place Slave Memories Resources The Slave Experience

The Slave Experience: Responses to Enslavement
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Historical Overview Responses to Enslavement
Responses to Enslavement
By Nicholas Boston

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Illustration of Africans being loaded onto slave ship
Africans being loaded onto slave ship. Photographs & Prints Division, the Schomburg Center
Africans brought to the Americas faced an immediate loss of self-determination that permeated every facet of their existence. Slaves responded to the circumstance of their capture and enslavement in a variety of ways. Some found it easiest to acquiesce to, or at least feign compliance with their master's will. Others strove to improve their conditions within the bounds of slavery, working to become overseers and managers, thereby gaining a kind of power and an elevated sense of status. Pretending to be ill was a subtle way for some slaves to circumvent duties, while field laborers on occasion purposefully undermined the planter's goals by performing tasks slowly or carelessly. As the institution of American slavery grew increasingly forceful, the enslaved resisted its grip by appealing to the law, by escaping, and even by committing extreme acts like suicide and murder. Slaves' responses to their bondage varied widely over time and were determined by a variety of factors, among them the individual slave's sex, living situation, and physical appearance.

During the primary phase of American slavery, many bondsmen and women were Atlantic Creoles, people whose ethno-cultural identities were comprised of mixed African and European elements. Many of them were proficient in European languages such as Dutch and Portuguese. Often they were skilled traders and experienced travelers.
Illustration of a Massachusetts court house
A Massachusetts court house. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division
Records show that these savvy men and women and their descendants in the colonies often used the court system to make appeals regarding the conditions of their enslavement. Taking their cases before judges and juries, blacks of the early colonial period were awarded back wages from their employers, secured privileges and inheritances for their children, and were able to argue, in a legitimate court of law, for their freedom.
Despite the legal codification of American slavery over the course of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, some slaves continued to work through the court system, making appeals for their rights and liberty. In 1773, four men lobbied the colonial authorities of Massachusetts for their freedom. They were denied. Mum Bett (who was later called Elizabeth Freeman), inspired by the Declaration of Independence, also took her pursuit of freedom before the authorities, suing her owner in a Massachusetts court. In this case, the plaintiff was victorious. Elizabeth was released from enslavement.

Elizabeth took advantage of the time and place in which she lived. Liberty was in the air in Boston in 1774. Other slaves had little chance of securing freedom in the same way. For most, despite the brutal corporal punishment they would face if caught, fleeing bondage was a more hopeful option.
Illustration of a runaway slave
A runaway slave, p.453 from THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD. Library of Congress, LOC, Rare Book and Special Collections Division.
Most of runaway slaves were single young men who fled alone. Looking back at announcements printed in Richmond, Virginia's ENQUIRER between 1804 and 1824, only 15.4 percent of 1,250 runaways announced were females and only 2 percent were children. Of the 424 runaway advertisements in selected New Orleans newspapers in 1850, 136 were females. Escape from sexual abuse by a white owner or overseer was one strong impetus for enslaved women to flee. Slave women might also be motivated by a desire to visit children and other loved ones from whom they had been separated. On the other hand, an attachment to her children and other members of the slave community in which she lived could hinder a female slave's ability to flee. More frequently, we find that female slaves engaged in patterns of truancy, leaving their owners' properties for limited periods of time, returning, and then running off again.
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