Slavery as a Major Theme in Robert A. Gross
Slavery acts as a major theme in Robert A. Gross’s The Minutemen and Their World and Maya Jasanoff’s Liberty’s Exiles. As a result, racism is integrated in the societies of both works, furthering the point that racism is and will continue be a problem we face in our society today. Racism is instilled within the colonies, Britain and their territories, the Caribbean, and the world as a whole through many instances. The instances of slavery and oppression explained in The Minutemen and Their World and Liberty’s Exiles create a foundation for racism, dehumanizing and making black people out to be burdens, creating major obstacles for blacks- both free and enslaved - to practice religion, hold basic human rights, and exist without fear of assault or being wrongly sold into slavery.
Black people are dehumanized in numerous ways in both of these historical monographs. In chapter four of Liberty’s Exiles, black people were said to be “begging about the streets of London, and suffering all those evils, and inconveniences, consequent on idleness and poverty” (Jasanoff 128). This fueled what Jasanoff describes as racial hostility. This hostility instills a toxic ideology within London and beyond. The idea that black people are all poor beggars in need of saving creates a negative stigma that dehumanizes the group as a whole. Although people like Jonas Hanway came up with solutions to this problem (the Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor), the stigma still exists that black people are the ones who need help. This creates a hierarchy in which white people are above black people because of their position to help. This hierarchy reappears in The Minutemen and Their World, when it is explained that the war was being fought mainly by “landless younger sons, by the permanent poor, and by blacks” (Gross 151). This, again, associates black people with poor people, placing them below wealthy land owning white people.
What is interesting is the association of landless younger sons with black and poor people. Land, as well as economic status and the color of your skin, were important factors to an individual’s place within a society during this time period. The huge population difference between black and white people is pointed out multiple times in Liberty’s Exiles. By the time of the Revolution, “only about seventeen hundred whites and twenty-three hundred blacks (about half of these free) lived on New Providence, Eleuthera, and Harbor Island” (Jasanoff 219). With black people outnumbering white people in so many instances, one might think it absurd that black people can’t do things like vote. Free blacks were excluded from the right to vote in New Brunswick and other colonies. It is evident that before the Constitution was written, colonists did not view North America as a government for the people, by the people especially when the specific group of voters at the time didn’t represent the entire population. Denying voting rights to people because of their skin color is just another factor that contributes to the dehumanizing of blacks during this time period.
The initiative to help the black poor was followed by Henry Smeathman’s persuasion of the committee to send the black poor to Sierra Leone to be the first colonist’s there in Liberty’s Exiles. This action makes black people out to look like a burden to the community, but still uses them as commodities to experiment with. In The Minutemen and Their World, slaves were seen as badges of status because “the profits of slave dealing built the elegant mansions of some of Boston’s and Salem’s best families” (Gross 95). Only wealthy white families could own slaves and the number of slaves per family served as a testament to their wealth and status. Black people are consistently seen as products, especially when referring to the slave trade. In both monographs, slaves were talked about like items to be sold and traded among other goods like rum and molasses. Slaves were also treated as items; they were often crammed in ships with no room to move much like a product. This is the worst form of dehumanization in both texts, creating a barrier between white and black people. If someone can disassociate blackness with being human, it is easy for these individuals not to feel bad for them and their conditions. This ideology acts as a major foundation for racism and is seen in both Liberty’s Exiles and The Minutemen and Their World.
As expected, religion became an issue when it started to bring slaves hope. A name brought up a lot in Liberty’s Exiles was David George. George was a black loyalist who escaped from slavery in Virginia and founded different Baptist congregations. When he went to Nova Scotia in 1783, he founded his first black congregation where he sang hymns and baptized people in the community while instilling a sense of hope among slaves. At Shelburne, he sang hymns that attracted both black and white people and on his first Sunday, he “could not speak for tears” of joy (Jasanoff 173). The Baptist preacher eventually took his congregation to Sierra Leone. In Jamaica, George Liele came and preached the same things David George did in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. The slaves learned a lot from him and they gained a newfound culture of African spirituality. Because of their poor conditions, Liele’s message was a source of hope.
Leile built the first Baptist chapel in Jamaica and baptized converts in the river, but his actions were not met with tolerance by white slave-owning supporters. “The idea that too much prevails here amongst the masters of slaves is, that if their minds are considerably enlightened by religion or otherwise, that it would be attended with the most dangerous consequences” (Jasanoff 267-268). Slave-owning supporters would rather black people remain illiterate and at their disposal than practice a religion and possess a mind of their own. This ideology drives home the point that white people wanted to literally own black people, both physically and mentally. The fact that there were more blacks than whites created a fear among white people of a slave revolt, which they acted on before any such thing happened. Liele had to assure white slave-owners that he was not trying to threaten slavery and slaves had to be let into the church at the discretion of their owners. In Saint Domingue, racial laws were created to keep blacks and whites safely apart.
The fear of being sold into slavery because of the color of your skin, free or not, was just one of many fears that black people of the time faced. In Liberty’s Exiles, Britain needed to do something about their overcrowded prisons so they sent a fleet to Botany Bay in 1787. On that ship were seven black loyalists. Whites often seized black loyalists and sold them into slavery in the United States and the Caribbean. These events could be seen as merely an accident or, an attempt to get rid of black people. In Birchtown, many black people were either forced into low-paying jobs or indentured to white people in Shelburne where their jobs “replicated their former positions of slavery” (Jasanoff 174). Another fear instilled in the lives of black people was something as simple as appearing in public in Kingston in 1971. White Jamaicans were scared of a slave revolt at the time so violence was common. In The Minutemen and Their World, slavery is seen in a different light. Although it is clear slaves are denied many rights, Gross is sure to mention that in New England, slaves could “hold property, sue for freedom, and testify in court against both whites and other blacks” (Gross 95). There is a slight contrast in the way slavery is explained in these two books. Liberty’s Exiles is sure to paint a picture of misery and oppression while The Minutemen and Their World explains the advantages certain slaves had over others, making their situation appear to be, in the slightest of ways, tolerable.
The word “slavery” was used in a different context throughout The Minutemen and Their World for white colonists. The white citizens of Concord saw blacks as “embodiments of what British ‘slavery’ could mean”: “deprived of independence, denied the fruits of their labor, [and] always subject to the will of others” (Gross 94). This comparison shows the attitudes of white colonists towards what is considered to be oppression. When faced with what extreme oppression looked like for black people at the time, this use of the word “slavery” is arbitrary. In Liberty’s Exiles, Jasanoff keeps the word “slavery” exclusive to the oppression of black people and the industry of such oppression and objectification.
The different accounts explained in Liberty’s Exiles and The Minutemen and Their World offer an explanation for the deep-seated racism in our country and how dehumanizing and making black people out to be burdens created major obstacles for blacks to practice religion, hold basic human rights, and exist without fear of assault or being wrongly sold into slavery. These two historical monographs give a deeper look into what makes our country what it is today. When looking at American and world history, slavery is an immensely important theme and explains the racism black people experience even in today’s world. There is a big need for change in America’s attitudes towards black people even today. Racism has deep roots in our society and it is our duty to uproot them and continue to progress together for a more compassionate world.