One of the more pernicious memes propagated by apologists for slavery is that of the placid plantation populated by enslaved people enjoying their lives in an agrarian paradise. Amplified by countless historians and others promoting the “lost cause” and bolstered by Hollywood blockbusters such as Gone With the Wind, the plantation myth persists to the present.
The nation’s history is strewn with micro examples of efforts by enslaved Black people, including indentured servants–many of Caucasian origin–that contradict the myth. The nation’s long and torturous relationship with slavery commenced in 1619 when 20 Africans captured in Angola were delivered to Virginia from the trader ship The White Lion.
Historical records confirm that in 1640, a Black servant along with two white indentured servants became fugitives, later sentenced by a Virginia court to lifetime enslavement, while his white accomplices had four years each added to their indentures. The echo of contemporary criminal justice outcomes is impossible to ignore.
Even prior to Article IV, Sec. 2 of the Constitution’s reference to authorization for returning fugitive slaves (i.e., no person held to service or labor), in 1643 the Virginia legislature adopted laws establishing penalties for runaway slaves and servants. Punishments included restraints against free movement, branding, cutting hair, and providing rewards for capture. These laws were passed even though the burgesses believed them to be ineffectual.
In 1661, Virginia passed its first law allowing any free person the right to own slaves. That same year, some 40 servants in York County conspired to rebel against their living conditions. On September 12, 1663, in Gloucester County, plans by a group of enslaved Blacks and indentured servants to abandon their masters were betrayed by one of their own. Imported agrarian labor for the sugar and tobacco plantations was necessary because the European settlers could not force the Native Americans to work for them, as they were outnumbered despite superior arms.
The essence of slavery rested upon the notion of ownership of people as a property right. The colony created a codified collection of slave laws in 1705.
Despite the numerous sentiments by historians that the New World was seen as a haven for European refugees from religious persecution, the essence of slavery rested upon the notion of ownership of people as a property right. The colony created a codified collection of slave laws in 1705. In this way, the mores of the Commonwealth were rooted in its earliest days with respect to both slaves and Native Americans.
The disconnect between theological beliefs and property ownership underlay the historical propensity to label physical resistance to be characterized as “fugitive” or “uprising” or “revolt.” Only the Haitian overthrow of French rule in 1791 has earned the respect of the term “revolution” commensurate to that of France and the 13 colonies. In 1793, an action by a group of indentured servants (likely white) is termed the Stono Rebellion. Similarly, the mere rumors of discontent among Blacks and poor whites in New York City in 1741 is recorded as the Conspiracy or Slave Insurrection of 1741.
Outside of Richmond, Virginia, in 1800, a plan was discovered under which a group of Blacks planned to attack Richmond to destroy slavery. The plot has become known as Gabriel’s Conspiracy. According to the Library of Virginia, the planned “rebellion was widely reported in American newspapers” and an issue in the presidential campaign of 1800. “The Federalist cited the event as a consequence of the Democratic-Republicans’ support of the French Revolution and ultrademocratic ideals.” Twenty-six slaves were hanged.
In 1811, in New Orleans, a band of slaves marched toward the city in protest over plantation conditions. The demonstration has been labeled The German Coast Uprising. By 1831, such uprisings or revolts were elevated to “rebellion” with the activities of Nat Turner.
In 1943, as an outgrowth of his graduate studies, Herbert Aptheker scoured thousands of local records and publications to document (American Negro Slave Revolts) more than 250 such incidents. Aptheker’s criteria relied upon a revolt involving ten or more slaves with “freedom as the apparent aim.” The facts of these incidents are not hidden or unavailable to discovery.
Over 400 years since slaves were first brought to Virginia’s shores, such reality has not penetrated the barriers reinforced by the lost cause and defended by resistance to the removal of Confederate monuments, street names, and other public testaments.
However, over 400 years since slaves were first brought to Virginia’s shores, such reality has not penetrated the barriers reinforced by the lost cause and defended by resistance to the removal of Confederate monuments, street names, and other public testaments. But Virginia has undertaken some essential actions to disencumber the remnants of slave culture.
Nearly seven decades have elapsed since Aptheker investigated and recorded the uncontroverted evidence to put the plantation myth to rest. Its survival likely rests upon both denial and studied ignorance. Black Lives Matter challenges both.