Did Slaves Commit a Lot of Crime?

I was scrolling through Reddit and saw an interesting question asked as a thread starter: Were blacks disproportionately committing crimes compared to whites even when they were slaves? This intrigued me to look for some data on the matter.

Because there isn’t (generally) official crime data from the time, the best we can refer to is evidence given by historians and diaries. Of course, it will be hard to distinguish between plain violence and rebellions, so we should be cautious in everything we interpret from this.

I was able to find a source of projected crime rates over time. This source shows the American homicide rate has been decreasing since 1700. A peak went up and down after 1750 (a war happened there) and after 1850 (another war). The effect of violent uprisings during wars is described in a 1976 paper here.

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This doesn’t give us much information, though.

First, I decided to check the book A Renegade History of the United States by Thaddeus Russell. The second chapter, titled “The Freedom of Slavery” gives an excellent second take to the standard narrative of slavery, one which I often refer to when debating people on the topic.

It certainly didn’t seem to be the case that slaves were well behaved. In the 1850s, Frederick Law Olmstead traveled the South and wrote three books describing what he saw on his tour. He noted that slaves were generally unproductive and avoided actually working. Olmstead says, “The overseer rode about among them, on a horse, carrying in his hand a rawhide whip, constantly directing and encouraging them; but, as my companion and I, both, several times noticed, as often as he visited one end of the line of operations, the hands at the other end would discontinue their labor, until he turned to ride towards them again.”

Slaves often skipped work, according to Olmstead, as he says, “[t]he slave, if he is indisposed to work, and especially if he is not treated well, or does not like the master who has hired him, will sham sickness – even make himself sick or lame – that he need not work.”. Russell also reports of actual empirical data that might suggest slaves very commonly faked sick to leave work:

“On the Wheeles plantation, one out of seven working days was lost to slaves claiming they were too sick to work. On the Bowles plantation, of the 159 days missed due to illness in one year, only five were Sundays, when there was the least work to do. The Leigh plantation, where only thirty slaves worked, reported 398 sick days in one year. At these plantations, the rates of sickness peaked on Saturdays and during the planting and harvest seasons, when there was the most work to be done.”

Later on, Russell describes how the slaves were not exposed to a culture of self control and many thought this had a lot to do with how they were often misbehaved – often being hedonistic and licentious. Slaves were not held under the same laws as whites and hence were not forced to respond to the same culture. This caused many slaves to sleep around (even before marriage), get divorced more, and dress promiscuously. Russell continues as well,

“Angry slaves were also dangerous slaves, and in addition to the documented cases of slaves’ lethal vengeance, there were many stories of poison or ground glass mixed in with the master’s food and white children under the care of slave women who died unexpectedly.”

This itself is pretty disturbing.

Anyways, it does seem slaves were not the best behaved and generally not conforming to white values, which were much stricter and constrained. This is possibly evidence that blacks were more likely to commit violent crimes and acts at the time.

An essay, “Slave Power: The Relationship between Slave and Slave Owner” also looks at how the threat of revolt from slaves made the masters often scared. While it isn’t as much of evidence due to the fact it is rebellion, rather than actual violent crimes, it might suggest higher rates of violence, to the point of terror, from African slaves. The author of the essay says,

“This fear began during the trans-Atlantic crossing when it became apparent that slaves posed a very real threat to their owners. There were roughly five hundred revolts on ships crossing the middle passage, showing that even when shackled and manacled that the complicity of slaves could never be guaranteed.1 This continued into life on plantations; the fact that whites were greatly outnumbered served only to exacerbate this fear that was felt. In Jamaica in 1730 there were sixteen slaves to every free white person on the island; in British Guiana the ratio was twenty slaves to every free white man.2 It became very obvious, very quickly that slave owners were in a position of vulnerability, particularly as they would often be relatively isolated on the plantation with the nearest support being miles away.”

The reason I say revolts aren’t as good of a measure though, is because if you reversed the roles – blacks as masters and whites as slaves – the whites would revolt too. It doesn’t have to do with race as much, but more with the aspect of slavery itself.

I also looked to the book, Violence and Culture in the Antebellum South, for some evidence. This provided some of the most telling evidence the slaves had higher rates of violence than whites, besides the rebellions themselves. The author, Bruce Dickson Jr., describes that slave masters would sometimes pit slaves against each other for fun (think to that scene in Django: Unchained) but that a lot of the time, the masters didn’t need to, because slaves would fight each other regardless and the master trying to get them to fight, just made them not want to. One paragraph stuck out to me in particular:

“Fights occurred in the slave community for a variety of reasons, and only a few ex-slaves agreed with the assessment, approved by Southern whites, that “slaves warn’t civilized folks den – all dey knowed was to fuss and fight and kill one ‘nother.” In general, Eugene D. Genovese’s comment that violence grew out of a “flash of passion” seems to account for most of the fighting that took place. Jealousy, a spur of the moment quarrel, or even fighting for fun were all causes of violence – and the problem of motives that so troubled elite white Southerners was not so much importance to those who talked about violence in the slave community.”

Dickson goes on to say that masters attempts to limit violence among slaves was largely appreciated by ex-slaves, and that many who “looked back at on the institution with some fondness, this was its main selling point.” After the Civil War, Dickson describes that ex-slaves resorted to the same “flashes of passion” as before for the violence in their communities. He says,

“Disputes could start over the merest trifles, and fighting out differences when they arose was a normal, even an encouraged mode of action for children and adults alike.”

Slaves and ex-slaves alike got into petty fights and fights for personal purposes very commonly. They were certainly violent against each other and this seems to show here. For a full description, I’d recommend reading the chapter “Slavery and Violence: The Slaves’ View” from the book for a fuller description.

Unfortunately, I can’t access the full text, only other summaries I’ve found: Jeff Forret writes in “Conflict and the “Slave Community”: Violence among Slaves in Upcountry South Carolina” that violence among slaves was a “creative and destructive force”. The entire paper is dedicated to debunking the existence of a “Utopian slave community”. Forret gives an analysis which shows these communities were very violent and riddled with what we generally consider crime.

Overall, it seems that slave communities were not utopians for slaves and that slaves were not well-behaved. Besides the rebellions, which we can expect and justify, the slaves were not good to each other or, likely, their masters. This contributes to the debate about racial violence in America. Rather than slavery being one of the causes of black crime, slaves were already rough and violent to each other as well as misbehaved regardless.

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