The Slave You Didn't Know

An exploration of the complex nature of unfree African labor


When the average American thinks of slavery, they think of Africans being crammed into ships for a journey across the middle passage, families being sold to different owners despite their pleas to stay together, and brutal work on cotton or tobacco plantations. This is generally the limited scope that has been shown to the public. While all of that is true in some respects, black slavery in the Americas was more complicated than it is given credit for. There were slaves that lived those kind of lives, but there are also slaves who lived very different kinds of lives. Even those that lived on plantations could bargain with their masters at least a little. Those that lived in urban areas often had very different lives than plantation slaves, and might have even had their own private homes. Slaves came in many varieties. Regardless of the circumstances, they were not free, but there were many different types of unfree labor that they were subjected to.


Slaves in plantation societies, the Caribbean especially, far outnumbered masters. Despite this, the only slave revolt that had any measure of success was in Haiti. This could be for a variety of reasons: perhaps the slaves were brainwashed, perhaps they were afraid of their masters calling in militias to control them, perhaps they were simply doing the best they could with the circumstances they were given. Slaves would test boundaries, negotiate with masters, and generally try to obtain a better life one step at a time. If they were given a little free time and a plot of land or a percentage of the money they earned, they were often less likely to attempt escape or revolt.

Plantations had slaves producing cotton, sugar, tobacco, indigo, and other cash crops. There were many more black slaves than white masters. Urban areas, however, found slaves doing virtually every job that needed doing. Black slaves worked with white indentured servants and free people. Often, slaves with a particular skill were leased out with the potential for the slave to keep a small portion of the profit. In the northern United States in particular, slaves were treated more like humans and companions than the livestock model found in some plantations. This shocked many travelers who were not on board with the idea that slaves would be treated almost as family members by their masters; even eating dinner at the same table with their slaves was shocking.

Slaves in some areas could be respected professionals. Some were even doctors. They could be well respected in communities, have their own businesses and families, they could even live away from their masters. None of this changed the fact that they were slaves. They could be sold at the drop of a hat without any say in the matter. One day they could be doing a skilled job in an urban area, and the next, they could be shipped to a sugar plantation to do nothing but cut canes from dawn till dusk.

Some slaves who were owned by less wealthy masters had more freedoms because it was more cost effective. In Costa Rica for example, masters might send their slaves out to start a cacao operation. Slaves could easily live off the land, and masters were even willing to give them a cut of the profits. This could potentially allow them to buy their own freedom once they had saved enough. The masters rarely visited these cacao operations, leaving the slaves to oversee every step of the process. This would surprise many who thought that slaves were always under the supervision of an overseer or the master himself. Despite this seeming freedom, most of the slaves permitted this kind of life were male. With few women around, families were almost an impossibility. Without any kind of family ties, the slave still felt the social death that is a marker of the condition of slavery.

Many slaves were used for mining gold in California. This caused some problems for the slave masters because slavery was not legal in California. They came up with as many ways around it as they could, and in reality no one paid much attention to whether people were using slaves or not. Initially, slaves were used to do the actual mining, but owners soon found out that it was more profitable to rent them out to do “women’s work.” Women were scarce in the gold rush society, so slaves made considerably more money than they would have otherwise.

California provided the ideal environment for slaves to escape. Since slavery was not legal, masters couldn’t very well advertise that they were searching for a runaway slave. Slaves took full advantage of the situation. Running away and never returning led to the problem of never seeing loved ones again though. Many had families and friends back east, and if they were to completely abandon their masters, they would be cut off forever since the chances of making enough money to buy them would be slim. They therefore had to make a choice. Many contacted their masters and agreed to return under specific conditions. If the master in California died, they might contact the widow and offer to return to buy their freedom thus ensuring that they would remain free, but be near their loved ones.

Eventually, slaveholders who wanted to take their slaves to California began contracting with them. The slaves would work for a certain amount of time or make a specified amount of money in return for their freedom. This proved to be a good solution for both parties since it provided incentive for the slave to remain with the master and work, and the slave didn’t have to make the difficult choice between escape and seeing loved ones again.


Slavery, especially in the media, is portrayed as a simple, black and white idea. There is the horror of plantation slavery or there is freedom. As usual, real life is much more complex and nuanced than any form of media can ever portray. It is hard to portray this even in scholarly work about the subject. Some slaves lived and worked in conditions as depicted by popular media. Others bargained for more rights from their masters. Some were skilled in areas as varied as any white person. They were generally located near more urban areas than the plantation slaves. Some slaves lived with their masters, but some lived on their own or with their families. Some manipulated their masters, some ran away, some revolted. All were subject to sale without their permission at a moment’s notice, and all wanted a better life for themselves and for their children. The social death that denotes slavery was felt in varying degrees, but masters could ensure it returned in full force by a simple sale. This was true across the many forms that slavery in the Americas took.


African Slavery in Latin America and the Caribbean by Herbert S. Klein and Ben Vinson III

Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World by David Brion Davis

Remaking Slavery in a Free State: Masters and Slaves in Gold Rush California by Stacy L. Smith

Blacks in Gold Rush California by Rudolph M. Lapp