Diversity in Bondage

Varieties of Slave Labor in the Americas


In the popular imagination of the United States the institution of slavery in the Americas is inextricably linked with the cultivation of cotton in the Southern States. Yet, even within the the narrow historical context of antebellum cotton production, there exists recognition of the fact that field work was not the sole occupation of slaves. The 1939 film Gone With the Wind, while far from an accurate depiction of slavery in Antebellum Georgia, shows slaves engaging in a variety of forms of unfree labor. The character Mammy, seen in the picture labeled in the gallery as Image A, is one of the prominent slaves in the film, in part due to her status as a domestic servant rather than a field worker. In contrast, the field hands, such as those in the image below, depicted in the film remain largely nameless and inconsequential to the narrative.

That Gone With the Wind, a film that is both lacking in historical nuance and overflowing in racist apologetics, implicitly and explicitly acknowledges the existence of a hierarchy among slaves based upon the type of labor they performed, hints at the complexity and non-monolithic nature of slavery in the United States. When one looks beyond the narrow confines of American history and towards that of the Western Hemisphere as a whole, it becomes increasingly clear that slavery manifested in innumerable forms defined by time, geography, culture, economic factors, and myriad other factors. Within individual slave societies, historical periods, and geographic locales, the most visible divisions between slaves were those drawn along occupational lines, or more aptly, the the variety of labor they performed. Essentially, there exists labor-centric distinctions among slaves that arise from broad historical, social, and economic differences between slave societies and internal variations in the type of work performed by slaves in individual regions and countries. The labor performed by a field worker on a 18th Century Virginian tobacco plantation differed greatly from the work of an enslaved 16th Century silver miner in New Spain. Similarly, a slave butler in antebellum Charleston, by virtue of his work, lived a dramatically different life than that of a field hand at a rice plantation a few dozen miles outside of town. It is exceedingly important to note that despite the differences in material wealth, standard of living, treatment, and social status, slaves in the Americas, regardless of time, place, and circumstance remained property of their masters. In a sense, the inherent dehumanization of humans via enslavement served to unite a diverse class of individuals separated by the varieties of labor they performed. It was in the mines of Spain's American Colonies that some of the first slaves in the Western Hemisphere experienced the dehumanizing injustices of forced labor and bondage.

Slaves as Miners

The first slaves in Post-Columbia America subject to European authority were Arawak and Carib peoples enslaved by Spanish explorers and settlers for both agricultural work and mining the Caribbean’s quickly diminished gold deposits.(Richard Gott, Cuba: A New History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), 12-38) The practice of enslaving indigenous peoples for work in mines was repeated in Spanish Central and South America. The first African slaves in the colony of New Spain were imported by Cortez to supplement the indigenous slave populations decimated by Old World diseases. Slave populations elsewhere in the Spanish Americas were also maintained by the importation of African slaves. The work performed by slaves in New World mines, like the Peruvian operation illustrated in Image B, was of comparable difficulty and brutality to that done by field hands on plantations. (Ramon Ruis, Triumphs and Tragedy: A History of the Mexican People (New York: W.W Norton, 1992) 89-95)

Slave labor in mines was by no means unique to Spanish America of the 16th and 17th centuries. In antebellum North Carolina, slaves labored alongside whites extracting gold in the State's western regions (Jeff Forret, Slave Labor in North Carolina's Antebellum Gold Mines, The North Carolina Historical Review, 76 1995, 135-162) Image C depicts a slave working along white gold prospectors in early 19th Century North Carolina.

Slaves in the Service and Manufacturing Sectors.

The massive expansion of the mining industry in Spanish America generated considerable demand for not only mine laborers but also farmers, domestic servants, porters, and skilled workers. Slaves soon entered these professions in large numbers.(Laird Bergad, The Comparative Histories of Slavery in Brazil, Cuba, and the United States (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007) 38) Similarly, the growth of the sugar and cotton industries created the need for auxiliary workers that could support the primary economic activity in a region. Countless slaves throughout the Americas labored in what were essentially service sectors. For example, in Image D a slave can be seen at the helm of a riverboat in Suriname circa 1826.

Image E is an advertisement from a Maryland newspaper offering a reward for the capture of a runaway slave, who the owner notes is a skilled blacksmith, a proficient carpenter, and at least semi-literate.

Slaves were also employed by their masters in the industrial production of manufactured goods. Thomas Jefferson famously, or notoriously, employed a number of his slaves as nail manufacturers on his Monticello plantation. By 1860, the Tredager Iron Works in Richmond Virginia, pictured in the Image F was in part staffed by slaves. (Anne Kelly Knowles, Labor, Technology and Race in the Confederate Iron Industry. Technology and Culture Vol. 42, No. 1 (Jan., 2001), pp. 1-26)

While not a common occurrence, slaves were periodically employed by whites as soldiers in colonial struggles against rival European powers and indigenous peoples. The English and the Dutch employed slaves as soldiers in their campaigns to subjugate and eliminate Native American tribes along the North American Atlantic Coast. (Bernard Bailyn, The Barbarous Years (New York: Random House, 2012) 272) Slaves were also used by Confederate forces as cooks, porters, launderers and various other support roles. A number of wealthy Confederates brought their slaves with them on campaigns. William Mack Lee, pictured in Image G, was General Robert E. Lee's body servant for the duration of the American Civil War (Mark Adkin, The Gettysburg Companion(London:Stackpole Books, 2008) 260).

Domestic work was a ubiquitous line of work for slaves. Slave butlers, nannies, launderers, cooks, and cleaners could be found throughout slave holding regions of the Americas. Like the more specialized slave workers discussed above, domestic laborers often worked in close proximity to whites. The following series of images is indicative of that fact.

The photograph, labeled Image H, of a white family from Virginia includes their black nursemaid. In a similar vein, Image I of Brazilian plantation household depicts a high degree of socialization between slave and master. Image J is of a Cuban slave driving a carriage depicts him as well-dressed, he is also the lone black figure in the drawing. Finally, Image K shows a Brazilian slave removing chiggers from a white man's foot suggests slaves performed medical procedures, a very intimate variety of work, on their masters

Being in close proximity to and having skills valued by whites seems to have corresponded, in an exceedingly general sense, with higher standards of living, autonomy, and social status for slaves. Slaves that derived privilege from specialized knowledge were most common in urban areas. While preferential treatment could inspire loyalty, skills such as literacy or military training made the urban slave class a source of effective leadership for rebellions. (Herbert Klein and Ben Vinson, African Slavery in Latin America and the Caribbean( New York: Oxford Unviersity Press, 2007) 145)

Slaves in Agriculture

While enslaved domestic workers, skilled laborers, and soldiers all played a significant role in the emergence and maintenance of slave systems in the Americas, the bulk of the slave population labored cultivating cash crops including cotton, sugar, coffee, and tobacco. The precise nature of the agricultural work performed by slaves varied by time and location. The first black slaves in 17th Century Virginia worked alongside white indentured servants growing tobacco, employing rudimentary methods (Bernard Bailyn, The Barbarous Years (New York: Random House, 2012) 174). In contrast, slaves on mid-19th Century Caribbean and Brazilian sugar plantations labored in highly regimented settings, in which industrial machinery was common. Image L illustrates the industrial nature of Cuban sugar production in the 19th Century.

The intensity and brutality of slave labor in cash crop agriculture also varied between regions, often between plantations. A field hand on an antebellum North Carolina diversified farm could expect to treated somewhat more humanely than one on a sugar plantation in Louisiana (Laird Bergad, The Comparative Histories of Slavery in Brazil, Cuba, and the United States (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007) 30). If slave mortality rates are any indicator of the harshness of labor, the work of a field hand in the United States was far preferable to that of a sugar plantation slave in Brazil or the Caribbean. The United States was the only region of the Americas to maintain a slave population that experienced natural growth, though his could be attributed in part to the more temperate climate of North America. Field workers in the United States were none the less united with their counterparts throughout the Americas via their status as slaves.

Universal Features of American Slavery

As previously noted, despite the variety of work slaves engaged in, ranging from the dangerous work in sugar boiling houses to caring for white children, they remained at the mercy of their masters. The most privileged house slave could be flogged to the same extent as a lowly field hand. There existed no safeguards against mistreatment, abuse, and even murder of slaves beyond the personal character of their owners. Even domestic workers treated more like family than slaves were still dehumanized by their status as property. A slave valued for her fertility and maternal qualities could see her children snatched away and shipped half a continent away. Image M depicts such a familial separation. Every slave was ultimately their masters property. The gross injustice of their commodification united slaves of all occupations throughout the Americas.


Comparing and contrasting the experiences of slaves based upon the labor they engaged in has the potential to produce invaluable insights into the role slaves played in the history of the Western Hemisphere. Additionally, studying the interaction between free and unfree labor in sectors like domestic work and manufacturing may prove valuable to the field of economic history. Recognizing that variations in slave labor had a profound impact on the character of slave societies and that slavery is consequently not a monolithic entity is of comparable scholarly importance. These distinctions, however, should not be used to dismiss the universal immorality of slavery as an institution. A fine line must be drawn between recognizing diversity in bondage and slavery's universal qualities.