Aging and Antislavery: Old Slaves and Questions of Family in the Anglo-Atlantic Abolition Movement

Sunday, January 10, 2016: 9:30 AM
Room A704 (Atlanta Marriott Marquis)
Daniel Livesay, Claremont McKenna College
By the 1780s, as the abolition movement took off in the British Atlantic world, both pro- and anti-slavery supporters focused on the demographic sustainability of slavery.  Should it be found that enslaved workers could reproduce themselves naturally, then the importation of more bound Africans would be deemed unnecessary.  This debate produced a focused examination of enslaved families, as well as planter practices toward them.  Although scholars have closely examined paternalistic rhetoric during this period, one central component of that debate has gone relatively unexamined: considerations of elderly slaves within the plantation complex.  This paper explores how the figure of the aged slave helped shape the political discourse around abolition.  In particular, I argue that abolitionists’ scrutiny of enslaved families and lifecycles produced a fascination with elderly slaves as ostensible examples of slavery’s brutality as well as its supposed humanity.

Two different locations will be compared in this paper: Virginia and Jamaica.  Whereas Virginia’s bound populations reproduced themselves by the middle of the eighteenth century, Jamaican slaves found demographic stability only in the nineteenth.  Yet, slave owners in both locations held up old slaves as examples of benevolent labor practices.  For planters in Virginia, however, elderly slaves posed a problem as the local economy struggled after independence.  A rash of manumissions of so-called “retired” slaves incited deep fears about a growing, but aged, free black population in the Chesapeake.  By 1784 both Virginia and Maryland prohibited emancipations of slaves older than 45.  Examining state and colonial laws toward older slaves, abolitionist pamphlets, as well as plantation accounts, this paper will not only document the prevalence of older slaves in the Americas, but also the heightened rhetoric over those individuals’ place in the larger Atlantic World.

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