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South Carolina – African-Americans – Buying and Selling Human Beings

Also see: African-Americans - 1525-1865 Main Page

Written by Michael Trinkley of the Chicora Foundation

An Overview

For an overview of South Carolina's role in African slave trade, please click here. Among other things, this link will help you learn about the
  • necessity of slavery to South Carolina's developing cash crop culture
  • items used to "pay" for slaves
  • loss of "cargo" (life) during the middle passage
  • characteristics of the "ideal" slave
  • events that awaited slaves upon arrival in Charleston
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Slave Auction Poster
In 1769, the firm of David and John Deas advertised
the sale of 94 African-Americans in Charleston, SC.

South Carolina's First Slaves – Native Americans

South Carolina's first slaves were neither black nor were they from Africa. They were Native Americans who had lived along the rivers of the Lowcountry and among the mountains of the Upstate for thousands of years before the first European settler even arrived. As historian Patrick Minges explains,
No sooner had they set foot on shore near Charleston than [did] the English set about establishing the "peculiar institution" of Native American slavery. Seeking the gold that had changed the face of the Spanish Empire but finding none, the English settlers of the Carolinas quickly seized upon the most abundant and available resource they could attain. The indigenous peoples of the Southeastern United States became, themselves, a commodity on the open market.
Native American tribes in South Carolina were often at war with one another. In consequence, they learned to hunt down and capture members of enemy tribes, selling them to whites as slaves. Others, of course, were captured and sold by the new settlers directly. In either case, Native Americans made up a large share of South Carolina's seventeenth and eighteenth century slave population.

In time, however, white planters began to "phase out" the use of Native Americans on their plantations. For one thing, they had decided that Africans were far better suited to the back-breaking work of cultivating rice than Indians were. For another, black people seemed to have a stronger resistance to white diseases like small pox and yellow fever. And finally, white people learned that if a Native American slave ran away, they probably weren't going to find him again. Native Americans were all too familiar with the nooks and crannies of "the new world." They knew where to hide, and they knew how to find help. If they could escape, they could take refuge in the midst of a nearby tribe.

Nevertheless, strong ties formed between South Carolina's Native Americans and the Africans that were brought to her shore. These ties were especially strong in regards to religion. Minges points out some of the other bonds Indians and blacks shared:

In addition to working together in the fields, they lived together in communal living quarters, began to produce collective recipes for food and herbal remedies, shared myths and legends, and ultimately intermarried. Apart from their collective exploitation at the hands of colonial slavery, Africans and Native Americans possessed similar worldviews rooted in their historic relationship to the subtropical coastlands of the middle Atlantic.
If you are interested in learning more about South Carolina's Native American slaves, you may want to read Minges' article in full. It is called All My Slaves, Whether Negroes, Indians, Mustees, or Molattoes, and you can find it by clicking here.

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Black Ivory – Africa's Export

As with Native Americans, Africans were often sold into slavery by enemy tribes. However, as Christopher C. Boyle points out in his essay Rise of the Georgetown Rice Culture,
The most common reasons for selling tribal members to the Europeans were for offenses against society, such as murder or theft, offenses against the king, or even personal or tribal misfortunes such as indebtedness or tribal famine.
But whatever the reason, he says, "the sale of human lives was profitable for African tribal kings and the European traders as well as the colonial planters."

Small Pox Poster  

Most of the slaves brought to South Carolina came from the West Coast of Africa – and more specifically from a region called the Gold Coast. As Johann Martin Bolzius noted in his An Account on Life in the Carolinas in 1750, "The best Negroes come from the Gold Coast in Africa, namely Gambia and Angolo."

However, as Boyle explains, "some slaves, mostly prisoners of inter-tribal warfare, came from as far as 700 miles into the interior of the Africa."

One of the reasons South Carolina planters wanted slaves from the coastal regions of Africa was that they already knew how to grow rice. In fact, Boyle notes that "rice growing had been a dominant part of [coastal] African culture since 1500 BC."

  Read A Rice Plantation on the Santee River
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The Auction Block – How Slaves Were Sold

Sylvia Cannon, a freed slave, described slave auctions this way:
I see 'em sell plenty colored peoples away in them days, 'cause that the way white folks made heap of their money. Course, they ain't never tell us how much they sell 'em for. Just stand 'em up on a block about three feet high and a speculator bid 'em off just like they was horses. Them what was bid off didn't never say nothing neither. Don't know who bought my brothers, George and Earl. I see 'em sell some slaves twice before I was sold, and I see the slaves when they be traveling like hogs to Darlington. Some of them be women folks looking like they going to get down, they so heavy.
The slave auctioneers spoke of their business as though they were, in fact, buying and selling hogs. The callousness is clear in this July 10, 1856 letter from slave trader A.J. McElveen to Charleston slave merchant Z.B. Oakes:
I offered Richardson 1350 [equal to 27,000 in 1998] for his two negros. He Refused to take it. The fellow is Rather light. He weighs 121 lbs., but Good teeth & not whipped. The little Girl he was offrd 475 [9,500, 1998]. I thought the boy worth about 850 [17,000, 1998] and at that price they would not Sell for cost, but I Supposed the fellow would bring 9 to 950 [18,000 to 19,000, 1998] &c and the little Girl 500 [8,300] at best.
Edmund L. Drago's book, Broke by the War: Letters of a Slave Trader, includes additional letters describing the nonchalance of those dealing in "the bodies and souls of men." (University of South Carolina Press, 1991)

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The Price of a Human Being

And what was the value of these human beings that South Carolina planters and merchants traded in? Prices can be calculated from bills of sale, inventories, and other historic documents. In addition, at least one "price table" has been located. From the early 1850s, it was found in the Tyre Glen papers and applies to the Forsythe County area of North Carolina. The amounts listed reflect nineteenth century dollar values.

Age Value
1 100
2 125
3 150
4 175
5 200
6 225
7 250
8 300
9 350
10 400
11 450
12 500
13 550
14 600
16 650
17 750
18 800
Age Value
19 850
20 900
21 875
22 850
23 825
24 800
25 775
26 750
27 725
28 700
29 675
30 650
31 625
32 600
33 575
34 550
35 525
Age Value
36 500
37 475
38 450
39 425
40 400
41 375
42 350
43 325
44 300
45 275
46 250
47 225
48 200
49 175
50 150
55 100
60 50

Other documents, however, make it clear that the price of a slave was variable. Slaves were often divided into classes, such as

  • Number One Men (19-25 years old)
  • Fair/Ordinary Men
  • Best Boys (15-18 years old)
  • Best Boys (10-14 years old)
  • Number One Women
  • Fair/Ordinary Women
  • Best Girls (10-15 years old)
  • Women with One or Two Children
  • Families (also called "fancies" or "scrubs")
An 1857 account reveals these values:

Class Value in Dollars, 1857 Value in Dollars, 1998
Number 1 men 1250-1450 20,800-24,100
Fair/Ordinary Men 1000-1150 16,700-19,200
Best Boys (Age 15-18) 1100-1200 18,300-20,000
Best Boys (Age 10-14) 500-575 8,300-17,900
Number 1 Women 1050-1225 17,500-20,400
Fair/Ordinary Women 1050-1225 14,200-17,100
Best Girls 500-1000 8,300-16,700
Families "sell in their usual proportions"

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The Separation of Families

Yet Southern dealers and plantation owners defended their practices, claiming that separations of families were rare and that when they did occur, there was little hardship. South Carolinian Chancellor Harper argued that blacks lacked any capability for domestic affection and showed, "insensibility to ties of kindred." In other words, African-Americans really didn't mind being bought and sold since they were naturally promiscuous and lacked the ability to achieve stable family life. This, of course, was simply paternalistic racism.

As an old former slave, Jennie Hill, explained

Some people think that slaves had no feeling – that they bore their children as animals bear their young and that there was no heart-break when the children were torn from their parents or the mother taken from her brood to toil for a master in another state. But that isn't so. The slaves loved their families even as the Negroes love their own today and the happiest time of their lives was when they could sit at their cabin doors when the day's work was done and sang the old slave songs, "Swing Low Sweet Chariot," "Massa's in the Cold, Cold Ground, " and "Nobody Know What Trouble I've Seen." Children learned these songs and sang them only as a Negro child could. That was the slave's only happiness, a happiness that for many of them did not last.
And another ex-slave, Savilla Burrell, remembered the heartache this way:
They sell one of Mother's chillun once, and when she take on and cry about it, Marster say, "Stop that sniffing there if you don't want to get a whipping." She grieve and cry at night about it.
How many slaves were sold away from their families? One study, Speculators and Slaves: Masters, Traders, and Slaves in the Old South by Michael Tadman, suggests that one out of every five marriages was prematurely terminated by sale and that if other interventions are added, the number rises to 1 in 3. In addition, slave trading tore away one in every two slave children under the age of 14.

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Related Resources

There are literally thousands of documents available on the Internet about American slavery. Many of them are incredibly valuable in helping us understand how horrible and sad the lives of African-American slaves so often were. Below is one of the sites we recommend. Please let us know if you find others that you think South Carolina's students could benefit from exploring. We'll be happy to add them.   Back to the top of the page


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