American slaveowners were well aware of developments in slave systems elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere. As noted in Chapter 8, the slave revolution in Haiti sent shock waves of fear throughout the American South. White southerners were further alarmed by slave uprisings early in the nineteenth century in Barbados, British Guiana, and Jamaica. And they observed carefully the results of the wave of emancipations that swept the hemisphere in the first four decades of the century. In these years, slavery was abolished in most of Spanish America and in the British empire.
Slavery as It Exists in America; Slavery as It Exists in England. Published in Boston in 1850, this lithograph illustrates one aspect of proslavery thought The artist depicts southern slaves as happy and carefree, while English workers, including children, are victims of the oppressive system of “factory slavery.”
The portrait at the bottom is of George Thompson, an English abolitionist who lectured against slavery in the United States. At the rear of the top image, a northerner addresses a slaveowner, suggesting that people in the North had been “deceived by false reports” about slavery and therefore had caused unnecessary “trouble” between the regions. In the bottom image, a poor woman exclaims, “Oh Dear! What wretched slaves this factory life makes me and my children.”
1. To whom do you think this image is addressed, and is the audience likely to be convinced that slaves enjoy more freedom than English laborers?
2. Why do you think the artist chose to compare the condition of slaves with that of English, not American, free laborers?
In most Latin American nations, the end of slavery followed the pattern established earlier in the northern United States—gradual emancipation accompanied by some kind of recognition of the owners’ legal right to property in slaves. These “laws of the free womb” allowed slaveholders to retain ownership of existing slaves while freeing their slaves’ children after they worked for the mother’s owner for a specified number of years. Such laws, wrote one official, “respected the past and corrected only the future.” Abolition was far swifter in the British empire, where Parliament in 1833 mandated almost immediate emancipation, with a seven-year transitional period of “apprenticeship.” This system produced so much conflict between former master and former slave that Britain decreed complete freedom in 1838. The law appropriated 20 million pounds to compensate the owners.
The experience of emancipation in other parts of the hemisphere strongly affected debates over slavery in the United States. Southern slaveowners judged the vitality of the Caribbean economy by how much sugar and other crops it produced for the world market. Since many former slaves preferred to grow food for their own families, defenders of slavery in the United States charged that British emancipation had been a failure. Abolitionists disagreed, pointing to the rising standard of living of freed slaves, the spread of education among them, and other improvements in their lives. But the stark fact remained that, in a hemispheric perspective, slavery was a declining institution. By 1840, slavery had been outlawed in Mexico, Central America, and Chile, and only small numbers of aging slaves remained in Venezuela, Colombia, and Peru. During the European revolutions of 1848, France and Denmark emancipated their colonial slaves. At mid-century, significant New World slave systems remained only in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Brazil—and the United States.