2000 Keynote Address

Conference on Arming Slaves

David Brion Davis

As Director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition, I want to give all of you the heartiest welcome to this second of our international conferences. We are especially delighted by the participation of leading scholars from England as well as having experts on fields extending from ancient Greece and Rome and medieval Islamic armies to the war-torn Caribbean, the American and Haitian revolutions and the American Civil War.

As you know by now, our subject sounds to the uninitiated both illogical and self-contradictory: “The Arming of Slaves from the Classical Era to the American Civil War.” If even household slaves in Renaissance Italy and Spain were customarily referred to as “the domestic enemy,” why would the master class ever dream of supplying such inherent enemies with arms? At first thought, the very idea seems equivalent to providing the convicts in our maximum security penitentiaries with submachine guns and hand grenades! Certainly the Confederate government took a similar view during the first years of the Civil War. Yet in Ira Berlin’s recent prize-winning book, Many Thousands Gone, we read that English officials in colonial South Carolina, like their Spanish counterparts in Florida, drafted slaves in time of war and regularly enlisted them in the colony’s militia. Indeed, Berlin writes that between the settlement of the Carolinas and the conclusion of the Yamasee War almost fifty years later, black soldiers helped to repulse every Spanish and Indian attack on the colony. This seeming anomaly is precisely the kind of subject the Gilder Lehrman Center is eager to explore, as part of its effort to convey to both academics and the general public a better understanding of both the extraordinary importance and the complexity of the institution of slavery in human history.

Slavery first appeared in human history, according to the classical account, when warriors realized that it would be more advantageous to secure the services of captives than to kill them or eat them. The connection between homicide and slavery persisted, however, since the slave might at any moment resume the warfare that his capture had suspended and the master might choose to kill his slave even for disobedience.

This was the ground for John Locke’s famous defense of slavery in his Two Treatises of Government. According to Locke, who in another section referred to slavery as “so vile and miserable an Estate of Man … that ‘tis hardly to be conceived that an Englishman, much less aGentleman, should plead for it,” the origin of the institution was entirely outside the social contract. When any man, by fault or act, forfeited his life to another, according to Locke, he could not complain of injustice if his punishment was postponed by his being enslaved. If the hardships of bondage should at any time outweigh the value of life, he could commit suicide by resisting his master and receiving the death which he had all along deserved: “This is the perfect condition of Slavery,” Locke wrote, “which is nothing else, but the state of War continued, between a lawful Conquerour, and a Captive.” Hence the relationship was one in which the obligations of the social compact were entirely suspended. And for Locke, presumably, it would be unthinkable in any situation for the lawful Conqueror to provide arms to his captives. Though I might add that on a less philosophical level, Locke was an investor in the slave-trading Royal African Company and a correspondent with Sir Peter Colleton, a resident of Barbados and a proprietor of Carolina, so he may well have been aware of the military prowess of many Africans and what legal scholars term “the doctrine of necessity,” or the precedence of self-preservation over all other principles. At critical moments in warfare, self-preservation might demand the supposedly risky enlistment of armed slaves. I might add that Thomas Wiedemann’s paper gives us an illustration of the ancient view of slavery as a continuation of warfare when he notes that the Spartans felt it necessary to formally declare war once a year on the defeated and slave-like Helots, presumably to remind the Helots of their inferiority and subjugation.

Professor Wiedemann’s paper also points to the ruling importance of the doctrine of necessity. While the ancient Greeks and Romans showed an extreme ideological aversion to enlisting slaves in their armies, which were supposed to be composed of citizen soldiers, there were emergencies and manpower shortages that prompted the Greeks and especially Romans to free and then enlist the former slaves for military service. Professor Wiedemann adds that as genuine citizens and a protective empire disappeared in late Roman times, the well-to-do increasingly relied on armed slaves, preferably from very distant regions, as bodyguards.

For me this brought to mind a new University of Toronto dissertation, by Debra G. Blumenthal, on “Muslim, Eastern, and Black African Slaves in Fifteenth-Century Valencia.” Unlike the Moorish slaves, the black Africans could not be redeemed or assimilated into Valencian society. This natal alienation and social death, to use Orlando Patterson’s terms, made the blacks ideal bodyguards for their honor-obsessed masters. According to Ms. Blumenthal, “contemporary testimony reveals that fifteenth-century Valencians could not conceive of anyone more ‘base’ or ‘vile’ than a black male slave.” Therefore, in order to degrade their white enemies, white masters would order their black armed bodyguards to ridicule, assault, and batter their rivals or foes. Black slaves were also used to commit various crimes for their masters. [1]

Instead of conforming to Locke’s picture of the slave as a defeated soldier in “a state of war continued,” such bodyguards suggest Aristotle’s concept of the slave as a tool or instrument carrying out his master’s will. Again, Professor Wiedemann makes the significant point that the Julio-Claudian Roman emperors of the first century of the Common Era were served by slave bodyguards taken from what is now Holland, at the fringe of the empire. Similarly, as Daniel Pipes has shown, enslaved Turks served in almost every military slave corps in the Middle East and northern India; and they dominated the best-known and most spectacular [Muslim] group, the Mamluks of Egypt.” [2] Other slave boys were brought to Egypt from the more distant Caucasian region between the Caspian and Black Seas, and then trained to be soldiers. Even in the United States, the remoteness of the African Americans’ origins helps to explain the loyalty of a not atypical slave in Texas who rushed to defend and save his master’s life from the lethal assault of a drunken Irish railroad worker. Yet as Pipes and numerous other scholars have shown, there were otherwise very few similarities between slavery in the United States and in medieval Muslim lands. Although Arabs were the first people to enslave and transport over long distances millions of black African slaves, Americans tended to take a wholly opposite view regarding the dangers of enlisting large armies of slave troops. One of the key questions this conference raises is why North Americans, having made extensive use of slave soldiers in the colonial period, took so little notice of the patterns of arming slaves in what Pete Voelz terms “Below the Border,” to say nothing of the many centuries of Muslim experience.

The Iberians, of course, could hardly have been better informed about the Muslim experience, which they had shared for many centuries. One can hardly exaggerate the importance of the fact that it was the Spaniards and Portuguese who first explored, conquered, settled, and developed the Western Hemisphere. I refer to a people who in 1492, with the capture of Grenada, had just completed many centuries of so-called holy reconquest, often fighting armies that included large numbers of black slaves; a people who expelled Jews, Moors, and eventually Moriscos while also exterminating the Guaches natives of the Canary Islands; a people who had imported thousands of black slaves from Africa and had established slave-worked sugar plantations in the so-called Atlantic islands; a people who would soon lead the Counter-Reformation and do their best to prevent Protestant Dutch, English, and Scandinavians from establishing bases in the New World.

As Professor Voelz makes clear, the Iberians armed slaves and free blacks and mulattos from the very beginnings of their New World conquests and settlements. In the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries the English, Dutch, and French similarly made alliances with groups of Maroons who had escaped the Spaniards, and also recruited free blacks and slaves for naval warfare and raids on key Spanish settlements like Cartagena. The Caribbean was a major theater of warfare and piracy as well a growing source of immense wealth as northern European ships sought out Spanish galleons loaded with gold and silver and as planters began to discover the enormous multinational market for slave-grown sugar, coffee, chocolate, and cotton. Like other historians, Professor Voelz tends to mix slaves with free blacks and coloreds, and of course many if not most slaves were manumitted either at the beginning or end of their military service. Yet one should remember that an immense gap in status often separated slaves from the free blacks or freedmen. Moreover, there were many black or colored slaveholders throughout the Caribbean and in Louisiana, and a few even in South Carolina. While enlisting blacks alongside whites in Caribbean armies and navies may have reduced white racism, as Pete Voelz claims, [3] the salient point, in my opinion, is that the increasing use of armed blacks from the early sixteenth to the early nineteenth century did not prevent or appreciably slow down the development of an enormous plantation system from southern Brazil to the Chesapeake. Indeed, beginning in 1795, as David Geggus and various other scholars have shown, the black West India Regiments, including many Africans who had just arrived on slave ships, saved and even expanded the British Caribbean slave colonies during the Napoleonic wars.

This startling and counter-intuitive conclusion raises two important questions. First, why were European combatants willing to rely so heavily on slave or former slave troops when British planters, for example, protested and predicted an undermining of the entire plantation system? Second, why were black slaves and ex-slaves willing to fight for the slave regime, even after the Haitian Revolution had begun? As David Geggus vividly shows, the British and Spanish were able to recruit large numbers of slaves even in St. Domingue, where blacks and free coloreds appear to have fought on all sides.

While the papers of Pete Voelz, David Geggus, and Laurent Dubois provide some important answers, I still feel somewhat puzzled by the events they describe and will begin by suggesting that except for the final years of the Haitian Revolution, combatants and potential combatants in the Caribbean perceived no clear line dividing whites from blacks – a line equivalent to that dividing slaves from free persons. In part, I suspect that this lack of a clear racial distinction can be attributed to the large Caribbean populations of free coloreds, to the natal alienation of slavery, and to the absence of any African nationalism that would unite peoples of diverse ethnic and linguistic backgrounds.

In any event, as several of the papers make clear, the white leaders in the Caribbean faced a growing crisis as appalling numbers of European soldiers died from tropical diseases that had far less impact on people of African descent. Europeans also discovered with some dismay the military skills of Africans, who knew the tactics of guerilla warfare, especially in jungles and mountainous regions. In theory, this meant that Europeans forces might have been crushed by a united African effort, as they eventually were in St. Domingue/Haiti. But as it happened, black maroons, slaves, and former slaves could be enlisted to hunt down fugitives or suppress the revolts of other maroons or slaves.

For slaves, military duty offered a welcome escape from the misery of plantation labor. The allure of a promise of freedom also entailed upward mobility, dignity, prestige, and the chance to prove one’s manhood and even to receive awards that would impress one’s peers as well as white authorities. For blacks who had already spent significant time in the New World, there were also motives to defend one’s homes, families, and even paternalistic whites. Even in Civil War America, after nearly a century of antislavery agitation, the former slave Frederick Douglass expressed alarm over reports that the Confederacy might begin to arm slaves with the promise of freedom. Douglass, who had written about his own experience of being “broken in body, soul, and spirit” – of being “transformed into a brute,” was convinced that even in the 1860s that a significant number of southern slaves would fight to defend slavery if they could be assured of their own liberty. Fortunately, the Confederate government disagreed with this conclusion until it was too late. I will return to this issue in a few moments.

Most of the high points of arming Caribbean and North American slaves came with the Seven Years’ War, the American Revolution, the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. Philip Morgan shows how close the British came, in the American War of Independence, to a full-scale enlistment of manumitted West Indian slaves and to the use of some kind of emancipation proclamation to totally subvert what seemed to them the most hypocritical cause, with “the loudest yelps for liberty,” as Samuel Johnson famously put it, coming from The drivers of negroes.” Certainly in retrospect, it would appear that the American rebellion could have been demolished if Britain had turned to a massive and unqualified antislavery policy. Yet with regard to hypocrisy, Britain was the world’s greatest slave-trading nation in the eighteenth century, and the government could hardly ignore the pressures from merchants, West India planters and their agents, or loyalist slaveholders in the American South. As Morgan shows, the war devastated large regions of the South and led to the conscription of thousands of slaves in the British West Indies, many for duty on British warships. Many thousands of American slaves deserted their owners and won a dubious freedom, ending up if they lived long enough, in Sierra Leone. Other slaves, especially in the Upper South and North, won manumission as a reward for fighting the British. Yet in 1790 and especially 1800 slavery was far stronger and more deeply entrenched in the United States than it had been at the start of the Revolution (except, of course, in the northern states).

I know that a Whiggish or teleological historian might well see the American and especially the French Revolution as the beginning of an inevitable chain of events leading to the abolition of slavery in the Western Hemisphere. Certainly these revolutions led to the beginnings of antislavery movements. And without these movements, converging much later with unpredictable events such as the Latin American wars of independence, British Parliamentary reform, and the Revolutions of 1848, the eradication of slavery would have been impossible. But even recognizing the supreme importance of the French slaves’ self-emancipation in Haiti, to say nothing of the French emancipation decree of 1794, what impresses me the most about the period from 1775 to 1815 is the remarkable strength and durability of the New World’s plantation system. Today we find it almost impossible to understand how an average of 1.5 or two white males could successfully manage a plantation, often quite isolated, with fifty or one hundred slave laborers. It is no less difficult to imagine how the highly productive and profitable slave system could survive the disruption of major wars.

Thus if the American Revolution put slavery on the road to slow extinction in the North, it freed southern planters from imperial supervision and gave them immensely disproportional power in the new republican government. The French emancipation decree of 1794 was in effect negated in 1802 by Napoleon, so slavery would continue to thrive for over four decades in Martinique and Guadeloupe. Haiti’s independence and slaughter of whites would hang like the threat of nuclear annihilation over all slaveholding societies, but meanwhile the loss of St. Domingue’s immense production of sugar and coffee opened a world market of staggering proportions and thus provided an enormous stimulus to slavery in the rest of the Caribbean and to Cuba and Brazil in particular. As I have said, it is difficult for us today to understand why the arming of slave troops from the early sixteenth century onwards did not undermine the slave system. That is particularly true at times of major warfare, such as the Dutch conquest and the Portuguese reconquest of most of Brazil in the seventeenth century, or the Seven Years’ War, or the Napoleonic wars.

It is true that the arming of large numbers of slaves by both sides in the Spanish-American wars of independence helped to undermine the institution from Mexico and Central America to Chile. Yet the proportion of slaves in most of the Spanish colonies was roughly similar to that in the northern American states, and the process of gradual emancipation, following wartime commitments, took about the same length of time in both regions.

The arming of slaves was so common from the early Islamic states to the war-torn Caribbean of the mid-eighteenth century that I would conclude, making due allowance for immense cultural differences, that there was no inevitable linkage between this policy of soldier recruitment and the undermining of slavery. Having served in a supposedly democratic army in wartime, I would even add that despite all the rhetoric of honor, many soldiers even feel somewhat like slaves, given their lack of freedom to go and act as they please, and their subjection to the authoritarianism of military officers. Yet one crucial ideological variable, beginning with the American Revolution, was the consolidation and increasing activism of antislavery thought. Arming a slave meant one thing when people took it for granted that the freedman might become a slaveholder himself sometime in the future. Surely we reach a turning point in history when a few American slaveholders concluded that the Declaration of Independence meant that they should manumit their slaves, and especially when the former slaves of Haiti, in contrast to many previous maroons, adopted a constitution outlawing slavery. Britain’s use of the West India regiments in the 1790s meant something different in a context in which hundreds of thousands of Britons were demanding that the slave trade be outlawed, as the first step toward the ending of slavery itself. There were many motives behind the outlawing of the slave trade in 1808 by both Britain and the United States. Neither nation wanted to import into their plantation regions still more dangerous Africans, who might well imitate their Haitian brethren. Virginians, who felt that they were already oversupplied with slaves, wanted to protect their slave sales to the Deeper South. And no less important, growing numbers of common people, especially in Britain, had become convinced that the slave trade from Africa was grossly immoral and wrong. In view of the negative slave growth rate throughout the Caribbean, this measure ensured a declining slave population in the British colonies and was thus one of the most important legacies of the Age of Revolution, especially in view of Britain’s continuing diplomatic and military campaign to end the slave trade of other European nations. These new antislavery developments meant that, even though slavery had never been as economically successful as it was becoming in Cuba, Brazil, and the expanding American South, not all political forces were working in its favor (a point that is dramatized by the wide movement in 1858, in the American South, to reopen the slave trade from Africa).

The climax to our story, even for Cuba and Brazil, came with the great debate in the American Civil War, first in the North, finally in the South, over freeing and enlisting blacks as combat troops. One new aspect to the question was the immense monetary value of young male slaves. In the West Indies and elsewhere owners had commonly been reimbursed for slaves who were killed, badly wounded, captured, or lost in some other way. But by 1860 a strong young field hand could sell in New Orleans for $1,800, or at least $30,000 in today’s currency. And Southerners continued to pay more as slave prices increased during the first part of the war. For the Union, of course, captured or fugitive slaves were termed “contraband” and compensation, except for border state slaveholders, was soon out of the question. Despite Lincoln’s early reluctance to enlist blacks or former slaves, by the spring of 1863 he was urging the massive enlistment of black troops and even told Andrew Johnson, the war governor of Tennessee, that “the bare sight of 50,000 armed, and drilled black soldiers on the banks of the Mississippi would end the rebellion at once.” As things turned out, the Union enlisted nearly 200,000 black troops, most of them freed slaves, and the Union army became in effect an army of liberation.

As Frank Deserino reveals, Confederate pensions show that a fairly large number of slaves were impressed into a critical combat support staff – he estimates that some eighty to one hundred thousand slaves and free blacks participated in both state and Confederate forces, serving as blacksmiths, musicians, and manual laborers. But it was not until March 1865 that the Confederate Congress passed legislation freeing slaves to fight for Confederate independence. One wonders if Southerners had any memory of the crucial role of slave soldiers on the colonial frontiers, or any knowledge of the British West India regiments that preserved British slavery and hegemony in the Napoleonic period. As I have already suggested, antislavery and proslavery ideologies had transformed the meaning of arming slaves by the time of America’s Civil War, the outcome of which would surely influence the destiny of slavery in Cuba and Brazil. But I venture to conclude that the Union forces could not have won the war without the support of a significant number of African-American troops, even if living black veterans were barred from the 1913 Fiftieth anniversary gathering at Gettysburg. And if the Confederacy had taken the risk of freeing and arming large numbers of black soldiers as early as the spring of 1862, the slavocracy would probably have won its independence. The possibility that black veterans would have then overthrown their masters is somewhat lessened when we look at the fate of black veterans after the First World War.



  1. Debra G. Blumenthal, “Implements of Labor, Instruments of Honor: Muslim, Eastern and Black African Slaves in Fifteenth-Century Valencia,” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Toronto, 200, pp. 216-221.
  2. Pipes, Slave Soldiers and Islam: the Genesis of a Military System (New Haven: Yale Univeristy Press, p. 55.
  3. Although there is much evidence, as Professor Voelz maintains, that racial integration has succeeded in America’s present military forces, I myself witnessed the most extreme racism and bloody racial conflict in the segregated army of 1945-1946. See my essay, “The Americanized Mannheim of 1945-1946,” in American Places: Encounters with History, A Celebration of Sheldon Meyer, ed. William E. Leuchtenburg (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 79-91.