The Economics of Slavery

Three new entries in EV shed light on some surprising aspects of the economics of slavery. Doug Sanford illuminates a little-understood aspect of slavery: the Hiring Out of the Enslaved. As he notes, “While less well-known than other facets of institutional slavery, hiring out of the enslaved was a common and long-standing arrangement throughout the nearly 250-year existence of race-based slavery in Virginia.”

In fact, “for many enslaved African Americans in Virginia, being hired out was a more common experience than being sold, and one that could occur at multiple points in their lives, causing repeated disruption.” Enslaved families dreaded “hiring day,” which was usually January 1, because it often signaled the parting of family members until the following Christmas. 

Not only did being hired to different employers on short-term contracts cause disruption and uncertainty for enslaved laborers, but it helped cement slavery as an institution, as it allowed many white people who couldn’t afford to purchase enslaved workers to not only benefit from having cheap labor but to increase their social standing by taking on the appearance of an enslaver. Using the 1860 U.S. Census, Sanford takes a deep dive into who was being hired out and who was doing the hiring.

Hiring out dovetailed with the Economy of the Enslaved, as detailed by Amanda White Gibson. The “slaves’ economy,” as it was first called by historians, consisted of the work done by the enslaved outside of the labor required by their enslavers. This included both work done after hours to help provision the family—such as hunting and fishing and the keeping of a garden and poultry—as well as self-hire, in which enslaved laborers plied their trades in their free time for wages. 

In some instances, as Gibson notes, enslaved laborers turned their hiring-out to their economic advantage, negotiating their wages and living independently of their enslavers. She gives the example of Lott Cary, who was hired out to tobacco warehouses in early nineteenth-century Richmond and started a side business selling parcels of waste tobacco. The money he earned, combined with donations from local merchants he did business with, allowed him to buy his freedom, as well as that of his children. 

The economy of the enslaved gave enslaved people some small measure of economic independence and choice in the food and other goods they consumed. Nevertheless, as Gibson notes, it largely benefited enslavers, as it allowed them to provide less food and other provisions to the enslaved and could create a disincentive to self-emancipation. 

A key nexus of both the hiring-out economy and the economy of the enslaved was the fishing and maritime industry in Virginia. In an entry on Enslaved Fishermen and Mariners in Virginia, Justin Pariseau looks at just how essential the labor and knowledge of enslaved laborers were to water-work in the commonwealth. At a time when rich and poor alike consumed vast quantities of fish and the waterways were essential to moving cargo, “Enslaved mariners piloted vessels of all sizes, enslaved crews worked on cargo boats on Virginia’s waterways, and enslaved fishermen worked along the shores hauling nets, while enslaved watermen harvested crabs and tonged for oysters.”

Fishing on Sundays and off-hours was also essential to the diets of enslaved workers who lived near rivers or the Chesapeake Bay. George Washington, who had four booming fisheries on the Potomac River, noted loaning his seine nets to his enslaved laborers to fish on a Sunday in April of 1760, although the wind was not favorable and they caught nothing.

For some enslaved fishermen and mariners, the water was a gateway to freedom, as the relative independence of their work and their skills as pilots and navigators allowed them to self-emancipate. For others, such as the enslaved men Harry and Cupid, who distinguished themselves as sailors in the Virginia navy during the Revolutionary War, freedom came in recognition of their contributions to the patriot cause. Other enslaved mariners joined the British forces, lured by Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation and the promise of freedom. The crew of HMS Otter, a sloop active in Virginia waters early in the Revolutionary War, included at least two enslaved men and an enslaved pilot.

The skills of African American mariners were also important during the Civil War to ensuring Union victory. Virginia contributed more Black sailors to the U.S. Navy than any other state, accounting for 16 percent of the enlisted African Americans serving aboard U.S. Navy vessels during the war. Some 2,800 Black Virginians served aboard U.S. Navy vessels. And after the war, many took their skills back to the water, as African Americans dominated the oyster trade in Virginia, and many created livelihoods as captains and shipbuilders. 

Throughout Virginia, as Gibson notes, people who were formerly enslaved “took advantage of freedom to buy land and start businesses, knowing the symbiotic relationship between economic independence and civil and political rights.”


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