Saturday, April 11, 2009

Biracial and Multiracial Children's Place in Slavery era America

     Politics have President Barack Obama. Sports have Tiger Woods and Derek Jeter. The glamorous world of modeling has Adriana Lima, Naomi Campbell, and Miranda Kerr. The music industry has Tina Turner, Beyoncé Knowles, Mariah Carey, Alicia Keys, Lenny Kravitz and Nicole Scherzinger. The movie industry has Halle Berry, Johnny Depp, and Keanu Reeves. Some deceased people of mixed lineage have influenced and still continue to shape our culture. Malcolm X. Bob Marley. Jimi Hendrix. Our everyday lives are filled with images of and stories about these famous and powerful people with biracial, multiracial, mulatto, or Creole heritage.

     Historically, there are also prominent people of mixed heritage. Alexandre Dumas, père – the author of such literary classics as The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers, and The Black Tulip – was the grandson of the Marquis de la Pailleterie and Marie Cessette Dumas, a black slave of Santo Domingo (Encyclopedia Britannica). Similarly, his son Alexandre Dumas, fils – playwright of La Dame aux camellias (“Camille” in English and the basis of the opera La Traviata) and considered to be one of the founders of the “problem play” (Encyclopedia Britannica) – naturally had the same heritage as his father. Charlotte Sophia of Mecklenburg-Strelitz – also known as Queen Charlotte, the queen consort of King George III of England and mother of George IV – was directly descended from a black branch of the Portuguese Royal Family (Cocom). Alessandro de Medici – first duke of Florence, patron of the arts, first black head of state in the modern western world – was the son of a black serving woman and Giulio de Medici (who later became Pope Clement VII) (Cocom).

     American history, too, has important figures of mixed heritage. Crispus Attucks, an Indian-African-white sailor, is remembered as the “first martyr of the American Revolution” (Foner 160). One of the most eminent human-rights leaders of the 19th century is Frederick Douglass, who is half-black and half-white. Booker T. Washington, who is also half-black and half-white, became recognized as the nation's foremost black educator and the most influential spokesman for African Americans between 1895 and 1915 (Britannica). Another man of half-white and half-black descent is the American writer William Wells Brown, who is considered to be the first African-American to have his novel published (Britannica).

     These rises to prominence by mulattoes were very isolated cases. At this point in history, whites had the notion that their race is superior to that of the Indians or the blacks. The whites were to have the upper hand in everything, while the blacks, whom Thomas Jefferson had proclaimed to be “inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind,” were to be slaves deprived of citizenship and the benefits of being an American (Foner 238). The Indians were savages, moved from one place to another and forced to adopt the ways of the whites or face extermination (as if their race were nothing more of a pest). These racial divisions were clear-cut, and interracial marriages and partnerships were highly disapproved of and even illegal.

     Author Lalita Tademy, while researching for her book Cane River (a book that takes a look “at the evolving relationships between blacks and whites – particularly the complex bonds between slave owners and slaves”), found that while there were black codes that dictated how to behave towards slaves, these codes were often ignored (Slavery in America). White men were not supposed to father slaves’ children, but slave women were forced to comply with sexual advances by their masters on a very regular basis as they “owe to [their] master a respect … without bounds, and an absolute obedience ... and complete power over [their persons]” (Foner 349). J. William Harris found that “of the children living with mothers alone, about one in six had white fathers..." (Harris 127). These children were then faced with the stigma of being neither white nor black. As William Wells Brown once wrote,

The nearer a slave approaches an Anglo Saxon in complexion, the more he is abused by both owner and fellow slaves. The owner flogs him to keep him ‘in his place,’ and the slaves hate him on account of his being whiter than themselves. (HistoryNet)

So what did parents do to protect their biracial child against the cruelty of society?

     Ms. Tademy writes:

There were no legal requirements for how these children were to be taken care of … whether they were to be acknowledged. It was [on] a case-by-case basis. It was what the individual man decided he was going to do … [what] he could afford to do. Most of the time, he was married. Very, very seldom was it a case of having children and having those children live under the same roof as the only acknowledged children of the man. Very often, the children produced by a white man on his own plantation ... ended up being servants to his legitimate children by a white wife. But again, a lot of this was by practice, not by law.... (Slavery in America)

Emancipated slaves, some of whom evidently could have
passed for whites.

     Most fathers usually denied that a slave’s light-skinned offspring was his, even though sometimes the resemblance could not be doubted. And because of the 1662 law that “provided in the case of a child one of whose parents was free and one slave, the status of the offspring followed that of the mother,” (Foner 52), these children consequently became their father’s property, subjected to his whims regardless of the fact that they carried the same blood.

     Case after case of paternal negligence can be found. Frederick Douglass had written that his father is “shrouded in a mystery I have never been able to penetrate” (Douglass 51) in his autobiographical book, My Life and My Bondage. William Wells Brown’s father was the cousin of his owner and, except for soliciting a promise that his boy would never be sold, was never a part of the young boy’s life (HistoryNet). John Parker, an active participant of the Underground Railroad in Ohio, likewise suffered from inattention from his white father (Ohio History Central).

     Since these mulattoes were property, they were treated as such and oftentimes sold to other slave holders. The Youth’s Companion, one of the best-known magazines for children, had printed “White Slaves,” which contains this excerpt:

The poor white children of the slave mother are sold like brutes to the highest bidder, by their worse than brute father, while their free born brothers and sisters, who are not whiter than they in complexion, or purer in heart, inherit the father's wealth, and enjoy the blessings of that freedom which is the choicest earthly gift from God to man. Thus slavery degrades and makes fiendish the dearest relations and the purest instincts of humanity. (MerryCoz)

Anti-slavery writers of the time also wrote of this sickening practice. In Lydia Maria Child's Anti-Slavery Catechism, she wrote of a young Northern physician who had moved to the Deep South and fell in love with his new friends' maid, who was a beautiful, modest white girl. After they had gotten married and had moved into their house, the physician received a visit from a Mr. J who claimed that his wife was in fact a slave. After presenting proofs of his story, Mr. J demanded of the physician $800 for his slave or suffer to see his wife being auctioned. After he paid the demand, he talked to his wife, who broke down and disclosed that Mr. J was her father (Talty 12).

     In cases when the mother is white and the father is black, under the 1662 statute, the status of the child was free - thus the start of the class of the free mulattoes. However, in 1691, another statute was passed (Virtual Jamestown), which states:

.... And for prevention of that abominable mixture and spurious issue … it is hereby enacted, that for the time to come, whatsoever English or other white man or woman being free shall intermarry with a negroe, mulatto, or Indian man or woman bond or free shall within three months after such marriage be banished and removed from this dominion forever … and it is hereby enacted, That if any English woman being free shall have a bastard child by any negro or mulatto, she pay the sume of fifteen pounds sterling … and that such bastard child be bound out as a servant by the said Church wardens untill he or she shall attaine the age of thirty yeares....

The passage of such law condemned the illegitimate mulatto children to servitude to church for thirty years (admittedly better than field slavery, but bondage still nonetheless). Some mothers, on the other hand, perhaps out of the social stigma attached to out of wedlock pregnancies (and further exacerbated by the fact that it is the child of a racially inferior black), were driven to more desperate measures. Harriet Jacobs wrote in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl that:

In such cases [when the mother is white and the father is black] the infant is smothered, or sent where it is never seen by any who know its history. But if the white parent is the father, instead of the mother, the offspring are unblushingly reared for the market. (81)

Infants, the very embodiment of innocence, were subjected to such actions that can only be best described as horrific and perverse in nature - victims of racism even before they could say their first word.

     However, there were also accounts of paternal preference to their mulatto children. Usually, they were relegated to domestic duties, which was considerably better than working in the fields, as is the case of one Georgetown planter who had his mulatto children serve in his dining room (Edgar 307). Sometimes, too, they were provided for in their fathers’ will or paternal manumission may occur. Harriet Jacobs tells of a white man who, upon his death, “left six thousand dollars to his two sons by a colored woman, and the remainder of his property to his [white] orphan niece" (Jacobs 78). Land and slaves were provided to Isaac and Henry Glencamp, the mulatto sons of white planter Henry Glencamp of Charleston's St. Stephen's Parish, while the mulatto sons of Robert Collins who were living in the neighboring parish were given 540 acres of land and slaves (Koger 165). (It should be pointed out, however, that these manumissions and wills may be contested by the white legitimate heirs, as was the case with the will of the father of Samuel Townsend of Madison County, Alabama, who left his $500,000 estate to his two mulatto sons [Williamson 41]).

     The mestizo children of the Spaniards and the métis children of the French were slightly better treated compared to the mulatto children of the British. The mestizos directed the labor of the Indian population (proof that their Spanish blood was acknowledged - they were better than the Indians, but lower than the full-blooded criollos and the peninsulares) (Foner 95). In the 17th century, the children of French traders and Indian women were able to practice respectable employments such as guides, traders, and interpreters (Foner 78).

     In Louisiana, home of the Quadroon Balls, one of the conditions for high-born white men to enter into relationships with the placeés, Creole women renowned for their beauty, was the promise that their future children would be educated and well-provided for. The sons would often be sent to France (where the racial prejudice rampant in American society did not exist), while the daughters stayed to be educated in local convent schools. They were also added onto the wills and given substantial inheritances. Moreover, since some white men decided to free their black mistress to be able to manumit their children (Hood 13), these freed black mothers were given an opportunity to practice trade, and some managed the property given to them by their white “protectors” successfully and accumulated wealth which they then passed on to their children. (Creole History)

     The mestizos and the métis may be better off compared to the mulattoes, but their childhood experience is far from our modern ideal of childhood. The European parents almost always had their "proper" white families to keep their place in society, and their biracial children were almost always kept behind the scenes, their bastardry and heritage a cause of shame.

     George Orwell had written that “when the white man turns tyrant, it is his own freedom that he destroys.” In my opinion, this phrase is quite applicable to racism and racial prejudices as well. In slavery era America, individuals did not have the freedom to indulge their love should it happen that the object of their affections was of the “wrong” race. White fathers could not acknowledge their offspring, while the children of slave owners did not have the freedom to expect the protection or love from their parent. The stigma surrounding mulatto parenthood was too disapproving, caused by racial divisions that the whites had put in place to ensure their tyranny would remain unchallenged, that what should be a parent’s basic right to love his or her child was denied to even the most elite whites; and a child’s basic right to be loved and protected was denied him. Because of a perceived superiority, inhumane and disgusting treatments of children were accepted.

     President Obama is looked up to by the diverse population of the United States to bring about the change that this country needs. People of all ages and races sing along with biracial and multiracial music artists. Sports enthusiasts of different backgrounds admire the sportsmanship of Tiger Woods and Derek Jeter. Adriana Lima and Miranda Kerr are considered to be beauty personified by people of different cultures and races. Have we really truly and finally moved on from the stigmas we have inherited from our forefathers? Pop culture would have us believe so, but the vestiges of the pain caused by the racial divisions implemented from long ago are still felt by everybody today - be it the whites, the blacks, the Native Americans, the Asians, the Latinos, and the multiracials and biracials.


"Alexandre Dumas, fils." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 11 Apr. 2009 . <>.

"Alexandre Dumas, père." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 11 Apr. 2009 . <>.

"Booker T. Washington." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 11 Apr. 2009 . <>.

Cocom, Mario de Valdes y. “The Blurred Racial Lines of Famous Families: Alessandro de Medici.” 2008. WGBH Educational Foundation. 11 Apr. 2009. . <>.

Cocom, Mario de Valdes y. “The Blurred Racial Lines of Famous Families: Queen Charlotte.” 2008. WGBH Educational Foundation. 11 Apr. 2009. <>.

“Creole History.” 2002, Creole History. 11 Apr. 2009. <>.

Douglass, Frederick. My Bondage and My Freedom, Paperback Edition. CreateSpace, 2009

Edgar, Walter B. South Carolina: A History. University of South Carolina Press, 1998

Foner, Eric. Give Me Liberty!: An American History, Seagull Edition, Vol. 1. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006, 2005

Harris, J. William. Making of the American South. Wiley-Blackwell, 2006

Hood, Robert Earl. Begrimed and Black: Christian Traditions on Blacks and Blackness. Fortress Press, 1994.

Jacobs, Harriet Ann. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Published for the author, 1861. Original from Harvard University.

“John P. Parker.” Ohio History Central. 11 Jul. 2006. Ohio Historical Society. 11 Apr. 2009. <>.

Koger, Larry. Free Black Slave Masters in South Carolina, 1790 – 1860. McFarland, 1985.

“Lalita Tademy Gives an Historical Account.” Slavery in America. 11 Apr. 2009. <>.

“Laws on Slavery.” Virtual Jamestown. 1998. Crandall Shifflett. 11 Apr. 2009. <>

Talty, Stephan. At the Crossroads of Black and White Culture: A Social History, Reprint. HarperCollins, 2003

"William Wells Brown." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 11 Apr. 2009. <>.

“William Wells Brown: Abolitionist and Historian.” HistoryNet. 2008. Weider History Network. 11 Apr. 2009. <>.

Williamson, Joel. The Crucible of Race: Black/White Relations in the American South since Emancipation. Oxford University Press US, 1984.

Youth’s Companion: “White Slavery.” 2006. Pat Pflieger. 11 Apr. 2009. <>.

Image Sources:

Kimball, M.H. "Emancipated Slaves." <>.

Emancipated slaves, some of whom evidently could have passed for whites.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Overlooked Lessons of the Tower of Babel as seen in Colonial Times

"Now the whole earth had one language and few words. And as men migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, 'Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.' And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, 'Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.' And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the sons of men had built. And the LORD said, 'Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another's speech.' So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city.' Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth."
- (Genesis 11:1-9)

     Whether a believer of the Christian faith or not, one cannot help but notice that the story of the Tower of Babel illustrates one thing: difference drastically affects, if not utterly destroys, unity. In this story, God’s punishment for mankind’s impudence is the infliction of conflict. Disunity is indeed a terrible thing to be punished with. As the old adage goes, “United we stand, divided we fall,” and many a conqueror throughout history had exploited this adage (especially the Romans). This weakness caused by discord is perfectly exemplified by the different peoples who had inhabited the land we now call the United States of America during the period before the Declaration of Independence.

     The peoples that Columbus encountered upon “discovering” America, the peoples he wrongly presumed to be “Indians,” were not one people that can be labeled as a single group. They were all hunters and gatherers, and they were all descended from ancestors who walked from Asia to this continent through a now-submerged land bridge. However, they had different cultures and numerous languages (Foner 7-8). They belonged to different tribes: Arawak, Powhatan, Pequot, Narragansett, Wampanoag, Iroquois, Comanche, Algonquin, Creeks, Delaware, Stockbridge, etc. The list goes on and on for there were hundreds of tribes that were living in America when the Europeans arrived (Comanche Lodge). They fought with each other occasionally and were actually enthusiastic to make alliances with the Europeans in hopes that this friendship would give them leverage over their rival tribes (Foner 65).

     The same pride in their heritage can be observed in the Africans who were brought to America against their will to become slaves. These poor souls had diverse languages, ethnicities, and religions back in their homelands. They came from western and west central Africa, in the territories that are now Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria, Senegal, Gambia, and Angola, and they identified themselves as Ibo, Ashanti, Yoruba, and so on, not as “Africans” (Foner 120). Initially, the enslaved Africans steadfastly clung to their identities as Mandinka, Mende, Igbo, Kongo, and tried to establish relationships with the other slaves of their cultural and linguist group (Encarta Online Encyclopedia).

     Europeans had even sharper divisions than the Native Americans and Africans. They were also of different nationalities with different languages: Spanish, French, British, Dutch, Germans, Scandinavians, Irish, Italians, Scottish, etc. Moreover, they were also divided by the very “civilization” that they attributed to their supremacy over the Indians and the slaves. The by-products of civilization such as hierarchy and religion proved to exacerbate their division. The different countries claimed different parts of America as their territories, and fights between the British and Spanish or British and French were always on the horizon (no doubt an effect of religious intolerance inherited from their respective mother countries). There were the aristocrats or landed gentry, the “persons of mean and vile conditions” (Zinn 39), and the servants and slaves. There were Protestants, Catholics, Puritans, and Quakers. Arguments were not uncommon, and groups would establish new colonies in order to maintain peace or to have the ability to live as their conscience dictates.

     Clearly, the early colonial times was an era rife for discord, and, combined with diseases and hunger, made for a very unstable society. Only one thing was certain: the Europeans must rule, and to do this, they tyrannized over the Native Americans and the Africans. Over time, however, the Indians discovered the strength of being united as was seen in the Iroquois nations of the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas who formed the Great League of the Peace and created a period of stability in the Southeast (Foner 20) and the Pueblo Indians who banded together and was able to oust the Spaniards, the only complete victory of the Native Americans over the Europeans (Foner 72). Neolin, a Delaware religious prophet, proposed pan-Indian identity. He preached that:

     “All Indians were a single people and only through
     cooperation could they regain their lost independence.”

He further stressed that Indians should stop being dependent on European technology, that they should stop all economic ties with the whites and their dependence on alcohol, that they should wear their traditional attire again, and that they should drive the British out of their lands. Consequently, the Indians started uprisings such as Pontiac’s Rebellion against their oppressors. (Foner 144)

     The Africans also started establishing an African-American identity. In South Carolina, slaves slowly attained a unified identity. They created a language called Gullah, a mixture of all the African languages that was quite unintelligible to their masters. They started creating a community, passing on their cultural beliefs and their religions. After a while, their newfound community, their experience of slavery, and their desire for freedom led to revolts such as the 1712 slave uprising in New York and the Stono Rebellion (Foner 122-123).

     Furthermore, the people of depressing conditions formed camaraderie amongst themselves. White indentured servants, subjected to degradation from their masters as well, bonded with the African slaves, and sometimes they ran away together (Foner 52). The Indians and the blacks became friendly with each other, too. Seminole Indians would provide sanctuary to slaves who tried to escape (Foner 279). (These alliances also created a new class of Americans: the mulattoes.)

     Needless to say, the Europeans were not too pleased with the unity of the savages and of the slaves. The revolts disrupted their everyday lives and threatened their prosperous existence. The escape of their servants and/or slaves, in their eyes, was in the same spirit of property theft. And so, along with increased cruelties, they strived to reinstate strife once again and regain control.

     Indian tribes were pitted against each other. For example, the British supported the Iroquois over their rivals. The French befriended some tribes to help them with their fight against the British (Foner 141), just as the British enlisted Indian help against the French and Spanish (Foner 100). As the governor of South Carolina, Robert Smith, wrote to the Board of Trade of Great Britain:

     “…it is always the maxim of our Government upon the
     Continent to promote War between Indians of different
     Nations with whom we trade and are at peace with our-
     selves for in that consists our safety being at War with
     one another prevents their uniting against us….”

The idea of pan-Indian alliance was threatened once again.

     On the other hand, the Europeans sought to divide the Africans by imposing restrictions (such as separate slave quarters to prevent any chance of organizing riots or revolts) and establishing a sort of caste system. Explains Kenneth Morgan:

     “…The lack of homogeneity among the saltwater slaves
     and the residence of slaveowners on their plantations –
     permanent absentee ownership was rare – caused divi-
     sions among the black workforce and subjected slaves
     to the constant gaze of white personnel with power.”

They also trained Africans in valuable skilled work, which in turn classified slaves by their skills. Also, through this, some slaves (the most skilled ones) were set apart from the others and were able to improve their lifestyle a bit. It was quite ingenious since by relaxing their tyranny a bit, the Europeans were able to give a little taste of freedom with which skilled slaves can content themselves with, so the need to demand for complete liberty was alleviated. (Morgan 137)

     The division of people according to their race was then put into place. The concept of white supremacy was increasingly stressed (Foner 50) to the lower classes of European descent to stop them from befriending the slaves and the Indians. Indian tribes who provided refuge to escaped slaves were attacked to instill fear among the protectors. Because of these actions, the promise of interracial cooperation among people of “mean” situation was stunted.

     The cleverness of the Europeans proved to be successful. Although the Native Americans and the African slaves never went back to a completely divided kind of existence, the fracture was there nonetheless and stayed. And so, the Europeans continued to enjoy their superiority in colonial America. The landed gentry enjoyed the profits of their land, which was cultivated by the servants and, eventually, the slaves. They enjoyed the privileges of money and endeavored to retain their British-ness. They employed themselves the way people of the fashionable society of England did: by cultivating refined English tastes in clothing, literature, etiquette, residential architecture, and education (Foner 105). In short, they were the living definition of English liberty until it was threatened by the economic demands of the king. England, tottering on the edge of economic crisis, imposed numerous taxes on the colonies, undermined the prestige and self-importance of the colonies’ elite, and threatened freedom, which was defined by personal independence that is based on ownership property.

     During this time, the elite were just a very small percentage of the population. Their money alone cannot protect them from the king of England nor defeat the world’s most powerful military. And so, unity was sought. With eloquent words, the privileged leaders such as George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Patrick Henry evoked powerful patriotic sentimentalities and convinced the merchants and the lower members of society that it would be beneficial to all colonists if America were to declare independence. For the first time, as Patrick Henry declared (Foner 162):

     “The distinctions between Virginians, Pennsylvanians,
     New Yorkers, and New Englanders are no more. I am
     not a Virginian, but an American.”

They even went further than simply just uniting as Americans; they also allied themselves with the old nemeses: France and Spain.

     At this point, it would be very agreeable to end this narration of events by proclaiming, “Indeed, man has learned the lesson of the story of the Tower of Babel and the peoples of America rose victorious. Resplendent in their newfound harmony, they established a nation reminiscent of Shangri-la.” But to do so would be a bold-faced fabrication; in fact, the history books positively forbid such a statement. Again, in the path to attain freedom, disagreements abounded. The Indians, sometimes of the same tribe, had divided allegiance between the Americans and the British (Foner 195). Established families of the colonies either embraced the idea of American independence or split into Loyalists (pro-British) or patriots (pro-independence) factions (Foner 182). Nevertheless, whatever the differences rampant during colonial times and during the time of the Revolution, America did win her Independence.

     In our current time, we proudly declare and embrace and even draw strength from the diversity of America. How much we have actually learned from history remains to be seen. Too many wounds are still fresh in our memories that it is still not entirely true to say that we have gotten past our prejudices and are no longer in danger of allowing differences in cultures and beliefs affect our interaction with each other. I feel however, that, the lessons of dissension and harmony are not lost on us. We remember and recognize the effects of underappreciated diversity among our ancestors, and recognition is always the first step in solving problems.


"The Holy Bible: New International Version" The International Bible Society. 1984.
Zondervan Publishing House.

Foner, Eric. Give Me Liberty!: An American History, Seagull Edition, Vol. 1. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006, 2005

“Native American Nations.” American Indian Tribes. Comanche Lodge.
14 Mar. 2009.

“African American History: Slave Trade," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2008. © 1997-2008 Microsoft Corporation. All Rights Reserved. 14 Mar. 2009.

“Life in Colonial America: Enslaved Africans," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2008 © 1997-2008 Microsoft Corporation. All Rights Reserved. 14 Mar. 2009.

Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States (1492 – Present). New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2005.

“Letter from Robert Johnson to the Board of Trade of Great Britain (Extract).” Documenting The American South. 17 Dec 2008. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
14 Mar. 2009.

Morgan, Kenneth. Slavery and the British Empire: From Africa to America. United States: Oxford University Press, 2007

Friday, February 13, 2009

Interracial Relationships in Colonial America

Interracial marriage and relationships are no longer generally frowned upon in our society and is, according to statistics, becoming commonplace since the 1967 US Supreme Court ruling that effectively ended anti-miscegenation laws (Interracial Marriage Flourishes in the US). This current freedom to choose our partners that we now enjoy has come a long way to be possible and was very rare in colonial history. The embarrassment of our nation, racism, made the idea of marrying outside of one’s race socially taboo.

Pocahontas in London

However, despite society’s disapproval, some brave souls still ventured to choose their personal happiness and risked social isolation. One of the most popular and earliest recorded interracial marriage is that of Matoaka, more popularly known as Pocahontas, and John Rolfe, an English settler best remembered for having introduced tobacco as a commercial crop to Virginia colonists. The marriage between the Indian princess and the wealthy colonist was seen as a symbol of Anglo-Indian harmony and missionary success (Foner 44).

This marriage was indeed extraordinary, different races notwithstanding. The relationship between the Powhatans and the English colonists was tension-wrought. The first two years of Jamestown’s existence was a mostly peaceful and fairly give-and-take relationship between the English and the Indians (Foner 44). But in 1608, according to John Smith, he and two of his companions were ambushed by Indians. After killing his two companions, the Indians took Smith to their chief, Powhatan. A firm friendship was established between the Indian princess and John Smith when the then 12-year-old Pocahontas threw herself between Smith and his attackers in a ritual ceremony (Captain John Smith is Saved by Pocahontas, 1608). She came back and forth to the colony (sometimes bringing food) and became the liaison between settlers and Indians even though the relationship between the two groups was hostile at times. Pocahontas fell out of contact with the colonists when John Smith returned to England after being seriously wounded in 1609.(John Smith and Pocahontas Were Just Friends. Really.)

In the summer of 1610, some of the starving settlers ran to the Indians to be fed. When the summer came, the governor asked the Powhatans to return the runaways and received “disdainful” replies. As a result, the English launched an attack for revenge. They killed fifteen or sixteen Indians, burned houses, cut down the corn growing around the village, took the queen of the tribe and her children into boats, threw the children into the water and shot them in the head, and stabbed the queen to death. (Zinn 12)

Pocahontas was kidnapped by the settlers in 1613. She was brought to Jamestown and used as a political pawn in negotiations with her father. During this time she was taken to the City of Henricus for religious instruction. Pocahontas became the first Native American in Virginia to convert to Christianity. She was baptized an Anglican and given the name Rebecca. She then married John Rolfe, bringing peace between the English and the Powhatan tribes. (Four Faces of Pocahontas)

This kind of marriage, however, is singular that it was generally exalted by the English. The marriage between Pocahontas and John Rolfe is almost unique. No such mixed marriage took place in 17th century Massachusetts and only two more in Virginia before the legislature outlawed the practice in 1691 (Foner 40). One can argue that the cause for celebration is more for economic reasons than the intermixing of two cultures as the Virginia Company sought to present Jamestown as a palatable place to live. The presentation of Pocahontas to the court of James I seems like a testimony that Indians can be tamed, that they can be convinced to adapt the Europeans’ idea of civilization.

On the other side of interracial relationships are the numerous affairs between the Europeans (slave owners and servants alike) and slaves. Anti-black stereotypes flourished in 17th century England. Africans were seen as very alien – in color, religion and social practices (Foner 50). The government punished premarital sex more severely between Africans and Europeans than the same acts involving two white persons but blacks and whites still sometimes ran away together and established intimate relationships (Foner 52). Skin color seemed to not matter when the very human need for mating is involved. As evidence, the mestizos (persons of mixed origins) grew in number and actually repopulated the Valley of Mexico, where disease had decimated the original inhabitants (Foner 12). Mulattoes, who are the product of the sexual liaisons between white owners and slave women (Foner 122), had to suffer with the consequences of a 1662 anti-miscegenation Virginia law which provided that in the case of a child one of whose parents was free and one slave, the status of the offspring followed that of the mother (Foner 52).

In New France, the métis, or children of marriages between Indian and French, who seemed more willing to accept Indians as part of colonial society than the English colonizers, became guides, traders and interpreters (Foner 78). Creoles (slaves born in the New World) (Foner 120) were often given their freedom either upon the death of the father or while still young. Although they did not have all of the rights of their white counterparts, many free people of color prospered in 19th century New Orleans (Creole History 2). To regulate relations between slaves and colonists, the Louisiana Code Noir, or slave code, based largely on that compiled in 1685 for the French Caribbean colonies, was introduced in 1724 and remained in force until the United States took possession of Louisiana in 1803 (Louisiana’s Code Noir 1724).

As it was now illegal for a woman of color to marry a white man, an extra legal system known as plaçage started to take place. It is an arrangement between a free woman of color and a white “protector.” The women (or placées), usually renowned for beauty, were presented at "Quadroon" balls, similar to today’s debutante affairs. Chaperoned by the girl's mother and other relatives, these balls allowed meetings between potential protectors and the lovely women. After dancing with a man, if the girl was attracted to the gentleman, he would be allowed to speak with her mother to see if a suitable arrangement could be made. He had to be able to provide her a home, which she would own. The home would be furnished and supplied with servants. All children of the union would have to be well provided for and educated. Children were often left substantial inheritances from both their fathers and mothers. These unions would often last for the lifetime of both parties or would end upon the marriage of the man (Creole History 2). It seems to be a romantic kind of concubinage, but is yet just another example of how racism causes indignity to people perceived as lower class.

Perhaps the most controversial master-slave affair in history is that of Thomas Jefferson’s and Sally Hemings’. More than 20 years b

Caricature of Thomas Jefferson and
Sally Hemings

efore his death, reports had begun circulating of a long-term relationship between Jefferson and one of his slaves, Sally (
Thomas Jefferson, History Encyclopedia). She was a slave inherited by Thomas Jefferson’s wife and was said to be the illegitimate child of John Wayles, Thomas Jefferson's father-in-law.

In 1787, fourteen-year-old Sally and eight-year-old Mary Jefferson joined America’s third president in France. While in Paris, she undoubtedly received training -- especially in needlework and the care of clothing -- to suit her for her position as lady's maid to Jefferson's daughters. She was occasionally paid a monthly wage of twelve livres (the equivalent of two dollars). After the family's return to Virginia in 1789, Sally Hemings remained at Monticello, where she performed the duties of a household servant and lady's maid (Sally Hemings, Monticello).

In September 1802, political journalist James T. Callender, a disappointed office-seeker who had once been an ally of Jefferson, wrote in a Richmond newspaper that Jefferson had for many years "kept, as his concubine, one of his own slaves." Callender continued, "Her name is Sally," adding that Jefferson had "several children" by her.

Although there had been rumors of a sexual relationship between Jefferson and a slave before 1802, Callender's article spread the story widely. It was taken up by Jefferson's Federalist opponents and was published in many newspapers during the remainder of Jefferson's presidency.

Jefferson's policy was to offer no public response to personal attacks, and he apparently made no explicit public or private comment on this question (although a private letter of 1805 has been interpreted by some individuals as a denial of the story). Sally Hemings left no known accounts. (Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: A Brief Account)

The interest of the American public, then and now, is piqued. Needless to say, an interracial relationship between a prominent white man, one of the founders of our country, and a mulatto slave, who could have been his wife’s half-sister, that occurred during the height of slavery and race divisions is really truly spellbinding.

The difference between the two relationships is quite stark. They happened but 200 years apart but the reaction of the public is vastly different. Pocahontas’ marriage to John Rolfe was seen as a successful attempt at assimilation, while Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings were seen as a scandal, something which Jefferson’s opponents used to attack him. The inequality of the treatment of Sally Hemings compared to the treatment of Pocahontas is hard to miss. Pocahontas created a sensation in James I’s court, while Sally Hemings became a slave yet again. One can argue that the relationship between Jefferson and Sally was a scandal because of the lack of marriage but I think it is further exacerbated that it just so happened that the modern concept of race had not fully developed until after the 17th century (Foner 50), a century after Pocahontas’ marriage and a century earlier than the rumored affair of Sally Hemings.

Considering all the inequality and the harsh treatment and judgment that have accompanied interracial relationships throughout history, it is somewhat surprising how the United States have progressed with this issue. Although it is a far stretch to say that everybody in this country is accepting of the idea of mixing of the races, the mere fact that people of mixed heritage are no longer condemned to indignities and degradations that come with racial bias is promising. I hope that we really did learn from our ancestors’ mistake and live in a country where equality and tolerance are celebrated.


“Interracial Marriage Flourishes in the US.” The Associated Press.
15 Apr. 2007. 6 Feb. 2009 <>.

"Captain John Smith is Saved by Pocahontas, 1608." 2003. EyeWitness to History.
6 Feb. 2009 <>.

Vogel, Steve. “John Smith and Pocahontas Were Just Friends. Really.” The Washington Post 9 May 2007: H03. The Washington Post. 6 Feb. 2009 <>.

Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States (1492 – Present). New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2005.

“Four Faces of Pocahontas.” Henrico County Virginia History. Henrico County Virginia.
6 Feb. 2009. <>.

Foner, Eric. Give Me Liberty!: An American History, Seagull Edition, Vol. 1. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006, 2005

“Louisiana’s Code Noir (1724).”
6 Feb. 2009. <>.

“Creole History.” Creole History.
5 Feb. 2009. <>.

"Jefferson, Thomas." 2009. The History Channel website.
7 Feb 2009. <>.

“Sally Hemings (1773 – 1835).”
8 Feb. 2009. <>.

“Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: A Brief Account.”
8 Feb. 2009. <>.

Image sources:

Unidentified artist. Pocahontas portrait after the 1616 engraving by Simon van de Passe.Oil on canvas, after 1616. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

A Philosophic Cock. Caricature. 13 Feb. 2009 <>.