What Helped Enslaved Africans Survive Slavery?

Slaves labored at cotton gins throughout the South
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In 1619, the first African slaves came to the colony of Jamestown, Virginia, and were followed in the next century by as many as seven million others. This number does not even count the more than two million Africans who died after being marched by slavers to the African coast, or during the infamous “Middle Passage” to America.

1 Fear of Separation

The men, women and children who remained alive – and their descendants – labored on tobacco, rice and indigo plantations in the South and survived slavery in a number of different ways. Part of it was simply luck: Slaves (mainly women and children) working as domestics in Southern households fared better than slaves working in the fields. Slaves with harsh or sadistic masters fared worse than those with comparatively benign ones. But slaves turned to their respective cultures to finds clues to survival as well. Slave families lived in fear of separation through the sale of loved ones, so time spent with family in slave quarters was a very important way of passing on information about ancestors, medical practices and other life lessons. In the face of the destruction of slave families, Africans could still come together by keeping their oral traditions and folktales alive.

2 Keeping a Network Alive

Extended families became a network that spread information, helped groups to impart knowledge, and taught ways to deal with the severe stresses of slave life. Since slave marriages were forbidden, many slaves married in secret ceremonies; husbands and wives who had been separated but still lived nearby visited their spouses by means of walking long distances at night.

3 Inspirational Music

Music was also an essential way for slaves to survive. Early on, it took the form of songs and dances from the African communities left behind, a communal activity that everyone partook in and which uplifted spirits. Africans sang as they worked, on important occasions in life such as birth and the arrival of puberty, and even when a baby’s first tooth showed up. When slaves converted to Christianity and began to understand the Bible, they identified strongly with liberation stories such as the Israelites escape from ancient Egypt, and used this to inspire them and give them hope.

4 Escape

After passage of the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves went into effect in 1808, slaves were born here, rather than Africa, and this provided them with survival skills of another type. Their ability to understand American regional languages and customs made them better able to escape than their ancestors. While running away was fraught with peril – capture could mean brutal beating or execution – slaves in the 19th century began to escape to the North in greater numbers than ever before. According to one estimate, 100,000 slaves escaped the South between 1810 and 1850, using the Underground Railroad.

Based in New Jersey, Joseph Cummins has been a freelance writer since 2002. He has written 17 books covering history, politics and culture. He has a Master of Fine Arts in writing from Columbia University. His work has been featured in "The New York Times" Freakonomics blog, "Politico," "New York Archives" magazine, "The Carolina Quarterly," "The Michigan Quarterly" and elsewhere.