Objects in the Dark, 1638-1775
The Meaning of Slavery

This is a story of servitude and of liberation. It uses certain words that are very important, and so it is best to define them right at the beginning.


A modern slave in terms of economic anthropology is a producer who is removed from any social existence that might support his or her development. This reduces the slave to a mere force of production in the slave owner's productive enterprise.

Usually the slave looses his or her social existence forcefully through capture in war or slave raids, but one can also become a slave because of indebtedness or through inheritance.

It has been suggested that in Africa before the European invasion there existed some slavery, but since captives were incorporated into a victorious chief's household, they still had some possibility of social development and so were not slaves in the full or modern sense. Although never a slave, because Nelson Mandela was orphaned as a boy he entered a chief's household; by doing so, he gained social advantage.

It has also been suggested that working people today are wage slaves in that, while wages maintain the worker, they do not support the worker's social development beyond what is required by his or her job. The meaning of slavery is different in each stage of historical development.

Chattel slavery

In the colonial period, the emerging ruling class, called the bourgeosie, relied on the private ownership of productive property. This meant that the value of things in their kind of society was reduced to a thing's intrinsic qualities (in philosophical terms, its "empirical" qualities), and social relations tended to come down to market relations that did not in themselves support development.

Under these conditions, there emerged a bourgeois form of slavery in which the slave is reduced to inherent biological traits and so looses the social dimension that might support his or her development. The modern slave becomes a commodity to be bought and sold in the marketplace like any other productive force and without regard for social ties. The modern commodity-slave is therefore usually spoken of as a "chattel" slave because, like cattle, he or she can bought and sold without regard to anything but the owner's interest in profit.

On the other hand, the bourgeoisie assumed there was a "human nature" common to all mankind that included a genius or creative urge that transcended inherited intrinsic qualities and which made all people God's children. This assumption contradicted the existence of chattel slavery, and so it never characterized bourgeois society in general, but only those societies in which the persistence of feudal traditions of non-economic contraints created a special framework in which chattel slavery could flourish. In Europe and in the Northern states, slavery tended to wither with the bourgeois revolution, but in the southern states, it took the particularly brutal form of chattel slavery.


Slavocracy is an economic and political system in which slavery is the organizing principle that shapes every dimension of life. Everyone's existence, whether they be slave or not, is tinctured by the institution of slavery in such a society, which is as much a system of political relations as it is of economic exploitation. Although slavery existed in the North, slavocracy only existed in the South.

If we look at slavery as a kind of society rather than merely just a form of economic exploitation, it then seems that slavery may have had less to do with economic profitability than with the political cooption of a mass of relatively poor slave owners into a political commonwealth dominated by those who were rich or powerful; later, racism served the ruling class as a means to manipulate and exploit the majority of whites, whose wages do not support any more social development than Black slaves, despite their quite different circumstances.

This political dimension and the "scientific" (biologically-based) racism that substituted for slavery after the Civil War, served to exploit and control whites as well as Blacks by depressing Black expectations, by feeding the white working class with illusions of superiority, and by preventing whites and Blacks from struggling together against a common servitude. This makes the story of emancipation from slavery everyone's story and one that did not by any means end with the Civil War.


An abolitionist is one who works for the abolition of slavery. In ancient history, laws might be passed to prevent harm to slaves out of a sense of compassion, and the feudal slave enjoyed the social relations through which development was possible. In both cases, there was no fundamental reason to abolish slavery, as long as its worst abuses could be relieved.

However, the abolitionist wants to be rid of the institution of slavery entirely, not just attack its abuses. This was because, as a member of the bourgeois ruling class, the abolitionist was sensitive to the contradiction between the bourgeois notion of human nature and the institution of slavery, and he probably felt that economic progress was hindered slavery's constraint upon human nature.

The abolutionist is part of the bourgeois revolution because the bourgeoisie of Europe and America felt that traditional (feudal) constraints on individual freedom of choice ultimately slowed economic development, and greater profit could be made in the long run from the exploitation of free wage labor than from slave or indentured labor.

The slavocracy in the Southern United States was therefore an anomaly, contradicting bourgeois forms of exploitation. In the northern states, as in Western Europe, where wage labor was far more developed, slavery was more constrained and then prohibited earlier than in the South. The abolitionist played an important role in the victory of the bourgeois form of exploitation over feudal exploitation.


Emancipation is defined in bourgeois society as the gaining of freedom in terms of an inherent and inalienable right of self-determination, and so emancipation was the legal act that set a slave free from legal constraints that were to some extent a feudal hangover.

However, it did not address the issue of the power that gives substance to that freedom to act, for free choice not founded on power is empty. Since bourgeois society is based on rights and powers that are only individual, the emancipated slave, who usually owned little if any productive wealth, lacked individual power. This is why ownership of land, even if it supported only an impoverished existence, was ideologically so important.

The only way to determine his or her own future, then, was for an emanicipated slave to enter into an association with others having a similar basis of development. At first, emancipation meant the collective struggle for individual rights that were part of the bourgeois revolution and contributed to its fulfillment. In this sense, the bourgeois revolution that began in the eighteenth-century colonies was only completed with the civil rights struggles the 1960s.

The demand for Black power that followed the civil rights struggle contested the fact that because in bourgeois society a meaningful social existence depend on one's possession of wealth, real freedom was confined to the white elite. What saved the day for the bourgeois order was its promotion of the racism which prevented the Black liberation struggle from entering into solidarity with organized labor. This left the Black power movement to focus on the gun and the media as a surrogate power, but they ultimately proved to be empty.

The exhibit

Our story starts with slavery. The first Hartford Black of which we are aware is Louis Berbice from Dutch Guiana. He was brought here in 1638 by his master, the Commissionary Gysbert Opdyck, to the Dutch fort in a neighborhood that was to be known as Dutch Point. For some reason, Louis was killed the following year by Opdyck.

The beginning, then, is one of slavery and victimization. However, there is another story, which is the struggle for liberation, which for Connecticut's Blacks also goes back to the beginning. As long as Connecticut had a ruling class, servitude and liberation necessarily coexisted, and we can't speak of one without the other. This is as much true today was it was in the past. As we will see, the Colonial Black Codes make quite clear that Blacks right from the beginning did struggle to escape oppression and even upon occasion responded to it aggressively.

The Civil War brought an end to legal servitude in the Unites States, but it also meant that for most Blacks, one had moved from one kind of servitude to another resulting from political and economic weakness. Such weakness was a kind of servitude because without power, one is unable to develop, and that is the mark of being a slave.

A legacy of the Second World War was to put on the table the issue of social justice, for while it was evident that while Blacks were no longer slaves, they still were held back by legal constraints and racism. Such limitations could only be removed by the union of interests in a struggle for civil rights. While that struggle did manage to tear down legal constraints based on race, it was soon apparent that legal rights in themselves are empty unless combined with power, and the only power available to most people was what came from their unified struggle to become masters of their own destiny.

[Contents] [Preface] [Servitude]