As we have seen in our study of the shared civilisation of the Caribbean and the South, the initial mixed-labour source (which included Indian slaves, free White settlers, White slaves, indentured White servants and a small number of African slaves) in places such as Brazil and Barbados quickly gave way to African slave labour after the introduction of the plantation system. Those areas which were suitable for growing sugarcane and had a sufficient supply of slaves became extremely wealthy while other places (such as most of the Spanish Caribbean in those years) without these things struggled economically.
In some of the plantation societies of the Golden Circle region there grew sizable classes of mulattoes and free Blacks. The numbers of these people depended upon many cultural, demographic and local factors and varied widely. The wealthy French colony of Saint-Domingue (Haiti) had one of the largest such populations. As Philip Bougher writes on page 226 of his essay ‘The French and the Dutch Caribbean, 1600-1800′ which is included in The Caribbean: A History of the Region and Its People (edited by Stephan Palmié and Francisco Scarano), ‘By 1791, Saint-Dominque’s European population had grown to almost 31,000, but slaves numbered 480,000 and free blacks and people of color numbered more than 27,000, an unusually high number in a slave society.’ He goes on to note on page 229 that many of the free people of colour ‘owned slaves and imitated European racial attitudes.’ The precarious demographic situation in Saint-Domingue proved to be unsustainable though in an era of ideological change (the French Revolution) and the White population was eradicated in a genocidal revolution (led by the Black slave owner Toussaint Louverture).
Despite the smaller numbers of mulattoes and free Blacks in the South as compared to the Caribbean, we do have historical examples of them existing and in a few cases even becoming wealthy slave owners. Pulitzer Prize winner and history professor David Brion Davis writes about one such interesting case on pages 180-181 of his book Inhuman Bondage:
At least until the later antebellum period, the Lower South remained relatively flexible in its treatment of freedmen and their descendants. Despite strict restrictions on manumission, Louisiana and even South Carolina made room for a small number of privileged free coloreds, some of whom became slaveholding planters.
William Ellison, for example, was born a slave in 1790 in upcountry South Carolina. As a young mulatto apprentice he learned the new and highly prized craft of making and repairing cotton gins. After apparently purchasing his own freedom in 1816, Ellison changed his name from “April” to “William,” bought freedom for his de facto wife and daughter, and shrewdly won the respect of his white clients and neighbors. Almost immediately he purchased slaves to work in his gin shop, building “the economic foundation of his freedom on slave labor,” and eventually became a major cotton planter and owner of sixty-three slaves. He even won a lawsuit against a white man who refused to pay his bills. By 1860 Ellison’s property holdings placed him among the richest 10 percent in South Carolina’s wealthy Sumter District. He owned more slaves than 97 percent of South Carolina’s other slaveholders! In Louisiana there were colored planters who possessed more slaves and were even richer than Ellison.
Note: This post is not meant to support the egalitarian historical fantasies of Rainbow Confederates. It is part of our study of the origins of the plantation system and Southern culture and identity.