Slaves: A Reversal of Roles

Kelby Williamson

Jamestown through the Revolution: Week Three

The relationship between master and slave had always been one of tension and fear. Typically the fear would be instituted by the master and felt by the slave, however, in the years leading up to and during the Revolution, fear was often felt by the master. Fear was an omnipresent emotion during this time, but the fear of a slave revolt or uprising for masters was an incomparable one. The reversal of roles regarding fear between slaves and their masters during the mid to late eighteenth century was important because it increased negative sentiments against Britain and eventually helped to advance, and was one of the main causes of, the Revolution.


The magazine from which Governor Dunmore had the gunpowder removed

The reversal of roles in relation to fear between master and slave leading up to the Revolution was important because it inspired more resentment and anger towards England in the colonies. The possibility of a slave uprising had always been present but was never feared as much as it was in this time period. Many slaves living in Virginia “found opportunity within the breach that opened between loyalist and patriot whites in 1774” (Holton, 271). Some slaves were promised freedom by the British if they joined their side and retaliated against the Patriots. This, of course, resulted in many slaves siding with England and “betraying” their masters. Governor Dunmore of Virginia threatened to arm the slaves against the colonists after he took the gunpowder from the magazine and the colonists demanded its immediate return. This threat was not one that could easily be ignored considering that half of the population of Williamsburg, and Virginia itself, was made up of slaves. The colonists were enraged by this threat and knew that if the slaves truly were armed it would not end well. They felt as though they could not retaliate because they did not want to “provoke him [Dunmore] to employ a weapon far more lethal than fifteen half-barrels of ammunition: the more than 180,000 Virginians that were enslaved” (Holten, 275). When independent companies began to march towards Williamsburg to help, the people “were terrified” and tried relentlessly to stop them so that they would not upset Dunmore and risk the slaves being armed (Holten, 276). Dunmore threatened to free the slaves of Virginia and eventually offered “freedom to patriots’ slaves that joined his army” (Holton, 271). Many slaves took advantage of this and did end up joining his army. This action alone was one of the major events that led to the eventual revolution because it angered the people of Virginia and the news quickly spread throughout the other colonies. White slave owners began to live in fear as the “proportion of slaves that killed whites grew” (Holton, 271). Whites had “nightmares about waking up amid flames or feeling the first spasms of a stomach invaded by poison”, a fear that was beginning to move from the back of their minds and into the forefront ( Holten, 272). The slaves were beginning to act out due to this conflict between England and the colonists and the slave owners were not pleased that England was encouraging it.  “The looming presence of an enslaved and potentially rebellious workforce guaranteed an intensely hostile white reaction not only to Dunmore’s emancipation threat but also to his decision to remove the gunpowder” (Holten, 277). The colonists’ anger began to build and this eventually resulted in the start of the Revolution. They no longer wanted to live in fear and were so angered by the threats and actions taken by England that could so greatly affect their lives.


A fairly nice slave’s bed in the Peyton Randolph house


A master’s bed in the Peyton Randolph house

The threat to arm slaves, the running away of slaves, and the fear that whites were beginning to feel also threatened their livelihood. Slaves were essential to the lives of planters and most people living in Virginia. They did most of the labor and enabled people to make a profit and living. If most of the slaves ran away or were set free by Britain then Virginia would have most likely collapsed. One enslaved girl ran away three times in just a couple of months, receiving forty lashes each time after being returned to her master. The girl had gone to the governor’s palace in hopes of finding safety, showing how effective the threats and idea of freedom promised by Britain was on the slaves (Holten, 280). Slaves had a great deal of hope and encouragement from the British and started to believe that the risk of being caught and punished was worth the attempt at freedom. Seeing the colonists fight for their freedom against Britain must have inspired the slaves to fight for their freedom as well. Slaves could see a possibility for change because the colonists were able to see a possibility. For the first time African Americans felt as though they could gain their own rights and have their own identity. Many men were also hesitant to join the war because they feared that the slaves would either run away or harm their family. For so many years masters had been treating their slaves unfairly and with overbearing dominance so that the slaves contained no rights. Masters, such as the Byrds, would “vent their anger with each other on their defenseless slaves” (Treckel, 172), so why would the slaves not use violence against their masters in retaliation? An even deeper barrier and higher level of distrust began to form between the two races. Masters believed that their slaves were going to side with the British and try to escape, therefore leaving them without a labor force. The colonists’ worries were reasonable and many slaves did run away and take advantage of the opportunity. The colonists did not want to lose their way of life and therefore slavery was one of the major forces that pushed colonists into the Revolution.

The fear that settled within the hearts of slave owners before the Revolution was one of the major reasons that the colonists went to war and it continued to drive them through the war. In many ways slaves were like women of the time but on a more extreme level: they had a lot of responsibility yet they were not considered to be equal to white men, so they always had the idea of freedom in the back of their minds. People were unwilling to let go of the hierarchy that existed in society which is why the idea of free slaves was so scary, not to mention the violence that would come with it. Even today fear is a driving factor in many events that occur because it is difficult to control and can have great influence. My idea of the revolution and how it started has been altered from an event that happened out of hope and independence to one that occurred due to fear and anger.

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