The popular political struggles of settler Amerika — the most important being the 1775-83 War of Independence — gave us the first experience of alliances between Euro-Amerikan dissenters and oppressed peoples. What was most basic in these alliances was their purely tactical nature. Not unity, but the momentary convergence of the fundamentally differing interests of some oppressors and some of the oppressed. After all, the national division between settler citizens of emerging Amerika and their colonial Afrikan subjects was enormous — while the distance between the interests of Indian nations and that of the settler nation built on their destruction was hardly any less. While tactical alliances would bridge this chasm, it is important to recognize how calculated and temporary these joint efforts were.
We emphasize this because it is necessary to refute the settler propaganda that Colonial Amerika was built out of a history of struggles "for representative government", "democratic struggles" or "class struggles", in which common whites and Afrikans joined together. No one, we note, has yet summoned up the audacity to maintain that the Indians too wished to fight and die for settler "democracy". Yet that same claim is advanced for Afrikan prisoners (slaves), as though they either had more common interests with their slavemasters, or were more brainwashed. To examine the actual conflicts and conditions under which alliances were reached totally rips apart these lies.
A clear case is Bacon's Rebellion, one of the two major settler uprisings prior to the War of Independence. In this rebellion an insurgent army literally seized state power in the Virginia Colony in 1676. They defeated the loyalist forces of the Crown, set the capital city on fire, and forced the Governor to flee. Euro-Amerikans of all classes as well as Afrikan slaves took part in the fighting, the latter making up much of the hard core of the rebellion's forces at the war's end.
Herbert Aptheker, the Communist Party USA's expert on Afrikans, has no hesitation in pointing to this rebellion as a wonderful, heroic example for all of us. He clearly loves this case of an early, anti-capitalist uprising where "whites and Blacks" joined hands:
...But, the outstanding example of popular uprising, prior to the American Revolution itself, is Bacon's Rebellion of 1676 ... a harbinger of the greater rebellion that was to follow it by exactly a century. The Virginia uprising was directed against the economic subordination and exploitation of the colony by the English rulers, and against the tyrannical and corrupt administrative practices in the colony which were instituted for the purpose of enforcing that subordination. Hence, the effort, led by the young planter, Nathaniel Bacon, was multi-class, encompassing in its ranks slaves, indentured servants, free farmers and many planters; it was one in which women were, as an anti-Baconite contemporary noted, 'great encouragers and assisters', and it was one in which demands for political reform along democratic lines formed a central feature of the movement. (1)
Bacon before the Virginia council
It makes you wonder how a planter came to be leading such an advanced political movement? Aptheker is not the only Euro-Amerikan radical to point out the important example in this uprising. To use one other case: In 1974 a paper dealing with this was presented at a New Haven meeting of the "New Left" Union of Radical Political Economists (U.R.P.E.). It was considered important enough to be published in the Cambridge journal Radical America, and then to be reprinted as a pamphlet by the New England Free Press. In this paper Theodore W. Allen says of early Virginia politics:
...The decisive encounter of the people against the bourgeoisie occurred during Bacon's Rebellion, which began in April, 1676 as a difference between the elite and sub-elite planters over 'Indian policy', but which in September became a civil war against the Anglo-American ruling class. ...The transcendent importance of this record is that there, in colonial Virginia, one hundred and twenty-nine years before William Lloyd Garrison was born, the armed working class, black and white, fought side by side for the abolition of slavery. (2)
Aptheker and Allen, as two brother settler radicals, clearly agree with each other that Bacon's Rebellion was an important revolutionary event. But in Allen's account we suddenly find, without explanation, that a dispute over "Indian policy" between some planters transformed itself into an armed struggle by united white and Afrikan workers to end slavery! That is a hard story to follow. Particularly since Bacon's Rebellion is a cherished event in Southern white history, and Bacon himself a notable figure. There is, in fact, an imposing "Memorial Tablet" of marble and bronze in the Virginia State Capital, in the House of Delegates, which singles out Bacon as "A Great Patriot Leader of the Virginia People". (3) So even Virginia's segregationist white politicians agreed with Aptheker and Allen about this "democratic" rebellion. This truly is a unity we should not forget.
Behind the rhetoric, the real events of Bacon's Rebellion have the sordid and shabby character we are so familiar with in Euro-Amerikan politics. It is, however, highly instructive for us. The story begins in the summer of 1675. The settlers of Virginia Colony were angry and tense, for the alarms of "King Philip's Rebellion" — the famed Indian struggle — had spread South from Massachusetts. Further, the Colony was in an economic depression due to both low tobacco prices and a severe drought (which had cut crop yields down by as much as three-quarters). (4)
One of the leading planters on the Colony's frontier was Nathaniel Bacon, Jr., the newest member of the Colony's elite. Bacon had emigrated just the year before, swiftly purchasing two plantations on the James River. He and his partner, William Byrd (founder of the infamous Virginia planter family), had also obtained commissions from Governor Berkeley to engage in the lucrative Indian fur trade. All this was not difficult for Bacon, for he came from a wealthy English family — and was cousin to both Governor Berkeley's wife and to Nathaniel Bacon, Sr. (a leading planter who was a member of Virginia's Council of State).
In the Spring of that year, 1675, Governor Berkeley honored young Bacon by giving him an appointment to the Council of State. As events were to prove, Bacon's elite lifestyle and rapid political rise did but throw more fuel on the fires of his arrogance and unlimited ambition.
In July of 1675 war broke out between the settlers and the Susquehannock Indians. As usual, the war was started by settler harassment of Indians, climaxing in a militia raid which mistakenly crossed the border into Maryland — and mistakenly attacked the Susquehannock, who were allied to the settlers. The Susquehannock resisted, and repelled the Virginians' attack. Angry that the Indians had dared to resist their bullying intrusion, the Virginia militia returned in August with reinforcements from the Maryland militia. This new settler army of 1,100 men surrounded the Susquehannock fort. Five Susquehannock leaders were lured out under pretense of a parley and then executed.
Late one night all the besieged Susquehannock — men, women and children — silently emptied out their town and slipped away. On their way out they corrected five settler sentries. From then on the Susquehannock took to guerrilla warfare, traveling in small bands and ambushing isolated settlers. Nathaniel Bacon, Jr. was an avid "hawk", whose lust for persecuting Indians grew even greater when Indian guerrillas killed one of his slave overseers. To Bacon that was one injury too many.
At that time the Virginia settlers had become polarized over "Indian policy", with Bacon leading the pro-war faction against Governor Berkeley. Established English policy, which Governor Berkeley followed, called for temporary alliances with Indian nations and temporary restraints on settler expansionism. This was not due to any Royal humanitarianism, but was a recognition of overall strategic realities by the English rulers. The Indian nations held, if only for a historical moment, the balance of power in North America between the rival British, French and Spanish empires. Too much aggression against Indian territories by English settlers could drive the Indians into allying with the French. It is also true that temporary peace with nearby Indians accomplished three additional ends: The very profitable fur trade was uninterrupted; Indians could be played off against each other, with some spying and fighting for the settlers; Indian pledges could be gotten to return runaway Afrikan slaves (although few were ever returned). So under the peace treaty of 1646 (after Indian defeats in the 1644-46 war), nineteen Indian tribes in Virginia accepted the authority of the British Crown. These subject Indians had to abide by settler law, and were either passive or active allies in settler wars with Indians further West.
By the time Bacon's overseer was corrected by the no-longer friendly Susquehannock, the political dispute between Bacon and Governor Berkeley had boiled over into the public view. Earlier, Bacon and Byrd had secretly suggested to Governor Berkeley that they be given a monopoly on the Indian fur trade. (5) Corrupt as the planters were, this move was so crudely self-serving that it was doomed to rejection. Berkeley dismissed their greedy proposal. Then, Bacon was wiped out of the fur trade altogether. In March, 1676, the Virginia Assembly, reacting to rumors that some traders were illegally selling guns to the Indians, permanently suspended all the existing traders and authorized commissioning a wholesale replacement by new traders. Bacon was outraged, his pride and pocketbook stung, his anger and ambition unleashed.
The dispute between Bacon and Governor Berkeley was very clear-cut. Both favored war against the formerly-allied Susquehannock. Both favored warring on any Indians opposing settler domination. But Berkeley believed in the usefulness of keeping some Indian subjects — as he said: "I would have preservd those Indians that I knew were hourely at our mercy to have beene our spies and intelligence to find out the more bloudy Ennimies." Bacon disagreed, scorning all this as too meek, too soft, almost treasonous; he believed in wiping out all Indians, including allied and subject Indians. As he put it in his "Manifesto": "Our Design" was "to ruin and extirpate all Indians in General." Thus did Bacon's Rebellion define its main program. This was a classic settler liberal-conservative debate, which still echoes into our own times, like that between Robert F. Kennedy vs. George Wallace, O.E.O. vs. KKK, C.I.A. vs. F.B.I., and so on.
...in short what wee did in that short time and poor condition wee were in was to destroy the King of the Susquahannocks and the King of Oconogee [i.e., Occaneechee] and the Manakin King with a 100 men, besides what [was?] unknown to us. The King's daughter wee took Prisonner with some others and could have brought more, But in the heat of the Fight wee regarded not the advantage of the Prisoners nor any plunder, but burn't and destroid all. And what we reckon most material! is That wee have left all nations of Indians [where wee have bin] ingaged in a civill warre amongst themselves, soe that with great ease wee hope to manadge this advantage to their utter Ruine and destruction.
--from Nathaniel Bacon's report on the 1676 expedition against the Indians
Bacon had been denied a militia officer's commission by Gov. Berkeley on the grounds that he refused to follow British policy. But in May, 1676, Bacon refused to be blocked by Gov. Berkeley any longer. He had become a charismatic leader among the frontier settlers, and he and his neighbors were determined to reach a "Final Solution" to their Indian problem. This was an increasingly popular program among the settler masses, since it also promised to end their economic depression by a new round of looting Indian lands and goods. Nothing raises more enthusiasm among Euro-Amerikan settlers than attacking people of color — they embrace it as something between a team sport and a national religion. Thus did the Rebellion win over the settler masses.
In May, 1676, word came to the settlers on the frontier from their Occaneechee Indian allies that a band of Susquehannock had camped near the Occaneechee fort on the Roanoke River. Bacon and his friends formed a vigilante group, against government orders, and promptly rode off to begin their war against all Indians. This marks the beginning of Bacon's Rebellion.
When Bacon and his men arrived at the Occaneeche fort they were exhausted, out of food, and clearly in no shape to fight. The fawning Occaneeche treated to a festive dinner. They even proposed that Bacon's force should rest while the Occaneeche would defeat the Susquehannock for them. Naturally, Bacon agreed. Using treachery the Occaneeche overran the Susquehannock, killing some thirty of them. The surviving prisoners were either publicly executed or given to Bacon as slaves.
But this did not end the battle, for Bacon and his vigilante band had really come to kill and enslave all the Indians. The Occaneeche were rumored to have a store of beaver furs worth some Â£1,000. At least some of Bacon's men later confessed "that the great designe was to gett the beaver..." In any case, Bacon demanded that the Occaneeche give him all the loot from the Susquehannock camp plus additional friendly Indians as slaves. Even at that, the servile Occaneeche leader tried to temporize, offering to give him hostages. Suddenly Bacon's force assaulted the unprepared Occaneeche. Most of the Indians inside the fort were killed, although they did stand off the settler assault. The surprised Occaneeche outside their fort were helpless, however. As Bacon proudly reported, his heroic settler comrades "fell upon the men, woemen and children without, disarmed and destroid them all..." Bacon's Rebellion had won its first important victory, and he and his men marched homeward, loaded with loot and new slaves, as heroes.
Bacon was now the most popular figure in the Virginia Colony, famed and respected as an Indian killer. Berkeley's refusal to grant him a military commission meant nothing, for Bacon was acclaimed as "The Peoples' General". He, much more than any Governor or Councilor, commanded the loyalty of the settler masses. Nor did he find any trouble attracting armed volunteers to do his the bidding. Wiping out and looting all the Indians around settlers was a program many whites could relate to, particularly since Governor Berkeley, under popular pressure, had forced the subject Indians to turn in their muskets and disarm. Killing disarmed oppressed people is much more satisfying to Euro-Amerikans than having to face armed foes. In fact, as one historian pointed out: "Bacon and his men did not kill a single enemy Indian but contented themselves with frightening away, killing, or enslaving most of the friendly neighboring Indians, and taking their beaver and land as spoils."
Now Bacon was on the offensive against Governor Berkeley and his clique as well. Over and over he publicly damned Berkeley as a traitor to settlers. Bacon was swinging from his heels, aiming at nothing less than state power. His big gun against the Governor was the charge that Berkeley was a secret "friend" to the Indians. No charge could have been more damaging. As we all know, when Euro-Amerikans really get serious about fighting each other the most vicious accusation they can hurl at one another is that of "nigger-lover" or "Indian-lover" or some such.
Bacon charged that the Governor was literally a traitor who had secretly sold the Indians guns so that they could attack the settlers. We can see the parallels to the 1960's, when white liberals were widely charged with giving Third-World militants money, legal aid, and even weapons so that they could kill whites. Berkeley, charged Bacon, had so intimidated the settlers "that no man dare to destroy the Indians ... until I adventured to cutt the knott, which made the people in generall look upon mee as the countries friend." Bacon's wife, whose ardent support for the Rebellion led some of today's Euro-Arnerikan radicals to see feminist stirrings in it, cried "Thanks bee to God" that her husband "did destroy a great many of the Indians..."(6) Killing, enslaving and robbing was the exact central concern of this movement — which Euro-Amerikans tell us is an example of how we should unite with them! There's a message there for those who wish to pick it up.
Bacon had been proscribed as a lawbreaker and rebel, but he still easily won election to the Assembly which was to meet on June 5, 1676. He typically chose to ensure his control of the Henrico County elections by capturing the site with his vigilantes. Even though Bacon was for repealing the 1670 Assembly decision denying property-less freeman voting rights, these votes and assemblies were just window-dressing to his dictatorial ambitions.
On June 7, 1676 the Rebellion suffered its first reverse. Bacon was captured as he and fifty of his armed band tried to slip into Jamestown, the capital of Virginia Colony. Then began a dizzying series of maneuvers, coups and countercoups. Preferring shame to execution, Bacon begged Gov. Berkeley's pardon on bended knee in front of the crowded Assembly. He was quickly pardoned — and even restored to his position on the Council of State. Young Bacon just as quickly fled Jamestown, returning on June 23, 1676 with over 500 armed supporters. He easily captured the capital, Governor and all. But now he in turn had to release Gov. Berkeley and his loyal supporters, for they invoked their settlers' right to return home to defend their plantations and women against the Indians.
It was at that point that we find white indentured servants entering the scene. Without an army, with almost all of the planters turned against him, an exiled Gov. Berkeley outbids Bacon for support. Berkeley promises freedom to white indentured servants of the Baconites, if they will desert their masters and take arms with the loyalist forces of the Crown. He also authorizes looting, with every white servant sharing in the confiscated estates of the Baconites. Aided by the lucky recapture of three armed ships, Gov. Berkeley soon rebuilt his military forces.
On Sept. 7 1676 the loyalists arrived at Jamestown. Gov. Berkeley shrewdly offered a general pardon to all rebel settlers except Bacon and his two chief lieutenants. Although they still commanded the fortified capital, Bacon's men abandoned their positions in immediate flight, without any pretense of battle. Most eagerly took up Berkeley's offer of pardon.
Now it was Bacon's turn to find himself virtually armyless, deserted by many of his followers. It appears as though a good number of settlers rallied to and deserted from the various sides depending on how the tide of fortune was running. They had an opportunistic regard for their immediate gain as the main contour in their minds. Just one month before, Bacon had been confidently sketching out how sister rebellions could easily be ignited in Maryland and South Carolina, and how if London refused their demands then an independent nation could be formed. This, incidentally, is why Jefferson and the other 1776 patriots considered Bacon one of the first architects of the United States. (7) But now his situation was perilous.
In his extreme need, refusing to swallow the bitter dose of either compromise or defeat, Bacon followed Gov. Berkeley's example — but did him one better. Bacon recruited not only the white servants of his opponents, but also their Afrikan slaves. Hundreds of new recruits flocked to his army. On Sept. 19, 1676, Baconite forces recaptured Jamestown. Once again there was no battle. Berkeley's forces deserted him as swiftly as Bacon's had, and the fortified capital was abandoned. Bacon, ever the master psychologist, had skillfully barricaded his besieging ramparts with the bodies-of both his new Indian slaves and the captured wives of loyalists. That night he triumphantly ordered Jamestown put to the torch, and the fires that consumed the capital were dramatic evidence that he was once again master of Virginia.
But then Bacon died suddenly from an unexpected illness. His successor as "General" of the Rebellion lost heart, and made a secret deal with the Crown to disarm the rebel forces. The last die-hards were some 80 Afrikan slaves and 20 white servants, who refused to surrender to a fate they knew all too well. They were tricked into coming aboard a ship, taken out to the middle of the river, and forced to disarm at cannonpoint. As quickly as it had begun, Bacon's Rebellion was over.
Out of the debris of this chaotic dispute we can pick out the central facts. First, that there was no democratic political program or movement whatsoever. Bacon's Rebellion was a popular movement, representing a clear majority of the settlers, to resolve serious economic and social problems by stepping up the exploitaton of oppressed peoples. Far from being "democratic", it was more nearly fascistic. Bacon was the diseased mind of the most reactionary faction of the planters, and in his ambitious schemes the fact that a few more freemen or ex-slaves had paper voting rights meant little. Far from fighting to abolish slavery, the Rebellion actually hoped to add to the number of slaves by Indian conquest.
And, finally, there was no "Black and White unity" at all. Needing fighting bodies, Bacon at the very end offered a deal to his opponents' slaves. He paid in the only coin that was meaningful — a promise of freedom for them if he won. Those Afrikans who signed up in his army didn't love him, trust him, view him as their leader, or anything of the kind. They were tactically exploiting a contradiction in the oppressor ranks, maneuvering for their freedom. It is interesting to note that those Indians who did give themselves up to unity with the oppressors, becoming the settlers' lackeys and allies, were not protected by it, but were destroyed.
We can also see here the contradiction of "democratic" reforms within the context of settler capitalism. Much has been made of the reforms of "Bacon's Assembly" (the June, 1676 session of the Virginia Assembly, which was so named because of its newly elected majority of Baconites and their sympathizers). Always singled out for praise by Euro-Arnerikan historians was "Act VII" of the Assembly, which restored voting rights to property-less freemen. The most eminent Euro-Amerikan radical labor historian, Philip S. Foner, has written how:
...the rebellion...gained a number of democratic rights for the people. The statute preventing propertyless freemen from electing members to the House of Burgesses was repealed. Freeholders and freemen of every parish gained the right to elect the vestries of the church. None of these democratic reforms remained after the revolt was crushed, yet their memories lived on. Bacon was truly the 'Torchbearer of the Revolution', and for generations after any leader of the common people was called a 'Baconist'. (8)
It is easy to see how contemptible these pseudo-Marxist, white supremacist lies are. When we examine the entire work of that legislature of planter reforms, we find that the first three acts passed all involved furthering the genocidal war against the Indians. Act III legalized the settler seizure of Indian lands, previously guaranteed by treaty, "deserted" by Indians fleeing from Bacon's attacks. How meaningful is a "democratic" extension of voting rights amidst the savage expansion of a capitalist society based on genocide and enslavement? Would voting rights for white ranchers have been the "democratic" answer at Wounded Knee? Or "free speech" for prison guards the answer at Attica?
The truth is that Euro-Amerikans view these bourgeois-democratic measures as historic gains because to them they are. But not to us. The inner content, the essence of these reforms was the consolidation of a new settler nation. Part of this process was granting full citizenship in the settler society to all strata and classes of Euro-Amerikans; as such, these struggles were widespread in Colonial Amerika, and far more important to settlers than mere wage disputes.
The early English settlers of Virginia Colony, for example, were forced to import German, Polish and Armenian craftsmen to their invasion beachhead, in order to produce the glass beads used in the fur trade (as well as pitch used in shipbuilding, etc.). Since these "foreign" craftsmen were not English, they were considered subjects and not members of the Colony. So in 1619 those European artisans went on strike, quickly winning full citizenship rights — "as free as any inhabitant there whatsoever." (9)
Similar struggles took place throughout the Colonial Era, in both North and South. In 1689 Leisler's Rebellion (led by a German immigrant merchant) in New York found the settler democrats ousting the British garrison from Albany, and holding the state capital for several years. The New York State Assembly has its origins in the settler legislature granted by the Crown as a concession after the revolt had been ended. The Roosevelt family first got into settler politics as supporters of Leisler. (10)
We need to see the dialectical unity of democracy and oppression in developing settler Amerika. The winning of citizenship rights by poorer settlers or non-Anglo-Saxon Europeans is democratic in form. The enrollment of the white masses into new, mass instruments of repression-such as the formation of the infamous Slave Patrols in Virginia in 1727 — is obviously anti-democratic and reactionary. Yet these opposites in form are, in their essence, united as aspects of creating the new citizenry of Babylon. This is why our relationship to "democratic" struggles among the settlers has not been one of simple unity.
This was fully proven in practice once again by the 1776 War of Independence, a war in which most of the Indian and Afrikan peoples opposed settler nationhood and the consolidation of Amerika. In fact, the majority of oppressed people gladly allied themselves to the British forces in hopes of crushing the settlers.
This clash, between an Old European empire and the emerging Euro-Amerikan empire, was inevitable decades before actual fighting came. The decisive point came when British capitalism decided to clip the wings of the new Euro-Amerikan bourgeoisie — they restricted emigration, hampered industry and trade, and pursued a long-range plan to confine the settler population to a controllable strip of territory along the Atlantic seacoast. They proposed, for their own imperial needs, that the infant Amerika be permanently stunted. After all, the European conquest of just the Eastern shores of North America had already produced, by the time of Independence, a population almost one-third as large as that of England and Ireland. They feared that unchecked, the Colonial tail might someday wag the imperial dog (as indeed it has).
Map of the colonies just before the Revolution. [view larger version]
While some patriots, such as Samuel Adams, had for many years been certain of the need for settler independence from England, the settler bourgeoisie was, in the main, conservative and uncertain about actual war. It was the land question that in the end proved decisive in swaying the doubtful among the settler elite.
By first the Proclamation Act of 1763 and then the Quebec Act of 1773, the British capitalists kept trying to reserve for themselves alone the great stretches of Indian land West of the Alleghenies. This was ruinous to the settler bourgeoisie, who were suffering from the first major Depression in Amerikan history. Then as now, real estate speculation was a mania, a profitable obsession to the Euro-Amerikan patriots. Ben Franklin, the Whartons and other Philadelphia notables tried to obtain vast acreages for speculation. George Washington, together with the Lees and Fitzhughs, formed the Mississippi Company, which tried to get 2.5 million acres for sale to new settlers. Heavily in debt to British merchant-bankers, the settler bourgeoisie had hoped to reap great rewards from seizing new Indian lands as far West as the Mississippi River. (11)
The British Quebec Act of 1773, however, attached all the Amerikan Midwest to British Canada. The Thirteen Colonies were to be frozen out of the continental land grab, with their British cousins doing all the looting. And as for the Southern planter bourgeoisie, they were faced with literal bankruptcy as a class without the profits of new conquests and the expansion of the slave system. It was this one issue that drove them, at the end, into the camp of rebellion. (12)
Historian Richard G. Wade, analyzing the relation of frontier issues to the War of Independence, says of British restrictions on settler land-grabbing: "...settlers hungered to get across the mountains and resented any efforts to stop them. The Revolution was fought in part to free the frontier from this confinement." (13)
Like Bacon's Rebellion, the "liberty" that the Amerikan Revolutionists of the 1770's fought for was in large part the freedom to conquer new Indian lands and profit from the commerce of the slave trade, without any restrictions or limitations. In other words, the bourgeois "freedom" to oppress and exploit others. The successful future of the settler capitalists demanded the scope of independent nationhood.
But as the first flush of settler enthusiasm faded into the unhappy realization of how grim and bloody this war would be, the settler "sunshine soldiers" faded from the ranks to go home and stay home. Almost one-third of the Continental Army deserted at Valley Forge. So enlistment bribes were widely offered to get recruits. New York State offered new enlistments 400 acres each of Indian land. Virginia offered an enlistment bonus of an Afrikan slave (guaranteed to be not younger than age ten) and 100 acres of Indian land. In South Carolina, Gen. Sumter used a share-the-loot scheme, whereby each settler volunteer would get an Afrikan captured from Tory estates. Even these extraordinarily generous offers failed to spark any sacrificial enthusiasm among the settler masses. (14)
It was Afrikans who greeted the war with great enthusiasm. But while the settler slavemasters sought "democracy" through wresting their nationhood away from England, their slaves sought liberation by overthrowing Amerika or escaping from it. Far from being either patriotic Amerikan subjects or passively enslaved neutrals, the Afrikan masses threw themselves daringly and passionately into the jaws of war on an unprecedented scale — that is, into their own war, against slave Amerika and for freedom.
The British, short of troops and laborers, decided to use both the Indian nations and the Afrikan slaves to help bring down the settler rebels. This was nothing unique; the French had extensively used Indian military alliances and the British extensively used Afrikan slave recruits in their 1756-63 war over North America (called "The French & Indian War" in settler history books). But the Euro-Amerikan settlers, sitting on the dynamite of a restive, nationally oppressed Afrikan population, were terrified — and outraged.
This was the final proof to many settlers of King George III's evil tyranny. An English gentlewoman traveling in the Colonies wrote that popular settler indignation was so great that it stood to unite rebels and Tories again. (15) Tom Paine, in his revolutionary pamphlet Common Sense, raged against "...that barbarous and hellish power which hath stirred up Indians and Negroes to destroy us." (16) But oppressed peoples saw this war as a wonderful contradiction to be exploited in the ranks of the European capitalists.
Lord Dunmore was Royal Governor of Virginia in name, but ruler over so little that he had to reside aboard a British warship anchored offshore. Urgently needing reinforcements for his outnumbered command, on Nov. 5, 1775 he issued a proclamation that any slaves enlisting in his forces would be freed. Sir Henry Clinton, commander of British forces in North America, later issued an even broader offer:
I do most strictly forbid any Person to sell or claim Right over any Negroe, the property of a Rebel, who may claim refuge in any part of this Army; And I do promise to every Negroe who shall desert the Rebel Standard, full security to follow within these Lines, any Occupation which he shall think proper. (17)
Could any horn have called more clearly? By the thousands upon thousands, Afrikans struggled to reach British lines. One historian of the Exodus has said: "The British move was countered by the Americans, who exercised closer vigilance over their slaves, removed the able-bodied to interior places far from the scene of the war, and threatened with dire punishment all who sought to join the enemy. To Negroes attempting to flee to the British the alternatives 'Liberty or Death' took on an almost literal meaning. Nevertheless, by land and sea they made their way to the British forces." (18)
The war was a disruption to Slave Amerika, a chaotic gap in the European capitalist ranks to be hit hard. Afrikans seized the time — not by the tens or hundreds, but by the many thousands. Amerika shook with the tremors of their movement. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were bitter about their personal losses: Thomas Jefferson lost many of his slaves; Virginia's Governor Benjamin Harrison lost thirty of "my finest slaves"; William Lee lost sixty-five slaves, and said two of his neighbors "lost every slave they had in the world"; South Carolina's Arthur Middleton lost fifty slaves. (19)
19th-century depiction of the murder of Jane McCrea.
Afrikans were writing their own "Declaration of Independence" by escaping. Many settler patriots tried to appeal to the British forces to exercise European solidarity and expel the Rebel slaves. George Washington had to denounce his own brother for bringing food to the British troops, in a vain effort to coax them into returning the Washington family slaves. (20) Yes, the settler patriots were definitely upset to see some real freedom get loosed upon the land.
To this day no one really knows how many slaves freed themselves during the war. Georgia settlers were said to have lost over 10,000 slaves, while the number of Afrikan escaped prisoners in South Carolina and Virginia was thought to total well over 50,000. Many, in the disruption of war, passed themselves off as freemen and relocated in other territories, fled to British Florida and Canada, or took refuge in Maroon communities or with the Indian nations. It has been estimated that 100,000 Afrikan prisoners — some 20% of the slave population — freed themselves during the war. (21)
The thousands of rebellious Afrikans sustained the British war machinery. After all, if the price of refuge from the slavemaster was helping the British throw down the settlers, it was not such a distasteful task. Lord Dunmore had an "Ethiopian Regiment" of ex-slaves (who went into battle with the motto "Liberty to Slaves" sewn on their jackets) who helped the British capture and burn Norfolk, Va. on New Years Day, 1776. (22) That must have been sweet, indeed. Everywhere, Afrikans appeared with the British units as soldiers, porters, road-builders, guides and intelligence agents. Washington declared that unless the slave escapes could be halted the British Army would inexorably grow "like a snowball in rolling". (23)
It was only under this threat — not only of defeat, but defeat in part by masses of armed ex-slaves — that the settlers hurriedly reversed their gears and started recruiting Afrikans into the Continental U.S. Army. The whole contradiction of arming slaves and asking them to defend their slavemasters was apparent to many. Fearing this disruption of the concentration camp culture of the plantations — and fearing even more the dangers of arming masses of Afrikans — many settlers preferred to lose to their British kith and kin rather than tamper with slavery. But that choice was no longer fully theirs to make, as the genie was part-way out of the bottle.
On Dec. 31, 1775, Gen. Washington ordered the enlistment of Afrikans into the Continental Army, with the promise of freedom at the end of the war. Many settlers sent their slaves into the army to take their place. One Hessian mercenary officer with the British said: "The Negro can take the field instead of the master; and therefore, no regiment is to be seen in which there are not Negroes in abundance..." Over 5,000 Afrikans served in the Patriot military, making up a large proportion of the most experienced troops (settlers usually served for only short enlistments — 90 days duty being the most common term — while slaves served until the war's end or death). (24)
For oppressed peoples the price of the war was paid in blood. Afrikan casualties were heavy (one-half of the Afrikans who served with the British in Virginia died in an epidemic). (25) And the Indian nations allied to the Crown suffered greatly as the tide of battle turned against their side. The same was true of many Afrikans captured in British defeats. Some were sold to the West Indies and others were executed. A similar heavy fate fell on those recaptured while making their way to British lines. The settler mass community organizations, such as the infamous "Committees of Correspondence" in New York and Massachusetts, played the same role up North that the Slave Patrols played in the South, of checking and arresting rebellious Afrikans. (26)
Even those who had allied with the victorious settlers did not necessarily find themselves winning anything. Many Afrikans were disarmed and put back into chains at the war's end, despite solemn settler promises. John Hancock, President of the Continental Congress, may have presented Afrikan U.S. troops with a banner — which praised them as "The Bucks of America" — but that didn't help Afrikans such as Captain Mark Starlin. He was the first Afrikan captain in the Amerikan naval forces, and had won many honors for his near-suicidal night raids on the British fleet (which is why the settlers let him and his all-Afrikan crew sail alone). But as soon as the war ended, his master simply reclaimed him. Starlin spent the rest of his life as a slave. He, ironically enough, is known to historians as an exceptionally dedicated "patriot", superloyal to the new settler nation. (27)
What was primary for the Afrikan masses was a strategic relationship with the British Empire against settler Amerika. To use an Old European power against the Euro-Amerikan settlers — who were the nearest and most immediate enemy — was just common sense to many. 65,000 Afrikans joined the British forces — over ten for every one enlisted in the Continental U.S. ranks. (28) As Lenin said in discussing the national question: "The masses vote with their feet". And in this case they voted against Amerika.
Secondarily, on an individual level Afrikans served with various forces in return for release from slavery. There was no real "political unity" or larger allegiance involved, just a quid pro quo. On the European sides as well, obviously. If the British and Patriot sides could have pursued their conflict without freeing any slaves or disrupting the slave system, they each gladly would have done so. Just as the slave enlistments in Bacon's Rebellion demonstrated only the temporary and tactical nature of alliances between oppressed and oppressor forces, so the alignment of forces in the settler War of Independence only proved that the national patriotic struggle of Euro-Amerikans was opposite to the basic interests and political desires of the oppressed.
Even in the ruins of British defeat, the soundness of this viewpoint was borne out in practice. While the jubilant Patriots watched the defeated British army evacuate New York City in 1783, some 4,000 Afrikans swarmed aboard the departing ships to escape Amerika. Another 4,000 Afrikans escaped with the British from Savannah, 6,000 from Charleston, and 5,000 escaped aboard British ships prior to the surrender. (29) Did these brothers and sisters "lose" the war — compared to those still in chains on the plantations?
Others chose neither to leave nor submit. All during the war Indian and Afrikan guerrillas struck at the settlers. In one case, three hundred Afrikan ex-slaves fought an extended guerrilla campaign against the planters in both Georgia and South Carolina. Originally allied to the British forces, they continued their independent campaign long after the British defeat. They were not overcome until 1786, when their secret fort at Bear Creek was discovered and overwhelmed. This was but one front in the true democratic struggle against Amerika.