A house slave was a slave who worked, and often lived, in the house of the slave-owner. House slaves had many duties such as cooking, cleaning, serving meals, and caring for children.
Main article: Slavery in antiquity
In classical antiquity, many civilizations had house slaves.
Main article: Slavery in ancient Greece
The study of slavery in Ancient Greece remains a complex subject, in part because of the many different levels of servility, from traditional chattel slave through various forms of serfdom, such as Helots, Penestai, and several other classes of non-citizen.
Athens had various categories of slave, such as:
- House-slaves, living in their master's home and working at home, on the land or in a shop.
- Freelance slaves, who didn't live with their master but worked in their master's shop or fields and paid him taxes from money they got from their own properties (insofar as society allowed slaves to own property).
- Public slaves, who worked as police-officers, ushers, secretaries, street-sweepers, etc.
- War-captives (andrapoda) who served primarily in unskilled tasks at which they could be chained: for example, rowers in commercial ships; or miners.
Houseborn slaves (oikogeneis) often constituted a privileged class. They were, for example, entrusted to take the children to school; they were "pedagogues" in the first sense of the term. Some of them were the offspring of the master of the house, but in most cities, notably Athens, a child inherited the status of its mother.
Sexual reproduction and "breeding"
It appears that the Greeks did not "breed" their slaves, at least during the Classical Era, though the proportion of house born slaves appears to have been rather large in Ptolemaic Egypt and in manumission inscriptions at Delphi. Sometimes the cause of this was natural; mines, for instance, were exclusively a male domain.
Also known as a writer of Socratic dialogues, Xenophon advised that male and female slaves should be lodged separately, that "… nor children born and bred by our domestics without our knowledge and consent—no unimportant matter, since, if the act of rearing children tends to make good servants still more loyally disposed, cohabiting but sharpens ingenuity for mischief in the bad." The explanation is perhaps economic; even a skilled slave was cheap, so it may have been cheaper to purchase a slave than to raise one. Additionally, childbirth placed the slave-mother's life at risk, and the baby was not guaranteed to survive to adulthood.
In Socratic dialogues and Greek plays
A house slave appears in the Socratic dialogue, Meno, which was written by Plato. In the beginning of the dialogue, the slave's master, Meno, fails to benefit from Socratic teaching, and reveals himself to be intellectually vicious. Socrates turns to the house-slave, who is a boy ignorant of geometry. The boy acknowledges his ignorance and learns from his mistakes and finally establishes a proof of the desired geometric theorem. This is another example of the slave appearing more clever than his master, a popular theme in Greek literature.
The comedies of Menander show how the Athenians preferred to view a house-slave: as an enterprising and unscrupulous rascal, who must use his wits to profit from his master, rescue him from his troubles, or gain him the girl of his dreams. We have most of these plays in translations by Plautus and Terence, suggesting that the Romans liked the same genre.
And the same sort of tale has not yet become extinct, as the popularity of Jeeves and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum attest.
In the Americas
House slaves existed in the New World.
See also: Toussaint Louverture
In Haiti, before leading the Haitian revolution, Toussaint Louverture had been a house slave.
Toussaint is thought to have been born on the plantation of Bréda at Haut de Cap in Saint-Domingue, owned by the Comte de Noé and later managed by Bayon de Libertat. Tradition says that he was driver and horse trainer on the plantation. His master freed him at age 33, when Toussaint married Suzanne. He was a fervent Catholic, and a member of high degree of the Masonic Lodge of Saint-Domingue. In 1790 slaves in the Plaine du Flowera rose in rebellion. Different forces coalesced under different leaders. Toussaint served with other leaders and rose in responsibility. On 4 April 1792, the French Legislative Assembly extended full rights of citizenship to free people of color or mulattoes (gens de couleur libres) and free blacks.
See also: House Negro
In many households, treatment of slaves varied with the slave's skin color. Darker-skinned slaves worked in the fields, while lighter-skinned house servants had comparatively better clothing, food and housing.
As in President Thomas Jefferson's household, the presence of lighter-skinned slaves as household servants was not merely an issue of skin color. Sometimes planters used mixed-race slaves as house servants or favored artisans because they were their children or other relatives. Several of Jefferson's household slaves were possibly children of his father-in-law John Wayles and the enslaved woman Betty Hemings, who were inherited by Jefferson's wife upon her father's death. In turn Jefferson himself had a long relationship with Betty and John Wayle's daughter Sally Hemings, a much younger woman who was mostly of European ancestry and half-sister to Thomas Jefferson's wife. The Hemings children grew up to be closely involved in Jefferson's household staff activities; one became his chef. Two sons trained as carpenters. Three of his four surviving mixed-race children with Sally Hemings passed into white society as adults.
- ^Carlier, p.203.
- ^ abGarlan, p.58.
- ^Garlan, p.59.
- ^The Economist, IX. Trans H. G. Dakyns, accessed 16 May 2006.
- ^Pritchett and Pippin, pp.276–281.
- ^Garlan, p.58. Finley (1997), p.154–155 remains doubtful.
- ^Bell, pp.59-60, 62
- ^"Toussaint L’Ouverture", HyperHistory, accessed 27 Apr 2008
- ^David Brion Davis, "He changed the New World", Review of Madison Smartt Bell's Toussaint Louverture: A Biography, The New York Review of Books, 31 May 2007, p. 55
- ^"Toussaint Louverture: A Biography and Autobiography: Electronic Edition". University of North Carolina. Retrieved 22 August 2007.
- ^Genovese (1967)
- ^Annette Gordon-Reed, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, New York: W.W. Norton, 2008
In September of last year I wrote an essay on this website where I discussed an ongoing debate about whether the standard noun we use to describe chattel enslavement–“Slavery”–should be replaced by an active verb–“Slaving”–to more accurately reflect what historian Joseph Miller describes as the “ever-changing historical contingencies” that mark the long history of enslavement around the world. Since then a few co-workers and myself have engaged in a parallel conversation about the terms “enslaved person” and “slave” and which one we should use when discussing enslavement with visitors to the White Haven estate in St. Louis, Missouri. Two essays inspired these discussions. One was written by fellow NPS employee Jacob Dinkelaker in 2011 and describes his experiences at a National Association for Interpretation workshop where a presenter argued against using the word “slave,” while the other essay by journalist Katy Waldman was published in May of this year and is currently featured in Slate(I ran into a paywall a couple times when trying to load this article, but not every time. Good luck).
Critics of the word “slave” point out that it’s a nameless, passive noun that strips enslaved people of their humanity. As scholar Angela Roberts-Burton argues, “No one asked to be a slave. This is not what or who they were. When people are referred to as slaves, it is dehumanizing. They become ambiguous, without feelings, thoughts, or individual personalities.” But, as the historian Eric Foner suggests, referring to slaves doesn’t necessarily mean stripping away one’s humanity: “Slaves are human beings and can be husbands, wives (in fact if not in law), fathers and mothers, members of religious groups, skilled craftsmen . . . All people have multiple identities, including slaves.”
I believe there is an unavoidable paradox we must address when engaging in this discussion. While I think that enslaved person more precisely acknowledges the humanity of those forced into slavery’s chains, the term is unavoidably presentist. We today acknowledge the humanity of these people, but the institution of slavery was horrible precisely because it made humans into pieces of property to be bought, sold, and abused at will. People were stripped of their humanity and forced into the condition of slaves under threat of violence by their enslavers and the state. Do we run the risk of downplaying these horrors by doing away with the term historically employed to describe the ways slavery dehumanized its victims/survivors?
I suppose the big question, then, is whether we should use and redefine the master’s linguistical tools to describe slavery’s evils or whether we should throw out the master’s tools and create our own tools to achieve a better description of these realities.
My own imperfect solution has been to use “slaves” and “enslaved people” interchangeably during my own historical tours and educational programs. At the beginning of my tours I will often start with a generalized talk about slavery in American society and explain that African American “slaves” did the labor at White Haven before the Civil War, but when I point out specific outbuildings in the back of the house I will point out where the “enslaved people” cooked, cleaned, played, etc. etc. I also apply the latter terminology when talking about individuals at White Haven. Mary Robinson was “an enslaved cook,” Mary Henry was “an enslaved nurse,” and Jim and Bob were “enslaved laborers” at the plantation.
I have a bigger problem with the term “servant,” which implies a voluntary, contractual relationship between a willing laborer and an employer. I also have a problem with any reference to “the dependents,” which is what one couple from the Deep South called the slaves during one of my tours (they also admitted that they heard the term during other plantation tours they had taken over the years). Referring to slaves/enslaved people as “dependents” implies that they could not take care of themselves without the assistance of a benevolent enslaver. The opposite was actually true in reality: the enslavers at the big house depended on the labors of the enslaved for their economic well-being.
What do you think?
Published by Nick Sacco
Historian and musician on a perpetual mission to find the next great read. View all posts by Nick Sacco