The Life of a Slave in Thomas Jefferson’s Home

The Life of a Slave in Thomas Jefferson’s Home

Khalid Elhassan - June 28, 2021

Slavery throughout history has taken a variety of forms. The form most people – especially people in the US – are familiar with is the chattel slavery of blacks in the New World, in which slaves were the legal personal property of their masters. Other forms include the system of mass slavery practiced in Ancient Sparta, in which slaves, who outnumbered citizens ten-to-one, were owned by the state. There was also Russian serfdom, which often amounted to slavery by another name. Following are thirty things about those and other historic slavery facts.

The Life of a Slave in Thomas Jefferson’s Home
Thomas Jefferson. Wikimedia

30. The Master of Monticello: A Man of Contrasts

Thomas Jefferson was a complicated figure, to say the least. The Founding Father and leading member of the committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence penned some of the most stirring words in advocating freedom, liberty, and equality. The phrase at the start of the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” has moved and inspired idealists for centuries.

The Life of a Slave in Thomas Jefferson’s Home
A satirical drawing, circa 1825, depicting the exploitative powers of a master over his slaves. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

On the other hand, Jefferson pursued his happiness in a slave-operated plantation and led a life of luxury that was only made possible by the labor of hundreds of chattel slaves. He called slavery a “moral depravity” and “a hideous blot“. He thought that slavery was contrary to the laws of nature, by which every human being had a right to personal liberty, and told anybody who would listen that it was necessary to end slavery. Those views were quite radical in the environment in which he grew up and lived. However, despite whatever objections he had towards slavery, Jefferson owned slaves throughout his life.

The Life of a Slave in Thomas Jefferson’s Home
Monticello and its reproduction on a nickel. Wikimedia

29. Thomas Jefferson Paid Close Attention to the Operation of His Plantation

Throughout his life, Jefferson owned over 600 slaves. Over 400 of them lived and worked in Monticello, and in any given year around 130 toiled in slavery on the plantation. He constantly monitored his human property to extract the maximum labor out of them and strove to increase their numbers through procreation – sometimes with his own personal participation. As he put it: “I consider a woman who brings a child every two years … an addition to the capital“. Although hundreds were enslaved at Monticello, many details of their lives are lost to history. Slaves were denied access to education and literacy – to teach a slave to read and write was criminalized – and contemporary white historians seldom recorded their lives.

Jefferson owned 5,000 acres, around eight square miles, near Charlottesville, in central Virginia, which he divided into separate farms for ease of management. The main one where he lived was a mountaintop plantation, Monticello, whose name means “little mountain” in Italian. Jefferson further divided each farm into “quarter farms”, run by an overseer and an allotment of slaves placed under his command. He further sought to divide the farms and split them into agricultural fields of forty acres each. Until his death at age 83, Jefferson rode around his property on horseback every day to inspect the land and the slaves upon whose toil his solvency rested.

The Life of a Slave in Thomas Jefferson’s Home
Slave children. Daily Mail

28. Jefferson Had a Standard Operating Procedure to Introduce Slave Children to the Lives of Slavery That Awaited Them

Thomas Jefferson was usually meticulous in what he did, and that meticulousness extended to how to brought up and acclimated the children he owned to the lives of slavery that awaited them. He detailed his strategy for child labor in his Farm Book. A firm believer in the need to maximize the returns on his investment in human property, Jefferson wanted to get the most work possible out of his slaves, and to start them on their labors for him as early as practicable. In their earliest years, Jefferson put the tots to work as babysitters and nurses. When girls hit sixteen, they began to spin yarn and weave clothes, and boys from ages ten to sixteen made nails.

The Life of a Slave in Thomas Jefferson’s Home
Child slaves. National Park Service

In addition, he put child slaves of both sexes to work in the tobacco fields: children had the right height to reach and kill tobacco worms. Eventually, Monticello shifted from tobacco to wheat, which called for less manual labor. So he had the children taught trades as an alternative to field toil. As he put it, his slave children must “go into the ground or learn trades“. Not one to miss a trick, Jefferson used food as an incentive to make the kids work harder: if they did a good job, they got more food. If they were particularly diligent, they might also get new clothes.

The Life of a Slave in Thomas Jefferson’s Home
Thomas Jefferson had a clock at Monticello with only the hour hand. Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello

27. Slave Cabins at Thomas Jefferson’s Plantation

Jefferson had a clock installed on an exterior Monticello wall that only had an hour hand. Jefferson, who believed that black people were racially inferior and “as incapable as children,” figured that hour increments were all that the slaves could understand or needed to know. He had cabins built for the house slaves about a hundred yards from and facing the mansion. For the enslaved black people who worked the fields, he housed them at a further distance from his abode. That way, they and the slavery in which they toiled would be out of his sight in both the literal and figurative senses.

Originally, Jefferson’s slaves lived in two-room cabins, with one family per room and a single shared doorway to the outside. From the 1790s onwards, the slaves began to be housed in single-room cabins, each with its own door. By the dismal standards of slavery in the United States at the time, the lives of Jefferson’s slaves at Monticello were less terrible than average. Their lot was still bad, but not as bad as a lot of most other slaves with most other masters. As seen further down this list, Jefferson’s relationship with his slaves was not limited solely to matters of forced labor.

The Life of a Slave in Thomas Jefferson’s Home
A Spartan phalanx. Johnny Shumate

26. The Spartan Version of Slavery

New World chattel slavery made slaves the legal private property of individual masters. Thousands of years earlier, Sparta went a different route and socialized slavery; the slaves belonged not to individual Spartans, but to the state. That set Spartan slavery not only from American slavery but from the slavery practiced by other Ancient Greeks. The Spartans differed from other Ancient Greeks in other ways: unique among their peers, they were the only ones who enslaved other Greeks. Indeed, Sparta could not have existed in the form it did but for the mass enslavement of other Greeks.

It began when Sparta fought and conquered her Messenian neighbors in the eighth and seventh centuries BC. After a long war, the victorious Spartans transformed the entire Messenian population into state slaves, known as Helots. Before it subjugated the Helots, Sparta differed little from other Greek states. After the conquest, it became a wholly militarized state and society in order to control the restive Helots, who outnumbered the Spartans ten to one. Thucydides noted that “most Spartan institutions have always been designed with a view to security against the Helots“. They had few rights, could be killed almost at will by their Spartan overlords and were subjected to sundry humiliations to constantly remind them of their inferior status.

The Life of a Slave in Thomas Jefferson’s Home
Spartans beating their Helots. Encyclopedia Britannica

25. The Spartans Went Out Of Their Way to Humiliate Their Slaves

For their system of mass slavery to work, the Spartans had to keep the conquered Helots constantly cowed, demoralized, and forever fearful of their overlords who missed no opportunity to humiliate their state-owned human property. The fear cut both ways, as the Spartans were always worried about what their Helots might do to them if given half a chance. They went around armed and armored, were constantly on the lookout for an attack that might come at any moment, and kept their doors securely locked.

As to humiliations inflicted upon the Helots, third century BC historian Myron of Priene wrote: “They assign to the Helots every shameful task leading to disgrace. For they ordained that each one of them must wear a dogskin cap and wrap himself in skins and receive a stipulated number of beatings every year regardless of any wrongdoing, so that they would never forget they were slaves. Moreover, if any exceeded the vigour proper to a slave’s condition, they made death the penalty; and they allotted a punishment to those controlling them if they failed“. Unsurprisingly, as seen below, the Helots were unhappy with their lot.

The Life of a Slave in Thomas Jefferson’s Home
Sparta’s economy and viability as a state was dependent on mass slavery and the toil of Helots for their Spartan masters. Babaspedia

24. To Maintain Its System of Slavery, Sparta Became a Police State

To maintain its system of mass slavery, Sparta became a police state – history’s first – and established a secret police force known as the Krypteia. The Krypteia was comprised of Sparta’s brightest young men who showed the most promise. Their key function was to spy on the Helots, and kill any who seemed restive, showed leadership potential, or seemed more prosperous than the rest. To enable them to commit murder without the religious pollution attendant upon such an act, Sparta’s leaders, the ephors, formally declared war on the Helot population every autumn.

Armed with that religious dispensation, the Krypteia fanned out among the Helots and subjected them to a reign of terror and murder. Millennia later, the Nazis looked to Sparta and its treatment of the Helots when they concocted their plans for lebensraum. Like the Spartans, the Nazis hoped to conquer their neighbors – in their case, the neighbors in Eastern Europe and Russia. They planned to then exterminate most of the native Slav population, and institute a system of mass state-owned slavery. The Slavs who survived would be reduced to modern Helots, and serve the German ‘Master Race’ like the Messenians had served the Spartans.

The Life of a Slave in Thomas Jefferson’s Home
The 464 BC earthquake caused widespread devastation throughout Sparta’s territory. Dissolve

23. Sparta’s Slaves Rose in a Massive Uprising in 464 BC

Sparta’s mass slavery system was rocked by frequent Helot revolts, that were invariably crushed by the better trained and better equipped Spartans. Afterward, unsparing revenge was visited upon the subdued rebels. After one such revolt, thousands of Helots were gaily decked out, marched out of town, and never heard from again. The biggest revolt came in 464 BC, after a major earthquake struck Sparta and killed thousands. The Helots took advantage of the turmoil and made another bid for freedom. They rose up and established a fortified base in the mountains.

In his Life of Cimon, the historian Plutarch described how a massive Helot revolt erupted in the Eurotas River valley, in the heart of the Spartans’ home region of Laconia. The rebels figured that their masters, reeling from the disaster, had to be at their weakest, so they struck. However, one of Sparta’s kings (they always had two monarchs), Archidamus II, rallied the Spartans to crush the uprising. It was a close-run affair, and Sparta was forced to ask her neighbors for help in accordance with mutual assistance treaties.

The Life of a Slave in Thomas Jefferson’s Home
Thebans charging to close in with the Spartans. Battles of the Ancients

22. Sparta’s Mass Slavery System Was Finally Ended by the Thebans

The Athenians were among the Greek city-states whom the hard-pressed Spartans asked for help to suppress the Helots. A conservative faction led by Cimon controlled Athens at the time, and so 4000 Athenian soldiers were duly sent to Sparta’s aid. However, once they arrived, the Athenians’ radical democracy ideas alarmed the Spartans. They feared that such notions would spread to their Helots and further fuel the uprising, or that the Athenians might even switch sides. So the Spartans sent them back home.

Insulted, the Athenians threw out their conservative leaders and repudiated their alliance with Sparta. Left to their own devices, the Spartans eventually managed to crush the Helot revolt after a bitter struggle that lasted for two years, and finally ended in 462 BC. They then subjected their slaves to yet another round of savage reprisals. The Helots finally gained their freedom a century later, when Sparta was crushed by Epaminondas of Thebes. He realized that Sparta’s economy depended upon mass slavery, so he kicked the props out from under the Spartans and liberated the Helots. That set Sparta, once the Greek world’s most dominant and feared state, into a downward spiral from which it never recovered.

The Life of a Slave in Thomas Jefferson’s Home
Serfs in shackles and under armed escort, after they had tried but failed to escape their lives in slavery. Children in History

21. Russia’s Version of Slavery

Tsar Peter the Great officially ended chattel slavery in Russia in 1723, but for all intents and purposes, de facto slavery continued in Russia in the guise of serfdom. According to a 1719 census, four out of every five Russian peasants were serfs who could not leave the estates in which they toiled. They could also be legally bought and sold, so long as they were sold as part of a land sale. In practice, landowners could sell their serfs with or without a real estate transaction. Landowners could transfer serfs to other landowners, and keep their property and families.

Legally, only the Russian state and Russian aristocrats could own serfs, but in practice, commercial firms could sell serfs as slaves, both within Russia and abroad to Persia and the Ottoman Empire. In practice, Russian landowners had unlimited ownership over their serfs. Serfs could not be killed – at least not legally. In practice, landowners could flog them to death, outright murder, or otherwise mistreat them at will. Few examples better illustrate the absolute power Russian landowners exercised over their serfs than that of noblewoman Darya Saltykova, below.

The Life of a Slave in Thomas Jefferson’s Home
The beating of a Russian serf, one of untold millions who lived in died in conditions of slavery. Wikimedia

20. The Poster Girl of Russian Serf Abuses

Russian noblewoman Darya Nikolayevna Saltykova (1730 – 1801) was born into a family that was well-connected to prominent aristocratic clans such as the Tolstoys, the Pushkins, and the Davidovs. Other than a penchant for gloominess, there was nothing sinister about her as she grew up, nor in her early married life. She was known for her piousness, and for her generous donations to monasteries and other religious establishments. Behind that pious façade, however, lurked a monster. Saltykova became a poster girl for the abuses that accompanied the de facto slavery that was Russian serfdom, and became infamous as a sadist who tortured and murdered hundreds of serfs, most of them female.

Saltykova was widowed young and inherited from her deceased husband a vast estate with over 600 serfs. That was bad news for the serfs, whose drab and downtrodden lives suddenly got spiced up with a generous dollop of the horrific. Some years into her wealthy widowhood, Saltykova met and was swept off her feet by a handsome, younger, and poorer man, Nikolay Tyutchev. She carried on a torrid affair with him, which raised her usually gloomy spirits. Unfortunately, Saltykova discovered that, behind his Sugar Momma’s back, her lover had an affair with a younger woman. Worse, that Tyutchev had secretly married the other woman.

The Life of a Slave in Thomas Jefferson’s Home
Darya Saltykovna torturing one of her serfs. Russia Beyond

19. The Noblewoman Who Exploited Russia’s System of Slavery to Cope With a Broken a Heart

When she discovered the betrayal by her boy toy, something inside Darya Saltykova snapped, and she nearly killed her unfaithful lover. Nikolay Tyutchev and his wife left the region to escape the wealthy widow’s wrath, and fled to his relatives’ estate near Moscow. That was when Saltykova took full advantage of the ability of landowners to exploit Russia’s system of de facto slavery to indulge in wanton cruelty. Deprived of the opportunity to violently vent her frustrations on her betrayer, Saltykova turned around and vented her rage on her hapless serfs.

Saltykova never got over the humiliation and hurt of her lover having chosen a younger woman over her. Unable to punish him, she took out her anger on her serfs, and punished them instead. Over a period of years, her serfs were forced to live through a horrific nightmare of torture and murder. As seen below, the angry widow’s fits of fury were inexplicable and unpredictable, and at any moment, she was liable to fly into a murderous rage for no apparent reason.

The Life of a Slave in Thomas Jefferson’s Home
A seventeenth-century illustration of the beating of a Russian serf. Wikimedia

18. An Escalation of Abuses

Darya Saltykova’s abuses of her serfs began on the relatively mild end of things, but worsened steadily as time went by. At first, when she disapproved of the work performed by one of her servants – especially if the servant was a girl – she threw sticks at them. Then she went from throwing sticks to hurling logs at her serfs. The violence escalated, and before long, she began to beat her servants. Then she began to torture them. Finally, she tortured them to death. The murderous widow’s wrath was directed mainly at females.

Of the hundreds of Saltykova’s murder victims, only three were male, and all three of them were killed by accident. When she wanted to wreak vengeance on men, she did not torture them directly but forced them to watch her torture and murder their female kin. One of her male serfs, for example, lost three wives, one after the other, to Saltykova’s depravities. Her viciousness towards her female serfs knew no bounds. She tortured and murdered them throughout the entire age spectrum, from babies to aging crones.

The Life of a Slave in Thomas Jefferson’s Home
Darya Saltykovna torturing a serf. Russia Beyond

17. This Russian Noblewoman Liked to Hear Her Serfs Scream in Pain

In the nearly consequence-free environment of Russian de facto slavery, in which landowners could abuse their serfs at will, Darya Saltykova was merciless. She tortured the young, the old, and even pregnant women, in a variety of fiendish ways. However, while she abused female serfs of all ages, her wrath fell heaviest on the younger ones. Especially if they happened to be both young and pretty, and thus reminded her of the young pretty girl her lover had chosen over her.

Some were flogged with the knout – a heavy Russian whip that tapered towards the end. Lashes delivered by the knout’s thin tip could slice the subject’s flesh open like a sharp knife, while a strong blow with the thicker part could break a serf’s back. She had others thrown outdoors naked in the dead of Russia’s terrible winters to freeze to death. Sometimes she went to the opposite extreme and poured boiling water on their bodies. A sadist through and through, Saltykova thoroughly enjoyed the sound of her serfs’ tortured screams – it was music to her ears.

The Life of a Slave in Thomas Jefferson’s Home
Catherine the Great. Pinterest

16. Darya Saltykova’s Depravities Were Known, But She Was Allowed to Continue On for Years

In one of the greater indictments of Russian slavery that went under the guise of serfdom, nothing was done about the depraved goings on at Darya Saltkova’s estate, even though they were an open secret for years. She was a noblewoman, her victims were serfs, and Saltykova and her family were well-connected to Russia’s imperial court. Complaints from the victims’ relatives were routinely ignored, and many complainants were punished for their complaints. Finally, the victims’ relatives victims managed to bring a petition directly before Empress Catherine the Great, who ordered Saltykova arrested.

She was imprisoned while the authorities conducted a six-year investigation. In 1768, Saltykova was found guilty of the murder of 38 serfs. It was a severe undercount, as scholars estimate that she had killed at least a hundred more, and the actual number of victims might have been significantly higher. Catherine the Great was unsure how to punish Saltykova. The death penalty had recently been abolished, and the empress needed the Russian nobility’s support. Eventually, Saltykova was chained in public for an hour with a sign that described her crimes, while onlookers hurled abuse at her. Then she was sent to a convent, where she was imprisoned in a cellar until her death in 1801.

The Life of a Slave in Thomas Jefferson’s Home
Stenka Razin. Pinterest

15. Russia’s First Major Rebellion Against the Slavery of Serfdom

Given the kinds of abuses described above, it should come as no surprise that Russian serfs were unhappy with the conditions of de facto slavery in which they toiled. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Russia was rocked by massive rebellions that were brutally put down by the state. The first of them occurred in 1670 – 1671, when runaway serfs, peasants, and Cossacks, rose against the Russian aristocracy and Tsarist authority, in a major violent eruption along the lower Don River on Russia’s southwestern frontier.

The uprising was led by a Cossack leader named Stepan Timofeyovich Razin, better known to history as Stenka Razin (circa 1630 – 1671). It was the first of three major peasant rebellions that shook the Russian state to its core. The Cossacks – members of semi-military, democratic, self-governing communities along Russia’s southern and southwestern frontiers – were not agriculturists. Instead, they made their living from tolls on merchant shipping on the Don and Volga rivers as it traversed their lands.

The Life of a Slave in Thomas Jefferson’s Home
Stenka Razin during his Caspian Sea raid against the Persians. Wikimedia

14. Attempts to Recapture Escaped Serfs Sparked a Rebellion

The Russian authorities, never known for their toleration of freedom, made an exception for the Cossacks. They tolerated their de facto independence, and even subsidized them. In exchange, the Cossacks had to guard Russia’s southern frontiers. In the 1650s and 1660s, wars, epidemics, and crop failures, led to widespread misery and impoverishment in Russia. As a result, many serfs fled slavery and their oppressive masters to the Don region. Russian authorities sought to forcibly retrieve the runaway serfs, but the Cossacks resisted.

In response, the authorities cut off the Cossacks’ subsidies and food supplies, in order to compel their compliance. Rather than comply, they took up arms. In 1667, Stenka Razin organized a Cossack regiment to resist the Russian embargo. That May, he attacked a Russian caravan in which both the Russian Tsar and Patriarch of the Orthodox Church held stakes. The enraged authorities had him declared an outlaw and criminal. Unconcerned, Razin led his men on an expedition to loot Persian settlements along the Caspian Sea.

The Life of a Slave in Thomas Jefferson’s Home
Serfs and Russia’s downtrodden flocked to join Stenka Razin. Military Review

13. Downtrodden Russians on the Lam From Slavery Conditions Fueled a Massive Rebellion

By the time Stenka Razin returned to the Don region from his raids against the Persians, he was a popular hero. Next, he organized about 7000 peasants and escaped serfs on the run from slavery, and led them in a revolt on behalf of Russia’s downtrodden. The uprising gained widespread popularity, and in May 1669, the peasant army captured Astrakhan and Tsaritsin (modern Volgograd) after the cities’ populations opened their gates to Razin’s men. The flame of rebellion spread, and by 1670, over 200,000 peasants and serfs throughout southern and southwestern Russia were up in arms and had formed into bands that attacked landowners and government officials.

Razin sought to establish a Cossack republic along the Volga River as a preliminary step. If all went well, it was to be followed by a march to Moscow. He wanted to seize the Russian capital in order to “eliminate the nobles and officials who obstruct the common people“. However, the rebels’ plans were thwarted at the city of Simbrisk, which they attacked but failed to capture. After two vicious battles, Razin’s forces were routed and nearly wiped out by the government’s vengeful armies.

The Life of a Slave in Thomas Jefferson’s Home
The execution of Stenka Razin. Encyclopedia of Safety

12. After They Put Down Stenka Razin’s Rebellion, Russian Forces Slaughtered Hundreds of Thousands of Serfs

After the defeat and rout of his forces at Simbrisk, Razin was forced to flee back to the Don region. Despite the setback, his emissaries stirred more rebellions to the north. His declared intention to establish a republic, and to extend the Cossacks’ absolute equality throughout Russia, found receptive ears among the downtrodden peasantry and serfs. Soon, armed peasants were gathered in bands on the outskirts of Moscow and around Nizhny Novgorod, about 250 miles to the east, as they sought delivery from the conditions of slavery in which they lived.

Unfortunately, once the government gathered its strength, the lightly armed peasants proved no match for the discipline and firepower of professional soldiers. The rebellions were brutally put down, followed by a wave of violent repression in which hundreds of thousands of serfs were massacred. About 100,000 were slaughtered in the Novgorod region alone. By 1671, the revolt was over, and that April, Stenka Razin was captured. He was taken to Moscow, where he was executed by quartering in front of St. Basil’s Cathedral.

The Life of a Slave in Thomas Jefferson’s Home
Marshland near Basra in southern Iraq, where the Zanj Revolt erupted. Wikimedia

11. The Conditions of Slavery in Medieval Mesopotamia Sparked a Massive Revolt

Medieval Mesopotamia was rocked by the Zanj (Arabic for “Blacks”) Revolt of 869 – 883, which began as a rebellion of black bondsmen in southern Iraq against slavery. Thousands of African slaves had toiled for generations in massive field projects to drain the region’s salty marshes. The work was backbreaking, the slaves were underfed and brutally treated, and jammed by the thousands into crowded labor camps. The inhumane conditions bred resentment, and the slave camps became powder kegs that just needed a spark to go off.

The spark was provided in 869 by an obscure Arab or Persian mystic poet named Ali ibn Muhammad, who asserted that God had instructed him to lead a crusade of liberation. The rebels were joined by other slaves, and the uprising eventually became a generalized revolt against the Abbasid Caliphate when freemen joined in. By the time the dust had settled and it was all over, hundreds of thousands – or even millions by some estimates – had been killed, and the Abbasid Caliphate had been fatally weakened.

The Life of a Slave in Thomas Jefferson’s Home
The Zanj Revolt. Wikimedia

10. The Rebellion That Rocked the Abbasid Caliphate

Ali ibn Muhammad preached freedom and equality regardless of race or class, and the Zanj, flocked to him to escape the miseries of slavery. They joined him in such huge numbers that he became known as Sahib al Zanj – Arabic for “Chief of the Zanj”. Ali’s egalitarian message appealed to other downtrodden people, who also rallied to him. The fight began in earnest in September, 869, and soon grew into one of the bloodiest and most destructive rebellions the Middle East has ever known. The Zanj became expert guerrilla warriors, and repeatedly ambushed government troops in the marshes. They also raided nearby villages and cities to seize supplies and free other slaves.

At the height of the revolt, the Zanj controlled southern Iraq and captured its biggest city, Basra, in 871. Their territory extended to within 50 miles of the Caliph’s capital, Baghdad. The rebels formed a government, ran a navy, collected taxes, and minted their own coins. The tide finally turned in 881, when the government amassed a huge army that drove the rebels back into the marshes. Besieged, many rebels were induced to quit with the offer of generous terms to those who voluntarily submitted. The revolt finally ended in 883 with the capture of the Zanj’s last major bastion, during which battle their leader, Ali ibn Muhammad, was killed.

The Life of a Slave in Thomas Jefferson’s Home
The arrival of the Spanish in Hispaniola. Imgur

9. The Introduction of African Slavery to the New World

Slavery was first introduced to Hispaniola, the island that encompasses modern Haiti and the Dominican Republic, soon after the Spanish reached the New World in 1492. The natives were forced by their European conquerors to mine for gold, and between the brutal working conditions and Old World diseases, they were all but wiped out. Within a century, the indigenous peoples of Haiti had been virtually exterminated. By then, however, the island’s gold mines had been exhausted, and the Spanish, who had discovered far richer mines in South and Central America, lost interest in Haiti.

In the seventeenth century, Spanish control waned, as settlers increasingly ignored official policies and went their own way. Spain’s efforts to reassert its control backfired, and before long, much of the island had become a haven for pirates. In 1697, the frustrated Spanish ceded the western part of Hispaniola – today’s Haiti – to France. The French, who named their new possession Saint Domingue, transformed it into a highly lucrative colony, with a labor-intensive sugar-based economy that relied on vast numbers of African slaves.

The Life of a Slave in Thomas Jefferson’s Home
The flogging of a female slave. British Museum

8. Haiti Became France’s Most Lucrative Colonial Possession

Mass slavery transformed Haiti into the ultimate sugar island, and its profits made it the imperial engine of French economic growth. That came at a high price for the slaves, whose working conditions were horrendous. Their life expectancy was abysmally brief, routinely cut short by backbreaking toil, workplace injuries, tropical diseases, starvation, mistreatment, or outright murder by their masters. However, the slaves were expendable assets: a slave only had to live and toil for two years in order to recoup the cost of his purchase and upkeep and turn his owner a tidy profit as well.

With such brutal economic realities, and the fact that replacement slaves were readily available and relatively cheap, plantation owners had every financial incentive to work their slaves to death. The slave population grew, but unlike Britain’s North American colonies, Haiti’s slave population growth did not result from natural increase, but from the purchase of ever more slaves to replace those who had perished. By the 1780s, Haiti accounted for a third of the entire Atlantic slave trade, as the settlers were in constant need of new slaves to replace those who worked to death on their plantations.

The Life of a Slave in Thomas Jefferson’s Home
Iron masks, collars, leg shackles, and spurs used to restrain slaves. Pinterest

7. Haiti Was Primed for an Explosion as Its Slave Population Mushroomed

Haiti’s system of soul-crushing slavery could be maintained only with brutal methods of compulsion. Especially in the light of the numerical disparity between slaves and whites, which reached 17:1 in the late eighteenth century. In theory, slavery was subject to the Code Noir – French laws that accorded the slaves some basic rights, even as they authorized their masters to use corporal punishments to enforce compliance. In practice, the masters were free to do with their human property as they would, and Haiti’s slaves were routinely subjected to unrestricted and sadistic levels of violence.

By the late 1780s, Haiti was a powder keg waiting for a spark as the numbers of newly imported slaves steadily rose, from about 10,000 to 15,000 a year in the 1760s to about 25,000 a year by the early 1780s, to over 40,000 a year by 1787. By the time of the French Revolution in 1789, there were over 500,000 African slaves in Haiti, ruled by a white population of about 30,000. In addition, there were about 24,000 free mulattos (people of European and African blood) and blacks, known as affranchis.

The Life of a Slave in Thomas Jefferson’s Home
Frontispiece from an 1815 book, depicting the outbreak of Haiti’s uprising against slavery. Cloud Front

6. The Night When Haiti Erupted in a Revolt Against Slavery

On the night of August 14, 1791, a well-liked and respected voodoo priest named Dutty Boukman held a religious ceremony in Bois Caiman, in northern Haiti. There, he issued a signal for a slave uprising. Word went out to the sugar plantations, and on the night of August 21 – 22, 1791, thousands of slaves rose up in a violent rebellion that terrified slaveholders throughout the New World. They armed themselves with machetes, knives, pitchforks, and any weapons they could lay their hands on.

Then the slaves fell upon and attacked their masters, as well as everybody else they came across who was associated with the system that kept them in slavery. They exacted vengeance for generations of abuse with merciless massacres. Across the colony, armed slaves burst into their masters’ mansions, visited revenge upon their owners with pillage, assault, torture, and death, and left fire and blood in their wake. They slaughtered the enslavers and put to the torch their owners’ dwellings, cane fields, and sugar houses.

The Life of a Slave in Thomas Jefferson’s Home
Haitian slaves attacking their masters. Reddit

5. The Extreme Violence of Haitian Slavery Triggered a Correspondingly Extremely Violent Uprising

In order to force the slaves to work in the terrible conditions of Haiti’s sugar cane fields and plantations, slavery had been maintained with extreme violence and brutality. The backlash when the slaves finally rose was in turn extremely violent and brutal from the outset. When the tables were turned, overseers, masters, and mistresses, were dragged from their beds, and the lucky ones were butchered on the spot. The unlucky ones were tortured to death, frequently with the same torture implements and techniques that had been used upon the slaves.

The severed heads of European men, women, and children were often placed on spikes and carried at the head of slave columns as they marched from plantation to plantation. Haiti’s sugar country was the world’s most profitable stretch of real estate at the time. Seemingly overnight, the sugar country was reduced to a smoldering and blood-drenched wilderness. Within weeks, the slaves had killed over 4,000 whites, burned at least 180 sugar plantations, 900 coffee plantations, numerous indigo plantations, and inflicted millions of francs in damages.

The Life of a Slave in Thomas Jefferson’s Home
Haitian slaves fighting French troops. ThoughtCo

4. Haiti Descended Into a Cycle of Massacres and Counter Massacres

In the early stages of Haiti’s slave revolt, the rebels did not demand independence from France, but only their freedom from slavery. Many rebels mistakenly believed that King Louis XVI had issued a decree that freed the slaves, but that the island’s governor and whites had wrongfully suppressed the royal proclamation. Thus the slaves initially articulated their rebellion as a fight on behalf of the French king, against a corrupt colonial governor and white settlers who refused to implement a royal decree.

Within ten days of the uprising’s outbreak, the number of rebellious slaves throughout the colony grew to more than 100,000, and most of northern Haiti fell under their control. They then marched upon Cap Francais, the seat of the colonial government, but were thrown back by the whites, who organized themselves into militias. As the slaves regrouped, the whites went on the counterattack and massacred about 15,000 blacks. Haiti had descended into a cycle of massacres and counter-massacres that lasted until the colony finally gained its independence, and continued on for many years afterward.

The Life of a Slave in Thomas Jefferson’s Home
Massacre of French whites in Haiti. Black Then

3. Haiti’s Violent Uprising Against Slavery Ended as Bloodily as It Had Begun

The outbreak of the Haitian Revolution led to over a decade of protracted and at times convoluted fighting against the French, other Europeans, and internal strife between the rebels themselves. Finally, on January 1st, 1804, the former French colony of Saint-Domingue was declared independent and renamed Haiti – an indigenous word of the Taino people who inhabited the Caribbean when Christopher Columbus arrived. A rebel leader named Dessalines made himself Governor-General for life, a position he held until September 1804, when his generals proclaimed him Emperor of Haiti. He was crowned as Emperor Jacques I and held that position until he was assassinated in 1806.

Things did not go well for French whites still in Haiti. Many of them had sided with failed efforts to reintroduce slavery, and the victors were determined to exact revenge. Within days of the final defeat of French forces in Haiti, Dessalines ordered that 800 French soldiers left behind due to illness when their comrades left the island be drowned. As rumors swirled that the French minority were engaged in a conspiracy to convince foreign powers to invade and reintroduce slavery, Dessalines was criticized for a perceived failure to act. He acted in February 1804, with an order to massacre Haiti’s whites. Within two months, about 5000 had been killed, and Haiti’s white population was virtually wiped out. It was a vicious closing chapter to the vicious history of slavery in Haiti.

The Life of a Slave in Thomas Jefferson’s Home
Sally Hemings. Aventuras na Historia

2. Thomas Jefferson’s Most Famous Slave

No article that touches upon Thomas Jefferson, Monticello, and slavery, is complete without mention of his relationship with his slave Sally Hemings (1773 – 1835). It was a creepy relationship – so creepy that to even describe it as a “relationship” is problematic. Today, what went on between Jefferson and Hemings would be considered straightforward sexual assault. Hemings was a slave kept in bondage by a brutal system in which violence was used to coerce its victims and secure their compliance. Within that context, Hemings had as much choice in submitting to Jefferson’s demands as does a modern kidnapped victim, who finds herself chained for years in some psychopath’s basement.

Even if she had not been a slave, there would still have been something creepy about the age disparity between Hemings and the famous Founding Father. Thomas Jefferson was 44-years-old when he used Hemings to satisfy his carnal desires. She was thirteen or fourteen. By the time she was sixteen, she was pregnant with the first of at least six children she bore him. Even if Hemings had welcomed his advances, what Jefferson did would be considered statutory rape today: children that young lack the maturity to consent to sex.

The Life of a Slave in Thomas Jefferson’s Home
Thomas Jefferson. Time for Kids

1. The President and His Dead Wife’s Slave Sister

Another layer of creepiness about Thomas Jefferson and his child concubine is that Sally Hemings was his dead wife’s sister and lookalike. Hemings was the daughter of a slave woman and John Wayles, Thomas Jefferson’s father-in-law. That made her the biological half-sister of Jefferson’s wife, Martha Wayles Jefferson (1748 – 1782). Hemmings, who was nine years old when her half-sister died, bore a striking resemblance to the deceased Martha, and the resemblance only increased as she grew. Jefferson missed his dead wife, so when her lookalike sister was thirteen or fourteen, he slept with her.

In short, what Thomas Jefferson did with Sally Hemings would be an epic scandal if it had happened today – one that hits just about every icky button there is. Pedophilia? Check. Incest? Check. Violence, coercion, and rape? Check, check, and check. Yet another unsavory layer atop the rest is that Jefferson fathered six children upon Sally, and kept them as slaves. He eventually freed his children, but he never freed his concubine/ Sally Hemings still lived in slavery and was Thomas Jefferson’s chattel property when he died in 1826.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

All That is Interesting – Meet Darya Saltykova, the Russian Blood Countess Who Slaughtered 138 of Her Serfs for Fun

Avrich, Paul – Russian Rebels: 1600-1800 (1976)

Bear, James A. Jr. – Jefferson at Monticello (1967)

Brodie, Fawn McKay – Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History (1974)

Encyclopedia Britannica – Haitian Revolution

Encyclopedia Britannica – Helot

Encyclopedia Britannica – Stenka Razin

Gonick, Larry – The Cartoon History of the Universe I (1990)

Gonick, Larry – The Cartoon History of the Universe III (2002)

Heinl, Robert – Written in Blood: The Story of the Haitian People, 1492 – 1995 (1996)

History Collection – Throwing Slaves Overboard to Drown and Other Dark Moments From History

Knight, Franklin W., American Historical Review, Vol. 105, No. 1, February, 2000 ­- The Haitian Revolution

New York Times, June 16th, 2018 – Monticello is Done Avoiding Jefferson’s Relationship With Sally Hemings

Plutarch – Parallel Lives: Lycurgus

Popkin, Jeremy D. – Facing Racial Revolution: Eyewitness Accounts of the Haitian Insurrection (2008)

History Collection – Alexander II Frees Russia’s Serfs (1861)

Popovic, Alexandre – The Revolt of African Slaves in Iraq, in the 3rd/ 9th Century (1999)

Russiapedia – Prominent Russians: Darya Saltykova

Slate, August 6th, 2015 – The Bittersweet Victory at Saint Domingue

Talbert, Richard J. A., Historia Journal, Bd. 31, H. 1 (1st Quarter, 1989) – The Role of the Helots in the Class Struggle at Sparta

Vox – Thomas Jefferson Spent Years Raping His Slave Sally Hemings

Washington Post, July 7th, 2017 – Sally Hemings Wasn’t Thomas Jefferson’s Mistress, She Was His Property

Wikipedia – Monticello

Wikipedia – Serfdom in Russia

Wikipedia – Zanj Rebellion