The Life of a Slave in Thomas Jefferson's Home
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

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