© 2010 Trent

Sexual Exploitation on Plantations by Lindsey Dirkse

The institution of slavery built America; the colonies would not have prospered without the forced labor of millions of Africans that occurred for over two centuries. These Africans were not only forced to do hard labor, but were also oppressed in nearly every aspect of life. Slaves were not permitted to travel freely, worship freely, or even have control of their own bodies. It is clear that forced sexual relations between a master and enslaved persons occurred, however, it is difficult to determine how common this abuse was because interracial relationships were strictly prohibited. Though it is not commonly discussed, through analysis of journals, legal rulings, and personal letters it is clear that slave women were sexually exploited at the hands of their white masters.

In 1630 a Virginia court ruled it illegal for interracial sexual relations to occur, no matter whether the black person was free or enslaved. This was established when Hugh Davis was to be “soundly whipped… for abusing himself to the dishonor of God and shave of Christians, by defiling his body in lying with a negro”1 By creating a distinct line between the races Americans set up a hierarchical racist society in which it was shameful to be associated with black persons. In addition, this ruling affirmed the white supremacist opinion that God placed these Africans in the position of servitude. Due to the shame related to interracial sexual marriage it was a taboo topic. This disgrace may explain why there are few records of sexual exploitation of enslaved women.

Sexual exploitation of women of African descent occurred throughout slavery; it is clearly exposed in the case of Francis Driggus from 1694. Francis was born free into a racist society and served as a servant to John Brewer who took her to court for fornication.2 From this information, we can infer that John Brewer was having relations with Francis. It is possible that Francis sought to end the abuse, which led to Brewer taking legal action. One year later Francis reentered the courts charged with having an illegitimate child. She claimed the father was Brewer yet he denied the allegation.3 Based on the stigmas against interracial relations during enslavement, it can be inferred that Brewer lied to protect himself. It is clear that the relations between Francis and John Brewer were not consensual because he would have no reason to take legal action against a consenting sexual partner.

The sexual exploitation of female slaves is also displayed in the biography of James Henry Hammond by Drew Gilpin Faust. Throughout the biography, it is clear that Hammond wanted his slaves to respect him while oppressing them. In addition, he suppressed his female slaves by sexually abusing them and interfering with black family life. Faust writes, “Perhaps the most striking aspect of white intrusion into black family life was the sexual interference of masters… with slave women.”4 Sexual exploitation was one of the most intrusive ways masters asserted their dominance over their slaves as it further removed a slave’s right to her own body. Evidence that rape and sexual abuse occurred between slaves and masters can be found in record books and journals. Hammond carefully recorded the birth of each slave, listing both parents. However, “approximately 22 percent of newborns were recorded with only a mother.”5 Fathers may have been omitted in some cases because the child was mixed race with a white father. In this case, the name would have been omitted to spare the white man the humiliation and potential repercussions from having interracial relationships. It is clear from the legislature in Virginia that white individuals could face consequences for having relations with the supposed inferior race. It is likely that Hammond knew the stigmas and chose to spare the dignity of his fellow white men by omitting their names from the slave birth records.

Additional support for Hammond’s involvement with his female slaves is found in a letter from Hammond to his son, Harry, from 1856. In this letter the slave owner details his wishes for two slaves: Sally Johnson and Louisa. He wrote telling his son to “take care of her and her children who are both of your blood, if not of mine.”6 In this letter, Hammond admitted to having a sexual relationship with his slaves and accepted that children may have come from those relationships. He instructed his son not to sell his potential children. “Do not let Louisa or any of my children or possible children be slaves of Strangers.”7 By not freeing his children and mistress Hammond was able to continue to dominate their lives. However, this letter affirmatively shows that Hammond did have sexual relations with at least two of his female slaves. It can be assumed that it was a forced relationship and that the women were raped.

Slaves had nearly every aspect of their lives controlled by their masters; they were not permitted to have basic human rights like the right to their own body. By studying the sexual relationship between a master and slaves it allows further insight into the complex connections between these people, owners and slaves, all living on the same land with vastly different experiences. Understanding that slavery was not only about forced labor, but focused on eliminating human rights, including women’s rights, can help to ensure that a similar, modern day slavery institution is not established.


1 Virginia Statutes, September 17, 1630

2 Slavery and the Making of America, video

3 Ibid.

4 Faust, Drew Gilpin. James Henry Hammond and the Old South. 86

5 Ibid.

6 Letter: James Henry Hammond to Harry Hammond, February 19, 1856.

7 Ibid.

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