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‘These Black Snakes’
Pennsylvania Servitude in Light of Peter Kalm’s Travels in North America, 407 pages


This document seems to precede a second volume and covers the author’s exploration of English North America, predominantly Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York, from late summer of 1748 through spring of 1749. Kalm’s journal is focused on ecological studies, from a Swedish cultural perspective and from a class perspective comprising the super elite, or top 1 hundredth of the most wealthy 1%.

Peter met with the leading citizens wherever he went and did devote about 15 pages to an examination of servitude, concluding that there were three classes of servants in English North America:

-Free servants under contract to a master, closely approximating the modern ideal of the employee.

-Voluntary chattel, unfree for a period of years, who sold themselves as a way of serving an American apprenticeship and learning not only a trade, but the English language and local customs.

-Negro slaves, whose children were bound to serve lives of servitude as well.

Kalm lies by omission concerning the fact that his good friend, the Captain of the ship that took him to America, was trafficking largely in people who had been duped into being sold into bondage.

Kalm was very concerned with the spiritual well-being of the African slaves, who he claims were no longer being imported, but were indigenous now to the Plantations, chiefly that they were prone to kill one another with poison, primarily taking the form of vicious groups of shiftless negroes poisoning good negroes that were beloved by their Christian masters. Elsewhere he notes that prominent citizens seemed to own one negro each as a personal body servant, including one who heroically rescued his mistress from a black snake constricting her under her petticoat.

Kalm is firmly of the opinion that it is only possible to experience true slavery under the following conditions:

-1. That one is held by a member of an alien race

-2. That one is held for life.

-3. That one’s children will be held in a lifetime of bondage.

-4. That both of the parties are not Christian, in other words denying that slavery could exist as a condition between Christians.

This hitherto unrecognized and narrow definition of slavery, including the term slave from Slav, clearly originated with non-Christian Caucasians in the Middle East and North Africa. At the very same time that Kalm was in Pennsylvania extolling the lack of true slavery among Europeans, Gottlieb Mitterberger, who described many of the same religious politics and entertainment venues of Philadelphia in the same light, was writing his book on the abject slavery of Germans in Pennsylvania, which he had experienced firsthand.

Kalm does betray his class prejudice and the real situation on the ground, when he discusses the Pennsylvania practice of marrying a widow in her underwear! According to Kalm, debtors dying and leaving a wife behind left only one recourse for the wife [which he fails to enumerate but which was her sale to cover her husband’s debts] to avoid being sold as chattel. The woman must arrange to be married immediately, meet her groom in the street in her underwear, then declare that she was marrying him. If he wished her to be married in clothes, he must present a dress he had purchased to the gathered creditors and declare that he is loaning it to the widow, who might then be married in a church and absolved of her deceased husband’s debts.

Preachers were great money-making celebrities, the rock stars of the day, but they could be fined 50 pounds [enough to buy ten Germans] for marrying servants without the permission of their masters and could be fined 100 pounds for marrying “Negroes” to a “Europeans.”

Despite Kalm’s class solidarity his curiosity about strange customs got the best of his whitewash of European slavery, betraying a world where it was common for a woman to be sold on the death of her husband. This account fits neatly Gottlieb Mitterberger’s account of the relentless pursuit of the children of the free as chattel by fining their parents for misdemeanors.

The great importance of Kalm’s account is that it clearly demonstrates that upper class Europeans limited the definition of slavery to the narrowest conditions in order to deflect the cries of the mass of common people over the fact that most of them were sold for part or all of their productive lives to capricious masters who considered any European or European American who failed to turn a profit in a debt based society to have sinned against God and brought about their own enslavement through a fault of moral character. This was in the shadow of travelling preachers who made enough money in the preaching of a single sermon to buy the freedom of 15 German slaves, yet spent their money on such extravagant luxuries as Negro body servants.

According to Peter Kalm’s own testimony, there was not a strong, politicized sense of racial identity among European Americans, but rather an extreme sense of class identity. He describes himself and his companion mistreating their European servant by force feeding him sour fruit, yet praising the wisdom and goodness of Negro servants. An absence of racial politics among the super elite and an abundance of class politics in Kalm’ time strikes a familiar note in the mind of this postmodern reader.

Kalm was entertained by numerous folk tales concerning large black constricting snakes which charm small animals and chase people, although he was unable to lure any of these large black snakes to chase him, despite throwing objects at them and otherwise goading them to their legendary behavior. He also devotes some 20 delightful pages to the habits of squirrels, who were alternately domesticated by boys and had bounties placed on their heads by the authorities for their habit of raiding maize fields.

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Add Comment
Lynn LockhartMarch 16, 2019 3:52 PM UTC

I worked with a Zimbabwean man who told me of the Nyaminyami, a giant snake. He said sometimes bus drivers would pull over for 20 or 30 minutes in the night to let the Nyaminyami cross the road.