A Mercy -Toni Morrison
The lives of slaves in the 1600’s can be compared to the life of orphans that have been moved back and forth from home to home. They have no idea where they’re going to end up and who they’re going to end up with. They’re lives are already difficult but illnesses and diseases can make it a lot more difficult. They live day by day not knowing what’s going to happen next. Sometimes, slaves are treated more like animals than humans. Other times, they were treated with a little respect. Slaves in the northern colonies of America were treated differently depending on different religions and cultures.
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In the novel, a Mercy, Toni Morrison sympathizes towards the lives of slaves and slave owners in the 1600’s. A Mercy is based on a historical time period of the 1600’s in New York, Maryland, and Virginia. The 1600’s is the time period when slavery first became popular. In 1619, a Dutch slave trader exchanged his cargo of Africans for food, which was the first arrival of Africans to Jamestown (Hening, 7). Africans were beginning to play a huge role in the economy of the Northern colonies in the U. S. Jamestown exported 10 tons of tobacco to Europe…” and slaves were being traded back and forth for food and tobacco ( Hening, 5).
By the 1680’s, slaves had become essential to the economy of Virginia (Hening, 7). Since trading slaves was getting bigger and bigger, eventually African slavery was legalized in Virginia and Maryland. “In 1663 the Maryland legislature enacted a law that ‘all negroes and other slaves to be thereafter imported into the province, should serve during life; and all children born of any negro should be slaves, as their fathers were for the term of their lives” ( Harper, Douglas, 6).
This law was one of the many slave laws and codes that were passed in this time period. In New York, “the English took over the colony in 1664”. There were a lot of skilled and unskilled jobs that slaves were needed for (especially on plantations), so they continued to import slaves (Eckhaus, Phyllis, 5). 42 percent of New York City’s households held slaves ( Becker, Eddy, 7). Toni Morrison portrays the time period in the novel as a tough time period to live in because of slavery, diseases, debt, and death.
At the beginning of the book, we are introduced to a character named Jacob Vaark who is a Dutch slave trader and owner. Vaark goes on a harsh journey to the D’Ortegas (who also trade slaves for a living), in Maryland to settle a debt. “Fog, Atlantic and reeking of plant life blanketed the bay and slowed him” (Morrison, 9). As Morrison describes Vaark’s journey to Maryland, it shows that the author wants us to feel sympathy for him and it explains some of the difficulties that people involved in the slave trade went through.
A fact that the author adds from the time period is that “Virginia was still a mess. Who could keep up with the pitched battles for God, king, and land? ” (Morrison, 11). The author adds this to the novel because slavery was also connected to religion and trading land. Another fact that Morrison adds in the book is that illnesses and diseases had an impact on slave’s lives in the 1600’s. When Vaark was building his dream home, he developed the pox and eventually passes away. His wife, Rebekka, also develops the pox.
Lina, a servant of the Vaarks, sends Florens, a slave of the Vaarks, on a journey to find a blacksmith that has a cure for the pox. If Rebekka dies, then Lina and Florens will be stuck with no place to live and nobody to take care of them. “The need to swallow, the pain of doing so, the unbearable urge to tear her skin from the bones underneath stopped only when she was unconscious…”( Morrison, 72). This quote shows that the author wants us to feel sympathy towards Rebekka’s illness.
There were many different attitudes towards slavery in the 1600’s. While the majority of people thought that slavery was acceptable, some people thought that slavery was wrong. ”(Becker, Eddy, 8). Most slaves weren’t treated as human beings so “they slept in the cellars and attics of town houses” (Harper, Douglas, 15). After 1682, as the number of slaves rose, fears of insurrection mounted, restrictions were applied and public controls began to be enacted”( Eckhaus, Phyllis, 15). “It had become illegal for more than four slaves to meet together on their own time” (Eckhaus, Phyllis, 15).
All of these restrictions and laws show that people in that time period had very little trust towards slaves. In the book, Morrison portrays the characters as people who have different morals. Jacob Vaark was uncomfortable with gaining a slave, Florens, for a debt that he owed. “‘Ridiculous’ said D’Ortega. ‘You sell them. Do you know the prices they garner? ’ Jacob winced. Flesh was not his commodity. ”(Morrison, 20). This quote shows that Vaark was not interested in slavery, but knew that he had to find a way to pay his debt.
Another character in the novel that shows her morals is Lina. Lina is one of Jacob and Rebekka Vaark’s servants. She is very close to Rebekka and Florens. When Lina finds out that Florens has to go on a dangerous journey to find a blacksmith, she starts to pray. “Now, amazingly, she was praying. For what, to what, Lina did not know. ”(Morrison, 66). This shows that Lina has a religion even though she’s indifferent about it. The fact that Rebekka is close to Lina and treats her more as a daughter than a servant, shows that she has good morals and doesn’t approve of slavery.
Throughout the novel, Toni Morrison’s attitude is sympathetic towards the characters and the time period that they live in. Morrison shows us the different sides of slavery through the lives of the characters. Jacob Vaark is in debt, Rebekka Vaark has an illness, and Lina and Florens are slaves that don’t know where their lives are headed. As the reader, this makes me feel sympathy for the people who lived during the slave trade in the 1600’s. Although the 1600’s was when slavery first became popular and was accepted, the author made out slavery to be something that wasn’t so horrible.
The Vaarks were slave owners, but they weren’t typical slave owners of their time period. Jacob was opposed to the idea of slavery and Rebekka treated her slaves as if they were her own kids, which is unrealistic for the time period. The fact that Morrison includes the hardships that slaves and slaved owners went through makes the book somewhat realistic. The unrealistic details of the book make it more interesting to read and make us think about how relationships between slaves and free people really were in the 1600’s.