A Gift of Generations, With Love

By Dhanya Chittaranjan

On April 26th of 1830, James Tinsley wrote a legal letter that ‘gifted’ a six-year old “negro girl” named Martha Jane to his granddaughter Cleopatra Tinsley, and presented it at a courthouse in Bedford County, Virginia. Though we may be tempted to put each of these ‘characters’ in the artifact into clear-cut boxes of slave and slave masters, it is important to analyze the nuances present in each of these ‘boxes’. We can do nothing but speculate about each personality from this letter; however, linking the realm of possibilities of each personality with analyses about the institution of slavery can allow us to extrapolate the potential complexities of James Tinsley, Cleopatra Tinsley, and Martha Jane. Doing so enables us to consider that James Tinsley can be a loving grandfather and a slave master, Cleopatra Tinsley can have a ‘normal’ childhood and own a slave, and Martha Jane can be a victim of slavery and have agency.

James Tinsley explains that he is giving Martha Jane “in consideration of the natural love and affection” for Cleopatra.[1] Tinsley can love Cleopatra and give Martha Jane to her due to his understanding of race in America during this time. Though we do not have further information on Tinsley, abundant information is available on the slave owning class of America in the 1830s. Slave owners’ chances of climbing up the social ladder were linked to slavery and land. Materialism was the primary characteristic of the slave-holding class.[2] Tinsley writes that he would like Cleopatra “TO HAVE AND TO HOLD the said negro girl Martha Jane and her increase forever.”[3] This statement implies that not only does James Tinsley want Cleopatra’s family to have control over Martha Jane’s body, he also gives them permission to do anything they want with Martha’s future children. Since Martha and her future “increase” were capital due the monetary value they could provide (if sold) or the labor they could supply, Tinsley exemplifies themes of materialism that were so prevalent during slavery.

Slave owners would potentially impart lessons about materialism to Cleopatra, teaching her the importance of ‘collecting’ slaves actively. Slave owners also taught their kids to rationalize slavery by “dismissing blacks as inferior”, assuming that slaves were chattel rather than human. They had the ability to grapple with contradictory values, and “were motivated by principles at odds with their behavior, torn by irreconcilable impulses intrinsic to their way of life”.[4] Tinsley resolves this complex notion that he is selling a six-year old to his granddaughter out of love because he has a deeply engrained conviction that race decides one’s superiority or inferiority.

We can only guess whether or not Cleopatra treated Martha as though she were chattel, but it is more likely than not that she did. With lessons on slavery from what we can assume is a young age, how would Cleopatra treat Martha? Most likely, though we can only speculate, Martha would be a ‘playmate’ as well as a ‘slave-in-training’ at Cleopatra’s household.[5] Historians have found that slave owners taught their ‘playmates’ lessons of subordination. These lessons reinforced social order and let the child slave know that he/she was inferior. Both young slaves-owners and slaves learned to position themselves through socialization that began as early as their infancy through observation and instruction. Since these social hierarchies were so deeply embedded in the institution of slavery and were promoted from such a young age, it is possible that children like Cleopatra and Martha may have both learned their own “position and that of others” through generational lessons.[6] Such lessons on social positions did not always have to entail cruelty and punishment.

Yi-Fu Tuan, humanistic geographer who aims to better understand human conditions in different territories, argues that affection is not the opposite of domination, but complimentary to it. Once dominance is combined with affection, it allows for the creation of a pet. Affection and love had the ability to produce a “pet-making impulse” that was founded in “a compulsion to dominate the creature that is the object of human affection”.[7] It is most interesting that the animal metaphor portrays the objectification of slaves as chattel, and then transforms them to an image of slaves as pets. In the letter, Tinsley objectifies Martha Jane and “gifts” her as if she is chattel; then, although we do not know for sure, it is likely that Cleopatra and her family have the potential to make her a pet.

Thinking about Martha as just a victim of slavery is reductive, and ignores agency that she might have. Wilma King argues that enslaved children had no childhood at all because they were subjected to work and violence well beyond their years.[8] Though some slaveowners were fine with their children playing with slaves, others believed that interaction between their children and slave children would be a “corrupting influence”.[9] Black slave girls were especially at risk of facing assaults that were sexual in nature. When Tinsley mentions Martha Jane’s increase, he might also be pointing to breeding practices that were so common.[10] Though Martha may have had a chance to play and experience moments of joy, there is no doubt that her life would be filled with many hardships that arose from her position as a slave girl.

The reality is that we don’t really know the kinds of lives Tinsley, Cleopatra or Martha led. Perhaps they were completely different from other slave-owning households or maybe they were stereotypical. Maybe they were a bit of both. In any case, slavery led to psychological complexities within slaves and slave-masters. Cleopatra could treat her “gift” with kindness and still be her mistress, Martha Jane could enjoy play time and still be a slave, and Tinsley could love one girl and still deed another girl out of this love.

[1] Tinsley, James. Deed of Gift for a Slave Girl. April 26, 1830. MSS 12075. Coles Fund, 2001/2002. Special Collections, University of Virginia.

[2] James Oakes, The Ruling Race: A History of American Slaveholders (New York: Vintage Books, 1983), 7, 72.

[3] Tinsley, James. Deed of Gift for a Slave Girl. April 26, 1830. MSS 12075. Coles Fund, 2001/2002. Special Collections, University of Virginia.

[4] James Oakes, The Ruling Race: A History of American Slaveholders (New York: Vintage Books, 1983), 103.

[5] Anya Jabour, Topsy-turvy: How the Civil War Turned the World Upside Down for Southern Children (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2010), 24.

[6] Anya Jabour, Topsy-turvy: How the Civil War Turned the World Upside Down for Southern Children (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2010), 26.

[7] Spencer Keralis, “Feeling Animal: Pet-Making and Mastery in the Slave’s Friend”, American Periodicals: A Journal of History & Criticism, Volume 22 (2012): 2.

[8] Wilma King, Stolen Childhood (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995), xx.

[9] Wilma King, Stolen Childhood (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995), 51.

[10] Wilma King, Stolen Childhood (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995), 110.