Slate looks into the historical aspect of the slave fighting in Quintin Tarantino’s new movie Django Unchained:
Much of Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino’s blaxploitation Western about an ex-slave’s revenge against plantation owners, centers on a practice called “Mandingo fighting.” Slaves are forced to fight to the death for their owners’ wealth and entertainment. Did the U.S. have anything like this form of gladiatorial combat?
No. While slaves could be called upon to perform for their owners with other forms of entertainment, such as singing and dancing, no slavery historian we spoke with had ever come across anything that closely resembled this human version of cock fighting. As David Blight, the director of Yale’s center for the study of slavery, told me: One reason slave owners wouldn’t have pitted their slaves against each other in such a way is strictly economic. Slavery was built upon money, and the fortune to be made for owners was in buying, selling, and working them, not in sending them out to fight at the risk of death.
Slaves were sometimes sent to fight for their owners; it just wasn’t to the death. Tom Molineaux was a Virginia slave who won his freedom—and, for his owner, $100,000—after winning a match against another slave. He went on to become the first black American to compete for the heavyweight championship when he fought the white champion Tom Cribb in England in 1810. (He lost.) According to Frederick Douglass, wrestling and boxing for sport, like festivals around holidays, were “among the most effective means in the hands of the slaveholder in keeping down the spirit of insurrection.”