Life of a Slave
"It was work hard, git beatins and half fed ... The times I hated most was pickin' cotton when the frost was on the bolls. My hands git sore and crack open and bleed."
Mary Reynolds, Slave Narrative from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1938
There were a small number of slaves who held specialised positions, such as artisans, skilled labourers or factory workers. Some would work for their slave family in the house, as cooks or butlers or maids. However about half of slaves worked on plantations, picking cotton or harvesting crops. The other half were usually part time or full time craftsmen, mechanics, gardeners, blacksmiths, millers, seamstresses or handymen. The life of a slave could vary immensely; their life quality was very much reliant on the general nature and wealth of their master. Some slaves suffered great cruelty at the hands of their masters, or from the overseers who worked them, whilst others, usually in the minority, could be granted small privileges. However slaves were still considered vastly inferior, and their treatment by the white Americans reflected their substandard status. Although historically life expectancy was low in the 19th century, slaves had a considerably shorter life expectancy than the white Americans had. The 1860 census shows that, on average, 4.4% of white Americans would live to over sixty, whilst only 3.5% of slaves would reach this age. These figures reflected the poor sanitation and health standards of the time, but also showed the effects of the slaves' harsh lifestyle.
Housing for slaves was carefully distanced; slave owners saw the economic advantage of keeping the slaves close to the plantations, but at the same time they did not want to see them whilst leading their own lives in their houses (sometimes called the 'Great House'). Slaves then were often housed in simple wooden huts built on land near the plantations. These wooden huts would be simply furnished; but living conditions and aesthetic conditions differed greatly from plantation to plantation. The wealth and/or generosity of the masters influenced standards, but often slave quarters were cramped and disagreeable places. There is much historical debate about the details of these houses, and figures were often altered or inaccurate; but it is generally accepted that, on average, over 6 people would live in any one cabin. Families often had their own sleeping quarters, but fireplaces and kitchens would be shared. In the worst economic times slaves would only have a bed, and would sleep in outbuildings or barns.
A slave's diet depended on the financial success of the plantation. In times of good harvest, a slave would have a fairly decent, though basic, diet. In times of bad harvests, however, the slaves' diet would reflect this. Although the slaves' interests were insignificant to their master, it was within his own interest to provide them with even a basic diet so that they had enough energy to work the plantations. The food usual in a slaves diet would include yams, plantains, bananas, cassava fruit, eddoes (type of fruit), potatoes, Indian corn, cale (vegetable form the rape family), beans and pineapples. The slaves would add to the provisions provided by fruit and vegetables from their own plots, or from their small stock of animals such as a pig or goat. Excess food could be traded at markets to provide the slaves with a small income.
Typical Working Day
There was a definite hierarchy within the slave culture. At the top of the hierarchy would be an overseer, who was usually a poor white man. His job was to make sure that everyone was working efficiently and then punish those who were not. After him would come the slave driver, usually a trusted or respected older black slave, whose job was similar to an overseer. This job, although having many advantages over just being a fieldworker, caused resentment between the other slaves, who saw them as taking on the characteristics of a white man. The slave workers were at the bottom of this hierarchy.
A slave's day would begin early, usually just after sunrise, and they would work right through until sunset. Usually a slave's work was hard, physical labour, and would be extremely tiring. They would have to keep working continuously, or risk punishment from the overseer, who would work alongside them. In some smaller plantations, slaves would work alongside their masters. Some slaves were allowed weekends off, but this was no time for rest. This precious bit of spare time would be spent looking after their own plots of land and doing domestic chores. It was a hard, gruelling lifestyle.
Domestic work, although having more unpredictable hours, was less physically draining work. They would usually work in the Great House, as butlers, maids or cooks, and would have much interaction with their masters and their families. Women would most often work in houses, and often had different problems to contend with. It was not unusual for a white master to take a black slave as his mistress.
Slaves had little control over most aspects of their lives, so for many slaves religion was very important to them, as it was the one area they were in charge of. The type of religion they practised was known as Obeahism, and was based on superstition and 'magic'. It dealt very much with spells and curses; something the devout Christian slave-owners thought was to be feared. They imagined that the slaves' beliefs would lead to rebellion and disorder, so most of the religious ceremonies were carried out at night, out of sight from their master.
However, gradually Baptist and Nonconformist missionaries began to convert the slaves to Christianity, converting huge numbers through preaching. As Christianity became more popular with the slaves their owners were anxious that sharing the same religion as those they had forced into slavery would somehow undermine the differences between blacks and whites, and weaken white supremacy. They were also worried that their arguments in favour of slavery would weaken as it would not be right to force fellow Christians into slavery. Despite this many slave owners saw the advantages of the Africans adopting their religion, believing that slaves would be better behaved if converted.
Although the slaves took to this new religion, they also managed to keep remnants of Obeahism and combine the two into a new religion. This form of Christianity helped assert the slaves independence, whilst still acknowledging their masters' faith.
Slavery and the Economy of the South
Agriculture was very much the primary source of capital for the South, particularly the production of cotton, which was the most important factor in the South's economic development. In many slave states there was pretty much a net rate of slaves to white Americans. Agriculture and slavery were synonymous, both dependent on the other for sustaining the South's economy.
Out of a population of 1.5 million white families, 385, 000 were slave owners, with 50% owning 5 slaves or more. At the extreme, 12% owned 20 slaves or more, and 25% of the slave population lived on plantations with more than 50 workers. The 1850 census shows that out of 2,500,000 slaves, 14% worked in tobacco, 6% in sugar, 5% in rice, 2.4% in hemp, whilst a staggering 72.6% worked on the cotton plantations.
Although slavery was mostly a very lucrative business, it was still liable to peaks and slumps in its profits. Income was also dependent on geographical region; profits varied between the Upper and Lower South or the Atlantic seaboard and lower Mississippi valley. Individual plantations also saw varying profits; success in agriculture was just as dependent on the financial and industrial know-how of the plantation owners as it was on its workers and harvests.
There were 15 slave states in America - Virginia, Mississippi, South Carolina, Louisiana, Missouri, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Texas, Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, Delaware, Georgia and Maryland; the bulk of these in the South. For every slave state allowed, they had to have a 'free state', one that did not allow slavery, to prevent a monopoly occurring.
Although the money brought in by agriculture in the South was vastly superior to the money made by agriculture in the North (there was a 35% profit difference), it did not mean that the South was economically richer. For although slavery was a powerful economic stronghold, the dependence on it prevented development into other areas of business. The Northern economy 'diversified, urbanized and industrialized', developing into other areas of industry and creating considerable profits. Also land in the North was significantly higher than the South, due to the superior transportation links and urban-industrial growth.
The economic value of plantation slavery had increased immensely in 1793, after Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, a machine designed to separate cotton fibres from seedpods. This invention meant that cotton production could increase significantly, leading to a dramatic expansion in the cotton industry, as well as in slave labour. In fact, at one point 75% of slaves in America (1.8 million out of 2.5 million) were employed in the production of cotton. To supply the need for workers in the cotton industry, slaveholders developed a domestic slave trade with the Deep South. The main slave trade 'markets' were New Orleans and Louisiana, followed by
Richmond, Virginia; Natchez, Mississippi; and Charleston, South Carolina. Between 1820 and 1860, 60% of the Upper South's slaves were sold further South to meet the demands.Therefore some historians argue that the economic strength of slavery was due more to the sudden increase in cotton production and was not due to the hard work of the slaves.
Throughout the 18th century, a movement based on ending slavery, known as abolitionism, gained strength amongst the people of America. It began in 1833, when William Lloyd Garrison, Arthur and Lewis Tappan, and others formed the American Anti-Slavery Society in Philadelphia. Every year they would publish a handbook full of anti-slavery poetry, drawings, essays etc. In attempts to euphemise slavery, it became known among the strong pro-slavery states of the South as the 'Peculiar Institution'. But this did not change what was at the core of this 'institution', the fact that African-Americans under the control of the whites. Many people wanted the slaves shipped back to Africa, or for the free slaves to be deported out of the country. Others wanted the total abolishment of slavery, allowing the freed slaves to remain in America. However another point of contention was whether the slave owners would be compensated for their loss. Focus was still always on the benefit of America and slave owners, and not on the freedoms and choices of the slaves themselves.
There were several figures that helped to bring about the abolishment of slavery. Abraham Lincoln was perhaps the most iconic. Lincoln was elected President in 1861, mainly due to support in the North. He was anti-slavery, much to the consternation of the South, and realised their worst fears when he signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. This document sounded the death of slavery and stated: "That on the 1st day of January, A.D. 1863, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom."
Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave and abolitionist, was also an integral part of the system. From 1847 to 1863 he published an abolitionist newspaper known as the North Star, financed by British contributors. His chief aims were to "abolish slavery in all its forms and aspects, advocate UNIVERSAL EMANCIPATION, exalt the standard of public morality, and promote the moral and intellectual improvement of the coloured people, and hasten the day of FREEDOM to the Three Millions of our enslaved fellow countrymen." Douglass had been born into slavery, but had managed to escape in 1838. Since then he had become a renowned abolitionist speaker; he gave his lecture fees to help runaway slaves and controlled the Rochester station of the Underground Railroad.
John Brown was fiercely anti-slavery and in 1850 he recruited 44 men into an organisation that was founded to resist slave-catchers, known as the US League of Gileadites. He moved to Kansas in 1855 to help the anti-slavery forces to gain control of the region. He founded a refuge for runaway slaves in Virginia. In 1859 he tried to encourage slaves to join his rebellion by planning a successful attack on the federal armoury at Harpers Ferry. Although this was successful, he was later convicted of insurrection, murder and treason and was executed on the 2nd December 1859. Brown failed to spark a general slave revolt but the high moral tone of his defence helped to immortalise him and hasten the war that would bring the emancipation of slaves.