Thursday, February 6, 2014

Plantation Life for the Slave (Black History Month 2014)

Slaves on a cotton plantation in the pre-Civil War south, circa early 19th Century
After being purchased from a slave auction, an event that in its own right was a human atrocity, a given slave would be brought back to the plantation for work. While most of us have a vague idea of plantation life (the work, the subhuman living conditions, the whippings), few have actually had the details spelled out for them. I know that I haven't in a while. So, in this post we briefly explore life on a plantation. Note: I'll be irresponsibly averaging over at least two hundred years of the slave experience. All my references will, of course, be at the bottom of the page. Let's go!

Plantation work was split between the field slaves and the house slaves. Every age and gender of slave was put to work in some form. Children would work in the fields or, more often, work as servants in the main house. Women of all ages were assigned predominantly to house work, though several were made to remain in the fields and would often be the strongest field hands. Elderly slaves no longer capable of strenuous field work would be put to use as cooks. Pregnant field hands would work up until the point of birth, and then after birth would be required to resume work in the field with their children strapped to their backs. 
Slaves in the field, as you can imagine, worked the field. The exact nature of the field work varied from plantation to plantation (as different crops required different types of labor), but there were several things in common amongst all. For one, the work hours were brutally long. "Sun up to Sun down" was literal, and actually doesn't cover all of it. The slaves would be up before first light tending to the field, and would work through the day until after sunset. On occasion, they'd have time for lunch midway through the day. Otherwise, they would work as long as the Sun, six days per week. At planting or harvesting time, they'd be required to labor for 15-16 hours per day. When they were not raising a cash crop (e.g. rice, tobacco, hemp, cotton, sugar cane), they grew other crops such as corn or potatoes.

Field slave work was not restricted to work in the field tending to crops. The caricature of the slow-witted field negro does not by far represent the truth of things. Often on large plantations, field slaves served as carpenters, bricklayers, blacksmiths, wheelwrights, tanners, tailors, butchers, masons, coopers (barrel-makers), cabinetmakers, metal workers, and silversmiths. They also cared for livestock, cleared fields, cut wood, and repaired buildings and fences.

Scars of whipping
Field slaves would toil under the cruel and ever-watchful eyes of overseers on horseback, who would enforce the plantation-owner's will by way of the whip. The overseers were paid to get as much work as possible out of the slaves and would often give painful reminders to the slaves of the consequences of lagging in work or disobedience.

On occasion, a driver was used in lieu of an overseer. The difference here was that a driver was a slave himself, and had been convinced by the master to watch over the other slaves in return for better privileges. This would of course sow discord amongst the slaves, which was always to the slave master's advantage, especially when the driver would be tasked with meting out punishments on the other slaves.

For more on the field slave life, here's an excerpt from The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass:
"There were no beds given the slaves, unless one coarse blanket be considered such, and none but the men and women had these...They find less difficulty from the want of beds, than from the want of time to sleep; for when their day's work in the field is done, the most of them having their washing, mending, and cooking to do, and having few or none of the ordinary facilities for doing either of these, very many of their sleeping hours are consumed in preparing for the field the coming day; and when this is done, old and young, male and female, married and single, drop down side by side, on one common bed,--the cold, damp floor,--each covering himself or herself with their miserable blankets; and here they sleep till they are summoned to the field by the driver's horn." 
House slaves attending to their duties
Typically, the slaves that worked in the house are viewed as having the "easy" life. No long hours in the Sun, no backbreaking work in the field, and no whip on their backs. They'd often be better fed and even sometimes given the family's unwanted clothing, whereas the field slaves were given food unfit for animals and were only clothed as was necessary for their survival. However, remember that they were still slaves, and as such still had hard lives. House slaves worked every day of the week, often up and working before dawn to get the house ready and until after sundown. They cooked, cleaned, served meals, and generally cared for the master's family.

In addition to the work, they were constantly exposed to the whims and passions of every member of the master's family. If their master had a temper, it was perfectly acceptable for him to beat his house slave bloody. Because house slaves were more likely to be women and children, they were also constant victims of sexual exploitation in addition to the physical and verbal abuse (although the male slaves were often targets of sexual exploitation by female family members). They would also often be victims of their white mistress' jealousy, dissatisfaction, and general anger. Resistance would, of course, be met with violence of an even greater intensity.

Relationships between slaves of different perceived classes were complex, as were relationships between the slaves and the master's family. Self worth could be gleaned from the respect of their peers (whether house or slave) or their adherence to the master's will. Positive attention from the master's family brought with it better privileges, better accommodations, fewer beatings, and in some cases literacy and the promise of freedom (a promise rarely kept). Slaves hoping for such positions would serve as their master's spies amongst the other slaves, as well as dote on their master as if they were their children. This would, of course, bring the disdain of their fellow slaves and would lead to social isolation.  Other slaves, with interests of the greater slave community in mind, would listen in on the master's conversations and serve to warn the other slaves. They'd warn about upcoming slave auctions, where slave families may be torn apart, upcoming lynchings, the master's wrath, and serve as general lookouts for the other slaves. While this would win them the respect of their peers, there were dire consequences if they were ever caught.

In every aspect of their lives, the slaves were the property of the master, and I didn't even cover half of it here. They were the oxen that plowed the fields, the chefs that made the food, and the victims that handled the abuse. Somehow, through hundreds of years of life with that pain, we've still managed to persevere. Honor the resilience of the descendants of these men and women, regardless of color or class. Resilience is what kept us alive. Cheers.



  1. Really well written, Nick. And unbelievably heartbreaking. Even as hard as it is to read these, keep 'em coming.

  2. Hello,
    Thank you for the post.
    This is a digression but I came across this article while trying to answer the question of how and when English became established among the African slave population in the U.S. This article suggests that African slaves lived mostly isolated from white society save for their master's family. It would thus seem to me that though the language we have today is different, the culture should still have evolved from the African cultural traits of the original generation of slaves. If you know of any, will you pleas refer me to primary sources documenting daily lives of first generation African slaves and their (limited?) interactions with white society? I know that there exist scholars who consider this a dubious claim but recently it occurred to me that it could make sense in what was a highly segregated country but I need some evidence. Thank you for any help.