LIFE FOR SLAVES IN THE UNITED STATES
Life for slaves in the United States was obviously difficult. Slavery in the United States existed from the times of Colonial America until the events of the American Civil War when it was officially ended. Throughout those years, slaves in the United States experienced a variety of terrible situations, which have been documented in writing and images. As such, the life of slaves in the United States is also important to other related topics, including: American Abolitionist Movement, Atlantic Slave Trade, and the American Civil War.
SLAVERY IN THE UNITED STATES
As stated above, slavery in the United States existed from the period of Colonial America in the early 17th century until the events of the American Civil War, which lasted from 1861 until 1865. Throughout this timeframe, many slaves were brought from Africa to the territory of the United States via the Atlantic Slave Trade. The Atlantic Slave Trade began in the mid-15th century, reached its peak in the 18th century and concluded near the end of the 19th century. During the time of the Atlantic Slave Trade, approximately 12 million Africans were put on slave ships, sailed across the Atlantic Ocean and sold into slavery. In fact, approximately 600,000 African slaves were brought to the United States as part of the Atlantic Slave Trade, which amounts to about 5% of the total number of slaves from the time. Many of these slaves ended up working on plantations and households across the United States, and played a significant role in the production of certain goods.
This was especially true in the Southern states where plantations were common. In general, a plantation was an agricultural estate that was large enough to contain the house of the master or slave owner and the residences of the slaves. On a plantation, the slaves were used to harvest crops and carry out other tasks. Throughout the timeframe of slavery in the United States, the most common crops that were harvested on the plantations were cotton, rice, indigo and tobacco. These crops were especially labor intensive and as such, African slave labor made the most economical sense for many of the plantation owners. As well, these crops were ‘cash crops’. This means that they were focused on producing crops for sale instead of for consumption. Slavery in the United States grew particularly powerful during the timeframe of the late 18th century until the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. This was most popular in the Southern states, where slavery was commonly used on agricultural plantations. This time period is often referred to as the ‘Antebellum Period’.
LIVING CONDITIONS FOR SLAVES ON PLANTATIONS
While the main house of the plantation was usually well constructed, the slave living conditions were often terrible. For example, slave homes were quite small and were generally one-room shacks that were made out of wooden logs and/or planks. Besides this, slave homes were sometimes built in different parts of the property of the plantation and away from the main residence. Due to their poor construction, the slave homes often struggled to properly heat inside, and the slaves sometimes suffered on very cold nights. It should be noted that not all of the plantations in the South were the same. In fact, most plantations were quite small and housed very few slaves. However, some were also quite large complexes and contained many slaves, including those that worked as servants in the main residence of the slave owner. As well, the living conditions for the house servants was often better than the slaves who worked in the fields. This is because, the house servants generally lived in a room or section of the main residence or had a small home nearby.
Today, our understanding of the life of slaves in the United States comes from several famous firsthand accounts. Likely the most famous of these comes from Frederick Douglass. Born as a slave in 1818 in Maryland, and escaping twenty years later, Douglass is one of the few people in history to know life on both sides of the coin, per say. After his escape, Douglass wrote the ‘Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave’ which was written in 1845 and gave people insight into what life as a slave was really like, opening the eyes of many to the injustice that was taking place around them. This, along with two other autobiographies written by Douglass are regarded as the best examples of slave narrative tradition in history. Because of these accomplishments, Frederick Douglass is often considered to be the single most important black American leader of the 19th century. Douglass wrote the following about his time as a slave on a plantation.
“I suffered much from hunger, but much more from cold. In hottest summer and coldest winter, I was kept almost naked-no shoes, no stockings, no jacket, no trousers, nothing on but a coarse tow linen shirt, reaching only to my knees. I had no bed. I must have perished with cold, but that, the coldest nights, I used to steal a bag which was used for carrying corn to the mill. I would crawl into this bag, and there sleep on the cold, damp, clay floor, with my head in and feet out. My feet have been so cracked with the frost, that the pen with which I am writing might be laid in the gashes.”
DAILY LIFE OF SLAVES IN THE UNITED STATES
Daily life for slaves in the United States consisted of several main topics, including: working conditions, clothing, food, and education. In terms of daily life, slaves in the United States faced difficult and tiring working conditions. At the time, most slaves in the United States worked in agricultural work on the plantations. In fact, most of their time was spent harvest crops such as cotton, rice, indigo and tobacco. This was very labor-intensive work. As such, the slaves worked long and tiring shifts of work in very difficult conditions. In fact, it was not uncommon for slaves to work as many as 16 hours a day in hot and humid weather. At the same time, slaves also struggled due to the different forms of punishment and abuse that they were forced to endure on the plantations. While most slaves were used for agricultural work, some slaves fared better and worked inside of the home of the slave owner. These were generally referred to as ‘House Slaves’, and often completed work related to maintaining the main residence on the plantation. For example, house slaves were most often women, who were tasked with cleaning, cooking and assisting with raising the slave owners’ children. While house slaves were generally treated better, they were still required to work long hours.
Another important item of slave daily life was their clothing. In general, slaves were clothed by their owners, so it differed greatly across the different regions of the United States. For the most part though, slaves were clothed in basic linen suits. In fact, men and boys who worked in the fields were often clothed in poor fitting shirts and breeches. Breeches were preferred by the slave owners, as they were shorter and used less cloth. However, they did not protect the slaves from the cold nights. Furthermore, slaves were either given poor fitted shoes that wore out quickly or no shoes at all. The nature of the agricultural work meant that slave clothing and shoes often wore out quickly. Thus, many slaves work dirty and torn clothing. Female slaves wore dresses, but also suffered from poor footwear. In general, the clothe used in slave clothing was rough and uncomfortable. What made the clothing event more uncomfortable was how dirty it became. This was because slaves did difficult and dirty work for long hours. However, the slaves also were usually provided with only one (or maybe two) sets of clothing. As such, they struggled to wash their clothing after a long day of work, such that it was ready for work the next day. The image above of Solomon Northup shows a typical set of clothing for a slave that worked on a plantation.
The regular food and diet of slaves varied between the different plantations, but there were several main similarities throughout the timeframe of slavery in the United States. For example, historians have noted that the most common diet of slaves in the Southern states consisted of pork, rice and corn. While, this diet kept the slaves fed well, it denied them of a variety of nutrients. As such, slaves regularly differed from nutrient deficiencies that made them more prone to different types of illness. Frederick Douglass commented about the food he received as a slave in the following passage from his famous ‘Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave’:
“Our food was coarse corn meal boiled. This was called mush. It was put into a large wooden tray or trough, and set down upon the ground. The children were then called, like so many pigs, and like so many pigs they would come and devour the mush.”
Yet another aspect of slave daily life was their education or lack thereof. In general, most slave owners did not educate their slaves at all. They did this for a variety of reasons. First, African slaves were looked at an inferior, thus many slave owners believed that the slaves were incapable of learning. Second, slave owners were concerned about the potential for a slave rebellion, and did not want to help educate slaves. As a result of their poor education, almost all slaves in the United States were unable to read. The few slaves that did learn, did so by teaching themselves, or were taught by more lenient slave owners.
The final aspect of slave daily life was the enforcement of the slave codes. Slave codes were laws that set our rules for slaves in the United States. The first area to establish a slave code was South Carolina, which adopted earlier British policies in 1712. Other regions of the United States followed South Carolina’s lead. In general, the slave codes of the time limited the actions that a slave could take. For example, one such rule was that slaves were not allowed to leave the slave owner’s property unless joined by a white person. The slave codes also had harsh punishments for slaves that tried to escape. This included whippings, brandings and even the death penalty. Slaves were also banned from owning weapons and punished if they were found to have stolen items. In all, the slave codes attempted to control the daily life and activities of slaves in the United States.
ABUSE OF SLAVES IN THE UNITED STATES
The abuse that African slaves experienced in the United States is well documented. For instance, slaves were regularly subjected to beatings, whippings and other forms of torture. Much of this abuse was carried out by the overseers on plantations. In short, an overseer was a type of supervisor on the plantation and carried out the work of maintaining the work of the slaves as they completed their agricultural work. In fact, abuse towards slave was a regular occurrence and was used by slave owners and overseers as a way of maintaining order on the plantation. For example, abuses against slaves were often used as a form of punishment or to promote the authority of the slave owner. More specifically, a slave could be beaten or whipped for working too slowly, stealing or trying to escape. Furthermore, slaves were also branded by their slave owners, which displayed the idea that slaves were physical property that could be owned. One of the images below shows a former American slave by the name of 'Gordon' or 'Whipped Peter'. He escaped from a Louisiana plantation in 1863, and the image of his scarred back became a symbol for the American Abolitionist Movement, which sought to end slavery in the United States. He had be given the horrible scars by the plantation owners and overseers that owned and controlled him.
While slaves usually suffered from poor medical attention, some historians have argued that slaves in the United States were treated better than slaves in other parts of the New World. For instance, owning slaves was a major financial investment, and most slave owners likely wanted to protect their investment by medically treating any hurt or injured slaves. For example, some evidence suggests that slaves in the United States lived an average lifespan of about 36 years old in 1850. This is significant because slaves in other parts of the New World lived substantially shorter lives. For instance, slaves in Brazil typically only lived to be about 23 years old, on average, due to even worse abuse. Ultimately, the improved health and medical treatment of slaves in the United States caused the slaves population to grow substantially throughout the 19th century, and by the time of 1860 there were as many as 4 million slaves in the country. With all of this said, slaves in the United States still experienced terrible abuses.
The abuses suffered by slaves can be seen in several different firsthand accounts including the slave narrative ‘Twelve Years a Slave’ that was written by Solomon Northup in 1853. Solomon Northup was an African American that was born free. However, he was famously kidnapped and sold into slavery. After his escape from slavery he wrote about his experiences in ‘Twelve Years A Slave’. In the slave narrative, Northup commented the following, which highlights some of the abuses that slave suffered from:
“…it was in 1841, of Williams' slave pen in Washington, in one of the cellars of which I found myself so unaccountably confined.
‘Well, my boy, how do you feel now?’ said Burch, as he entered through the open door. I replied that I was sick, and inquired the cause of my imprisonment. He answered that I was his slave— that he had bought me, and that he was about to send me to New-Orleans. I asserted, aloud and boldly, that I was a freeman—a resident of Saratoga, where I had a wife and children, who were also free, and that my name was Northup. I complained bitterly of the strange treatment I had received, and threatened, upon my liberation, to have satisfaction for the wrong. He denied that I was free…
Burch ordered the paddle and cat-o'-ninetails to be brought in. He disappeared, and in a few moments returned with these instruments of torture. The paddle, as it is termed in slave-beating parlance, or at least the one with which I first became acquainted, and of which I now speak, was a piece of hard-wood board, eighteen or twenty inches long, moulded to the shape of an old-fashioned pudding stick, or ordinary oar The flattened portion, which was about the size in circumference of two open hands, was bored with a small auger in numerous places. The cat was a large rope of many strands— the strands unraveled, and a knot tied at the extremity of each.
As soon as these formidable whips appeared, I was seized by both of them, and roughly divested of my clothing. My feet, as has been stated, were fastened to the floor. Drawing me over the bench, face downwards, Radburn placed his heavy foot upon the fetters, between my wrists, holding them painfully to the floor. With the paddle, Burch commenced beating me. Blow after blow was inflicted upon my naked body. When his unrelenting arm grew tired, he stopped and asked if I still insisted I was a free man. I did insist upon it, and then the blows were renewed, faster and more energetically, if possible, than before. When again tired, he would repeat the same question, and receiving the same answer, continue his cruel labor. All this time, the incarnate devil was uttering most fiendish oaths. At length the paddle broke, leaving the useless handle in his hand. Still I would not yield. All his brutal blows could not force from my lips the foul lie that I was a slave. Casting madly on the floor the handle of the broken paddle, he seized the rope. This was far more painful than the other. I struggled with all my power, but it was in vain. I prayed for mercy, but my prayer was only answered with imprecations and with stripes. I thought I must die beneath the lashes of the accursed brute. Even now the flesh crawls upon my bones, as I recall the scene. I was all on fire. My sufferings I can compare to nothing else than the burning agonies of hell!”
Another element of abuse that slaves suffered through in the United States was the sexual abuse of slave women. At the time, slave women were legally allowed to be sexually abused and raped by their slave owners. As such, many instances of abuse occurred during the years of the Antebellum Period, which stretched from the late 1700s until the events of the Civil War in the 1860s. This treatment of slave women was terrible for their mental and physical health. Some historians have argued that it destroyed the family structure of slave communities of the time.
Although not a form of physical abuse, slaves also suffered from psychological terror. Keeping slaves afraid was a common tactic among slave owners and overseers as a way of maintaining order. In fact, slave rebellions were known to occur, and slave owners used fear as a means of preventing a slave uprising. The slave owners and overseers did this in a few ways. First, slaves were in constant terror from facing physical abuse and punishment. As stated above, slave punishment was common in the United States, especially during the Antebellum Period, which occurred in the late 1700s until the 1860s. Second, slaves were psychologically abused when their children and family members were sold. Often, slave owners would sell the children of their own slaves to produce a profit. In fact, some states became very profitable from producing and selling slaves. For example, this was true in Virginia, which produced more slaves than it needed, and made profit by selling slaves to other slave-owning states.
As shown above, life for slaves in the United States was difficult, which caused many to want to flee. This eventually gave rise to the main elements of the Underground Railroad, as slaves sought to escape their terrible conditions. Regardless, slavery ended with the events of the American Civil War.
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