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Slave Labor in Plantations and Farms

How did plantation slavery impact upon the lives of male and female slaves? In what ways did slave men and women resist slavery?

Slavery proved to be an equally devastating experience for both black men and women. African men and women were torn away from their home and family. Both were forced by their masters to do hard labor. Similarly, they have to face physical and mental degradation. Even the most basic rights were denied to them. The slaves were beaten mercilessly by their masters. They were arbitrarily separated from their loved ones, and regardless of their gender, they were treated as property by the law also. Although a number of common factors were present, but there was a difference present in the circumstances of black men and women. The first slaves who were brought to the British colonies of North America were disproportionately male. The men were considered to be more valuable workers as a result of their strength.  

By 1830, mainly slavery was located in the South, where it was present in several different forms. The African-Americans were kept as slaves on small fonts as well as large plantations, in cities and towns, in fields and inside homes. The slaves were always treated as property and they were propagated to the reason that they were black. The status of the slaves as the property of their masters was enforced by violence, which could be actual or threatened. All the people, including black and white, lived along with these parameters. The enslaved African-Americans were never allowed to forget that they were the property of the master. Even in cases where the owners treated them well. However, it will be too simplistic to claim that all the slaves and masters at each other. It is natural that when human beings start to live and work together, there is going to be the formation of some kind of a relationship. There are many cases where the masters and slaves genuinely cared regarding each other. However, the caring was limited and tempered by the power imbalance. In the narrow confines of slavery, these relationships covered the journey of being compassionate to contemptuous. However, it was not possible to achieve equality between the masters and the slaves.

According to the standard image of slavery in the South, there are large plantations where hundreds of slaves were working. But in reality these situations were very rare. Almost 3/4 of the white population in the South did not have their own slaves. Out of those who have slaves, 88% had 20 or less than 20 slaves. Mainly the whites who owned slaves were yeoman farmers. In this way, practically the institution of slavery was not of much help to these people. But still, most of the non-slaveholding white population of the South defended slavery and identified with it. Although there were many who resented the power and wealth enjoyed by the large slaveholders, but they wanted to have their own slaves and to join these privileged ranks. At the same time, slavery also provided a chance to the farmers to have a group of people, from which they can feel superior too. Although they were also poor, but they were not slaves and moreover they were not black. This provided a sense of power, merely by being white.

Impact of Plantation Slavery on African Men and Women

In case of the lower South, most of the slaves worked and lived on cotton plantations. In case of most of the plantations, there were fifty or even fewer slaves even if the largest plantations had slaves numbering in several hundred. By far, cotton was the leading cash crop. However, the slaves also produced corn, rice, tobacco and sugarcane. In a number of plantations, several different types of crops were raised. Apart from planting and harvesting, the slaves were made to do several other types of labor on farms and plantations. The slaves were required to clear new land, cut and haul wood, slaughter livestock, repair buildings, and dig ditches. There are many examples where the slaves were working as blacksmiths, mechanics, drivers and carpenters as well as in many other skilled trades. In the same way, the black woman had the additional burden of care for their families. The woman also had to cook and take care of the children. Similarly, women also did spinning, weaving and sewing. Some of the slaves worked as domestic helps. It provided services to look after their masters and their families. These slaves were called “house servants”.

Although it appears that their work was easier than the “field slaves”, but in some ways it was more difficult. The house slaves have to work under the vigil of the masters and mistresses. They could be called for service at any time. They also had much less privacy as compared to the slaves who were working in the fields.

As the slaves were living and working in such close proximity, a much more complex relationship was present between the house servants and their masters. Particularly the black and white children form bonds with each other. In most of the cases, the young white and black children play together on plantations and farms. The black children may also become attached to their white caretakers like their mistress and similarly the white children got attracted towards their black nannies. As the children were very young, they did not have any understanding of the system in which they were born. However, as these children grew older, they started to learn how to just to the system.

The diets of the slaves were also inadequate. Therefore, it was hardly sufficient to meet the demands of the heavy work done by the slaves. The slaves have to live in crude quarters. The result was that they were vulnerable to disease and bad weather. Minimal baby and clothing were provided to the slaves. On the other hand, the slaves who were voting as domestics were sometimes in a better position. They got the cast of clothes of the masters and also have easier access to the food. 

As a result of the heat and humidity present in the South, health problems were created for everyone who was living there. But the health problems faced by the plantations slaves were much worse than the whites. They had to deal with unsanitary conditions, coupled with unrelenting hard labor and inadequate nutrition, the slaves became highly susceptible to disease. Generally the illnesses of the slaves were not treated adequately. The slaves were forced to work even when they were sick. Most deadly were the rice plantations. The slaves at the standing water for long hours, in the sweltering sun. Malaria was rampant among the slaves. Child mortality was also very high in the plantations; generally it was around 66 percent.

Slave Women's Sexual Exploitation

The woman slaves are to deal with the threat and practice of sexual exploitation. In those days, there were no safeguards present for protecting them from being sexually harassed or even raped. There were also used by their masters or overseers as long-term concubines. The abuse of slave woman was widespread. The men with authority took advantage of their position in this regard. On the other hand, the slave woman did not have any other choice. Similarly, the slave men were also not in a position to protect the woman they loved. 

Resistance: It was said that it was natural for the slaves to resist their enslavement because slavery in itself was unnatural. Therefore, although forms varied, but common factor present in all the acts of resistance was an attempt to claim some sort of freedom against an institution which describe people as property. The most common form of resistance was the acts that took place in work environment. The reason was that basically slavery was related with forced labor and the slaves daily tried to define the terms of their work. With the present of years, certain customary rights emerged in most of the fields. The work routines, distribution of rations and the general rules related with comportment etc. were dictated by these customs. If the slave master decided to increased workload, punished too severely or gave meager rations, the slaves also retaliated by slowing down the work, sabotaging production, breaking tools for feigning illness. The slave masters were annoyed with these everyday forms of resistance but they could do very little to stop them without raising the risk of a widespread breaking production. Hence, the slaves generally negotiated the basic terms of daily routines. Although the masters also benefited from these negotiations, as the contented labor worked hard and it increased output and efficiency. 

There was another common form of slave resistance. The slaves pilfered livestock, tobacco, fruits and vegetables, liquor and money. Particularly the theft of wood was common, and it was justified on different grounds. First of all, the rations given to the slaves were inadequate to provide the necessary nutrition and calories required to support the hard work done by the plantation labor. It was claimed by the hungry slaves that the abundance of their masters should be shared, particularly with those who have produced it. Similarly, the slaves were also aware of the inherent contradiction present in the theft accusations made by their master. How the slaves could steal anything if they were also the property of their master. After all the ownership claim of the master over the slave meant that the master owned everything that belongs to the slave. Therefore, when a slave has staked a claim to a chicken of the master, he had only transferred it to stomach.

Apart from the daily forms of resistence, sometimes the slaves made a direct and overt claim to freedom. The most common form was a fight. For example, in 1640, in Maryland and Virginia, the slaves have absconded from their enslavement, a trend that ultimately grew into thousands and eventually tens of thousands during the Civil War. In the early years of slavery, mostly the runaways were the African born males because of the numerical majority of the African born males. In most part of the 18th century, this should not be surprising. Generally these men did not speak English, and were not familiar with the geographic terrain of North America. However, despite these handicaps, the attempts made by them to escape slavery can be described as a testament to their rejection of the servile condition. The runaways have to face a certain punishment in case they were caught, it could be whipping, branding or in some cases even severing the Achilles tendon. On the other hand, those who are lucky enough to evade detection, took refuge in different safe havens. These included the Native American communities or the marshy low lands like the one present on the border of Virginia and North Carolina and eventually to Canada or the Free States in the North. In the 19th century, North became a particularly attractive destination for the slaves. The networks of free blacks and sympathetic whites generally helped them to achieve freedom through the so-called underground railroad which was a chain of safe houses stretching from South to the free states in the north. While men continued to be the forerunners, sometimes women or even the whole families also tested their chances. With the advent of the Civil War, a large number of slaves had abandoned the plantations and some even joined the Union Army as it was believed to be a war to end slavery.

However the most secular and probably the best known form of resistance was reorganized and armed rebellion during 1691 and 1865. There were at least nine revolts by the slaves. The slaves have commandeered weapons, looted and burned properties, and in some cases even killed their masters and other whites. If the measure of the success of these revolts is considered to be the overthrow of slavery, then it can be said that none of these revolts were successful. Ultimately, there was only one rebellion. That was successful in overthrowing slavery in the America, this was the Haitian Revolution. 

Aptheker, Herbert. American Negro Slave Revolts.New York: International Publishers, 1963

Banks, James A. March Toward Freedom: A History of Black Americans. Belmont, CA: Fearon Publishers, 1970.

Berlin, Ira. Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1998.

Ford, Lacy K. Deliver Us From Evil: The Slavery Question in the Old South. New York: Oxford University Press US, 2009

Franklin, John Hope and Loren Schweninger. Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation. New York: Oxford University Press US, 2000

Genovese, Eugene D. Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. New York: Pantheon, 1974.

Gutman, Herbert G. The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750–1925. New York: Pantheon, 1976.

Huggins, Nathan. Black Odyssey: The African-American Ordeal in Slavery. New York: Pantheon, 1990.

Jewett, Clayton E. and John O. Allen; Slavery in the South: A State-By-State History (Greenwood Press, 2004)

Levine, Lawrence W. Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977

McManus, Edgar J. A History of Negro Slavery in New York, Syracuse University Press, 1966

Olwell, Robert. Masters, Slaves, & Subjects: The Culture of Power in the South Carolina Low Country, 1740–1790 (1998)

Raboteau, Albert J. Slave Religion: The "Invisible Institution" in the Antebellum South. New York: Oxford University Press US, 2004.

Schwalm, Leslie A. A Hard Fight for We: Women's Transition from Slavery to Freedom in South Carolina. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997

Snyder, Terri L. The Power to Die: Slavery and Suicide in British North America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015

White, Deborah Gray. “Let My People Go: 1804-1860” in To make Our World Anew: A History of African Americans, ed. Robin D. G. Kelley and Earl Lewis, 169-226. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000

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