Antebellum Slavery/Control



by Amanda Sell

Owning human beings as property goes as far back as the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. Slavery and race merged as 11th-century Islamic traders shipped North African captives to Arabia, Persia and other countries. From the 16th to the 19th centuries about 11 million Africans crossed the Atlantic to the Americas (Time-Life, 28). Slaves made the owners rich through their backbreaking work, unlike in early Europe, where slaves were servants to owners who were already rich. Through interviews, legal documents, and memoirs by former slaves, scholars have been able to construct a picture of what slavery was like in antebellum North America. Factors in treatment and survival of slaves by their owners are health, housing and family.

African Americans were not susceptible to European, or tropical, diseases and therefore were preferred for slavery over Native Americans. Except for the few who hired their own time, slaves seldom had much control over their own well being. The master determined what part of his annual revenues he would appropriate for their maintenance. Most Northern Carolinian "free laborers" were farm laborers, journey men or master artisans, or employees of manufacturing enterprises employed by his owner. They generally had a better standard of living than southern slaves did. The free laborer, or slave, was more independent and more successful. The slave’s labor was controlled labor, however. Food allowance for Carolinian slaves was a little corn meal and three or four pounds of salt pork or bacon per week. Added to few other staples, this diet provided a sufficient amount of food, but an insufficient balance of nutrition. The lack of knowledge about nutrition in the antebellum South caused dietary deficiencies in whites and slaves. However, malnutrition most frequently occurred with slaves, as white families had a better quality and variety of food. In 1859, John H. Wilson investigated a Negro’s nutrition. He claimed that although pork and corn were "heat-producing," and provided the fat to keep "plump, sleek and shiny" slaves, slaves should be moderately supplied with vegetables, milk and molasses to prevent disease. No one knew about vitamins or vitamin deficiencies in the period before the Civil War. However, those slaveholders who followed Wilson’s nutritional recommendations seldom had their slaves suffer from malnutrition (Stampp, 283-284).

Overseers routinely pushed field slaves to exhaustion, and in cotton plantations, were whipped for not picking their share of the crop, usually 250 pounds a day. No matter how much a slave longed for sleep and rest, he never approached the gin-house with his basket of cotton but with fear. If the cotton fell short in weight he would be severely punished. If slaves picked more than 250 pounds one day and not just as much afterward, he would be flogged. It was a no-win situation for a slave working on a cotton plantation. Weekly allowance of food on these plantations consisted of small supplies of cornmeal, lard, molasses, greens, flour, milk and meat, which was given out at the corncrib and smokehouse every Sunday morning. That is all—no tea, coffee, sugar, and with the exception of a very scanty sprinkling now and then, no salt. Then the fears and labors of another day begin, and there was no rest until the day’s end (Northrup, internet source).

"Our allowance was given weekly—a peck of sifted corn meal, a dozen and a half herrings, two and a half pounds of pork. Some of the boys would eat this up in three days—then they had to steal, or they could not perform their daily tasks. I do not remember one slave but who stole some things—they were driven to it as a matter of necessity. I never sat down at a table to eat except at harvest time, all the time I was a slave," recalls former slave Francis Henderson (Drew, internet source).

Josiah Henson reenacts his slave life in his autobiography: "In ordinary times we had two regular meals in a day: breakfast at twelve o’clock, after laboring from daylight, and supper when the work of the remainder of the day was over. In harvest season we had three."












Slaves picking