Antebellum Slavery/Plantation Slave Life






Laura Esguerra


Slaveholders did not intend to starve their slaves, for they knew that weak slaves meant a decrease in production. A weekly allowance, a limited share, was given to the slaves that although sometimes, but not always sufficient in bulk, was of improper balance. The basic weekly allowance of an adult slave consisted of cornmeal and three to four pounds of salt pork or bacon. Slaves were victims of ill-informed masters who knew little about nutrition. They did not know about vitamin deficiencies and how they lead to disease; much less about providing balanced diets. Even slaveholders themselves ate unbalanced meals, although they had higher quality food. They even enjoyed dishes prepared by their black cooks, such as gumbos and okra, and watermelon, which was brought over from Africa.

Slave men contributed and took the initiative to hunt, fish and trap animals. Families were able to supplement their meals with wild game and trout. Had it not been for the men, families would have starved to death. Malnutrition, the condition of being poorly nourished, was a common affliction amongst slaves, but could have been worse if they had not helped themselves out.

The insufficient amount of food provided often led slaves to steal from their masters. Slaveholders underestimated the amount of food their workers needed, so the rations provided would often disappear within a few days. Some were left to cultivate their own vegetables, but were too exhausted with all the extraneous field-work to come home and tend their gardens. Slaves turned to stealing hogs and corn in order to enrich their diets. Rarely, if ever, did they savor milk, eggs, fruits or vegetables.

Problems families had with nourishment not only occurred with malnutrition, but also with finding an efficient method of preparing their food, which was their responsibility. This became a problem because they were not provided with adequate utensils. Slaves, already out of energy, got home at night to prepare their suppers. Corn had to be ground and firewood had to be collected. These individuals were degraded to eating like animals with their hands. Pots and pans were provided for cooking vegetables, fat, and grits, given of course, that they actually had the time to grow their own food. Thus, poorly fed, malnutritioned, slaves, led to less work output.

Some masters, however, did display some interest in their slaves' nutritional development, although that interest was due to a desire to produce more. Breakfasts and dinners were served at communal kitchens, prepared by slave cooks themselves. At other plantations, breakfast and dinner was carried out to the fields in buckets. Families' importance decreased, but slaves were better fed and therefore healthier.



Slave family

Slave family
Ration Day

Slave family
Slave family

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