Antebellum Slavery/Plantation Slave Life















Danielle Ahern
Sandra Alvarez
Lucienne DeNunzio
Jessica Orgaz


Health Problems

Contrary to certain beliefs, wherever it was unhealthful for Whites to live, it was also unhealthful for Negroes. Both white and black southerners were very vulnerable to epidemic and endemic diseases. They suffered from inadequate medical facilities and lived in extreme frontier conditions. These conditions (long summers, mild winters and undrained ponds and swamps) enabled insects to thrive in the South. Physicians were in short supply, and medical knowledge was poor. Proportions of death from disease were substantially higher for Negroes than for Whites. Lower living standards, greater exposure, heavier labor, and poorer medical care gave slaves a shorter life expectancy and a higher mortality rate than whites (Stampp). Many slaves also suffered from dietary deficiencies. These slaves were victims of ill-informed masters, but a few were also victims of penurious masters. A small planter once said, " I practice on the plan that all of us would be better to be restrained, and that health is best subserved by not overeating." (Stampp 286)


The South was a more deadly environment for everyone, whether they were white or black, slave or free. Although yellow fever and malaria were both serious killers, Negroes usually contradicted yellow fever in a milder form, and suffered fewer fatalities than whites. Africans from West Africa also carried a resistance to some types of malaria in their blood.

Asiatic cholera (a disease of dirt) reached the United States in 1832 and periodically swept through the nation. It was more deadly to Negroes than to whites, and in 1833, it caused more than 300 deaths in Lexington, Kentucky. Pulmonary diseases such as pneumonia, pleurisy, and pleuropneumonia were also common.

The mortality rate from tuberculosis was incredibly high among slaves, as well. Mississippi mortality table accounts for 80% of slaves dying from consumption. Other diseases present throughout the slave population were: dysentery, diarrhea, measles, mumps, influenza, whooping cough, dengue, scrofula, scarlet fever, rheumatism, typhoid, typhus, small pox, diphtheria dropsy, and tetanus.

Caehixia Africana, better known as dirt eating, also appeared in high numbers. The reason why slaves ate dirt stumped the minds of physicians, as well as, slaveholders. They did not realize that slaves suffered from several dietary-deficiency diseases, and that they had to eat dirt to obtain minerals to survive. These diseases included pellagra, beriberi, and scurvy. Adult slaves suffered from mental and nervous disorders, and most had tooth decay.

Despite all of this, the slave population of the United States grew by 23% per decade (implying higher rates in pregnancy for slave women). (Stampp)

Childbearing- Childhood

Sterility, spontaneous abortions, stillbirths, and death in childbirth occurred two to three times as frequently among slave women as among white. Irregular and painful menstruation was common, along with suppurative infections of the generative tract, and prolapsus uteri. The origination of such womb diseases is undoubtedly from great exposure, and severe labor. Over the course of a slave’s pregnancy, the woman would never see a physician, and simply had the help of another slave midwife during the birth. These new slave mothers would be sent out to work on the fields the next day. This begins the explanation of short slave children. The high work intensity of the pregnant, or lactating slave women produced inter-uterine undernutrtion, and shortened periods of breast-feeding. Also, poor diets during childhood resulted in protein energy malnutrition. Poor nutrition from early fetal development through late childhood produced stunted slave children. This condition was not reversed until the children were put to work, and were given a sufficient amount of food. Along with these explanations for high infant mortality, low birth rate, and stunted children, crowded living quarters increased the frequency , and intensity of infection. This concludes that the late-adolescent growth spurt was not the result of an improved diet, but from being transported from the penumbra of diseases encircling the slave nursery.


Slave labor on the plantations was divided between work in the slavemaster's home or in the fields. Most slaves were given tasks to perform according to their physical capability. Every slave was given one task per day, and if they finished that task, they were allowed to spend the rest of the day for personal recreational purposes.

By rewarding slaves for exceptional work, slavemasters decreased the pervading sentiment of discontent.  But exceptional misbehavior also warranted the attention of the slave master and his wrath. Punishment needed no real justification. They were usually left solely up to the whim of the overseer.  It was the overseer's duty to enforce good behavior in order to perfect the tight management of these miniature capitalistic societies. The amount of work required from them was unpredictable but from the employer's point of view,  the more undefined the situation, the greater the room for management prerogative.

Slaves spent most of their waking hours,  most of their days and most of their lives working for their owners without compensation. By the age of eight or so most children were working at least part-time by their early teens, they were toiling as hard and as long as full-grown adults. Thereafter, only illness, disability, and (for women) childbirth exempted them from year-round labor until they reached old age. The dictates of their owners in large determined the slaves' labor routines. Slaveholders sometimes gave their slaves a degree of latitude to work for themselves on their "own" time-nights, Sundays, and perhaps Saturday afternoons.

One slave is quoted as saying, "We had plenty to eat,  but we did not have good times.  We could not go off the place,  without asking,  we better not or we would get 'whupped' to pieces.  My mother was often whupped before she was grown.   I was whupped good and plenty myself."

For the great majority of slaves, the main business was agricultural labor. About half of the field hands worked on plantations with hundreds of acres under cultivation and twenty or more slaves; the remainder worked on farms with smaller land- and slaveholdings. On plantations and in towns and cities, a handful of slaves worked as domestic- personal servants, cooks, butlers, nurse maids- in their owner's home. A few men practiced skilled trades. Blacksmithing, carpentry, shoemaking, and cooperage were the most highly skilled metalworkers, ironmakers, machinists, and cabinmakers.Skilled occupations for slave women were less varied, and confined largely to weaving, sewing, and midwifery. Slaves always seemed to draw satisfaction and pride from their work. Work was both a source of oppression and a seed of liberation.


Berlin, Ira, Favreau, Marc, Miller, Steven F. Remembering Slavery. New York: The New Press. 1988

Northrup, Solomon. Twelve years a Slave. Auburn, NY. 1853.

Oakes, James. Slavery and Freedom. New York. 1990.

Stampp, Kenneth. The Peculiar Institution. New York:  Vintage Books. 1956.

Turner, Mary. From Chattel Slaves to Wage Slaves.  Indiana University Press. 1995.


Carolina Slave Quarters
Carolina Slave

Age-Specific Mortality Rates
Mortality Rates

Age-Specific Mortality Rates
Mortality Rates

by Age/Race

Work Ethic Narrative
Work Ethic

Slaves & Masters
Slaves and

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