Antebellum Slavery/Control



Jessica Valdes 

Pain and fear, that is what white slave owners instilled into the minds of their slaves. Disobey and you will be punished, and you will be severely punished, maybe death. In the ante-bellum South, most slave owners were ruthless and selfish. If a slave were to miss his or her appointed workload, they would face a whipping, or another similar punishment. In the slave owner’s mind a slave was nothing more that an animal the can walk upright, and talk, something not deserving of human kindness. Instead they were doomed to live life like animals. Work or punishment where the only choices they knew. Life for the salves consisted of nothing but work, pain and fear.

The reasons for being punished were many, "A mere look, or motion, -- a mistake, accident, or want of power, -- are all matters for which a slave must be whipped at any time.

  • Does a slave look dissatisfied? It is said, he has the devil in him, and it must be whipped out.
  • Does he speak loudly when spoken to by his master? Then he is getting high-minded, and should be taken a buttonhole lower.
  • Does he forget to pull off his hat at the approach of a white person? That he is wanting reverences, and should be whipped for it.
  • Does he ever venture to vindicate his conduct, when censured for it? Then he is guilty of imprudence, --one of the greatest crimes of which a slave can be guilty
  • Does he ever venture to suggest a different mode of doing things from that pointed out by his master? He is indeed presumptuous, and getting above himself…" (Douglass)

The reasons for punishment were many by the forms of punishment, which the masters used, were far more numbered and creative than the causes for punishment. William Wells Brown remembers a punishment that his master used to call " Virginia Play". This consisted of tying up the slave in the smokehouse, and whipping them. After that was done he would cause a fire to be made of tobacco stems, and smoke them. Other punishments consisted of fasting their already malnutritioned slaves for excessive amounts of time. Making them work continuously for days without food or rest. Another form of torture used was to strip the slave naked hang them and have each male member of the family whip the slave fifty times. As if this sort of humiliation and excruciating pain wasn’t enough, the punishments became worse.

Another reason for punishment, if not the worst, is attempting to run away.

John Brown explains how he had been punished

" Stevens fixed bells and horns on my head. This is not by any means an uncommon punishment. A circle of iron, having a hinge behind, with a staple and a padlock before, which hang under the chin, is fastened around the neck. Another circle of iron fits quite close round the crown of the head. The two are held together in this position by three rods of iron, which are fixed in each circle. These rod, or horns, stick out three feet above the head, and have a bell attached to each. The bell and horns do not weigh less that twelve to fourteen pounds. When Stevens had fixed this ornament on my head, he turned me loose, and told me I might run off now if I liked". Brown goes on to explain how he wore the bell and horns day and night for three months. The weight of the mask made it almost impossible and very painful to stoop and work. The horns prevented him from stretching himself, or even curl himself up, which obligated him to sleep crouching. (Brown)

Another example of the severity of punishments was Moses Roper’s experiences after his many attempts of running away. Among the instruments used to torture he describes one…

" This is a machine used for packing and pressing cotton. By it he hung me up by the hands, a horse, and at times, a man moving round the screw and carrying it up and down, and pressing the block into a box into which cotton is put. At this time he hung me up for a quarter of an hour. I was carried up ten feet from the ground…" (Roper)

As if this was not enough Moses tried to escape again and the punishment that followed was far worse and left more mark in which to be remembered.

"… When he came back, the first thing he did was pour tar upon my head, the rubbed it all over my face, took a torch with pitch on, and set it on fire: he put it out before it did me very great injury, but the pain which I endured was the most excruciating, nearly all my hair been burnt off." (Roper)

All the pain caused by the slave owners still was not enough. The more the masters would punish the slaves the more willing they were to endure more just for a chance to escape. According to the slave owners, the slaves were the ignorant ones, but in reality the slave owners were the ignorant ones because they could have had better working slaves and actually ended up being less of an expense, if they would have keep somewhat happy and healthy slave.




Scars on back of slave
















Punishment contraption