How Often Did Enslavers Abuse Their Slaves?

Peter from Louisiana

Gentle Readers, some time ago I shared with you the story of an enslaved girl being brutally whipped. I did not then have the research habits I have now. In the course of answering a question about the prevalence of violence against enslaved people for Reddit’s AskHistorians, I revisited the story and gathered together some other sources I have since come upon on the subject. I have reworked portions of that post into this. None of it makes for a pleasant read. If you feel that you should take a pass on today’s post, please do so. Also please know that this post includes a vile racial slur.

One must naturally ask, if one accepts that enslavers abused their slaves, if every last one of them did it. We have a natural inclination to look for exceptions and we know from our own lives that people who do the same thing rarely ever do it to a uniform degree or in just the same way. Especially in our bureaucratized, computerized age it makes sense to ask for a normal level of brutality too, even if the victims of violence don’t have the luxury of comparing and taking their relative suffering with a philosopher’s detachment. The pain we feel, we must feel most keenly.

Enslavers, overseers, and others charged with controlling enslaved labor are people and do vary, but they and the law take violent “correction” as generally a matter of course. An enslaver who doesn’t lay it on regularly risks being thought a dangerously light touch and possibly a secret abolitionist in the minds of his neighbors. If one didn’t have the stomach for whipping oneself and didn’t have a regular person to do it, one could get the local sheriff to serve for a one-time fee. Robert E. Lee did.

Frederick Law Olmsted traveled the South and what he reports is largely consistent with the attitudes I see Southerners express amongst themselves:

The whip was evidently in constant use, however. There were no rules on the subject, that I learned; the overseers and drivers punished the negroes whenever they deemed it necessary, and in such manner, and with such severity, as they thought fit. “If you don’t work faster,” or “If you don’t work better,” or “If you don’t recollect what I tell you, I will have you flogged,” are threats which I have often heard. I said to one of the overseers, “It must be very disagreeable to have to punish them as much as you do?” “Yes, it would be to those who are not used to it-but it’s my business, and I think nothing of it. Why, sir, I wouldn’t mind killing a nigger more than I would a dog.” I asked if he had ever killed a negro? “Not quite,” he said, but overseers were often obliged to.

Olmsted’s informant gave resistance to being whipped as just cause for a murder, which is something that Northrup risks in the movie. Enslavers often quantify by the number of lashes and we find occasional reference to standard punishments so incremented, but should not mistake these for modern business regulations. Enslavers, for practical purposes, answer only to themselves. Getting between the “domestic” relationship of a man and his human property smacked of abolitionism, to the point that even people running Bible study classes for slaves with the permission and supervision of their enslavers have trouble keeping on.

Independent of Olmsted, Jourdon Anderson’s famous letter to his ex-enslaver references a similar incident:

Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me.

One doesn’t see much outright killing, though the law rarely punished any that did happen. More often comes horrific violence, which might lead to death. The worst Olmsted, an outsider present with the knowledge of the enslavers, saw happened to an eighteen year-old named Sall. They came on her while crossing a gully, where she had hidden out. She gave an excuse for being abroad without leave, but the overseer (Olmsted’s tour guide) didn’t buy it. (She said she was accidentally locked in, then got out on her own by breaking a plank loose. Then she got up and he spotted a ring of keys.) The girl’s father, all of a few minutes away, could have settled things one way or another. The overseer didn’t feel inclined to bother.

I’m sorry; things become much worse now:

“That won’t do,” said he [the overseer], “get down on your knees.” The girl knelt on the ground; he got off his horse, and holding him with his left hand, struck her thirty or forty blows across the shoulders with his tough, flexible, “raw-hide” whip. They were well laid on, as a boatswain would thrash a skulking sailor, or as some people flog a baulking horse, but with no appearance of angry excitement on the part of the overseer. At every stroke the girl winced, and exclaimed, “Yes, sir!” or “Ah, sir!” or “Please, sir!” not groaning or screaming. At length he stopped and said, “Now tell me the truth.” The girl repeated the same story. “You have not got enough yet,” said he, “pull up your clothes-lie down.” The girl without any hesitation, without a word or look of remonstrance or entreaty, drew closely all her garments under her shoulders, and lay down upon the ground with her face toward the overseer, who continued to flog her with the rawhide, across her naked loins and thigh, with as much strength as before. She now shrunk away form him, not rising, but writhing, groveling, and screaming, “Oh, don’t, sir! oh, please stop, master! please, sir! please, sir! oh, that’s enough, master! oh, Lord! oh, master, master! oh, God, master, do stop! oh, God, master! oh, God, master!”

Gentle Readers, I don’t know how many of you have or expect to have children or otherwise count teenagers among your loved ones, but Sall had those people too. She meant the world to them and they couldn’t prevent this, who might even have to watch it happen on other occasions.

A younger child too plays a part in this episode; a fifteen year old boy accompanied Olmsted and the overseer. He watched it all, bored. None of this was new for anybody but the Yankee. Olmsted

glanced again at the perfectly passionless but rather grim business-like face of the overseer, and again at the young gentleman, who had turned away; if not indifferent he had evidently not the faintest sympathy for my emotion.

Olmsted couldn’t take it and rode off, the screams chasing him. The boy caught up to him, but not from pain or fear. The overseer came right behind, apparently finished. He can’t have missed much, if anything. “He [the overseer] laughed as he joined us.” Then he sounded off on how Sall cheated him out of day’s work. Olmsted asked if they had to do such things and the overseer made the standard argument:

Oh yes, sir,” (laughing again.) “If I hadn’t punished her so hard she would have done the same thing again to-morrow, and half the people on the plantation would have followed her example. Oh, you’ve no idea how lazy these niggers are; you northern people don’t know any thing about it. They’d never do any work at all if they were not afraid of being whipped.

The overseer struck to the heart of it: slaves don’t like slavery. Everybody in the South knew it, for all the occasional protests to the contrary. On the scale of an individual plantation, the enslaved outnumber the whites. It takes pain and terror to keep them at work. A slave may get off easy now and then, but even treasured personal valets can end up in the fields to make sure they don’t get ideas. The occasional less horrific enslaver doesn’t change the overall system.

It makes cold economic sense. The incentives free labor operates under don’t work well in a slave system. To get more out of a person, and thus more profit, they needed whips, chains, and other tortures. Temporarily or permanently impairing the ability of one to deliver that labor may well terrorize the others enough to make up the difference and then some.

This neglects, of course, that no one yet born has ever lived the live of the perfectly rational utility maximizer that stars in so many economic calculations. Fear plays its part: slaves not terrorized into submission may rise up and murder their tormentors. We must also consider rage: how dare the slaves challenge their masters? We can never forget the white supremacy that made it all work: those people, those subhumans, dared think they had the right to gainsay a white man. Finally, we must add pleasure to our calculations. Not every enslaver went to bed each night to happy visions of whips cracking and flying blood, but people in positions of power with great discretion and little accountability have a long history of giving themselves license to do things they would otherwise find unthinkable.

Thomas Jefferson

Take it from an enslaver:

There must doubtless be an unhappy influence on the manners of our people produced by the existence of slavery among us. The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. Our children see this, and learn to imitate it; for man is an imitative animal. This quality is the germ of all education in him. From his cradle to his grave he is learning to do what he sees others do. If a parent could find no motive either in his philanthropy or his self-love, for restraining the intemperance of passion towards his slave, it should always be a sufficient one that his child is present. But generally it is not sufficient. The parent storms, the child looks on, catches the lineaments of wrath, puts on the same airs in the circle of smaller slaves, gives a loose to his worst of passions, and thus nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny, cannot but be stamped by it with odious peculiarities. The man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals undepraved by such circumstances.

The author, no prodigy, exercised his boisterous passions upon Sally Hemings. He learned those things. They are part of his manners. That fifteen year-old kid decades later learned them just as well.

We have hitherto referred to impressionistic accounts, as historical research must. We have recorded moments, not sociological surveys. In the nineteenth century, a far less bureaucratized time, people did things more casually and made fewer managerial notes. A partial exception comes from the Barrow plantation in Louisiana. Barrow might have exceeded the norms of his time, but we can’t say for sure. My source, Herbert Gutman’s Slavery and the Numbers Game, wrote in the mid-Seventies and laments that no one has done a thorough study of plantation records that have survived to find out. I don’t know if one has been done since, despite checking a few recent surveys I have. Working from the Barrow sample, he comes up with

A slave -“on average”- was whipped every 4.56 days. Three slaves were whipped every two weeks. Among them, sixty (37.5 percent) were females. A male was whipped once a week, and a female once every twelve days.

During the two year period (1940-1) for which numbers exist, Barrow whipped all but 19 of his 129 slaves. We don’t know their age distribution, but it typical then 89 or so had reached the age of ten or more. Barrow whipped 119 individual slaves.

If Barrow did not whip children under the age of five, and if children under the age of ten were fairly evenly distributed, that means that every child aged five to nine probably was whipped one or more times in 1840-1841.

Barrow’s surviving diary extends somewhat beyond the 1840-1 time frame and may not be complete. He could have done worse than we know.

More than once, for example, Barrow penned suggestive diary notations such as “had a general Whiping frolick,” “whiped about half to day,” “general Whipping yesterday,” “intend Whipping them straight, “whiped all my grown cotten pickers today.”

Whipping frolics happened at least six times.

In his fine dissertation on the slave family, Bobby Jones concluded that Barrow resorted to “practically every known form of chastisement slaveholders used.” Jones pointed out: “During his career, Barrow resorted to chains; extra work; whipping; humiliation, such as making a man wear women’s clothing and parade around the quarters; imprisonment; stocks; ‘raked several negro heads to day’; ‘staking out’; ‘hand-sawing’; and dousing or ducking in water which occurred in October and November.”

Jones thinks that hand-sawing involved beating people with the saw, teeth first.

 

We can’t know for sure if we should take Barrow as exceptional or typical, but between the numbers his records provide and the constant reference to violence in period sources, we can’t fairly say that brutality happened rarely. Violence against enslaved people looks, both from the tremendous array of sources from enslaved people themselves, their enslavers giving advice to one another, and white third parties, like the overwhelming norm. All the stories of whipping, cutting, chaining, beating, rape, and torture didn’t just come from nowhere. People, almost all white, did them all to other people, all black. They made a system of this, a great, all-encompassing world that turned blood, pain, and screams into the money that made the wealth of a nation and fed the mills off another. Other people, most other whites, took no great interest in that until the same system appeared poised to enslave them too. Most of us, myself included, have taken little notice since of the many ways it continues. We too have learned our manners.

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