law provided slaves with virtually no protection from their masters.
On large plantations this power was delegated to overseers.
These men were under considerable pressure from the plantation
owners to maximize profits. They did this by bullying the slaves
into increasing productivity. The punishments used against slaves
judged to be under-performing included the use of the whip.
Sometimes slave-owners resorted to mutilating and branding
Some punishments were associated with certain areas. According to
William Wells Brown, slaveowners in Virginia
smoked slaves. This involved whipping slaves and putting them in a
tobacco smoke-house." Moses Roper
claimed that in South Carolina they used to "drive nails into
a hogshead so as to leave the point of the nail just protruding in
the inside of the cask. Into this he used to put his slaves for punishment,
and roll them down a very long and steep hill."
Lewis Clarke, a house
slave in Kentucky, described in his autobiography the different
methods used by his mistress: "instruments of torture were ordinarily
the raw hide, or a bunch of hickory-sprouts seasoned in the fire and
tied together. But if these were not at hand, nothing came amiss.
She could relish a beating with a chair, the broom, tongs, shovel,
shears, knife-handle, the heavy heel of her slipper, and an oak club,
a foot and a half in length and an inch and a half square. With this
delicate weapon she would beat us upon the hands and upon the feet
until they were blistered. "
States with large numbers of slaves introduced their own slave codes.
The main idea behind these codes was to keep the slaves under the
tight control of their owners. The death-penalty was introduced for
a whole range of offences. Slaves could be executed for murder, rape,
burglary, arson and assault upon a white person. Plantation owners
believed that this severe discipline would make the slaves too scared
Thomas Johnson with
slave whip and chains
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Francis Fredric, Fifty Years of Slavery
who were perhaps not so completely cowed as the rest, said to my master,
who was about to flog them, "No, massa, we not going to be flogged
so much, we won't submit." "What is that you say?"
my master said, starting back. They repeated, "We are not going
to allow you to beat us as you have done." "How will you
prevent it?" he said. "You'll see, you'll see, massa,"
speaking half threateningly. He was evidently afraid of them. When
they went home at night he spoke mildly to them, and told them, "he
only wanted them to do their work, that it would be better if they
could get on in the fields without him. Don't hurry yourselves, my
For two or three days he never went much among
them, and when he did he spoke in a very quiet, subdued manner. But
mounted negroes were sent with letters to all the plantations around.
The slaves had been sent to a species of barn where they shell the
Indian corn. Suddenly above a hundred slaveholders, armed with revolvers,
marched from different points, and at one time, evidently agreed upon,
surrounded the place where the negroes were. All the slaves were ordered
out, and the two who had refused to be flogged were made to strip,
and my master first had one tied up, and flogged him as hard as he
could for some time, the poor slave calling out, "Oh, pray, massa!
Oh, pray, massa!"
My master, pausing to take breath, one of the
slaveholders said, "I would not flog him in that way, I would
put him on a blacksmith's fire, and have the slaves to hold him until
I blew the bellows to roast him alive." Then my master started
again and flogged until the poor fellow was one mass of blood and
raw flesh. The other was tied up and served in a similar manner, one
of the slaveholders saying he ought to be tied to a tree and burnt
alive. And now I would ask, How can an unarmed, an unorganized, degraded,
cowed set of negroes prevent this treatment? The slaveholders can
and do flog them to death, and nothing more is thought of it than
of a dog being killed.
Olaudah Equiano, The Life of Olaudah
Equiano the African (1789)
One man told me that he had sold 41,000 negroes, and that he once
cut of a negro man's leg for running away. I told him that the Christian
doctrine taught us to do unto others as we would that others should
do unto us. He then said that his scheme had the desired effect -
it cured that man and some others of running away.
negro man was half hanged, and then burnt, for attempting to poison
a cruel overseer. Thus, by repeated cruelties, are the wretched first
urged to despair, and then murdered, because they still retain so
much of human nature about them as to wish to put an end to their
misery, and retaliate on their tyrants. These overseers are indeed
for the most part persons of the worst character of any denomination
of men in the West Indies. Unfortunately, many humane gentlemen, but
not residing on their estates, are obliged to leave the management
of them in the hands of these human butchers, who cut and mangle the
slaves in a shocking manner on the most trifling occasions, and altogether
treat them in every respect like brutes.
Advertisement in the North Carolina Standard (28th July, 1838)
Twenty dollars reward. Runaway
from the subscriber, a negro woman and two children; the woman is
tall and black, and a few days before she went off burnt her on the
left side of her face with the letter M. Her children are both boys,
the oldest is in his seventh year; he is a mulatto and has blue eyes;
the youngest is a black, and is in his fifth year.
Louis Gazette (6th November, 1845)
A wealthy man here had a boy
named Reuben, almost white, whom he caused to be branded in the face
with the words; 'A slave for life.'
in Mississippi Gazette (23rd July, 1836)
A negro man who says his name is Josiah,
that he belongs to Mr. John Martin, living in Louisiana, twenty miles
below Nathchez. Josiah is five feet eight inches high, heavy built,
copper colour; his back very much scarred with the whip, and branded
on the thigh and hips in three or four places thus:'J.M.' The rim
of his right ear has been bitten or cut off. He is about 31 years
of age. Had on, when committed, pantaloons, made of bed-ticking, cotton
coat, and an old fur hat very much worn. The owner of the above described
negro is requested to comply requisitions of law, in such, cases made
and provided for.
Box Brown, Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown (1851)
this time Wilson Gregory, who was our overseer, died, and his place
was supplied by a man named Stephen Bennett, who had a wooden leg;
and who used to creep up behind the slaves to hear what they had to
talk about in his absence; but his wooden leg generally betrayed him
by coming into contact with something which would make a noise, and
that would call the attention of the slaves to what he was about.
He was a very mean man in all his ways, and was very much disliked
by the slaves. He used to whip them, often, in a shameful manner.
On one occasion I saw him take a slave, whose name was Pinkney, and
make him take him off his shirt; he then tied his hands and gave him
one hundred lashes on his bare back; and all this, because he lacked
three pounds of his task, which was valued at six cents.
Clarke, Narrative of the Sufferings of Lewis Clark (1845)
During the ten years that I lived with Mrs. Banton, I do not think
there were as many days, when she was at home, that I, or some other
slave, did not receive some kind of beating or abuse at her hands.
It seemed as though she could not live nor sleep unless some poor
back was smarting, some head beating with pain, or some eye filled
with tears, around her. Her tender mercies were indeed cruel. She
brought up her children to imitate her example. Two of them manifested
some dislike to the cruelties taught them
by their mother, but they never stood high in favor with her; indeed,
any thing like humanity or kindness to a slave, was looked upon by
her as a great offence.
Her instruments of torture were ordinarily the raw hide, or a bunch
of hickory-sprouts seasoned in the fire and tied together. But if
these were not at hand, nothing came amiss. She could relish a beating
with a chair, the broom, tongs, shovel, shears, knife-handle, the
heavy heel of her slipper; her zeal was so active in these barbarous
inflictions, that her invention was wonderfully quick, and some way
of inflicting the requisite torture was soon found out.
One instrument of torture is worthy of particular description. This
was an oak club, a foot and a half in length and an inch and a half
square. With this delicate weapon she would beat us upon the hands
and upon the feet until they were blistered. This instrument was carefully
preserved for a period of four years. Every day, for that time, I
was compelled to see that hated tool of cruelty lying in the chair
by my side. The least degree of delinquency either in not doing all
the appointed work, or in look or behavior, was visited with a beating
from this oak club. That club will always be a prominent object in
the picture of horrors of my life of more than twenty years of bitter
Wells Brown, Narrative of William W. Brown, A Fugitive Slave
Major Freeland was formerly from
Virginia, and was a horse-racer, cock-fighter, gambler, and withal
an inveterate drunkard. There were ten or twelve servants in the house,
and when he was present, it was cut and slash - knock down and drag
out. In his fits of anger, he would take up a chair, and throw it
at a servant; and in his more rational moments, when he wished to
chastise one, he would tie them up in the smoke-house, and whip them;
after which, he would cause a fire to be made of tobacco stems, and
smoke them. This he called "Virginia play."
I complained to my master of the
treatment which I received from Major Freeland; but it made no difference.
He cared nothing about it, so long as he received the money for my
labor. After living with Major Freeland five or six months, I ran
away, and went into the woods back of the city; and when night came
on, I made my way to my master's farm, but
was afraid to be seen, knowing that if Mr. Haskell, the overseer,
should discover me, I should be again carried back to Major Freeland;
so I kept in the woods. One day, while in the woods, I heard the barking
and howling of dogs, and in a short time they came so near that I
knew them to be the bloodhounds of Major Benjamin O'Fallon. He kept
five or six, to hunt runaway slaves with.
As soon as I was convinced that it was them, I knew there was no chance
of escape. I took refuge in the top of a tree, and the hounds were
soon at its base, and there remained until the hunters came up in
a half or three quarters of an hour afterwards. There were two men
with the dogs, who, as soon as they came up, ordered me to descend.
I came down, was tied, and taken to St. Louis jail. Major Freeland
soon made his appearance, and took me out, and ordered me to follow
him, which I did. After we returned home, I was tied up in the smoke-house,
and was very severely whipped. After the major had flogged me to his
satisfaction, he sent out his son Robert, a young man eighteen or
twenty years of age, to see that I was well smoked. He made a fire
of tobacco stems, which soon set me to coughing and sneezing. This,
Robert told me, was the way his father used to do to his slaves in
Virginia. After giving me what they conceived to be a decent smoking,
I was untied and again set to work.
Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861)
There was a planter in the country, not far from us, who had six hundred
slaves, many of whom he did not know by sight. His extensive plantation
was managed by well-paid overseers. There was a jail and a whipping
post on his grounds; and whatever cruelties were perpetrated there,
they passed without comment. He was so effectively screened by his
great wealth that he was called to no account for his crimes, not
even for murder.
Various were the punishments resorted to. A favorite one was to tie
a rope round a man's body, and suspend him from the ground. A fire
was kindled over him, from which was suspended a piece of fat pork.
As this cooked, the scalding drops of fat continually fell on the
bare flesh. On his own plantation, he required very strict obedience
to the eighth commandment. But depredations on the neighbors were
allowable, provided the culprit managed to evade detection or suspicion.
If a neighbor brought a charge of theft against any of his slaves,
he was browbeaten by the master, who assured him that his slaves had
enough of every thing at home, and had no inducement to steal. No
sooner was the neighbor's back turned, than the accused was sought
out, and whipped.
His brother, if not equal in wealth, was at least equal in cruelty.
His bloodhounds were well trained. Their pen was spacious, and a terror
to the slaves. They were let loose on a runaway, and, if they tracked
him, they literally tore the flesh from his bones. When this slaveholder
died, his shrieks and groans were so frightful that they appalled
his own friends. His last words were, "I am going to hell; bury
my money with me."
Moses Roper made several attempts trying
to escape from his master. He wrote about the punishment he received
in Adventures and Escape of Moses Roper (1838)
Mr. Gooch then obtained the assistance of another
slave-holder, and tied me up in his blacksmith's shop, and gave me
fifty lashes with a cow-hide. He then put a long chain, weighing twenty-five
pounds, round my neck, and sent me into a field, into which he followed
me with the cow-hide, intending to set his slaves to flog me again.
He then chained me down in a log-pen with a 40
lb. chain, and made me lie on the damp earth all night. In the morning
after his breakfast he came to me, and without giving me any breakfast,
tied me to a large heavy barrow, which is usually drawn by a horse,
and made me drag it to the cotton field for the horse to use in the
field. Thus, the reader will see, that it was of no possible use to
my master to make me drag it to the field, and not through it; his
cruelty went so far as actually to make me the slave of his horse,
and thus to degrade me.
Mr. Gooch had a female slave
about eighteen years old, who also had been a domestic slave, and
through not being able to fulfill her task, had run away; which slave
he was at this time punishing for that offence. On the third day,
he chained me to this female slave, with a large chain of 40 lbs.
weight round the neck. It was most harrowing to my feelings thus to
be chained to a young female slave, for whom I would rather have suffered
a hundred lashes than she should have been thus treated. He kept me
chained to her during the week, and repeatedly flogged us both while
thus chained together, and forced us to keep up with the other slaves,
although retarded by the heavy weight of the log-chain.
large farmer, Colonel M'Quiller, in Cashaw County, South Carolina,
was in the habit of driving nails into a hogshead so as to leave the
point of the nail just protruding in the inside of the cask. Into
this he used to put his slaves for punishment, and roll them down
a very long and steep hill. I have heard from several slaves, though
I had no means of ascertaining the truth of the statement, that in
this way he killed six or seven of his slaves. This plan was first
adopted by a Mr. Perry, who lived on the Catarba River, and has since
been adopted by several planters.
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