Eric V. Snow



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The central objective of masters and mistresses was to maximize their slaves' work effort with a minimal investment in time, money, and force to extract it. While paternalistic masters and mistresses may have denied the typical profit maximizing goal that they said characterized the Northern merchant or industrialist, still most slaveholders pursued similar goals, outside of some who had lived on the same land and had owned the same families of blacks for generations along the Eastern Seaboard, often upon soil of largely exhausted fertility. Slaveholders confronted a major problem in pursuing this objective: The measures undertaken that made their black work forces more easily controlled often simultaneously injured damaged their capability to work as effectively or productively. They wished to keep their slaves from taking care of themselves, yet not destroy their ability to carry out their daily toil.391 As Barrow commented in his "Rules of Highland Plantation":
You must provide for him Your self and by that means creat in him a habit of perfect dependence on you--allow it ounce to be understood by a negro that he is to provide for himself, and you that moment give him an undeniable claim on you for a portion of his time to make this provision, and should you from necessity, or any other cause, encroach upon his time--disappointment and discontent are seriously felt.392
An obvious example of the practical costs in keeping slaves in line was from denying them an education in most parts of the South. Keeping a subordinate class ignorant makes it much easier to control, yet also hampers its ability to labor as effectively for the dominant class. One good practical reason for keeping the slaves illiterate was to prevent them from forging passes that allowed them to leave their home plantations for destinations elsewhere, including northward.393 True, because the slaves normally engaged in field work or domestic service that required neither literacy nor numeracy, this policy's costs to the elite was largely limited to the artisans whose minds were darkened by it. But the costs were there, and the Southern elite by and large judged these perfectly acceptable. Their objective was not to develop the full human potential of their personal chattels by improving their minds and abilities, but to extract labor services from them in order to raise profitable cash crops. The slaves' own ends in life were largely irrelevant, except as theirs interfered with the plans and desires of their owners in their lives. The masters of the slaves channeled and stunted the development of the slaves abilities and talents in order to fulfill the their own ends in life, as part of the process of imposing social control and labor discipline.
Why the Whip Had to Be Used to Impose Work Discipline on the Slaves
To meet the purposes of imposing work discipline, the slaveowners had a number of tools at their command. The most obvious, as well as the most used and abused, was coercion through corporal punishment. Although some few masters and mistresses were able to dispense with it, by and large the whip stood out as the emblem of authority for the slaveowner as well as the overseer.394 Time and time again, slave narratives describe the savage beatings that slaveholders or overseers inflicted on the blacks under their authority. Beatings were inflicted for malingering at work, running away, mistakes made from inexperience or incompetence while on the job, and for about any imaginable petty and not-so-petty offense that came before the generally passionate, rough-hewn, easily-provoked slaveholders and overseers of the South.395 Olmsted once had the rare experience of being a Northerner who witnessed a full-blown thrashing of a shirking young slave woman. He questioned the overseer who had so passionlessly inflicted this beating on her whether it was necessary. He replied:
If I hadn't [whipped her], 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 anything about it. They'd never do any work at all if they were not afraid of being whipped.396
Clearly, this overseer, who was regarded as one above average in ability, believed in the utter necessity of using (or threatening to use) physical force to get the slaves he supervised to work. Unlike the case for free wage workers, where denying them work and the corresponding wage payments would eventually starve them out, the slaveholder automatically supplies what the slave needs for survival (and normally little above that), so he has little natural desire to work out of personal self-interest or from the desire to feed his family. In place of the driving force of self-interest or serving their family, and from the manifest inability for most slaves to fundamentally change their position in life from being a personal chattel owned by another, the external motivation supplied by the whip had to generally replace internal self-motivation.
How Commonly Were the Slaves Whipped? The Time on the Cross Controversy
How often were slaves whipped? Fogel and Engerman, using Bennet Barrow's diary, maintained:
His plantation numbered about 200 slaves, of whom about 120 were in the labor force. The record shows that over the course of two years a total of 160 whippings were administered, an average of 0.7 whippings per hand per year. About half the hands were not whipped at all during the period.
Their calculations were not based on the main text of the diary, but on an appendix in the published version assembled by the editor, Edwin Davis. It lists "misconduct and punishments" for 1840-41. A problem with the text as presented here is that for many diary entries an "X" is placed next to the name of the slave whipped by Barrow, but he, characteristically, was not fully consistent at doing this. Strictly counting just the "X"'s, one comes up with 156 whippings that were so marked in his diary. It appears this was mostly what Fogel and Engerman counted. In rebuttals them on this point, Gutman and Sutch maintained 175 whippings were administered against the slaves on Barrow's plantation, which must include whippings that were not marked by an "X" in the diary's appendix. About 155 names get listed in the appendix with an offense or a blank space (the equivalent of ditto marks?) next to them, but no tell-tale "X." In two cases, a whipping was noted in the entry besides the name, yet no "X" was placed by the slave's name, with one of these mentioning how the six slaves listed immediately above, also without "X"s by their names, were whipped for being late in reporting to work in the morning. In another case, the main entry for the diary mentions how a group of five slaves were whipped for killing a hog in the field, but the appendix has no "X"s by their names. Once, when two carters and four house slaves were whipped, the main entry notes this, but no "X"s appear by the slaves' names in the appendix. Twice Alfred (the driver) was whipped during this time, but his name never appears in the appendix as one who was punished. The whipping for one slave woman was unlisted in the appendix. She was whipped for an incident that involved Barrow's cook. After she complained about the injustice of being whipped because the cook really was at fault, Barrow allowed her to give the cook "a good drubing" in compensation!397 Evidently, by counting these additional 22 whippings and adding it to the 156 ones that do have "X"s by their names (one of these cases having one "X" to stand for two slaves being whipped), Gutman and Sutch came up with (though the math and the exact way they arrived at their count is not clear) their 175 figure. Note that if all the names with offenses or blank spaces but no "X"s are also counted along with the ones which do have "X"s, one suddenly comes up with Barrow having administered some 330 whippings in about 23 months, a wildly different figure, but one which seems plausible from the listing of offenses in the appendix even when no punishment (i.e., an "X") is signified besides the names listed. Clearly, Fogel and Engerman underestimated the number of whippings that occurred on Highland plantation with their 160 figure, although even Gutman and Sutch's correction may still be too low.
Fogel and Engerman's calculation uses a figure of 120 active field workers in Barrow's labor force, which is a much bigger problem than their underestimate of the number of whippings. This figure is way too high for the number he had during the time the diary's appendix covers (mostly 1840-41). For example, for his entry of August 12, 1842, he said he averaged sixty-five hands during one day of cotton picking, which was the time of year when virtually every man, woman, and child that could work was mobilized for field labor. On September 11, 1842 he had seventy-two pickers at work, which included a number of children. For November 3, 1838, he had forty-two pickers in the field, and on September 10, 1842, he had sixty-nine pickers, including eleven children. Evidently, the figure of 120 hands is deduced from Barrow's will and estate inventory, which was probated in 1854, but by then he had far more slaves than in 1840-41. They also used a base of two years instead of twenty-three months which (with the exception of the final entry) is all the appendix covers. As a result, Fogel and Engerman's figure of 0.7 whippings per hand per year seriously underestimates the number of whippings inflicted. Gutman and Sutch calculate 1.19 whippings per hand per year, a 69 percent higher figure. Furthermore, Barrow used other punishments which are not included in this count, such as overtime work, imprisonment, chaining, shooting, head raking, even humiliation by having men wear women's clothes or placing one slave wearing a red flannel cap on a scaffold in the quarters. (This list includes punishments inflicted outside the period the appendix covers). Since their calculations here are plainly incorrect, Kolchin lets Fogel and Engerman off too easily when summarizing this historiographical dispute, allowing the intellectual fog coming from controversy obscure Gutman and Sutch's clear refutation of them.398
Now a broader question needs to be asked about Fogel and Engerman's conclusions about the relative rarity of whippings on Highland plantation. Instead of asking how often an individual slave was whipped per year, Gutman and Sutch ask how often did Barrow's bondsmen see someone among their number whipped. After all, the purpose of punishing one slave is not just to deter that one individual slave from shirking, running away, etc. in the future, but all the rest as well. Much like the overseer Olmsted talked to, who said if he did not whip the slave woman he saw avoiding work, half the plantation the next day would do likewise (above, p. 232), Barrow counted on the deterrence value of punishment by example. Gutman calculated that a flogging occurred every 4.56 days on Barrow's plantation on average.399 This result means Barrow continually induced fear by wielding the whip, which his slaves had to consider when thinking of breaking his rules since the worst regularly happened to others they knew, on an average of three times every two weeks.
The Deterrence Value of Occasional Killings
A more drastic punishment existed, although its cost were very high, and by inflicting it on some individual it could only change the behavior of other slaves: death. Sometimes the slave was killed by a master or overseer, sometimes by a lynch mob, sometimes by the judicial system after receiving the full measure of due process that a slave (and his or her financially self-interested owner) could expect. Regardless of source, they all combined to remind the bondsmen that a fate worse than corporal punishment awaited those who committed the worst crimes. Furthermore, unpredictably, for petty offenses, a master in the heat of passion or in the throws of insanity could also inflict it. In some cases slaves were killed or executed by burning them alive. One slave in Tennessee who killed his master was executed thus, with many a fellow slave witness of his dreadful end:
He was roasted, at a slow fire, on the spot of the murder, in the presence of many thousand slaves, driven to the ground from all the adjoining counties, and when, at length, his life went out, the fire was intensified until his body was in ashes, which were scattered to the winds and trampled under foot. Then 'magistrates and clergymen' addressed appropriate warnings to the assembled subjects.
This extreme case, stoutly justified in the local press, was not unique, as Olmsted indicated in a footnote that one judge had gathered evidence of slave burnings "every year in the last twenty" (c. 1840-60). Barrow strongly approved of the burning alive of two runaways who killed two white men and raped two white women. A "great many [were brought] to witness it & several hundred negros &c. Burning was even too good for them." Executions by burning were also "authorized" by lynch mob, such as the hardly singular case of a Alabama justice of the peace who, being intimidated by a crowd of seventy or eighty men, allowed them to vote to burn alive the slave who killed a white man.400
Being whipped or shot to death by one's owner was a much more likely fate than being burned at the stake. While clearly uncommon, it occurred enough that slaves knew it could happen to them, especially when so much arbitrary and absolute power had been committed into the hands of their owners. Since the slaveholders by regional character were passionate, emotional men who placed perceived points of honor above cold-blooded financial calculations, the slaves had something more to fear. Sometimes, they killed in arguable cases of self-defense: "One day he [a slave named Joe] turn on Marse Jim with a fence rail, and Marse Jim had to pull his gun and kill him." Much more likely, a slave was killed for violating some rule or otherwise violating his or her owner's expectations. Mary Younger told Drew she knew of a mistress who lived nearby who whipped no less than three of her slave women to death. Younger also helped one badly whipped man by greasing his back--who still soon died. One slave girl was hanged by her master and mistress for revealing to Union soldiers where they had buried the family's silver, money, and jewelry after they had left. Douglass described several cases of slaves being killed--nay, murdered--by their owners without punishment, such as one for trespassing on another master's property and another for being slow to assist with a crying baby because she had fallen asleep.401
The Danger of Corporal Punishment Backfiring, Requiring "Massive Retaliation"
One especially dangerous flash point was when a slave challenged his master's authority by refusing some (lesser) punishment. Then, his owner just might up the ante and kill him. The reasoning was that if one slave could get away with refusing to obey his master, then others would soon follow suit, and the whole system of involuntary labor would collapse. Austin Gore, an overseer in Maryland Douglass served under, shot a slave to death who had been whipped some by him, but had briefly escaped to the temporary sanctuary of a nearby creek before being permanently dispatched by a musket. He explained to Colonel Lloyd, the slave's owner, why he killed him:
His reply was, (as well as I can remember,) that Demby had become unmanageable. He was setting a dangerous example to the other slaves,--one which, if suffered to pass without some such demonstration on his part, would finally lead to the total subversion of all rule and order upon the plantation. He argued that if one slave refused to be corrected, and escaped with his life, the other slaves would soon copy the example; the result of which would be, the freedom of the slaves, and the enslavement of the whites.
Singling out Demby as an example was evidently effective, because a "thrill of horror flashed through every soul upon the plantation" excepting the overseer himself when the deed was done. Mother Anne Clark described how her father suffered a similar fate for refusing a whipping:
He never had a licking in his life. . . . one day the master says, "Si, you got to have a whopping," and my poppa says, "I never had a whopping and you can't whop me." And the master says, "But I can kill you," and he shot my papa down.402
The policy of sacrificing some slaves' lives to frighten the rest into submission was time and again judged a cost-effective tactic by slaveholders.

Freedman Cato of Alabama described this approach to discipline thus:


When they [the slaves] was real 'corrigible, the white folks said they was like mad dogs and didn't mind to kill them so much as killing a sheep. They'd take 'em to the graveyard and shoot 'em down and bury 'em face downard, with their shoes on. I never seed it done, but they made some the niggers go for a lesson to them that they could git the same.
The well-attended hanging of a slave woman who set her master's barn afire and killed thirteen horses and mules was evidently such an exercise. While these acts of terrorism were rare, they did not have to be common to usefully promote social control and work discipline from the slaveholders' viewpoint. Similarly, the calculation that "only" 127 blacks out of 6 million (0.003 percent) were lynched in 1889 implicitly greatly understates the deterrent effects that the mere known existence of this practice had in keeping the black man in line. Just hearing about the death of a slave at the hands of his master was enough to keep many in line, and when push did come to shove, a master's threats to kill a recalcitrant slave often were enough to get him to fall into line, since the worst possible result was known to happen in these situations. So when Mary Grayson's mother saw her master waving a shotgun from his buggy, loudly threatening her to "git them children together and git up to my house before I beat you and all of them to death!," they knew "he acted like he was going to shoot sure enough, so well all ran to Mammy and started for Mr. Mose's house as fast as we could trot."403 In these cases, the deterrent value of prior terrorism, exercised on a few individuals sacrificed for the greater good (?) of maintaining the overall system paid off, whether done by masters individually, a lynch mob, or the court system, making the mere threat of using deadly force enough to make most slaves fall into line.
How Even Good Masters Could Suddenly Kill a Slave in the Heat of Passion
Southern masters professing paternalism might have denied pursuing this policy, or at least would have disavowed killing slaves except for major crimes such as murder. Barrow, who clearly was quick to punish his own slaves, condemned a neighboring planter named A.G. Howell for (it was said) castrating three slaves, and killing others, including leaving some in the stocks until they were dead. He also judged him for ironing up one slave boy up his leg and thigh, creating a nearly solid scab in the process, after which he chained him around the neck. Concerning another man who whipped a black to death, Barrow wrote: "Man tried for Whipping a negro to Death. trial will continue till to morrow--deserves death--Cleared!" Masters such as Barrow did not believe in killing slaves except for major offenses. Nevertheless, the mere fact a number of masters were not so paternalistic--or predictable when losing their temper--meant death always remained a possible penalty for bondsmen with all but the kindest masters. After all, Barrow himself, who condemned Howell's cruelty, one time was mad enough to write that he "would give 'freely' $100 to get a shot" at one runaway slave who he had actually shot at and hit four years before. At that time, Barrow said he would shoot him if he ran away, soon following through with his threat after making it.404 Hence, even a fairly typical large planter such as Barrow, who was neither especially cruel nor kind, could kill one of his own slaves under the right circumstances, an outcome his slaves undoubtedly weighed when calculating whether and when they should disobey him.
Miscellaneous Punishments that Masters Inflicted on Slaves
Masters and mistresses had a multitude of alternative punishments besides whipping and outright killing to keep their work forces in line. One approach was to stake slaves in chains, and let them suffer under the hot sun. Another was to set up stocks, and place the slave's head and hands through the boards, perhaps for weeks at the time for a serious offense such as trying to run away to the North. One slave woman for refusing to work was for a whole year made to sit on a log daily where the ants bit her. Planter Barrow, as noted above (p. 234), was particularly inventive in some of his punishments for his slaves, which included making male slaves dress in women's clothing. During Christmas one year he exhibited a recently captured runaway slave on a scaffold while sporting a red flannel cap. Another time he made a slave "wear a sheet topped with red-feathered flannel ear muffs." Less creatively, he imposed overtime on slaves who had worked badly and imposed a general ducking in water. One slaveowner's particularly disgusting but ingenious penalty consisted of making a slave eat the worms that he had missed taking off tobacco leaves.405 Imprisonment also was an option, both private and public. Planter Barrow had a jail of his own for recalcitrant slaves, such as one who pretended to be sick, one cotton picker who tried to pass off a ten pound rock as cotton, and others who ran away. Many a slave who committed some major crime or had run away and had been caught ended up in some local jail until his owner picked him up--or sold him. Douglass experienced this fate after his conspiracy with others to escape failed, and he was briefly in jail before his master picked him up. Others that Drew interviewed ended up in jail because of failed escape attempts or, once, in connection to a successful one.406 So in addition to the obvious expedients of whipping and sometimes killing slaves who did not obey, a multitude of other punishments existed, including sale.407
Examples of Corporal Punishment Backfiring
Whenever a slaveholder inflicted corporal punishment on a slave, an element of risk lurked because it could backfire. The slave might resist the whipping, or could run away in retaliation, which raised the costs of routinely using the whip unpredictably, since a master or mistress could not fully know in advance what would happen. Barrow experienced a number of times a backlash against punishments he meted out. After Tom Beauf picked badly, so Barrow whipped him, leaving a few cuts on his back. The next day in the evening he left the field, and he had "not seen him since." After whipping him for not picking enough cotton the day before, Dennis ran away the next day. Barrow once wanted to weigh G. Jerry's basket at dinner time (noon). He evaded handing it over, and got whipped for it. This act "offended his Lordship & he put out." Another time, he told Dennis--the troublemaking slaves in Barrow's diary tend to be the same ones all the time--that he intended to whip him, evidently for not picking enough cotton, and he ran away. Barrow commented, after sending another after him: "I had rather a negro would do any thing Else than runaway." Besides running away, trying to punish a slave had another possible result: The slave could fight back, possibly even killing the slaveowner or his overseer. Aunt Nicey Pugh of Alabama said that: "There was a white woman who was kilt by a nigger boy 'cause she beat him for sicking a dog on a fine milch cow." John Little, who had been a slave in Virginia and North Carolina, described to Drew once how he felt. His character and past history of resistance indicates his meditations were no mere idle thoughts:
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