Eric V. Snow

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Comparing and contrasting English agricultural workers during the industrial revolution and American slaves before and during the Civil War allows for the exploration of (perhaps unexpected) similarities and differences in their experiences in the same general time frame. Placing side by side for inspection two agricultural work forces who lived at the same basic time who spoke the same language seems "a natural," but specialists in both fields have largely overlooked this identification. The history of black slavery is "labor history." On a daily basis slaveholders got people to labor for them, tried to motivate them by fear and the stick, or, less commonly but ideally, by love and the carrot. Of course, fundamental differences remained between the two work forces. The blacks were not really seen as part of the surrounding society for racial reasons, while the English agricultural workers still had some real rights, despite their evident subordination. Excepting for children, farmworkers were never subjected to the supreme indignity of being flogged while on the job, but the whip was virtually the emblem of the slaveowner's authority over his or her property. Exploring the similarities and differences between these two work forces is the burden of this work.
What Exactly Is Compared Out of Each Diverse Group
This work compares from these groups those who lived in rural areas and did farm work as their main or exclusive occupation. Neither urban slavery in the American South nor slavery in the North before its demise are analyzed here. However, some source documents used below involve slaves who either may have lived in a small town or in both city and country. Artisans who lived in rural areas, such as blacksmiths and carpenters, receive some attention in the American case but almost none in the English. Servants are included, whether American slave or English free, whether doing domestic chores, learning husbandry, or a combination of the two, but slave domestics receive much more attention than English ones. Slaves working in industry or factories are omitted, as well as their English counterparts, since this work is about agricultural/rural workers. Workers in English domestic industry are also passed over. But cases in which substantial machinery and mills functioned on plantations, such as for rice and sugar refining, are covered since they functioned amidst a rural setting. Unless otherwise mentioned, it should be assumed, as "Southern slaves" are compared with English agricultural workers, that the former live in rural areas or perhaps small towns, and that they are either field hands or servants, not urban and/or industrial workers. Since about ninety percent of the slaves did not live in cities, the vast bulk of them lived in rural areas.4 Blacks without masters--"free Negroes"--are not covered here. The focus shall be on ENGLISH farm workers, not Scottish, Welsh, Irish, or "British." Exclusions and limits are necessary for what is compared here within these two large, diverse groups, since more could always be added.
Five Broad Areas for Comparison Purposes
In five broad categories English farmworkers and African-American slaves are compared. The first concerns the material standard of living, such as in diet, clothing, housing, and medical care. The second concerns the less quantitative but essential "quality of life" issues, such as in family relationships, education, religious activities, and having an informed outlook on life. Although through sheer ignorance and good treatment perhaps some slaves were relatively content with their lot, their satisfaction does not make their situation to be actually good. It is better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied, a dictum which a few quantitative economic historians seem tempted to forget. Only those slaves with a "live for today" philosophy, who made themselves totally oblivious to the future, could possibly forget what masters selling their family members would do to them. Sales due to death or bankruptcy were always remained a sword of Damocles hanging over the bondsmen. Third, the sexual division of labor between men and women is compared for the English farm workers and African-American slaves. These two groups had glaring differences in this area which, perhaps ironically, declined sharply after freedom for the slaves came. Fourth, work conditions, labor discipline, and the ways the masters attempted to control their respective subordinate classes are compared, including by and through the state. Abuses at work are dealt with, such as whipping, hours of work, holidays/days off, and the incentives used by "management," broadly considered. The reality of paternalism and the quality of work relationships are examined. Fifth, the means by which the subordinate classes resisted the will of the dominant class is analyzed. How the oppressed classes wore a "mask" is considered here. Both of these groups carefully concealed, by lies, feigned ignorance, or the simple non-volunteering of information, what they REALLY thought from their "betters" to avoid punishment or exploitation. The infrequent, but spectacular, cases of revolts and mass actions are covered, as well as union activities among the agricultural workers. Using the broad categories of the material standard of living, the quality of life, the sexual division of labor, work conditions and controls, and resistance against those in authority and their controls, the most important similarities and contrasts between these two work forces are focused upon.
This comparison uses the general time period of 1750-1875. Making for the drawing of sharper parallels, these dates allow two largely contemporary work forces to be compared who both lived in industrializing nations and spoke the same language. The nineteenth century is emphasized, partly due to greater documentation, but also because then the factors creating these two work forces' conditions peaked. The proletarianization of the farmworkers reached a height in the first half of the nineteenth century, before allotments spread more widely, mechanization became common, and out-migration had partially emptied the English countryside. Similarly, after generally experiencing a boom in the preceding thirty years, the Cotton Kingdom clearly reached an economic high point in 1860. This work emphasizes portraying the respective climaxes of the two work forces' conditions as determined by events and processes that began in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, such as the initial arrival of slaves in the English colonies and the second general wave (i.e., post-Tudor) enclosure acts. Changes from earlier conditions (pre-1750) are treated largely in passing, which makes the conditions of the slaves look better, due to the improvements in their treatment from the early colonial period, while these make the agricultural workers apppear worse off, because of the negative effects enclosure and the French Wars had on their standard of living compared to (say) 1725.
Both work forces lived in industrializing countries. The South's industrial sector before the Civil War that could employ the slaves paled before what was available to rural English workers. Nevertheless, they still resided in the nation that was, by the eve of the Civil War, the world's second greatest industrial power. The North's industrial sector clearly affected them. Often Northern factories made the clothes and shoes they wore, and the tools and machines they worked with. Corresponding with the period of England's industrialization, the enclosure acts affected the laborers largely negatively. They greatly reduced the independence and social mobility the farmworkers had had. If they were willing to migrate, industry gave them an outlet from bad rural conditions. It even provided some competition for their labor that raised their wages when they stayed put, at least in northern England. Importantly, a major chronological difference separates the two groups: Freedom abruptly came to the slaves in 1865, but the improvements and changes in the farmworkers' conditions were gradual, without any radical discontinuity. Perhaps the farmworkers' gaining the vote in 1884 was the one event that changed their lives the most, for although the Swing Riots of 1830-31 badly shook the British establishment, their effects on their lives were a pittance before the effects of emancipation on American blacks.5 The mechanization of English agriculture was a long, slow process, undoubtedly hindered early in the nineteenth century by the massive labor surplus that prevailed in much of the English countryside, and even by "Captain Swing" himself. Hence, some sources about post-1875 conditions are cited for the English case, since their conditions changed more slowly, but post-1865 conditions are mostly ignored for the freedmen, although racial subordination continued by means other than bondage.
Some Theoretical Problems in Comparing Slaves and Laborers' Standard of Living
The debate over standard of living during industrialization, and the role of capitalism in lowering or raising the masses' consumption and use of various material goods, is one of historiography's greatest footballs. The Long Debate on Poverty6 has an aptly chosen title! Unfortunately, for both Southern slaves and English farmworkers, no solid nationwide statistical economic data exists that could decisively settle the issue. The English (and Welsh) had no fully inclusive census until 1801, no occupational census until 1841, and no official registration for deaths and births until 1839.7 American census data begins with 1790, but a mere count of people, crops grown in a given year, and their occupations is not enough to calculate per capita income.8 Furthermore, what the average slave received hardly equaled what the American did! To run such calculations, it is necessary to know what the slaves alone got. The available historical evidence, such as it is, can give clues and indications of what the actual standard of living was. But, at this late date, nothing with full rational certainty capable of convincing all the disputants involved is likely to turn up. Anecdotal evidence is valuable, because it can descriptively expose the relationships within an society that an overemphasis on quantitative data can obscure. But it cannot totally settle this debate, since conflicting stories appear to support both sides, such as how kindly or harshly the "typical" master treated the "average" slave. This point leads to the next big problem in the standard of living controversy . . .
Just what exactly IS the "average" slave or the "typical" agricultural worker? These abstractions represent groups that experienced a great variety of working conditions, climates, lifestyles, occupations, family statuses, and masters supervising. What is "average" for slaves when comparing the relatively mild bondage of the Border States, such as Virginia and Kentucky, with the harshness of the frontier Deep South, such as Texas and Arkansas? What is "average" for agricultural workers between Northumberland, where one observer said the wages and the standard of living surpassed America's for farmworkers, as opposed to the utter misery of notoriously low-waged Wiltshire in southern England?9 Theoretically, after warming up the computers armed with spreadsheet programs, adding the two together and dividing, the issue would be settled, if accurate, broad-based, quantitative statistics did exist (but they do not). Number-crunching can obscure the essential reality of an unequal or extreme situations within the working class or bondsmen as a whole. The economist who warned against wading a river with an average depth of four feet drew attention to a serious theoretical problem that pervades quantitative analysis when applied to the standard of living debate. Although the "average" bondsman or the "mean" farmworker are handy abstractions, they remain generalizations. It is mistaken to allow them to obscure the underlying realities of (especially) regional diversity for the farmworkers, or the widely varying treatment meted out by various masters and mistresses to their bondsmen.
Diet and the Standard of Living for Slaves
The essence of the standard of living debate seems to be diet, and how far the masses lived above bare subsistence.10 Related issues include: How much and what kinds of "luxuries," such as sugar, coffee, and tea, did the groups in question enjoy? How much and what kinds of meat did they have? Did they eat wheat, the most expensive grain, or barley, rye, oats, etc.? How coarse was the food they ate? For the American slaves, as for American Southerners generally, the main grain was corn (maize), and the main meat, pork.11 The absolutely archetypal rations slaves received consisted of so many pecks of corn and pounds of pork or bacon per week. Anything adding to or replacing these items as basic foodstuffs was at least mildly unusual. As escaped slave Christopher Nichols testified to Drew: "My master used to allow us one piece of meat a day, and a peck and a half of corn meal a week." After being sold for $1,200 in Natchez, Eli Johnson was "put on a cotton farm, and allowed a peck of corn a week and three pounds meat." Traveler Frederick Law Olmsted inquired of one white Southerner: "'What do they generally give the niggers on the plantations here?' 'A peck of meal and three pound of bacon is what they call 'lowance, in general, I believe. It takes a heap o' meat on a big plantation.'" Aged ex-slave Andy Anderson painfully recalled that the new overseer, Delbridge, cut rations as the Civil War began: "He weighs out the meat, three pound for the week, and he measure a peck of meal." The "meat" in question was normally from the flesh of hogs, although exceptions appeared. Once a slave in eastern Maryland, Frederick Douglass mentioned how the standard monthly rations included fish sometimes: "The men and women slaves received, as their monthly allowance of food, eight pounds of pork, or its equivalent in fish, and one bushel of corn meal." Charles Ball similarly described Calvert County, Maryland, where
the practice amongst slave-holders, was to allow each slave one peck of corn weekly, which was measured out every Monday morning; at the same time each one receiving seven salt herrings. This formed the week's provision, and the master who did not give it, was called a hard master, whilst those who allowed their people any thing more, were deemed kind and indulgent.12
Hence, the normal bondsman and woman expected a diet that included several pounds of pork or bacon and, even more certainly, corn.13

Were the standard rations enough? Sometimes they were not, at least for some adult men. As Blassingame notes: "Equally serious was his [the slave's] dependence on the 'average' amount of food and clothing his master decided was sufficient for all slaves." What was sufficient for one man or woman may be insufficient for others!14 Ex-slave Anderson added, after describing his plantation's new standard rations: "And 'twa'n't enough. He half-starve us niggers, and he want more work." Runaway slave Williamson Pease ironically commented to Drew about the draught animals' superior treatment: "Horses and mules have food by them all the time, but the slaves had four pounds of fat bacon a week, and a peck of corn meal,--not enough to last some men three days." Francis Henderson similarly commented: "Our allowance was given weekly--a peck of sifted corn meal, a dozen and a half herrings, two and a half pounds of pork. Some of the boys would eat this up in three days."15 Underfeeding almost inevitably caused theft, as Pease and Henderson also observed. Harriet Brent Jacobs, alias Linda Brent, described well how miserly the rations could be doled out. Her mistress would
spit in all the kettles and pans that had been used for cooking. She did this to prevent the cook and her children from eking out their meager fare with the remains of gravy and other scrapings. The slaves could get nothing to eat except what she chose to give them. Provisions were weighed out by the pound and ounce, three times a day. I can assure you she gave them no chance to eat wheat bread from her flour barrel. She knew how many biscuits a quart of flour would make, and exactly what size they ought to be.16

So according to the slaves' own testimony, the nearly universal "standard rations" were inadequate for many of them, at least by themselves without what they could raise, hunt, or steal on their own, or what more indulgent masters might issue.17

Fogel and Engerman's Optimistic Reconstructions of the Slave Diet
Fogel and Engerman in Time on the Cross argue that slaves were well fed:
The average daily diet of slaves was quite substantial. The energy value of their diet exceeding that of free men in 1879 by more than 10 percent. There was no deficiency in the amount of meat allotted to slaves. On average, they consumed six ounces of meat per day, just an ounce lower than the average quantity consumed by the free population.18
Although such data as average heights and rapid population growth indicate American slaves were not seriously underfed, this result was not entirely due to their masters and mistresses' efforts.19 The slaves struggled to get food on their own, such as by hunting and trapping (both relatively productive in a sparsely populated/frontier region), gardening small patches of land, purchasing food using money they earned from extra work, not to mention stealing. The testimony cited above casts some doubt on the "standard rations" of pork and corn alone always being enough to satisfy at least adult male bondsmen.
Fogel and Engerman clearly make many dubious assumptions and casual mistakes while reconstructing the slave diet, as shown by Richard Sutch's searching and intensive critique of their data. Their disappearance method uses data from only 44 generally backwoods counties out of Parker and Gallman's sample of 413 counties' farm and plantation food production. They assume the slaves must have eaten most of the food produced on the plantations in their subsample because (they reason) these were too far from significant urban markets. Their subsample of this sample excluded farms and small plantations with fewer than fifty-one slaves, thus discounting the possibility of local sales of produce by the big plantations to neighboring farms and small plantations. Indeed, their subsample comes down to just seventy-seven plantations, including less than 10 percent of the total population and 1.5 percent of the total productive landholdings in the Parker-Gallman sample. With such a narrow sample focused on the largest plantations, a bias similar to U.B. Phillips's American Negro Slavery, distortions inevitably appear. Since plantations were commercial and non-subsistent by nature, they sold produce for cash. Using a subsample of them in backwoods areas more than fifty wagon miles from urban areas would not eliminate the distortions caused by local sales of produce or the driving of animals on the hoof to market. The latter point undermines Fogel and Engerman's evidence for the slaves having a high beef consumption based on their subsample since 15 percent of all the cattle in it were on four Texas farms in two counties which fell outside the fifty-mile radius. But since Texas was notorious for long distance cattle drives to market, it is implausible to think these ranches' slaves ate most of the steer raised on them! They underestimate the resident white population's consumption in these areas, such as by using conversion ratios (such as dressed to live weight) which lower how much pork the slaves ate and raise how much the whites ate in the subsampled areas. Between all the mistakes and questionable assumptions Sutch identifies, many of them omitted here, nobody should place much stock in Fogel and Engerman's arguments for a varied and nutritious slave diet.20
Much of the debate on the slave diet between Fogel and Engerman and their critics like Sutch surrounds mineral and vitamin deficiencies. For example, was the phenomenon of dirt/clay eating, which still survives among Southern rural blacks in the United States today, due to malnutrition? A thiamine deficiency could easily explain some plantations' outbreaks of sudden dirt-eating frenzies.21 Being high in pork and maize, the classic slave diet clearly was tailor-made for producing pellagra, just as it did among poor whites. Due to its chemically bound form, corn lacks niacin that the human body can easily use. Its high content of the amino acid leucine partially even interferes with the body's digestion of whatever niacin that is consumed. Although the body can convert the amino acid tryptophan into niacin from crude protein, the low quality fat pork slaves normally ate unfortunately was a poor source of it. Even nowadays, let alone in antebellum times, physicians had difficulty diagnosing pellagra because its symptoms seem to be like other afflictions; it also manifests itself in the early stages in disparate ways in different individuals. It normally does not develop along standard, classical lines. Nineteenth-century American doctors simply did not know about this disease, so they would think the bondsmen under their care had other diseases. The description of the "negro disease" called black tongue by Southern physicians, however, fits nearly perfectly pellagra in its earlier stages. Employing such arguments, Kiple and Kiple suggest that pellagra's symptoms manifested themselves during hard times when planters cut back on their rations. It also became operative in many bondsmen in an early, endemic form that emerged during winter and early spring, only to disappear again due to seasonal fresh fruits or vegetables entering their diet. Sutch observes that the standard ration falls way short of supplying enough niacin. It even lacks the extra protein with which the body could convert tryptophan into niacin. The unsupplemented standard ration had other vitamin and mineral deficiencies, such as in thiamine, riboflavin, and calcium. It was short even in vitamin A, since the corn and sweet potatoes of the antebellum South were evidently normally white, not yellow, in color.22 Since the bondsmen likely suffered from dietary deficiencies, at least during winter and early spring when forced to survive on the easily stored items of the standard ration and/or under harsher masters and mistresses' more restrictive diets, this casts doubt upon Fogel and Engerman's rosy reconstruction.
The Slave Diet as Crude, Coarse, and Boring
Besides being likely vitamin deficient, the slave diet was obviously crude, coarse, and boring. As Frederick Douglass commented: "Not to give a slave enough to eat, is regarded as the most aggravated development of meanness even among slaveholders. The rule is, no matter how coarse the food, only let there be enough of it." Victoria McMullen remembered her slave grandmother described the average slave's diet this way: "But the other slaves didn't git nothing but fat meat and corn bread and molasses. And they got tired of that same old thing. They wanted something else sometimes." Mary Reynolds recalled during slavery days what she was fed: "Mostly we ate pickled pork and corn bread and peas and beans and 'taters. They never was as much as we needed." Although monotonous, this diet showed her master at least gave more than just the stereotypical "hog and hoecake" diet. As Olmsted observed: "The food is everywhere, however, coarse, crude, and wanting in variety; much more so than that of our [Northern] prison convicts." The restricted food types they received, the crude cooking equipment they used, and the sharp time limits imposed by both sexes working a "sunup to sundown" work day all combined to produce a dreary diet. As actress turned reluctant mistress Fanny Kemble observed at her husband's rice plantation:

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