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African Americans in the British New World

6d. Slave Life on the Farm and in the Town

Types of Slave Labor
Slaves on Southern plantations worked a variety of tasks and performed many kinds of labor.

What was it like to live in bondage? The experiences of slaves in captivity varied greatly. Indeed, Puritan merchants and Southern planters have as much in common as their slaves. The type of life slaves could expect to live depended first and foremost on whether they lived on farms or in towns.

The first image that comes to mind when considering chattel slavery is plantation life. Of course the cultivation of the planter's crop was the priority. Beyond these duties, slaves might also be expected to clear land, build a fence, or perform other odd jobs as the circumstances might dictate. Larger plantations usually brought harsher working conditions. Overseers might be assigned to monitor the work. As they had little connection to the slave, they tended to treat the slaves more brutally. Sometimes a slave, called a driver, would be enticed into holding this position. Accordingly, drivers were hated in the slave community. Living quarters were small and spartan, and food usually consisted of a few morsels of meat and bread.

Large plantations might also have household slaves. These domestic servants would prepare the master's meals, tend the house, prepare for guests, and sometimes look after the master's children. Household slaves often were treated better than plantation slaves. They usually ate better and were in some cases considered part of the extended family.

Slaves picking cotton
This painting shows slaves picking cotton on a Mississippi plantation. All slaves and their offspring were put to work — youngsters would begin carrying water at the age of 5 or 6 years.

Slaves that lived on smaller farms often enjoyed closer relations with their masters than plantation slaves. It stands to reason that a farmer working side by side with four slaves might develop closer bonds than a planter who owns four hundred. This sometimes, but not always, led to kinder treatment.

Some urban merchants and artisans employed slave labor in their shops. This enabled slaves to acquire marketable skills. In fact, white craftsmen often displayed strong resentment, believing the price of their labor would suffer. Generally, slaves that lived in towns had greater freedom than those that lived on the farm. They met more people and became more worldly. Daring individuals sometimes took the opportunity to escape.

On the Web
American Slave Narratives
From 1936 to 1938, over 2,300 former slaves were interviewed and recorded by the Works Progress Administration (WPA). There are sound files of former slaves talking about their lives, along with gripping narratives, and amazing pictures.
Hillery Kane, Sotterley Plantation
From the website of the Sotterley Plantation in St. Mary's County, Maryland, read this interesting oral history biography of Hillery Kane, a former slave.
Slave Life at Lloyd Manor
Historians at Lloyd Manor on Long Island, New York, have used artifacts, Lloyd family journals and other records to piece together a glimpse of slave life on this late 18th, early 19th century estate. There are some pictures and links to the text of some documents. [pdf file]
Slave Narratives
Several first hand narratives digitized in full from pamphlets and books. There's nothing like primary sources. From the University of North Carolina.
Slave Response
How did the Africans respond when they discovered themselves bound as slaves? The most common response was submission, but some looked for even the slimmest of opportunities to develop their talents, and a significant number of slaves became skilled craftsmen. Some apparently submissive slaves used passive resistance and passive aggressive behavior to undermine the system. Others were involved in active resistance. This article looks at all these responses and offers examples.
There were major differences in the lifestyles of slaves on plantations and domestic slaves, much more than the work itself. Try to guess what some of those differences might have been, and then check out this website.
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One South Carolina medical doctor thought he could cure slaves from running away, if only he could find the right medicine! He reasoned that running away was a medical condition which attacked Africans (after all, white slave owners never ran away). He diagnosed other "illnesses" too.
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http://theunjustmedia.com/Banking%20&%20Federal%20Reserve/Capitalism/Slavery%20as%20Capitalism%20The%20Shape%20of%20American%20Slavery.htm
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