Field Slaves

The division of the land into smaller units under private ownership in America became known as the plantation system. Crops grown on these plantations such as tobacco, rice, sugar and cotton were labour intensive. Plantation owners discovered it was cheaper to buy slaves than to pay wages to workers. Gad Heuman and James Walvin, the authors of Slave Work (2003) have argued: "The whole purpose of the Atlantic slave trade was to deliver Africans to slave owners, mainly planters, across the Americas. What they wanted, ideally, were healthy young men, capable of undertaking strenuous labour in their fields... The great majority of Africans were destined, initially at least, to work in the sugar fields. They were to be found, however, in practically every corner of the economy, in all sorts of employments, throughout the slave colonies. As those colonies matured from simple, rough pioneering settlements, slaves were dragooned to most forms of work, from the most demanding of physical labour through to the most unusual and valuable of skilled occupations."

Slaves were in the fields from sunrise to sunset and at harvest time they did an eighteen hour day. Women worked the same hours as the men and pregnant women were expected to continue until their child was born. Henry Clay Bruce, a slave working in Virginia, later reported: "During the crop season in Virginia, slave men and women worked in the fields daily, and such females as had sucklings were allowed to come to them three times a day between sun rise and sun set, for the purpose of nursing their babes, who were left in the care of an old woman, who was assigned to the care of these children because she was too old or too feeble for field work. Such old women usually had to care for, and prepare the meals of all children under working age. They were furnished with plenty of good, wholesome food by the master, who took special care to see that it was properly cooked and served to them as often as they desired it. On very large plantations there were many such old women, who spent the remainder of their lives caring for children of younger women."

Frederick Douglass wrote about the work in his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1881): "We were worked in all weathers. It was never too hot or too cold; it could never rain, blow, hail, or snow, too hard for us to work in the field. Work, work, work, was scarcely more the order of the day than of the night. The longest days were too short for him, and the shortest nights too long for him. I was somewhat unmanageable when I first went there, but a few months of this discipline tamed me. Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me. I was broken in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!"

Primary Sources

(1) Moses Grandy, Life of a Slave (1843)

MacPherson was an overseer where slaves were employed in cutting canals. The labour there is very severe. The ground is often very boggy: the negroes are up to the middle or much deeper in mud and water, cutting away roots and baling out mud: if they can keep their heads above water, they work on. They lodge in huts, or as they are called camps, made of shingles or boards. They lie down in the mud which has adhered to them, making a great fire to dry themselves, and keep off the cold. No bedding whatever is allowed them; it is only by work done over his task, that any of them can get a blanket. They are paid nothing except for this overwork. Their masters come once a month to receive the money for their labour: then perhaps some few very good masters will give them two dollars each, some others one dollar, some a pound of tobacco, and some nothing at all. The food is more abundant than that of field slaves; indeed it is the best allowance in America: it consists of a peck of meal, and six pounds of pork per week; the pork is commonly not good, it is damaged, and is bought as cheap as possible at auctions.

(2) Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1881)

We were worked in all weathers. It was never too hot or too cold; it could never rain, blow, hail, or snow, too hard for us to work in the field. Work, work, work, was scarcely more the order of the day than of the night. The longest days were too short for him, and the shortest nights too long for him. I was somewhat unmanageable when I first went there, but a few months of this discipline tamed me. Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me. I was broken in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!

Sunday was my only leisure time. I spent this in a sort of beast-like stupor, between sleep and wake, under some large tree. At times I would rise up, a flash of energetic freedom would dart through my soul, accompanied with a faint beam of hope, that flickered for a moment, and then vanished. I sank down again, mourning over my wretched condition. I was sometimes prompted to take my life, and that of Covey, but was prevented by a combination of hope and fear. My sufferings on this plantation seem now like a dream rather than a stern reality.

(3) Henry Clay Bruce, Twenty-Nine Years a Slave (1895)

During the crop season in Virginia, slave men and women worked in the fields daily, and such females as had sucklings were allowed to come to them three times a day between sun rise and sun set, for the purpose of nursing their babes, who were left in the care of an old woman, who was assigned to the care of these children because she was too old or too feeble for field work. Such old women usually had to care for, and prepare the meals of all children under working age. They were furnished with plenty of good, wholesome food by the master, who took special care to see that it was properly cooked and served to them as often as they desired it. On very large plantations there were many such old women, who spent the remainder of their lives caring for children of younger women.

(4) Austin Steward, Twenty-Two Years a Slave (1857)

It was the rule for the slaves to rise and be ready for their task by sun-rise, on the blowing of a horn or conch-shell; and woe be to the unfortunate, who was not in the field at the time appointed, which was in thirty minutes from the first sounding of the horn. I have heard the poor creatures beg as for their lives, of the inhuman overseer, to desist from his cruel punishment. Hence, they were usually found in the field "betimes in the morning," (to use an old Virginia phrase), where they worked until nine o'clock. They were then allowed thirty minutes to eat their morning meal, which consisted of a little bread. At a given signal, all hands were compelled to return to their work. They toiled until noon, when they were permitted to take their breakfast, which corresponds to our dinner.

On our plantation, it was the usual practice to have one of the old slaves set apart to do the cooking. All the field hands were required to give into the hands of the cook a certain portion of their weekly allowance, either in dough or meal, which was prepared in the following manner. The cook made a hot fire and rolled up each person's portion in some cabbage leaves, when they could be obtained, and placed it in a hole in the ashes, carefully covered with the same, where it remained until done. Bread baked in this way is very sweet and good. But cabbage leaves could not always be obtained. When this was the case, the bread was little better than a mixture of dough and ashes, which was not very palatable. The time allowed for breakfast, was one hour. At the signal, all hands were obliged to resume their toil. The overseer was always on hand to attend to all delinquents, who never failed to feel the blows of his heavy whip.

(5) William Wells Brown, Narrative of William W. Brown, A Fugitive Slave (1847)

During the time that Mr. Cook was overseer, I was a house servant - a situation preferable to that of a field hand, as I was better fed, better clothed, and not obliged to rise at the ringing of the bell, but about half an hour after. I have often laid and heard the crack of the whip, and the screams of the slave. My mother was a field hand, and one morning was ten or fifteen minutes behind the others in getting into the field. As soon as she reached the spot where they were at work, the overseer commenced whipping her. She cried, "Oh! pray - Oh! pray - Oh! pray" - these are generally the words of slaves, when imploring mercy at the hands of their oppressors. I heard her voice, and knew it, and jumped out of my bunk, and went to the door. Though the field was some distance from the house, I could hear every crack of the whip, and every groan and cry of my poor mother. I remained at the door, not daring to venture any further. The cold chills ran over me, and I wept aloud. After giving her ten lashes, the sound of the whip ceased, and I returned to my bed, and found no consolation but in my tears. Experience has taught me that nothing can be more heart-rending than for one to see a dear and beloved mother or sister tortured, and to hear their cries, and not be able to render them assistance. But such is the position which an American slave occupies.

(6) Malcolm X, speech (9th November, 1963)

If you're afraid of black nationalism, you're afraid of revolution. And if you love revolution, you love black nationalism. To understand this, you have to go back to what the young brother here referred to as the house Negro and the field Negro

back during slavery. There were two kinds of slaves, the house Negro and the field Negro. The house Negroes - they lived in the house with master, they dressed pretty good, they ate good because they ate his food - what he left. They lived in the attic or the basement, but still they lived near the master; and they loved the master more than the master loved himself. They would give their life to save the master's house - quicker than the master would. If the master said, "We got a good house here," the house Negro would say, "Yeah, we got a good house here." Whenever the master said "we," he said "we." That's how you can tell a house Negro.

If the master's house caught on fire, the house Negro would fight harder to put the blaze out than the master would. If the master got sick, the house Negro would say, "What's the matter, boss, we sick?" We sick! He identified himself with his master, more than his master identified with himself. And if you came to the house Negro and said, "Let's run away, let's escape, let's separate," the house Negro would look at you and say, "Man, you crazy. What you mean, separate? Where is there a better house than this? Where can I wear better clothes than this? Where can I eat better food than this?" That was that house Negro. In those days he was called a "house nigger." And that's what we call them today, because we've still got some house niggers running around here.

This modern house Negro loves his master. He wants to live near him. He'll pay three times as much as the house is worth just to live near his master, and then brag about "I'm the only Negro out here." "I'm the only one on my job." "I'm the only one in this school." You're nothing but a house Negro. And if someone comes to you right now and says, "Let's separate," you say the same thing that the house Negro said on the plantation. "What you mean, separate? From America, this good white man? Where you going to get a better job than you get here?" I mean, this is what you say. "I ain't left nothing in Africa," that's what you say. Why, you left your mind in Africa.

On that same plantation, there was the field Negro. The field Negroes - those were the masses. There were always more Negroes in the field than there were Negroes in the house. The Negro in the field caught hell. He ate leftovers. In the house they ate high up on the hog. The Negro in the field didn't get anything but what was left of the insides of the hog.

The field Negro was beaten from morning to night; he lived in a shack, in a hut; he wore old, castoff clothes. He hated his master. I say he hated his master. He was intelligent. That house Negro loved his master, but that field Negro - remember, they were in the majority, and they hated the master. When the house caught on fire, he didn't try to put it out; that field Negro prayed for a wind, for a breeze. When the master got sick, the field Negro prayed that he'd die. If someone came to the field Negro and said, "Let's separate, let's run," he didn't say, "Where we going?" He'd say, "Any place is better than here."

(7) Gad Heuman and James Walvin, Slaves at Work (2003)

Age and strength, skills and experience all added to a slave's commercial value - but all hinged ultimately on the slave's working strength or skills. It was a crude economic analysis which ignored all other social and human attributes of the slave. But it goes some way to explain the nature of slavery in the Americas, and indeed the entire Atlantic slaving system. The whole purpose of the Atlantic slave trade was to deliver Africans to slave owners, mainly planters, across the Americas. What they wanted, ideally, were healthy young men, capable of undertaking strenuous labour in their fields. What they got, however, was often very different: Africans debilitated by prolonged migration within Africa and physically reduced by the agonies and squalor of the slave ships.

It was widely accepted that newly arrived Africans were incapable of heavy work on arrival. Too sick, too weak, too traumatised to do little more than survive (often not even that), slaves had first to be nursed back to something like normal health (i.e., so they could be worked profitably). Slave owners normally "seasoned" their slaves, acclimatising them to local life, edging them back to fuller health, by less rigorous regimes and labour. Sooner or later, however, the Africans were turned over to the labours that would dominate their lives thereafter. The great majority of Africans were destined, initially at least, to work in the sugar fields. They were to be found, however, in practically every corner of the economy, in all sorts of employments, throughout the slave colonies. As those colonies matured from simple, rough pioneering settlements, slaves were dragooned to most forms of work, from the most demanding of physical labour through to the most unusual and valuable of skilled occupations. Moreover, slaves also worked extensively for themselves, notably on their plots and gardens and in improving their economic and social lives by their own efforts. But their greatest contribution was at the behest of their owners - in the sugar, tobacco and rice fields of colonial America....

Slave work varied greatly from one region to another and, more especially, from one crop to another. At one level, this ought not to surprise us. Work, after all, varied hugely and the nature and quality of labouring life is largely determined by the kind of work undertaken. So it was among the slaves. In sugar, and as plantations grew in size, first in Barbados and later in Jamaica, slaves worked in gangs. The strongest slaves (men and women) worked at the heaviest field work, planting and harvesting, while other gangs of older or less able slaves undertook the less onerous tasks in the fields. Slaves moved in and out of the gangs, depending on their strengths, weaknesses or ages. It was a system which sought to use all sorts of slaves, from the very young (employed in simple tasks) through to the old, similarly used for less demanding work in and around the fields and yards.

Gangs proved an effective means of managing sugar plantations, and they were used wherever sugar dominated. But the gang system had consequences well beyond the world of work. They formed, in effect, a brutal working process (visitors were often struck by the military nature of the gang system) which had to be dragooned and controlled by a heavy-handed managerial presence, often via corporal punishment. It was a labouring system in which blacks greatly outnumbered whites in the fields and on the plantations at large. This raises the broader, more complex issue of social control. How was it possible for relatively small bands of white men to control large gangs of slaves who, in crop time, were equipped with a variety of dangerous agricultural tools?