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The Slaves’ And The Slaveowners’ Views Of Slavery
“That face of his, the hungry cannibals
Would not have touched, would not have stained with blood;--
But you are more inhuman, more inexorable,
Oh! ten times more than tigers of Hyrcania.”
I chose the topic about slavery for my research paper because I thought it would be an interesting experience doing research about slavery. It is American history and the more we know about it, the better we can understand what is going on today in our country. I think that because slavery was abolished very recently in terms of historical periods of time, it still has an impact on today’s economic and political life. Searching for the writings by slave owners was a more difficult task then searching for the writings by slaves. However, I found a lot of useful material in various sources.
The slavery in the United States is no doubt a shameful history of our country. White people transferred the slaves living in Africa to the New Land and treated them as their property, not as human beings. The living and working conditions of slaves and their food were extremely poor. Those were inhuman conditions in which the slaves had to survive. Endless executions of the slaves made the situation even worse. Slavery was a period of time when one race treated the other race as animals, things, property, but not as people. Unfortunately, not everyone saw the situation as it was in reality at that time. As we can see from many different sources available today, the points of view of slaves and slave owners on slavery were the opposite to each other. That can be seen in various slaves’ and slave owners’ descriptions of slavery. Slaves described their dwellings, food, clothes, labor, and the terrible treatment of slaves by their masters. On the other hand, slave owners described the relationships between slaves and their masters in a very positive way. They argued that slavery is very beneficial for the slaves and the slaves are very happy to live with their masters. Let us now consider both these points of views in details.
First of all, let us look at the slaves’ description of the cloth they wore. The clothes supply was as minimum as possible and the quality of the clothes was very bad. Here is how one of the slaves describes it. “Our dress was of tow cloth; for the children nothing but a shirt; for the older ones a pair of pantaloons or a gown in addition, according to the sex. ... In winter, a round jacket or overcoat, a wool hat once in two or three years, for the males, and a pair of coarse shoes once a year”(Lester 65). This scanty list of items was the only things available to the slaves. Certainly, it was not enough for the people who worked very hard for more than ten hours a day. The clothes were very dirty and with holes all over the place pretty soon. Imagine if you have to wear the same shirt day after day for the long time. The masters did not care about slaves’ children; they did not distribute much clothes for them either. According to the slaves, it was their problem what to put on their children when it was cold outside (Feldstein 45). However, some slaves say there were some masters who gave some extra material for the children, but it was not sufficient any way. Others gave any additional clothes only for extra work (Feldstein 45).
As for the slave owners’ seeing the slaves’ situation, one of the slaveholders reveals that he used to distribute new clothes once a year (Feldstein 45). This testimony by the slave owner actually testifies the slaves’ descriptions of the slavery that makes us believe to the slaves even more. However, there were a lot of slave owners who saw the situation quite differently. One anonymous slave owner in his letter to Lord Brougham argues that “...as a slave, he [a black person] would have at least the protection of one master interested in his welfare; as a freeman, almost beyond the pale of government protection, with no one to take care of him, of a despised and inferior race, a stranger in a land of strangers, how miserable would be his fate!”(Williams 41) That is what this person really believes, and he was not alone. The slave owners really believed that slavery was very beneficial for the slaves, and they clothed their slaves well.
According to the slaves, their dwellings were unimaginably poor huts that were not suited for living at all. Let us look at some descriptions of their huts to realize how terrible the conditions of the slaves were. One of the slaves remembers that the hut usually was “...one-room log cabin... without a partition and a total furnishing were generally a bed, a bench and a few cooking utilities”(Feldstein 42). Another former slave tells us that “...they [were] erected with posts and crotches, with but little or no frame-work about them. They [had] no stoves or chimneys; some of them [had] something like a fireplace at the end...”(Moulton 19). It is obvious that these cabins with no furniture inside did not seem like people’s homes. The slaves lived almost outside. Some of the emancipated slaves remember that they used to sleep “...on a miserable bed, [and their] children on the floor”(Lester 62-63). One of the former slaves remembers his experience of living in such a cabin as very uncomfortable. “The cabin [was] constructed... without floor or window. The latter is altogether unnecessary; the crevices between the logs admit[ted] sufficient light. In stormy weather the rain [drove] through them...”(Lester 63-64).
As for the furniture of the cabins, another former slave remembers that he used to sleep on a plank twelve inches wide and ten feet long. As a pillow he used a stick of wood. He had only one blanket and nothing else to make himself warmer (Lester 63). Except cold, rain, and wind, many slaves suffered from a great amount of mosquitoes. Some slaves remember that they kept a smoke from their fireplaces all night to secure themselves from all the insects (Moulton 19). Sleeping on the planks, being cold, wet during the rains, and in the smoke; that was the way slaves lived in their huts. These conditions of living made slaves’ lives very difficult and caring for children almost impossible.
Let us now see how slave owners saw the slaves’ conditions of living. Here is what a slaveholder tells in one of his letter. “The condition of the slaves of the United States... is far in advance of that of any similar number of laborers following similar occupations, in any other land under the sun”(Williams 32). Obviously, from what we have heard from the slaves we can claim that this statement is not very accurate. The slaves did not have very good houses as this person implies. But one thing puzzled me when I read it. What makes the author of this letter be so confident in his words? Where is his proof? It is very hard to believe that practically with nowhere to live, nothing to wear or eat, the condition of the slaves was so good as the person argues.
Many slaves say that the food they ate at the plantations was extremely bad and insufficient. One of the former slaves remembers that they had only two meals a day. The first time they ate was at twelve o’clock, which was the middle of their working day, and the second time -- late at night when the work for the day was done (Lester 64-65). Certainly, the slaves were hungry all the time. Considering how much they had to work, there is no wonder why many of them had faints caused by their hunger. According to a slave the meal itself usually consisted of cornmeal and salt herrings, “...to which was added in summer a little buttermilk and the few vegetables which each might raise for himself and his family on the little piece of ground...”(Lester 64).
A former slave remembers that the very typical thing for a plantation was that children younger than eight years old did not receive any food at all. They could eat only what their parents left over from their meals (Feldstein 44). Certainly, many female slaves did not eat already very scanty food to feed their children. The same person remembers that returning home late at night women mixed cornmeal with a little water, and backed it on the fire (Feldstein 43). That was the only time when children could eat during the day.
With so scarce food as the slaves had, it was almost impossible to survive. Charles Ball, a former slave, wrote that there were a lot of “...raids on the smokehouse...” (Feldstein 43). That was the only way slaves could get some extra food to feed themselves and their children. However, Charles Ball added that “...if a slave were caught stealing, his punishment would... be severe”(Feldstein 43). A former slave remembers that he used to steal some food from his master to survive. He says that if a turkey was stolen by the slaves, they tried to implicate an imaginary fox. When they stole potatoes, they tried to implicate the hogs (Feldstein 45). As we can see the conditions of the slaves were inhuman. They had to have a lot of endurance to survive in their situation.
The slave owners’ viewing of how they fed their slaves differs form all the descriptions made above by the slaves themselves. The same slave owner whom we have seen before also says in his letter to Lord Brougham that “...America found in the slave... a savage, and she has civilized him!... She found him naked and starving, and she has clothed and fed him!”(Williams 32) Again, this person was not alone who thought that slaveholders “clothed and fed” the slaves. Many slave owners shared the same point of view. They really believed that their slaves were well dressed and fed. They saw the slaves’ situation as very good and they thought of themselves as of the very kind people who did all these good things for uncivilized savages.
According to the slaves’ description of their labor, they had to work on the plantations very hard. They were called to work at five o’clock in the morning and they worked until late night (Feldstein 48). Often slaves had to work without any tools. One of the former slaves wrote that they were given a row in the field and they had to remove all the weeds from there. He remembers that in the end of the day, overseers checked everyone’s row. “For every...
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