Posts Tagged ‘slavery’

A Slave's Back

A Slave’s Back

This is a super-long post, because this has been on my mind for awhile, and I hope you’ll read it all. I don’t usually do “opinion” pieces, but I will because it is the result of all my research on the enslaved that has formed the opinion.

A new book has come out that I’m reading called, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism,” by Edward Baptist that I highly recommend. The book places the brutality of slavery front and center along with its emergence as the economic driver of our nation’s founding. Those of us researching African-Americans frequently come face to face with the horrors of slavery in the documents we review.

This is why I don’t believe in the concept of a “good slaveowner.” (Caveat: I am not talking about freed blacks who became “slaveowners” when laws forced them to buy their loved ones and keep them in that status or have them thrown out of the state. Thanks, Debra!)

I am amazed how many times a slaveowner is described as “good” to his slaves–usually by well-meaning but misguided descendants of slaveowners. It has happened to me often and I cringe inside when I hear that term. We all know that slaveowners differed in their treatment of their slaves–that there was a spectrum of treatment as wide and diverse as humans are.  And I know there’s a visceral desire to distance oneself and one’s family from the institution.  But what people need to understand is that at a certain point what individuals slaveowners did is beside the point.

The system of slavery was held in place by violence. It was force– ever-increasing and sadistic means of force that made the system of slavery work. It could not survive without the force of the whip, the gun, the patrollers, the overseer and the physical and psychological torture mechanisms designed to subdue a people. They were forcibly held captive. Otherwise, how else could an entire life of labor be stolen from millions of people?  Without force, slavery could not exist. The Civil War caused much of that system of violent force to breakdown as white Southerners went off to war. It is that breakdown which allowed slaves to escape successfully behind Union lines and force the issue of their freedom. Without the enforcement mechanisms to hold it in place, slavery collapsed.

Enslaved people resisted slavery at all times from the very beginning; it is only the overwhelming use of violence and the wealth created that made the system of slavery successful. Enslaved people also feigned illness, broke tools, laid out in the woods for weeks and months at a time, and sometimes, like Frederick Douglass, physically confronted their oppressors (see the book Runaway Slaves: Rebels of the Plantation for more on this). I’ve heard people actually ask “why did slaves stay?”  That anyone could ask this is only proof of their woeful ignorance about the most powerful slave society the world had ever seen. It is an ignorance that haunts us as a country to this very day.

Viewed from this lens, it is clear to me that that truly “good” people could not willingly participate in that system–a system that was optional, not mandatory. Some people think somehow that “because of the times,” slavery was excusable/understandable/justified. I wholeheartedly disagree. Slaveowners witnessed the atrocities of whippings and sales and as human beings no different than you or I, were thus completely capable of being moved and changed by those experiences.   Robert “King” Carter and John Randolph  both freed about 500 slaves (although the latter did so in in his will). Before you claim that those were isolated and rare incidents, know that thousands of slaveowners came to see slavery as morally despicable and freed their slaves during their lifetimes, especially after the American Revolution. Many others were changed by religious conversions during the Great Awakening, especially Quakers and Methodists. In my own family, Susanna Waters, who owned my 3nd ggrandfather Joshua Waters, freed him and over 20 other slaves well before her death. In her will, she materially provided for the enslaved people she had freed.

Although I recognize how difficult it would have been to have a transformative view of slavery if one was born into that life, that is not the same as saying it did not and could not happen. There are thousands of examples of it happening. A good slaveowner to me sounds as ridiculous as referring to a good child-molester–we would never use that phrase for obvious reasons. For those who think they know an example of a  “good” slaveowner, I ask you to consider this: what would they do if one of their slaves did not feel like working one day? Or if one decided he didn’t want to be there at all and wanted to leave?  Confronting those questions will lead you to the fact that violence and force had to be at the root of any successful slave enterprise.  Coercion was a necessary part of this equation.

Some of the most monstrous descriptions of the system of slavery can be found in the many diaries of slaveowners and their wives that exist. Senator James Henry Hammond, of South Carolina, was one of slavery’s biggest proponents. His diary reveals his vicious appetites. “Dear Henry,” he writes to his son about one of his slaves. “In the last will I left to you…Sally Johnson the mother of Louisa and all the children of both. Sally says Henderson is my child…it is possible, but I do not believe it. Louisa’s first child may be mine. Her second I believe is mine.” He had sex with 18- year old Louisa and later began having sex with her then 12-year old daughter Louisa. Thomas Thistlewood’s 18th century diary of his time as overseer and slaveowner in Jamaica contains truly barbaric scenes. He noted every time he had sex (mostly with his slaves), and there were a lot of those entries. The mechanisms he designed to torture misbehaving slaves are incomprehensible and hard to read.

Now obviously, slaveowner descendants are not responsible for what their ancestors did any more than anybody else. I don’t hold any blame or anger towards them. But today, with easily accessible information about the degradation and horrors of slavery, I do believe people should stop trying to excuse/justify/lessen slavery by saying that their ancestors were “good to their slaves.” People might respond, “well, [this slaveowner] did not whip his slaves or allow them to be whipped.” Well, those owners sold slaves that became troublesome. Is that better? They certainly could not have a working farm or plantation if the slaves were not somehow disciplined. There was also tremendous emotional, psychological and sexual abuse which should not be discounted as any “less than” physical abuse. The permanent wounds resulting from seeing one’s parents or children sold, whipped or tortured are all over the slave interviews and narratives.

It is true that slaves themselves referred to having “good” slaveowners, which in the world in which they lived is understandable. If I had been enslaved, I would have hoped to have an owner who landed on the lesser scale of barbarism as well. But I’m going to guess that if slaves had a absolute choice–they’d have chosen to not be slaves at all.

The only silver lining we can hold on to is that the slaveowners were never able to fully crush the spirits and minds and hearts of their slaves. They never fully succeeded in that goal. Slaves formed kinship ties,and created their own communities, traditions, beliefs and practices in the small spaces they carved out of all that degradation.

I do realize others may disagree, and I’m fine with that; decent people can disagree. It is a subject fraught with emotion.  I hope we all can spend some time reading some of the narratives and interviews and diaries available and get a better understanding of their lives. And we all should remember that slavery was not just an economic system: it became the very basis of ALL social relationships in the South (which The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution that Transformed the South,” by Bruce Levine brilliantly captures.)

I took a walk around the web and elsewhere and I’m asking readers to read some of the excerpts below that describe slavery by those who lived it and saw it. One of the best sources I recommend reading is American Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses. It was  taken from first-hand accounts and designed to show the horrors of slavery. The author’s wife, Angelina Grimke, came from a prominent family of slaveowners in South Carolina, but like others, she renounced slavery and became an ardent abolitionist. We can’t ever let people forget the horrors of the lives of the enslaved. I am in awe that any of them survived. I’ll start with a quote from an anonymous slave interview:

I have heard a heap of people say they wouldn’t take the treatment what the slaves took, but they woulda took it or died. If they had been there, they woulda took the very same treatment.

Here are some other excerpts. They will all make you cry a little bit inside.

Ole Missis Gullendin, she’d take a needle and stick it through one of the nigger woman’s lower lip and pin it to the bosom of her dress, and the woman would go roun’ all day with her head drew down that way, and slobberin’.Old Missus done her that way lots of times. There was knots on her lip where the needle had been stuck in it.

From: Testimony of Mrs. Thomas Johns

My marster had a barrel, with nails drove in it, that he would put you in when he couldn’t think of nothin’ else mean enough to do. He would put you in this barrel and roll it down a hill…Sometimes he rolled the barrel in the river and drowned his slaves.

From: Anonymous Slave Narrative

My marster…limited the lashes to 500. After whippin dem, he would rub salt and pepper on their backs, and lay dem before the fire until blistered. And den take a cat…and make him claw the blisters.

From: Slave Narrative of Robert Burns

Old Marster had an overseer that went round and whipped the niggers every morning, and they hadn’t done a thing. He went to my father one morning and said, “Bob, I’m going to whip you this morning.” Daddy said, “I aint done nothing.” And he said, “I know it. I’m going to whip you to keep you from doing anything.”..And Daddy was choppin cotton and just took up his hoe and chopped right down oin that man’s head and knocked his brains out…It killed him….When the nigger trader came along, they sold my Daddy to him.

From: Anonymous Slave Narrative

[My mistress’s] instruments of torture were ordinarily the raw hide, or a bunch of hickory- sprouts seasoned in the fire and tied together. But if these were not at hand, nothing came amiss. She could relish a beating with a chair, the broom, tongs, shovel, shears, knife- handle, the heavy heel of her slipper, or a bunch of keys; her zeal was so active in these barbarous inflictions, that her invention was wonderfully quick, and some way of inflicting the requisite torture was soon found. One instrument of torture is worthy of particular description. This was an oak club, a foot and a half in length, and an inch and a half square. With this delicate weapon she would beat us upon the hands and upon the feet until they were blistered. ..That club will always be a prominent object in the picture of horrors of my life of more than twenty years of bitter bondage….

From: Interesting Memoirs and Documents Relating to American Slavery, and the Glorious Struggle Now Making for Complete Emancipation

The ordinary mode of punishing the slaves is both cruel and barbarous. The masters seldom, if ever, try to govern their slaves by moral influence, but by whipping, kicking, beating, starving, branding, cat-hauling, loading with irons, imprisoning, or by some other cruel mode of torturing. They often boast of having invented some new mode of torture, by which they have “tamed the rascals…

To threaten them with death, with breaking in their teeth or jaws, or cracking their heads, is common talk, when scolding at the slaves.. If negroes could testify, they would tell you of instances of women being whipped until they have miscarried at the whipping-post. ..A large proportion of the blacks have their shoulders, backs, and arms all scarred up, and not a few of them have had their heads laid open with clubs, stones, and brick-bats, and with the butt-end of whips and canes–some have had their jaws broken, others their teeth knocked in or out; while others have had their ears cropped and the sides of their cheeks gashed out. Some of the poor creatures have lost the sight of one of their eyes by the careless blows of the whipper, or by some other violence.

From: American Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses, which was designed to show the horrors of slavery firsthand

Old Missus and young Missus told the little slave children that the stork brought the white babies to their mothers, but that the slave children were all hatched from buzzard’s eggs. And we believed it was true.

From: Slave Narrative of Katie Sutton

I recollect seein’ one biscuit crust, one mornin’. Dey throwed it out to the dogs, an’ I beat de dog to it.

From: Anonymous Slave Narrative

Scarcely a day passed while I was on the plantation, in which some of the slaves were not whipped; I do not mean that they were struck a few blows merely, but had a set flogging…To show the disgusting pollutions of slavery, and how it covers with moral filth every thing it touches, …A planter offered a white man of my acquaintance twenty dollars for every one of his female slaves, whom he would get in the family way. This offer was no doubt made for the purpose of improving the stock, on the same principle that farmers endeavour to improve their cattle by crossing the breed.

This same planter had a female slave who was a member of the Methodist Church; for a slave she was intelligent and conscientious. He proposed a criminal intercourse with her. She would not comply. He left her and sent for the overseer, and told him to have her flogged. It was done. Not long after, he renewed his proposal. She again refused. She was again whipped. He then told her why she had been twice flogged, and told her he intended to whip her till she should yield. The girl, seeing that her case was hopeless, her back smarting with the scourging she had received, and dreading a repetition, gave herself up to be the victim of his brutal lusts.

Other [slaveowners] punish by fastening them down on a log, or something else, and strike them on the bare skin with a board paddle full of holes. This breaks the skin, I should presume, at every hole where it comes in contact with it. Others, when other modes of punishment will not subdue them,cat-haul them–that is, take a cat by the nape of the neck and tail, or by the hind legs, and drag the claws across the back until satisfied. This kind of punishment poisons the flesh much worse than the whip, and is more dreaded by the slave.

A punishment dreaded more by the slaves than whipping, ..was invented by a female acquaintance of mine in Charleston–I heard her say so with much satisfaction. It is standing on one foot and holding the other in the hand. Afterwards it was improved upon, and a strap was contrived to fasten around the ankle and pass around the neck; so that the least weight of the foot resting on the strap would choke the person. The pain occasioned by this unnatural position was great; and when continued, as it sometimes was, for an hour or more, produced intense agony.

A woman in Charleston with whom I was well acquainted, had starved a female slave to death. She was confined in a solitary apartment, kept constantly tied, and condemned to the slow and horrible death of starvation.

Benjamin James Harris, a wealthy tobacconist of Richmond, Virginia, whipped a slave girl fifteen years old to death. While he was whipping her, his wife heated a smoothing iron, put it on her body in various places, and burned her severely. The verdict of the coroner’s inquest was, “Died of excessive whipping.” He was tried in Richmond, and acquitted. I attended the trial.

From: American Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses

Throughout the Southwest the Negroes, as a rule, appeared to be worked much harder than in the Eastern and Northern Slave States… They are constantly and steadily driven up to their work, and the stupid, plodding, machine-like manner in which they labor, is painful to witness. This was especially the case with the hoe-gangs. One of them numbered nearly two hundred hands (for the force of two plantations was working together), moving across the field in parallel lines, with a considerable degree of precision. I repeatedly rode through the lines at a canter, without producing the smallest change or interruption in the dogged action of the laborers, or causing one of them, so far as I could see, to lift an eye from the ground… I think it told a more painful story than any I had ever heard, of the cruelty of slavery.

…Slaves pass their lives, from the moment they are able to go afield in the picking season till they drop worn out in the grave, in incessant labor, in all sorts of weather, at all seasons of the year, without any other change or relaxation than is furnished by sickness, without the smallest hope of any improvement either in their condition, in their food, or in their clothing, which are of the plainest and coarsest kind, and indebted solely to the forbearance or good temper of the overseer for exception from terrible physical suffering.

Whipping was so common an occurrence on this plantation, that it would be too great a repetition to state the many and severe floggings I have seen inflicted on the slaves. They were flogged for not performing their tasks, for being careless, slow, or not in time, for going to the fire to warm, etc.; and it often seemed as if occasions were sought as an excuse for punishing them.

[The overseer] said, ‘That won’t do,’ said he; ‘get down.’ The girl knelt on the ground; he got off his horse, and holding him with his left hand, struck her thirty or forty blows across the shoulder with his tough, flexible, ‘raw-hide’ whip (a terrible instrument for the purpose). They were well laid on, at arm’s length, but with no appearance of angry excitement on the part of the overseer. At every stroke the girl winced and exclaimed, ”Yes, sir!’ or ‘Ah, sir!’ or ‘Please, sir!’ not groaning or screaming. At length he stopped and said, ‘Now tell me the truth.’ The girl repeated the same story. ”You have not got enough yet,’ said he; ‘pull up your clothes-lie down.’ The girl without any hesitation, without a word or look of remonstrance or entreaty, drew closely all her garments under her shoulders, and lay down upon the ground with her face toward the overseer, who continued to flog her with the raw-hide, across her naked loins with as much strength as before. She now shrunk away from him, not rising, but writing, groveling, and screaming’Oh, don’t, sir! Oh, please stop, master! Please, sir! Please, sir! Oh, that’s enough, master! Oh, Lord! Oh, master, master! Oh, God, master, do stop! Oh, God, master! Oh, God, master!’…The screaming yells and the whip strokes had ceased when I reached the top of the bank. Choking, sobbing, spasmodic groans only were heard. I rode on to where the road, coming diagonally up the ravine, ran out upon the cotton-field. My young companion met me there, and immediately afterward the overseer. He laughed as he joined us, and said: ‘She meant to cheat me out of a day’s work, and she has done it, too.’ “

From: Frederick Olmsted’s The Cotton Kingdom, 1850s

And finally, if you have any more stomach for this, read this first-hand account of Reverend Walsh in 1829 aboard an intercepted slave ship.


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I remain convinced that there are still hundreds of thousands of documents that contain information on our enslaved ancestors that aren’t being widely used. Sometimes it’s because we can’t easily get access to the information, and sometimes it’s because the information itself is difficult to peruse and understand (court records and freedmen’s bureau records come to mind).

One of the best sources on enslaved families can be found within the manuscripts that are stored in research libraries, historical societies, state archives and local libraries. Families in many cases donated personal papers, letters, business papers, receipts, diaries, account books, reports and many other types of documentation and ephemera. Many of these families owned slaves, and historians have long relied on these sources to understand “the political, economic and cultural life of the South as a whole.” These Plantation Records (as they are collectively called) give readers an inside view of almost every aspect of plantation life.

In this post I want to highlight the collection known as Records of Antebellum Southern Plantations. In the many years of my own research,  although they are often highlighted in lectures and books on African-American genealogy, I have yet to run across someone who has used them for slave research. This historic effort to compile a selection of plantation records from all over the country in one microfilm publication was undertaken by Kenneth Stampp, one of our foremost slavery historians. Though the original purpose was more scholarly in nature, this microfilm series is a boon to genealogists. Still, you’ll have to locate a major research library in your area to find one that houses this enormous microfilm collection.

The records included in this collection were created in “Series” from A-N, with each letter mostly representing a particular archives or library, for example, Series D covers the Maryland Historical Society while Series E covers the University of Virginia Library. Start your research in these records by utilizing the detailed Series Guides that are available online. A convenient webpage hosted by the University of Virginia Library website includes links to each one:

UVA Website

I’ve downloaded them all, Series A-N, and yes, they are pretty large PDF files. I have scoured each and every one for data not just about my specific family, but also any in the county where they lived. Finding information about what was happening in the county, whether it concerned your family specifically or not, is a great way to add more detail to any narrative about your genealogical research.  Also, most of the guides contain biographies about the particular individual or family that is covered in that set of papers. For the Ruffin Plantation in Marengo County, Alabama (which is covered in Series J, Part 7) a brief biography is included about Thomas Ruffin:

Alabama Records


As another example, there is a “Slave Birth Record, 1801-1861” contained within the Thompson Family Papers, housed at the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. The detail in Series J, Part 7 covers the State of Alabama, and it says that this Slave Birth Record covers Russell (now Lee) County, Alabama. Because that is one of my research areas, you can believe I want to see this record:

Slave Births

Author Jean L. Cooper, created a wonderful printed index to this material titled “Index to Records to Ante-bellum Southern Plantations: Locations, Plantations, Surnames and Collections,” ( 2nd. ed). The printed index is expensive, but a quick search at Worldcat (add your zip code) will tell you what nearby library has it. Nearest to me is Georgetown University’s Law Library and the Library of Congress.

This book is an invaluable resource because Ms. Cooper created it specifically for family historians and the way that we research. The records themselves in the Series Guides for the collection are primarily listed in each Table of Contents by family surname, for example, “The Robert King Carter Papers.” It is not always obvious what county that family lived in until you go down to the Reel Index sections. Ms. Cooper’s book makes it easier to find records by county. The westward migration of families, as Ms. Cooper explains, also allows connection of papers from the same family, which are dispersed across more than one state and archives.

It goes without saying that most historical societies, archives or research libraries have their own guides to their manuscript collections. The Virginia Historical Society has a voluminous 200+-page guide specifically created for African-American-related manuscripts and the Tennessee State Archives has a similar Guide available. But, the amount of information available in these types of guides varies by institution. So another way to use these Series Guides is as pointers. I can use Series D, and run right up the road to the Maryland Historical Society. Even though they have their own manuscripts guides, it may or may not provide the detail about slaves and slaveowning families that I need.

Certainly, these records are not exhaustive, and the records chosen for compilation are often the larger, more prominent citizens and families—as the Introduction indicates, “mostly from the larger tobacco, cotton, sugar and rice plantations.” However, some smaller estate papers are represented in the collection.

My readers, how many of you have been successful finding information about your ancestors within these records? Please tell us where you viewed your collection and how you were able to find it. If you haven’t used these records yet, I hope this post will encourage you to peruse the Series Guides for information that may be useful.

Addendum: Please read the response to this post below by “4ourtrees.” The author’s success using these records speaks powerfully to the possibilities!

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OK, I confess that blog title is a little sensationalized. Truth be told, much of this information becomes well-known to researchers within a few years of their African-American genealogical journey. Family research turns many of us into walking, talking, beacons of history. It certainly turned my life around; probably 90% of what I read now is non-fiction and slavery/history related. It is an endlessly fascinating subject, epic, tragic and but often inspiring.

Nevertheless, here are a few tidbits to keep in mind as you do your research.

1.       Slavery was vastly different at different times, in different places. A slave’s life in 1800 in Virginia would not look much like a Georgia slave’s life in 1850. A city slave’s experience was different than a rural or country slave’s experience. Different crops had different labor demands (cotton, rice, tobacco, indigo, sugar).

2.       South America (mainly Brazil) and the West Indian Caribbean islands took in the lion’s share of slaves from Africa. Of those who came to the North American colonies (roughly 4%), most were brought here by 1795. That means many of us have very, very long histories in this country, and many people descended from slaves have lineages that go back over 200 years.

3.       Most slaves had surnames that were known amongst themselves, even though the white planters did not record those surnames (look at this amazing exception). The WPA narratives, civil war pensions, and freedman’s bank records are examples of types of records where you’ll find slaves mentioning their parent’s entire names.

4.       Don’t expect to always find entire family units owned by one owner. There will be many instances where the enslaved father is owned by someone other than the owner of his wife and child.  Check those neighbors; many slaves found mates on neighboring farms. Young children (under the age of about 10), however, were often allowed to stay with their mothers.

5.     Our image of slaves out farming the plantation is not a complete one. Slaves were employed in every conceivable occupation: they worked in shipyards and wharves, railroads and steamboats, coal mines, iron works, gristmills and sawmills; as maids, seamstresses, tailors, masons, butchers, barbers, and so on. Especially for urban (city) slaves, think of all the ways other than farming they worked.

6.       Understand the impact of the domestic slave trade. The rise of cotton in the early 1800’s and waning need for year-round slaves in the North caused hundreds of thousands of slaves to be sold into the deep south and the expanding southwest. This had a devastating impact on black families. Note the prevalence of the birthplace of “Virginia” or “Maryland” in the 1870 southern states. Consider that your southern slave ancestor may have been sold south at some point.

7.       Slaves were often bought and sold through slave traders. Many of these auction –style purchases will not have any existing records or receipts, as these were private organizations. There are a few localities, however, which have records of former slave traders. Also, many slaves were purchased from the estate sales of local slaveowners when they died.

8.       Researching slavery will expand your vision of what it meant to be a slave. Some slaves in cities were allowed to live as virtual freedmen, work for pay and give their owners a monthly fee; others were allowed to earn wages to buy themselves or family members. Some planters worked their slaves on the “task” system, which meant they were responsible for a certain amount of work every day & when they finished they were free to do other things, like work their own garden plot or hunt for more food. None of that erases the sheer brutality of the institution slavery, but there were differences in their everyday lives. Most slaves whose owners only had a few slaves probably lived in the attic or on the top floor of an outbuilding as opposed to a slave cabin.

9. There were about a half a million freed blacks in the country at the end of the Civil War and a little bit more than half of them lived in the South, mainly because of places like Charleston and New Orleans that had large numbers of freed blacks.

10. Looking at original sources will broaden your mind as to how local whites interacted with the enslaved population. Criminal court records are replete with people being charged with playing cards with slaves and selling them things. That really surprised me. Slaves were plied with liquor by their masters and others. I have a court record detailing the local practice of allowing the slaves to work for pay on their holiday off-days. All these things expanded my view of slave life.

11. Slavery was a negotiated relationship. Yes, the masters had the final and violent upper hand, but you’ll be amazed at how many times the master’s actions were altered by a slave’s threatening to run away, refusing to do work, refusing to be sold to someone, etc. These are shown in numerous entries in planter’s diaries and other documents:
“Salley won’t go without her husband so I’ll have to sell him too.”
“Joe if you come back home, you may have your choice of master.”
“I had to whip Bill today because he would not go with me.”

Our ancestors used every tool at their disposal and sometimes were able to influence the master’s decisions.

Some of the ideas above have been documented by the slavery scholar Ira Berlin and his team at the Freedmen and Southern Society Project. His books and the works of other imminent scholars have changed what we know about slavery.

Tell me, what things have you learned during your research about slavery that surprised you?

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I haven’t been posting because I’ve been enjoying and entertaining family and friends over the Thanksgiving holiday. That’s at the heart of why we are all genealogists, right? I had a wonderful time and hope all of you did too. But, I missed my blog! And my good genea-buddy has been reminding me for days I need to post so I am back with just a short snippet. But a good one.

I have a website that I’ve had bookmarked forever but only tonight did I start digging around in it and now, an hour later, I am changing my original blog topic to post this. I can always use the other one another night.

The website is called, “The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record.”

As the website describes, the project contains approximately 1,235 images of mostly enslaved laborers in the Americas and the New World. This is a joint project of the Virginia Foundation and the Digital Media Lab at the University of Virginia Library.  There are 18 categories of pictures, some of which are:

  • Capture of Slaves and Coffles in Africa
  • European Forts and Trading Posts in Africa
  • Plantation Scenes, Slave Settlements and Houses
  • Physical Punishment, Rebellion and Running Away
  • Music, Dance and Recreational Activities
  • Emancipation and Post Slavery Life

I had some interesting thoughts while perusing this collection.  Because many of us are focused on uncovering our specific ancestors in Virginia in 1870 or South Carolina in 1849, we forget the scope and scale and reach of slavery—the path through the West Indies, the tearing apart of custom and tradition. How it formed the economic backbone of entire countries and forced redefinitions of family & manhood, womanhood and faith.  I think also because of modern photography, we all are drawn to the more common images from the 20th century, and late 19th.  I think I even was guilty of “poo-pooing” illustrations–but if you want to try to envision a plantation in Jamaica or Cuba in 1759 or 1810, you’re going to have to look at illustrations. I found that as I looked at these  (many of which were from books published in England), it made me recall the length and depth of the tragedy of slavery. The extraordinary expanse of the crime. My my. And remember that most slaves in the Caribbean from this era did not live to significantly reproduce other generations as in mainland North America–most died and planters simply purchased more.

Here are a few pictures from the database, but please do go and spend a little time looking around when you can.

In the category “Slave Sales and Auctions: African Coast and the Americas”:

Metal Branding Irons With Owner's Initials, Image Ref: H019

Slaves Awaiting Sale, New Orleans, 1861, Image Ref: NW0028

I have never seen nor thought of slaves being sold in top hats.

In the category, “Religion and Mortuary Practices“:

Baptism in a Catholic Church, Brazil, 1816, Image Ref: JCB-07385-18

I was struck by how ornately the enslaved were dressed.

Funeral, Paramaribo, Surinam 1839, Image Ref: BEN15a

The caption says that the people with their faces covered were the mourners.

In the category “Marketing and Urban Scenes“:

Clothing Styles, Paramaribo, Surinam, 1839, Image Ref: BEN7b

The caption says that they are not wearing shoes because only freed blacks could wear shoes!

In the category “Domestic Slaves and Free People of Color“:

House Servant, Baltimore, 1861, Image Ref: iln307

House Servant, Baltimore, 1861, Image Ref: iln307

Clothing Style, Female Servant, Lima, Peru, 1865, Image Ref: JCB-05677-13

Coachman with Horse and Carriage, Havana, Cuba, ca 1850 Image Ref: Album-12

They make it all look just so delightful, don’t they? Hmfph.

And last, but not least:

Extracting a Chigger, Brazil, 1820, Image Ref: IMG01

I can’t fathom that someone felt this image was worthy of remembrance !

I hope that last picture doesn’t dissuade you from viewing this fascinating and eye-opening collection.

This database reminded me of a plantation visit. I was in St.Croix last year & visited an 18th-century sugar plantation called “The Whim Plantation”. It was fascinating….the docent was extremely knowledgeable. Here are a few pictures:

Plantation "Greathouse"

Plantation Equipment

For Pressing Sugar Cane

List of Slaves Working Plantation

I also found some pictures from sugar plantation ruins on the Virgin Island that are much larger.

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