A Slave’s LifeImagine, if you will, rising earlier than the sun, eating a mere “snack”- lacking essentially all nutritional value – and trekking miles to toil in the unforgiving climate of the southern states, and laboring until the sun once again slipped under the horizon. Clad only in the rags your master provided (perhaps years ago), you begin walking in the dark the miles to your “home.” As described by the writers Jacob Stroyer and Josiah Henson, this “home” was actually a mere thatched roof, that you built with your own hands, held up by pathetic walls, over a dirt floor and you shared this tiny space with another family. Upon return to “home,” once again you eat the meager rations you were provided, and fall into bed only to begin again the next day. Day in and day out you faced brutality by your master, unbearable labor, and slow starvation, and watched your family do the same. Such was the life of a slave in the antebellum south: relentless, unforgiving, and tragic.
The life of a slave was one plagued by shifting loyalties, struggle for survival, and prayers for a brighter future, if not for oneself at least for children and grandchildren. So, exactly what was it to be a slave? It was exactly that, to be property of another, treated as a commodity that could be replaced if needed, thrown out on a whim, and neglected without a care. Living and breathing creatures, humans, were herded like cattle in and out of the fields and boarded in similar conditions, if not poorer, than the livestock. Slaves had no rights to express their feelings (for their conditions or each other), or even be “alive.”
Slaves faced the total shattering of their culture (for those brought from Africa to the Americas) as well as their families. Slaves finding themselves the victim of the slave raids to the West African Coast were packed onto ships as human cargo. As seen in the writings of countless authors such as John Barbot and James Barbot, Jr., slaves faced unbearable living conditions in disease infested ships and often starved to death or died during their transatlantic voyage. Slaves were surrounded by the unfamiliar skin of the white man, as well as a dialect unknown to their ears. Unable to communicate, he suffered from not only the reality of his situation, but also the uncertainty of the future. Unable to cope, many slaves committed suicide in hopes of returning to their home, at least in spirit. Once, and if, they finally made it to the Americas, they were sold at auction and forever separated from any kin they may have had. As life continued, many slaves did adapt to the language, but few were ever able to fully embrace the culture – a culture that seemed to thrive on their demise and suffering.
Once a slave acculturated himself to his “new home,” he found himself unable to re-establish his family ties. Even if a slave was lucky enough to find a significant other, often times they were separated by sale, as can be seen in the account of Laura Spicer and her lost love. Moreover, couples often found their children sold off to other masters never to be seen or heard from again, at ages as young as eight years old. Therefore, a slave’s life was full of perpetual uncertainty, and fear of abandonment and neglect. Their bonds of love were never enough to out-weigh the voice of cold, hard money…and many slaves found themselves miles away from their loved ones.
In addition, masters went to great lengths to keep their property stupid and submissive, and did so in the name of humanity – slaves were just like animals, too dumb to understand what was good for them. Slaves found themselves in a situation where their only provider, although I use that term liberally, was also their greatest fear. Unable to escape their bonds, slaves had little choice but to submit to their masters’ orders, or face corporal punishment, torture, or death at his hands. Often times slaves were subjected not only to the abusiveness of their back breaking labor, but abuses both physical and sexual by their “Christian” masters. Which left them in somewhat of a precarious position. Their masters ruled with an iron fist, claiming to be doing what was best for the wretched souls, while tearing apart families and starving (or working) their slaves to death. Slaves could not help but see and, moreover, feel the hypocrisy in their masters’ babbling. A slave was then faced with only one option: to follow the path most likely to lead to survival.
For the most part, a slave’s only mission was simply to live another day with the hope and prayer that they would see the light of freedom before they succumbed to the horrors of slave life. Therefore, when faced with a decision, they weighed each not on their merits, but on the chance that it would bring them closer to freedom without bringing them closer to death. For example, many slaves had opportunities to escape their masters, but chose not to for fear they would be caught and put to torture or even death. However, for some the hope of life as a freeman outweighed all the possibilities of capture…what could they possibly endure that would be worse than their current conditions. Death was a reasonable price to pay for the chance at freedom for many slaves. Unfortunately for countless numbers, the chance at freedom was stopped short when captured and returned to a brutal master for punishment. A slave had to play whatever angle he could in hopes of achieving freedom. However, most found themselves only pons in a political game that cared nothing about their lives, but merely profit and political power.
As the revolutionary war crept into the minds and the agendas of the Americas, so too did the notions of using the slaves as political pawns. Slaves were leverage for the British to use against the revolutionaries; they threatened to not only emancipate slaves, but to arm them as well. This meant sure economic failure for the Southern states whose economy was based on slave labor for agricultural production, and struck fear into their hearts for possible death at the hands of their former slaves. However, the British actually cared little for the slaves or their well being. Threatened emancipation was only a ploy to force the Southern states to return their loyalties to the crown. As slaves began escaping to the British Army in throngs, they faced a life of slavery, only now with a different master. The slaves were bought and sold and even offered as payment to the Officers. When rations were low, they were the first to be slighted. Many soon realized the proclamations of the British were only smoke and mirrors. However, they were willing to side with whom ever was “winning” the war just to ensure their survival. During this time famine struck slaves left to fend for themselves as masters fled their homes in fear of the British Army. With little or no where to go, they took refuge in who or whatever was willing to take them in, often finding themselves only switching from one horror to another. Same story, new names. These abused souls found themselves again the victim of a power struggle, and could only wait and hope to side with the victor before it was too late.
However, with the close of the war the “rights” of the citizens (white, land owning males) of the newly formed states were being explored with vigor as the Founding Fathers set out to form their utopia. And, although distant, the beginnings of emancipation became firmly established when such words as, “all men are created equal…” were signed into law. The Northern states made their opinions regarding slavery known with such acts as the Northwest Ordinance. An end to slavery was now becoming a reality. However, the reality would be distant as Southern states flexed their might and lobbied for such laws as the Three-Fifths Rule and the Southwest Ordinance. Although perhaps put on a longer time scale, the founding fathers put into motion the beginnings of a free, democratic nation, which would, in the future, lead to freedom for all. However, in the mean time, slave life continued status quo.
A slave’s life was harsh at best. Regardless of the histories we read that espouse the civility and gentleness of masters and their foundations of Christian beliefs, the fact remains that they kept thousands of women, men, and children in the bonds of slavery for their own economic gain. No matter how it is written down or what flowery language is used, a slave’s life was torture. It is essential that we examine the writings of first hand suffers such as James W.C. Pennington, Job Ben Solomon, and Olaudah Equiano for an authentic account of what it was to be a slave. Starvation, separation, and death were always at the forefronts of their lives and minds. A slave was not treated humanly; he was treated as an animal. Masters felt as though they deserved medals for protecting these “incapables”, but reality has shown us that slaves were far from it. Many who were able to escape their bonds wrote eloquent and intelligent accounts of their lives and victimizations as slaves. Such were the caliber of these writings that I would venture to say most masters could not pen such an articulate anthology of their lives. The institution of slavery is one of the greatest travesties of recent history. There is no reason now or ever for any man to force another into bondage, especially when the forcing is done by brute force alone. Every man is created equal…