Slavery in the United States/Chapter 12


At the time of which I now speak, the rice was ripe, and ready to be gathered. On Monday morning, after our feast, the overseer took the whole of us to the rice field, to enter upon the harvest of this crop. The field lay in a piece of low ground, near the river, and in such a position that it could be flooded by the water of the stream, in wet seasons. The rice is planted in drills, or rows, and grows more like oats than any of the other grain, known in the north.

The water is sometimes let in to the rice fields, and drawn off again, several times, according to the state of the weather. Watering and weeding the rice is considered one of the most unhealthy occupations on a southern plantation, as the people are obliged to live for several weeks in the mud and water, subject to all the unwholesome vapours that arise from stagnant pools, under the rays of a summer sun, as well as the chilly autumnal dews of night. At the time we came to cut this rice, the field was quite dry; and after we had reaped and bound it, we hauled it upon wagons, to a piece of hard ground, where we made a threshing floor, and threshed it. In some places, they tread out the rice, with mules or horses, as they tread wheat in Maryland; but this renders the grain dusty, and is injurious to its sale.

After getting in the rice, we were occupied for some time in clearing and ditching swampy land, preparatory to a more extended culture of rice, the next year; and about the first of August, twenty or thirty of the people, principally women and children, were employed for two weeks in making cider, of apples which grew in an orchard of nearly two hundred trees, that stood on a part of the estate. After the cider was made, a barrel of it was one day brought to the field, and distributed amongst us; but this gratuity was not repeated. The cider that was made by the people, was converted into brandy, at a still in the corner of the orchard.

I often obtained cider to drink, at the still, which was sheltered from the weather by a shed, of boards and slabs. We were not permitted to go into the orchard at pleasure; but as long as the apples continued, we were allowed the privilege of sending five or six persons every evening, for the purpose of bringing apples to the quarter, for our common use; and by taking large baskets, and filling them well, we generally contrived to get as many as we could consume.

When the peaches ripened, they were guarded with more rigour-peach brandy being an article which is nowhere more highly prized than in South Carolina. There were on the plantation, more than a thousand peach trees, growing on poor sandy fields which were no longer worth the expense of cultivation. The best peaches grow upon the poorest sand-hills.

We were allowed to take three bushels of peaches every day, for the use of the quarter; but we could, and did eat, at least three times that quantity, for we stole at night that which was not given us by day. I confess, that I took part in these thefts, and I do not feel that I committed any wrong, against either God or man, by my participation in the common danger that we ran, for we well knew the consequences that would have followed detection.

After the feast at laying by the corn and cotton, we had no meat for several weeks; and it is my opinion that our master lost money, by the economy he practised at this season of the year.

In the month of August, we had to save the fodder. This fodder-saving is the most toilsome, and next to working in the rice swamps, the most unhealthy job, that has to be performed on a cotton plantation, in the whole year. The manner of doing it is to cut the tops from the corn, as is done in Pennsylvania; but in addition to this, the blades below the ear, are always pulled off by the hand. Great pains is taken with these corn-blades. They constitute the chosen food of race, and all other horses, that are intended to be kept with extraordinary care, and in superior condition. For the purpose of procuring the best blades, they are frequently stripped from the stock, sometimes before the corn is ripe enough in the ear, to permit the top of the stalk to be cut off, without prejudice to the grain. After the blades are stripped from the stem, they are stuck between the hills of corn until they are cured, ready for the stack. They are then cut, and bound in sheaves, with small bands of the blades themselves. This binding, and the subsequent hauling from the field, must be done either early in the morning, before the dew is dried up, or in the night, whilst the dew is falling.

This work exposes the people who do it, to the fogs and damps of the climate, at the most unhealthy season of the year. Agues, fevers, and all the diseases which follow in their train, have their dates at the time of fodder-saving. It is the only work, appertaining to a cotton estate, which must of necessity be done in the night, or in the fogs of the morning; and the people at this season of the year, and whilst engaged in this very fatiguing work, would certainly be better able to go through with it, if they were regularly supplied, with proper portions of sound and wholesome salted provisions.

If every master would, through the months of August and September, supply his people with only a quarter of a pound of good bacon flitch to each person, daily, I have no doubt but that he would save money by it; to say nothing of the great comfort it would yield to the slaves, at this period, when the human frame is so subject to debility and feebleness.

Early in August, disease made its appearance amongst us. Several were attacked by the ague, with its accompanying fever; but in South Carolina, the "ague," as it is called, is scarcely regarded as a disease, and if a slave has no ailment that is deemed more dangerous, he is never withdrawn from the roll of the field hands. I have seen many of our poor people compelled to pick cotton, when their frames were shaken so violently, by the ague, that they were unable to get hold of the cotton in the burs, without difficulty. In this, masters commit a great error. Many fine slaves are lost, by this disease, which superinduces the dropsy, and sometimes the consumption, which could have been prevented by arresting the ague at its onset. When any of our people were taken so ill that they were not able to go to the field, they were removed to the great house, and placed in the "sick room," as it was termed. This sick room was a large, airy apartment, in the second story of a building which stood in the garden.

The lower part of this building was divided into two apartments, in one of which was kept the milk, butter, and other things connected with the dairy. In the other, the salt provisions of the family, including fish, bacon, and other articles, were secured. This apartment also constituted the smoke house; but as the ceiling was lathed, and plastered with a thick coat of lime and sand, no smoke could penetrate the “sick room,” which was at all seasons of the year, a very comfortable place to sleep in.

Though I was never sick myself, whilst on this plantation, I was several times in this “sick room,” and always observed, when there, that the sick slaves were well attended to. There was a hanging partition, which could be let down at pleasure, and which was let down when it was necessary, to divide the rooms into two apartments, which always happened when there were several slaves of different sexes, sick at the same time.

The beds, upon which the sick lay, were of straw, but clean and wholesome, and the patients when once in this room, were provided with every thing necessary for persons in their situation. A physician attended them daily, and proper food, and even wines, were not wanting.

The contrast between the cotton and rice fields, and this little hospital, was very great; and it appeared to me at the time, that if a part of the tenderness and benevolence, displayed here, had been bestowed upon the people whilst in good health, very many of the inmates of this infirmary, would never have been here.

I have often seen the same misapplication of the principles of philanthropy in Pennsylvania,—the subjects only being varied, from slaves to horses. The finest, and most valuable horses, are often overworked, or driven beyond their capacity of endurance, (it cannot be said that horses are not generally well fed in Pennsylvania), without mercy or consideration, on the part of their owners; or more frequently of unfeeling hirelings, who have no interest in the life of the poor animal; and when his constitution is broken, and his health gone, great care and even expense, are bestowed upon him, for the purpose of restoring him to his former strength; the one half of which care or expense, would have preserved him in beauty and vigour, had they been bestowed upon him before he had suffered the irreparable injuries, attendant upon his cruel treatment.

In Pennsylvania, the horse is regarded, and justly regarded, only on account of the labour he is able to perform. Being the subject of property, his owner considers, not how he shall add most to the comforts and enjoyments of his horse, but by what means he shall be able to procure the greatest amount of labour from him, with the least expense to himself. In devising the means of saving expense, the life of the horse, and the surest and cheapest method of its preservation, are taken into consideration.

Precisely in this way, do the cotton planters reason and act, in relation to their slaves. Regarding the negroes merely as objects of property, like prudent calculators, they study how to render this property of the greatest value, and to obtain the greatest yearly income, from the capital invested in the slaves, and the lands they cultivate.

Experience has proved to me, that a man who eats no animal food, may yet be healthy, and able to perform the work usually done on a cotton plantation. Corn bread, sweet potatoes, some garden vegetables, with a little molasses and salt, assisted by the other accidental supplies that a thrifty slave is able to procure, on a plantation, are capable of sustaining life and health; and a slave who lives on such food, and never tastes flesh, stands at least an equal chance, for long life, with his master or mistress, "who are clad in purple and fine linen, and fare sumptuously every day." More people are killed by eating and drinking too much, than die of the effects of starvation, in the south; but the diseases of the white man, do not diminish the sufferings of the black one. A man who lives upon vegetable diet, may be healthy, and active; but I know he is not so strong and vigorous, as if he enjoyed a portion of animal food.

The labour usually performed by slaves, on a cotton plantation, does not require great bodily strength, but rather superior agility, and wakefulness. The hoes in use, are not heavy, and the art of picking cotton depends not upon superior strength, but upon the power of giving quick and accelerated motion to the fingers, arms, and legs. The fences have to be made, and repaired, and ditches dug—wood must also be cut, for many purposes, and all these operations call for strength; but they consume only a very small portion of the whole year,—more than three fourths of which is spent in the cotton, corn, rice, and indigo fields, where the strength of a boy, or a woman is sufficient to perform any kind of labour, necessary in the culture of the plants; but men are able to do more, even of this work, than either boys or women.

We scarcely had time to complete the securing of the fodder, and working up the apples, and peaches, when the cotton was ready for picking. This business of picking cotton, constitutes about half the labour of the year, on a large plantation. In Carolina, it is generally commenced about the first of September; though in some years, much cotton is picked in August. The manner of doing the work is this. The cotton being planted in hills, in straight rows, from four to five feet apart, each hand or picker, provided with a bag, made of cotton bagging, holding a bushel or more, hung round the neck, with cords, proceeds from one side of the field to the other, between two of these rows, picking all the cotton from the open burs, on the right and left, as he goes. It is the business of the picker to take all the cotton, from each of the rows, as far as the lines of the rows or hills. In this way he picks half the cotton from each of the rows, and the pickers who come on his right and left, take the remainder from the opposite sides of the rows.

The cotton is gathered into the bag, and when it becomes burdensome by its weight, it is deposited in some convenient place, until night, when it is taken home, either in a large bag or basket, and weighed under the inspection of the overseer. A day's work is not estimated by the number of hills, or rows, that are picked in the day, but by the number of pounds of cotton in the seed, that the picker brings into the cotton house, at night.

In a good field of cotton, fully ripe, a day's work is sixty pounds; but where the cotton is of inferior quality, or the burs are not in full blow, fifty pounds is the day's work; and where the cotton is poor, or in bad order, forty, or even thirty pounds, is as much as one hand can get in a day.

The picking of cotton, continues from August until December, or January; and in some fields, they pick from the old plants, until they are ploughed up in February or March, to make room for the planting of the seeds of another crop.

On all estates, the standard of a day's work is fixed by the overseer, according to the quality of the cotton; and if a hand gathers more than this standard, he is paid for it; but if, on the other hand, when his or her cotton is weighed at the cotton-house, in the evening, it is found that the standard quantity has not been picked, the delinquent picker is sure to receive a whipping.

On some estates, settlements are made every evening, and the whipping follows immediately; on others, the whipping does not occur until the next morning, whilst on a few plantations, the accounts are closed twice, or three times a week.

I have stated heretofore, that our overseer whipped twice a week, for the purpose of saving time; but if this method saved time to the overseer and the hands, it also saved the latter of a great many hard stripes; for very often, when one of us had displeased the overseer, he would tell us that on Wednesday or Saturday night, as the case might be, we should be remembered; yet the matter was either forgotten, or the passion of the overseer subdued, before the time of retribution arrived, and the delinquent escaped altogether from the punishment, which would certainly have fallen upon him, if it had been the custom of the overseer to chastise for every offence, at the moment, or even on the day, of its perpetration. A short day's work was always punished.

The cotton does not all ripen at the same time, on the same plant, which is picked and repicked, from six to ten times. The burs ripen, and burst open on the lower branches of the plant, whilst those at the top are yet in flower; or perhaps only in leaf or bud. The plant grows on, taller and larger, until it is arrested by the frost, or cool weather in autumn, continually throwing out new branches, new stems, new blossoms, and new burs, ceasing only with the first frost, at which time there are always some green burs, at the top of the plant, that never arrive at maturity. This state of things is, however, often prevented by topping the plant, in August or September, which prevents it from throwing out new branches, and blossoms, and forwards the growth and ripening of those already formed.

The first picking, takes the cotton from the burs of the lowest branches; the second from those a little higher, and so on, until those of the latest growth, at the top of the plant, are reached.

When the season has been bad, or from any other cause, the crop is light, the picking is sometimes complete, and the field clear of the cotton, before the first of January; but when the crop is heavy, or the people have been sickly in the fall, the picking is frequently protracted until February, or even the first of March. The winter does not injure the cotton, standing in the field, though the wind blows some of it out of the expanded burs, which is thus scattered over the field and lost.

An acre of prime land, will yield two thousand pounds of cotton in the seed. I have heard of three thousand pounds having been picked from an acre, but have not seen it. Four pounds of cotton in the seed, yields one pound when cleaned, and prepared for market.

It is estimated by the planters, or rather by the overseers, that a good hand can cultivate and pick five acres of cotton, and raise as much corn as will make his bread, and feed a mule or a horse. I know this to be a very hard task for a single hand, if the land is good, and the crops at all luxuriant. One man may, with great diligence, and continued good health, be able to get through with the cotton, and two or three, or even five acres of corn, up to the time when the cotton is ready to be picked; but from this period, he will find the labour more than he can perform, if the cotton is to be picked clean from the plants. Five acres of good cotton will yield ten thousand pounds of rough, or seed cotton. If he can pick sixty pounds a day, and works twenty-five days in a month, the picking of ten thousand pounds will occupy him more than six months.

From my own observations, on the plantations of South Carolina and Georgia, I am of opinion, that the planters in those states, do not get more than six or seven thousand pounds of cotton in the seed, for each hand employed; and I presume, that fifteen hundred pounds of clean cotton, is a full average of the product of the labour of each hand.

I now entered upon a new scene of life. My true value had not yet been ascertained by my present owner; and whether I was to hold the rank of a first, or second rate hand, could only be determined by an experience of my ability to pick cotton; nor was this important trait in my character, to be fully understood by a trial of one, or only a few days. It requires some time to enable a stranger, or new hand, to acquire the sleight of picking cotton.

I had ascertained, that at the hoe, the spade, the axe, the sickle, or the flail, I was a full match for the best hands on the plantation; but soon discovered, when we came to the picking of cotton, that I was not equal to a boy of twelve or fifteen years of age. I worked hard the first day, and made every effort to sustain the character that I had acquired, amongst my companions, but when evening came, and our cotton was weighed, I had only thirty-eight pounds, and was vexed to see that two young men, about my own age, had, one fifty-eight, and the other fifty-nine pounds. This was our first day's work; and the overseer had not yet settled the amount of a day's picking. It was necessary for him to ascertain, by the experience of a few days, how much the best hands could pick in a day, before he established the standard of the season. I hung down my head, and felt very much ashamed of myself, when I found that my cotton was so far behind that of many, even of the women, who had heretofore regarded me as the strongest and most powerful man of the whole gang.

I had exerted myself to-day, to the utmost of my power; and as the picking of cotton seemed to be so very simple a business, I felt apprehensive that I should never be able to improve myself, so far as to become even a second rate hand. In this posture of affairs, I looked forward to something still more painful than the loss of character which I must sustain, both with my fellows and my master; for I knew that the lash of the overseer would soon become familiar with my back, if I did not perform as much work as any of the other young men.

I expected, indeed, that it would go hard with me even now, and stood by with feelings of despondence and terror, whilst the other people were getting their cotton weighed. When it was all weighed, the overseer came to me where I stood, and told me to show him my hands. When I had done this, and he had looked at them, he observed—"You have a pair of good hands—you will make a good picker." This faint praise of the overseer revived my spirits greatly, and I went home with a lighter heart than I had expected to possess, before the termination of cotton-picking.

When I came to get my cotton weighed, on the evening of the second day, I was rejoiced to find that I had forty-six pounds, although I had not worked harder than I did the first day. On the third evening I had fifty-two pounds; and before the end of the week, there were only three hands in the field—two men and a young woman—who could pick more cotton in a day, than I could.

On the Monday morning of the second week when we went to the field, the overseer told us, that he fixed the day's work at fifty pounds; and that all those who picked more than that, would be paid a cent a pound, for the overplus. Twenty-five pounds was assigned as the daily task of the old people, as well as a number of boys and girls, whilst some of the women, who had children, were required to pick forty pounds, and several children had ten pounds each as their task.

Picking of cotton may almost be reckoned among the arts. A man who has arrived at the age of twenty-five, before he sees a cotton field, will never, in the language of the overseer, become a crack picker.

By great industry and vigilance, I was able, at the end of a month, to return every evening a few pounds over the daily rate, for which I received my pay; but the business of picking cotton was an irksome, and fatiguing labour to me, and one to which I could never become thoroughly reconciled; for the reason, I believe, that in every other kind of work in which I was engaged in the south, I was able to acquire the character of a first rate hand; whilst in picking cotton, I was hardly regarded as a prime hand.