Modern History Sourcebook:
The Life of Plantation Field Hands, 1857
James Stirling, was a British writer who visited the American
South in 1857. He wrote a book - Letters from the Slave States
- which contains interviews plantation owners and former slaves.
In judging of the welfare of the slaves, it is necessary to distinguish
the different conditions of slavery. The most important distinction,
both as regards numbers and its influence on the wellbeing
of the slave, is that between houseservants and farm or
fieldhands. The houseservant is comparatively well
off. He is frequently born and bred in the family he belongs to;
and even when this is not the case, the constant association of
the slave and his master, and master's family, naturally leads
to such an attachment as ensures good treatment. There are not
wanting instances of devoted attachment on both sides in such
cases. There is even a danger that the affection on the part of
the owner may degenerate into overindulgence. It is no uncommon
thing to make pets of slaves, as we do of other inferior animals;
and when this is the case, the real welfare of the slave is sacrificed
to an indiscriminating attachment. I was struck with the appearance
of the slaves in the streets of Charleston on a Sunday afternoon.
A large proportion of them were well dressed and of decent bearing,
and had all the appearance of enjoying a holiday. I was informed
they were principally houseservants belonging to the town; and
there could be no doubt the control of public opinion, natural
to a large city, had exercised a favourable influence on the condition
of these poor people.
The position of the fieldhands is very different; of those,
especially, who labour on large plantations. Here there are none
of those humanizing influences at work which temper the rigour
of the system, nor is there the same check of public opinion to
control abuse. The 'force' is worked en masse, as a great
human mechanism; or, if you will, as a drove of human cattle.
The proprietor is seldom present to direct and control. Even if
he were, on large estates the numbers are too great for his personal
attention to details of treatment. On all large plantations the
comfort of the slave is practically at the disposal of the white
overseer, and his subordinate, the negrodriver. There are
many estates which the proprietor does not visit at all, or visits
perhaps once a year; and where, during his absence, the slaves
are left to the uncontrolled caprice of the overseer and his assistants,
not another white man, perhaps, being within miles of the plantation.
Who can say what passes in those voiceless solitudes7 Happen what
may, there is none to tell. Whatever the slave may suffer there
is none to bear witness to his wrong. It needs a large amount
of charity to believe that power so despotic, so utterly uncontrolled
even by opinion, will never degenerate into violence. It could
only be so if overseers were saints, and drivers angels.
It is often said that the interest of the slaveowner is
sufficient guarantee for the good treatment of the slave; that
no man will voluntarily injure the value of his property. This
reasoning assumes, first, that slaveowners will take an
intelligent view of their own interests; and, secondly, that they
will be guided by the passion of gain rather than by other passions.
But we find the Cuba slave-owner working his slaves to death,
at the rate of 3 per cent. per annum. And again, slavery is a
system which evokes passions more powerful even than the love
of gain. Against the action of these angry passions, the distant
calculation of mere profit can avail but little with men of violent
But even if we grant the restraint placed on the passions of the
master by considerations of pecuniary interest, we cannot allow
the same effect to be produced on the overseer. On the contrary,
the interest of the overseer is to exhibit a large production
as the result of his exertions; and the more remote consideration
of being a prudent husbandman of his forces will only affect a
superior mind. On this point I prefer giving the opinions of slaveowners
themselves. In an article in De Bow's Review, on the management
of slaves, I find some interesting remarks on this subject, in
a report to a committee of slave-holders. After pointing out the
interest of the owners in the good treatment of their slaves,
it continues:-'There is one class of our community to whom all
the motives referred to, to induce us to kindness to our slaves,
do not apply. Your committee refer to our overseers. As they have
no property in our slaves, of course they lack the check of selfinterest.
As their only aim, in general, is to get the largest possible
crop for the year, we can readily conceive the strong inducement
they have to overwork our slaves, and masters are often much to
blame for inadvertently encouraging this feeling in their overseers.'
It appears, then, that nothing but high principle on the part
of the overseer could ensure the good treatment of the slave on
large plantations. But all testimony concurs in representing the
overseers as a very inferior class in point of character. A Virginian
slaveowner used this language to Olmsted:-'They (the overseers)
are the curse of this country, sir; the worst men in the community.'
Yet these are the men on whom devolves, practically, the management
of the great bulk of the agricultural slave population, in the
cotton, rice, and sugar districts.
Midway between houseservants and plantationhands stand
the farmservants of small proprietors. Of all slaves these are,
probably, the best off. They are neither spoiled like pet domestics,
nor abused like plantation cattle. They live much in the farmer's
family, work with himself and his children, take an interest in
his affairs, and, in return, become objects of his regard. Such
is the condition of many slaves among the small farmers in the
upland districts of Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, and
the Carolinas. The same applies also to many proprietors in Texas,
and, I believe, Arkansas. In general it may be affirmed, that
the welfare of the slaves is in an inverse ratio to their numbers.
James Stirling, Letters Jrom the Slave States (New York:
Kraus Reprint Co., 1969), pp. 28791 .
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(c)Paul Halsall Aug 1997