It is a mistake to think that slave labor was mostly unskilled brutish work. Cultivation of cotton, tobacco, rice, and sugar requires careful, painstaking effort. On larger plantations, masters relied on slave carpenters, bricklayers, blacksmiths, wheelwrights, tanners, tailors, butchers, masons, coopers, cabinet makers, metal workers, and silversmiths. Large numbers also worked as boatmen, waiters, cooks, drivers, housemaids, spinners, and weavers.
During the 1850s, half a million slaves lived in southern towns and cities, where they worked in textile mills, iron works, tobacco factories, laundries, and shipyards. Other slaves labored as lumberjacks, as deckhands on riverboats, and in sawmills, gristmills, and quarries. Many slaves were engaged in construction of roads and railroads.
Most slave labor, however, was used in planting, cultivating, and harvesting cotton, hemp, rice, tobacco, or sugar cane. On a typical plantation, slaves worked ten or more hours a day, "from day clean to first dark," six days a week, with only the Sabbath off. At planting or harvesting time, planters required slaves to stay in the fields 15 or 16 hours a day. When they were not raising a cash crop, slaves grew other crops, such as corn or potatoes; cared for livestock; and cleared fields, cut wood, repaired buildings and fences. On cotton, sugar, and tobacco plantations, slaves worked together in gangs under the supervision of a supervisor or a driver.
There is a tendency to think of slavery as an economically backward and inefficient institution. In fact, sugar and cotton plantations were the most innovative economic unit of their time in terms of labor management and organization. They anticipated the assembly line and the factory system in their reliance on such as close supervision and division of tasks.
Slave masters extracted labor from virtually the entire slave community, young, old, healthy, and physically impaired. Children as young as three or four were put to work, usually in special "trash gangs" weeding fields, carrying drinking water, picking up trash, and helping in the kitchen. Young children also fed chickens and livestock, gathered wood chips for fuel, and drove cows to pasture. Between the ages of seven and twelve, boys and girls were put to work in intensive field work. Older or physically handicapped slaves were put to work in cloth houses, spinning cotton, weaving cloth, and making clothes.
Because slaves had no direct incentive to work hard, slaveowners combined harsh penalties with positive incentives. Some masters denied passes to disobedient slaves. Others confined recalcitrant slaves to private jails. Chains and shackles were widely used to control runaways. Whipping was a key part of plantation discipline.
But physical pain was not enough to elicit hard work. Some masters gave slaves small garden plots and permitted them to sell their produce. Others distributed gifts of food or money at the end of the year. Still other planters awarded prizes, holidays, and yearend bonuses to particularly productive slaves.
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