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Treatment of Slaves: Labor Conditions


                 Gurdon Chapman was a New York City merchant, county commissioner, and member of the New York state legislature. In the late 1830s, he visited Nansemond County, Virginia, which was adjacent to Southampton County, to buy corn. He spent several days with a local family and made the following observations.




                 In order to prepare the corn for market by the time agreed upon, the slaves were worked as hard as they would bear, from daybreak until 9 or 10 o'clock at night. They were called directly from their bunks in the morning to their work, without a morsel of food until noon, when they took their breakfast and dinner, consisting of bacon and corn bread. The quantity of meat was not one tenth of what the same number of northern laborers usually have at a meal. They were allowed but fifteen minutes to take this meal, at the expiration of this time the horn was blown. The rigor with which they enforce punctuality to its call, may be imagined from the fact, that a little boy only nine years old was whipped so severely by the driver, that in many places the whip cut through his clothes (which were of cotton,) for tardiness of not over three minutes. They then worked without intermission until 9 or 10 at night; after which they prepared and ate their second meal, as scanty as the first. An aged slave, who was remarkable for his industry and fidelity, was working with all his might on the threshing floor; amidst the clatter of the shelling and winnowing machines the master spoke to him, but he did not hear; he presently gave him several severe cuts with the raw hide, saying, at the same time, 'damn you, if you cannot hear I'll see if you can feel.' One morning the master rose from breakfast and whipped most cruelly, with a raw hide, a nice girl who was waiting on the table, for not opening a west window when he had told her to open an east one. The number of slaves was only forty, and yet the lash was in constant use. The bodies of all of them were literally covered with old scars.


                 Not one of the slaves attended church on the Sabbath. The social relations were scarcely recognised among them, and they lived in a state of promiscuous concubinage. The master said he took pains to breed from his best stock--the whiter the progeny the higher they would sell for house servants. When asked by Mr. C. if he did not fear his slaves would run away if he whipped them so much, he replied, they know too well what they must suffer if they are taken--and then said, “I'll tell you how I treat my runaway niggers. I had a big nigger that ran away the second time; as soon as I got track of him I took three good fellows and went in pursuit, and found him in the night, some miles distant, in a corn-house; we took him and ironed him hand and foot, and carted him home. The next morning we tied him to a tree, and whipped him until there was not a sound place on his back. I then tied his ankles and hoisted him up to a limb--feet up and head down--we then whipped him, until the damned nigger smoked so that I thought he would take fire and burn up. We then took him down; and to make sure that he should not run away the third time, I run my knife in back of the ankles, and cut off the large cords,--and then I ought to have put some lead into the wounds, but I forgot it.”



From Theodore Dwight Weld, American Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses (New York: American Antislavery Society, 1839), 85.

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