The Life of a Slave

The life of a slave in the South was exhausting, degrading, and filled with violence. Those employed as farmhands faced backbreaking labor and grueling hours. Farmhands were to be in the fields at daybreak and were forced to work almost nonstop until the sun went down. Most farmhands worked six days a week, with Sunday off if they were lucky.

Slaves were expected to obey their masters without question and to always show great humility by lowering their gaze and speaking softly whenever they were in the company of whites. Dissent was met with harsh punishment, including vicious beatings with whips. Slaves who tried to escape were sometimes hobbled with a spike through the ankle or placed in iron fetters. Some slaves were forced to wear slave collars that had bells on them; a more punishing version had lengthy prongs sticking out on four sides that prevented its wearer from lying down. Minor offenses such as drunkenness or simple disobedience were often punished by a day in wooden stocks, which clamped tightly around the slave's neck and wrists.

Since slaves seldom benefited from their labor, most worked as slowly and poorly as they could get away with without being punished, contributing to the inherent inefficiency of the system as a whole. They had little to live for — nothing to look forward to except hard labor until the day they died — and many took their own lives. Dead slaves were often buried at night because their families and friends had to work all day. In the eyes of many slave owners, a slave's death wasn't sufficient cause to lose even an hour of work time. Plantation and farm owners worked hard to keep their slaves subservient, but rebellion was more common than many people realize.

Slave Revolts

Many slaves revolted by working slowly, poorly, and inefficiently, or by quietly sabotaging tools and farm equipment. There were violent and armed insurrections as well.

Probably the most violent mass slave uprising was the Stono Rebellion of 1739, in Stono, South Carolina. In that incident, a slave named Jemmy led approximately twenty other slaves in an attack on a store that resulted in the death of two white shopkeepers. Taking what weapons they could find, including guns and powder, the small group quickly grew to nearly 100 slaves. With Saint Augustine, Florida — and supposed freedom — their destination, the gang went on a killing spree that resulted in the deaths of more than thirty whites. An armed militia eventually cornered the group in a field, slaughtering forty-four of them. Two other violent slave revolts occurred in South Carolina that same year, resulting in even more brutal laws for the control of slaves.

Nat Turner's Rebellion in 1831 was the largest and one of the most famous slave uprisings. Turner, a slave who became a Baptist preacher, organized a revolt in Southampton County, Virginia, after receiving divine instructions. He and seven companions killed their master and his family and took weapons and other supplies. They swept through the county, killing whites and attracting slaves. In the end, fifty-five whites were murdered, including twenty-four children. Turner and nineteen other slaves were hanged; twelve others were banished from Virginia.

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