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Chapter 6

_Treatment of Slaves on Lloyd's Plantation_


The heart-rending incidents, related in the foregoing chapter,
led me, thus early, to inquire into the nature and history of
slavery. _Why am I a slave? Why are some people slaves, and
others masters? Was there ever a time this was not so? How did
the relation commence?_ These were the perplexing questions
which began now to claim my thoughts, and to exercise the weak
powers of my mind, for I was still but a child, and knew less
than children of the same age in the free states. As my
questions concerning these things were only put to children a
little older, and little better informed than myself, I was not
rapid in reaching a solid footing. By some means I learned from
these inquiries that _"God, up in the sky,"_ made every body; and
that he made _white_ people to be masters and mistresses, and
_black_ people to be slaves. This did not satisfy me, nor lessen
my interest in the subject. I was told, too, that God was good,
and that He knew what was best for me, and best for everybody.
This was less satisfactory than the first statement; because it
came, point blank, against all my <70>notions of goodness. It
was not good to let old master cut the flesh off Esther, and make
her cry so. Besides, how did people know that God made black
people to be slaves? Did they go up in the sky and learn it? or,
did He come down and tell them so? All was dark here. It was
some relief to my hard notions of the goodness of God, that,
although he made white men to be slaveholders, he did not make
them to be _bad_ slaveholders, and that, in due time, he would
punish the bad slaveholders; that he would, when they died, send
them to the bad place, where they would be "burnt up."
Nevertheless, I could not reconcile the relation of slavery with
my crude notions of goodness.

Then, too, I found that there were puzzling exceptions to this
theory of slavery on both sides, and in the middle. I knew of
blacks who were _not_ slaves; I knew of whites who were _not_
slaveholders; and I knew of persons who were _nearly_ white, who
were slaves. _Color_, therefore, was a very unsatisfactory basis
for slavery.

Once, however, engaged in the inquiry, I was not very long in
finding out the true solution of the matter. It was not _color_,
but _crime_, not _God_, but _man_, that afforded the true
explanation of the existence of slavery; nor was I long in
finding out another important truth, viz: what man can make, man
can unmake. The appalling darkness faded away, and I was master
of the subject. There were slaves here, direct from Guinea; and
there were many who could say that their fathers and mothers were
stolen from Africa--forced from their homes, and compelled to
serve as slaves. This, to me, was knowledge; but it was a kind
of knowledge which filled me with a burning hatred of slavery,
increased my suffering, and left me without the means of breaking
away from my bondage. Yet it was knowledge quite worth
possessing. I could not have been more than seven or eight years
old, when I began to make this subject my study. It was with me
in the woods and fields; along the shore of the river, and
wherever my boyish wanderings led me; and though I was, at that
time, <71 EARLY REFLECTIONS ON SLAVERY>quite ignorant of the
existence of the free states, I distinctly remember being, _even
then_, most strongly impressed with the idea of being a freeman
some day. This cheering assurance was an inborn dream of my
human nature a constant menace to slavery--and one which all the
powers of slavery were unable to silence or extinguish.

Up to the time of the brutal flogging of my Aunt Esther--for she
was my own aunt--and the horrid plight in which I had seen my
cousin from Tuckahoe, who had been so badly beaten by the cruel
Mr. Plummer, my attention had not been called, especially, to the
gross features of slavery. I had, of course, heard of whippings
and of savage _rencontres_ between overseers and slaves, but I
had always been out of the way at the times and places of their
occurrence. My plays and sports, most of the time, took me from
the corn and tobacco fields, where the great body of the hands
were at work, and where scenes of cruelty were enacted and
witnessed. But, after the whipping of Aunt Esther, I saw many
cases of the same shocking nature, not only in my master's house,
but on Col. Lloyd's plantation. One of the first which I saw,
and which greatly agitated me, was the whipping of a woman
belonging to Col. Lloyd, named Nelly. The offense alleged
against Nelly, was one of the commonest and most indefinite in
the whole catalogue of offenses usually laid to the charge of
slaves, viz: "impudence." This may mean almost anything, or
nothing at all, just according to the caprice of the master or
overseer, at the moment. But, whatever it is, or is not, if it
gets the name of "impudence," the party charged with it is sure
of a flogging. This offense may be committed in various ways; in
the tone of an answer; in answering at all; in not answering; in
the expression of countenance; in the motion of the head; in the
gait, manner and bearing of the slave. In the case under
consideration, I can easily believe that, according to all
slaveholding standards, here was a genuine instance of impudence.
In Nelly there were all the necessary conditions for committing
the offense. She was <72>a bright mulatto, the recognized wife
of a favorite "hand" on board Col. Lloyd's sloop, and the mother
of five sprightly children. She was a vigorous and spirited
woman, and one of the most likely, on the plantation, to be
guilty of impudence. My attention was called to the scene, by
the noise, curses and screams that proceeded from it; and, on
going a little in that direction, I came upon the parties engaged
in the skirmish. Mr. Siever, the overseer, had hold of Nelly,
when I caught sight of them; he was endeavoring to drag her
toward a tree, which endeavor Nelly was sternly resisting; but to
no purpose, except to retard the progress of the overseer's
plans. Nelly--as I have said--was the mother of five children;
three of them were present, and though quite small (from seven to
ten years old, I should think) they gallantly came to their
mother's defense, and gave the overseer an excellent pelting with
stones. One of the little fellows ran up, seized the overseer by
the leg and bit him; but the monster was too busily engaged with
Nelly, to pay any attention to the assaults of the children.
There were numerous bloody marks on Mr. Sevier's face, when I
first saw him, and they increased as the struggle went on. The
imprints of Nelly's fingers were visible, and I was glad to see
them. Amidst the wild screams of the children--"_Let my mammy
go"--"let my mammy go_"--there escaped, from between the teeth of
the bullet-headed overseer, a few bitter curses, mingled with
threats, that "he would teach the d--d b--h how to give a white
man impudence." There is no doubt that Nelly felt herself
superior, in some respects, to the slaves around her. She was a
wife and a mother; her husband was a valued and favorite slave.
Besides, he was one of the first hands on board of the sloop, and
the sloop hands--since they had to represent the plantation
abroad--were generally treated tenderly. The overseer never was
allowed to whip Harry; why then should he be allowed to whip
Harry's wife? Thoughts of this kind, no doubt, influenced her;
but, for whatever reason, she nobly resisted, and, unlike most of
the slaves, <73 COMBAT BETWEEN MR. SEVIER AND NELLY>seemed
determined to make her whipping cost Mr. Sevier as much as
possible. The blood on his (and her) face, attested her skill,
as well as her courage and dexterity in using her nails.
Maddened by her resistance, I expected to see Mr. Sevier level
her to the ground by a stunning blow; but no; like a savage bull-
dog--which he resembled both in temper and appearance--he
maintained his grip, and steadily dragged his victim toward the
tree, disregarding alike her blows, and the cries of the children
for their mother's release. He would, doubtless, have knocked
her down with his hickory stick, but that such act might have
cost him his place. It is often deemed advisable to knock a
_man_ slave down, in order to tie him, but it is considered
cowardly and inexcusable, in an overseer, thus to deal with a
_woman_. He is expected to tie her up, and to give her what is
called, in southern parlance, a "genteel flogging," without any
very great outlay of strength or skill. I watched, with
palpitating interest, the course of the preliminary struggle, and
was saddened by every new advantage gained over her by the
ruffian. There were times when she seemed likely to get the
better of the brute, but he finally overpowered her, and
succeeded in getting his rope around her arms, and in firmly
tying her to the tree, at which he had been aiming. This done,
and Nelly was at the mercy of his merciless lash; and now, what
followed, I have no heart to describe. The cowardly creature
made good his every threat; and wielded the lash with all the hot
zest of furious revenge. The cries of the woman, while
undergoing the terrible infliction, were mingled with those of
the children, sounds which I hope the reader may never be called
upon to hear. When Nelly was untied, her back was covered with
blood. The red stripes were all over her shoulders. She was
whipped--severely whipped; but she was not subdued, for she
continued to denounce the overseer, and to call him every vile
name. He had bruised her flesh, but had left her invincible
spirit undaunted. Such floggings are seldom repeated by the same
overseer. They prefer to whip those <74>who are most easily
whipped. The old doctrine that submission is the very best cure
for outrage and wrong, does not hold good on the slave
plantation. He is whipped oftenest, who is whipped easiest; and
that slave who has the courage to stand up for himself against
the overseer, although he may have many hard stripes at the
first, becomes, in the end, a freeman, even though he sustain the
formal relation of a slave. "You can shoot me but you can't whip
me," said a slave to Rigby Hopkins; and the result was that he
was neither whipped nor shot. If the latter had been his fate,
it would have been less deplorable than the living and lingering
death to which cowardly and slavish souls are subjected. I do
not know that Mr. Sevier ever undertook to whip Nelly again. He
probably never did, for it was not long after his attempt to
subdue her, that he was taken sick, and died. The wretched man
died as he had lived, unrepentant; and it was said--with how much
truth I know not--that in the very last hours of his life, his
ruling passion showed itself, and that when wrestling with death,
he was uttering horrid oaths, and flourishing the cowskin, as
though he was tearing the flesh off some helpless slave. One
thing is certain, that when he was in health, it was enough to
chill the blood, and to stiffen the hair of an ordinary man, to
hear Mr. Sevier talk. Nature, or his cruel habits, had given to
his face an expression of unusual savageness, even for a slave-
driver. Tobacco and rage had worn his teeth short, and nearly
every sentence that escaped their compressed grating, was
commenced or concluded with some outburst of profanity. His
presence made the field alike the field of blood, and of
blasphemy. Hated for his cruelty, despised for his cowardice,
his death was deplored by no one outside his own house--if indeed
it was deplored there; it was regarded by the slaves as a
merciful interposition of Providence. Never went there a man to
the grave loaded with heavier curses. Mr. Sevier's place was
promptly taken by a Mr. Hopkins, and the change was quite a
relief, he being a very different man. He was, in <75 ALLOWANCE
DAY AT THE HOME PLANTATION>all respects, a better man than his
predecessor; as good as any man can be, and yet be an overseer.
His course was characterized by no extraordinary cruelty; and
when he whipped a slave, as he sometimes did, he seemed to take
no especial pleasure in it, but, on the contrary, acted as though
he felt it to be a mean business. Mr. Hopkins stayed but a short
time; his place much to the regret of the slaves generally--was
taken by a Mr. Gore, of whom more will be said hereafter. It is
enough, for the present, to say, that he was no improvement on
Mr. Sevier, except that he was less noisy and less profane.

I have already referred to the business-like aspect of Col.
Lloyd's plantation. This business-like appearance was much
increased on the two days at the end of each month, when the
slaves from the different farms came to get their monthly
allowance of meal and meat. These were gala days for the slaves,
and there was much rivalry among them as to _who_ should be
elected to go up to the great house farm for the allowance, and,
indeed, to attend to any business at this (for them) the capital.
The beauty and grandeur of the place, its numerous slave
population, and the fact that Harry, Peter and Jake the sailors
of the sloop--almost always kept, privately, little trinkets
which they bought at Baltimore, to sell, made it a privilege to
come to the great house farm. Being selected, too, for this
office, was deemed a high honor. It was taken as a proof of
confidence and favor; but, probably, the chief motive of the
competitors for the place, was, a desire to break the dull
monotony of the field, and to get beyond the overseer's eye and
lash. Once on the road with an ox team, and seated on the tongue
of his cart, with no overseer to look after him, the slave was
comparatively free; and, if thoughtful, he had time to think.
Slaves are generally expected to sing as well as to work. A
silent slave is not liked by masters or overseers. _"Make a
noise," "make a noise,"_ and _"bear a hand,"_ are the words
usually addressed to the slaves when there is silence amongst
them. This may account for the almost constant singing <76>heard
in the southern states. There was, generally, more or less
singing among the teamsters, as it was one means of letting the
overseer know where they were, and that they were moving on with
the work. But, on allowance day, those who visited the great
house farm were peculiarly excited and noisy. While on their
way, they would make the dense old woods, for miles around,
reverberate with their wild notes. These were not always merry
because they were wild. On the contrary, they were mostly of a
plaintive cast, and told a tale of grief and sorrow. In the most
boisterous outbursts of rapturous sentiment, there was ever a
tinge of deep melancholy. I have never heard any songs like
those anywhere since I left slavery, except when in Ireland.
There I heard the same _wailing notes_, and was much affected by
them. It was during the famine of 1845-6. In all the songs of
the slaves, there was ever some expression in praise of the great
house farm; something which would flatter the pride of the owner,
and, possibly, draw a favorable glance from him.

_I am going away to the great house farm,
O yea! O yea! O yea!
My old master is a good old master,
O yea! O yea! O yea!_

This they would sing, with other words of their own improvising--
jargon to others, but full of meaning to themselves. I have
sometimes thought, that the mere hearing of those songs would do
more to impress truly spiritual-minded men and women with the
soul-crushing and death-dealing character of slavery, than the
reading of whole volumes of its mere physical cruelties. They
speak to the heart and to the soul of the thoughtful. I cannot
better express my sense of them now, than ten years ago, when, in
sketching my life, I thus spoke of this feature of my plantation

I did not, when a slave, understand the deep meanings of those
rude, and apparently incoherent songs. I was myself within the
circle, so that I neither saw or heard as those without might see
and hear. They told a tale which was <77 SINGING OF SLAVES--AN
EXPLANATION>then altogether beyond my feeble comprehension; they
were tones, loud, long and deep, breathing the prayer and
complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish.
Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God
for deliverance from chains. The hearing of those wild notes
always depressed my spirits, and filled my heart with ineffable
sadness. The mere recurrence, even now, afflicts my spirit, and
while I am writing these lines, my tears are falling. To those
songs I trace my first glimmering conceptions of the dehumanizing
character of slavery. I can never get rid of that conception.
Those songs still follow me, to deepen my hatred of slavery, and
quicken my sympathies for my brethren in bonds. If any one
wishes to be impressed with a sense of the soul-killing power of
slavery, let him go to Col. Lloyd's plantation, and, on allowance
day, place himself in the deep, pine woods, and there let him, in
silence, thoughtfully analyze the sounds that shall pass through
the chambers of his soul, and if he is not thus impressed, it
will only be because "there is no flesh in his obdurate heart."

The remark is not unfrequently made, that slaves are the most
contended and happy laborers in the world. They dance and sing,
and make all manner of joyful noises--so they do; but it is a
great mistake to suppose them happy because they sing. The songs
of the slave represent the sorrows, rather than the joys, of his
heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is
relieved by its tears. Such is the constitution of the human
mind, that, when pressed to extremes, it often avails itself of
the most opposite methods. Extremes meet in mind as in matter.
When the slaves on board of the "Pearl" were overtaken, arrested,
and carried to prison--their hopes for freedom blasted--as they
marched in chains they sang, and found (as Emily Edmunson tells
us) a melancholy relief in singing. The singing of a man cast
away on a desolate island, might be as appropriately considered
an evidence of his contentment and happiness, as the singing of a
slave. Sorrow and desolation have their songs, as well as joy
and peace. Slaves sing more to _make_ themselves happy, than to
express their happiness.

It is the boast of slaveholders, that their slaves enjoy more of
the physical comforts of life than the peasantry of any country
in the world. My experience contradicts this. The men and the
women slaves on Col. Lloyd's farm, received, as their monthly
<78>allowance of food, eight pounds of pickled pork, or their
equivalent in fish. The pork was often tainted, and the fish was
of the poorest quality--herrings, which would bring very little
if offered for sale in any northern market. With their pork or
fish, they had one bushel of Indian meal--unbolted--of which
quite fifteen per cent was fit only to feed pigs. With this, one
pint of salt was given; and this was the entire monthly allowance
of a full grown slave, working constantly in the open field, from
morning until night, every day in the month except Sunday, and
living on a fraction more than a quarter of a pound of meat per
day, and less than a peck of corn-meal per week. There is no
kind of work that a man can do which requires a better supply of
food to prevent physical exhaustion, than the field-work of a
slave. So much for the slave's allowance of food; now for his
raiment. The yearly allowance of clothing for the slaves on this
plantation, consisted of two tow-linen shirts--such linen as the
coarsest crash towels are made of; one pair of trowsers of the
same material, for summer, and a pair of trowsers and a jacket of
woolen, most slazily put together, for winter; one pair of yarn
stockings, and one pair of shoes of the coarsest description.
The slave's entire apparel could not have cost more than eight
dollars per year. The allowance of food and clothing for the
little children, was committed to their mothers, or to the older
slavewomen having the care of them. Children who were unable to
work in the field, had neither shoes, stockings, jackets nor
trowsers given them. Their clothing consisted of two coarse tow-
linen shirts--already described--per year; and when these failed
them, as they often did, they went naked until the next allowance
day. Flocks of little children from five to ten years old, might
be seen on Col. Lloyd's plantation, as destitute of clothing as
any little heathen on the west coast of Africa; and this, not
merely during the summer months, but during the frosty weather of
March. The little girls were no better off than the boys; all
were nearly in a state of nudity.

As to beds to sleep on, they were known to none of the field
hands; nothing but a coarse blanket--not so good as those used in
the north to cover horses--was given them, and this only to the
men and women. The children stuck themselves in holes and
corners, about the quarters; often in the corner of the huge
chimneys, with their feet in the ashes to keep them warm. The
want of beds, however, was not considered a very great privation.
Time to sleep was of far greater importance, for, when the day's
work is done, most of the slaves have their washing, mending and
cooking to do; and, having few or none of the ordinary facilities
for doing such things, very many of their sleeping hours are
consumed in necessary preparations for the duties of the coming

The sleeping apartments--if they may be called such--have little
regard to comfort or decency. Old and young, male and female,
married and single, drop down upon the common clay floor, each
covering up with his or her blanket,--the only protection they
have from cold or exposure. The night, however, is shortened at
both ends. The slaves work often as long as they can see, and
are late in cooking and mending for the coming day; and, at the
first gray streak of morning, they are summoned to the field by
the driver's horn.

More slaves are whipped for oversleeping than for any other
fault. Neither age nor sex finds any favor. The overseer stands
at the quarter door, armed with stick and cowskin, ready to whip
any who may be a few minutes behind time. When the horn is
blown, there is a rush for the door, and the hindermost one is
sure to get a blow from the overseer. Young mothers who worked
in the field, were allowed an hour, about ten o'clock in the
morning, to go home to nurse their children. Sometimes they were
compelled to take their children with them, and to leave them in
the corner of the fences, to prevent loss of time in nursing
them. The overseer generally rides about the field on horseback.
A cowskin and a hickory stick are his constant companions. The
<80>cowskin is a kind of whip seldom seen in the northern states.
It is made entirely of untanned, but dried, ox hide, and is about
as hard as a piece of well-seasoned live oak. It is made of
various sizes, but the usual length is about three feet. The
part held in the hand is nearly an inch in thickness; and, from
the extreme end of the butt or handle, the cowskin tapers its
whole length to a point. This makes it quite elastic and
springy. A blow with it, on the hardest back, will gash the
flesh, and make the blood start. Cowskins are painted red, blue
and green, and are the favorite slave whip. I think this whip
worse than the "cat-o'nine-tails." It condenses the whole
strength of the arm to a single point, and comes with a spring
that makes the air whistle. It is a terrible instrument, and is
so handy, that the overseer can always have it on his person, and
ready for use. The temptation to use it is ever strong; and an
overseer can, if disposed, always have cause for using it. With
him, it is literally a word and a blow, and, in most cases, the
blow comes first.

As a general rule, slaves do not come to the quarters for either
breakfast or dinner, but take their "ash cake" with them, and eat
it in the field. This was so on the home plantation; probably,
because the distance from the quarter to the field, was sometimes
two, and even three miles.

The dinner of the slaves consisted of a huge piece of ash cake,
and a small piece of pork, or two salt herrings. Not having
ovens, nor any suitable cooking utensils, the slaves mixed their
meal with a little water, to such thickness that a spoon would
stand erect in it; and, after the wood had burned away to coals
and ashes, they would place the dough between oak leaves and lay
it carefully in the ashes, completely covering it; hence, the
bread is called ash cake. The surface of this peculiar bread is
covered with ashes, to the depth of a sixteenth part of an inch,
and the ashes, certainly, do not make it very grateful to the
teeth, nor render it very palatable. The bran, or coarse part of
the meal, is baked with the fine, and bright scales run through
the bread. <81 THE CONTRAST>This bread, with its ashes and bran,
would disgust and choke a northern man, but it is quite liked by
the slaves. They eat it with avidity, and are more concerned
about the quantity than about the quality. They are far too
scantily provided for, and are worked too steadily, to be much
concerned for the quality of their food. The few minutes allowed
them at dinner time, after partaking of their coarse repast, are
variously spent. Some lie down on the "turning row," and go to
sleep; others draw together, and talk; and others are at work
with needle and thread, mending their tattered garments.
Sometimes you may hear a wild, hoarse laugh arise from a circle,
and often a song. Soon, however, the overseer comes dashing
through the field. _"Tumble up! Tumble up_, and to _work,
work,"_ is the cry; and, now, from twelve o'clock (mid-day) till
dark, the human cattle are in motion, wielding their clumsy hoes;
hurried on by no hope of reward, no sense of gratitude, no love
of children, no prospect of bettering their condition; nothing,
save the dread and terror of the slave-driver's lash. So goes
one day, and so comes and goes another.

But, let us now leave the rough usage of the field, where vulgar
coarseness and brutal cruelty spread themselves and flourish,
rank as weeds in the tropics; where a vile wretch, in the shape
of a man, rides, walks, or struts about, dealing blows, and
leaving gashes on broken-spirited men and helpless women, for
thirty dollars per month--a business so horrible, hardening and
disgraceful, that, rather, than engage in it, a decent man would
blow his own brains out--and let the reader view with me the
equally wicked, but less repulsive aspects of slave life; where
pride and pomp roll luxuriously at ease; where the toil of a
thousand men supports a single family in easy idleness and sin.
This is the great house; it is the home of the LLOYDS! Some idea
of its splendor has already been given--and, it is here that we
shall find that height of luxury which is the opposite of that
depth of poverty and physical wretchedness that we have just now
been contemplating. But, there is this difference in the two
extremes; <82>viz: that in the case of the slave, the miseries
and hardships of his lot are imposed by others, and, in the
master's case, they are imposed by himself. The slave is a
subject, subjected by others; the slaveholder is a subject, but
he is the author of his own subjection. There is more truth in
the saying, that slavery is a greater evil to the master than to
the slave, than many, who utter it, suppose. The self-executing
laws of eternal justice follow close on the heels of the evil-
doer here, as well as elsewhere; making escape from all its
penalties impossible. But, let others philosophize; it is my
province here to relate and describe; only allowing myself a word
or two, occasionally, to assist the reader in the proper
understanding of the facts narrated.

Frederick Douglass

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