The Antebellum period, between 1789 and 1860, marks an important time in the history of slavery, especially in Louisiana. During this period, the slaves experienced a lot of mistreatment from the masters more than any other time. Some of the reasons that contributed to the heightened mistreatments were the booming agricultural activities in the state and the fact that most slave owners were turning to capitalism and, therefore, were in need of intensive labor. As a result, slaves were exposed to deplorable living conditions, which caused them to engage in resistance movements, suicide attempts, and attempts to run away from their masters. It was also during this period that wives of slaves were raped, women were forced to work alongside their slave husbands in sugar plantations, and children left home alone for a very long time.
In addition, the housing situation was not favorable to the slaves as they were forced to live in squalid conditions where they faced dangers of being killed, catching diseases, and lacking basic amenities like water and sewerage systems. The purpose of the current paper is to explore the living conditions of slaves during the Antebellum period in Louisiana. The paper focuses on the slave resistance, rape of wives of slaves, condition of slaves’ children, the experience of slaves in plantations, the overall living conditions from housing to food provisions, as well as the punishment that was meted out for trying to run away from masters.
The Living Conditions of Slaves
The Antebellum period is considered to be the period between the adoption of the Constitution and the beginning of the Civil War in America. This period is characterized by the abolition and polarization of the country between supporters of the slavery and the abolitionists, those who opposed slavery. Also, it is a period that witnessed a revolution in the agricultural sector with industries coming up to process products such as cotton and sugarcane. With cotton gin being discovered, there emerged plantations of cotton in Louisiana where slaves were captured and forced to work. There was also the Louisiana Purchase that prompted allocation of big tracts of land to influential words who had the capacity to buy slaves to work in those farms. The whites who owned slaves also developed a sense of superiority over the people of color and the slaves and, hence, acted as the instruments of slavery by engaging and facilitating slave trade. During the Antebellum period, which preceded the American Civil War, slavery was expressed in different forms. It was practiced in almost all sectors of the lives of black people, who were considered to be property of their masters. In small farms, large sugar plantations, homes, fields, cities and towns, slavery was the order of the day. As the property of slave owners, slaves were exposed to many forms of violence which included hard and long labor in farms, beatings, and threats of being killed as well as rape of women belonging to enslaved black people.
The relationship between the enslaved and the owners varied from one slave owner to the other. While some slaves had a cordial relationship with their masters, they remained conscious of the fact that they were properties of the masters and, hence, the fear and reverence dominated the lives of the slaves. Some masters showed genuine care for their slaves but this was hampered by the fact that there existed a huge power imbalance under which the slavery had been brought up in the state. In the confines of the slavery were feelings of both contempt and compassion from slave owners across the state. There was no possibility of reaching equality in the way majority black slaves and minority white slave owners were treated in social amenities like schools or hospitals.
The image of slavery was presented through large sugar and cotton plantations where hundreds of slaves worked. This, however, was restricted to 25% of the whites who owned slaves and large piece of land. The whites, who did not have ownership of slaves, were supportive of the slavery practices by the slave owners, even though they did not benefit directly from the work of slaves. They only defended and identified with slave owning whites by perpetuating the discriminatory laws and policies that had been put in place by the slavery system. For example, they did not allow children of the slaves to attend same schools with their children. Even blacks, who were free from slavery, were not allowed to mingle freely with the whites. Link, Rembert and Fletcher (150), even though the majority of the whites with no slaves did not like the power and wealth that slave-owners exhibited, they had the ambition to own slaves and arose to the privileged rank of their slave-owning whites. These slave owners felt superior over the slaves that they owned, and took every opportunity to deny their human rights. The slaves were deprived of all the resources that could make their living standards better; moreover, the slavery system suppressed their attempts to gain wealth or come out of poverty by keeping them in servant quarters.
The lives of the slaves composed of working long hours in sugar and cotton plantations. The plantations were large tracts of land but the slaves were few. They mainly worked in cotton farms but also produced sugarcane, tobacco, and rice which were later sold in other places by their masters. Apart from carrying out planting and harvesting, slaves were also expected to clear out new lands acquired by their owners, dig out ditches around the farms, prepare woods for lighting, tend after animals, and repair buildings and tools belonging to their masters. In addition, they worked as drivers, carpenters, mechanics, and all other jobs that were needed to be done in homes of the slave owners. Black women cared for their families besides helping their men in farms to transport cotton or sugarcane to factories. They also practiced weaving, sewing, and spinning.
Some women slaves were designated as house servants who worked in the homes of their masters. Their daily routine consisted of doing house chores and all domestic functions assigned to them by their masters. Masters and mistresses constantly watched over them to ensure that they followed the instructions, and did not engage in activities that could endanger the lives of their masters. The slaves could be called up at any time of the day to come and do the service in the house. Women slaves working in homes did not have much privacy and family time because they could be required in the house at any time. In many cases, they were given servant quarters within the homes of their masters living in close proximity.
They, thus, formed a complex relationship with their masters especially the children of the blacks and those of whites who often played together in the compounds. It was common for black children to become accustomed to their white caretakers while white children got used to the black servants working in their homes. The cordial relationship between children of slaves and those of slave owners was based solely on the fact that children did not understand the slavery system. However, as they grew up, they learnt to adjust appropriately, each occupying their rightful position in the society according to the slavery system. In fact, white children who may have played together with children of slaves became slave owners of the very children they had played with in the childhood.
Since many slaves were transported in the sea for a very long period of time before they came to Louisiana, many of them were exposed to dangerous diseases such as scurvy. Coupled with hard labor in farms, poor housing conditions, lack of enough food, as well as general psychological problems, new slaves experienced difficulties in coping up with the conditions of slavery and some died. Deaths were mostly caused by opportunistic diseases due to unfavorable working conditions, injuries sustained from beating or working long hours in the farms as well as lack of energy in their bodies. Slaves found breaking the laws were hanged by courts controlled by the white supremacists. They were also put in crude servant quarters that made them vulnerable to diseases and bad weather conditions without sufficient bedding and clothing. Slaves working in farms also did not have a good access to food stores where they could buy foods for themselves and their families. Instead, they depended on the permission of their masters to go and buy the items that their families required and, in most cases, the permissions were not easily granted.
In terms of weather, the newly arrived slaves from cooler regions did not fare well in Louisiana. The region was mostly hot and humid, creating problems for people who lived there. However, this was worse for slaves since the slave owners had the capacity to protect themselves against bad weather conditions. The living conditions also were characterized by poor sanitation facilities, lack of balanced diet, and persistent had labor in farms, exposing the slaves to diseases and psychological problems. Furthermore, there were not sufficient treatment facilities for slaves, which meant that falling was like a death sentence for some slaves. Some slaves were expected to work even when they fall sick causing a number of them to die in the farms.
In plantations such as sugar and rice, slaves were not given protective equipment to cover them from injuries. The rice plantations were mostly covered in water pools and those who worked in such plantations were forced to stand in water with bear feet for many hours. Thus, they were exposed to waterborne diseases. The region was also hot making the spread of malaria very rampant. Thus, malaria was a common disease that killed thousands of slaves both working in farms and living in servant quarters. It is estimated that in one plantation, child mortality resulting from malaria related deaths was as high as 90% but the average rate across Louisiana was 66% during the period of slavery.
Despite of the poor living and working conditions, slaves also lived under the threat of being sold to the next master. This was the worst form of threat to slaves because in most cases, new owners came out as more brutal than the current ones. Slaves lived under this constant threat of being sold especially when their owners felt that they could fetch more prices on the market. Thus, to avoid being sold, they could injure themselves so that when they are taken to the market they do not fetch higher prices. As observed by Johnson, the sale of slaves was also controlled by several factors other than just being disloyal or disrespectful to the master. The factors that drove slave market included the possible discounts that slave sellers were likely to get from a particular slave, the cost of transporting them to their new destinations, legal restrictions, and the cost of bearing the children if their parents are sold as slaves. Thus, selectivity selling of slaves was highly practiced depending on the arbitrage opportunity for slave families.
Even in cases where the slave owners exhibited some form of benevolence towards their slaves, slaves lived under constant fear of financial loss or a personal crisis that could lead them to being sold to the next bidder in the market. More frightening to the slave was when their master decided to sell them as a form of punishment because then they would be given out to the most brutal slave owner in the region. During the sale, slave families were separated but where they were sold as a family, they were invariably removed from their extended family and taken to a completely new environment where they did not have relatives. As a result, cousins, brothers, sisters, parents, grandparents, and close relatives were scattered forcefully and denied any opportunity to see each other again. Even in cases where they were not sold, they lived under the threat of getting to the market as they witnessed their relatives being sold.
What Happened if Slaves did not do their Work in Plantations?
The lives of slaves were dominated with mistreatment and forceful labor. Thus, in many instances, slaves were subjected to poor working conditions when they showed a sign of resisting the deplorable conditions and mistreatment from their masters. In severe cases, some slaves were whipped and killed by their brutal masters. When the masters were law-abiding people, they took the resisting slaves or those, who had broken the policies of the farm, to courts where they were tried and charged with disobedience to their masters. In extreme cases, those, who were found guilty, were hanged. The slaves were expected to obey all the orders from their masters and mistresses, and trying to run away was an offense punishable in a court of law. They were also expected to persevere in the mistreatments and the poor living conditions without showing resistance although in many cases there were revolutions in many plantations.
In terms of relationships, the law did not allow them to marry to people from white families although they could have relationships with other slaves from different plantations. However, they were not allowed to marry in the church and family relationships were subject to the wills and approvals of the plantation owner. The family relationships were often disrupted with the sale of one of the members or the whole family to a different owner. Nonetheless, there was a sense of encouragement from majority of slave owners to slaves to start families even though this was done in the interest of the owners. It was a form of discouraging the slaves from running away from their masters because they could not afford to leave behind their family, leave alone affords the cost of transporting the whole family to a new place.
Whereas there were cases of slaves running away from their masters, this was not commonly experienced in Louisiana since many slaves formed their own communities with dedicated values, identity, and activities that kept them together. As a result, slave owners encouraged them to form communities as a means of preventing them from escaping. However, such communities also became distrustful of the slaves that worked so close to the masters noting that they were acting as informers of their masters. In a way, the formation of communities was something that helped to maintain a closer bond among the slaves but acted as a breeding ground for resistance ideas. The slavery system introduced a form of hierarchy among the slaves as a way of dividing them for easier ruling. For instance, midwives and religious leaders were highly regarded above the common slaves who worked in the farms. In the same way, hunters were regarded as important because they helped the communities to get meat and, therefore, have a constant supply of food, even though of the same diet.
Life at the Plantation: Housing, Injury, Punishment, Hanging
Slaves at the plantations lived adjacent to plantations where they worked. The servant quarters were living units that were usually crowded with poor social amenities. The servant quarters were the housing facilities provided by the slave owners. The slaves formed communities where they could gather together whenever they were not working to tell stories, sing, and dance as a form of collective historical memory of their original homes. Few slave owners allowed their slaves to learn or take their children to school. The 1830 Louisiana law outlawed teaching of slaves and overtly declared such an act as a crime. Thus, this enforced the oral education among the slaves in their quarters.
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The places where the slaves lived were void of security. As such, slaves could be attacked and injured when they were coming from work late at night. In farms, slaves got injured when picking cotton or cutting sugarcane. They also got injured from digging trenches or splitting wood for their masters. In rice plantations, slaves could be injured from stings by water insects where they worked. Those, who violated the laws set in Louisiana or the policies in plantations, were punished in different ways. In common terms, slaves were punished for crimes of “neglect, absence from work, eating the sugar cane, theft are cart whipping, beating with a stick, sometimes to the breaking of bones, the chain, an iron crook about the neck.” They were also subjected to confinement in isolated areas, ears being pulled and slit, limbs broken for purposes of being amputated, eye popping, and castration. During the punishment of slaves, Phillips argued that brutal masters and supervisors did not demonstrate any leniency, sympathy, decency, or morality to the already mistreated slaves. Such were considered to be properties that did not have any human rights but only worth of torture and death.
The existing laws did not provide any protection of the slaves from their abuse and irrational masters. Only the overseers had the powers to protect the slaves in plantations but in the most cases they acted in the interest of the plantation owners and under pressure to ensure the slaves were more productive as per the expectations of the master. Across Louisiana, slaves were punished by whipping, burning, mutilating, branding, imprisonment or hanging. The punishment was in response to any form of disobedience to the laws and policies set up in the plantations even where such disobedience was only perceived. In other cases, punishment was simply a form of reasserting the authority and dominance of slave owners or overseers to threaten the slaves into submission and obedience. The duty to enforce discipline among slaves legally belonged to slave owners and overseers. Moreover, slaves could be punished for not working at the required speed, coming late to the farm, showing signs of disobeying the authority, or attempting to run away from their masters. Slave masters were personally involved in whipping of the slaves, torturing, or being sold to other plantations where punishment was considered as stiffer. In other cases, slaves were murdered by their masters as a sign of warning to others who were contemplating of disobeying the authority.
Women were punished through raping and sexual abuse. They were treated as chattels and properties of their owners and, hence, raping was a justified form of punishment. Children borne out of rape were considered as slaves under the law. As noted by Stephenson, slavery in Louisiana was characterized by rape and other forms of sexual abuse for women slaves. The wives of men, who had disobeyed, could be punished by rape alongside their husbands. Sexual abuse was highly entrenched forms of punishment practiced in the patriarchal Southern part of Louisiana where all women, whether black of white were considered to be properties or chattels of the white masters. Children of slaves borne out of raping were considered as slaves under the law irrespective of the race or status of the father. However, some laws in the South prohibited sexual relationships between black slaves and whites in an effort to maintain the racial purity of the whites. In most cases, the rights of the slaves to defend or seek recourse were not protected under the law and, hence, they could not bring a case against their masters.
The housing for slaves consisted of poorly constructed cabins that formed the slave barracks where black slave families lived. They extended the families together to get the approval of a homestead from the authorities where black communities flourished together. Within these homesteads, slaves were allowed to practice small scale farming where they grew crops for family use. In the homesteads, slaves were free to express themselves without the daily interventions of the whites. Subsequently, these homes became not just a place of shelter but also the place where the slaves—majority of whom were of African descent to experience development and self-identity.
In the middle of the Antebellum period, there was an increase in the runaway rate of male slaves from Louisiana slave owners. The response by slave owners who a stiffening of the punishment and buying of female slaves who were seen as more loyal than their male counterparts. However, female slaves were not considered as valuable as male slaves but could also be used in sexual escapades rather than their economical ability. Subsequently, the number of female slaves who were bought by slave masters matched that of male slaves with the view of establishing families and stabilizes the runaway behaviors of the male slaves.
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The lives of slaves in Louisiana during Antebellum period were defined by two features. The first feature was the slaves’ economic potential to the economic system of the region. The lives of slaves revolved around working in plantations and homes of masters and mistresses. To this they were put in barracks and quarters where the living conditions were not only deplorable but also dehumanizing. Slaves were coerced to follow the orders of their masters and mistresses failure to which they were punished. Children of slaves were allowed to play with those of white slave owners especially for slaves that worked and lived in the slave owner’s homestead. However, as they grew up they were absorbed into slavery system where they no longer played together and observed the discriminatory policies that governed their communities. Moreover, when male slaves worked in plantations, they were not given enough food to supplement the need for extra energy to work for long hours. Thus, some of them were suffered from various diseases related with insufficient food intake. The weather conditions were also not favorable to newly arrived slaves who had come from different climate areas.
The second feature was the gender structure that defined the entire slavery system. Gender differences formed a basis on which slaves were punished for disobedience, sold on market, and allocated roles in plantations. Male slaves, who disobeyed the orders, were mostly punished by whipping or hanging in extreme cases, they worked in plantation farms digging trenches, planting, cultivating, or harvesting sugarcanes or cotton, they also worked in skilled labor as drivers, mechanics, and machine operators. Female slaves, on the other hand, were punished through raping and whipping. They were not very valuable on the market and, hence, considered as lesser property compared to male slaves. Women slaves also worked in homes as servants and nannies looking after the children of their mistresses.
From the above analysis of the lives of slaves during the Antebellum period, it is evident that Louisiana practiced one of the worst forms of slavery in the United States. The lives of the slaves were controlled and manipulated by the wealth slave owners. Such slaves were considered to be the property of their masters and were not entitled to human rights as they are known today. The slaves lived in selected servant quarters that did not have basic amenities. Obedience to the laws and orders was paramount for all slaves. However, in some cases slaves could be punished only as a way of giving a warning to the rest of the slaves who were contemplating on either running away or disobeying their masters. Children of slaves were not allowed togo to schools. Those who lived with their mothers in the homes of masters played together with the children of the mistresses but they were later separated when they grew up. Women worked in homes and cotton plantations with their husbands. They were punished through sexual abuse and rape when they disobeyed the orders of the masters. Slaves were exposed to diseases like malaria, bad weather, and injury in farms. In general, the lives of slaves revolved around the orders of the slave owners and they did not have the freedom to choose what was right for them.