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The Life of a Slave Research Paper

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Updated: Apr 13th, 2020


Slaves were captured from Africa, mistreated tortured and abused from the 16th century to early 19th century. This paper reviews the general hardships that a slave went through in the hands of their white masters. The poor living conditions and denial of basic needs. It also features how the law and the constitution of that time never protected slaves.


Between 1800 and 1877, millions of slaves were captured from the West African Coast and sailed to North America on over loaded ships through the Atlantic Ocean. The two months trip left many sick and some dead. Those who died on the way were thrown into the ocean a completely barbarous and inhumane action. The survivors were sold on arrival as property to the highest bidder at auctions separating them from their kith and kin[1].

The newly bought slaves were expected to work in the tobacco, sugar, cotton and rice plantations in their new Master’s home. Also all domestic work i.e. cleaning, gardening, nursing, transporting domestic goods etc was done by them. The domestic slaves were referred to as House slaves while the plantation slaves were known as Field slaves.

The two kinds of slaves were exposed to different levels of mistreatment, torture and suffering. The house slaves were believed to have better living conditions than the field slaves as discussed below,.

House Slaves

House slaves had better living conditions compared to field slaves in that they ate better food slept in better shelters and even wore better clothes[2]. William Wells Brown who was a house slave in , revealed his autobiography in a narrative where he clearly states that he was born a house slave and he was better clothed than the slaves the field because he was given the worn out clothes of his masters family, he ate the leftovers and slept in the basement.

He also quotes that he was not forced to wake up at the ring of the bell at dawn like the field servants who were severely punished if they were a minute late. William would wake up thirty minutes after the ringing of the bell[3]. This was not what happened in all homesteads as Harriet Jacobs explains how her mistress used to spit on all pans and kettles after being served breakfast on Sunday mornings when she was around to prevent them from eating the leftovers.

“If dinner was not served at the exact time on that particular Sunday, she would station herself in the kitchen, and wait till it was dished, and then spit in all the kettles and pans that had been used for cooking. She did this to prevent the cook and her children from eking out their meager fare with the remains of the gravy and other scrapings. The slaves could get nothing to eat except what she chose to give them” [4].

Field Slaves

After introduction of the plantation system in America farmers discovered that buying slaves was far much cheaper than hiring laborers and this was the main promoter of slave trade in America. Plantation farmers required able-bodied Africans who could undertake strenuous work in the fields for long hours. Field slaves, both men and women, worked in the cotton, tobacco, sugar and rice plantation daily from sun rise to sun set and during harvesting they would work for as long as 18 hours.

Pregnant women were not exempted from working till they delivered. Shortly after giving birth, they would forcefully resume to their respective duties and they were only allowed to see and breastfeed their children thrice between sunrise and sunset. The young babies were left at the care of old women who were so weak to work in the fields[5]. They were supposed to cook and look after all children under the age of working.

Another freed slave, Frederick Douglass in his autobiography expresses how they were mistreated and forced to work under harsh weather conditions all through the year.

“We were worked in all weathers. It was never too hot or too cold; it could never rain, blow, hail, or snow, too hard for us to work in the field. Work, work, work, was scarcely more the order of the day than of the night. The longest days were too short for him, and the shortest nights too long for him.

I was somewhat unmanageable when I first went there, but a few months of this discipline tamed me. Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me. I was broken in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!” [6].

If a slave was just a few minutes late for his duty he would find himself begging his master to refrain from cruelly punishing him. Men and women were ruthlessly whipped in front of their children.

Slave punishment

Slaves were punished by their overseers brutally for some common and simple mistakes. According to James Ramsay a doctor in St. Kitts who was working for a number of sugar plantation slaves were butchered and bullied by the ruthless overseers as quoted below.

“The ordinary punishments of slaves, for the common 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… a ring about the ankle, and confinement in the dungeon.

There have been instances of slitting of ears, breaking of limbs, so as to make amputation necessary, beating out of eyes, and castration… In short, in the place of decency, sympathy, morality and religion; slavery produces cruelty and oppression. It is true, that the unfeeling application of the ordinary punishments ruins the constitution, and shortens the life of many a poor wretch” [7].

The Law at that time did not protect slaves in any way from abuse and torture from their masters. The owners of the plantations allowed the Brutal overseers to handle all the supervision of the plantation. They also pressured them for maximum production and this in turn was translated to the slaves through whipping and other inhumane forms of punishment.

In some instances it was very extreme to the point that the slaves were tortured to death, Olaudah Equiano gives a perfect example of such a situation where a Negro was hanged to unconsciousness and the burnt to death. It was alleged that the Negro had attempted to poison a brutal overseer but never succeeded [8].More contributions of the law in promoting slavery are discussed below under the Black codes.

Slave Branding

Slaves were branded as animals with red hot metal on various parts of their bodies e.g. on the cheeks, thighs.and arms. This was to make sure that their owner would easily be recognized by any white man and hence prevent them from running away.

For instance in 1838 a slave woman who was branded the letter M on her face had escaped with her two sons and it was advertised in the North Carolina Standard of 28th July that a price of twenty dollars would be offered to anyone who would capture her. Also 1845 one wealthy man branded a boy called Reuben the words “slave for life” [9] on his face.

Slaves Education

In North America education for black people was not forbidden by law but in the south it was a crime to educate slaves according to an Excerpt from South Carolina Act of 1740

Whereas, the having slaves taught to write, or suffering them to be employed in writing, may be attended with great inconveniences; Be it enacted, that all and every person and persons whatsoever, who shall hereafter teach or cause any slave or slaves to be taught to write, or shall use or employ any slave as a scribe, in any manner of writing whatsoever, hereafter taught to write, every such person or persons shall, for every such offense, forfeit the sum of one hundred pounds, current money [10].

Black literacy was viewed as a threat to slavery in that the esteemed slaves who were able to write and read, just like singers, they would convince other slaves to revolt against slavery. This was one of the main reasons why the south enacted laws prohibiting their education.

Religion played a major role in advocating for slaves education. Anglicans in the south argued that slaves were entitled to a right to freedom of worship and for this to be achieved slaves had to be able to read the word of God from the Bible. This led to amendments of some laws and as a school for slaves was established in South Carolina in 1743[11].

Although more schools emerged White were trying all their best to control it as a result they formulated a curriculum for blacks people that was less competitive compared to the one offered to white children. Almost everyone was forced to participate in educating each other with the little knowledge he had acquired .this happened on the plantations, on holidays when they had free time and at night. This helped in wiping out the cliché used by most white men, “the bigger the fool the better the nigger”[12].

Black Codes

These were law and constitutional amendments that were enacted in 1865-1866 to ensure that America was dominated by whites and slaves provided cheap labor. It also helped in depriving freed slaves of their liberties for instance the Ohio and Illinois States enacted laws that prohibited black slaves from immigrating into these states[13].

Most of these laws were meant to suppress freed slaves but some of them showed some sense of morality though in directly e.g. in Texas overseers were incriminated for torturing or using offensive language in front of employers (plantation owners) or their family.

The Ku Klux Klan also contributed to the implementation of the black codes by torturing and killing republicans and sympathetic white people who showed mercy on slaves[14]. The Klans dressed fiercely in white robe and conical hats to scare anyone who sided with slaves or advocated for their rights.


I agree with Eugene Genovese and his book “Roll, Jordan, Roll: The world the slaves made” where he explains how white considered their feeding and clothing as a burden and a duty they were obliged to not considering their mistreatment and torturing them [15]. They even claimed some appreciation from the slaves to make them feel as normal moral beings[16]. All these were attempts to justify their evil actions of which they were completely aware of.


Black Codes 1865-66, “Black codes”, 1. Web.

Eugene Genovese, “” (2008), 75,60,146. Web.

John Simkin, “ (2008), para.3. Web.

Our Story, “”. Web.

Slave Life in Virginia and Kentucky, “Difficulties of Training me” (nd), 18. Web.

Slave Narratives, “”. Web.

Slave Punishments, “Olaudah Equiano: Another negro man was half hanged, and then burnt, for attempting to poison a cruel overseer”. Web.

Slavery and the making of America, “ (2004), 2. Web.

Slavery and the making of America, “Original documents (2004). Web.

Spartacus Educational : ”House Slaves” (2003), para.1. Web.

Spartacus Educational, “Field Slaves” (2008), para.1-3. Web.

Spartacus Educational, “Harriet Jacobs” (2008). Web.

Spartacus Educational, “Slave Punishments: James Ramsay, Essay on the Treatment and Conversion of African Slaves in the British Sugar Colonies” (1784). Web.

St. Louis Gazette, (November 6th, 1845) Reuben A slave branded on the face. Web.


  1. Our Story, “Historic time period 1801–1877: Slave Life and the Underground Railroad”.
  2. Spartacus Educational : ”House Slaves” (2003).
  3. Slave Narratives, ”William Wells Brown’s: Narrative of a Fugitive Slave by Christine Haug”.
  4. Spartacus Educational, “Harriet Jacobs” (2008).
  5. Spartacus Educational, “Field Slaves” (2008).
  6. Spartacus Educational, Field Slaves (2008).
  7. Spartacus Educational, “Slave Punishments: James Ramsay, Essay on the Treatment and Conversion of African Slaves in the British Sugar Colonies” (1784).
  8. Slave Punishments, “Olaudah Equiano: Another negro man was half hanged, and then burnt, for attempting to poison a cruel overseer”.
  9. St. Louis Gazette, (November 6th, 1845) Reuben A slave branded on the face.
  10. Slavery and the making of America, “Original documents (2004).
  11. Slavery and the making of America, “Historical Overview” (2004).
  12. Slave Life in Virginia and Kentucky, “Difficulties of Training me”.
  13. Black Codes 1865-66, “Black codes”.
  14. John Simkin, “Race Relations in the United States” (2008).
  15. Eugene Genovese, “Roll, Jordan, Roll: The world the slaves made” (2008).
  16. Eugene Genovese, “Roll, Jordan, Roll: The world the slaves made” (2008).
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