Cruelty can be defined as an inhumane action done to an individual or group of people that causes either physical or mental harm. Slavery, at its very core, was a cruel and inhumane institution. From the idea behind it to the way that it was enforced, it degraded the lives of human beings and forbade the basic liberties that every man deserves under the Constitution of the United States. Three major areas where cruelty was especially prevalent were in the slaves working conditions, living conditions, and loss of fundamental freedoms.
Working conditions for slaves were about as bad as can possibly be imagined. Slaves worked from dawn till dusk and sometimes even longer. Solomon Northrup describes his experience as a slave on his Louisiana plantation: The hands are required to be in the cotton field as soon as it is light in the morning and with the exception of ten or fifteen minutes, which is given them at noon to swallow their allowance of cold bacon, they are not permitted a moment idle until it is too dark to see, and when the moon is full, they often times labor till the middle of the night (Northrup 15).
The slaves lived in constant fear of punishment while at work, and it was that fear that drove them to obey. Northrup continues to say that, “No matter how fatigued and weary he may be…a slave never approaches the gin-house with his basket of cotton but with fear. If it falls short in weight—if he has not performed the full task appointed him, he knows he must suffer” (10). He goes on to explain that after weighing, “follow the whippings” (10). This was not the end of the workday for a common slave though.
Each slave had his or her own respective chores to do. “One feeds the mules, another the swine—another cuts the wood, and so forth (Northrop 11). Then there were jobs to do in the slaves’ quarters, jobs that were necessary for their basic needs and survival. Finally, at a late hour, they reach the quarters, sleepy and overcome with the long day’s toil. Then a fire must be kindled in the cabin, the corn ground in the small hand-mill, and supper, and dinner for the next day in the field prepared (Northrup 12).
The slaves got very little sleep because, “an hour before day light the horn is blown,” and it was “an offense invariably followed by flogging, to be found at the quarters after daybreak” (Northrup 14). “Then the fears and labors of another day begin; and until its close there is no such thing as rest…” (Northrup 14). After an extremely difficult day of labor, the cruelty continued when the slaves returned to housing that could be described as “inadequate” at best.
Jacob Stroyer, one of fifteen children, was born on a plantation in South Carolina in 1849. He relates the conditions that his family lived in: Most of the cabins in the time of slavery were built so as to contain two families; some had partitions, while others had none. When there were no partitions each family would fit up its own part as it could; sometimes they got old boards and nailed them up, stuffing the cracks with rags; when they could not get boards they hung up old clothes (Stroyer 14).
Families were forced to live under less than ideal conditions, and sleeping was a challenge: When the family increased the children all slept together, both boys and girls, until one got married; then a part of another cabin was assigned to that one, but the rest would have to remain with their mother and father, as in childhood, unless they could get with some of their relatives or friends who had small families, or unless they were sold (Stroyer 14). The hot summer months made it impossible to sleep indoors so, “when it was too warm for them to sleep comfortably, they all slept under trees until it grew too cold” (Stroyer 16).
Francis Henderson was another slave who, after escaping from a slave plantation outside of Washington, D. C. at the age of 19, described living conditions on his plantation: Our houses were but log huts- – the tops partly open- – ground floor- – rain would come through. My aunt was quite an old woman, and had been sick several years; in rains I have seen her moving from one part of the house to the other, and rolling her bedclothes about to try to keep dry- – everything would be dirty and muddy.
I lived in the house with my aunt. My bed and bedstead consisted of a board wide enough to sleep on- – one end on a stool, the other placed near the fire. My pillow consisted of my jacket- – my covering was whatever I could get. My bed tick was the board itself. And this was the way the single men slept- – but we were comfortable in this way of sleeping, being used to it. I only remember having but one blanket from my owners up to the age of nineteen, when I ran away (Drew 45).
These living conditions caused many to resort to immoral methods of survival, as Henderson relates: Our allowance was given weekly- – a peck of sifted corn meal, a dozen and a half herrings, two and a half pounds of pork. Some of the boys would eat this up in three days- – then they had to steal, or they could not perform their daily tasks. They would visit the hog- pen, sheep- pen, and granaries. I do not remember one slave but who stole some things- – they were driven to it as a matter of necessity. I myself did this- (Drew 48). Mealtime was far from a joyous occasion.
In regard to cooking, sometimes many had to cook at one fire, and “before all could get to the fire…the overseers horn would sound: then they must go at any rate” (Drew 50). Slaves like Henderson “never sat down at a table to eat except at harvest time” (50). He says, “This (eating at harvest time) was more like people, and we liked it, for we sat down then at meals,” (50). The slaves did not feel like people for they were treated as animals. They were beaten regularly, and most of the time unjustly accused. Henderson describes how one of his master’s four sons remained at home to be a driver.
He would often come to the field and accuse the slave of having taken so and so. If we denied it, he would whip the grown-up ones to make them own it” (Drew 51). Though the son would often punish them for idleness, under the harsh conditions, idleness is obviously an excusable act. “If any had been idle, the young master would visit him with blows” (51). And perhaps the most cruel and unmanly act that this master’s son committed was his mistreatment of women. Henderson relates that, “I have known him to kick my aunt, an old woman who had raised and nursed him, and I have seen him punish my sisters awfully with hickories from the woods” (52).
Perhaps the most blatantly cruel and most obvious element of slavery is the fact that the slave loses his/her freedom. Slavery is the possession of another person as one’s own property, thereby relieving them of their basic liberties and freedoms. This total disrespect for humanity was shown in a variety of ways. The slave had no rights whatsoever. Henderson tells about the situation with the poor white patrols that would pay the slaves for goods they (the slaves) stole, and encourage them to steal whatever they could.
Henderson says, “It’s all speculation- – all a matter of self- interest, and when the slaves run away, these same traders catch them if they can, to get the reward. If the slave threatens to expose his traffic, he does not care- – for the slave’s word is good for nothing- – it would not be taken” (Drew 56). White southerners did not regard slaves as people, and thus did not treat them as such. Former slave Josiah Henson wrote an autobiography in which he explains the lack of rights afforded to slaves. He describes a scene in which his father is being hunted because he attacked the overseer who was trying to molest his mother.
The fact of the sacrilegious act of lifting a hand against the sacred temple of a white man’s body… this was all it was necessary to establish. And the penalty followed: one hundred lashes on the bare back, and to have the right ear nailed to the whipping- post, and then severed from the body” (Henson 32). They eventually captured his father and inflicted this penalty. His father was shipped off and for a while his family lived in relative peace, until the owner of the plantation died, and they were forced to leave. Henson laments that: Our term of happy union as one family was now, alas! at an end.
Mournful as was the Doctor’s death to his friends it was a far greater calamity to us. The estate and the slaves must be sold and the proceeds divided among the heirs. We were but property- – not a mother, and the children God had given her” (Henson 35). Henson further describes the slave trade experience with amazing detail, saying: Common as are slave- auctions in the southern states, and naturally as a slave may look forward to the time when he will be put upon the block, still the full misery of the event- – of the scenes which precede and succeed it- – is never understood till the actual experience comes.
The first sad announcement that the sale is to be; the knowledge that all ties of the past are to be sundered; the frantic terror at the idea of being “sent south;” the almost certainty that one member of a family will be torn from another; the anxious scanning of purchasers’ faces; the agony at parting, often forever, with husband, wife, child- – these must be seen and felt to be fully understood (35). In an accurate depiction of what an incredible burden slavery was on families and how cruel it was, Henson remembers how the rest of his family was sold.
My brothers and sisters were bid off first, and one by one, while my mother, paralyzed by grief, held me by the hand. Her turn came, and she was bought by Isaac Riley of Montgomery County. Then I was offered to the assembled purchasers” (Henson 36). Henson’s mother wept profusely and begged the man who purchased her to buy him as well, but he simply disregarded her and kicked her out of the way. This is a fine metaphor for the way that slaves and African-Americans were treated in the early 1800’s.
Finally, slavery was a cruel institution, and the slaves were treated cruelly. The slaves were treated inhumanely. Perhaps Henson sums it up best with his reaction to the treatment of his mother at the slave trade: “This was one of my earliest observations of men; an experience which I only shared with thousands of my race, the bitterness of which to any individual who suffers it cannot be diminished by the frequency of its recurrence, while it is dark enough to overshadow the whole after-life with something blacker than a funeral pall” (36).