Slaves were punished by whipping, shackling, hanging, beating, burning, mutilation, branding and imprisonment. Punishment was often meted out in response to disobedience or perceived infractions, but sometimes abuse was performed to re-assert the dominance of the master (or overseer) over the slave.
They were punished with knives, guns, field tools and nearby objects. The whip was the most common instrument used against a slave; one said “The only punishment that I ever heard or knew of being administered slaves was whipping”, although he knew several who were beaten to death for offenses such as “sassing” a white person, hitting another “negro”, “fussing” or fighting in quarters.
Slaves who worked and lived on plantations were the most frequently punished. Punishment could be administered by the plantation owner or master, his wife, children (white males) or (most often) the overseer or driver.
Slave overseers were authorized to whip and punish slaves. One overseer told a visitor, “Some Negroes are determined never to let a white man whip them and will resist you, when you attempt it; of course you must kill them in that case.” A former slave describes witnessing females being whipped: “They usually screamed and prayed, though a few never made a sound.” If the woman was pregnant, workers might dig a hole for her to rest her belly while being whipped. After slaves were whipped, overseers might order their wounds be burst and rubbed with turpentine and red pepper. An overseer reportly took a brick, ground it into a powder, mixed it with lard and rubbed it all over a slave.
A metal collar was put on a slave to remind him of his wrongdoing. Such collars were thick and heavy; they often had protruding spikes which made fieldwork difficult and prevented the slave from sleeping when lying down. Louis Cain, a former slave, describes seeing another slave punished: “One nigger run to the woods to be a jungle nigger, but massa cotched him with the dog and took a hot iron and brands him. Then he put a bell on him, in a wooden frame what slip over the shoulders and under the arms. He made that nigger wear the bell a year and took it off on Christmas for a present to him. It sho’ did make a good nigger out of him.”
Slaves were punished for a number of reasons: working too slowly, breaking a law (for example, running away), leaving the plantation without permission or insubordination. Myers and Massy describe the practices: “The punishment of deviant slaves was decentralized, based on plantations, and crafted so as not to impede their value as laborers.” Whites punished slaves publicly to set an example. A man named Harding describes an incident in which a woman assisted several men in a minor rebellion: “The women he hoisted up by the thumbs, whipp’d and slashed her with knives before the other slaves till she died.” Men and women were sometimes punished differently; according to the 1789 report of the Virginia Committee of the Privy Council, males were often shackled but women and girls were left free.
The branding of slaves for identification was common during the colonial era; however, by the nineteenth century it was used primarily as punishment. Mutilation (such as castration, or amputating ears) was a relatively common punishment during the colonial era and still used in 1830. Any punishment was permitted for runaway slaves, and many bore wounds from shotgun blasts or dog bites used by their captors.
In 1717 Maryland law provided that slaves were not entitled to a jury trial for a misdemeanor, and empowered county judges to impose a punishment of up to 40 lashes. In 1729, the colony passed a law permitting punishment for slaves including hanging, decapitation, and cutting the body into four quarters for public display.
In 1740, South Carolina passed a law prohibiting cruelty to slaves; however, slaves could still be killed under some circumstances. The anti-cruelty law prohibited cutting out the tongue, putting out the eye, castration, scalding, burning and amputating limbs, but permitted whipping, beating, putting in irons and imprisonment.
Rape laws in the south embodied a race-based double standard. Black men accused of rape during the colonial period were often punished with castration, and the penalty was increased to death during the antebellum period; however, white men could rape female slaves without fear of punishment. Men were also sexually abused by slaveholders. Thomas Foster says that although historians have begun to cover sexual abuse during slavery, few focus on sexual abuse of men because of the assumption that only enslaved women were victimized. Foster suggests that men may have also been forced into unwanted sexual activity; one problem in documenting such abuse is that men did not bear mixed-race children. Both masters and mistresses were thought to have abused male slaves.
Children (especially young girls) were often subjected to sexual abuse by their masters, their masters’ children and relatives. Similarly, indentured servants and slave women were often abused. Since these women had no control over where they went or what they did, their masters could manipulate them into situations of high risk (for instance, forcing them into a dark field or making them sleep in their master’s bedroom to be available for service). Free (or white) women could charge their perpetrators with rape, but slave women had no legal recourse; their bodies legally belonged to their owners. This record has also given historians the opportunity to explore sexual abuse during slavery in populations other than enslaved women.
Slave breeding was the attempt by a slave-owner to influence the reproduction of his slaves for profit. It included forced sexual relations between male and female slaves, encouraging slave pregnancies, sexual relations between master and slave to produce slave children and favoring female slaves who had many children. [Blog Editor Note: Jewish Nobel Economist Robert Fogel tried to put a positive spin on slave master treatment of black slaves, which is ridiculous].
By the 19th century, popular Southern literature characterized female slaves as lustful and promiscuous “Jezebels” who shamelessly tempted white owners into sexual relations. This stereotype of the promiscuous slave was partially motivated by the need to rationalize the sexual abuse of female slaves by white males. Edward Ball, in his Slaves in the Family, noted that it was more often the sons than the senior planters who took advantage of slave women before their marriages to white women. The stereotype was reinforced by female slaves’ working partially clothed, due to the hot climate. During slave auctions, females were sometimes displayed nude or only partially clothed.
Many female slaves (known as “fancy maids”) were sold at auction into concubinage or prostitution, which was called the “fancy trade”. Concubine slaves were the only female slaves who commanded a higher price than skilled male slaves.
During the early Louisiana colonial period, French men took wives and mistresses from the slaves; they often freed their children and, sometimes, their mistresses. A sizable class of free people of color developed in New Orleans, Mobile and outlying areas (such as Isle Brevelle). By the late 18th century New Orleans had a relatively formal system of plaçage among Creoles of color, which continued under Spanish rule. Mothers negotiated settlements (or dowries) for their daughters to be mistresses to white men. In some cases, young men took such mistresses before their marriages to white women; in others, they continued the relationship after marriage. They were known to pay for the education of their children (especially their sons, whom they sometimes sent to France for schooling and military service).
In 1851, Louisiana plantation doctor Samuel Cartwright tried to explain the tendency of black slaves to flee captivity by proposing a psychiatric diagnosis that he called “drapetomania.” The term was derived from the Greek drapetes, or runaway, and mania, or madness. Cartwright suggested in New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal that slave owners could treat and cure this “medical disorder” by whipping slaves and amputating their toes.