A comparison of american slaves and english agricultural workers, 1750-1875

НазваниеA comparison of american slaves and english agricultural workers, 1750-1875
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Why Do Such a Comparison?

A historical comparison brings into focus features of both subjects under study that might otherwise go unnoticed. New insights may be gained, which might be missed when highly specialized historians devoted to a particular field analyze historical phenomena stay strictly within their area of expertise. Suddenly, through historical comparison and contrast, the pedestrian can become exceptional, and what was deemed unusual becomes part of a pattern. For example, both the agricultural workers and the slaves found ways to resist the powerful in their respective societies, but their forms of resistance differed since their legal statuses differed. In the preface of his study of American slavery and Russian serfdom, Kolchin observes some of the advantages of doing such a comparison. It reduces parochialism in given fields, allows features to be seen as significant that otherwise might be overlooked, makes for the formulation and testing of hypotheses, and helps to distinguish which variables and causal factors had more weight.2 A comparative topic is justified, even when it deals with phenomena long since analyzed by historians, if it wrings new insights out of the same old sources. It may expose assumptions about events or processes experts take for granted or overlook in the fields being compared. One suspects sometimes labor historians and African-American slavery historians may be letting their respective historiographical work pass each other like ships in the night, not knowing the valuable insights one group may have for the study of the other's field.3

Comparing and contrasting English agricultural workers during the industrial revolution and American slaves before and during the Civil War allows for the exploration of (perhaps unexpected) similarities and differences in their experiences in the same general time frame. Placing side by side for inspection two agricultural work forces who lived at the same basic time who spoke the same language seems "a natural," but specialists in both fields have largely overlooked this identification. The history of black slavery is "labor history." On a daily basis slaveholders got people to labor for them, tried to motivate them by fear and the stick, or, less commonly but ideally, by love and the carrot. Of course, fundamental differences remained between the two work forces. The blacks were not really seen as part of the surrounding society for racial reasons, while the English agricultural workers still had some real rights, despite their evident subordination. Excepting for children, farmworkers were never subjected to the supreme indignity of being flogged while on the job, but the whip was virtually the emblem of the slaveowner's authority over his or her property. Exploring the similarities and differences between these two work forces is the burden of this work.

What Exactly Is Compared Out of Each Diverse Group

This work compares from these groups those who lived in rural areas and did farm work as their main or exclusive occupation. Neither urban slavery in the American South nor slavery in the North before its demise are analyzed here. However, some source documents used below involve slaves who either may have lived in a small town or in both city and country. Artisans who lived in rural areas, such as blacksmiths and carpenters, receive some attention in the American case but almost none in the English. Servants are included, whether American slave or English free, whether doing domestic chores, learning husbandry, or a combination of the two, but slave domestics receive much more attention than English ones. Slaves working in industry or factories are omitted, as well as their English counterparts, since this work is about agricultural/rural workers. Workers in English domestic industry are also passed over. But cases in which substantial machinery and mills functioned on plantations, such as for rice and sugar refining, are covered since they functioned amidst a rural setting. Unless otherwise mentioned, it should be assumed, as "Southern slaves" are compared with English agricultural workers, that the former live in rural areas or perhaps small towns, and that they are either field hands or servants, not urban and/or industrial workers. Since about ninety percent of the slaves did not live in cities, the vast bulk of them lived in rural areas.4 Blacks without masters--"free Negroes"--are not covered here. The focus shall be on ENGLISH farm workers, not Scottish, Welsh, Irish, or "British." Exclusions and limits are necessary for what is compared here within these two large, diverse groups, since more could always be added.

Five Broad Areas for Comparison Purposes

In five broad categories English farmworkers and African-American slaves are compared. The first concerns the material standard of living, such as in diet, clothing, housing, and medical care. The second concerns the less quantitative but essential "quality of life" issues, such as in family relationships, education, religious activities, and having an informed outlook on life. Although through sheer ignorance and good treatment perhaps some slaves were relatively content with their lot, their satisfaction does not make their situation to be actually good. It is better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied, a dictum which a few quantitative economic historians seem tempted to forget. Only those slaves with a "live for today" philosophy, who made themselves totally oblivious to the future, could possibly forget what masters selling their family members would do to them. Sales due to death or bankruptcy were always remained a sword of Damocles hanging over the bondsmen. Third, the sexual division of labor between men and women is compared for the English farm workers and African-American slaves. These two groups had glaring differences in this area which, perhaps ironically, declined sharply after freedom for the slaves came. Fourth, work conditions, labor discipline, and the ways the masters attempted to control their respective subordinate classes are compared, including by and through the state. Abuses at work are dealt with, such as whipping, hours of work, holidays/days off, and the incentives used by "management," broadly considered. The reality of paternalism and the quality of work relationships are examined. Fifth, the means by which the subordinate classes resisted the will of the dominant class is analyzed. How the oppressed classes wore a "mask" is considered here. Both of these groups carefully concealed, by lies, feigned ignorance, or the simple non-volunteering of information, what they REALLY thought from their "betters" to avoid punishment or exploitation. The infrequent, but spectacular, cases of revolts and mass actions are covered, as well as union activities among the agricultural workers. Using the broad categories of the material standard of living, the quality of life, the sexual division of labor, work conditions and controls, and resistance against those in authority and their controls, the most important similarities and contrasts between these two work forces are focused upon.

This comparison uses the general time period of 1750-1875. Making for the drawing of sharper parallels, these dates allow two largely contemporary work forces to be compared who both lived in industrializing nations and spoke the same language. The nineteenth century is emphasized, partly due to greater documentation, but also because then the factors creating these two work forces' conditions peaked. The proletarianization of the farmworkers reached a height in the first half of the nineteenth century, before allotments spread more widely, mechanization became common, and out-migration had partially emptied the English countryside. Similarly, after generally experiencing a boom in the preceding thirty years, the Cotton Kingdom clearly reached an economic high point in 1860. This work emphasizes portraying the respective climaxes of the two work forces' conditions as determined by events and processes that began in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, such as the initial arrival of slaves in the English colonies and the second general wave (i.e., post-Tudor) enclosure acts. Changes from earlier conditions (pre-1750) are treated largely in passing, which makes the conditions of the slaves look better, due to the improvements in their treatment from the early colonial period, while these make the agricultural workers apppear worse off, because of the negative effects enclosure and the French Wars had on their standard of living compared to (say) 1725.

Both work forces lived in industrializing countries. The South's industrial sector before the Civil War that could employ the slaves paled before what was available to rural English workers. Nevertheless, they still resided in the nation that was, by the eve of the Civil War, the world's second greatest industrial power. The North's industrial sector clearly affected them. Often Northern factories made the clothes and shoes they wore, and the tools and machines they worked with. Corresponding with the period of England's industrialization, the enclosure acts affected the laborers largely negatively. They greatly reduced the independence and social mobility the farmworkers had had. If they were willing to migrate, industry gave them an outlet from bad rural conditions. It even provided some competition for their labor that raised their wages when they stayed put, at least in northern England. Importantly, a major chronological difference separates the two groups: Freedom abruptly came to the slaves in 1865, but the improvements and changes in the farmworkers' conditions were gradual, without any radical discontinuity. Perhaps the farmworkers' gaining the vote in 1884 was the one event that changed their lives the most, for although the Swing Riots of 1830-31 badly shook the British establishment, their effects on their lives were a pittance before the effects of emancipation on American blacks.5 The mechanization of English agriculture was a long, slow process, undoubtedly hindered early in the nineteenth century by the massive labor surplus that prevailed in much of the English countryside, and even by "Captain Swing" himself. Hence, some sources about post-1875 conditions are cited for the English case, since their conditions changed more slowly, but post-1865 conditions are mostly ignored for the freedmen, although racial subordination continued by means other than bondage.


Some Theoretical Problems in Comparing Slaves and Laborers' Standard of Living

The debate over standard of living during industrialization, and the role of capitalism in lowering or raising the masses' consumption and use of various material goods, is one of historiography's greatest footballs. The Long Debate on Poverty6 has an aptly chosen title! Unfortunately, for both Southern slaves and English farmworkers, no solid nationwide statistical economic data exists that could decisively settle the issue. The English (and Welsh) had no fully inclusive census until 1801, no occupational census until 1841, and no official registration for deaths and births until 1839.7 American census data begins with 1790, but a mere count of people, crops grown in a given year, and their occupations is not enough to calculate per capita income.8 Furthermore, what the average slave received hardly equaled what the American did! To run such calculations, it is necessary to know what the slaves alone got. The available historical evidence, such as it is, can give clues and indications of what the actual standard of living was. But, at this late date, nothing with full rational certainty capable of convincing all the disputants involved is likely to turn up. Anecdotal evidence is valuable, because it can descriptively expose the relationships within an society that an overemphasis on quantitative data can obscure. But it cannot totally settle this debate, since conflicting stories appear to support both sides, such as how kindly or harshly the "typical" master treated the "average" slave. This point leads to the next big problem in the standard of living controversy . . .

Just what exactly IS the "average" slave or the "typical" agricultural worker? These abstractions represent groups that experienced a great variety of working conditions, climates, lifestyles, occupations, family statuses, and masters supervising. What is "average" for slaves when comparing the relatively mild bondage of the Border States, such as Virginia and Kentucky, with the harshness of the frontier Deep South, such as Texas and Arkansas? What is "average" for agricultural workers between Northumberland, where one observer said the wages and the standard of living surpassed America's for farmworkers, as opposed to the utter misery of notoriously low-waged Wiltshire in southern England?9 Theoretically, after warming up the computers armed with spreadsheet programs, adding the two together and dividing, the issue would be settled, if accurate, broad-based, quantitative statistics did exist (but they do not). Number-crunching can obscure the essential reality of an unequal or extreme situations within the working class or bondsmen as a whole. The economist who warned against wading a river with an average depth of four feet drew attention to a serious theoretical problem that pervades quantitative analysis when applied to the standard of living debate. Although the "average" bondsman or the "mean" farmworker are handy abstractions, they remain generalizations. It is mistaken to allow them to obscure the underlying realities of (especially) regional diversity for the farmworkers, or the widely varying treatment meted out by various masters and mistresses to their bondsmen.

Diet and the Standard of Living for Slaves

The essence of the standard of living debate seems to be diet, and how far the masses lived above bare subsistence.10 Related issues include: How much and what kinds of "luxuries," such as sugar, coffee, and tea, did the groups in question enjoy? How much and what kinds of meat did they have? Did they eat wheat, the most expensive grain, or barley, rye, oats, etc.? How coarse was the food they ate? For the American slaves, as for American Southerners generally, the main grain was corn (maize), and the main meat, pork.11 The absolutely archetypal rations slaves received consisted of so many pecks of corn and pounds of pork or bacon per week. Anything adding to or replacing these items as basic foodstuffs was at least mildly unusual. As escaped slave Christopher Nichols testified to Drew: "My master used to allow us one piece of meat a day, and a peck and a half of corn meal a week." After being sold for $1,200 in Natchez, Eli Johnson was "put on a cotton farm, and allowed a peck of corn a week and three pounds meat." Traveler Frederick Law Olmsted inquired of one white Southerner: "'What do they generally give the niggers on the plantations here?' 'A peck of meal and three pound of bacon is what they call 'lowance, in general, I believe. It takes a heap o' meat on a big plantation.'" Aged ex-slave Andy Anderson painfully recalled that the new overseer, Delbridge, cut rations as the Civil War began: "He weighs out the meat, three pound for the week, and he measure a peck of meal." The "meat" in question was normally from the flesh of hogs, although exceptions appeared. Once a slave in eastern Maryland, Frederick Douglass mentioned how the standard monthly rations included fish sometimes: "The men and women slaves received, as their monthly allowance of food, eight pounds of pork, or its equivalent in fish, and one bushel of corn meal." Charles Ball similarly described Calvert County, Maryland, where

the practice amongst slave-holders, was to allow each slave one peck of corn weekly, which was measured out every Monday morning; at the same time each one receiving seven salt herrings. This formed the week's provision, and the master who did not give it, was called a
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