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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hard master, whilst those who allowed their people any thing more, were deemed kind and indulgent.12


Hence, the normal bondsman and woman expected a diet that included several pounds of pork or bacon and, even more certainly, corn.13

Were the standard rations enough? Sometimes they were not, at least for some adult men. As Blassingame notes: "Equally serious was his [the slave's] dependence on the 'average' amount of food and clothing his master decided was sufficient for all slaves." What was sufficient for one man or woman may be insufficient for others!14 Ex-slave Anderson added, after describing his plantation's new standard rations: "And 'twa'n't enough. He half-starve us niggers, and he want more work." Runaway slave Williamson Pease ironically commented to Drew about the draught animals' superior treatment: "Horses and mules have food by them all the time, but the slaves had four pounds of fat bacon a week, and a peck of corn meal,--not enough to last some men three days." Francis Henderson similarly commented: "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."15 Underfeeding almost inevitably caused theft, as Pease and Henderson also observed. Harriet Brent Jacobs, alias Linda Brent, described well how miserly the rations could be doled out. Her mistress would


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 gravy and other scrapings. The slaves could get nothing to eat except what she chose to give them. Provisions were weighed out by the pound and ounce, three times a day. I can assure you she gave them no chance to eat wheat bread from her flour barrel. She knew how many biscuits a quart of flour would make, and exactly what size they ought to be.16

So according to the slaves' own testimony, the nearly universal "standard rations" were inadequate for many of them, at least by themselves without what they could raise, hunt, or steal on their own, or what more indulgent masters might issue.17



Fogel and Engerman's Optimistic Reconstructions of the Slave Diet


Fogel and Engerman in Time on the Cross argue that slaves were well fed:


The average daily diet of slaves was quite substantial. The energy value of their diet exceeding that of free men in 1879 by more than 10 percent. There was no deficiency in the amount of meat allotted to slaves. On average, they consumed six ounces of meat per day, just an ounce lower than the average quantity consumed by the free population.18


Although such data as average heights and rapid population growth indicate American slaves were not seriously underfed, this result was not entirely due to their masters and mistresses' efforts.19 The slaves struggled to get food on their own, such as by hunting and trapping (both relatively productive in a sparsely populated/frontier region), gardening small patches of land, purchasing food using money they earned from extra work, not to mention stealing. The testimony cited above casts some doubt on the "standard rations" of pork and corn alone always being enough to satisfy at least adult male bondsmen.


Fogel and Engerman clearly make many dubious assumptions and casual mistakes while reconstructing the slave diet, as shown by Richard Sutch's searching and intensive critique of their data. Their disappearance method uses data from only 44 generally backwoods counties out of Parker and Gallman's sample of 413 counties' farm and plantation food production. They assume the slaves must have eaten most of the food produced on the plantations in their subsample because (they reason) these were too far from significant urban markets. Their subsample of this sample excluded farms and small plantations with fewer than fifty-one slaves, thus discounting the possibility of local sales of produce by the big plantations to neighboring farms and small plantations. Indeed, their subsample comes down to just seventy-seven plantations, including less than 10 percent of the total population and 1.5 percent of the total productive landholdings in the Parker-Gallman sample. With such a narrow sample focused on the largest plantations, a bias similar to U.B. Phillips's American Negro Slavery, distortions inevitably appear. Since plantations were commercial and non-subsistent by nature, they sold produce for cash. Using a subsample of them in backwoods areas more than fifty wagon miles from urban areas would not eliminate the distortions caused by local sales of produce or the driving of animals on the hoof to market. The latter point undermines Fogel and Engerman's evidence for the slaves having a high beef consumption based on their subsample since 15 percent of all the cattle in it were on four Texas farms in two counties which fell outside the fifty-mile radius. But since Texas was notorious for long distance cattle drives to market, it is implausible to think these ranches' slaves ate most of the steer raised on them! They underestimate the resident white population's consumption in these areas, such as by using conversion ratios (such as dressed to live weight) which lower how much pork the slaves ate and raise how much the whites ate in the subsampled areas. Between all the mistakes and questionable assumptions Sutch identifies, many of them omitted here, nobody should place much stock in Fogel and Engerman's arguments for a varied and nutritious slave diet.20


Much of the debate on the slave diet between Fogel and Engerman and their critics like Sutch surrounds mineral and vitamin deficiencies. For example, was the phenomenon of dirt/clay eating, which still survives among Southern rural blacks in the United States today, due to malnutrition? A thiamine deficiency could easily explain some plantations' outbreaks of sudden dirt-eating frenzies.21 Being high in pork and maize, the classic slave diet clearly was tailor-made for producing pellagra, just as it did among poor whites. Due to its chemically bound form, corn lacks niacin that the human body can easily use. Its high content of the amino acid leucine partially even interferes with the body's digestion of whatever niacin that is consumed. Although the body can convert the amino acid tryptophan into niacin from crude protein, the low quality fat pork slaves normally ate unfortunately was a poor source of it. Even nowadays, let alone in antebellum times, physicians had difficulty diagnosing pellagra because its symptoms seem to be like other afflictions; it also manifests itself in the early stages in disparate ways in different individuals. It normally does not develop along standard, classical lines. Nineteenth-century American doctors simply did not know about this disease, so they would think the bondsmen under their care had other diseases. The description of the "negro disease" called black tongue by Southern physicians, however, fits nearly perfectly pellagra in its earlier stages. Employing such arguments, Kiple and Kiple suggest that pellagra's symptoms manifested themselves during hard times when planters cut back on their rations. It also became operative in many bondsmen in an early, endemic form that emerged during winter and early spring, only to disappear again due to seasonal fresh fruits or vegetables entering their diet. Sutch observes that the standard ration falls way short of supplying enough niacin. It even lacks the extra protein with which the body could convert tryptophan into niacin. The unsupplemented standard ration had other vitamin and mineral deficiencies, such as in thiamine, riboflavin, and calcium. It was short even in vitamin A, since the corn and sweet potatoes of the antebellum South were evidently normally white, not yellow, in color.22 Since the bondsmen likely suffered from dietary deficiencies, at least during winter and early spring when forced to survive on the easily stored items of the standard ration and/or under harsher masters and mistresses' more restrictive diets, this casts doubt upon Fogel and Engerman's rosy reconstruction.


The Slave Diet as Crude, Coarse, and Boring


Besides being likely vitamin deficient, the slave diet was obviously crude, coarse, and boring. As Frederick Douglass commented: "Not to give a slave enough to eat, is regarded as the most aggravated development of meanness even among slaveholders. The rule is, no matter how coarse the food, only let there be enough of it." Victoria McMullen remembered her slave grandmother described the average slave's diet this way: "But the other slaves didn't git nothing but fat meat and corn bread and molasses. And they got tired of that same old thing. They wanted something else sometimes." Mary Reynolds recalled during slavery days what she was fed: "Mostly we ate pickled pork and corn bread and peas and beans and 'taters. They never was as much as we needed." Although monotonous, this diet showed her master at least gave more than just the stereotypical "hog and hoecake" diet. As Olmsted observed: "The food is everywhere, however, coarse, crude, and wanting in variety; much more so than that of our [Northern] prison convicts." The restricted food types they received, the crude cooking equipment they used, and the sharp time limits imposed by both sexes working a "sunup to sundown" work day all combined to produce a dreary diet. As actress turned reluctant mistress Fanny Kemble observed at her husband's rice plantation:


They got to the fields at daybreak, carrying with them their allowance of food for the day, which toward noon, and not till then, they eat, cooking it over a fire, which they kindle as best they can, where they are working. Their second meal in the day is at night, after their labor is over, having worked, at the very least, six hours without intermission of rest or refreshment since their noonday meal.


Since the adults of both sexes worked such long hours of hard labor in the fields, the cooking equipment consisting generally of fireplaces or open fires, and relatively few or no metal pots, forks, knives, and spoons being available, crudely prepared meals inevitably followed. Solomon Northrup, a free man sold into slavery, said slaves often lacked the motivation to hunt after work because "after a long and hard day's work, the weary slave feels little like going to the swamp for his supper, and half the time prefers throwing himself on the cabin floor without it." Little time remained for the slave woman, if one applies unrealistically the contemporary Victorian middle class' ideology of the separate spheres to this situation, to spend long hours bringing supper's food up to some elevated level of gustatory delight. John Brown, once a young slave in southern Virginia, described how simply slaves often prepared their food: "We used to make our corn into hominy, hoe and Johnny-cake, and sometimes parch it, and eat it without any other preparation."23 If issued unground, just grinding/pounding the corn into something cookable took enough effort and time itself. Nevertheless, the slave diet's fundamental problem was the lack of variety in what slaveowners issued their human chattels to begin with, not the lack of time originating in long days of field work by both sexes that reduced the number of domestic chores, including cooking, that could be done.24


Setting up communal facilities army-style was one partial solution to slaves without enough time to cook. Kemble mentioned that one old woman in a shed boiled and distributed the daily allotment of rice and grits on her husband's Georgia rice-island plantation. Francis Henderson, who escaped from the Washington D.C. area, said slaves cooked food on their own, but often lacked the time to do so: "In regard to cooking, sometimes many have to cook at one fire, and before all could get to the fire to bake hoe cakes, the overseer's horn would sound; then they must go at any rate." Frequently he had to eat on the run and could not sit down to eat due time constraints. During harvest, this problem was solved by cooking everything at the big house "as the hands are wanted more in the field. This was more like people, and we liked it, for we sat down then at meals."25 But the cost of removing this burden this way was still greater regimentation and further weakening of the slave family's role by reducing their freedom as part of individual households to make decisions about consumption, i.e., how dinner was cooked.


Differing Diets for Slaves with Different Positions


Since masters and mistresses were "respecters of men," they treated different slaves--or groups of slaves--differently.26 In particular, the household servants and drivers and their families were apt to receive better material conditions, in exchange for (inevitably) the tighter controls and supervision due to being in the white owner's presence more. (This is the classic trade-off of a sincerely practiced paternalism). The bleak picture of field hands subsisting on "hog and hominy" diets did not apply to all their neighbors dwelling in the quarters. Not having just to subsist on the standard rations, servants benefited from the leftovers of their master and mistress' table, as Kemble observed. Mary Boykin Chesnut's servants mobbed her while visiting near her husband's father's plantation, wanting her to come home. Her cook said, when asked if she lacked anything: "Lacking anything? I lack everything. What is cornmeal and bacon, milk and molasses? Would that be all you wanted? Ain't I bin living and eating exactly as you does all these years? When I cook fer you didn't I have some of all? Dere now!" Her complaint was, in part, "Please come home, so we could eat better again!" Freedman Edward Jenkins of Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, told Armstrong how house servants gained from their owner's meals: "What de white folk had ter eat, de servan's had also, when de white folks done eat dey fill." Although his parents were field hands, aged freedman Tony Washington remembered his mistress made him "the waiter-and-pantry" boy. This job allowed him to get extra food, including leftover alcohol, as he nostalgically remembered:


Dey [the visiting white gentlemen] set down ergain, an' Massa say: 'Sonny, bring de glasses!' I'd bring de glasses, an' de brandy from de sidebo'ahd. Dey know how ter treat dey liquor in de old days an' nobody git drunk. Co'se, I got er little dizzy once when I drink all dat de gen'lemans lef' in dey glasses--heh heh!--but Missus say she gwine tell Massa ter whip me if'n I do dat ergain!


Sam Jackson benefited from having relatives in the right places in "the big house." He enjoyed reminiscing about his boyhood job's perks:


I was de waitin'-boy fo' de table. Don' you know, in dem conditions, I had a sof' bed ter lie in? Yaw . . . did I git plenty ter eat? Jus' guess I did. De waiter-boy allays got plenty, an' when his Maw was house-woman, an' his Auntie de cook, guess he goin' go hungry? Ho!27


By having family members close to the master or the mistress, this slave child avoided the customary lack of good treatment ("investment") most received from their owners because they were too young to work in the fields.


Further evidence of tiers within slave society in the quarters, as reflected by differences in diet, comes from archeological investigation. At Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate, investigators found bones deposited from different animals, domesticated and wild, in different parts of his estate. Although the differences in bones buried between Building 'o' and the storehouse, both areas mainly for slaves, could be explained by some other mechanism, apparently higher quality cuts of meat were eaten at the former but not at the latter. As Crader notes: "Meaty elements such as lumbar vertebrae, the pelvis, and the front and hind limbs also are present, elements that virtually are absent from the Storehouse assemblage."28 Differences between the secondary butchery marks, caused by removing the meat at the cooking stage, appeared between Building 'o' and the storehouse's artifacts. (Primary butchery involves taking the animal apart at the joints after its slaughter). The bone marks found at the site of Building 'o' are like those that would be produced by the way the whites at the mansion ate, but are completely absent from the Storehouse's assemblage of bones. The master, as well as his evidently better-off slaves, ate their meat as roasts, while the worse-off slaves stewed their meat in pots, with the bones chopped up much more.29 The evidence Crader literally unearthed may indicate that Jefferson's domestic servants consumed the big house's leftovers at their homes in the quarters, which gave them a somewhat better diet than the field hands.30


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