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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The Slaves' Role in Procuring Their Own Food


Slaves could seek additional food, if they were able and willing to put time into it after a long day working for their masters and mistresses, by hunting, trapping, fishing, and tending their own plots of crops. Some masters banned these activities, but the slaves might still go secretly hunting (at least) anyway. As freedwoman Jenny Proctor of Alabama recollected: "Our master, he wouldn't 'low us to go fishing--he say that too easy on a nigger and wouldn't 'low us to hunt none either--but sometime we slips off at night and catch possums." A strong majority still permitted their slaves extra ways to get food, showing a strongly different spirit from the English rural elite's about almost anyone else hunting besides themselves. Northrup stated why: "No objections are made to hunting, inasmuch as it dispenses with drafts upon the smoke-house, and because every marauding coon that is killed is so much saved from the standing corn." After nearly tripping over a huge pile of oyster shells on her husband's cotton-island plantation, Kemble later commented: "This is a horrid nuisance, which results from an indulgence which the people here have and value highly; the waters round the island are prolific in shell-fish, oysters, and the most magnificent prawns I ever saw. The former are a considerable article of the people's diet, and the shells are allowed to accumulate." The slaves also set out somewhat ineffective traps for birds at the upstream rice-island estate. A neighboring master shot and killed an old man of Douglass' master in Maryland while "fishing for oysters" for the trivial offense of trespassing on his land. In this way they "made up the deficiency of their scanty allowance." Hunting could be of critical importance to the bondsmen's diets. Archeological evidence from the Hampton St. Simons island plantation had 17.6 percent of the bones gathered from wild animals, while one at Cannon's Point had an amazing 89.8 percent by number of bones (44.5 percent by estimated meat weight) from such fauna. These percentages sharply contrast with the 2 percent or less figures from Monticello, the Hermitage, and the plantation at Kingsmill.31 Hence, depending the environment and slaveowners' provisions (or presumed lack thereof), hunting, fishing, etc. could be just a minor way to supplement the slaves' diet, or a mainstay perhaps required for survival.


Many slaveowners allowed their bondsmen to cultivate small patches of land, similar to the allotments that English agricultural workers tended. The slaves often benefited little from them, because this extra food was eventually obtainable only by working on their gardens after having put in a full day's work for someone else, thus increasing their real workweek. As aged ex-slave Mary Reynolds of Louisiana recalled:


Sometimes Massa let niggers have a little patch. They'd raise 'taters or goobers. They liked to have them to help fill out on the victuals. . . . The niggers had to work the patches at night and dig the 'taters and goobers at night. Then if they wanted to sell any in town, they'd have to git a pass to go.


Some masters stopped their slaves from having gardens, as ex-slave Jenny Proctor remembered. Although this practice was common, Olmsted noted, various planters prohibited it "because it tempts them to reserve for and to expend in the night-work the strength they want employed in their service during the day, and also because the produce thus obtained is made to cover much plundering of their master's crops, and of his live stock." Planter Bennet Barrow allowed his slaves to have gardens, but stopped them from selling anything grown on their plots because it created a "spirit of trafficing" which required of them "means and time" they had no right to possess. Further, he added:


A negro would not be content to sell only What he raises or makes or either corn (should he be permitted) or poultry, or the like, but he would sell a part of his allowance allso, and would be tempted to commit robberies to obtain things to sell. Besides, he would never go through his work carefully, particularly When other engagements more interesting and pleasing are constantly passing through his mind, but would be apt to slight his work.


But by allowing animals such as pigs and chickens to be raised by their bondsmen, other slaveowners were more generous. Fanny Kemble noted that the blacks of her husband's rice-plantation could raise as many domestic birds as they wished, but no longer had permission to raise their own pigs. Some slaves were free to grow even cash crops on their "allotments." Overseer John Mairs wrote to Mrs. Sarah Polk about how much cotton her hands had raised for themselves, which was marketed with the rest of the plantation's output: "Youre servents crope of coten in 1849 was about 8400 lbs of sead coten."32 Hence, the practice of giving plots of land to slaves to raise some of their own food or crops was common in the South, but slaveowners many times placed major restrictions on it.


Variations in What Food Different Slaveowners Provided to Their Slaves


Much variation arose in what food and how much of it slaves had from master to master and plantation to plantation. On the one hand, enough disturbing cases of slaves who rarely or never got any meat appear to cast some doubt on the utter universality of the "standard rations." After all, would Louisiana have a law requiring slaves to be fed (Olmsted believed) four pounds of meat a week if slaveowners were already doing it? He added also: "(This law is a dead letter, many planters in the State making no regular provision of meat for their force)." Frederick Douglass noted Master Thomas Auld in Maryland allowed him and three fellow slaves in his kitchen less than half a bushel of cornmeal a week, "and very little else, either in the shape of meat or vegetables. It was not enough for us to subsist upon." Thomas Hedgebeth, born free in North Carolina, worked on some farms there. As he recounted to Drew:


I have known that the slaves had not a bite of meat given them. They had a pint of corn meal unsifted, for a meal,--three pints a day. . . This is no hearsay--I've seen it through the spring, and on until crop time: Three pints of meal a day and the bran and nothing else.




After being beset by a minor mob of children begging her for meat, Kemble later wrote that at the rice plantation her husband owned: "Animal food is only allowed to certain of the harder working men, hedgers and ditchers, and to them only occasionally, and in very moderate rations." A neighboring plantation owner told her somewhat offhandedly that a meatless diet was a good social control device: "He says that he considers the extremely low diet of the negroes one reason for the absence of crimes of a savage nature among them; most of them do not touch meat the year around." John Brown remembered as a slave child in Virginia that: "We never had meat of any kind, and our usual drink was water."33 Contrary to what some may think, this evidence indicates that the corn in the standard rations was more "standard" than the pork!


Other slaves enjoyed a more luxurious, or at least varied, diet. For example, Thomas Jefferson's slaves had at least a diversity of meats in their diet. They received .5 to 1.5 pounds of beef, 4 to 8 fish, and 4 to 4.5 pounds of pork per month per man or woman. Judging from archeological remains at Andrew Jackson's Hermitage, Jefferson's Monticello, and the Hampton Plantation in Georgia, beef may have been more significant in the slave diet than commonly believed. Aged freedwoman Harriet McFarlin Payne recalled in the quarters: "Late of an evening as you'd go by the doors you could smell meat a-frying, coffee-making, and good things cooking. We were fed good." Although admittedly this coffee may have been ersatz, McFarlin's account still shows these slaves were far removed from the basically corn and water diet Brown described above. Although now seen as a proven public health menace, the giving of tobacco to slaves by planter Bennet Barrow demonstrates they received more than the bare necessities. In Louisiana Olmsted encountered a plantation that to a minute degree made up for the almost inhuman hours of grinding season: It issued extra rations of flour and allowed the sugar refinery's hands to drink as much coffee and eat as much molasses as they wished. Tobacco rations were regularly dispensed year around, and molasses during winter and early summer. Cato of Alabama remembered as a slave his mistress on Sunday gave out chickens and flour. He also had vegetables and dried beef for eating later. Plowden C. J. Weston, a South Carolina rice planter with several plantations, prepared a standard contract for his overseers which included standard rations (some weekly, some monthly, some in only certain seasons or conditional upon good behavior) of rice, potatoes, grits, salt, flour, fish or molasses, peas, meat, and tobacco. Some masters also issued (appropriately) buttermilk to the often lactose-intolerant slaves. Many slaves got their hands on alcohol through their own earnings or by selling property stolen from their masters.34 So although Fogel and Engerman's rosy perceptions of the slave diet have some support, the weight of the literary sources available fails to sustain their case overall, thus implying the existence of flaws in their quantitative sampling methodology. The slaves usually "enjoyed" a spartan diet--although their poor white neighbors perhaps often were only somewhat better off--but a number had more than the standard rations through having more progressive and/or indulgent masters and mistresses and/or unusual opportunities or abilities to get food on their own.


The Diet of English Farmworkers: Regional Variations


Turning to the English agricultural workers' diet, strong regional variations must be remembered. In the same way the Border States usually treated their slaves better than the Deep South partially because of their ability to more easily escape to the North, the English farmworkers living in areas north of the Midlands lived better than their brethren to the south, where the most desperate rural poverty prevailed. Additionally, the grain-growing arable districts in the southeast, due to greater seasonal variations in employment, normally had worse conditions for their generally more numerous inhabitants than the pastoral, shepherding, dairying districts in the southwest. Sir James Caird's dividing line, drawn from the Wash (north of East Anglia) across England through the middle of Shropshire, quite accurately divides the high-wage north from the low-wage south. In the north, because farmers as employers faced the competition of mine operators and factory owners for labor, they had to pay higher wages. Otherwise, low wages would provoke farmworkers to "vote with their feet," causing them to migrate to nearby booming urban areas benefiting from the economic expansion produced by the industrial revolution. Even the likes of E.P. Thompson admits that the real wages of laborers in such areas probably "had been rising in the decades before 1790, especially in areas contiguous to manufacturing or mining districts. 'There wants a war to reduce wages,' was the cry of some northern gentry in the 1790s." By contrast, in the south, outside of London, a city of trades dominated by skilled artisans which also contained relatively little factory employment, few nearby urban areas possessed employers competing for unskilled labor. The increasingly overpopulated southern English countryside during this period (c. 1750-1860), and the very understandable reluctance of rural laborers to relocate long distances, enabled the gentry and farmers to successfully rachet down wages to levels often barely above subsistence, especially for married men with large families. According to Brinley, in 1850-51 southern England's average weekly agricultural wages were eight shillings, five pence, about 26 percent lower than northern England's. By James Caird's calculations, the difference was 37 percent.35 Under the old poor law (pre-1834), parish relief increasingly became a way of life for many of the rural poor, especially during winter months in arable counties due to their strongly seasonal swings in agricultural employment. The subsidizing of wages directly out of parish relief funds raised by local property taxes ("the poor rates") put mere bandages over the deep wounds ultimately inflicted by the decline of service, the enclosure acts, and population growth. Unfortunately, such "solutions" as the Speenhamland system, which gave supplemental allowances from parish relief funds to members of families commensurate with the rise and fall of bread prices, only served to depress wages further. The grim picture of southern farmworkers' families depending year around mostly on the (frequently irregularly employed) father's wages of ten shillings a week or less and little else besides parish relief sharply contrasts with the northern agricultural workers' much higher wages, the greater availability of work for wives and/or children, and the frequent survival of service (the hiring of (unmarried) farm servants under one year contracts).


The agricultural workers south of Caird's wage line often endured truly desperate material conditions. A majority of them probably had a lower standard of living than the moderately better-off slaves. In particular, meat had largely fallen out of the diets of southern English farmworkers. Remembering as a child how scarce meat was in Warwickshire, Agricultural Labourers' Union organizer and leader Joseph Arch (b. 1826) commented:


Meat was rarely, if ever, to be seen on the labourer's table; the price was too high for his pocket,--a big pocket it was, but with very little in it . . . In many a household even a morsel of bacon was considered a luxury. Flour was so dear that the cottage loaf was mostly of barley.


He then discusses how scarce potatoes were in "country districts"--or at least in 1830s Warwickshire. (For the growing dependency of the English on potatoes, see pp. 33-35). Locally only one farmer, a hoarder in 1835, had grown them. Similarly, a "Rector and Conservative" described the status of "bacon, [which] when they can get it, is the staff of the laborers' dinner." A careful rationing exercise accompanied its appearance, which befit male privilege, or female self-sacrifice, depending on one's perspective: "The frugal housewife provides a large lot of potatoes, and while she indulges herself with her younger ones only with salt, cuts off the small rasher and toasts it over the plates of the father and elder sons, as being the
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