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

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The Effects of Enclosure and Allotments on Hodge's Diet

Although a more general discussion enclosure and alllotments' social effects appears below (pp. 279-282, 296-299), the effects of both on the diet of the farmworkers are considered here. Enclosure affected cottagers and others who mixed wage earning and subsistence agriculture using the commons by cutting out the latter, throwing them fully upon what their wages could purchase. As E.P. Thompson observes: "In village after village, enclosure destroyed the scratch-as-scratch-can subsistence economy of the poor--the cow or geese--fuel from the common, gleanings, and all the rest." Ironically, as the Parliamentary Commissioners observed in 1867-68, allotments undid this consequence of enclosure, although they came later and affected significantly fewer laborers, especially before the late nineteenth century. They allowed the laborers to grow vegetables, especially potatoes, on a quarter or half acre of land specially rented out to them. Despite his notoriety as an advocate of enclosure, agricultural improvement writer Arthur Young learned that enclosure usually oppressed the poor:

In twenty-nine cases out of thirty-one noted [by ministers making additional comments on a survey checking the effects of enclosure on grain production], the poor, in the opinion of the ministers, were sufferers by losing their cows, and other stock. . . . [In some cases] allotments were assigned them; but as they were unable to be at the expense of the enclosure, it forced them not only to sell their cows, but their houses also. This is a very hard case, though a legal one; and as instances are not wanting of a much more humane conduct, it is to be lamented that the same motives did not operate in all.

These Anglican clerics (members of a group known to be generally unfriendly to the laborers' best interests, as Cobbett and Arch made clear) made comments that indicate enclosure's role in worsening the diet of the poor in various areas following the loss of cows and other animals. One for the parish of Souldrop, Bedford observed: "The condition of the labouring poor [is] much worse now than before the enclosure, owing to the impossibility of procuring any milk for their young families." Another added, for Tingewick, Buckingham: "Milk [was] to be had at 1d. per quarter before; not to be had now at any rate." Repeatedly they saw many had to sell off or otherwise lose their cows (sixteen of the thirty-one mentioned this specifically). For Passenham, Northampton, one commented: "[The poor were] deprived of their cows, and great suffers by loss of their hogs." A man of the cloth for Cranage, Chester remarked: "Poor men's cows and sheep have no place, or any being." Such deprivations helped to breed resentment one laborer expressed against almost anyone richer than himself. While attacking farmers, lords, and parsons, he additionally brought Somerville into his line of fire: "I see you ha' got a good coat on your back, and a face that don't look like an empty belly; there be no hunger looking out atween your ribs I'll swear."53 Clearly, enclosure robbed meat and milk from the mouths of many farm laborers and their families, and was a major cause for eliminating animal foods from their diets as the enclosure movement gained steam after 1760 in areas with a labor surplus, such as southern rural England.

Allotments returned some of what enclosure had taken. These small pieces of land gave underemployed and unemployed farmworkers something to fall back upon financially. Because of the Swing riots of 1830-31 and the rising burden of poor rates caused by laborers applying for relief when their wages were insufficient to support them, the movement to rent out fourth- or half-acre pieces of land picked up speed as the nineteenth century passed. Intensively cultivated, small amounts of land could produce impressive amounts of food, as the 1843 Committee reported. One rood of land--usually one-fourth of an acre--could grow six months' worth of vegetables! Perhaps one-half would be planted in potatoes, with the rest being beans, peas, and other vegetables. One-eighth of an acre could grow five pounds' worth of crops--equal to ten weeks or more of wages for many laborers in southern England. In at least once case, such a tiny parcel produced eighty bushels of carrots, fourteen-fifteen bushels of other vegetables, which was double or triple what the typical farmer would have raised on the same land. A rood's worth of land could also yield a hundred bushels of potatoes. Young even published calculations suggesting that if 682,394 laborer's families each grew a half acre's worth of potatoes, then England would have required no grain imports in the disastrous 1800-1801 agricultural year. Because of the laborers' enormous desires for parcels to grow potatoes on--Cobbett's hated root--some landlords unscrupulously charged rents up to eight pounds per acre per year, which greatly exceeded what a tenant farmer would pay. Allotments could allow the farmworkers to keep animals such as pigs, as noted above (pp. 39-40), potentially enabling them to eat meat more regularly. One M.P. for Lincoln helped tenants by renting out small allotments to keep animals on. The 1867-68 Commission reported that in Yorkshire some laborers benefited from having "cow gates" to pasture cows in lanes nearby.54 Allotments often made a major difference in the diets of English agricultural laborers fortunate enough to have them. These were unquestionably more important in their lives than the patches of land slaveowners allowed many American slaves to cultivate. Unlike for the farmworkers, masters and mistresses automatically gave to the slaves the standard rations, which was most of what they ate, excepting some in task system areas, unlike in England unless the worker was a live-in farm servant.

Comparing the Diets of English Paupers, Slaves, and Their Government's Army

Indicating that many southern English agricultural workers arguably had a diet worse than that of many slaves, consider this comparison between the food they received and what their respective governments gave to lowly privates in their armies. The laborers per family on parish relief received less than what one soldier in the Royal Army did, but at least some slaves received rations that compared favorably to the American army's. As Cobbett vehemently protested:

The base wretches know well, that the common foot-soldier now receives more pay per week (7s. 7d.) exclusive of clothing, firing, candle, and lodging; . . . [and] more to go down his own single throat, than the overseers and magistrates allow [in parish relief] to a working man, his wife and three children.55

As a growing population raised unemployment rates and enclosure eliminated agriculture's subsistence economy, many laborers, probably a solid majority in the south, were on parish relief for extended periods during their lives, especially during the winter.56 Since arable agriculture was a highly seasonal business, many more laborers were out of work in winter than in summer, causing many to depend on parish relief or at various parish make-work jobs such as stonebreaking on the highways or flint gathering in the fields. The disproportion between at least some slaves and the U.S. Army's rations for privates appears smaller than the ratio between farm laborers on parish relief and average English soldiers. Olmsted cited an advertisement in the Richmond Enquirer which listed one and a quarter pounds of beef and one and three-sixteenths pounds of bread--presumably hardtack--as the daily ration, with an additional eight quarts of beans, two quarts of salt, four pounds of coffee, and eight pounds of sugar distributed out over each hundred days. In contrast, the Daily Georgian noted the rations for slaves being hired for a year to work on a canal. Each was to receive "three and a half pounds of pork or bacon, and ten quarts of gourd seed corn per week." At least some masters would beat this ration of pork: Planter Barrow Bennet gave "weakly" "4 pound & 5 pound of meat to evry thing that goes in the field--2 pound over 4 years 1 1/2 between 15 months and 4 years old--Clear good meat."57 Evidently, the disproportion was greater between what the British government gave its privates and its laborers in parish relief (admittedly, those not working) and what the American government gave its soldiers and a number of slaveowners gave their slaves.

Better Bread Versus Little Meat?: The Slave Versus Farmworker Diet

Many bondsmen in America had arguably better diets than many farmworkers in England, at least when living south of Caird's wage line. Three pounds of pork or bacon routinely appeared in the diet of most adult slaves, while many southern English agricultural workers, once both population growth and enclosures took off, had meat generally eliminated from their diets during the period c. 1780-1840. On the other hand, the grain the slaves ate often was coarser, and (perhaps) more nutritionally suspect. Wheat bread, often made by a baker, which most southern farm workers mainly subsisted upon, was clearly a more refined and tasty product than maize crudely pounded and cooked in the forms of hoecake and johnnycake. Reflecting how the laborers had lost meat, but had a much finer grain product compared to the slaves, J. Boucher, vicar of Epsom, observed in late 1800: "Our Poor live not only on the finest wheaten bread, but almost on bread alone."58 It remains unclear who ate more vegetables. In this regard, those laborers fortunate enough to have allotments--a serious possibility only towards the end of the period being surveyed here--probably were better off than a majority of the slaves, many of whom lived almost exclusively on the "standard rations" of corn and pork. Most farmworkers were not this lucky, and the stories of privation noted above (pp. 30-32) suggest what vegetables they had were limited to potatoes. Regional variations within England complicate this picture: The minority of farmworkers fortunate enough to live in the north near where competition for labor by industry and mining pushed up their wages were certainly better off materially than most American slaves, even before considering any more ethereal quality of life criteria. As for American regional variations, the Border States such as Virginia or Kentucky may have treated their slaves better. But the difference may have been been more in the form of less brutal treatment than in better food, since Frederick Douglass, John Brown, and Charles Ball in Maryland and Virginia describe rations similar to the evidence encountered from elsewhere in the South. (Regional variations in the food given to slaves, however, need much more research). The differences between America, a sparsely populated, newly settled country, and England, a relatively densely populated and intensively farmed land suffering from the Malthusian effects of rapid population growth during its period of industrialization (and the mismanagement of enclosure), helps explain this supreme irony: The free farm laborers of southern England arguably had a diet worse than that of American bondsmen in Mississippi or Georgia. If those kept in slavery--the worst American human rights abuse, all things considered--may have eaten better than English rural laborers, that is deeply to the shame of England's elite--"old corruption."59

Clothing for Slaves

The amount of clothing slaves received is relatively well-documented, because it was a significant item of expense often bought off-plantation and then shipped and issued to the slaves instead of being made right on it. This generalization does not deny how prevalent homespun clothing was in the South, but shows planters and other masters often chose not to run truly self-sufficient plantations or farms in matters of clothing. Because low quality purchases were made, not many months passed before the slaves' "new" clothes became loose-fitting half-rags. Bennet Barrow dispensed a not-atypical clothing ration per year, at least for larger planters. In his "Rules of Highland Plantation" he stated: "I give them cloths twice a year, two--one pair shoues for winter evry third year a blanket--'single negro--two.'" His relatively frequent issue of blankets was perhaps unusual. He dutifully noted their issuance sometimes in his diary. Escaped slave Francis Henderson, from "Washington City, D. C.," recalled that his master dealt with blankets less generously--he received only one before running away at age nineteen. "In the summer we had one pair of linen trousers given us--nothing else; every fall, one pair of woolen pantaloons, one woollen jacket, and two cotton shirts." In Virginia, Olmsted learned that:

As to the clothing of the slaves on the plantations, they are said to be usually furnished by their owners or masters, every year, each with a coat and trousers, of a coarse woollen or woollen and cotton stuff (mostly made, especially for this purpose, in Providence, R. I.) for winter, trousers of cotton osnaburghs for summer, sometimes with a jacket also of the same; two pairs of strong shoes, or one pair of strong boots and one of lighter shoes for harvest; three shirts, one blanket, and one felt hat.

This optimistic description probably pertained to the more
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