Primary Source Reading: The Life of Plantation Field Hands

The Life of Plantation Field Hands, 1857


James Stirling, was a British writer who visited the American South in 1857. He wrote a book – Letters from the Slave States – which contains interviews plantation owners and former slaves.


In judging of the welfare of the slaves, it is necessary to distinguish the different conditions of slavery. The most important distinction, both as regards numbers and its influence on the well­being of the slave, is that between house­servants and farm or field­hands. The house­servant is comparatively well off. He is frequently born and bred in the family he belongs to; and even when this is not the case, the constant association of the slave and his master, and master’s family, naturally leads to such an attachment as ensures good treatment. There are not wanting instances of devoted attachment on both sides in such cases. There is even a danger that the affection on the part of the owner may degenerate into over­indulgence. It is no uncommon thing to make pets of slaves, as we do of other inferior animals; and when this is the case, the real welfare of the slave is sacrificed to an indiscriminating attachment. I was struck with the appearance of the slaves in the streets of Charleston on a Sunday afternoon. A large proportion of them were well dressed and of decent bearing, and had all the appearance of enjoying a holiday. I was informed they were principally houseservants belonging to the town; and there could be no doubt the control of public opinion, natural to a large city, had exercised a favourable influence on the condition of these poor people.

The position of the field­hands is very different; of those, especially, who labour on large plantations. Here there are none of those humanizing influences at work which temper the rigour of the system, nor is there the same check of public opinion to control abuse. The ‘force’ is worked en masse, as a great human mechanism; or, if you will, as a drove of human cattle. The proprietor is seldom present to direct and control. Even if he were, on large estates the numbers are too great for his personal attention to details of treatment. On all large plantations the comfort of the slave is practically at the disposal of the white overseer, and his subordinate, the negro­driver. There are many estates which the proprietor does not visit at all, or visits perhaps once a year; and where, during his absence, the slaves are left to the uncontrolled caprice of the overseer and his assistants, not another white man, perhaps, being within miles of the plantation. Who can say what passes in those voiceless solitudes7 Happen what may, there is none to tell. Whatever the slave may suffer there is none to bear witness to his wrong. It needs a large amount of charity to believe that power so despotic, so utterly uncontrolled even by opinion, will never degenerate into violence. It could only be so if overseers were saints, and drivers angels.

It is often said that the interest of the slave­owner is sufficient guarantee for the good treatment of the slave; that no man will voluntarily injure the value of his property. This reasoning assumes, first, that slave­owners will take an intelligent view of their own interests; and, secondly, that they will be guided by the passion of gain rather than by other passions. But we find the Cuba slave-owner working his slaves to death, at the rate of 3 per cent. per annum. And again, slavery is a system which evokes passions more powerful even than the love of gain. Against the action of these angry passions, the distant calculation of mere profit can avail but little with men of violent dispositions.

But even if we grant the restraint placed on the passions of the master by considerations of pecuniary interest, we cannot allow the same effect to be produced on the overseer. On the contrary, the interest of the overseer is to exhibit a large production as the result of his exertions; and the more remote consideration of being a prudent husbandman of his forces will only affect a superior mind. On this point I prefer giving the opinions of slave­owners themselves. In an article in De Bow’s Review, on the management of slaves, I find some interesting remarks on this subject, in a report to a committee of slave-holders. After pointing out the interest of the owners in the good treatment of their slaves, it continues:-‘There is one class of our community to whom all the motives referred to, to induce us to kindness to our slaves, do not apply. Your committee refer to our overseers. As they have no property in our slaves, of course they lack the check of self­interest. As their only aim, in general, is to get the largest possible crop for the year, we can readily conceive the strong inducement they have to overwork our slaves, and masters are often much to blame for inadvertently encouraging this feeling in their overseers.’

It appears, then, that nothing but high principle on the part of the overseer could ensure the good treatment of the slave on large plantations. But all testimony concurs in representing the overseers as a very inferior class in point of character. A Virginian slave­owner used this language to Olmsted:-‘They (the overseers) are the curse of this country, sir; the worst men in the community.’ Yet these are the men on whom devolves, practically, the management of the great bulk of the agricultural slave population, in the cotton, rice, and sugar districts.

Midway between house­servants and plantation­hands stand the farmservants of small proprietors. Of all slaves these are, probably, the best off. They are neither spoiled like pet domestics, nor abused like plantation cattle. They live much in the farmer’s family, work with himself and his children, take an interest in his affairs, and, in return, become objects of his regard. Such is the condition of many slaves among the small farmers in the upland districts of Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, and the Carolinas. The same applies also to many proprietors in Texas, and, I believe, Arkansas. In general it may be affirmed, that the welfare of the slaves is in an inverse ratio to their numbers.

Source: James Stirling, Letters From the Slave States (New York: Kraus Reprint Co., 1969), pp. 287­91 .

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(c)Paul Halsall Aug 1997